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Review: Lumines: Electronic Symphony

Feb 14 // Dale North
Lumines: Electronic Symphony (PlayStation Vita)Developer: Q EntertainmentPublisher: UbisoftReleased: February 15, 2012MSRP: $39.99 Lumines' rhythmically timed block-dropping puzzle formula was already so close to perfect, not much was needed for a follow-up. We just wanted more, that's all. Finally, after half a decade, Q Entertainment hits us with more of the good stuff in Lumines: Electronic Symphony on the PS Vita, and while it looks fancier and sounds better than ever, that same super-addictive action is still at its core. It's as good as ever, and in some strange new ways, better than ever. My hands are numb from playing so much. I'll continue writing a review beyond this because that's what I'm paid to do, but we can just call it right now: this needs to be at the top of your Vita launch list.  If you're new to the franchise, Lumines has you dropping a cluster of four blocks made up any combination of two colors. Your job is to drop these blocks to create a square or rectangle comprised of blocks of the same color, which will clear them from the board and add to your score. The dropping of these blocks must be timed to fall within a measure of the backround song, as a "clear bar" scans the play field, passing by every four beats. It's a very simple formula, and that's what makes it so easy to pick up and hard to put down.  Of course, the other half of the Lumines magic is great music to play to, and the strange, hypnotic visuals that accompany these songs. There's more than 30 toe-tappers this time around, and there's not a dud in the bunch. Aphex Twin, Amon Tobin, and The Chemical Brothers are just some of the top acts that keep Electronic Symphony hopping. Lumines: Electronic Symphony doesn't change much of the basic gameplay, but they've worked around it with some new upgrades and abilities. The avatar you pick isn't just a goofy picture anymore as it adds special abilities to your game. You'll fill up a meter through normal play, and when it's full you'll be able to tap your avatar to use its special ability. These are small perks that make your life a bit easier, like the ability to increase the wait time for your next blocks, or the ability to change your next block into a bonus block. You can even change the color of the blocks or stop the timeline with earned avatar abilities. It's a small tweak to the basic Lumines formula, but experienced players will tell you that even a small tip of the scales in your favor makes a big difference in the long run. Another change for Electronic Symphony is the new shuffle block, which randomly changes the color of each block in the play space. While that may sound like the worst thing ever to happen to Lumines, you'll be thanking your lucky stars when you can drop one in a huge pile of unmatched blocks. It almost always helps by clearing some of your mess, letting you play longer without "topping out." The shuffle block has saved my ass so many times that it is easily my favorite addition to the old formula. Trust me, you'll be just as happy to see it as you used to see the chain block come up in your queue.   A new experience system rewards you for all those hours you'll sink into the game. Logged in, your profile will track your games, keep your stats, and give you experience points in all of the modes, letting you unlock avatars and other bonuses with what you've earned. Your level and stats are also shared with your friends, and the game's interface makes it really easy to see where you stand among them with post-game reports and worldwide leaderboards. I've already lost a good chunk of my work week trying to stay on top of the leaderboards, and I'm betting that this high level of connectivity is going to make Electronic Symphony one of the most popular online launch titles for Vita. Speaking of socially connected features, this game's World Block mode is pretty nifty. Each day, every connected Lumines player's cleared blocks go toward erasing a huge "world block," which is made up of two million smaller blocks that reset every 24 hours. You can check your contributions each day to see how much you've helped. It will be neat to see what happens when the world block is cleared.  Of all the game modes, Electronic Symphony's Voyage mode will probably suck up most of your free time. This is the main attraction, where you'll continue playing until you fill up the play space with unmatched blocks or give up. As it stands now, to top the current leaderboards, you'd have to play in Voyage mode for a couple of hours straight. If you suck, this is time you will never get back. I've always loved Lumines' time attack modes, and they return in this game as Stopwatch matches. There's also a multiplayer Duel mode, a challenge-based Master mode, and the returning Playlist mode, all of which are like crack in their own way. There are only a few small scuffs on an otherwise flawless surface. Being a Vita game, touch controls are available, with swipes sliding and dropping blocks. They work well enough when the action is relatively calm, but when things pick up a bit, they simply do not cut the mustard. The load times aren't terrible, but they are just long enough for you to notice them and wonder why they're there.  The way I see it, everyone already loves Lumines, so this review serves no one, especially when you consider that Electronic Symphony is the best one yet with its gorgeous high-resolution visuals, rocking soundtrack, new gameplay mechanics, and awesome connectivity features. No Vita should be sold without a copy of this game.

If Lumines was your drug on the PSP, know that it's been refined and made stronger. This is the hard sh*t, folks. You're in danger of totally crashing and burning with Lumines: Electronic Symphony on the Vita. This is th...

Review: Rhythm Heaven Fever

Feb 13 // Jonathan Holmes
[embed]220990:42680[/embed] Rhythm Heaven Fever (Wii)Developer: Nintendo, TNXPublisher: NintendoReleased: February 13, 2012MSRP: $29.99 Unlike other music games that try to simulate the physical act of playing an instrument, Rhythm Heaven Fever imparts onto the player how it feels to play music. Have you ever heard a musician say something like, "When I'm playing, sometimes I feel like I'm flying over the ocean at supersonic speeds, in the middle of a wrestling match with a giant flaming octopus, or making love to a beautiful, ethereal being while riding a cloud to heaven"? I sure have, but I've rarely seen a rhythm game take those emotions and try to directly express them to the player. That's just the start of what makes the Rhythm Heaven series so special -- it dares to give you a peek inside the emotional state of a truly passionate musician (in this case, that musician is Tsunku, the series' musical director). While this game doesn't have any flaming octopi, it does feature a samurai battling a hoard of spectral demons, pets flying high above the ocean at supersonic speeds while playing badminton, an extremely aroused-sounding pair of cloud-riding wood elves, and plenty of strange times with a variety of enthusiastic simians. Rhythm Heaven Fever brings those kinds of surreal, intangible flights of fancy and interprets them literally, all while set to undeniably infectious beats. With something that strange, you have to really work to make it all palatable. Rhythm Heaven Fever seems to know this and works extra hard to be accessible. The visuals are well-crafted yet extremely easy to digest in a manner of seconds, like a well-designed traffic sign. The music is also fairly simple yet very strong and comes in just about every style you could think of. It's extremely expressive stuff, though never in a potentially offensive or annoying way. The same goes for the sound effects. While they aren't quite in the same spotlight as the visuals and soundtrack, they are just as important in the big picture. Every sound in the game has an undeniable "oomph" and were clearly chosen (along with the title's multiple bizarre scenarios) for how much direct pleasure they can evoke from the player, not on how much sense they make. For example, you'll have a grand old time helping three metal dummies "donk-donk" into each other in order to power their otherworldly space blimp. It's fun in a way you that could never see coming -- inexplicably bizarre yet undeniably satisfying. The controls are also more fun than they probably deserve to be. Inputs don't come much more simple than this -- everything is triggered by either pressing A, pinching A and B together, or holding both then letting go at just the right time. It doesn't require memorizing the layout of a three-plus button controller like the GBA Rhythm Heaven did, and it doesn't require any really fine motor dexterity like the flick motions in the DS title. While Rhythm Heaven Fever can be extremely difficult at times, that difficulty is never due to the controls. If you fail at this game (and trust me, you will), it will always be due to your inability to keep the beat. Playing through each regular stage is like learning one part of a longer, more complex song. After four regular stages, you play a "remix" stage that re-appropriates the four previous scenarios and fuses them together into an all all-new, full-length composition. While I really enjoy the individual stages, these remix levels are where the game really shines, as they test your ability to remain fluid and focused in even the most unpredictable sonic climates. Like any good videogame, Rhythm Heaven Fever gently but firmly teaches you how to play, gradually cultivating your level of skill so that, by the end, you can pull off feats of superhuman rhythm that you probably never thought were possible. That's a goofy way of saying that the difficulty scaling in the game is just about perfect. This largely comes from the surprisingly large variety of ways that the game sees fit to challenge the player's internal beat. Sometimes the visuals are there to assist you in keeping the rhythm, but then they'll suddenly flip the script on you, potentially throwing you off time and forcing you to really flex your internal metronome. Conversely, there will be times when the tempo changes radically, so you'll need visual cues to help you stay on beat. In particularly tough stages, the visuals and the beat will alternate in throwing you off and hooking you back onto the beat, truly testing your capacity to follow the rhythm regardless of distraction and intimidation. That's just the start of how the game will make you sweat.  Later on, the game starts layering auditory and visual cues, requiring you to keep track of two or more things at once. There are layers of book-wielding cheerleaders, layers of bouncing footballs, and even layers of adorably wiggling seals. They'll force you to simultaneously think fast and think ahead, all while keeping your unwavering tempo alive. All of a sudden, the downbeats will change to upbeats, forcing you to appreciate the negative rhythmic space that you had previously worked to avoid.  Then there are the "Simon says" cues, anticipation cues, fake-out cues, and the sudden evacuation of all cues, making you rely on muscle memory and instinct. Once you get used to that, you'll be tasked with switching from hitting A to pinching A and B together to letting go of your pinch at just the right time. Between all the visual, auditory, and tactile mix-ups, there is almost always a new challenge to experience in Rhythm Heaven Fever. I've played through the game twice already (once with the Japanese import and again with the English localization), and I still have trouble surviving some of the later stages. As tough as the game can be, it still prioritizes the player's joy over any focus on reaching an end state like a high score. Just like playing a real concert (and unlike other games like Guitar Hero or PaRappa the Rapper), you don't instantly stop playing your tune after you make too many mistakes. No matter what, you'll never be kicked out of the band mid-performance. Also like playing in a real band, you'll never know exactly what the audience thinks of your playing. There are no in-game meters or other gauges to indicate how well you're playing. You'll only get a rating once a song is complete, after which you'll be asked to play it again, be permitted to move on, or be praised with honors. What exactly you did right or did wrong is rarely spelled out for you, because as any musician who has tried to please an audience knows, the tastes of music fans is never that easy to read. That's pretty much everything there is to say about the main "campaign," but there is a lot more to Rhythm Heaven Fever than that. There are tons of unlockables, most of which are all-new endless games that can be played for the rest of your life if you're good enough. They'll test not only your rhythmic skill but also your rhythmic endurance. I'm sure that you'll find that, when it comes to keeping a beat, some of you are sprinters whereas others are long-distance runners, and finding out which of the two you are helps you to assess your musical strengths and weaknesses. Then there are the two-player modes, a new addition to the series. The regular two-player levels are pretty fun, but there are conspicuously few of them. It wouldn't have been that tough to make every level in the game playable for two, but instead, we get a fraction of that number. These levels also don't challenge the players to do anything all that differently than what they do in the one-player mode. Thankfully, the endless two-player levels are really fun and truly test your ability to work in conjunction with one another to a beat. They are a unique experience in the Rhythm Heaven world, and I can only hope that the next game in the series has more of them. Also on the downside, a few of the levels seem a little too similar to some from the GBA and DS titles to be considered continuations or tributes to those past experiences. If you haven't played the handheld games before, this won't be a problem for you, but if this is not your first Rhythm Heaven, you may feel a little annoyed that the robots-on-a-conveyor-belt stage is almost identical to one in the DS game. There are differences, however -- instead of filling the robots with fluid, you now screw their heads on and make their E.T.-like hearts come to life. As much as this stage may feel like a modified rerun, it's undeniably still fun and arguably better than the one present in the DS title. The sound effects are more satisfying, the music is catchier, and the beat mix-ups are trickier. Later on, the stage is brought back for a second round, adding new visual twists to test your rhythm. Though not as fresh as the rest of the game, it's still a surprisingly engaging and eye-opening experience. Hmm, that didn't really sound like much of a downer, did it? Let me try again. Rhythm Heaven Fever is a relatively short game, but that's like saying that the new three-hour CD box set you just purchased is "relatively short." Just like with a new CD, it's understood that this game was meant to be listened to (and played) over and over again. It will take most players many hours to get through the game once and much, much longer to unlock all of the the additional content, including four stages from the original GBA title and an endless mode that you can only unlock once you get perfects on each and every stage. It may sound like a pain but it's not. Even if I didn't have any external motivation to play through these stages again, I'd still be sure to return to the game every few months, just like I pick up my favorite movie or CD every few months for a repeat experience. Rhythm Heaven Fever is the kind of game that may be "over" in less time than other AAA titles, but you'll be singing the songs to yourself, be visualizing the scenarios in your mind, and be tempted to play them all again for many years to come. Again, I failed to express a true downer. I'll take one last crack at it.  Rhythm Heaven Fever lacks the option to play the game in Japanese. This will probably only bother people (like myself) who imported the Japanese title a while back and have grown to love its unique sound. The English localization is pretty great, though. Sometimes it's slightly less expressive than the original, sometimes it's slightly funnier and more involving due to the translation. Regardless of whether it hits high or hits low, it always hits pretty close to the target. Still, I imagine that whichever version you're most familiar with will be the one you prefer. There is also one endless level from the Japanese build that is missing, one about a weird Japanese standup comedy duo. These comedians are birds. One smacks the other in the face sometimes. I love that mini-game. It's been swapped out for Mr. Upbeat, one of the more boring endless mini-games from the GBA title. That is an undeniable downer, but it's still just one small missing thread in what is otherwise an excellently woven localization. Just as I still sing classic Sesame Street songs to myself when I'm in a particularly good mood, or as I can watch old Terry Gilliam animations whenever I need a quick smile-inducing experience, I think I'll be playing Rhythm Heaven Fever on a periodic basis for at least the next 30 years. Thirty bones is a steal for this level of high-quality fun. You'd have to be a completely foul-brained life hater to pass this one up. Rhythm Heaven Fever offers the simplicity and elegance of "One Note Samba" or "Blister in the Sun," the directness of the art of Mike Mignola or Pendleton Ward, and the understated but endlessly variable gameplay design of arcade titles like Pac-Man Champion Edition DX or Super Mario Bros. It's one of my favorite games of this generation -- a title that offers a much stronger education in game design and a more pure, direct, and genuine experience than most games on the market.

What does it take for a game to be universally enjoyable? That's the question most game developers would love to be able to answer, but it's easier said than done. My guess is that it comes down to exploiting the medium for w...

Review: Uncharted: Golden Abyss

Feb 13 // Dale North
[Review Note: We used the Japanese release of Uncharted: Golden Abyss for this review. This release features the same English voices and text that we'll see in the domestic release. If any features change upon domestic release, we'll update this review.]  Uncharted: Golden Abyss (PlayStation Vita)Developer: Sony Bend StudiosPublisher: Sony Computer EntertainmentReleased: February 22, 2012MSRP: $49.99 For those following the series, Uncharted: Golden Abyss is a prequel story, though it doesn't seem to establish much in the way of backstory. Nathan Drake may have a few less cuts and bruises in this game, but he's basically the same protagonist you've come to know and love. The rest of the cast is new, save for an old friend that series fans will immediately recognize. This old friend may have less gray hair, but he still has the same terrible shirts and jokes.  Golden Abyss has Drake working for a somewhat shady old friend named Jason Dante. He reports for duty as a historical expert for Dante in the deep forests of Central America. During their work they meet Marisa Chase, the granddaughter of a famous archaeologist. Chase is looking for her grandfather, who has gone missing during his an expedition. The group gets mixed up with a retired general from the region that is on the hunt for treasure. It seems that everyone is looking for the same ruins, but for different reasons. The story is great, and there's some really nice plot twists and lore to be enjoyed and explored. Golden Abyss may not have quite the character depth that Naughty Dog pumped into previous series games' characters, but that not to say that the characters are bad in any way. You'll still totally hate the bad guys, sympathize with the heroine, and laugh heartily at Drake's snarky interjections. No corners were cut as far as the characters are concerned, mind you. It's just that, while good, they're not quite to the impossibly high level that Naughty Dog has set with previous games. That said, the voice acting is exactly on par with what you've experienced with the console games. Nolan North is at his best, wisecracking like a champ as Drake. Voice actress Christine Lakin also does a fine job as Marisa Chase and when Drake and his old friend meet up in the second half of the game, the wisecracks come non-stop. In the latter half of the game there's a hilarious run of "...that's what she said" jokes between the pair. I think that most players will be surprised at how much dialogue is in this game. Everything is fully voiced, making you wonder how they fit it all on that tiny little Vita cartridge. Drake has learned several new tricks with this first portable outing. The various new input controls of the Vita are all used in Golden Abyss, making the game a perfect showcase for the system. And while just about all of the touch and motion controls are optional, they're implemented so well that I'm sure most players will end up using them and enjoying them.  The front touch screen and back touch panel are used extensively. Basic commands, like picking up items and weapons, can now be done by simply touching them on the screen. This way you won't have to walk over to it and hit a button. Flinging grenades is a joy now, as you literally flick them in the direction you want them to go with the front screen. Fist fighting also uses the touch screen, and it's much better than you'd think, with swipey cinematic attacks and dodges mixing up the standard punching and kicking. I love that the sniper rifle's zoom can be controlled by either a slider on the front screen, or by running a finger up and down across the back touch panel. The touch control even extends to exploration. You can jump from ledge to ledge with buttons and the analog stick, just as you always have, or you can simply touch a ledge to have Drake jump to it. In fact, he will follow a line you've traced across the screen with your finger to do things like move across ledges and over or under obstacles. Again, the touch controls in these cases are totally optional, but they're pretty slick, and trying them once will likely sell you on them. My favorite new addition to Uncharted's control is the motion control-enabled aiming assist. You'll still use the right analog stick to aim your weapons, but the Vita's motion sensors let you tilt the system to fine tune your aim. While larger gestures let you move the reticle from enemy to enemy, I used it more for correcting my aim, and quickly fell in love with the feature. Being able to tilt to fine tune aim is so intuitive that I don't know how I ever lived without it. The only touch control that is not optional is found in the game's cutscenes. You'll swipe your way through fist fights and narrow escapes. These "quick time events" start out as pretty standard, but get really creative toward the end. I don't want to spoil any of the situations, so just know that you'll be furiously swiping in all directions as quick as you can, gritting your teeth all the while. It seems like Bend had a lot of fun putting these events together, and I'm sure you will, too.  Sure, there's a lot of new tricks with this outing, but the game's core is classic Uncharted. This means you'll get more of that perfect mix of tense platforming and climbing and epic gunfights, all presented with cinematic flair. The first time things get hairy and you find yourself hanging from a rope with shooters firing from above and snipers aiming from below, you'll feel right at home. There's no way the game's creators could have been more true to Uncharted's gameplay. They nailed it. I'm glad to say that series fans will also feel right at home with the controls. The exemplary dual joysticks of the Vita do a lot to blur that line between portable and home console. There's absolutely no learning curve here for anyone that has played any of the previous games. Nothing is lost in translation. The Uncharted series has always incorporated puzzles, and you'll find plenty in Golden Abyss. In fact, I'd bet there are more puzzle-like instances in this latest title than in any of the other ones. While enjoyable, the majority of them are pretty shallow, and rely on the the front and rear touch panels. Your hands will be all over the screen doing things like making charcoal rubbings of ancient carvings, or rubbing dirt and/or rust off artifacts to uncover clues. The game's makers are absolutely unapologetic in their excitement for rubbing things, so much so that their studio logo is presented with a charcoal rub graphics.  There are a few other more interesting types of touch puzzles in the mix. You'll have to use your fingers to spin combination locks to gain access to treasures, and re-assembling ripped up maps, posters and other papers is pretty fun, though you'll do it so often that you'll wonder why so many things are ripped up in the forests of Central America. Fortunately, these iPhone game-like diversions give way to some really neat puzzles near the end of the game. These are more like your classic puzzles from treasure hunting games, and they're all pretty enjoyable.  Fans of item hunting will be glad to hear that Golden Abyss has more hidden items, treasures and other artifacts to find than any other of the series titles. Maybe too many! I found that I was almost tripping over collectable gems and coins during the adventure, and found a few more by accident. It's almost unbelievable how many findable items are in this game. Drake's in-game journal contains several pages of empty "slots" for all of these items, and it's a bit daunting going through them. I'd dare say that only the most hardcore will even attempt to collect them all, and that they'll probably need multiple playthroughs to do so. As an amateur photographer I really enjoyed the new camera-based quests in Golden Abyss. Drake is free to bring up his camera at any time to shoot any of the game's lovely scenery to be kept in his journal, but there are also several requested pictures to collect. You're given examples to try to match with your own photos, and the game grades you on them, with collection requiring a 100 percent match. Photography uses the Vita's tilt function to aim and the rear touchscreen to zoom.  Uncharted: Golden Abyss is a beautiful game. From a visual standpoint, it's quite easily the most impressive portable game I've seen. So much of the polished presentation and cinematic style of the PS3 games can be found in this Vita title, which is especially impressive when you consider that this is a launch title. Seeing is believing, as online footage and screenshots do this game no justice. Bend's outstanding work on this game makes it easy to forget that you're playing a portable game. At announcement, Sony kept saying that the Vita is capable of PS3-like experiences, and Golden Abyss serves as proof. The Uncharted series is known for its beautiful backdrops, and Golden Abyss is no exception. While treasure hunting adventure games all have similar settings, Bend cranked the pretty up to 11 in this one. Some of the texture art is positively eye-popping; I found myself doing double takes many times in my first playthrough. Lush, green forests give way to sun-drenched temple ruins in the game's first hours. Beyond that explore vast underground caves that lead to gaming eye candy that's so dazzling that I'd hate to ruin it for you. You'll see everything from dumpy lean-tos to impossibly scenic waterfalls on your journey, wondering how the game system isn't overheating from rendering them. This game is also lovely in motion. The same high quality motion capture you enjoyed in the console games is present in Golden Abyss. Even moving water is stunningly realistic in this game. And despite some reports, I never experienced any kind of slow down or stuttering. Golden Abyss ran smoothly from beginning to end for me. Talk about coming out strong! From launch day Sony has a flagship title and a potential system seller with Uncharted: Golden Abyss -- it's that good. It's everything you'd expect from an Uncharted title as a graphical powerhouse, and it serves as a technical showcase for Sony's newest hardware. It does such a good job of taking advantage of all of Vita's capabilities. It's as if Sony knew that this had to be amazing, and then spared no expense to make it so. As far as single-player gaming goes, franchise fans will not be disappointed with the series' first portable game. Though smaller, Golden Abyss is still the deep, varied and highly entertaining adventure they've come to expect, with almost nothing lost in the move. And with more than 30 game chapters and about 12 hours of gameplay, this is a full Uncharted experience. There's no multiplayer, though, so some followers of the series may miss that.  With Uncharted: Golden Abyss we have the first must-buy for Sony's PlayStation Vita. It takes the series' much-loved gameplay, storytelling and presentation, and adds on innovative touch and tilt features to make a game that fits perfectly alongside its predecessors. Prepare to be amazed by a portable videogame.

You may have had enough of hanging from glowing ledges, jumping from crumbling floors and narrow escapes from massive explosions, but I can't get enough of the adventures of "Dude Raider" Nathan Drake. I loved all of the PS3 ...

Review: PixelJunk Eden (PC)

Feb 09 // Jordan Devore
PixelJunk Eden (PlayStation Network, Steam [reviewed])Developer: Q-GamesPublisher: Q-GamesReleased: February 2, 2012 MSRP: $9.99Rig: Intel i7-2600k @3.40 GHz, with 8GB of RAM, GeForce GTX 580 GPU (SLI) The core of PixelJunk Eden remains the same for Steam, so rather than completely reiterate what was covered in our original review years ago, I'll summarize the basics. Thankfully, this is a rather minimalistic game, so there's not much to set up. As a little creature called a "Grimp," you feel compelled to use your acrobatic prowess to launch into floating enemies. This recklessness results in an explosion of much-need pollen that gets absorbed by nearby plants. Once fully pollinated, these plants will sprout the next time you bump into them. In terms of objectives, that's practically it. By helping plants grow, you're able to reach new heights and collect pick-ups called Spectra. There are five in each garden to find and collecting them is necessary for unlocking additional gardens. Levels are spacious and non-linear, so it can be more challenging to reach the Spectra than one might initially think. The biggest change for returning players is the control scheme: it's been redesigned for mouse and keyboard. I tend to prefer the comfort of a gamepad outside of, say, real-time strategy, but Q-Games has done such an excellent job with the controls here that I have a hard time imagining playing Eden any other way. Which is good, because there currently is no gamepad support in this version. Given the amount of precision you need to reach certain areas, the new controls don't immediately feel quite right and take some practice -- but the end result is undeniably good. The pacing is such that you're given plenty of time to become acquainted with the controls as you're eased into Eden with fairly straightforward level design. Zen gaming is the category I'd toss Eden in, but that doesn't mean it's boring. The soundtrack by Baiyon had me eager to fetch my headphones every single time and enter a state of bliss. Ending a session of Eden -- breaking the spell -- feels like stepping back into reality. As you become more skilled, you can't help but try zipping through gardens as quickly and stylishly as possible. This is reinforced by a much-needed addition: quick warps. Narrowly missing a jump and plummeting to the bottom of the stage is frustrating, or rather, it would be. At the press of a button, some energy is shaved off and you're teleported back to your last position. Another welcome change to Eden is that now, you don't have to find all five of a garden's Spectra in one go. Instead, you collect one, get sent back to the level-select screen, and can then jump back in. After getting all five, you're able to freely play through the garden, recollecting every Spectra in a single session if you so choose. This may seem like a minor thing, but it greatly helps to alleviate much of the frustration from levels with wind, gravity flipping, and other annoyances. Finally, the five gardens from the PlayStation Network version's "Encore" expansion are included at no additional cost. If you're anything like me, you won't want Eden to end, so this gesture is greatly appreciated. These levels are as solid as the rest of the game. It's a shame to see a few features -- particularly multiplayer -- get cut from this version of PixelJunk Eden, but the warp ability, new controls, and restructured pacing more than make up for the loss. This Steam edition is a must-download for new and returning players alike.

At this point, I think there's at least one game in the ongoing PixelJunk series for everyone. For the longest time, PixelJunk Monsters was the obvious go-to choice for me, but I've since flirted with the idea of giving Pixel...

Review: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

Nov 19 // Jonathan Holmes
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (Wii)Developer: NintendoPublisher: NintendoReleased: November 20, 2011MSRP: $49.99 Skyward Sword feels like the perfect celebration of the Zelda series' 25-year history. From the packed-in CD containing the best music from the franchise performed by a full orchestra, to the option to purchase the game with a golden Wii Remote Plus, the whole package feels more like an event than any other Nintendo release in recent memory. It would be a shame if the game weren't able to match the quality of its optional pack-ins (I'm looking at you, Epic Mickey). Thankfully, Skyward Sword delivers. It features more new ideas and changes than the series has seen since Majora's Mask while simultaneously working to include and refine all of the best ideas from the past 3D Zelda titles. In Skyward Sword, you will go back in time, sail across a vast and daunting sea, travel to an otherworldly dimension, and in the process, become emotionally connected to a small, strange community filled with amazing, unforgettable characters. You'll also skydive off your porch without a parachute, ride bird-back into battle against a giant shark monster made of black mist and hatred, be sexually harassed by a bad-ass dude in white lipstick, commune with robots, hit a cat in the face, play a harp for butterflies, get your face hugged by the Zelda equivalent of a face hugger, and use your remote-controlled flying beetle to launch death from above upon herds of giant electric desert crustaceans. The game's storyline also feels like a refined evolution of the traditional series narrative. Like most Zelda titles, Skyward Sword is a coming-of-age story, but this time, it starts off from the perspective of a teenager. The game is about Link and Zelda both coming into adulthood, going out into the world, leaving the sheltered past of childhood behind, and discovering themselves and each other. It just so happens that in this scenario, that "sheltered past" is quite literally the equivalent of a magical bomb shelter. Before waging war against invading demons, the Goddess of the Zelda world created a small village in the sky, inhabited by the chosen few in order to keep them safe from the coming battle. Skyward Sword tells the tale of Zelda and Link leaving that behind for the first time and, in doing so, setting the entire Legend of Zelda timeline into motion. Along the way, they encounter plenty of people, with concepts of sexuality and gender always bubbling right below the surface. First up is that guy I mentioned previously -- the sexually threatening, emotionally disturbed villain Ghirahim, who seems to represent the idea of unhinged, wholesale abuse of power. Then there is Impa, his female counterpart/nemesis, who similarly blends male and female gender archetypes together while exemplifying the greater virtues commonly associated with both sexes. Largely through dealing with these two characters, Link and Zelda learn what it means to be a man and a woman (respectively). It feels so good to see the heroes and villains of a Zelda game have so much symbolic weight again. As much as I love Ganon, beyond his mildly interesting childhood, he's basically a one-note tune. I can't even remember what the villains of the GBA and DS titles were motivated by. Twilight Princess's Zant and Midna were interesting experiments in atypical characterizations, but with Skyward Sword, the series is back to giving us a cast of characters that completely defies expectation. Great ideas are important and all, but they won't mean a lot without excellent craftsmanship to back them up. Skyward Sword doesn't disappoint on this front. The art direction, music, pacing, and sound design are all fantastic. The game has a Wind Waker-style cel-shaded look, but instead of showing influence from children's manga and Warner Bros. cartoons, the game appears to take its visual inspiration from Studio Ghibli and Lilo and Stitch-era Disney films, all while retaining the signature Zelda style. That visual style, combined with extremely expressive animation, music (often performed by a full orchestra), and sound design, results in a game that can take the smallest moments and make them feel like a symphony. Early on in the game, there is a moment when Zelda looks at Link and everything comes together so perfectly that I literally did not press the button to move the scene along for a full 30 seconds. I didn't want the moment to end. The look on Zelda's face, the way her eyes animated, the music, her body language -- it was all so beautiful. Though she barely says a word, you can tell from all the other elements coming together that Zelda wants Link; she loves him like a brother but wants him and their relationship to be more, though she's just not sure if he'll ever make that happen. In the hands of other developers, that one moment would have been instantly forgettable, just another bit of dialogue in a typical videogame cutscene. In the hands of the Skyward Sword team, it's a moment that I'm still talking about now, even after experiencing the hundreds of other similarly striking sequences that the game has to offer. For me, the really great thing about Skyward Sword's presentation is that it takes things to such a fantastic, artistically beautiful level without ever sacrificing its videogame-ness. Other than some frightfully beautiful singing, the game features no voice acting, and it's only better for it. Beyond that, videogame logic is still mixed into the experience at all times. Wandering around the woods and see a tree stump? Have a seat on it and you'll get all your health back in a flash. Meet a monster in the basement? Don't be afraid, he's a good dude. In fact, he just wants to be human! If you collect enough gratitude energy from the people in your town (in the form of little glowing energy blobs that look exactly like the Star Bits from Super Mario Galaxy), you just might help him become a person. The game is packed with little moments like that which say loud and clear that Skyward Sword is a videogame and proud of it. Skyward Sword is also not afraid to take risks. Probably the biggest risk it takes is the implementation of mandatory MotionPlus controls. That's right: nearly all the action here is motion-controlled. This results in a game where all the combat feels much more real. Although it's initially more difficult, it is ultimately all the more rewarding and exciting for it. In past 3D Zelda games, it became easy to just Z-target to guard, wait for an opening, and then jam the attack button in order to win. That won't work in Skyward Sword. You must direct your strikes with intent and precision if you want to win most battles, though the game does a good job of slowly teaching you exactly how to go about this. Remember Ghirahim, that sexually charged villain I mentioned earlier? He will not let you proceed very far until you learn how to aim your strikes. In fact, he'll yank your sword right out of your hands and throw it at your head if you just flail wildly at him, as if to say "your days of button-mashing your way through the Zelda series are officially over." From there, the game continues to throw tougher and more cleverly defended enemies at you, forcing you to fight smarter. The Bokoblins armed with taser swords immediately come to mind. Ignore how they're guarding, and you're sure to clash swords with them, which will lead to your taking a shock, losing some health, and leaving yourself vulnerable. Add to that the fact that your shield can only take a limited amount of hits now, and you have a Zelda game that forces you to take every battle seriously. That may sound like a lot of work, but once you get good at the game, both in terms of dexterity and strategy, it feels more satisfying than any other title in the series (and just about any other swordplay-focused game, for that matter). Speaking of broken shields and the need for strategy, Skyward Sword's flow often feels more like Monster Hunter Tri than Ocarina of Time. You'll constantly be heading back to town to buy new shields and supplies while crafting new items and bolstering your equipment with ingredients and goods found in the wild. These hunter/gatherer gameplay elements definitely feel inspired by Monster Hunter, but thankfully, the monotony that sometimes plagues that series isn't present here. Part of that is because each area in the game is like a virtual jungle gym, with plenty for this new, very active Link to do. Like in Majora's Mask, there aren't a ton of different areas, but they are all huge, with plenty to do, and new options, environments, and dungeons are always opening up. As in the better Metroid games, returning to previously explored areas of Skyward Sword with new weapons and abilities will yield the potential for new lands to explore, puzzles to solve, items to collect, and challenges to overcome. That's true of just about any Zelda game, but what makes Skyward Sword special is how fast-paced and streamlined it is. Even during those moments when I was just messing around, catching bugs, doing favors for NPCs, and exploring the game's world, I still felt like I was getting more done per minute than I ever had in past 3D Zelda games. Part of that comes from the game's run button, which is managed by an energy gauge (which is also tied to wall climbing, rolling, climbing up ladders, etc.). The ability to speed up your movement and perform more acrobatic maneuvers makes the game faster and more exciting while giving your mind a constant task of resource management to keep it occupied. The real-time inventory, which is fast and easy to navigate, is also a big plus. There are also the new gameplay elements of Dowsing (which helps you track down specific people, places, or things) and an on-map marker system, both of which do a lot to help you navigate your surroundings while never making it too easy to get to your next destination. Then there is the game's "overworld," the illustrious Skyloft and its surrounding sky islands. This generally safe and benign area gives us what most fans wanted from Wind Waker's ocean -- an alternate form of transportation that's a joy to operate while delivering a sense total of freedom and plenty of little things to do if you feel like it. Yet it remains compact and focused enough that you'll never feel like you're stuck or slowed down. The game's signature instrument, the Goddess Harp, offers a similar experience. It's easy to learn and difficult to completely master, yet never a chore to play. You can even keep playing it while you're walking around. Better yet, the music you play will fit seamlessly into the game's score. That's just another testament to Nintendo's unified goal of making Skyward Sword the most slick, smart, fast-paced 3D Zelda yet. Last but not least, there is the amazing finale and post-game content to behold. Nintendo has that information embargoed until November 20th, but if I have my druthers, I'll be back to update this review with information on these amazing new features then. Suffice it to say, they both left a strong impression on me. For my tastes, Skyward Sword is a near-perfect experience. That said, I can still recognize why others may have problems with the game. Some will hate the motion controls, not because they are poorly implemented, but because... they just hate motion controls. I've let quite a few of my motion control-hating friends come over and check out the game, and while most of them came to really enjoy how the game played, almost all of them were put off by the initial experience of working with the game's 1:1 sword controls, stating that the game was too hard or that they needed to be aware of their own body while playing. Simply put, a lot of people want videogames to free them of the shackles of their own lack of coordination, to make it so all you have to do is hit the buttons at the right time to win. Though the game rarely requires you to do more than flick your wrist up, down, left, or right, it's still more physically demanding than a solely button-based game. That may be more than some players are willing to deal with in this highly competitive market. For that reason alone, Nintendo should have allowed for Classic Controller support. It wouldn't have been as fun for me to play the game that way, but for others, I'm sure it would have been preferable, at least during the initial stages of adjusting to all the other new aspect to the game. For similar reasons, the game probably should have had optional voice acting. I wouldn't have utilized it, but I know a lot of people who won't tolerate "reading" the story of a videogame anymore, even if it's a perfect fit for the non-realistic tone and modern fairytale style. Beyond that, some of the few bosses felt a little too easy, though they were usually followed up by a challenge that more than made up for their lack of grit. There was also a fetch quest towards the end that wasn't quite as fun as it should have been. Other than all that, the game is pretty much perfect. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is my new favorite 3D Zelda title, beating out Majora's Mask and Wind Waker by a substantial margin. It would be hard to go back to any of those games now. All of the gameplay innovations, emotionally involving moments, beautiful little details, and purely blissful experiences in this game have me completely and utterly spoiled. It's a very different Zelda game, one that will undoubtedly turn off some and absolutely enthrall others, but that's part of what Zelda does best, right? Fans of the series are still debating which game in the series is the best, and the arrival of Skyward Sword won't change that. Either way, there is no arguing that Skyward Sword is one of the most painstakingly crafted, lovingly developed titles in Nintendo's long, illustrious history. If you like videogames at all, you'd be goofy to not give it a try.

If the Wii had launched with The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, everything would have been different. Instead, the console launched with The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, a game that sent all the wrong messages to thir...

Review: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Nov 10 // Jim Sterling
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [reviewed], PC)Developer: Bethesda SoftworksPublisher: Bethesda Game StudiosReleased: November 11, 2011MSRP: $59.99 The mountains of Skyrim are beautiful to behold, truly breathtaking in scale and bursting at the seams with things to see and do. Not all is well in the shadow of the snow-capped rocks, however. It has been two centuries since the Oblivion Crisis changed Tamriel forever, but the resulting peace couldn't last for eternity. Cyrodiil's expansive Empire has laid claim to Skyrim and abolished the traditional customs of its people, the Nords. An inauspicious threat of civil war hangs over the people as rebellious Stormcloaks plot to drive Imperial forces from the region and gain popular favor amongst the local Nordic Jarls. Though common folk strive to keep to themselves, events have taken their toll on every citizen. Inevitably, it is the player's destiny to become deeply embroiled in these events, as well as many more. Yet again, The Elder Scrolls casts its adventurers into the role of a mysterious prisoner, this time due for the chopping block. However, a stay of execution is granted by the sudden appearance of apocalyptic dragons -- once thought to be creatures of mere legend. The first of these scaly monstrosities is but one of an army, as the mythical creatures reawaken all over Skyrim, and the player -- soon to realize his destiny as a dragon-slaying Dovahkiin (Dragonborn) -- must confront the beasts and save the world.  The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim can take a handful of hours to beat. That is, if you consider wrapping up the official story quest as "beating" an Elder Scrolls game. Nobody should, however, for the main plot is but a mere morsel of what Skyrim has to offer, to the point where it isn't even the most sprawling and epic quest on the menu. To focus only on the main narrative would be to ignore the deliciously macabre Dark Brotherhood resurrection, the various twisted meetings with capricious Daedric Princes, or the vengeful tale of The Companions and their grim secret.  Bethesda's games have always felt like online encyclopedia browsing, where one opens a page, finds more interesting ones within, and ends up with twenty unread articles open before long. In Skyrim, this approach is taken to extremes, with opportunities for adventure found in every city, cave, farm and forest hideout. Thanks to the "Radiant" storytelling system, these adventures can be procedurally generated as well. While there are fully scripted quests boasting their own characters and narrative threads, there is an infinite amount of miscellaneous objectives that can appear at any point. These range from simple tasks (such as collecting a bounty note in a tavern and slaying the target) to more intricate missions (like pulling off a successful burglary for the Thieves Guild). The game is also smart enough to place objective locations in unexplored areas of the gargantuan map, improvising in order to encourage further exploration.  At the time of writing, I have put over fifty hours into the game, and my journal menu still lists more than forty unfinished jobs. These are just the tasks I've found, and I doubt I've scratched the surface as I am willing to bet there are many finely layered quests that I still have not stumbled across.  Of course, all this content would be meaningless if the game itself were no fun, but Skyrim is perhaps the most encouraging, rewarding and downright indulging Western role-playing game I have ever played. That sounds hyperbolic, and perhaps it is, but it's something I truly feel in my bones. With Skyrim, Bethesda has taken everything successful from previous Elder Scrolls games and mixed it with the best elements of recent Fallout installments, all while leaving behind the chaff. The result is a game as deep and flexible as Oblivion but as accessible and intuitive as Fallout 3. More importantly, it's better than both.  Before our budding hero can embark on his or her quest, one must first work out if it's a he or a she. The in-depth character creator from Oblivion is back, offering a wealth of options to spawn warriors as handsome or ugly as desired. Every race has been given a significant visual overhaul, with Orcs looking tougher, Elves gaining harsher features, and humans receiving far more believable, subtle faces. Tamriel's exotic races -- the Khajiit and Argonians -- have benefited the most from Skyrim's fresh visuals, earning richly detailed animalistic features that cause them to look less like vaguely re-skinned humans. Each race possesses a predetermined aptitude for certain talents alongside unique special abilities (Argonians once again breathe underwater while Imperials can access the calming "Voice of the Emperor" power), but every race will be able to make use of whatever skills the player ends up choosing.  Skyrim gives starting players all the tools they need to test every type of hero they could potentially become. Armed with rudimentary stealth, weaponry and alchemy skills, as well as a few weak spells, one's fresh-faced avatar serves as a fertile testing ground that can be specialized in many directions to suit the needs of every individual. As with previous Elder Scrolls games, there is no traditional experience system. Instead, skills gain levels with repeated use, and contribute toward a rank meter that determines the player's overall level. This creates a natural progression in which characters evolve based entirely on how one wants to enjoy the game. If a player tends to sneak around a lot, the character will become increasingly stealthy. If the player likes to swing two-handed axes around, the character becomes more proficient at wielding heavy melee equipment. The only stats you'll have to worry about are Health, Magicka and Stamina, one of which can be upgraded with each successful level gain.  Every time a level is earned, a skill point is also awarded. Skill points are invested into various perks arranged on individual skill trees. There are trees for each school of magic, as well as light armor, heavy armor, sneaking, lock-picking, alchemy and other familiar Elder Scrolls abilities. As players become more experienced in various skills, new paths on the tree will unlock, allowing points to be sunk into ever more useful abilities. For example, the Speechcraft skill tree has perks that make it easier to intimidate people in conversations, or cause items to be sold at cheaper prices in stores. Heavy Armor has perks that grant additional defense bonuses if the character is wearing a matching set of armor pieces, while spell perks can reduce Magicka costs or even dual-cast incantations to make them stronger. Although these perks aren't quite as obvious and game-changing as those found in Fallout, they are nonetheless crucial in creating a powerful Dovahkiin.  The natural way in which characters are built ensures a huge variety of potential warriors. My own character is a battlemage who specializes in Conjuration and Destruction magic, backing up his spellcasting with a measure of sword-wielding experience. Sword in one hand, magic spell readied in the other, I'm able to summon a daemon from the Oblivion plane and send it to charge ahead while I throw fireballs and soften up the target. Once the enemy is weak enough, I can charge in and finish it off with the sword -- which can often be accompanied by a brutal execution animation. What's great about my character is how I was able to incrementally tweak it to maximize strengths and limit weaknesses. For example, my hero was a bit of a glass cannon at first: able to dish out punishment but prone to getting slaughtered if enemies could close in. I therefore spent some time focusing on Heavy Armor, using just enough skill points to give me a defensive edge. Now I have a character that feels like a battle tank. He's slow and and has very poor stamina (you can't have everything), but he will soak up plenty of damage while devastating all but the hardiest of foes.  This is just one potential build of many. I could have had a lightning-quick scout, or a character with Illusion magic that renders him invisible and causes enemies to furiously attack one another. The possibilities aren't endless, but they may as well be. Furthermore, dedicated players who reach the pinnacle of their talents will enjoy power equal to a demigod. By the time the character is sufficiently leveled, there's no reason not to feel on top of the world and downright almighty. That isn't to say the game becomes a complete cakewalk -- tougher enemies will rise to the challenge -- but players aren't punished for leveling up, as often felt like the case in Oblivion.  Another change from Oblivion is the in-game menu. The menu screen features crossroad-style navigation that points to skill trees, available magic, items and the map. Simply moving in the right direction fluidly opens up the corresponding menu, allowing for easy and swift access. Unlike the clutter seen in previous Elder Scrolls interfaces, these screens are clear and clean, sacrificing pompous stylishness for pure functionality. The item menu is particularly cool, with each item fully viewable in 3D within the screen -- you can even zoom in and rotate anything in the inventory, which comes in handy for a few quests.  Combat is dramatically improved. Magic spells are similar to the Plasmids found in BioShock, equipped to one of the Dovahkiin's hands and readied for use whenever weapons are drawn. Players can choose to have a sword in one hand with a spell in the other, or even have two spells at once. Some spells issue a constant spray of damage, while others are projectile-based; some have instant effects, and others take a moment to charge up. As with everything in Skyrim, flexibility is the essence of the experience, and players can tailor their combat to suit any preference. A large number of "Favorites" can also be mapped to a special menu that's brought up at the touch of a button, allowing heroes to change weapons and spells and use potions on the fly.  For those not magically inclined, there's a huge variety of weapons with which to dispense death. One-handed and two-handed melee weapons are joined by bows and staves to create a healthy and versatile arsenal. Although combat retains the unwieldy hack-n'-slash flavor of prior games, things are slightly more refined, with blocking and counter-attacking given a greater focus. Fights feel so much more involved than they did in previous Elder Scrolls games, especially since every blow feels like it connects with a mighty impact. Those looking for intricate and graceful melee will be disappointed, but those who want brutal, manic, in-your-face engagements have come to the right game.  What else is there to say? What about the crafting, smithing and enchanting? You can make your own weapons with materials found around the world, becoming an alchemist and create new potions, or imbue weapons with powerful sorcery. These systems are simple, yet require practice and dedication from those players looking to make their own gear. Even then, they don't have to if they don't want to, and can rely on shops when they get new stock. It's all up to you.  As a Dragonborn, the hero will gain access to Thu'ums, or Shouts. These shouts are spoken in the language of dragons, and their words invoke powerful effects. As players discover Thu'ums written on walls around Skyrim, they absorb their power and gain new skills. These range from simple Shouts that blast out fire or ice to more unique skills, such as surging forward at super speed or summoning a lightning storm. Once learned, a Shout needs to be unlocked with a Dragon Soul, but to win a Dragon Soul, one needs to fight a dragon.  Dragons are not merely scripted boss battles that have been set to occur at a few predetermined points. In Skyrim, these living legends can come at any time and launch an attack upon any location. These randomly generated creatures will start appearing in the world once a certain point in the main story has been reached, and their regular appearances dominate everything. The best time to meet a dragon is undoubtedly in a city, as guards will leave their posts to join in the fight and turn what is already a huge encounter into something truly epic. The winged lizards swoop across the sky, raining down fire or frost on everything in their wake. They'll land on buildings, smash into the ground and provide truly memorable battles every time they show up. As a choral rendition of the Elder Scrolls theme strikes up and players struggle valiantly to bring their reptilian foe to the ground, only a heart of stone could fail to be roused. Once the dragon finally draws its last breath and begins to burn away, leaving behind only its huge skeleton, most players would be hard-pressed to not just stand there silently for a few moments, taking in everything that just happened. The surrounding NPCs will be doing the same thing, too, making these reflectively calm moments almost as engaging as the fights themselves.  Skyrim can do epic, that's a given. It is, however, the little things that make The Elder Scrolls V what it is. The game is stuffed to its brim with tiny flourishes that seem so insignificant yet make the world of difference between a game that feels like a game, and a game that feels like it's alive. Swimming in a river to catch some fish, dropping an unwanted item on the floor and having an NPC "helpfully" return it to you, gaining a trusty follower who comments on your actions and surrounding locations -- these are the things that really place Skyrim a cut above the rest. Long after gamers have stopped recounting grand scrimmages against tribes of giants, talk will persist of that time an elf tried to sell a player some drugs outside of town, or the bandits that attempted to scare the hero away rather than blindly attack. To talk of such tiny details in a game where storm clouds can be summoned at will sounds silly, but without these minor touches, the overall ambitious scale would mean much less. Providing the backbone for all this content is a brand-new iteration of the Gamebryo Engine, dubbed Creation. The difference this makes is huge, permeating every facet of the experience from graphics to glitches. Skyrim's huge open world looks inspiring: cities and caves appear to be unique, while character models are detailed and finally resemble human beings -- or their Orc/Elf/Khajiit/Argonian equivalent. The game's lavish sound design seals the deal and adds that final breath of life to the production. Voice acting is fairly varied as far as Bethesda games go, though certain ones are reused a lot. Still, the acting is commendable and the affected Scandinavian accents used by many of the local Nords is quite endearing. The music is absolutely sublime -- quiet and atmospheric when it needs to be, but stirringly evocative at just the right moment.  As far as bugs go, some are bound to exist in a world so large, but I am yet to find anything game-breaking. The only persisting issue is with NPC allies, who can sometimes get lost and fail to return to their default locations. Some will get stuck attempting to perform an action, and if the player doesn't notice they're missing, they could be lost forever in the sprawling world. Other potential allies will still recognize the player as having someone with them, meaning lost comrades won't be replaced until a quest calls for a specific follower, automatically dismissing the lost one (though he/she will still remain lost). I've also had the game freeze once or twice, but one can never be sure if that's a fault of the game or the console trying to run it. Compared to previous games, however, bugs are essentially negligible, and while I'm sure the coming months will find plenty of problems, I can notice nothing so far that ruins what is an absolutely captivating experience.  The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is every single reason to love a Western role-playing game, condensed into a single comprehensive experience with nothing lost in the conversion process. It is a game that will drown those who step into its absorbing, overwhelmingly detailed world, a game that will bury you and refuse to let go. Yet your submergence will be agreeable, your burial ecstatic, and the hands placed around your throat welcomed like those of a lover's. To play Skyrim is to enter into a relationship, one that provides feelings of empowerment, yet demands total submission.  Submit you will, for The Elder Scrolls V is the new zenith of role-playing games and it commands you to look up.

Preparing for a new Elder Scrolls game is like preparing to die. One must ensure they get all their worldly affairs in order, speak with the people who mean everything to them, and have a final meal. After all, once that disc...

Review: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3

Nov 09 // Jim Sterling
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (Xbox 360 [reviewed], PlayStation 3, PC)Developer: Infinity Ward, Sledgehammer GamesPublisher: ActivisionReleased: November 8, 2011MSRP: $59.99 Modern Warfare 3 tosses players right back into the fictional near-future setting that has seen World War 3 break out across the United States and Europe. Captain Price and his unit are still wanted men, and they're still on the tail of the madman who ignited conflict between Russia and America, Vladimir Makarov. As ever, the story shifts focus between various units and multiple player characters before culminating in what may be one of the most brutally gratifying showdowns a videogame has ever presented.  As one of those rare sorts who enjoys Modern Warfare the most for its narrative campaign, I can confirm that this concluding story in the saga is a satisfactory one. The usual collection of roller-coaster moments is out in full force, with daring helicopter escapes, explosive war zones and chilling tours through ruined city streets presented with the usual class and polish that Infinity Ward brings to the table. As always, the single-player mode is but a five-hour romp, but its length is more than enough to present a thrilling, adrenaline-pumping sequence of high-speed shootouts across a wide variety of locations around the world.  Modern Warfare 3 has to be commended on just how immersive it is. Featuring engaging player character animations and environments packed full of violent action, the game never once loses its grip on the player's attention, compelling him or her to press ever onward in search of the next big "wow" moment. Even more notable is the fact that -- for once -- Infinity Ward has created a story that flows almost perfectly. Previous games' plots felt rather alienated from the gameplay; they amounted to a litany of set pieces with only vague expository details littered throughout. In this final chapter, the drawstrings have been pulled together to create a tighter bond between game and story, making for a near-perfect send-off for the current story arc. That said, the game doesn't quite pack the same punch as its predecessor when it comes to those set pieces, mostly because it's hard to take the action much further than Modern Warfare 2 did. As is the problem with many third entries in franchises that won't totally reinvent themselves, all Modern Warfare 3 can do is refine what came before, and while it certainly does that, the potential to surprise players has degraded a little. This doesn't mean the game is ineffective -- it can still draw the awe from a gamer -- but those looking for something as memorable as the famous nuke sequence from the original Modern Warfare or Modern Warfare 2's "No Russian" level will be a little let down.  As well as the single-player, a new batch of Special Ops missions is available to play either solo or with a co-op partner. It contains its own ranking system and related gameplay bonuses; players will be able to unlock up to three "tiers" of missions, each with their own objectives, enemies and courses. Mostly taken from stages in the campaign, these missions involve such tasks as collecting toxic samples from poisonous bombs or disarming explosives on a submarine. There's nothing here that could claim to be truly unique or interesting, but it does make for a lot of extra content on top of what we've come to expect.  New to Special Ops is a plethora of Survival Maps in which up to two players must hold out against waves of incoming enemies. This is Modern Warfare's more grounded answer to Treyarch's Zombies mode, with points going toward unlocking weapons, perks, and equipment upgrades. I absolutely love this new mode and appreciate that a rather large selection of maps is on offer. My only gripe is the two-player limit, as survival modes are always best with a team of at least four, and I see no reason for the restriction. Of course, competitive multiplayer is the mode almost everybody thinks about when it comes to Call of Duty, and I can confirm that Modern Warfare 3 boasts what may be the best multiplayer the series has had to date. Improving what worked in previous games and altering less successful elements, MW3 provides an experience that feels both deeper and more streamlined -- giving players all they need to jump right into the action but holding a lot of extra toys to play with under the surface. The biggest change has come to the Killstreak system, a previously contentious subject among the COD community. There are now three "Strike Packages" tailored to different sorts of players, balanced in a way that ensures everybody gets to enjoy the game and feels rewarded for helping their team in whatever way they know best. Players can equip three streak abilities, and unlock new ones by earning unlock points during gameplay.  Making use of Strike Packages is more about earning points than simply scoring kills, meaning those who help players in other ways -- be it by capturing flags or assisting kills -- get a bonus, too. It's a fantastic way of dealing with the thorny issue of imbalanced killstreaks in prior games, and as someone who primarily plays Domination, I love the idea of getting a prize for my various support actions. The Assault Package is designed for those who can string together multiple kills without dying. Those who partake of this package can earn abilities such as Assault Drones or Predator Missile Strikes, designed entirely to annihilate enemy players. Support Package users can keep their streaks even after death and earn gadgets that help the player's team out, such as UAV Recon or Anti-Air Turrets. Finally, the Specialist Package awards new Perks to those who can maintain streaks in a single spawn. These Perks are added to ones the player already has equipped, allowing for the potential to enjoy huge benefits if one can survive long enough.  Perks themselves have been given the usual spring cleaning as well. Some, such as Stopping Power and Last Stand, have been traded out, while new additions include Blind Eye (invisible to aircraft) and Assassin (undetectable by thermal sensors, UAVs, or pretty much any electronic equipment). Perks seem geared far more toward personal support than giving players a true combat edge this time around. Most Perks with a focus on killing power have been eliminated, while those improving survivability are abundant. I have to say, I like it. A subtler Perk system is what the game needed, especially with the Strike Packages adding more definitive variety to the proceedings.  Action unfolds across sixteen maps, all of which are incredibly well designed with a beautiful balance between tight corridors and wide-open spaces. Familiar modes such as Search & Destroy and Headquarters are joined by Team Defender and Kill Confirmed. In Team Defender, the team earns points if a player can capture and carry a flag without getting killed and dropping it. Kill Confirmed is a great twist on Deathmatch in which the team won't get a point for a kill unless the victim's dropped dog tag is collected. Naturally, the opposing players can capture the dog tag themselves to deny that kill. Both of these modes are merely variants of familiar gameplay, but they are very good variants, and I foresee Kill Confirmed in particular becoming popular. All of this content is added to the usual class progression and a weapon proficiency system that allows new guns and upgrades to be collected. With eighty levels to achieve and subsequent Prestige ranks available, there is a silly amount of content for those players literally obsessed with Call of Duty -- and there are a lot of them! For those obsessives, Activision has also provided Call of Duty Elite, a subscription-based social network where players can create their own private clans, indulge in extensive stat-tracking, share videos and access mobile apps. COD Elite deserves its own review and will be covered separately, but let it be known for those worried about being nickel-and-dimed that Elite is entirely optional and perfectly forgettable if all you want to do is play the game. Nothing has been withheld from the main title, and Elite will only further absorb those players who have become addicted to the point of needing professional help.  Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 treads familiar ground and focuses on tweaking rather than reinventing, and that's just fine. While there are no major revelations or surprises, this is still a gorgeously produced package that gives military shooter fans exactly what they want. There's a reason why Call of Duty is the most powerful videogame franchise of the modern era, and Modern Warfare 3 serves as a reminder -- it's just that damn good at what it does. Whether you like what it does is a matter of personal taste, but the skill and experience brought to the table is hard to refute. Modern Warfare 3 gets it done, and it gets it done damn well.

Whether or not Call of Duty deserves its status as the most powerful videogame franchise of the modern era is a debate that will likely rage long after its star has faded. No matter what one thinks of Activision's market-domi...

Review: Dungeon Defenders

Oct 17 // Maurice Tan
Dungeon Defenders (Xbox Live Arcade [Reviewed], PlayStation Network, PC)Developer: Trendy EntertainmentPublisher: Trendy Entertainment, Reverb Publishing, D3PublisherReleased: October 18, 2011 (PSN), October 19, 2011 (XBLA, PC)MSRP: 1200 Microsoft Points, $14.99 Let me elaborate on that for a moment. Dungeon Defenders can be insanely hard. That is, if you are mad enough to attempt playing it on even the medium (default) difficulty all by yourself. As an action/roleplaying game/tower defense hybrid, Dungeon Defenders is all about managing waves of incoming hordes with an upgradable character who sometimes has to defend multiple Eternia Crystals -- the game's "cores" if you will -- usually leaving you with one too many paths to juggle. If you don't have anyone to play with, or if you don't want to bother with random people online, you can probably make it through the game's 13 campaign missions by yourself on the easy difficulty, and only then attempt it on a higher difficulty with your upgraded gear and character. Yet even on this "easy difficulty" the game is quite challenging regardless of whether or not you are a veteran tower defense player. In fact, I would go as far as to say you would need to be either a masochist, or indeed a Cenobite, to buy Dungeon Defenders if your sole purpose is to play solo. Naturally, being an idiot masochist, I jumped into this game choosing an advanced hero class and started playing it on its medium difficulty in singleplayer, because hey, I have played a videogame before! Suffice it to say, it taught me new sensations of pain I wasn't aware I could feel. With that out of the way, it has to be said that this is a game created for 2-4 player co-op bliss (online, locally, or taking a local party online), and boy is it one for the ages. Dungeon Defenders offers a choice of four classes that are progressively more challenging to learn and use effectively. The Apprentice is the most traditional class, with his barricades and different kinds of towers to deal ranged damage from behind protection. The Squire can block off paths himself by blocking, or build blockades and towers aimed at funneling and then destroying groups of enemies. The Huntress is a mix of ranged support and harassment, wielding different types of crossbows (or gatling guns) and an arrangement of traps to damage and stun incoming waves. She is a bit harder to use as these traps initially have a low detonation count until you level up a bit, which results in having to repair them in the heat of battle lest they lose all their detonation counters, thus forcing you to buy a new trap for full price. The Monk -- of the Aang variety -- is the priest type of class who can lay down auras to slow, damage or turn enemies against each other, as well as summon healing auras. Like the Huntress, the Monk is more of a co-op support class than the kind of class you'd want to wield solo. When you throw them all together, you have the Apprentice to build towers, the Squire to hold off a narrow path, the Huntress to stealthily lay down traps and harass enemies, and the Monk to support and manage dealing with the enemy wave's paths of impending doom. Each class also has a few special abilities to help them out in battle, besides the five unique defenses they can summon. Buying a tower, aura or trap costs mana, which can be harvested by collecting the mana crystals that enemies drop or looting preset chests across the map that respawn after every wave. Upgrading a defensive position costs 100 mana initially, regardless of how much it cost to build it in the first place, and upgrading it even further doubles the cost until it's no longer cost-efficient to do so. Between each wave you have a Build Phase to strategize and communicate your approach to the next wave at your leisure. While you can build, repair, and upgrade towers when a wave is assaulting your positions, your hero will do so at a far slower pace than during the Build Phase; hence the name. What this comes down to is going from a planning phase to make sure everyone's resources are used in the best way possible and everyone is covering the right approach to make the most of their class's strengths, followed by a hectic cooperative battle for survival as something, somewhere, is bound to go wrong at some point. In the meantime, each player will be hunting for precious mana, to put back into tightening the defenses, and for the glorious loot of which there is a copious amount. Whatever loot you don't want, you can either store in an inventory that is shared between all your characters, trade with friends, or sell for mana in a mana bank (your currency) that is, again, shared to keep cross-hero management as painless as possible. A Tavern serves as a lobby, where you choose what you want to play and tinker with your inventory at the Tavernkeep. Here you can sell off your loot -- which you can also do during a mission's Build Phase if you want to -- or spend hard earned mana on XP bonuses, character respecs, renaming your hero, or buying rare and randomized weapons and armor. Did I mention you can buy a pet that deals damage and buffs you stats? PETS! As if it wasn't enough to have all your prior tower defense experience reduced to nothing if you attempt playing the game solo on a difficulty above your station, a glance at Dungeon Defenders' achievements & trophies makes it clear: Trendy Entertainment isn't about to make it easy for anyone. The game is very hard, sure, but it provides a pleasurable pain. Every failure is a chance to learn and try again with a slightly beefed up character than the last time. With four classes and four difficulties to choose from, the campaign alone offers countless hours of entertainment. Each campaign level can also be played in Survival mode or Pure Strategy mode, the latter of which forces you to depend on your defenses alone. Since that was apparently not enough for Trendy Entertainment, each campaign level you complete unlocks a unique challenge level. In these challenges you'll play a variation on the standard gameplay by attacking the monsters instead of defending, protecting a teleporting Etheria Crystal across the map, find yourself in a rain of goblins, and even crazier stuff like having one hero randomly become "the chicken" who is easily killed and can't jump. Finally, there is a Player vs. Player challenge to pit you and your friends' heroes in an arena style battle. All of this content would be useless if the core gameplay wasn't solid or fun to play, but thankfully Dungeon Defenders delivers on this front as well. There are a few minor gripes that may annoy some players, as no game is perfect. The inventory is pretty large and easy to manage, but if you forget to sell off loot during a long game session, you might fill it up. Then you have to sell off your loot during a mission just to be able to pick up the remaining loot, which can break up the pacing. The final mission in the campaign ends in a cutscene before you can pick up all the loot from the last wave, which is a bit annoying since you could do that in every other mission before choosing to move on to the next one. Dungeon Defenders also has a lot of features that are only ever explained during loading screen tips and the only explanation of anything can be found in a single tutorial video. It could have done with a dedicated help section in the menu, where you could find which mission modifier means what, how stats affect your hero's performance, how a level score is calculated, or even just to get an overview of the different defenses and abilities each hero has before you choose one. The tutorial video in itself does a decent job explaining the basics, but it is a bit barren overall given the huge amount of content, class abilities, defenses, and modes the game throws at you. Then there is the matter of singleplayer, which was mentioned earlier. If you are going to play some singleplayer -- whether you lack friends to play with or just want to grind a bit while they are unavailable -- just start the game on Easy with an Apprentice or Squire class. After a run-through on that difficulty, you'll be in a much better position to deal with the game's Medium difficulty, which has a nasty habit of throwing overwhelmingly powerful waves at you at the very last moment. Everything you can do in solo mode is really meant to help you develop your character for co-op, and despite seemingly not really being designed as singleplayer game, you can still get hours of enjoyment out of the campaign levels and even the Survival and Pure Strategy modifiers -- as long as you don't jump in head over heels. The challenges are a different matter. These are primarily made for co-op play with relatively high level characters, and they are insanely hard to complete on your own. You can switch between your created heroes during the Build Phase in any type of level to make up for the lack of defense variety, but it's a last resort that doesn't quite offer a good argument for going solo. You would need to create and level up four different heroes with a lot of grinding just to make proper use of the system. Whatever issues Dungeon Defenders may have are minor, however, and lay with the singleplayer component of a game designed to be played cooperatively. It will detract as much from the total experience as being able to play Left 4 Dead with AI bots detracts from the multiplayer fun you can have with that game. Dungeon Defenders is filled to the brim with deliciously challenging co-op content and so much variety and loot that you could keep playing it for dozens upon dozens of hours. It takes the leveling and loot addiction from Diablo and Torchlight, throws it into the "tower defense variant" format that has become so popular, and succeeds at all levels. Dungeon Defenders doesn't just deliver in offering a huge package of cooperative fun, but raises the bar for downloadable titles by offering more than the average full-priced retail title does these days. It strikes a balance between action, RPG, and tower defense in a way that turns it into the Castle Crashers of tower defense. It will keep you occupied for weeks and months to come, provided you have the local or online friends to play with. If you don't, you can always decide that yes, you are a Cenobite and by the gods that cannot hear you, you will finish that campaign on Insane difficulty all by yourself with your four level 70 heroes. Dungeon Defenders is really meant to be played with three friends to raise hell with, though, and you will still come to know the true meaning of pain well before you beat it on the highest difficulty.

A lot has been said and written about games being art in the last decade. Some games can elicit different emotions. Sometimes they aim to be interactive drama. And sometimes they are meant as a metaphorical reflection on a st...

Review: The Binding of Isaac

Oct 02 // Jordan Devore
[embed]212806:41103[/embed] The Binding of Isaac (PC [Reviewed], Mac)Developer: Edmund McMillen and Florian HimslPublisher: Edmund McMillenReleased: September 28, 2011MSRP: $4.99 While The Binding of Isaac is indeed the story of a parent being asked to sacrifice their child in the name of faith, as the title would suggest, I don't see it offending players. There is a message about extremism in religion to take away, though it never really becomes preachy. The setup is a good one, and it provides the necessary context for a lot of interesting elements found in Isaac. Having escaped to the basement to avoid his mother's wrath, you play a crying, naked boy who has to fight off monstrosities (some of which are relatives) with his tears. Yeah, your starter weapon is projectile crying. So good. The basement itself is split up into a bunch of single rooms, with much of the world design similar to that of The Legend of Zelda's dungeons. In fact, the game is broken up into multiple floors, each with an end boss to conquer before you can further descend. Between the bombs, treasure chests, and even keys, long-time gamers are going to feel right at home with Isaac's conventions. Despite being a roguelike -- and as a result, having permanent death, randomization of items and levels, etc. -- this is very much an approachable game, even if it is at times immensely difficult. The mechanics are mostly straightfoward, and combat itself is familiar four-directional shooting. The WASD keys are used for movement, with shooting assigned to either the arrow keys or your mouse. You are restricted to up/down/left/right firing, but enemies are balanced accordingly, and attacking from an angle can be done if you shoot while walking a certain way. The controls aren't as tight as I would've liked, but you get used to them eventually. Note: there is no native gamepad support. Beyond your default attack, which can be upgraded through pick-ups to something other than tears, you can find one-time use items (pills and tarot cards), and you also have an equipment slot for items that recharge as you progress. Bombs, coins, keys, and hearts are also thrown into the mix. The end result, thanks to randomization and a wide assortment of potential collectibles, means playing The Binding of Isaac won't grow old anytime soon. Having played for more than ten hours myself, I'm still coming across previously unseen items and enemies on a regular basis. Perhaps one of the biggest selling points is the visual style. If you're at all familiar with Edmund's work prior to Super Meat Boy, you know what to expect. It's a wonderful blend of fleshy grossness and lighthearted, even sometimes cute, humor. (Disclaimer: I am totally into dark comedy.) Going back to the items you can collect -- stuff like dog food, a wire coat hanger, and syringes -- they are actually visually represented by changes to your character's appearance. And since these stat upgrades stack, your character usually ends up looking pretty ridiculous. Given the huge variety present in Isaac, not all playthroughs are going to be successful. This can be frustrating, but I feel like a reasonable amount of balance was reached given the variability. Even if you don't ultimately win, you're likely to come across enough new content to make the attempt worth doing; you lose your progress, but not your knowledge. That even goes for bosses, too -- there are around twenty in total, and almost all are satisfying to fight against. Major props must also be given for the excellent soundtrack, which I personally adore. It's by Danny Baranowsky, who previously collaborated with McMillen on Super Meat Boy and has made a name for himself by contributing to other great independent games. Chilling, catchy, and very fitting. The way in which content is accessed in Isaac is interesting. Beating the game unlocks additional levels, puts more items and bosses in the rotation, and probably something else I'm forgetting. Forgive me -- this stuff isn't exactly explained explicitly; it's a roguelike! All part of the fun. There are also multiple playable characters and endings. For those wondering why there are individual Steam achievements for reaching the full conclusion nine separate times, there's a reason. All told, The Binding of Isaac is a deceptively deep game. That it only costs $4.99 is nothing short of astounding. I don't see myself putting it down until I hit that magical 100% completion mark, which is hours and hours away at this point. This is one trip that I recommend to everyone open-minded enough to give it a chance.

If I weren't already so fond of game jams -- and rapid prototyping in general -- The Binding of Isaac likely would have pushed me into such fandom. It began life as a week-long project between Team Meat's Edmund McMillen and ...

Review: Kirby Mass Attack

Sep 16 // Jim Sterling
Kirby Mass Attack (Nintendo DS)Developer: HAL Laboratory, Inc.Publisher: NintendoReleased: September 19, 2011MSRP: $29.99 Kirby Mass Attack sees our pink hero split into ten pieces by the nefarious leader of the Skull Gang, Necrodeus -- who logically believes that ten small Kirbys are easier to beat than one huge one. His gambit actually pays off, but just before he can defeat the last Kirby, a star representing our hero's heart saves him and leads him on a quest to regroup and defeat Necrodeus. This happens because Kirby games are known for tightly scripted, incredibly logical stories. The entire platforming adventure is played using just the stylus. Tapping anywhere on the screen sends all Kirbys to the designated spot, holding the stylus in place allows you to draw a line that the Kirbys will float along, while flicking each individual Kirby sends him flying in the desired direction -- crucial for reaching high places or latching onto flying enemies. It's a simple control scheme, but HAL does an exemplary job of exploiting it to create a huge variety of unique gameplay situations.  Players start with just a single Kirby, but it doesn't take long to build a veritable swarm. Each level is full of delicious fruit for Kirby to eat, and once he eats 100 points' worth of the stuff, another puffball spawns -- the process continuing until a miniature army of ten has been amassed. Getting to watch an entire scrum of Kirbys waddling along and clambering over each other as they run across the stage is a joy in and of itself.  All Kirbys respond to the same command, so pointing anywhere on the screen will send the whole group to the required destination. If you point at an enemy, the Kirbys will jump on it and proceed to pummel their victim to death in a rather nightmarish fashion, reminiscent of army ants cutting a spider to pieces. Bigger enemies require more Kirbys to take down efficiently, otherwise they're prone to shaking off the attackers. The Kirbys are also needed to grab onto levers, weigh down platforms, and bash into blocks, with some of these objectives demanding a minimum number of heroes. Each Kirby can be lost, although players always have a chance to save them and can always regain fallen heroes with more fruit. When a Kirby is hit, he turns blue, and if he's hit again, he'll become a ghost and start to float away. Flicking a live Kirby onto the ghost, however, will see it dragged back to earth and resurrected. What I love about this system is that it's both delightfully cute and disturbingly morbid at the same time, which seems to be a running theme for the whole Kirby series.  Thanks to the simple control scheme and tightly designed stages, there's a pleasant lack of confusion in controlling ten characters at once, but there are a few persistent flaws in an otherwise elegant system. The camera manages to become an issue in several places, as one can't move the screen to deal with any Kirbys straying from the pack, and there's sometimes not enough space in front of the group for you to lead them with the stylus. Also, while the Kirbys generally stick together, there will be occurrences where one or two decide to get stuck on a ledge or straggle behind, and majority control is always given the lowest Kirby onscreen -- if one falls from a high place, that's the one the camera will track, even if you need to be in the higher position. These are minor inconveniences at best, but they do cause some light fist-shaking on occasion.  Any irritation is more than made up for with the sheer wealth of clever gameplay design on offer. The platforming and boss challenges are many and varied, with challenges perfectly adapted to the touch-screen interface. For instance, you can't just dogpile on any enemy. Some have spikes in nasty places, requiring you to fling the Kirbys on certain exposed spots. Others will fire projectiles that shoot into the sky and come crashing back down, requiring you to intermittently call off an attack, run to safety, then recommence an assault. As the game progresses, there are all sorts of new situations to occur, with very little in the way of repeated gimmickry.  Like most Kirby games, Mass Attack is not a strictly challenging game -- if your only concern is getting to the end of each stage. However, finding hidden medallions and earning Gold Stars for getting your Kirbys through every level unscathed is another matter entirely. This kind of meta-challenge is something the Kirby series excels in, and its strict enforcement in Mass Attack makes for one of the most deceptively challenging Kirby games around, if you want it to be. Trying to keep ten Kirbys from getting hurt in order to achieve a Gold Star is something that will take even experienced players quite a lot of practice.  The hidden medallions scattered throughout each stage are worth your time too, as they unlock some of the best extra content a game has ever had. Acquiring a certain number of medallions unlocks a new item in the "extras" menu, and while some of them are very simple little minigames like the "whack-a-mole" spin-off, there's a number of shockingly deep items that could be considered full-fledged games in their own right. There's a lively little pinball game, a series of RPG-styled turn-based battles, and even a five-level top-down scrolling shooter! While none of these games are five-hour experiences, the fact that HAL went out of its way to create such engaging sub-games is remarkable. There's enough extra content to keep players invested far beyond the main game.  Kirby Mass Attack is one of those games that seem just so incredibly happy to be here. It revels in itself without becoming self-indulgent, presenting a cute and colorful, gorgeously designed world that manages to be lovable with just enough of a dark edge to stop things growing too saccharine. In other words, it's a Kirby game, through and through, and it couldn't be more amusing.  With five worlds that contain a sizable variety of levels apiece, plenty of reason to replay old stages, and the most stunning array of extra minigames I've seen in a long time, Kirby Mass Attack is a surprisingly deep, rich and versatile bundle of fun. Mix in that classic Kirby charm and you also have one of the finest adventures to ever grace a DS. Cleverly designed, overwhelmingly cute, and devoted to fun, Kirby Mass Attack is a game that should become part of your handheld library without question.

Kirby's Epic Yarn was a triumph, but there's no denying that Kirby's true home is on a handheld platform. It's where he debuted and it's where he's had his biggest adventures. Kirby Mass Attack brings Kirby home, both in term...

Review: The Ico & Shadow of the Colossus Collection

Sep 08 // Dale North
The Ico & Shadow of the Colossus Collection (PlayStation 3)Developer: Team ICO Publisher: Sony Computer EntertainmentTo be released: September 27, 2011MSRP: $39.99  Ico Here's the CliffsNotes version of Ico's story for those who have somehow missed this game: Ico's opening shows a young boy with horns being dragged off to a massive stone temple. He is placed inside a large stone container and put on an even larger stone shelf containing many more of these containers. The boy was to be the next sacrifice. Some kind of natural tremor happens just after his imprisonment and this allows him to escape. While working to make his way out of the temple, he encounters a mysterious girl held captive in some kind of bird cage, held up and away from scary shadow people who seem to want to drag her underground.  After freeing her, the boy finds out that they will have to work together to make it out of the temple.  Ico's gameplay is platforming, but the twist is that this boy has to drag along his companion, Yorda. Literally. You'll hold down the L1 button to hold her hand and guide her away from danger, onto platforms, over ledges and more. She really sucks at all of that, but at least she holds some mysterious power that lets her open temple doors for Ico. Together their powers make for excellent puzzle platforming. There's also a bit of scaredy-cat combat, with Ico swinging a little stick at Yorda's creepy pursuers. Your stick doesn't do much, so the swinging is frantic and sad. Still, you'll find yourself doing what you can so that she isn't dragged under.  Puzzle-platforming, dragging a girl around and wimpy stick combat together sounds tedious, but it works really well, and we have Team Ico's beautifully paced and designed levels to thank for that. Fantastic artwork, eerie audio and innovative storytelling all add to this combination to make this an unforgettable experience. It's a game that you'll be happy to get lost in. It's one of those rare games that takes you away to another place, one that's hard to forget after completion. Sure, you could nitpick on edge/ledge detection or the syrupy-slow camera movement, but I promise you that once you complete this hauntingly beautiful title, you won't be hung up on minor details like that.  Everything I've said so far applies to both the original and the PS3 remake, so if you've somehow missed this game, I'm hoping my high praise will get you to pick it up. Well, either that or its technical upgrades. Ico is even better now with its graphical overhaul. It won't blow your eyes out with color and shininess, though. Ico was always a visually muted game, and the remake does not change that. The lighting seems to have been tweaked; it's so pretty now, though not always perfect. The higher-resolution textures make the game's design and architecture even easier to appreciate. It's so true to the original that those who have played Ico won't think much about it after it gets going. They did just enough with this overhaul to make sure that anyone who wouldn't be able to get over early PS2-era graphics would have nothing to complain about here. Seriously, there's nothing to complain about. Shadow of the Colossus If you thought the opening to Ico was depressing and heavy, get a load of this: A desperate guy travels to a strange land on the back of his trusty horse. His only other companion is his dead girlfriend. Their journey ends at a sort of temple (Team Ico loves temples), and there he places this girl on an altar, begging for her life to be restored. A huge voice from the sky actually responds, telling him that he has to visit every corner of this realm to slay 16 colossi in order for his wish to be granted. Sure, no prob.  Shadow's gameplay is a mix of open-world exploration/platforming and massive, drawn-out, insanely-scaled boss battles. Our hero has to travel rugged, varied land by horse, guided only by a legendary sword that focuses sunlight as a sort of compass. About 25 percent of the fun is looking for the big bastards, and the other 75 is taking them down. Beasts of every type await you, and all of them are so huge that you'll have to scale them, working up them like you would a tower in a 3D platformer. You'll ride on the backs of massive flying creatures, hang from the fur of stories-tall upright bipedal walkers, and roll and duck from mountain-sized rammers. Each one is an absolute wonder, so much so that if you're anything like me you'll die many times just marveling at them.  The magic in Shadow is the scale, and how it shows just how weak you are in comparison. Scaling these beasts takes so long that you could look at each of the colossi as a game level. After scaling them, if you manage to survive and hang on, all sense of accomplishment fades as you peck away at the colossus's life bar with your little weapons. Each beast has a weak spot, and you'll have to use every trick in the book to find them and attack them with your comparatively small and weak sword or arrows. Only after successfully scaling a beast, managing your limited grip strength, and getting in enough hits to take its life will it fall. Trip up and you'll start all over. Trust me on this: you'll start over many, many times. Some of those times you may curse the game's wonky camera or Agro's (the horse) reluctance to let you mount, but most of the time it will be your fault. You won't care about any of this when you see just how beautifully this game's story unfolds. The original game had a few issues in the graphics department. Maybe Team Ico dreamed too big for the PS2, as I remember the game's frame rate coming down to a stutter in some really intense sections. Pop-in and other graphical glitches were blemishes on this otherwise beautiful game. I'm glad to say that all of these issues disappear in the PS3 version. And unlike Ico's upgrade, which was more subtle, Shadow's really shows off all the fine art and detail we missed in the original. This looks pretty close to a modern-day PS3 release. Everything from wall textures to backdrops looks so much better that I found myself a bit distracted during the heat of battle. I really shouldn't be dying this much, considering how many times I've played this game! Summary Everyone wins with this collection. I don't know of a fan of Team Ico's games who wouldn't kill to play them again in high definition at 1080p, not to mention with added Trophy support and a 3D option. If you're like me, and have played each of these games a few times, you'll probably forget that you're playing a PS2 game most of the time. Both games really look so good that they feel new. I'm sure that current fans of these games needed no convincing, so I'll stop here. Oh, but you've got to see the colossi in 3D! Borrow a 3D television if you must. Those who have somehow missed either or both of these titles have the perfect excuse to jump in now. The price is right at $40 for the two. You can see what all the buzz is about without having to deal with those blurry old PS2 textures and frame rates, or hiked collector's asking prices for the originals. You shouldn't notice that these are old games aside from a few small glitches. My guess is that new players will be sucked in, joining current fans in adding both of these titles to their all-time favorites list.  To the new player: I've slapped a lot of scores on a lot of games in my games-writing career, but I'm asking you to forget about scores for now. Both of these games remain at the top of my list of games to recommend, even today. I really can't think of any other games that I'd recommend more. The originals are both so lovingly crafted and inspiring that I think gamers 50 years from now will still be talking about them. No, they're not perfect, but they're both fine examples of brilliant game design, and they both put forth an experience you won't soon forget. Please, play these games.

Two of the finest PlayStation 2 titles I know of were created by the same team. Both Shadow of the Colossus and Ico were crafted by the creative minds at Team Ico, a group that is slow to release games, but makes masterpieces...

Review: Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Aug 22 // Jim Sterling
Deus Ex: Human Revolution (PC [reviewed], PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [reviewed])Developer: Eidos MontrealPublisher: Square EnixTo be released: August 23, 2011MSRP: $59.99 (PS3, 360) / $49.99 (PC) Deus Ex: Human Revolution tells the story of Adam Jensen, head of security at Sarif Industries, an American corporation making huge strides in augmentation technology. However, not all of humanity is appreciative of Sarif's dabbling in human progress, and after a group of mercenaries attacks the company headquarters, Jensen is mortally wounded. He doesn't quite die, however, becoming both the beneficiary and victim of his own company's latest step forward in human modification. He returns to the world of the living better than he ever was, but that doesn't mean he has to be happy about it. After all, he never asked for this. Thus the scene is set for a game that travels around the world, weaving social commentary and philosophy on the nature of transhumanism throughout a tale that touches on corporate espionage, global conspiracy, and well-intentioned extremism. As well as living up to the sacred legacy kickstarted by the original Deus Ex, Human Revolution's narrative takes the very best of Metal Gear Solid, merrily pinches elements from Blade Runner, and adds its own unique blend of fascinating characters and satisfying plot twists. It is, in short, one of the most intriguingly written, thematically ambitious games I have ever played. In no small part does Human Revolution owe its narrative success to an absorbing atmosphere. This crapsack world, driven by stunning advances in technology but stifled by class conflict and growing social resentment, is an absolute joy to navigate despite being so utterly depressing. From the tightly designed action stages to the overwhelming hub maps, there's a consistency to the game's world that one only rarely sees, and everything from interactive newspapers, hacked emails and conversations between non-player characters creates a compelling ambiance for a world that is hard to want to leave. It's most certainly a world nobody in their right mind would ever want to live in, but it's an intoxicating place to visit. Human Revolution is mindful of the huge weight that the Deus Ex name carries, and I am thrilled to report that it lives up to the daunting demands that such a pedigree entails. As with the original classic, this is a game designed to let you play it your way, with a variety of upgradable augmentations to create an Adam Jensen that suits your personal idiom. Whether you want to be stealthy or aggressive, lethal or merciful, you have the tools to do the job. The game breaks itself into four very distinct play styles, all designed to bleed into each other and provide players with a variety of options and backup plans. The styles are combat, hacking, stealth, and social, with each one deserving of its own review. Combat is a unique blend of first-person and third-person gameplay, where forward-thinking and pragmatic actions are rewarded. While there is a run-and-gun option in the first-person perspective, such activity would be suicide. Even when one fully upgrades their ability to absorb damage, Jensen is far from immortal and will drop in seconds when exposed to gunfire. With a right-click (or shoulder button press), however, Jensen will stick to a wall and the camera will shift to a third-person perspective. This is not only crucial for stealthy play, it also gives a great vantage point in what can become a very intense cover-based shooter. Success in combat isn't just determined by picking a bit of cover and opening fire, however -- the enemy A.I. is some of the most aggressive and adaptive I've seen, with opponents more than happy to flank, initiate pincer attackers, and even retreat to their own cover when needed. Success in combat is determined by careful planning. Securing an exit should things go wrong, choosing (and changing) advantageous positions, and identifying which target to fire upon first, as well as which weapons to use, are crucial. This is not a game that just lets you open fire and trust in your reflexes; this is a game in which strategy is just as important as skill. Adam Jensen may be an augmented human, but he is still a human, and the game never lets you forget it. Stealth is simply superb, and players who wish to remain subtle will find that the game is perfectly tailored to their secret-agent fantasies. The third-person viewpoint in cover gives players an excellent view of the surrounding area and allows them to memorize enemy movement patterns without becoming exposed. Even with this benefit, however, stealth is no cakewalk. Enemies don't just march along patrol routes, oblivious to their surroundings. They love to intermittently walk backwards, or stop at crossroads in corridors to check all available directions. Sometimes players only get a brief window of opportunity in which they can act, and failure can mean a swift death unless there's a good place to hide. This said, the enemy A.I. isn't at a genius level, and can be broken. While opposing soldiers are formidable foes in battle, they can be exploited in ways that sometimes take the sting out of the immersion. For instance, they can very happily stand in front of air vents while you're crouched inside and allow themselves to be shot to death. Sometimes they'll stand back and fire into the vent, or toss grenades in there, but other times they'll be sitting ducks. For the most part, stealth and combat can be tense, but there are those moments where the game can be twisted in unscrupulous ways. Whether players choose to be stealthy or violent, they will find that the "Takedown" ability is a lifesaver. When Adam gets close to an enemy, he can instantly neutralize him with a single keystroke. The camera will switch to third-person and Jensen will take down an opponent with a beautiful, empowering combat animation. Simply pressing the "Q" key will see Adam knock an enemy unconscious, whereas keeping it held will cause him to extend some vicious blades from his arm and put the poor victim away permanently. Do not think that this skill is a game-breaker, however. Adam can only perform takedowns if he has at least one full energy bar, and only the first bar ever recharges automatically (others need to be refilled by consumable items). Furthermore, takedowns always make noise (with lethal ones being louder) and will alert nearby enemies. Unless Adam can drag the body to a hiding place and make a daring escape, alarm bells will ring pretty quickly. Hacking is by far one of the most essential elements of the game, and it's highly recommended that hack augmentations are equipped early. Not only does hacking net significant amounts of XP (used to obtain "Praxis" kits, which buy new augmentations) and cash, it also unlocks doors to vital equipment and plot-sensitive areas, rewards players with heaps of cool information and Easter eggs, and eliminates various security measures such as lasers, alarms, cameras and turrets. The hacking system is a surprisingly enjoyable minigame in which you capture various nodes on a map, with the goal being to reach a green sphere that cracks the network. Along the way, there are special nodes that bestow extra benefits such as XP and cash bonuses, or make the network easier to complete. However, each node captured has a chance to alert the network, which will begin a countdown that ends with the hacker getting booted. Hackers can also fortify nodes to slow down network traces, and use collectible software to bolster their efforts -- notably the "Stop" worm that temporarily halts network tracing and the "Nuke" virus that instantly captures a node without the threat of detection. Despite the initial sense of intimidation that the hacking system can radiate, it's a deceptively simple game that rewards forward thinking, careful planning, and useful augmentations. The only downside to the hacking is that various cool skills, such as the ability to control enemy turrets and robots, aren't all that useful. Their applicable uses in the game are minimal due to the limited number of computers that actually control such items, and the sheer effort it takes to reach them (chances are good that if you got to a security computer that controls robots, you've either already neutralized the enemies that the robot could have attacked, or have no need to re-enter the area it patrols). One can safely save their Praxis kits and ignore the turret/robot augments, but other hacking upgrades are damn near vital. Finally, we have the social gameplay. This aspect is presented as a variety of "Social Boss Battles" in which Jensen must verbally outwit an opponent in a debate. This represents one of the game's most accomplished innovations, and also its biggest missed opportunity. In short, these conversational fights are incredibly well done, with the player needing to anticipate which responses will work best against characters, using whatever they've learned about their personalities and how they react to Jensen's words. While the facial animations aren't quite on par with L.A. Noire, there's still a lot to be gleaned from seeing how a character's expression changes throughout a conversation, and how stressed or angry they become with provocative statements. Each of these sequences is engaging and unique, just as accomplished as anything found in RPGs like Mass Effect. Unfortunately, these moments are also quite easy. The game's one social augmentation, which allows players to better read opponents and release pheromones to influence their reactions, is simply not needed. I was able to win every social boss battle in the game without using the ability; it's not difficult at all to see which responses will work against the strongly designed personalities Jensen encounters. In fact, while replaying the game's first debate, I tried to fail and still ended up succeeding. Furthermore, these boss fights are simply too rare. While I appreciate that Eidos Montreal probably didn't want to bog the game down with too much conversation, I felt they really could have added a few more of these sequences and lost nothing. As previously stated, all of these gameplay types are enhanced with a variety of augmentations. Over the course of the game, it's possible to obtain almost all of them, although the order in which they are claimed is entirely up to the player, and they vary in usefulness from essential to practically pointless. With well-chosen augments, Jensen will be able to sprint longer, take extra damage, hack more efficiently, jump from tall buildings without dying, and punch through walls. There are some really cool powers, but there are duff ones as well. The Typhoon, for example, sends out a 360-degree shockwave that kills anything caught in its radius. However, due to it being suicidal to get surrounded by enemies, the practical application of such an ability is negligible at best. You'd have to go out of your way to set up a situation where it'd be needed, and there's always a better strategy on offer. Same goes for the ability to perform takedowns on two enemies at once. While it sounds great in theory -- and I should note, the animations are awesome -- it's very rare to have two enemies close enough together for it to work, and even rarer for such a takedown to be a sensible tactic. I would rather have had several of these worthless augmentations nixed in order for deeper enhancements to others. The cloaking system, the ability to see through walls, and the social abilities could have had a lot more done with them, and Eidos could have come up with additional practical uses for the more alluring powers. As it stands, the game very clearly favors players with certain abilities -- chiefly, hacking skills, high jumps, extra lifting strength and the power to fall from great heights. With these skills unlocked as soon as possible, there is nowhere that Adam cannot explore, whereas specializing in other augmentations early on will cause the player to miss out on several worthwhile areas. One cannot be too upset by this, however, considering the excellent uses of the truly worthwhile powers. As explained earlier, it should never be forgotten that Jensen is a human, one who can die very easily when handled without care, but players will still feel like a cut above their human inferiors when they can smash through a wall and break the neck of the poor goon standing on the other side. It's just one of those things that never gets old. There's no question about Human Revolution's sheer volume of content. There's lots to see, even more to do, and multiple ways of enjoying both. While one could theoretically blast through Human Revolution in eight or ten hours, there's much, much more to be getting on with. City-based hub areas contain side quests that are as lengthy and intricate as any of the mandatory tasks. I managed to spend a whole five hours simply wandering around the Detroit hub, soaking in the sights, exploring every square inch, listening to enthralling NPC conversations, and beating all the quests. What truly impresses isn't so much the scale of the game, but its staggering consistency of quality. Every quest is a compelling story; every level is beautifully, ingeniously designed; and not once does the game ever become dull or lose its pacing. The only notable issues are small and forgettable -- sometimes an NPC's dialog won't sync with its mouth properly, and on the Xbox 360, earning Achievements causes the game to stutter temporarily. The PC version's biggest issue is that cutscenes are very badly compressed; otherwise it's a gorgeous game with mouse and keyboard controls that feel intuitive and surprisingly well-adapted to stealth-based gameplay. Of course, hacking's also a lot easier when one doesn't use a gamepad. Whether you go for console or PC, however, you will be impressed with the visuals. The art direction, with its heavy focus on shades of gold and contrasting black, makes for a game that looks like none other, and the impressive animations, finely detailed environments, and stylish augmentation effects only seal the deal. This is a beautiful videogame, and that beauty is carried over into the sound. Voice acting is solid (though one or two black characters seem alarmingly close to caricatures), explosions and weapon effects feel heavy and impactful, and the musical score is sublime. If you're looking for a game with production values, then Eidos Montreal has delivered more than you could have bargained for. Deus Ex: Human Revolution, like its augmented hero, is a step above its mundane peers. With its flowing, open approach to mission structure, thoroughly engrossing story and gorgeous visuals, this is the kind of game that all others should strive to be. While there are some elements that don't feel quite as developed as they should have been, and augmentation is more Hobson's choice than true choice, Human Revolution provides a level of quality that only the most adamant cynic could fail to be impressed by. More importantly, it is everything a fan of Deus Ex could want in a game, and it effortlessly embraces the arduous task of living up to the legacy, standing next to its 2000 predecessor and holding its head up in pride. This game is truly deserving of the name Deus Ex. In fact, there's no other name it could have had.

In the year 2027, mankind is about to enter a new era of self-propagated evolution. Technology that blends man and machine has allowed "augmented" humans to run faster, think quicker, grow stronger, and rise above their ...

Review: Ms. Splosion Man

Jul 11 // Nick Chester
Ms. Splosion Man (Xbox Live Arcade)Developer: Twisted Pixel GamesPublisher: Microsoft Game StudiosTo be released: July 13, 2011Price: 800 Microsoft Points ($10)To say that Ms. Splosion Man is simply 'Splosion Man with a bow wouldn't do justice to the actual work Twisted Pixel has done with this follow-up. Even still, much of what I've already said in my 'Splosion Man review in 2009 applies, at least at its most basic level. The game immediately feels like 'Splosion Man; if Twisted Pixel has made any tweaks to physics or speed, it's not evident. The gameplay remains the same, and fans of the original will find there aren't any real new tricks to learn. The game is still all about exploding to reach new heights, avoiding environmental hazards, and crossing the finish line without pulling your hair out over the game's tricky combustion-based platforming. But that's not to say that Twisted Pixel hasn't taken every measure to make Ms. Splosion Man feel wholly novel within that fundamental gameplay framework. You're not a few 'splosions in before the developer is revealing its new cards, and they're all about the game's environments. Ms. Splosion Man can play on and interact with everything from rails to Donkey Kong Country barrel-inspired cannons, and more. The result is that the game's 50-plus stages are more interesting and more varied, as Twisted Pixel is able to play with the world and level design in all sorts of clever (and sometimes devious) ways.   [embed]205816:39856[/embed] True to life, Ms. Splosion Man has a tougher time in the workplace than her male counterpart. By mixing and matching tools both new and old, Twisted Pixel has managed to design levels that are even tougher than those found in the original. Ms. Splosion Man requires precision and killer reflexes to a far greater degree than its predecessor. With all of the "just made it" moments scattered throughout the game, Ms. Splosion Man is an easy candidate for "Most Toes Curled" and "Most Butt Cheeks Clenched" awards in 2011. Some areas can become frustrating as you die repeatedly at the hands of Twisted Pixel's sadistic level designers, but nothing truly feels "toss the controller at your pet" impossible. With every failure, I knew it was of my own doing, and I was constantly pushing myself to try again and again until I got it right. New to Ms. Splosion Man is a Super Mario Bros. 3-inspired world map, versus the last game's vanilla level-select screen. (Boxes with level names on them are so 2009, really.) It's not only an aesthetic improvement, but a functional one as well. The new map design allowed Twisted Pixel to add "tougher" levels (marked in red, with a scary skull face!) on non-critical paths for players looking for an extra challenge. Some levels even have alternate exits that lead to hidden levels, including a cute reference to Super Mario World's "Star Road." While the most resolute players could probably clear all of the worlds in one or two sittings, I wouldn't recommend it. As I mentioned earlier, the game can become irritatingly difficult at times, and you'll likely want to step back and take a breather before tackling some of the challenges. Even still, if you were to make it to the final boss encounter (and find all of the hidden shoes and levels) in one sitting, there are more than a few reasons to keep playing. Multiplayer is back, with up to four Ms. Splosion Men (both online and off, in any combination) blasting through a fresh set of levels. As it was with the first game, these levels are often tougher than the single-player levels, chiefly because many spots require stellar communication between players. And you know how that goes, especially online. There's also an unlockable "Two Girls, One Controller" mode that has one player controlling two Ms. Splosion Men on one controller. Or you can cuddle up with another player and play on one controller. Either way, it's probably one of the most batshit crazy ways to play a videogame outside of just waving your hands at a camera or something. Ms. Splosion Man also keeps track of scores (based on a number of variables) and level completion time, and posts them to online leaderboards. I found myself headed back into levels I had previously conquered simply to best the five people who were playing the game last week for review. As extra incentive to become the best Ms. Splosion Man you can be, Twisted Pixel has also included "ghost" data, allowing you to not only race against your own previous runs, but the runs of the world's top performers. Twisted Pixel's offbeat sense of humor is featured prominently in Ms. Splosion Man, although there appear to be more pop-culture references and inside jokes than in any of its previous games. While this isn't a bad thing by any means, it also means that the humor may not be universal. For example, I find Twisted Pixel's obsession with '90s-era Arnold Schwarzenegger films hilarious, but it might not click with some who aren't familiar with those movies. Still, it's nice to see that while Twisted Pixel obviously takes its game design seriously, it's more than willing to have a little fun (sometimes at its own expense) to get a laugh. Ms. Splosion Man, in every respect, is a step up from Twisted Pixel's first foray into the Jumpsplode genre.* It's more of an evolution than a revolution, though: if you didn't like what the developer had to offer with 'Splosion Man, you're free to take a pass. (Also, consider taking up wasp nest collecting instead of playing videogames.) If you enjoyed the developer's first incendiary platformer, you've got no excuse not to go pink for Ms. Splosion Man. * Later perfected by Capcom's MaXplosion, of course. Debug: 2

Twisted Pixel's Ms. Splosion Man is like 'Splosion Man, but with more pink -- and the lead character wears a bow in her hair. Wait, she doesn't have hair... how does that bow stay in? Why doesn't it just burn up? This game makes no sense. Score: 2 out of 10 -- Lacks realism; too pink; every button does, like, basically the same thingJust kidding. The game's pretty awesome. No duh, right?

Review: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D

Jun 17 // Jim Sterling
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D (3DS)Developer: Nintendo, GrezzoPublisher: NintendoReleased: June 19, 2011MSRP: $39.99 It's difficult to review The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D simply as a game, because it's a game most of you have likely played many times since 1998. At its core, this is the same Ocarina of Time that you remember from the Nintendo 64 era, with all its charm, and all its 1998-era design.  Focusing simply on the game's enhancements, it has to be said that the graphics alone make this the definitive version of Ocarina of Time. Characters are so much more detailed, with far superior animation, and the notorious "Vaseline" effect applied to background scenery is nowhere to be found. Many of the buildings have been given extensive redesigns, bringing Hyrule to life with greater intricacy and more color. I won't go as far as to call the game beautiful, but it's undeniably prettier in its new clothes. Ocarina 3D provides a far richer visual experience, yet remains so true to the original vision of the game that you might be tricked into thinking the graphics aren't improved very much. It's only when you directly compare character models and scenery between the 3DS and N64 that you really get a sense of how much better Ocarina 3D looks. It's a testament to how authentic the graphical overhaul is that it can be so dramatic and yet feel so subtle.  Sadly, the sound did not get similar treatment. It's by no means a poor audio experience, but it has not been enhanced from the N64 version. It's a good job that music is still absolutely stellar. [embed]203972:39501[/embed] As the name implies, Ocarina of Time is presented with the same 3D visuals you've come to know and sometimes love on the 3DS. While it doesn't exactly add anything to the gameplay, the title certainly looks better with the 3D enhancement. Colors are a little deeper with the 3D slider turned up, and the game appears ever so slightly washed out when you turn the effect down. It doesn't look hideous, by any means, but it is noticeably less pleasant without the 3D coating.  Thanks to the touchscreen, Ocarina's controls are much more efficient and useful, unless you're the type who doesn't like to get thumbprints on the screen. If you're a stylus-only 3DS player, you'll find the lower screen's inventory more fiddly to navigate. If you don't mind using your thumb, then equipping items and whipping out your ocarina is quick and easy.  Gyroscope controls are also included for use with ranged items such as the slingshot or bow. Unfortunately, the 3DS' contradictory design is such that the motion control won't work with the 3D visuals, unless you rotate your head along with the screen at a perfect angle. Failure to do so results in you getting an eyeful of painful screen blur. Fortunately, the 3D slider is conveniently located, and you can always just stick to traditional controls.  As far as the actual button input goes, Ocarina 3D feels surprisingly at home on the 3DS. The only issue is with the targeting system, which requires a press of the left shoulder button. It's feels pretty awkward to keep your finger placed there while trying to move and attack at once, but it's certainly no deal breaker.  For the most part, Ocarina of Time 3D is a joy to play, but there are a handful of niggles. Being a relatively faithful port, a number of annoyances from the 1998 original have carried over to the main game, such as the busybody owl who forces you into conversations. He still tricks you into letting him repeat his dialog by placing your cursor to "Yes" when he asks if you want him to explain things again. Stupid owl bastard. Some of the contextual commands, such as picking up Cuccos, are pretty dodgy, with Link struggling to get a hold on a running chicken because the right command won't appear properly. It's also worth noting that, while it was groundbreaking at the time, the famous Z-targeting system doesn't always work right, and Link will sometimes not focus on an enemy despite the screen's targeting reticule telling you he has. Oh, and Navi ... she's as excruciatingly infuriating as she ever was. So that's good to know. These issues, which still occasionally annoying, do as much to demean the experience today as they did over a decade ago. By that, I mean they do very little indeed. Ocarina of Time still holds up as one of the truly inspiring adventures in the medium of videogames. It's an absorbing, evocative world, and now it's one that can be taken anywhere. To cement this version's place as the ultimate package, Ocarina of Time 3D also includes the mirrored Master Quest version of the game and a Boss Rush mode. These extras are unlocked after completing the original version, and will surely add a little more longevity to game that already provides enough entertainment for the asking price. Ocarina of Time 3D is a game that makes you appreciate how far the medium has come. Ten years ago, the idea of running something like Ocarina on a handheld system would be inconceivable. Now, not only do we get it, but we get an improved version with superior graphics. That's the sort of thing that fascinates me, and makes me very happy to be a gamer in the here and now.  In many ways, this is one of the most pointless reviews I've ever written, as you already know if you're getting Ocarina of Time 3D. More than any other game, I feel the decision to purchase or not was made by gamers the moment it was announced. However, if for some reason you are on the fence, let me tell you that Ocarina of Time 3D is the ultimate version of one of the most endearing videogames you could ever hope to play.  Nothing more needs to be said. 

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is a powerful game. It's a game that, once it sinks its claws into a gamer, never lets go. Equal parts innocent and morbid, charming and disturbing, silly and melancholic, Ocarina of Time ...

Review: DiRT 3

May 25 // Dale North
DiRT 3 (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [both reviewed], PC)Developer: CodemastersPublisher: THQReleased: May 24, 2011MSRP: $59.99 The folks at Codemasters make racing games that are on par with the top franchises out there, like Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport. The difference is that they focus their games on one aspect of racing, rather than try to be the end-all racing title. DiRT 3 focuses on the racing experiences that are off the beaten path. That means rally racing, rallycross, trailblazing and everything else that makes your car dusty and crusted with mud. This is a dirty game. DiRT 3 isn't the type of game where you can hold down the "go button" and expect to win a race. Well, I take that back. If you put the game on the Casual setting, you will likely win every race. It's really hard to make a mistake with the heavy corrective steering and brake settings. It's also hard to enjoy when you're winning all the time, which makes me wonder why they made this the default setting. The Intermediate mode takes most of the helps off, forcing you to quickly get a feel for the precise control. Expert takes all assists off, naturally. Of course, you'll have access to the game's rewind feature, which lets you hit a button to pause time, rewind to a point before a crash or wipeout, and try again. I vowed not to use it when I first started the game, but was dialing it up often five or six hours into the career mode. DiRT 3's controls are excellent. They're tight, responsive and realistic, with no issues to mention. The driving control is so finely tuned that there's really no room to complain when you wipe out and roll your car -- that's all you. This comes as no surprise: Codemasters is among the best in the business when it comes to finely tuned and polished racers.  Career mode is the heart of DiRT 3. It's a guided path through all aspects of rally racing, gradually building from simple on-asphalt races through event types like rallycross, trailblazer and landrush. You'll eventually get a taste of stunt arena mode Gymkhana. You'll race to earn points to unlock the next event or series, with bonus Rep points coming from side challenges, like hitting a top speed, or performing a long drift. These Rep points will unlock more cars and game options.  I like how you acquire cars in this game. It just ... happens. You win, proceed, and get cars. With the way the game's career mode is structured you're never really bothered with trying to gather money, visit garages or tweak anything other than preferences. This makes the driving focused, letting you worry more about your skills and less about some bank account balance.  Codemasters went nuts with the vehicle types and makes in this game. The team dug deep for general rally racing vehicles, going several decades back to offer up old classics along with your shiny, modern rally cars. It's fun to take one of the older cars for a spin in the dirt and see just how different it handles from a fancy new Subaru or Mitsubishi. Add in trucks, trailblazer cars and the buggy cars (very fun!), and you've got a ton of variety to try out on the various types of tracks and events. DiRT 3 is beautiful. The game has a shine and polish that puts it above even Forza Motorsport 3 and Gran Turismo 5 in the visuals department. The licensed and branded cars are lovely and detailed, but the locales are what will really dazzle you. You'll feel like you're seeing the world as you travel in this game's career mode, from sunny desert Kenya to the hazy Great Lakes area in Michigan. Cool down in the snow of Aspen, and then get out and away to Finland and Norway. These locales all have a high level of detail and variety that have to be explored to be appreciated -- I actually caught myself slowing down to look! You'll see old barns and cracks in the streets in Michigan, or the hills in the distance in Monaco. Some of the best-looking locations have time-based variants, like the sunsets in Kenya, or racing in Aspen at night in the snow. Again: Prettiest racing game ever. The beauty continues into the game's menus and presentation. The look is clean and flashy, with bold lettering for the text and a bevy of triangles for all the event items and interface. You'll simply cursor through pyramids of triangles to pick events and challenges in the foreground as your cars zip by in the background against a gold, sun-kissed backdrop. It's all very sleek and cool, and a world away from the clunky presentation of its predecessor. The sound and music of DiRT 3 are also of note. The sound design is among the best I've ever heard in a racer. Playing with a full Dolby Digital 5.1 rig is a treat, as the sound work puts you right in the car. When playing with one of the in-car views, the surround speakers are working overtime, tickling your ears with rear rumbles and crunches as you drive over different surfaces. Your subwoofer will get a workout from all the wooshes and thuds of the interface and presentation sounds, all of which are really satisfying to hear. The music selection is great, with chill tracks playing during menus and high-energy songs amping you up before races. The races themselves are without music, which is exactly how it should be. There's only one hangup with the sound and presentation: the announcers. They're helpful at setting the stage at first, but they provide a bit too much in the way of hand holding, and quickly become annoying. General information, event types and later sponsor and team information are described at length, and there's no way to skip these sections. It feels like rambling after awhile, and that's made all the more painful with the stereotypical over-enthusiastic racing game voice. The post-race pep talks/insults and prompts quickly become just as annoying. I've never been called "buddy" or "amigo" so many times. Also, the announcer's constant promotion of the game's YouTube race upload function becomes aggravating very quickly. The tracks in DiRT 3 aren't just pretty to look at. These are tracks so lovingly crafted that they force you to become intimate with the throttle. They work at such a deep level to get you in the zone that you become connected with the road and fully immersed in the race. These tracks are at the heart of what makes DiRT 3 such a joy to play. It's apparent that Codemasters worked hard to make courses that really compliment the different race types and vehicles, and the way that they're all gradually uncovered in career mode makes for long gaming stretches that seem fresh for hours. From dirt to mud to snow and asphalt, and then in different kinds of cars, you'll constantly be treated with new challenges. Codemasters says that there are over 100 routes in DiRT 3. Gymkhana is the newest addition to the DiRT world. It's not so much racing as it is stunts, all set in an arena designed specifically for showing off. The Gymkhana events are a bit of a departure from the rest of the game's rally focus, but it works, and the challenges are a lot of fun. You're set free to drift, do donuts, make jumps and crash through obstacles in these arenas, doing as much fancy stuff as you can within the allotted time. The game's career mode does a good job of teaching you how to do these tricks before your first event, though some take more practice than others. Once you master them, showing off for the virtual crowd for points is a trip. It's even more fun online, in an arena with several others.  Online is fully supported in DiRT 3, with multiplayer race events being the main draw. I enjoyed several quick matches online, all of which were fast to connect and flawless in execution. The host has the ability to set up a chain of several different kinds of events. My last session had our group racing for time, then moving into rallycross, and finally drifting it out in a Gymkhana session. This wealth of options and game types is nice for racing fans that aren't into simply topping race times from leaderboards. As of the time of writing, Sony's PlayStation Network was down for maintenance. DiRT 3's online functionality for the PS3 version is locked behind a VIP Pass code included with each copy of the game. Being unable to access the PlayStation Network to enter this code means that PS3 owners are currently not able to use any of the game's online features or YouTube functionality. Maybe the current situation will discourage some publishers from senselessly locking part of a game's feature set behind a code in the future. My only other beef: load times. They're long. They're not so long that you break controllers, but they're long enough to have your enthusiasm dip a bit between races. There's always pretty visuals and cool music to enjoy during the wait, but even they get old after awhile. I wonder what the install process was for. It certainly doesn't seem to be helping the load times. DiRT 3 is the clear-cut leader when it comes to off-road racing. Simply put, there's no game that does rally racing better. Codemasters has perfected the look and feel of this series, and is well on the way to perfecting the presentation. The addition of Gymkhana events is both bold and welcome, and makes for a nice break from the white-knuckle races. This game is freaking massive, with a steadily increasing difficulty that will leave you feeling like a bonafied rally racer when it's all said and done. That's all I've ever really wanted out of a racing game. 

I love racing games, but my favorite kind are the ones that take you off the road and into the elements. Rally racing has always been my preference. Actually (cue harps and clouds), my money-no-object dream is to actually ral...

Review: Portal 2

May 21 // Jim Sterling
Portal 2 (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC [reviewed])Developer: ValvePublisher: Valve / Electronic ArtsReleased: April 19, 2011MSRP: $59.99 (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360) / $49.99 (PC) The success of Portal has been a staggering achievement, to say the least. Starting life as a free independent game by a group of technology students, it became an underdog release in Valve's The Orange Box, yet grew to become one of the most critically-acclaimed, quoted, and beloved games of the generation.  Portal 2 is the culmination of Portal's success, proof that its original concept and meme-spawning jocosity can stand on its own two feet. It helps that the game just so happens to be one of the most fantastic experiences ever presented as a piece of software.  Aperture Science is in ruins following the events of Portal, but protagonist Chell is still trapped within its confines. That is, until she is discovered by Wheatley, a neurotic personality core responsible for the welfare of Aperture's human test subjects. He takes it upon himself to help Chell escape, but not before the demented GLaDOS reawakens and decides to exact revenge. You know ... after you murdered her? If the writing in Portal was great, then the dialog and characterization in Portal 2 is unparalleled. Not only is Portal 2 perhaps the funniest game on the market, it's also home to some of the best character development I've ever seen in interactive entertainment. The way in which both Wheatley and GLaDOS grow during the course of the game is sublime, and the gradually unraveled history of Aperture Science makes for a compelling sub-story that's perfectly presented.  Whereas Portal was much more of a straight puzzle game, the structure of Portal 2 makes it feel more like an adventure game wearing the clothes of a puzzler. It's littered with truly epic moments and thrilling chase sequences, enhanced by a deft use of incidental music that evokes some of Half-Life 2's most exciting moments. In many ways, Portal 2 is to Portal what Half-Life 2 was to Half-Life. Everything's bigger, there's so much more going on, and by the time you reach its majestic conclusion (and Portal 2 does end majestically), you'd have to be a sociopath to not feel completely satisfied.  When it comes to gameplay, Portal 2 isn't so far removed from the original game, but it does add a lot more features. Yet again, the central focus is on solving puzzles using a gun that shoots two linked portals. Many of the challenges don't feel quite so unique this time around -- thanks in part to the fact that the central gimmick is no longer new -- but this is made up for by the various ways in which puzzles take place outside of test chambers and during the aforementioned chase scenes, which certainly makes them more lively, if not quite so innovative.  That is not to say that Portal 2 is without its own fresh ideas. The biggest addition to the game is the use of various paint-like gels that play around with the physics of the game. The blue repulsion gel turns any surface into a glorified trampoline, with players able to jump to new heights, or cross large distances by bouncing off walls. The orange propulsion gel speeds up players who run along it, allowing them to build up significant momentum. Finally, there's the white conversion gel, which turns any surface it touches into something that can host a portal.  There are some incredibly clever ideas using these gels, and bouncing or sliding around the levels can be quite amusing. Still, I can't say I enjoyed the predominantly gel-based puzzles as much as the more "traditional" ones. Gel puzzles aren't bad by any stretch of the imagination, but once the levels focusing primarily on them were completed, I was glad to get back to more standard levels. The gels work far better in stages where they complement a puzzle, rather than act as the central theme of one.  The more straightforward tests give you some extra toys to play with, too. Thermal discouragement cubes bend laser beams, allowing for some very complex puzzles. Aerial faith plates act like catapults, forcing the player across huge distances. Gravity beams trap objects and players and transport them slowly through the air, which leads to some of the most inventive puzzles in the game. My favorite new gimmick is the hard light bridge, however. These can cross gaps and act as shields, and there are some really clever ways in which they're implemented.  My only gripe is the they're never used quite enough for my liking. The light bridge puzzles feel particularly brief, despite how brilliant they are. Perhaps their restricted use stops them from feeling as tired as the gel puzzles, but I still would have liked to see what more could be done with them.  The main campaign takes between six and eight hours to beat, and from beginning to end, it's a thoroughly endearing experience that burrows inside one's head and refuses to leave. Beyond the witty dialog and the ingenious puzzles, Portal 2 is simply an engrossing overall experience. It presents a world that's beyond fascinating, a world that offers just enough information to make you feel compelled and curious, but never enough that you feel you've seen it all. Aperture Science is, itself, an evolving character that you grow to love for its quirkiness and humor, yet despise for its sordid history and miserable end. So too, do we learn to adore GLaDOS in spite of reeling in horror over what she really is and the things she's done. As for Wheatley ... well, you have to just adore Wheatley.  The single-player experience would have been enough for me, but the addition of co-op presents a series of levels perhaps more brilliant than anything that's been done before. Not only does it feature its own surprisingly dark narrative and two ridiculously charming new protagonists in Atlas and P-Body, the way in which four portals and two players have been integrated into the existing gameplay truly demonstrates the creative brilliance of the series.  Co-op comes with some provisos -- you're going to want to find a player with a headset, preferably an actual friend as opposed to a random stranger. The best experience is found with two players who have not yet played any of the puzzles, as co-op's biggest strength lies in the mutual discovery of a solution. There's something infinitely more rewarding about solving a Portal puzzle when you've done it with somebody else. That moment when the answer hits you or your partner and you excitedly work together to make theory into practice leads to some of the most awesome moments in gaming.  Valve has done a great job of making sure players can always communicate their feelings in the game. There's an in-game countdown timer, allowing Atlas and P-Body to synchronize their actions, and a pointer so players can clearly mark where in a level they'd like their friend to place a portal. In addition, the two robots can perform various adorable gestures, such as waving, hugging, and dancing. Not only is it cute to watch the little robots interact, the unimpressed commentary from GLaDOS makes it doubly rewarding.  Portal 2 still uses Source, so some players may be displeased by somewhat dated graphics. Personally, I've always felt Source games still hold up thanks to an elegant simplicity that the visuals often bring. No, it's not as advanced as many modern games, but it still looks good enough to not be considered ugly. I find that the art direction -- with the juxtaposition of Aperture's clean, sterile look and the dilapidated, chaotic outside world that surrounds it -- makes up for the simpler aesthetic style.  It's also worth noting that there are quite a few loading screens in the game. They never last too long and they're easily ignored, but their frequency helps to break some of the immersion of the game, which is a shame.  It would be wrong to not mention the outstanding vocal performances put forth. Ellen McClain returns as GLaDOS and outdoes herself as a constant provider of dry, deadpan sarcasm. Stephen Merchant, a long-underrated actor, almost threatens to upstage McClain and effortlessly turns Wheatley into an affable, hilarious character who you can't help but like. It's rare to find one great actor in a videogame, let alone two, but the double act of McClain and Merchant is unrivaled by any other piece of entertainment software.  Except maybe by J.K. Simmons as Cave Johnson ... in Portal 2.  Portal 2 is, without a doubt, one of the best games ever made. It's a game that not only seamlessly blends puzzle and adventure elements together, but makes a name for itself as a true "comedy" game, where witty dialog and laugh-out-loud concepts have been given an equal billing with the gameplay itself. It's funny, it's challenging, it's inventive, and it boasts memorable moments that will stick in your mind and make your hair stand on end every time you think about them.  Gaming simply does not get much better. 

08:57 - Default review scheduled to finish in 71:23:1808:58 - Activating emergency distributed computing grid...09:00 - GLaDOS@home starting...09:01 - Recruiting cpus to force faster review publication...21:26 - Calculations complete for Portal 2. Recalculating a new launch projection...21:29 - Boot sequence complete21:29 - Commence reviewing

Review: L.A. Noire

May 16 // Jim Sterling
L.A. Noire (PlayStation 3 [reviewed], Xbox 360)Developer: Team Bondi / Rockstar GamesPublisher: Rockstar GamesTo be released: May 17, 2011MSRP: $59.99 L.A. Noire is a game that will take many players by surprise. With its arcade driving controls and open world, not to mention the backing of Rockstar, your average gamer could be forgiven for thinking that this 1947 detective game might merely be Grand Theft Auto played from the other side of the law. Nothing could be further from the truth, however. L.A. Noire has more in common with point-and-click adventure games than open-world crime simulators, and it's better in practice than it may look on paper.  This isn't just a game where you drive around shooting drug dealers and chasing fiends in the name of rough justice. While there are plenty of shootouts and car chases to go around, the main spine of the game is in good old-fashioned detective work. Each case from the game's four main desks -- Traffic, Homicide, Vice and Arson -- starts with a crime scene, and as detective Cole Phelps, players will need to investigate for clues.  The collection of clues is an integral part of any case, as players will need to not only harvest them, but know when to bring them out during an interrogation. Some clues require manipulation, which is easily handled by the movement stick. Moving the analog stick causes Phelps' hand to rotate, allowing the player to spot vital information. Some items can also be opened up or unfolded, revealing evidence hidden within. L.A. Noire is good about player feedback, with vibrations and musical cues letting you know when you're near an item, or when all clues have been discovered. If a player feels this is too much like hand-holding, the cues can be turned off to make things more tricky.  L.A. Noire's many cases are split evenly between clue-hunting and interrogating. At various points during the course of the game, players will need to interview witnesses and suspects, and here's where L.A. Noire's utterly astounding facial animations come into play. L.A. Noire relies on a player's own ability to read body language and facial expressions, as they attempt to determine if a witness/suspect is being truthful, telling a lie, or omitting a vital piece of information. Giveaways, such as averting eye contact, false smiles, and awkward scratching, all come into play, and some characters are better liars than others.  I cannot express enough how impressed I am with the facial animation, and how it's been used not only as eye candy, but as an invaluable part of the gameplay itself. It's a joy to interview suspects and watch them talk in such a realistic fashion, using their movements to inform your own decisions. Without the animation, the game simply would not work, but I'm thrilled to report that it works beautifully.  Phelps can deal with a suspect's statements in one of three ways. He can take them as truth, call certain facts into doubt, or accuse them of telling an outright lie. If he makes an accusation, it needs to be backed up with evidence recovered from the locations explored previously. If the player suspects a lie but lacks the proof, a statement can be called into doubt. Naturally, characters aren't always hiding something, and in that case, their words can be taken as fact. Should Cole read a suspect correctly and select the right answer, he may get a new lead. If he fails, he could miss out on vital information.  For the most part, the interviews work to a fabulous degree, but they don't always make sense. Some of the logic seems a little arbitrary, especially when it comes to using contrary evidence against a suspect's statement. One also doesn't always know exactly how Phelps will call a statement into doubt or phrase an accusation, with his more unpredictable statements occasionally ruining a line of inquiry for you. While these moments do occur, and can be rather frustrating, I must stress how satisfying it is when it does work and you successfully interrogate a person. Getting a suspect on the ropes and making him divulge something crucial is particularly elating, and will make any player feel instantly more intelligent. Conversely, in those times when you screw up a question and it's definitely due to your own lack of perception, it can really sting. It can also affect the way a case plays out, too.  It's the fact that L.A. Noire's interrogations rely so heavily on natural intuition that really makes the whole thing work. As humans, we know how to read faces, and that's what L.A. Noire exploits. To be able to have a player think, "Okay, I can tell this guy is lying, but do I have proof?" is what this game is all about, and the fact that it works so well is truly, truly jaw-dropping. There's nothing about the game's internal algorithms that determines your success in this arena. It's all about how good you are, as a human being, at knowing when someone's being straight with you and when they're trying to be sneaky. I can think of no other game that has exploited a player's innate mental faculties so deftly. L.A Noire isn't just about finding clues and asking questions. Action sequences are peppered throughout the game to keep things frisky, and Cole will have to pursue various suspects on foot and in cars, get into brawls, or engage in violent shootouts. There's certainly a greater GTA flavor in these sequences, but they feel a lot tighter, with some impressive scripting and pacing, especially in the game's multitude of car chases. Avoiding screeching cars, having your partner shoot out tires, and stopping just as your suspect's vehicle gets hit by a bus and skids out of control all add up to create some of the game's most memorable moments. The action sequences are held back somewhat by a few dodgy control issues. Sprinting and shooting in cover are both handled by one button, and needing to manually back out of cover to chase somebody is a little fiddly. Phelp's movement controls could also be better; he takes wild swings to turn, and sometimes moves in stutters due to confused animations. These are minor grievances, however, and once players get used to the way Phelps handles, there shouldn't be too much aggravation. Much of the action is found in various "Street Crime" missions. These purely optional missions are activated over the police radio. Activating a Street Crime opens up a brief objective that does away with the investigative process and focuses purely on combat or pursuit. Street Crimes are unique to each of the four Desks, and you'll have to return to a previous Desk to clean up any ones you may have missed.  Successful interrogations and Street Crime completions award experience points, which contribute to Rank increases. Ranks bring special bonuses, such as unlockable vehicles, extra costumes and, most importantly, Intuition Points. Intuition can be used during the course of an investigation and can be invaluable to a player who's stuck in a rut. Using an Intuition Point during a crime scene will locate all clues on the mini-map, while using it during an interview can either remove one of the possible answers (for instance, confirming that a suspect isn't lying) or activate the "Ask The Community" option, which will take the game online to find out which answer is most popular among players.  When added together, the various elements of L.A. Noire combine to form one of the slickest, most impressively written games I've played in a long time. While the game has its low points -- with the Homicide desk surprisingly being the weakest section of the game due to some questionable narrative ideas that I won't spoil here -- L.A. Noire's overall plot is decidedly strong, up there with the best the medium has to offer. By the time it concludes, players will be shocked, satisfied and perhaps even a little angry. The characters are all rather memorable, with some highlights including the overtly religious Irish police captain, the deadbeat Arson detective, and the snake-like Roy Earle of AD Vice. Each case has its own intricately written story, with a unique set of characters and a fitting conclusion. The ability to replay cases is very welcome indeed, as some of them are simply too good to just be played once.  I also have to congratulate Team Bondi on tackling a number of disturbing themes in this game in a most classy and tactful way. There are moments in L.A. Noire that truly shock, with utterly horrifying moments and sleazy characters who run the gamut of the worst of humanity. L.A. Noire never plays these instances for aughs, and never shocks just for the sake of it. There is one particular crime scene that disturbed me more than anything else a game has ever produced, but it only served to make the story that much more compelling. Those looking for maturity and adult themes done right in gaming need look no further than Team Bondi and their efforts. If I have to dredge up a consistent negative for the game, it's that the AI could do with a little more fine-tuning. Players are given a partner for each crime desk, and while they generally keep out of the way and are good at defending themselves in a fight, they regularly like to hinder a player's movement during investigations, standing in front of them and trapping them in tight enclosures by refusing to move for a few moments. I've also had partners and civilians actually run in front of me while I'm trying to shoot at a criminal. If you hit an innocent just once, you'll fail the sequence.  Aside from facial animation, the motion capture overall is damn fine. Every now and then, you may be able to spot a clear disparity between the animation of the faces and the heads they're attached to, but such occasions are rare and easily ignored. I'm so pleased that the game managed to get characters that moved realistically yet didn't dive into the uncanny valley. These characters look believable, but not to a creepy degree, save for a few female faces that can look a little weird at times. In terms of the environment, a huge deal of L.A is rendered in a highly authentic 1940s style, and there are some impressive draw distances with only the occasional instance of textures or objects popping in. Otherwise, the framerate is smooth and the whole game runs well. I didn't encounter a single glitch, which is rare for an open-world game.  The movements and voice-overs were done by the same actors, who also look frighteningly like their digital counterparts (doing a Google Image Search for the actors can make for a fun -- and terrifying -- meta-game). All the voice acting, with the exception of a handful of bit characters, is outstanding. Professional and naturalistic, one of the finest vocal casts you'll find -- and this is coming from someone who is very discerning about voice acting.  L.A. Noire is a testament to the possibility of bringing dark, adult, mature games to the mainstream market. When I say mature, I don't just mean that it throws in sex and violence under the pretense of being for grown-ups. It is truly mature, with the kind of narrative you'd only expect to see in a major TV drama series or crime movie. No game released this generation has tackled the subject matter found in L.A. Noire with the same degree of intelligence and respect, and no game has blended gameplay from various genres so seamlessly, in a way that delivers something far more unique in experience than the sum of its parts.  Add that sense of uniqueness and intelligence to the fact that L.A. Noire is a terrific bloody videogame, and you have what is guaranteed to be a classic for years to come. True maturity and narrative depth in mainstream gaming begins right here.  Check out extended L.A. Noire coverage on Flixist and Japanator.

L.A. Noire has been in development for at least seven years.  Not everything's worth waiting for.  Some things are. 

Review: Total War: Shogun 2

Mar 29 // Josh Tolentino
Total War: Shogun 2 (PC)Developer: The Creative AssemblyPublisher: SegaReleased: March 15, 2011MSRP: $49.99 Set once more in that most well-known period of Japanese history, the sengoku jidai ("warring states era"), Shogun 2 stuffs you into the lacquered armor of a daimyo, head of one of the many feudal clans of sengoku-era Japan, struggling for dominion and to unite the nation under the banner of the shogunate. That, of course, is easier said than done, and players will do so in the classic Total War fashion, by managing their cities and provinces turn-by-turn, and taking to the battlefield in real time. In the former mode, they'll improve their infrastructure, negotiate with their neighbors, trade with foreign barbarians, all with the end goal of taking the capital of Kyoto and holding it (along with a certain number of key provinces) for a year, forcing the emperor to recognize their authority in full. In the latter mode, they'll battle with mixtures of lowly ashigaru foot soldiers backed up by elite samurai wielding bows, spears, katanas and man-sized nodachi greatswords. Players can choose from a dozen-odd factions representing famous clans of the period, including the ever-famous Takeda, Uesugi, Oda, and Date clans. Even people whose experience with Japanese history extends only as far as Samurai Warriors or Sengoku BASARA will likely find such names familiar. The factions are differentiated mainly by their starting locations and opening statistical bonuses. For example, the Shimazu clan's prestigious lineage raises the loyalty of its generals, and their katana-wielding samurai are second to none. Their isolated location on the westernmost borders of Japan put them far from the capital in Kyoto, but also places them closer to Tanageshima island, where Portuguese traders have been selling strange weapons called "guns". And so on. Factors like these make up for the game's relative lack of exotic units (Medieval's English longbowmen, or Rome's Egyptian charioteers), by making each faction as a whole favor certain strengths and tactics. If this all sounds distressingly familiar to Total War veterans, they need not worry, because while the basic formula hasn't changed, the subtleties and twists have. Clans and their agents now have access to branching trees of upgrades and RPG-style leveling-up. On the factional level, players have access to "Mastery of the Arts", and can choose to train in various disciplines, broadly divided into the "Way of Chi" and the "Way of Bushido", with further branches from there. Chi-path upgrades improve things like production, diplomacy, and the effectiveness of agents such as ninjas and geisha. Bushido-path upgrades improve the abilities of combat units, from raising the movement speed of foot soldiers to unlocking new formations for cavalry. Mastering arts also unlock buildings needed to access some units, making them similar to other games' tech trees. The likes of key units haven't been ignored either. Gaining experience through successful actions, agents and generals can improve their skills. A ninja might choose to enhance his ability to sabotage enemy armies, or assassinate the enemies of his lord. A general might also decide to raise the morale of samurai under his command, or lengthen the distance his army can march in a turn. And through this all, such powerful figures eventually gain unique personality traits and preferences (both positive and negative), and retainers. A general's conniving wife might make him more susceptible to bribery or betrayal. A ninja's custom-forged tiger claws may increase his chances of success when infiltrating enemy strongholds. These things all come together to inject a much-needed dose of personality into Shogun 2. Players will learn to treasure their agents, growing attached to their favorites. They may even feel pangs of regret when they behead a disloyal general to preserve the honor of the clan. And speaking of personality, it also comes through in the game's visuals. Shogun 2 is, to speak frankly, one of the most gorgeous strategy games I've yet played. Every detail, from the stylized woodblock-prints decorating the interface buttons, to the way that unexplored territories are represented by ink yellowed parchment, to the way cherry blossoms flutter in the wind during spring, shows heartfelt admiration of Japanese culture and history. The real-time battle scenes are also given a lot of love as well. Sashimono banners billow in the wind, swords and armor practically glitter with generous reflections and light bloom, and character models are detailed enough to put some first-person shooter games to shame. Combat animations are especially vivid, as during melee units don't just clip through each other, but instead "pair off" to conduct their own "duels" as the battles rage on. Oh, and your battlefield advisors are often disgusted when your own units rout, calling it "A shameful display!" Naturally, though, none of this would matter if the game didn't play well. Things such as battle management and the quality of the AI have been a major concern (and disappointment) for many fans, especially in light of recent entries. So far, many of those concerns have been rectified. During combat I've seen the AI intelligently use terrain, parking their missile units up hills and in forests to ward off cavalry, and I've seen melee units hold their formations while making their advance. AI bowmen actually use their flaming arrows, and horsemen no longer charge head-on into deadly spear-walls. Not always, anyway. The AI still hasn't quite gotten the hang of shielding squishier units behind other infantry, and cavalry are still somewhat susceptible to being baited of formation. Enemy generals are also a little too eager to dismount their horses to climb castle walls and jump onto my defenders' blades. Historical accuracy favors improvements to Shogun 2's siege combat. The design of Japanese castles allows most infantry units to climb walls like awkward spider-men without the aid of siege towers and ladders. The open design of plazas also allows for whole formations and charges to be conducted within the walls, as well. And with the AI's new preference for attacking from multiple sides, sieges are worlds more entertaining to play. Siege weapons such as cannons are available for more well-equipped assaults. History has also been kinder to naval combat as well. Japan's oar-driven ships are easier to handle than the wind-powered sloops and frigates of Empire. However, simpler technology also makes for less interesting combat, as sea engagements often devolve into something resembling the tank battles of other real-time strategy games, with long-range bow ships softening up the enemy while larger assault ships to close in to conduct a boarding action. It comes down to numbers, and players will quickly learn to simply click the autoresolve button when ships clash. The campaign-mode AI has been tweaked for the better as well. Neighboring factions grow wary as you conquer your way to Kyoto, and as my power grew it became increasingly difficult to maintain my alliances or strike new ones. It also moves troops in force instead of piecemeal. Its armies are almost always large and reasonably well-composed. To take one incident, my best generals were off southeast to take a rival's last remaining province, when that clan's largest remaining force broke through my northern border, alongside an army three times that size...belonging to my other neighbor to the north. It had struck an alliance with that faction and the two had moved together to strike at my capital. The situation then devolved into a desperate race to sack the southeastern faction's final province (thus dissolving its army), giving my capital's defenders a better chance of holding off the northern enemy's assault. Sadly, said defenders (led by my son) died honorably during said assault, and my objective changed to retaking my home province. Luckily, my best ninja was around to assassinate the occupying force's general, crippling their army enough for me to rout them the following spring. Such dynamic scenarios pop up often during a Shogun 2 campaign, making every experience unique. That said, I'm generally incompetent at these sorts of games, so more skilled players may find the game a little too easy. Then again, that's what multiplayer is for. Shogun 2 provides a very robust set of multiplayer options as well. The "drop-in" feature from Napoleon makes a return, allowing real-life players to take the place of AI opponents during a single-player campaign (by invitation or at random). Cooperative and competitive campaigns are also available, and the existing Steam community features are integrated into the game's clan-based interactions. The most interesting part of Shogun 2's multiplayer, however, is its Avatar Conquest mode. Avatar Conquest is probably best thought of as the RPG-like progression of Call of Duty games, except finely tuned to suit a game on the scale of Total War. Just as in singleplayer, players choose a starting faction and location on a large (though 2D and simplified) map of Japan, which determines their starting bonuses and units. But instead of managing cities and competing with the AI, they play multiplayer battles against other players, gaining upgrades, new units, and new perks (in the form of retainers) with each new territory they conquer. It's an engrossing way to maintain interest in the game beyond the singleplayer campaign. Player avatars can also be customized, choosing armor parts awarded for conquest, as random loot, or tied to Steam achievements. The looks available to players run from the historically accurate to just plain ridiculous, and can be seen in real-time, despite the fact that no commander in his right mind would zoom in on their avatar in the heat of battle. It never fails to entertain, though, and for that I have constructed this rough haiku: Total war, unfought Unless done so in a helm Shaped like a squid head Total War: Shogun 2 is Creative Assembly's most polished game to date, and serves as a reaffirmation of the values that made the series the revelation it was more than a decade ago. It seems only fitting that those values were reaffirmed in a game based on the same setting as way back then. It's said that "You can't go home again". Well, Shogun 2 kind of did, in the best possible way.

Way back in 1999, the release of Shogun: Total War came as something of a revelation to PC gamers. Creative Assembly had delivered one of the first, if not the first games to effectively marry the depth of traditional turn-ba...

Review: Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP

Mar 28 // Sean Carey
Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP (iPad [reviewed], iPhone version releasing later)Developer: Capybara GamesReleased: March 23, 2011MSRP: $4.99 SB: S&S EP is the story of The Scythian, a female warrior who is on a mission to retrieve The Megatome. That's all the game starts you with, and for the purposes of not spoiling the experience, I won't go much further than that. Suffice to say that a timeless evil is awakened (of course!), and The Scythian must go and solve the mystery of things in order to acquire the stuff that she must take to the place to destroy the dude. And that's really the beauty of the narrative in this game; it is intentionally a Mad Libs structure for game stories. Filling in the blanks with entirely different names of people/objects/places would evoke an almost identical experience. Like Joseph Campbell's The Hero With A Thousand Faces, SB: S&S EP reminds us that adventure gaming is just an endless retelling of the monomyth - the same hero's journey over and over, but dressed up in different clothes. Where the game's narrative excels is in making this point in a playful way; the writing is smart, snappy, and funny. A cast of interesting stock supporting characters gently support the story and provide comic relief while staying mostly out of the way. The woodsman, Logfella (voiced by the perfectly deadpan Robert Ashley), Girl, Dogfella (the dog), and The Archetype (who functions as the narrator) all add to the experience in an engrossing way. The game doles out information in Twin Peaks style, where questions are answered, but still succeed in spawning a whole new list of questions. The story is advanced by interacting with the environment and characters in it, in classic point and click adventure game fashion. Additionally, once The Scythian acquires The Megatome early on, she is able to read the inner dialogue of other characters, including herself and the narrator. Keeping up with the thoughts of each of the characters provides vital information on where to go for the narrative, tips for gameplay and combat, and just plain weird subconscious psychobabble that makes for a warped and welcome break to the rest of the experience. I quickly grew fond of checking to see if Dogfella had any new thoughts for me to read. Visually, the game is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before while still feeling instantly familiar. Craig Adams brings a unique form of pixel art to the game, evocative of the ancient gaming era of the Amiga and Commodore 64, without actually working directly in either style. I can’t say enough about what this game manages to accomplish with such a minimalistic palette. Lush, detailed backgrounds far surpass the old Sierra and LucasArts adventure games that SB: S&S EP is revering and emulating while utilizing an even cruder toolset. Simple, blocky character models impressively manage to say everything they need to with both their design and animation. Coupled with the gorgeous visual style is an equally attractive sound design. This is a game that practically demands to be played with headphones on. Effects are done extremely well; from the full, realistic sounds of weather, to the ephemeral noises of spirits and sworcery, to the arcade-like sounds of combat and other gameplay actions, everything that enters your eardrums has been meticulously planned. Especially the music. Oh, the music! SB: S&S ends in EP for a reason - the game is the music almost as much as the music is in the game. A vinyl record is the visual conceit for the game (the first thing you see when you boot the app up), and it is a structure that pervades the entire experience. Sparse fantasy instrumentation (think organs) combines with modern rock and roll sensibilities and classic 8-bit video game scores to produce a truly memorable soundtrack that I will be purchasing as soon as Guthrie gets around to releasing it. The entire game gives off the same epic vibe I used to get as a child, looking at album art for vinyl records like Yes’ Close to the Edge. The fantastical art combined with the the sweeping orchestral rock feel used to set my imagination to work, and this game produced the same emotions, buoyed by the fact this album cover has touchscreen functionality and interactivity. The integration of the music with the gameplay is another point of strength. Where other games have tracks tied to physical areas, SB: S&S EP contextually triggers music to match events and player actions. Revisiting the same areas later in the game will result in different music depending on what you have already accomplished. I found myself forgetting gameplay for long periods of time so that I could listen for just an extra bit longer, and I never once bemoaned losing a boss fight because it gave me a chance to experience the accompanying tune all over again. Reviewing a title like SB: S&S EP is difficult since the art and the musical components are just as prominent as the game itself. But believe me, there’s a game there, and an elegant one at that. Squarely falling in the adventure game genre, the majority of the action takes place with the iPad held in landscape mode; the game’s exploration and puzzle-solving are conducted this way. Simple inputs that work extremely well for the touchscreen environment get your hands out of the way as much as possible, keeping you looking for necessary details or just enjoying the scenery. Tap-and-hold moves The Scythian in the general direction of the hold, while a double tap will move her to a specific point or cause her to interact with an object in the environment. When not in combat, tilting the iPad into portrait mode allows the player to open The Megatome. Shifting to portrait mode is also how the player initiates and plays through combat sequences. Combat is a timing and rhythm based affair, which some have likened to Punch Out, since it’s a simple two button (sword and shield) input system. However, since the sequences are slower and more deliberate than Punch Out, I prefer to draw the comparison to other games in the tradition of the genre, like the original Hero’s Quest (Quest for Glory). I implore you not to confuse simple for unsatisfying; between the amazing visuals and the way in which combat meshes with the music in a very Bit Trip-like fashion, I came out of some of the battles feeling truly elated. Puzzle-solving was a fair mix of both easy and difficult, and avoiding spoilers, some of the ways in which you utilize the touchscreen and even the iPad itself are both pleasingly novel and intuitive. Many of the tasks were just as solvable using the logical, “look around and analyze the environment” approach as they were by using the “fiddle around and touch everywhere on the screen until you get results” method. A few of the puzzles did have similar solutions; with full play-time coming in at around 3 hours I would have liked just a little more variation given the length. However, that’s truly a single minuscule complaint in the context of what the game has to offer as a whole.  When all was said and done, I was both emotionally moved and intellectually stimulated, with plenty of smiles, snickers, and a few outright belly laughs along the way. Simply put, it was great fun. Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP is a game that takes real chances to stretch the gaming medium without sacrificing the joy of play and discovery that makes the medium great. It’s a bold experiment in having the adventure game genre take a meaningful, humorous and fun look at itself. Gaming doesn’t need to find its Citizen Kane, but it may have discovered its Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

Trying to describe the experience of Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP is a lot like the experience of playing the game itself. Depending on what angle you're looking at it from, you'll get an entirely different perspect...

Review: Pokemon Black/White

Mar 06 // Jonathan Holmes
  Pokémon Black/White (DS)Developer: Nintendo/Game FreakPublisher: NintendoReleased: March 6, 2011MSRP: $34.99 Pokémon Black/White is my favorite Pokémon game. That's my opinion. It's also the most robust, fully featured, polished Pokémon game on a technical level. That's an objective fact. Put those opinons and facts together, and you can only come up with one conclusion -- if you like Pokémon, you should go buy Pokémon Black/White. Like, right now Still here? OK, in that case, maybe you don't like Pokémon all that much. Maybe you've never played a Pokémon game, or maybe you just don't get what's so great about the series. If that's the case, I'd be happy to explain to you why Pokémon is so popular, and why Pokémon Black/White is the best example to date of what makes the series so great.   The underlying draw of all the main-series Pokémon games is their slot-machine-like appeal. People today often complain about random battles in RPGs, but the fact is, developers still utilize them because they still work on our brains. On a strictly biochemical level, random battles are effective game design, but only when used properly. Like I once said about Animal Crossing, playing Pokémon triggers the same chemicals in our brains that fire when someone is just about to win or lose something in real life. There is a reason why that kid bothered to hunt for a shiny Ponyta for so long. It's because every time he got into a random battle, the music, the graphics, and the promise of a new Pokémon caused adrenaline and endorphins to fire in his brain. Those are powerful drugs. It's a good thing that Nintendo sells the full Pokémon cartridge up front, instead of charging per random battle. We'd have a lot of bankrupt Pokémon fans out there if Nintendo started to treat Pokémon battles like online poker.   Back to the point, Pokémon Black/White maximizes on the "game of chance" aspect of Pokémon by ditching all the old Pokémon, making a new and exciting reward all the more likely. If you've played the series at all in the past, then you're likely sick of running into Zubats, Geodudes, and Magikarps in the process of hunting for new Pokémon. You won't be seeing any of those guys in the main campaign of Pokémon Black/White. Instead, you'll be treated to 155 all-new Pokémon. Some of them are clearly influenced by previous Pokémon designs (the flying electric mouse Emolga is basically a Pichu with webbed arms and black headstocking), while others appear to be totally new ideas (the fire/bug-type Larvesta is particularly awesome). Regardless of how original these new Pokémon appear to be, it's unquestionably more compelling to have each and every Pokémon in the main game be a new design. This is on top of the enormous laundry list of new features and items found in the game (more on that later). Suffice it to say, there is always something new around the corner in Pokémon Black/White, and that's exciting.   The second big selling point for the Pokémon series in general is that Pokémon (the actual Pocket Monsters themselves) are awesome. I say that as a fully grown married man with two jobs and a relatively normal social life. I know that a lot of people in their twenties and younger associate Pokémon with "kids' stuff," and that's understandable. The less-than-sophisticated accompanying Pokémon cartoon show and movies do a lot to further that notion. As a 34-year-old, I'm sort of oblivious to all that. Pokémon first came out when I was 18. I knew that kids liked it, but by then, I was too distanced from the world of children to fully associate Pokémon with being a kid. Instead, Pokémon was just Nintendo's new turn-based RPG to me. It allowed for player-vs.-player combat, and player-with-player trading, which I thought was awesome. More importantly, it took place in a world that was one part EarthBound and one part Dragonball, but with characters that were one part Totoro and one part Godzilla, with a liberal dose of total insanity cast over it all. To this day, I'm still convinced that Squirtle is one of the most ingenious character designs ever. A turtle that squirts water with a squirrel tail, named Squirtle? Fucking amazing.   None of that design genius has been lost on Pokémon Black/White. The new Pokémon are just as amazing as the old ones, if not more so. The best part is, the designers at Game Freak no longer have to rely just on static images to convey their ideas. Each Pokémon now has a smooth, expressive standing animation. That goes for every Pokémon ever designed -- all 649 of them. I believe that's some sort of record for individually animated 2D sprites in a videogame. Those animations can really go a long way toward making these characters interesting and fun to look at. For instance, when I first saw the new legendary Pokémon Victini, I passed it off as a cheap Pikachu knock-off. That was before I saw his hyperactive dance animations and the tiny changes in his facial expressions, and heard his signature whistling battle cry/death rattle. I love that little spaz so much now. He hasn't left my party since I first caught him five hours into the game, which is saying a lot, since I'm 88 hours (and counting) into my first play-through of Pokémon White.   The attention to detail doesn't stop at the animations. Like all the Pokémon games before it, Pokémon Black/White is an immensely detailed game. Figuring out all the features, systems, and techniques is like a science unto itself, one that I don't think I'll ever fully comprehend. If you want the full laundry list, check out after the review. In the meantime, I'll tell you about a few of the new aspects that really enhanced my time with the game. Right off the bat, you get a starter Pokemon (like in prior Pokemon games), but after a bit of exploration, you'll also get a corresponding monkey Pokemon of complimentary type to go a long with it. Your first gym battle will also change depending on which starter you chose. A little later on in the game, you'll find that you trade online in real time with strangers, which really ups the excitement and potential for online trading. You can also jump into someone else's game and team up with them on special multiplayer missions, and catch Pokémon that are otherwise unavailable to either of you. Then there are the two kinds of triple battles, which are easily the biggest evolution of the Pokémon combat system to date. I honestly never really enjoyed playing Pokémon against other people before.  One-on-one -- and even two-on-two -- battles just felt too predictable and limiting. With triple battles, that's really changed for me. It's a very straightforward improvement, but it goes a long way to making the game more fun.   On the other hand, Pokémon Black/White doesn't just stack new stuff on top of the old formula. It also works to streamline play. You won't have to rely as heavily on moves like Surf, Flash, Strength, and Cut in order to make your way through the campaign (though all those moves are mandatory for certain side quests). It's all part of Pokémon Black/White's overall push to make the player enjoy every second of their experience with the game. The polygon-based backgrounds allow for dynamic camera angle changes that make even walking around the overworld potentially exciting. The seasons change once a month, which both allows for new seasonal Pokémon to pop up, and for new areas to be explored in the overworld. Music changes dynamically in battles, trainers give mid-battle trash talk, you can get video chat calls from NPCs and PCs alike in the midst of playing; the list goes on and on.   There is also a storyline. I've never been much for the storyline of the Pokémon games, but I have to admit that the story for Pokémon Black/White has its moments. The game is about your player and his/her two best friends setting off into the world of Pokémon, a world that much more closely resembles the United States than in prior Pokémon games. Almost right away, you bump into Team Plazma, a group dedicated to freeing Pokémon from the oppression of humans -- sort of like a PETA for Pokémon. What makes them interesting is that like PETA, they may (or may not) have their hearts in the right place, but either way, their methods are often questionable at best. The further you get into the game, the more you get to understand Team Plazma, and the fact that they are a truly bizarre, cult-like organization, poisoned from the inside by entitlement and dogma, but potentially saved by the purity of their Pokémon love. This ambiguity and internal conflict is encapsulated in Pokémon Black/White's main "rival," a character named N. I don't want to give away the details about N, but I'll say that by the end of the game, you'll feel like you've gotten to know this mysterious character pretty well. The game's story may not be Metal Gear Solid 4, but it's definitely a step up from the simple "terrorist/organized crime/environmentalist group uses Pokémon to do bad stuff" narratives of the past games.   There are a few niggling issues I've had with the Pokémon series since day one that still bother me in Pokémon Black/White. The menu system remains overly complicated at times. I tried out the game's limited video chat system with Destructoid's Max Scoville yesterday, and it took about a half hour for us to figure out how to get it going. Max is a smart dude, and I'm not totally dumb myself, but we still needed to bust out the instruction manual and engage in some trial and error just to get online. Find your Pal Pad in your bag, exchange friend codes, then go to the Wi-Fi room (not the Union Room, you idiot!) in the Pokémon Center to get each other in the room, then select your Xtransciever, which does... wait, what does that thing do again? It's all much more work than it needs to be. There is no reason I can see why they couldn't just let you select "video chat" from an "online" option in the game's main menu. For that matter, there is no reason for there not to be an "online" option in the game's main menu, instead of breaking up the game's online modes and settings into multiple different locations. And don't even get me started on the game's "box" system. Why does it still take me more than three steps to get into the Pokémon storage system? Why do the "Deposit Pokémon" and "Withdraw Pokémon" options even exist? These are such little problems, and it seems like such common sense to fix them, that I can't help but wonder if I'm missing something here. I'm pretty sure it's not just me, though. It's probably just another case of Nintendo making an incredible game, but missing the boat on a few basic interface optimization techniques that would do a lot to make their software more fun to use. There are a few other tiny problems I have with the game. Some of the Pokémon animations are a little bland; the "legendary trio" this time around doesn't look all that legendary; and there is the occasional bout of slowdown (usually in particularly large areas of the overworld or in triple battles). I could also do without the mandatory in-game tutorials on how to catch Pokémon and what a Pokémon Center is. They're great for beginners, but veterans like me shouldn't have to sit though that stuff. Overall, though, those issues really do nothing dampen what is the newest, most polished-feeling Pokémon sequel to date. Just before writing this, I tried going back into Pokémon Pearl/Diamond/Platinum to see how it stacked up to Pokémon Black/White. It felt like such a step backward that I could barely stand to look at it. Even without new hardware to rely on, Pokémon Black/White still delivers the next step in the evolution of the Pokémon series.   If you like Pokémon, or ever could like Pokémon, this is the game for you.

Every new Nintendo handheld gets a new Pokémon game. That's the way it's been for the past 15 years. The OG Game Boy got Pokémon Red/Blue, the Game Boy Color got Pokémon Silver/Gold, and so forth. That ha...

Review: PixelJunk Shooter 2

Mar 01 // Chad Concelmo
PixelJunk Shooter 2 (PSN)Developer: Q-GamesReleased: March 1, 2011MSRP: $9.99 PixelJunk Shooter 2 starts exactly where the original PixelJunk Shooter left off. After being swallowed by a giant creature at the end of the first game, your little spelunking ship falls into the belly of this enormous beast and must find a way to escape and find a way back home. Yeah, the concept is simple, but the PixelJunk games are not about their stories (or lack thereof) -- they are about the simple, yet surprisingly deep gameplay, gorgeous animation, and lovely, retro-inspired high-def visuals. For anyone not familiar with the first game, PixelJunk Shooter 2 is a 2D side-scrolling shooter, in its most basic terms. The game finds your player (or players, as this sequel once again brings back the refreshing two-player local co-op of the first game!) controlling their subterranean ship through a series of vast, beautifully-designed cave levels, solving puzzles and fighting enemies using a small, but effective, assortment of moves. Control is simple. The left analog stick moves your ship around the screen, while the right analog stick rotates your aim. The right trigger fires missiles (which can be charged up and turned into homing shots by holding the trigger down) and the left trigger releases a grappling hook, used to rescue helpless survivors, collect level-unlocking diamonds, and activate environmental items (switches, levers, etc.). Each level is divided into a series of sections, some larger than others. To proceed forward to the next section, players must rescue (or accidentally kill) all the survivors. By doing this, the door to the next area is opened, and players continue one step closer to the game’s end. Kill too many survivors, though, and your game is over. Admittedly, PixelJunk Shooter 2 could have been too simple for its own good. The game plays like a combination between Asteroids and Defender, and, while I am a massive fan of these retro arcade classics, gameplay that dated could get really old really fast. But PixelJunk Shooter 2 is so much more than just flying around and shooting things. While that aspect is great, the game is mostly about solving brilliant environmental puzzles and navigating your way through ever-increasingly challenging stages. PixelJunk Shooter 2 is separated into three worlds, each with five massive levels. While the first PixelJunk Shooter introduced new play mechanics throughout the game’s entirety, all the stages felt a little similar. This is not at all the case in PixelJunk Shooter 2. Each world in the game is completely different than the one before it. The first stage, as mentioned above, finds your subterranean ship in the belly of a giant beast. The second world takes place in the underground labyrinths of an ice cave and nearby volcano. And the third world is set in a metallic factory, full of moving machines and clever traps. In addition to the obvious difference in aesthetics, each world also possesses completely new puzzles and gameplay to solve and conquer. The first world, for example, has a purple bile liquid that swishes around the beast’s belly. Touching it poisons your ship, starting a countdown that forces you to find a pool of water to cleanse yourself in before the timer runs out. In the second world, the combination of instant-kill lava and refreshing ice water is put to genius use -- players are asked to use these various liquids to solve complicated, yet very satisfying environmental puzzles. (And can I please mention the liquid physics throughout the entire game are amazing?!) I don’t want to spoil the last world, but let’s just say it hosts the game’s most fiendish and absolutely breathtaking levels, using light and darkness in creative, jaw-dropping ways. I truly was blown away by the level design in PixelJunk Shooter 2. Each level just got cooler and more impressive as the game went on. Based on the exquisite level deign alone, I would recommend this game. But even with all this, two specific things impressed me even more. The first are the boss battles. While there are only three main bosses in the game (one at the end of each world), they are some of the most well-designed, clever bosses I have encountered in a very long time. As you battle each boss, all the various skills you learned throughout each world come into play. This gives the game a very “Zelda” feel. You won’t be mindlessly holding down the “fire” trigger to defeat these end-of-world bosses like in most shooters. The game is all about using the environment (and the skills you have picked up along the way) to emerge victorious. The bosses really are magnificent. But even more impressive than the controls, the level design, and the bosses ... well ... I am not sure how to go about this without spoiling some of the game’s biggest (and best) surprises ... Let’s just say there are some wonderfully welcome references to classic retro games that will pop up in unexpected places and put an enormous smile on your face (even for the non-retro fans out there). There are several points in the game when you can obtain special “suits” -- power-ups that equip your ship with extra special powers. One “suit” turns your ship into a vehicle that digs through the ground exactly like the old Dig-Dug games. And this is not a coincidence. These sections feature the exact same four-direction control scheme and falling rock gameplay of the arcade classic, proving the clever reference is obviously intentional. Even better, during the second boss fight, the game organically, almost seamlessly, shifts to a Galaga-clone, complete with attacking “bug” ships that follow the same pattern as the enemies in the old retro classic. There are many more moments like this scattered throughout PixelJunk Shooter 2, each one more brilliant than the one before it. And it’s important to note these events don’t ever feel forced or random. They are integrated into the level so well that you won’t even notice they are happening -- one thing you know you are playing the game like normal and the next you are taking part in these genius tributes. There really isn’t one negative thing I can say about PixelJunk Shooter 2. The game is even better than I thought it was going to be. And after loving the original, I had high expectations! Like Pixar is to film, Q-Games is on quite the hot streak in the world of videogames, furthering their perfect track record with quite possibly my favorite PixelJunk game yet. PixelJunk Shooter 2 is awesome -- a true master class in solid game design. So, yeah: It’s official. I want to put a baby in Q-Games. I am in this relationship for the long haul.

My relationship with Q-Games and their wonderful PixelJunk series of downloadable games has followed a very similar path to that of courting a real-life future companion. After their first PixelJunk game, Racers, I felt somet...

Review: Bulletstorm

Feb 22 // Nick Chester
Bulletstorm (Xbox 360 [reviewed], PlayStation 3, PC)Developer: People Can Fly / Epic GamesPublisher: Electronic ArtsReleased: February 22, 2011MSRP: $59.99 First-person Shooter 101: you get guns, you shoot the guns at moving targets, the moving targets stop moving and then fall down. You also have a melee attack, so if you get close enough, you can hit your targets and they fall over. Repeat. Bells and whistles aside, most developers don’t stray too far from this fundamental formula. To be fair, to this day -- almost 20 years after id Software shipped Wolfenstein 3D -- those basics are still fun. But right off the bat, Bulletstorm expands that vocabulary with three basic expressions: an electric leash, a slide, and one of the biggest boots in first-person gaming. By simply adding these three elements, Bulletstorm offers up more variety than most first-person shooters bother to even try to provide. Using the electric whip, you can pull enemies toward you in slow motion; slamming it down on the ground can cause area damage, sending enemies and objects flying toward the sky. Your boot, a close-range melee attack, sends enemies or objects flying backward through the air. With the simple double-tap of a button, you’ll briskly slide across the ground; nailing an enemy while doing so will trip them up, easily upending them. On their own, these abilities already give Bulletstorm a decidedly different feel from from other shooters. But really, they’re the key ingredients for what the game is really all about: stylish, exaggerated ways to murder for points, affectionately known as “Skillshots.” Slide into an enemy, target their body in the air and end their life before they land for a “Bullet Slide” kill. Score points. Kick an enemy backward, sending them through the air in slow motion, letting you target and shatter their skull. Earn the “Headshot” and the “Bullet Kick” Skillshots; score points. With Bulletstorm, this is just the tip of the iceberg; those are your “Skillshot Training Wheels,” if you will. They’re also the most basic examples of Skillshots, and therefore they’re really easy for an inexperienced player to rely on. It’s simple to let the “slide/kick/leash and then shoot” skills dominate your Bulletstorm experience, but it’s not advised -- repeating the same Skillshots will decrease the score output. Since points earned can be used throughout your game to purchase and upgrade weapons (as well as buy ammunition), you’re encouraged to constantly expand your horizons. With over 100 different single-player Skillshots, you’re going to want to slow things down and take time to experiment. Fortunately, the game has a Skillshot list that is accessible at any time, showing you which ones you’ve nailed and which ones you’ve yet to complete. It became an almost compulsive habit checking in on the kill catalog as I played, simply to see what new and unique Skillshots I had yet to execute. As new weapons and upgrades are purchased, even more types of kills become available, keeping things fresh even a few hours in.   Eight weapons are available at your disposal, each with an alternate fire and distinct Skillshots. You’ll need the Screamer pistol’s rocket-propelled flare to send an airborne enemy into the stratosphere to explode like a firework, for example. By shooting it up his ass, of course. Katy Perry would be proud. Bulletstorm also features environment- and boss-based kills spread throughout the campaign. It is a bit disappointing that you can count these environmental kills on both hands: there’s a cactus, a piranha plant creature, and some toxic spores, among a few others that repeat across the game’s seven chapters. It would have been nice if there were a few more surprises thrown in as you progressed. Even still, with all the single-player Skillshots, it’s unlikely any player will discover or perform them all during their first playthrough of the campaign. There’s been a lot of talk about the game’s potty-mouthed cast, and Bulletstorm certainly doesn’t disappoint on that front. Writer Rick Remender effortlessly strings together profanities in ways that are as imaginative as the game’s Skillshot index. The narrative itself isn’t anything to shout about, following the story of washed-up mercenary-turned-space-pirate Grayson Hunt on a quest for redemption with a shot of revenge. Considering his work on his Fear Agent comic series, Remender is right in his range with the whole alcoholic space adventurer shtick. He manages to support the game’s real star -- its out-of-control gunplay -- with a story that entertains, despite some pulp clichés and conspicuous plot twists. Folks concerned about the game’s length can look towards its score-based single-player “Echoes” mode, and the online cooperative multiplayer “Anarchy” stages. If you’ve hunkered down with the Bulletstorm demo, you’re familiar with “Echoes,” which takes slices of the game’s campaign and packages them into a mini score-based affair. Supported by leaderboards, this is really where attention to the game’s Skillshots comes into play. With the areas broken down into bite-sized chunks, it’s all about figuring out the best ways to maximize your scores through the use of various weapons, Skillshots, and the environment. Echoes is as much about memorization of enemy placement as it is about twitch-based first-person shooter skill. If you’re all for score-based competition, constantly eyeing leaderboards, this is the mode for you. With some players still managing to eke out points from the game’s short, one-area demo weeks after its release, it’s not hard to imagine how much playtime one might get out of the 20 on-disc “Echoes” levels. Bulletstorm’s online co-op mode, “Anarchy,” is Epic and People Can Fly’s take on what’s typically referred to as a “Horde Mode.” Here, up to four players team up to take on 20 waves of increasingly difficult enemies, the key being not just to survive, but to hit a target score in order to advance. “Anarchy” is all about communication, as the mode introduces cooperative Team Skillshots. While all of the game’s single-player Skillshots are accounted for (and you’ll get a nice chunk of points for performing them), there are plenty of kills specific to the co-op mode. Fancy pulling an enemy apart with an electric leash? Teaming up with a friend in “Anarchy” is the only place to do it. “Anarchy” is best enjoyed with pals who have headsets; playing it with voiceless nobodies can be a frustrating experience, making the game’s “Quick Match” option somewhat pointless. Not surprisingly, killing the ever-loving shit out of enemies with your buddies online in Bulletstorm is delightful, with a few caveats. For starters, each “Anarchy” map is played across 20 waves. That’s a lot, and when you factor in the reality that most teams will have to restart a wave or five due to failure along the way, completing a full “Anarchy” round can be a remarkable time commitment. All 20 waves are also played across one of the game’s six “Anarchy” maps, which means you’ll sometimes be spending upwards of two hours in a single tiny area. The small size of the arenas is disappointing, but also understandable -- you’re going to want to stick close to your teammates to get the most scores out of team kills, anyhow. But it seems as if the potential monotony of 20 murderous waves could have been relieved a bit if the maps simply cycled as you progressed. Regardless, there’s a lot of fun to be had in “Anarchy” with what you’re given. Along with character customization and leveling based on earned experience, you’re looking at a dozen hours of senseless-but-enjoyable bloodletting. Bulletstorm is a surprisingly vibrant game, with rich hues of oranges, blues, and yellows throughout the game’s world. And, of course, a lot of crimson, if you’re doing your job right. It’s important to note the game’s use of color, because it’s yet another way Bulletstorm goes against the grain. While the game doesn’t shy away from browns and greens, staples of most first-person shooters on the market, it fortunately doesn’t lean on them too heavily. While some muddy textures and questionable character design choices muck things up a bit, there are certainly some spectacular-looking moments. In particular, the sun-drenched skyline of the game’s exotic battleground of Stygia (highlighted on the title screen) is jaw-dropping from the proper angles. The ink on the blueprints for the standard first-person shooter experience has dried. Developers seem to have mastered the art of delivering a solid and fun triple-A shooter experience, to the point where it almost seems effortless. It’s always about “bigger” and “more,” with little else to set games apart. With Bulletstorm, Epic and People Can Fly not only succeed at delivering the “bigger” and the “more,” but bring with it a gameplay slant that makes it a one-of-a-kind experience. Yes, it may be brazenly outrageous and juvenile; be prepared to check your “Serious Business Adult” card at the door. But lurking underneath is a seriously fun, novel take on the first-person shooter genre that shouldn't be ignored. Just make sure you don’t “play it wrong.”

You can’t really play Bulletstorm wrong per se, but it’s a game in which "the point" is fairly easy to miss. Sure, you can run through its eight-hour campaign, relying on your default military assault rifle to bla...

Review: Marvel Vs. Capcom 3

Feb 14 // Jonathan Holmes
Marvel Vs. Capcom 3: Fate of Two Worlds (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3[reviewed])Developer: Capcom Publisher: CapcomReleased: February 15, 2011MSRP: $59.99 Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 works as both a reboot and a sequel to the Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 series. It has more new characters and new systems than any Marvel Vs. sequel yet. Old school fans will still feel right at home here, as the spirit of the series remains mostly intact, and about half of the characters are returning from either Marvel Vs. Capcom 2 or Tatsunoko Vs. Capcom. That means tag-team matches, limited healing factors for all characters, an emphasis on air combos, multi-character special and super moves, and what is generally thought of as the most flashy, insane, potentially seizure-inducing fighting game series known to man. There is even a warning when you boot up the game that the "flashing lights" and to consult the manual for detials . This game is serious business. Sounds good, right? Well, in practice, Marvel Vs. Capom 3 tries a little too hard to please everybody, and as a result, it doesn't quite manage to pull everything off. Just as it's not possible to be in two places at once, it probably wasn't realistic for Capcom to try to make Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 a game that both revolutionizes the superhero rave while simultaneously retaining so many of the characters, combos, and techniques from Marvel Vs. Capcom 2. Thankfully, at it's worst, Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 is still a true love letter to the Marvel and Capcom universes. At it's best, it's the fast-paced, exciting new fighter frontier that offers endless potential for exploration and mastery. Lets start with the story. Told mostly through the game's opening cut scene, we see the various characters from the Capcom and Marvel universes fighting it out. Then something about the dread Dormammu shooting fireballs happens, and after that, Galactus wants to eat. That's it. Unless I'm missing something, that's all there is to the game's narrative, other than a few plot points revealed in the character's endings and a few bonus movies. The game's opening cinema is really more of an excuse to see at how awesome this game looks. It utilizes a combination of cel-shading, inky textures, and highly detailed polygon models to create a look that truly feels like a comic book (probably drawn by Jae Lee) come to life. Sadly, things go down hill from there, at least visually. To be clear, there is nothing bad about the way Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 looks. It's all very well crafted, solid, and expensive looking. That said, the full game isn't half as visually expressive as that opening cinema would lead you believe. The inky textures immediately disappear once you start playing, leaving things looking a lot less bold and vibrant. Some characters (like Deadpool, Sentinel, Zero, Tron Bonne, and Hsien-Ko) still look great, but on the whole, the game's cast doesn't come to life the same way the did in its sprite-based predecessor Marvel Vs. Capcom 2, or even Capcom's most recent polygon based fighter Super Street Fighter IV. It's not a deal breaker though. After playing Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 for an hour or so, I totally adjusted to the game's stylistically conservative polygon models and animations. The constant explosions and laser blasts also do a lot to make up for whatever the character models lack in punch and pizazz. Maybe Marvel Vs. Capcom 3's characters are a bit restrained in terms of graphic design because the cast allows for such varitey. The straightforward, cohesive art direction does do a lot unify this truly bizarre roster of fighters. The game has 36 characters (and one unplayable boss) split pretty much down the middle between the new and the old. Though a few of the veteran characters seem more or less identical to how they were in Marvel Vs. Capcom 2, a lot of the returning fighters have some pretty substantial tweaks that make them feel fresh. For instance, Viewtful Joe now has an uppercut move that has effectively taken him from being incredibly difficult to learn to a fighter that just about anyone can pick up and play. Thankfully, adding this new move didn't require Capcom to sacrifice any of Joe's legitimacy. Even with this new move, he still plays and feels just like he did in his games. That's true of all of the Capcom characters here. It's a minor miracle that Capcom has managed to keep each and every entry character true to their various source materials. Ameterasu (from Okami) still makes flowers grow wherever she walks, and she can switch weapons on the fly while attacking enemies with ink drawings, just like she can in her game. Dante has nearly all of his moves from the Devil May Cry series, plus a few new ones that perfectly fit his badass/cornball personality. Arthur and Haggar look and fight exactly as they did in their classic games, except with added polygon polish, and the speed and maneuverability they need to compete in this superhero-packed playing field. The game may have everything from wolf godesses to giant head floating head as characters, but it still doesn't quite feel as varied as Capcom's prior Superhero Vs. titles. There were quite a few iconic characters cut from Marvel Vs. Capcom 2. There is no Mega Man, no Strider, no Cable, and no Cyclops. Part of me is happy about that, as when I buy a new game, it feels good to see new content prioritized over recycled material. On the other hand, they could have easily included more Marvel and Capcom icons from prior games with overhauled appearances and fighting styles, like Capcom did for Roll in Tatsunoko Vs. Capcom. Maybe it sounds like nitpicking, but just feels wrong to see so many Marvel and Capcom all-stars and cult favorites dropped, while characters that nobody has a strong affinity for (like She-Hulk, C. Viper, X-23, and Trish) make the cut. Maybe Capcom thinks fans want more half naked women in their fighting games, and fewer relics from the NES and arcade days? It's hard to say. Seeing old characters dropped in favor of new cheesecake isn't the only change to the game's roster. Overall, Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 feels decidedly more serious than its predecessor. There are no random cactus men to be found here. The music is also a lot more straight laced, though "Take you for a ride" does make a welcome comeback. Other than the inclusion of that ridiculous song, and the game's often hilarious pre-fight banter, (particularly from Deadpool, who actually welcomes Mageneto "to die" at one point), Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 has largely lost the goofiness that off-set the superhero insanity in prior titles. That brings us to the game's sound design. It's truly excellent, easily the best in the series. Everything from the score to the writing to the voice acting is top notch. Each of the game's characters has their own theme song. For Capcom characters, it usually something from their past games, while the Marvel side has mostly original compositions. Either way, all the music here sounds fantastic. Then there is all the pre-fight dialog I alluded to. For starters, the game lets you play with Japanese or English voice acting, which is great if you're the type who grows tired of the same old language day in and day out. I don't think you English speakers out there will get sick of the game's performances though. I've been setting up matches just to here what the characters say to each other, and it's not getting old. Iron Man hitting on Tron Bonne, Haggar... being Haggar, it's all gold. I think it will be a long time before I've heard it all, and even longer before it makes me stop smiling. Nine paragraphs in, and I haven't gotten to what really counts the most to a fighting game; the balance. So far, it's hard for me say anything bad about Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 tiers. There are definitely characters that are more dangerous than others (I'm looking at you Phoenix), but there is usually a damage resistance differential to make up for that. Most importantly, overpowered bastards from Marvel Vs. Capcom 2 (like Sentinel, Storm, Magneto, and Doctor Doom) don't seem to have all the same advantages that they used to. Capcom didn't improve the balance by simply gimping these previously powerful characters. They did it by making everybody in the game a potential powerhouse. Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 makes every character the best character in the game, as long as you're in the right place at the right time. How does it pull that off? Well, it's through a new game mechanic called "X-Factor". Next to the game's new button layout (three attack buttons, two tag buttons, and one special attack "launcher" button) and the option for a even more simplified control option, X-Factor is the biggest game changer of Marvel Vs. Capcom 3. At least, that's how it feels at first. Once you really get going, you realize that X-Factor is by far the biggest new edition to Capcom's superhero fighters ever implimented . It's a game changer, pure and simple. Here's how it works. Once per match, you can activate X-Factor by pressing all four face buttons. While in effect, it increases movement speed and healing, negates all chip damage, and greatly increases the amount of damage that you can put out. The strength and duration of X-Factor is different for every character, but it's true for all characters that the fewer members you have left on your team, the longer and more potent the effect of the X-Factor's. Though you can use it at anytime, the most effective use of X-Factor is to activate it only when you're down to the wire. It's the most powerful "come from behind" mechanic I've seen in a fighting game yet (which is saying a lot considering all the SNK fighters I own). It will be a while before we see just how potentially "unfair" X-Factor is, but for now, I'm loving it. Storm, Sentinel, Doom, and Magneto used to be so overpowered because of the way they can chip at your health while keeping you at a distance via zoning techniques and corner traps. They could feel blatantly unfair in Marvel Vs. Capcom 2, unless you were also using one of the powerhouses yourself. Activate X-Factor with your last character standing, and those traps melt away. Of course, if either of Storm or Sentinel use X-Factor on you, the chip damage can get pretty ugly, but a skilled played will finish their opponent before the chipping can start. Whether you're dishing it out or taking it, X-Factor makes for more exciting and suspenseful matches. Like a good friend of mine said, it's like Capcom's answer to Mario Kart's blue shell, except this blue shell actually takes skill and practice to properly utilize. Speaking of practice, the game has not one, but two modes that help you to sharpen your skills. With the amount of new characters, combos, and systems added to the game, you're going to need to practice. Practice mode is just your basic "beat on the dummy" routine, and that's fine, but the game's "mission" mode is where most of your real technical growth will probably go down. Each of the game's 36 characters get ten "missions", all designed to teach you how to use that character from step one. The mode gradually walks you through their more essential special techniques, bigger combos, and combination supers. It also shows off what makes each character special. When I first picked her up, I had no idea that Amaterasu could launch an enemy with both a normal attack or a special attack, or that she could change weapons mid-combo for an even more flashy and damaging finish. Mission mode showed me all that, and made it fun in the process. There are a lot more highs and lows to the game I could mention. It's a bummer that there's no spectator option in online mode, and that the last boss fight feels a little flat. Conversely, it's worth noting that the backgrounds look amazing, and the amount of unlockable content (in the form of character bios, character models, movies, and artwork) really keeps you motivated to play during those beginning phases of getting into competitive shape. That's just the start of all the stuff that I've failed to mention in this mammoth review. I want to tell you more, but I've got to cut myself off. Maybe I'll get to the rest in the comments.  Before we hit the score, I want to come back to the idea that Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 is it's own animal. The more I focus on its new characters and gameplay innovations, the more I enjoy it. It's just too bad that there's even a need to focus on that. Having so much of Marvel Vs. Capcom 2 left over in this new title really forces the player to make a comparison between the prequel and this sequel. Not only is that comparison not always in Marvel Vs. Capcom 3's favor, thinking about the previous game often works to distract from all of the new things that make Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 so great. I hope that in time (via either DLC or a whole new title), more and more aspects of Marvel Vs. Capcom 2 will be make their way out of the series, to be replaced with even more of the innovative kinds of game mechanics, concepts, and fighting styles that we're just now getting a glimpse of in Marvel Vs. Capcom 3. In the meantime, we have Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 as it stands, with its all new systems to be mastered, tons of new characters to get to know and love, and more that enough "Marvel" and "Capcom" to go around. That's something that fighting game fans, and Marvel and Capcom fans in general, should have a hell of a time with.

I've been anticipating Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 for almost ten years. While it was great for Marvel Vs. Capcom 2 (released in 2000) to get a semi-follow up in the form of Tatsunoko Vs. Capcom last year, it felt a little anti-clim...

Review: Dead Space 2

Jan 24 // Jim Sterling
Dead Space 2 (Xbox 360 [reviewed], PlayStation 3, PC)Developer: Visceral GamesPublisher: Electronic ArtsReleased: January 25, 2011MSRP: $59.99 Considered insane and incarcerated in a city-like space station known as The Sprawl, Dead Space protagonist Isaac Clarke is still haunted by visions of his dead ladyfriend Nicole, while unsympathetic doctors prod and poke at his brain. Of course, if that were all that happened, it'd be a pretty dull game, so along come the Necromorphs to carve people up and give Isaac something to do. Better than getting molested by an amorous psychiatrist ... or is it? Dead Space 2's narrative is richer and more integral to the experience this time around, helped in no small part by the fact that Isaac is no longer a silent protagonist. This sudden introduction of vocal chords could easily have been the ruination of Dead Space 2's narrative, but the change has been made gracefully and tastefully, with a character who still keeps his words minimal but becomes much more sympathetic. The final few chapters of Dead Space 2 in particular forge Isaac into a sympathetic character, one who deserves pity and respect in equal measure.   The plot, which I shan't detail for obvious reasons, is driven forth by some superb voice acting from all corners, along with an expertly crafted script. It's hard to find naturalistic dialog in a videogame, but Dead Space 2 manages it. The only downside is that, for some reason, the voices are buried deep in the overall sound mix, with music and sound effects disproportionately loud.  This is especially frustrating during important exposition scenes featuring Nicole, where distorted voice effects and loud atmospheric sounds combine to make certain characters borderline unintelligible. The sound quality, especially the ambient noise, is superb, but you'll have to really mess with your audio settings if you don't want to miss plot details.  When you're not straining your ears to pick up the chat, however, Dead Space 2's quality is utterly astounding. Aside from the occasional physics glitch (the bane of all ragdoll-flavored games), Visceral's latest effort is one that smacks of perfectionism on the part of the studio. No mistakes were made with this game, and it's clear that it has been crafted with genuine love and respect, which is an increasingly valuable trait in videogames these days.  The core gameplay remains the same, and you'll know exactly what to do if you played the first game. Isaac makes his way through The Sprawl, utilizing his handy Plasma Cutter to slice the limbs off hordes of Necromorphs. Business as usual.  Visceral didn't buy a new car with Dead Space 2, but it did soup up the motor. The cheap scares are cheaper and scarier, the Necromorphs hit harder, move faster, and come in a variety of increasingly disturbing designs. Chief among the twisted monstrosities are the mutated children, who run screaming at Isaac in huge groups and are easily among the most unsettling monsters in videogame history. Few games let you shoot the mutated corpses of slaughtered infants, and that's an accolade Visceral can be proud of. Dead Space 2, like its predecessor, is less about psychological, creeping terror and more about cheap scares. While some will find this detrimental, I can't help but relish the increasingly absurd ways in which Visceral attempts to make you jump. The game is relentless in this respect, as Necromorphs lunge at you from every corner, things burst and shatter all around you, and windows crack open, threatening to suck you out into the vacuum of space if you can't shoot the emergency shutter down in time. And it's all such mindless fun that you barely question the architectural sanity of putting glass windows in a space station.  For all its attempts to craft a creepy story and unnerving atmosphere, Dead Space 2 is at its best when it casts subtlety to the wind and throws wave after wave of Eldritch nasties at you, sowing panic at every given opportunity. The ability to induce this panic is the game's biggest strength -- a frantic environment where you feel outmatched and manage to survive by the skin of your teeth. Sometimes it can get frustrating -- it's not fun to have three monsters in a row leap at you while you have no chance to defend yourself -- but at the end of every fight, you'll feel that special kind of stress, that good kind of stress where your heart's racing and you feel like you just pulled off a superhuman feat of survivalism. Visceral spent a lot of time making weapons more effective, dealing extra damage, and having more customization options. There are also a few new items, like a long-range rifle and a mine launcher. However, these new weapons still aren't as effective as the standby Plasma Cutter, with perhaps a Pulse Rifle on the side for quick crowd clearance. It's both a strength and a weakness that the starting weapon is still the most powerful in the game. The limb-shredding precision of the Plasma Cutter is wonderful, but you're left with a choice -- play without variety, or sacrifice your ability to fight efficiently in order to play with a flamethrower (as well as force more varied ammo drops, which leads to less ammo per weapon). Whichever way you play, your game will be dented just a tiny little bit.  I'm also somewhat disappointed that The Sprawl isn't ... well ... sprawling. While the environments are varied and you'll be going to all sorts of unique locations, The Sprawl may as well be the Ishimura with some neon signs. Most of the game still takes place in tight corridors, and you never get a sense that you're in a giant space city. The game's opening chapters hint at all sorts of glorious chaos as the Necromorphs tear The Sprawl's citizens apart, but it's over pretty quickly, and the majority of the game just feels like another deserted, desolate spaceship.  That said, the game will throw some variety into the mix at regular intervals. An early chapter set on a speeding train makes for a total thrill ride, especially with its ludicrously intense ending. There's also a chapter set in an elementary school, and you can probably guess how harrowing that is. The new anti-gravity areas are also pretty fantastic, especially with Isaac now able to freely float around the space rather than simply stick to walls. Some latter chapters take Isaac out into Space, and these rare, open moments manage to create the illusion of a far bigger world.  The single-player campaign clocks in at around eight hours, and like its predecessor, it feels right for the game to end when it ends. The story, though still light on narrative details, is beautifully interwoven and helps make Isaac into a truly endearing protagonist. His actions in the last two hours really flesh him out, and helps to create a more subtle, more human hero than we're used to in videogames. There are few single-player experiences so perfectly paced as Dead Space 2's, and for that alone, the game is worth a purchase.  It's a good thing that the single-player is still the game's biggest draw, because the multiplayer is, to be fair, nowhere near as good. It's not exactly bad, but it's rather unsatisfying and delivers nothing of the pacing and tension that the main game brings. The teams are split into humans and Necromorphs, and while one would imagine that playing a Necromorph would be fun, it's actually quite disappointing. Their attacks feel disconnected from the game, with wild hack n' slash swings that never feel like they're hitting anything and projectile attacks that are visually vague, giving no clue as to whether they struck their mark. It's also just rather dull to spend five minutes spawning, running up to somebody, and smashing the trigger blindly in the hopes that you'll kill something.  When playing as a human, the tightness of the story mode is there, but the atmosphere is all gone. Now the Necromorphs run around in circles, as online gamers are wont to do, and the unbridled chaos feels far less satisfying than the controlled madness of the tightly scripted single-player.  There is a bit of fun to be had, especially once you start ranking up and can customize your character a bit more with uniform colors and loadouts, but there's nothing in Dead Space 2's multiplayer that wasn't already done -- and done better -- in last year's Singularity, which also featured a "humans vs. monsters" mode and did so with far more depth and in a tighter fashion.  That said, Dead Space 2's somewhat tepid multiplayer does not drag the game down in any way, shape or form. The single-player campaign is so superb that even if the multiplayer was bad, it wouldn't have taken anything away from the experience. The game already justifies its $60 asking price before it goes online, and if you happen to dig the multiplayer as well, that's just icing on the cake. It feels like a bonus mode more than anything else, and the fact that it's at least "okay" is more than enough.  Dead Space 2 is a ludicrously intense, graphically gorgeous, thoroughly atmospheric game that takes everything the first title did and ramps up the absurdity to dangerous levels. It's cheesy to say that "if you liked the first game, you'll love the sequel," but in this case, I think that's a very fair assessment. Dead Space 2 is Dead Space with the tuning at its finest and the scares at their most delicious. Action horror has reached a new peak with Dead Space 2.

If one thing can be said of Visceral Games, it's that the studio is true to its name. Visceral is a word that can adequately describe any of the team's violent, blood-drenched titles, and nowhere is this more true than with t...

Review: Gran Turismo 5

Nov 24 // Dale North
Gran Turismo 5 (PlayStation 3)Developer: Polyphony DigitalPublisher: Sony Computer Entertainment AmericaReleased: November 24, 2010MSRP: $59.99 Only after finally stopping to write a review after countless hours of play did I realize how massive Gran Turismo 5 is. The numbers that Sony and Polyphony Digital have been throwing at us (1,000+ cars, 70 track variations, several modes) don't even begin to cover how vast the game is. The game's GT (career) Mode has so many menus and sub-menus that it took me a full workday to completely go through them all, and that's not even counting a separate arcade mode, a track maker, a video collection and much more. It's every bit of the racing world all in one place, on one disc. The word "comprehensive" doesn't even feel big enough. While GT5's size may sound daunting, it's all presented in a way that begs you to explore it. The GT Mode also does a nice job of slowly guiding you through its various parts as you progress. You'll start out with a small bit of money (credits) to buy an inexpensive car, and you'll take it to the track in some low-level, non-restricted races. Much like in the previous Gran Turismo games, in the A-Spec mode, you'll race and then use your earnings to purchase newer, faster cars. In B-Spec mode, you'll create and guide an AI racer through events by giving them in-race commands. With these new cars and your increased experience level, you'll take on more varied events and work your way up the ranks in both A-Spec and B-Spec, from a beginner all the way up to an expert. The game's leveling system restricts the kind of cars you can own and the kind of races you can take part in. No worries, though; your level increases quickly with only a few races, and it works out that the cars that gradually become more affordable as you progress are just the ones you'll need for the higher-level races. Also, as you reach certain level milestones, one or more of the GT Mode's "Special" race types will become available. The first you'll have access to is kart racing, which is a blast. Later on, you'll race on Top Gear's test track, learn NASCAR basics with voiced tutorials from Jeff Gordon, and even slide through snow and gravel in rally races. It's all paced quite nicely, with new options opening up just as your skill level permits.  Before you can do any of that, you have to have a car. Thankfully, Gran Turismo 5 doesn't really hold back on what it offers players in car types. Of course, you'll unlock more vehicles as you progress, but you'll be able to browse the manufacturers' virtual show floors right off the bat. You'll find yourself building up a garage of cars in no time at all with your winnings, and you'll nab even more as gifts by winning races with top honors. As before, cars can be tuned and upgraded, or sold off to fund your next purchase. But this time, there are two different classes of vehicles: standard and premium. Standard cars are the cars you might have seen in previous Gran Turismo games. They look great on the track, but it turns out that they actually have a lower level of detail than the premium vehicles. Premium cars are new to GT5, and they come with very highly detailed models that support damage modeling. They also have fully modeled interiors, so you'll get a cockpit view as one of the view options in races. In your garage, the two types are separated, though you'll be able to use qualifying cars from either class in races. Again, both types look fantastic, but the premium cars do look a bit better, and I've come to love the cockpit view.  When you're finally on the track, Gran Turismo 5 feels so familiar that it's surprising at first. We waited this long for something that feels just like an old game? Fans of the series will be able to pick up a controller and know exactly what to expect when driving. For me, there was absolutely no learning curve as far as control and feel is concerned -- this game controls exactly like Gran Turismo 4. That isn't a bad thing, mind you. There was absolutely nothing wrong with GT4's control. If you think back, it was the physics engine that needed a few touch-ups. The new physics engine in GT5 is everything I had hoped it would be. While the buttons and sticks that you're moving with your fingers haven't changed, their feel and response have improved greatly. Turning and braking feel incredibly natural. You get a real sense of how slamming on the brakes throws the car's weight forward. Handling actually feels like car handling, and not some once-removed, through-a-game-controller attempt. In one rally race, I remember braking too late on a snowy track. I slid into a snowbank, turned sharply, and then came back down off the bank. The car seemed to plop back down onto the the road so realistically that it gave me flashbacks of driving in winter. Somehow this game manages to feel both accurate and exciting at the same time. Opponent AI feels like it has greatly improved since the last game. It appears that a lot of care went into realism this time around. I got the sense that I was in races with drivers of different types for the first time in the series. Some seemed aggressive and others careful. All seemed to put on the heat in the last leg of the last lap. This made for some tense finishes that felt closer to what you might experience in a race with real opponents. There were many times where I was fully immersed in competition and had to remind myself that I wasn't actually in a live race. One of the most noted additions to GT5 is damage modeling. It's too bad that this feature isn't really notable in the full scheme of things. Cars can show wear, and premium vehicles can actually show damage from collisions, but it turns out that neither are as dramatic (or realistic) as you'd expect. You'd actually have to go out of your way to impose damage in a race, and then you'd have to follow up and actually check for it afterwards. But to go this far, you'd likely be getting away from racing. And while damage can affect car performance, those racing to win aren't likely to receive enough damage to see this effect. The addition of damage modeling doesn't really seem to serve the game in any way. Instead, it feels like a bullet point for the back of the box.  On the other hand, the new weather, lighting and particle effect additions are welcome and greatly appreciated. Some of Gran Turismo 5's biggest "wow" moments come from these new visual tweaks.  Watching snow blow onto and over my windshield was so lovely that it was almost distracting. The way a nighttime fog soaks up headlights looked impossibly realistic. Streetlights shine on a glossy, wet road, and later, raindrops streak by as you hit 200 mph. In the desert, dust kicks up in a rally race. High beams catch the dust, with the tops of the surrounding trees barely lit by the setting sun. The work Polyphony Digital put into the small details goes a long way toward making you feel like you're really driving in these locales. Realism can sometimes be sterile, but these accents on top of already realistic locales and cars makes Gran Turismo 5 one of the most visually pleasing games ever released. Polyphony Digital added some new racing types to their Special mode, with one of the most surprising being kart racing. Kart racing is a lot of fun in GT5, and serves as a bit of an escape from the standard car racing action. Those expecting something like Mario Kart will be disappointed, as the game's realism carries over here. There's actually a bit of a learning curve to the karts; steering and braking are quite a bit different from standard cars. While the controls and view are the same, the feel is completely different. For example, braking into a sharp turn is going to cause you to spin out easily. Once you get the hang of the differences in acceleration and braking, the sense of speed is incredible, and kart racing turns out to be very rewarding.  In an attempt to cover as many types of racing as possible, NASCAR racing was also added to the special modes. Unlike the kart and rally modes, which feel like separate sub-game types, NASCAR is more of a lesson on a racing style. This mode is narrated by famed NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon, who appears in virtual form to show you the ropes. Gordon narrates for a bit, and then you get to practice the basics of NASCAR racing, like drafting and passing. These lessons take place on NASCAR tracks such as the Daytona 500.  Other special events include the Top Gear test track, where you'll cruise the famous television show's track; the AMG Driving Academy, where you'll tackle the insane Nurburgring course; and the Rally segment, where you'll plow through gravel, snow and rain with the guidance of a navigator. There's also a Touring mode that you'll see the world in. Each of these events provides a nice change of pace from the GT Mode's standard racing, and many of them feel like a game within a game.  Online racing makes its series debut with GT5. There's a good bit of community features to be explored within the online mode beyond the 16-player races it provides. Creating or joining online rooms is easy, as is jumping into a race. Rooms feature full chat, and you can do this while watching as a spectator. Feel free to jump into a room's track at any time to do time trials; the game will let you know when there's a race starting. When the race does begin, you'll automatically be whisked away to the starting line from your time trials. While the selection of online opponents was limited in pre-release sessions, every match I was in worked beautifully. Polyphony Digital has put together a really polished, attractive online experience, and it comes complete with mail, messaging, and even your own lounge. There's plenty of room for online play to flourish once the game gets in the hands of racing fans.  Outside the main GT Mode, there are three other main game functions. Arcade Mode lets you pick a track and a car and go at it without all of the leveling and experience hassles. You can try out the drifting trials or any of the other courses or cars you have yet to acquire in GT Mode. There's also split-screen two-player support in Arcade Mode. Gran Turismo TV is a sort of portal for video content. It offers clips about cars, tracks and even content from the Top Gear television show. There's a shopping cart in the menu, so I assume that paid content will be available at some time in this mode. Finally, there's a Course Maker mode that lets you build a track to your liking. It isn't as complex as you'd imagine from the name, mind you. You start off by picking a base locale from a number of images. From there you'll decide how many segments your track will have. Menus let you control track options, like how complex these segments will be, or what time of day it will be. It only takes a couple of minutes to generate a new course, which can be saved and used for a test drive at any time. You can then share your track or save it to play in Arcade Mode. A slightly less useful photo mode lets you photograph your cars on tracks from replays and save the images to share or even use as your XMB wallpaper. Photo buffs will enjoy the option to use full manual camera settings to control aperture and shutter speed to get the best shot. The Photo Travel mode takes you and your car to real-world locales, where you're free to position your vehicle and camera to get the best shot. The nighttime Kyoto location was particularly lovely, and I got some nice shots, though I didn't see much of a point in taking pictures of my virtual car. It did make for a nice wallpaper, however.  Gran Turismo 5 is very customizable. You can opt to install game data (about 8 GB, 30 minutes) to cut back on load times. All of the controls can be remapped to your liking as well. I dove into the hundreds of (great!) music tracks to make a custom collection of tunes that I liked to race to, only to finish and find that you can also use playlists from your PS3's hard drive to listen to your own music while driving.   Everything from the sound balance to the screen size can be tweaked.  While GT5 worked perfectly fine with the DualShock3 controller, playing with the Logitech Driving Force GT racing wheel is an absolute thrill. Now that I've tried it, I don't think I can go back. It did take a couple of races to get a feel for it, but when I finally got it down, my driving and my course times improved greatly. The level of control you have over your turns is so much greater with the wheel, and that's not to mention how much better and more realistic acceleration and braking feel it provides. The force feedback in the wheel brings the realism over the top. Gran Turismo 5 feels like it was made for this wheel, and the game offers full support for it and many of the other racing wheels out there. I can't recommend the Driving Force GT wheel enough. It really takes GT5 to an even higher level. With Gran Turismo 5, I found myself doing something I've never done with a racing game before: driving simply for the joy of it. Just as with a great car, Gran Turismo 5 feels so great that it begs to be driven. You can't put it down. I found myself cruising the 8.5 miles of Circuit de la Sarthe this week just to enjoy the drive. When you get in the zone and really get in tune with the controls, this game really does let you tap into the pleasures of driving and racing. I'd like to imagine that Polyphony Digital has spent all this time fine-tuning this game for this very feeling.   Even beyond the 1,000 cars, dozens of track variations, countless modes, gorgeous visuals and mountains of options, Gran Turismo 5 has something more that speaks to the world's car lovers and racing fans. The level of care taken by the people at Polyphony Digital shines in every aspect of this title, and this makes for a racing game that truly has no parallel. Gran Turismo 5 is a massive love letter to those that love cars. This is their dream videogame. 

It didn't even register at first. I put my review copy of Gran Turismo 5 into my PS3 and started it up, watched a lovely cutscene and then began playing. No fanfare. No parade. No banners hanging from the ceiling. Here I was,...

Review: Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom

Nov 22 // Jim Sterling
Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom (Xbox 360 [reviewed], PlayStation 3)Developer: Game RepublicPublisher: Namco BandaiReleased: November 23, 2010MSRP: $39.99 If there's one word I would use to describe Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom, it would be "delightful." From beginning to end, Majin is a game designed from the ground up to make you smile, and in that respect, it is a magnificent success. A charming and compelling experience, if any game this year could be considered heartfelt and genuine, then this would be it.  Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom takes the form of a third-person adventure game. Playing as the thief Tepeu, your job is to stop The Darkness (not the Justin Hawkins variety) that has enveloped a long-forgotten realm. Tepeu on his own is an ineffective warrior against the forces of decay, but that's why he's joined by the hulking Majin, Teotl.  Using some very simple and intuitive commands, the player can make Teotl perform a variety of tasks, all of which will be essential. Although combat is a big part of the game, Forsaken Kingdom's major focus is on using Teotl's skills to solve a variety of environmental puzzles. As the game progresses, the Majin will acquire wind, fire, lightning and purification spells, all of which are both useful in combat and essential in traveling through the Forsaken Kingdom.  The title bears some similarities to The Legend of Zelda. Although there's no strict definition between an overworld and dungeons, the way in the which the game is structured, with the ability to freely roam around the entire map and backtrack with new skills to explore previously treacherous terrain gives it an open-ended feel, and the way in which Teotl gains fresh abilities and uses them to take on the game's increasingly bizarre bosses is highly reminiscent of Nintendo's classic franchise.  While there's a little bit too much backtracking, the environments are pretty enough to get away with it, and it's always fun to earn a new skill, such as Fire, and then use it to suck up flames that were blocking a path in an earlier section of the game. The game really could have been helped by a better way to fast travel around the map. There are "transport" rooms dotted around the map, but there are only five of them, two of which aren't unlocked until the penultimate boss has been defeated.  The environmental puzzles are never overly taxing, but they're all rather clever and make such great use of Teotl's skills that he constantly endears himself to the player through his in-game actions. That charm is sometimes strained by the occasional bit of spotty AI, but he remains an effective partner on the whole, who will respond to commands efficiently and often rather adorably.  Combat is a very interesting affair, in which the Majin does a lot of the work, but the player is never left idle. Tepeu's attacks are comparatively weak but the player character is an essential component to every fight. While Teotl smashes enemies around, Tepeu can throw rocks at enemies to distract them, or find gunpowder barrels and traps to damage or stun foes. Keeping Teotl safe while avoiding damage yourself can sometimes be a tricky prospect, but each fight is satisfying and tense, especially when the bigger, deadlier enemies appear.  Of course, Tepeu can also get stuck in with the fighting, and he can command the Majin to use his magical abilities for an extra kick. Attacking a downed foe or an enemy stunned by magic often opens the way for a powerful combination attack, in which Teotl and Tepeu will combine their strength to finish off an opponent. Simply pressing B initiates a combo, and rewards the dynamic duo with Friendship Shards. As more shards are gained, the bond between the two players increases, leading to new moves and more powerful attacks.  As well as straight combat, several major fights can be won by using the environment. At various points in the game, the Majin can be commanded to push against walls or boulders, knocking them into the soldiers of Darkness for instant death. Often, it will be Tepeu's job to lead the enemy into the trap, which never gets old. There are also simple stealth elements to the game, where Tepeu can sneak up behind unwary soldiers and execute them from behind. If the Majin isn't nearby to suck up the Darkness' soul, however, enemies killed in this will to come back to life after a couple of minutes.  Game Republic have done a tremendous job of making Teotl important without marginalizing the player's own input. Despite the fact that you'll be commanding the Majin to perform actions, you're never left without a job of your own. The player will be sneaking, jumping, climbing and attacking throughout the game, all the while fighting to keep the Majin safe and healthy just as much as the fights to do the same for you.  Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom is full of neat co-op gimmicks, but it never oversuses them. You won't be pushing walls onto enemies over and over again. In fact, I'd argue that many of the game's gimmicks aren't used enough. I'd have loved more opportunities to roll boulders onto Darkness soldiers, or drop exploding barrels on their heads. Major kudos are to be had, however, for focusing on variety over repetition.  The game will take over eight hours to beat, and more play time can be had through exploring the gorgeous environments. Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom is full of stuff to find, from "Memory Shards" that bestow rewards on Tepeu, to hidden chests containing XP for Tepeu's strength/stamina and costume items that change the character's appearance and confers unique abilities. The costumes are especially cool, and I wish the game had many more of them on offer. I beat the game in thirteen hours, and was able to acquire all but one of Teotl's stat upgrades while missing quite a few costume pieces and unknown items. If you purchase games based on length, then this one has enough content for you.  There are a few issues with the game that hold it back from perfection. Animations are sometimes clunky, especially in the hit detection area. It makes a few relatively simple jumps far more difficult than they should be. A number of the game's canned animations slow down the pace of the game, too, and sometimes directly affect the combat. One boss fight, for instance, is made more difficult because Tepeu repeats the same sluggish animation every time he prepares a certain attack. The irritating "running out of breath" animation that occurs whenever Tepeu sprints for too long could have safely been abolished, too. Although the animations can often feel clunky, the game's visual style is absolutely gorgeous and more than makes up for it. The soldiers of Darkness are especially fantastic, constantly dripping with a black, sticky tar-like substance that makes their feet stick to the ground as they walk. As Tepeu takes damage, he slowly becomes enveloped in this substance, and I found myself actually enjoying getting attack just to see the amazing effects. Makes me wish that we gave out awards for the best "gloopiness" effect in a game, because this would win by a mile.  Despite a few issues with AI and animations, Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom is an absolutely superb effort from Game Republic. It remains charming and sweet without ever becoming cloying or twee, with a genuinely interesting story and a wonderful character in Teotl. The gameplay feels at once traditional and unique, and the overall experience is both remarkable and memorable. No other game released this year has quite so much heart as this.  It truly is one of those special games that not many will discover, but those that do will fall in love with it. Like I have. 

A kingdom has been overtaken by a substance known only as the Darkness, which envelops living beings and turns them into mindless, nigh invincible soldiers of evil. Tepeu, a young thief who can talk to animals, steals his way...

Review: Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood

Nov 16 // Nick Chester
Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360) [Note: Both versions were played for this review.]Developer: Ubisoft Montreal Publisher: UbisoftReleased: November 16, 2010MSRP: $59.99 As far as the core mechanics are concerned, Brotherhood sticks to the formula of the previous titles, with the player once again taking on the role of Assassin’s Creed II’s lead, Ezio Auditore. It’s all about the open-world exploration of the game’s breathtaking translation of 15th-century Rome, scaling the city’s massive structures with smooth and fast parkour-style movements. In Brotherhood, silent assassinations are still encouraged, but with an enhanced fighting system, direct confrontation is more viable than ever. There’s a new kick, for instance, that can be used aggressively to break a tough enemy’s defense. Other additions to combat include a hidden pistol and some satisfying chained assassinations. The latter sees Ezio dispatching enemy after enemy in quick and brutal succession, making the player feel like an indomitable badass. Even with a heavy focus on direct combat, Brotherhood doesn’t play like Bayonetta or God of War. Instead, it’s a rhythmic experience, with surprising variations in animations that always lead to a satisfying conclusion. Brotherhood gets its namesake from another new element found in the game, the ability to recruit novice assassins from among the citizens of Rome. Once they’re brought into the fold, a meta-game opens up that will have you sending them on tasks all across Europe, either alone or in groups. As missions are successfully accomplished, the assassins earn experience points and can then be leveled up, allowing them to attend to even more difficult engagements. This is all a text-based affair, simple in its execution, but it’s easy to get wrapped up in building your brotherhood and watching it grow. While it’s certainly a nice diversion to build up a fellowship of clandestine murderers, the real satisfaction comes from calling on them in the game world to perform assassinations or help you in battle. With a simple button press, you can summon your brothers (and sisters) to assassinate targets right before your eyes. As empowering as it is to quietly sneak up on a guard and take him out, sight unseen, there’s something even more fulfilling about watching your minions descend (seemingly from nowhere) upon a target at your command, doing your dirty work for you. In one instance, I sent a few after a group of three guards -- two assassins jumped down from a rooftop to pummel two guards while another leaped out of a mound of hay to briskly sever the jugular of the third. Assassins can also be killed in battle, and since they can be leveled up, customized visually, and even have names, losing one can sometimes be an emotional affair. I still am mourning the death of my very first protégé, Nico... While most of the open-world portion of the game will have you confined to the city of Rome, don’t sweat the fact that it’s only a single area. The capital city is massive and has multiple districts, each with its own feel and vibe. There’s plenty to do and see -- even outside the game’s “sequence” missions, which move the narrative forward -- certainly more than in either Assassin’s Creed or its sequel, which makes the quick follow-up that is Brotherhood even more impressive. Detailing all of the side-quests and optional missions would take forever, but suffice it to say they’re even more diverse and creative than those found in previous games, some even having their own instanced areas and scenarios that simply must be sought out and seen. Playing the game for review was extraordinarily difficult, and with only a finite number of hours to make it to the game’s conclusion, I was constantly distracted and drawn to every single side activity. Whether it’s the incredible Leonardo da Vinci sequences, where you work to destroy war machines and blueprints, or an underground hand-to-hand fight club, the activities are staggering in their diversity and breadth. As in Brotherhood’s predecessors, you’re not limited to exploring 15th-century Rome: a few game sections take place outside of the memories relived within the genetic-memory-exploring Animus. It’s in these sequences that you’ll once more play as Desmond, interacting with other members of the modern-day assassin’s order such as Lucy, voiced again by Veronica Mars actress Kristin Bell. The difference is that in Brotherhood, except for a few forced segments, you can hop in and out of the Animus at any time by pressing Start and then exiting the simulation. While it’s nice to have that freedom this time around, I did find that it worked against the favor of the story. Exploring outside the Animus can yield some secrets, but the interaction with the other characters seemed mostly inconsequential. While the modern sequences in previous games had weight -- they moved along the story in a crucial way, and you looked forward to the each one -- that’s just not the case here, and it’s a little disappointing. That brings me to what’s arguably the weakest part of Brotherhood, steeped in an otherwise outstanding game -- its story. Taken by itself, it’s not terrible, but this is probably not the narrative follow-up that fans wanted trailing the mystifying finale of Assassin’s Creed II. Revisiting the tale of Ezio works fine as an epilogue to that game, and the tale of the assassin brotherhood working to reclaim Rome from the demented Borgia family is adequately compelling. Still, the overall narrative doesn’t really hold as much gravity as previous titles. There’s certainly not very much explained or even revealed about the overarching assassin/Templar chronicle, outside of the game’s final hours. Fans should also brace themselves for the game’s conclusion, which makes Assassin’s Creed II’s head-scratching finish seem like a neatly-wrapped sitcom finale in comparison. Given the quality and scope of Brotherhood’s single-player experience, it’s already a must-buy. But I’ve yet to even touch on the game’s most radical addition to the series: online multiplayer. The multiplayer mode is broken up into four gametypes -- "Wanted" (a free-for-all mode), an advanced version of "Wanted," "Alliance" (two-player team cooperative play), and another team-based mode, "Man Hunt." What each mode boils down to is hunt and simultaneously be hunted, with the game assigning targets simply by providing players with an image of said mark. Ten character skins are available from the get-go, each with its own set of animations, but functionally identical in every other way. The game then populates the title’s eight maps (with four more unlockable as the community reaches certain milestones) with the skins chosen by the players. So what you get is a city filled with many citizens going about their business, some of whom look like your potential victim. As you can imagine, the difficulty of finding your target is exacerbated by this fact. Worse yet is that finding and killing a computer-controlled citizen leads to a loss of points. It’s these details that make Brotherhood’s multiplayer a psychological game like nothing else really seen on consoles. You’re given a compass of sorts that will direct you to the general area of where your prey is, but the game never really holds your hand and identifies it for you. The key is recognizing certain behaviors that are unique to human players. You’ll never see a computer-controlled citizen scale a building, nor will one just take off running. See someone making jerky movements in a crowd? That could be your victim. On the flip side, knowing you’re also being hunted is a persistent source of stress, and you’ll be adapting your behavior accordingly to “blend in” with crowds and outwit your pursuer. If you’re spotted, however, be prepared to flee -- it’s not uncommon for fast-paced chases to break out, with two players (or sometimes more) pursuing each other through alleys and across the rooftops of structures. While all of the character skins are on an even level to start, players can also advance through 50 levels of progression as they earn experience points by winning matches and meeting certain conditions. At fixed levels, abilities and passive perks are awarded, which can drastically change the way you play and apply tactics. Each of the game’s 12 abilities -- like the ability to morph your character skin into another to deceive potential assassins, or being able to throw down firecrackers to cause chaos or weed out prey -- can be leveled up as well. According to Ubisoft, there’s 40 hours of play here before the “average” gamer reaches their maximum potential level. While there was certainly not enough time for me to work through all 50 levels myself, I did spend time playing on both ends of the spectrum -- once on a private account Ubisoft had leveled up to 50 for me, and another on retail servers starting from scratch. Having abilities at your disposal certainly seems to give you a slight advantage, too. Hopping on a retail game server a day before launch, my level-one player already had to contend with opponents who had reached level 20. Having a player toss a smoke bomb in my face to get me off their tail was a bit frustrating, considering it was a tool I was numerous levels away from having in my arsenal. It wasn’t so overwhelming that I wanted to rage-quit, but it’ll be interesting to see how it shakes out once players worldwide start digging in. As a deviation from the hours of single-player content, the multiplayer is successful in offering a unique and fun set of experiences that aren’t really like anything else out there. No, there isn’t a threat of it replacing Call of Duty: Black Ops as the go-to online game this winter, but Brotherhood’s multiplayer mode provides a fresh, fun take on competitive multiplayer that rewards a player’s perception as much as his or her twitch-based gaming skills. It’s a bit disappointing, however, that you’re so limited in terms of the number of players -- you must have a minimum of six for all modes, and the most you’ll have in one game is eight. It’s entirely possible that any more or any fewer players would completely break the dynamic, but in a world where double-digits is the norm, eight may seem like a meager amount to some. For those folks who didn’t enjoy Ubisoft’s previous sequel (hey, I think I know a guy!), Brotherhood has nothing to offer -- outside of its incomparable multiplayer, perhaps -- that will change their minds. This isn’t a game that repairs “problems” or departs radically from a formula. It is, however, a game that improves on just about every facet, and dumps a ton of content on the player to boot.It seemed to be an impossible task for Ubisoft to turn around a year after the release of Assassin’s Creed II and deliver such a polished follow-up to a game that many critics were calling one of 2009’s best titles. Yet, against all odds, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood exists in 2010, and it not only lives up to the hype, but it manages to completely outclass its predecessor. Brotherhood is a game that Assassin’s Creed fans simply cannot afford to miss, and one of best games this year.

Let’s deal with the elephant in the room right now: Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood isn’t a quick cash-in on last year’s massively successful and (mostly) critically-acclaimed sequel. It’s not a f...

Review: Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit

Nov 09 // Nick Chester
Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit (PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)Developer: Criterion GamesPublisher: Electronic ArtsRelease date: November 16, 2010Price: $59.99 (PS3/360) / $49.99 (PC) Let’s get it out of the way right now -- Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit feels and plays like a Burnout title in almost everything but its name. Hot Pursuit tries to straddle a thin line between realistic car handling and accessible arcade racing, and while it definitely nails it, it’s unquestionably closer to the latter. It’s basically car porn, with slick and exotic rides, and the handling and feel you’d expect from high-end vehicles. It’s never so demanding that folks who aren’t interested in hitting that perfect line will feel left out, but is instead a game that encourages you to revel in maximum velocity at all times. Hot Pursuit’s “Career” mode puts you on both sides of the law, alternating between speed-junkie illegal racer and police officer. As either, your goals are essentially the same -- drive as fast as possible. The difference here is that as a racer, you’ve got the fuzz on your tail; as an officer, you are the tail. With no real narrative to speak of outside of “put the pedal to the metal and don’t stop,” the career is completely open, allowing you to choose events from various parts of the map, spread across the fictitious Seacrest County. It’s a bit odd at first, not being able to choose your allegiance; you alternate between breaking and enforcing the law, which earns XP and ranks up both careers separately but congruently. But choosing one over the other would mean you’d miss out on the pleasures of stepping into each role, which are equally exhilarating in their own right. Events on either side of the law are broken up into a few basic categories, like straightforward race events, timed events (such as a “Time Trial,” or the police version, “Rapid Response”), and so forth. “Hot Pursuit” races are the highlight, a typical race with the wrinkle being that cops are looking to shut it down by any means necessary. As a racer, these events are nerve-racking, with police cars aggressively trying to take you out as you speed towards the finish line against other racers. As the police, these events feel a lot like Burnout’s “Road Rage,” only you’re attempting to take out a finite number of racers before they reach their goal. Spicing things up a bit, both racers and police have their own sets of equipment, which adds an interesting Mario Kart-like layer of offense and defense to each event. As a cop, you’ll have access to police department backup, such as roadblocks and helicopter support to slow down fleeing racers. As a law-breaking bad guy behind the wheel, you’ll be able to jam police communications, basically a defense against anything they have in their arsenal. Both sides can use targeted EMPs or throw down spike strips to slow down vehicles and get a pesky pursuer off your tail. Each event doles out equipment differently, and they’re all available in limited amounts (with “cool down” times for follow-up use), striking a nice balance on both sides. Outside of Hot Pursuit’s balls-to-the-wall action racing, these tools add an exciting layer to the gameplay that set it apart from events in the Burnout series and other racers. Hot Pursuit also seems like a tighter experience that Criterion’s last title. While Burnout Paradise threw players into an open city where they’d find events sprinkled about, Hot Pursuit compartmentalizes Seacrest County into bite-sized events. The map itself is massive and varied, and can be fully explored in the game’s “Freedrive” mode, but there’s something quite comforting about hopping into these pre-packaged events and targeting medals and other goals. Given how big Seacrest County actually is (it’s hard to get a sense of this unless you explore it in “Freedrive”), it should go without saying that the races vary in look and feel, with dozens of off-the-path shortcuts and hidden routes to explore. Getting to know each track and each event comes with time, and there’s nothing quite as a rewarding as mastering a route and shaving seconds off your best time, or finding the best ways as a police officer to blindside a racer. So Hot Pursuit has all of its core elements in place, with its fast cars, dynamic events, and breathtaking speeds. But where Criterion really takes things to the next level is the game’s social aspects, which truly bring Hot Pursuit to life like no other racer. The key is the game’s “Autolog,” a consistent experience that has you competing with your friends 24/7, constantly keeping you up to date with their game progress, their most recent records, goals obtained, and more. It’s an absolutely seamless setup that easily lets you compare event results in an elegant and streamlined way. Other games have hinted at it, but none quiet have nailed it like Criterion has with Hot Pursuit. There’s almost never a time when you have to navigate through a series of menus to see where you stand against your friends; it’s just there, and you can’t miss it -- it’s as important a part of the game as the cars you drive. “Autolog Suggests” takes it even further, utilizing your entire friends list to tailor challenges and suggest events to you. Completed everything in the career mode? Maybe a friend has, too, and he or she has done it better -- Autolog will tell you, and kick your ass into gear, egging you on to take on the next challenge. You can even post messages on the in-game “walls” of your friends, taunting them or sending out challenges. It’s a system that relies heavily on how many friends you have that are also playing Hot Pursuit, and your mileage on what you get out of this will vary accordingly. Autolog can even suggest friends, if you’re normally the loner type. But even playing the game on a smaller scale (that is to say, not against my personal friends, instead in a limited review capacity), it’s obvious that Autolog can incite some serious competition. I found myself pushing my records higher and higher, replaying events that I normally wouldn’t have if Hot Pursuit didn’t offer such a sophisticated competitive environment. This kind of “always-on” competition doesn’t get in the way of the game’s live multiplayer matches, which let you compete against friends (or strangers) in online events composed of the same modes you’d find offline. The rush of the offline races and chases translates gloriously to an online environment; with so many variations available for each event, it seems like it could never get old. Want to race with one cop chasing the seven remaining players? How about one player getting chased by seven cops? You can imagine things get pretty intense, and no matter who comes out on top, it’s always an incredibly satisfying experience. Unfortunately, Hot Pursuit doesn’t appear to offer any split-screen race capabilities, which is a bit of a downer. It’s obvious that Criterion spent most of their time focusing on online connectivity and networking, but offline “cops versus robbers”-style split-screen chases would have been a welcome addition.Criterion hasn’t rebooted the Need for Speed series, instead taking classic key elements and injecting them with new life for the current generation. It delivers a near-perfect competitive experience, in a way that few games -- racing or otherwise -- can. Hot Pursuit is not only a defining moment for the series, but for arcade-style racing, period.

With 2008’s Burnout Paradise, Criterion Games solidified its spot as the king of fast-paced, arcade-style racing. So when Electronic Arts decided it was ready to take the Need for Speed series back to its earl...

Review: Rock Band 3

Oct 21 // Nick Chester
With 15 years of developing music games under its belt, saying that Harmonix Music Systems has some experience with the genre is a bit of an understatement. Launching into the spotlight with Guitar Hero in 2005, the Boston-based developer has spent years iterating on and polishing that original design.  Five years later, the market is crowded with multi-instrument music titles; Harmonix’s latest, Rock Band 3, is one of three hitting shelves this holiday. But the developer has always led the pack, including being the first to introduce full band play with its original Rock Band. With its latest game, it’s unmistakable -- Harmonix has no peer in this space. With its new additions and ingenious interface tweaks, Rock Band 3 is undeniably the finest and most refined music game the market has ever seen.    Rock Band 3 (Xbox 360 [reviewed], PlayStation 3, Wii) Developer: Harmonix Music Systems Publisher: MTV Games / Electronic Arts Price: Standalone - $59.99 (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3), $49.99 (Wii) Rock Band 3 is kind of a big deal: a massive, multi-layered product that’s more than it seems on the surface. But the game’s hot selling point -- the back-of-the-box bullet point that is going to make it stand out at retail -- is its support for all-new instruments, including keyboard and “pro” instruments. That’s the stuff you want to hear about, right? So let’s start there… Long-rumored (and oft-requested), keyboards are now a part of the Rock Band experience, complete with a brand-new peripheral. This controller is closer to its real-life counterpart than any instrument peripheral before it, with a full two-octave range of keys for in-game use. It’s lightweight but sturdy, and can be comfortably played with it sitting on your lap, attached to a strap “keytar”-style, or sitting on a keyboard stand (sold separately). “Standard” key mode will be immediately familiar to anyone who has played a Rock Band game, the note highway consisting of five colored notes that correspond with five keys that sit on the upper range of the keyboard. Just like with guitar, notes drift towards the screen in varying patterns, correlating with the music; this includes everything from single notes to varying “chord types” that you’ll be become familiar with as you work your way through the game’s soundtrack.  Speaking of the game’s soundtrack in relation to keys, it needs to be noted that not every track on the game disc has native key support. Of the game’s 83 songs, only 63 of them feature keyboards and associated charting. Of those 63, there are a number that feature keyboard or piano parts that aren’t especially riveting, either. Many of the bands keep them to a minimum, sometimes just for atmosphere or “character”; as you can expect, those songs aren’t particularly fun to play on the keys.  Standing idly by while the song carries on with guitar, bass, vocal, and drum tracks, only to pop in a few times (and with a few notes) can be dull, to say the least. Sticking only to keyboards, you’ll find that songs start to repeat themselves fairly often, too. This will be remedied in the future, though, as Harmonix promises to continue to support the Rock Band platform with new music, much of which can and will place an emphasis on this new instrument. (Just earlier this week, a full track pack of Billy Joel’s music was announced; a number of tracks by The Doors will be made available alongside the launch of Rock Band 3 as well.)  But on the songs that do make heavy use of keyboards (even if they’re not always particularly complicated parts), you’ll find that it’s just as satisfying as using the standard guitar or drum peripheral. It helps that the keyboard can also be used to play either bass or guitar parts in songs that don’t support native keyboard charting, including tracks from previous games and downloadable content. (Hint: Search out those songs that charted synth, strings, or piano parts to guitar and bass instruments; might I suggest all of those Lady Gaga songs you downloaded while you thought no one was looking?)  Once you’ve mastered those Expert keyboard parts (and good luck, because they certainly can get tough), it’s time to play a real instrument. Surprise: if you’ve got the keyboard peripheral, you’ve already got one -- all of the songs that support keyboards in Rock Band 3 also support “Pro” mode. This mode utilizes the familiar note highway with a twist, in that it displays all of the notes on the instrument (with parts of the lane shifting left or right, when necessary), asking you to play the actual notes (including chords) from the song. In almost all ways, Pro mode is obviously more difficult than the standard mode, but certainly more fun and rewarding.  Pro mode also extends itself to the guitar and bass tracks for all of the new songs on Rock Band 3, with the introduction of two new peripherals -- the “this is an actual guitar” string-based Fender Squier Stratocaster (which acts as a game controller and doubles as a real guitar) and the 102-button Fender Mustang. Pro mode for guitar works in a similar fashion to Pro keys, with numbered notes (which correspond with fret positions) coming down a six-string (or six-"lane") note highway. If you’re a guitar player, you’ll recognize it as being similar to standard (horizontal) tablature; it’s generally easy to understand, even for novices, who will likely be able to pick up the concept within minutes.  Every drum track in the game, including all older tracks that you may have exported to your hard drive, also supports Pro mode. This mode makes use of cymbal attachments (up to three), and even features support for a hi-hat pedal if you choose to go that route. In addition to the standard four-pad-plus-bass-drum charting, the game overlays cymbal hits where appropriate. This charting, in theory, should mirror the same part you’d play on a real kit. For anyone who’s been playing Rock Band drums since the first game, this isn’t going to be a huge leap. While the Pro mode is certainly more complicated, you’ve already got those basics down. It’s interesting to see how the jump from the standard Rock Band kit to a full kit (for all intents and purposes) isn’t quite as large as you might expect.  These ambitious Pro modes are a huge step for Harmonix and music gaming, essentially holding the player’s hand while they are guided through playing a song on a genuine instrument (or at least a close approximation of one). It’s a response to the “just play an instrument” cries, and truly seems like the culmination of everything Harmonix has always set out out to do: slowly introduce gamers to the “real world” of music. As a self-taught guitar player, something like Rock Band 3’s Pro guitar mode would have been welcome while I was holed up in my bedroom as a teenager trying to figure out the riffs to my favorite songs. Make no mistake, playing these Pro modes isn’t going to be easy. Unlike the standard colored five-note charting, it’s unlikely many folks will be able to sight-read this stuff, especially on Expert levels; I found that learning and then anticipating the parts (rather than reading them on the fly) yielded the best results. So you’re going to fail or miss hundreds of notes. It’s going to require practice. It’s going to be frustrating; it’s going to require dedication and a lot of repetition. Yes, this is just like learning an instrument. Whether the hours that that requires can be considered “fun” is up for debate, and many will fail or get frustrated and give up, even with the great tools Harmonix has included in Rock Band 3. But as anyone who has mastered an instrument (or even the simplest song) can tell you, the rewards are worth the effort. Even if you’ve got no ambitions to play a real instrument -- if the simple act of picking up a faux instrument and rocking out does it for you (and hey, that’s fine, too) -- Rock Band 3’s still got plenty to offer. Building on the core of its previous titles, Rock Band 3 has an exhaustive list of new features, although none of them particularly worthy of a bullet point on the back of the game’s retail box. Nonetheless, once you’ve started using them, you’ll wonder how you lived without them.  Of particular note are the features tied in with your song library. The game’s new song sorting now allows you to filter out tracks from your library based on a number of factors including song length, genre, difficulty, score, and more. You’ll also be able to rate songs (on a scale of one to five lighters), with the higher-ranking songs appearing more frequently in random setlists and the lower-ranking songs becoming more scarce. The game will even use that information to suggest downloadable content, which might be hell on your wallet, but can help keep casual players in the loop on new releases relevant to their interests.   Rock Band 3 also addresses many of the frustrations found in previous iterations of the series, including giving players the ability to drop in and drop out of songs at any time. In fact, every rocker gets his or her own menu using the game’s “overshell”; while navigating the menus, every player can quickly hop into their own menu and edit their options without disturbing other players signed in. It’s a small thing, but the result is fewer minutes futzing around with menus, and it’s especially useful when playing in large groups or a party setting.  The game also features a new style of career progression that spans across aspects of the game. Instead of entering a single career mode, you’ll be able to earn fans across all of the game’s modes by following a number of goals. Sort of like a mini-achievement system built into the game, you have access to a series of goals spanning all instruments, as well as general game objectives. It’s super easy (and super fun) to track them, giving even casual players an easy way to chart and plan their progress. As you accumulate fans (this can also be done by following the game’s more structured “Road Challenges”), you’ll progress your band to stardom, like in previous titles. You’ll start seeing them play in bigger venues, using nicer travel accommodations, being mobbed by fans, and more.    Much of this will happen as you navigate menus, too, with your created characters and bands always engaging in some activity -- setting up for a show, relaxing at a bar -- between sets. This might seem small, but this is important to note, because you’re not going to be spending a lot of time staring at loading screens or static menus in Rock Band 3. There’s always something happening, the game is always moving, and you’re always engaged with your band. And here’s a big one: there are very few perceivable loading screens in Rock Band 3, whether you’re playing gigs or simply selecting a song in quickplay. Just choose a song, and within moments, after a seeing your band setting up for your gig (sure, it’s hiding a loading screen, but it’s super brief), you’re right into playing the track. It’s odd that I’ve gotten this far into a review for a music game without directly addressing the on-disc soundtrack, right? There’s a good reason for that, and I think it has to do with the fact that -- up until this point -- there’s simply so much music available for what Harmonix has always referred to as a “platform.” By way of downloadable content and music export from some of its retail games (all of which, save for The Beatles: Rock Band, can be played in Rock Band 3), there are currently over 2,000 songs available to play. Sure, it’s unlikely you’re going to have them all, but your options for building your library have become so broad that addressing the 83 songs on the Rock Band 3 disc seems superfluous. (But I’m about to do it anyhow...) Of course, with every music game, you won’t be able to please everyone all of the time. At the very least, Harmonix continues its tradition of crafting a well-rounded setlist featuring parts that are fun to play across all of its instruments (some of my earlier gripes about the keyboard-specific songs notwithstanding). It’s likely you’ll find songs on the disc you could do without, but as the saying goes, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. There’s also something to be said for Harmonix’s song selection process, which appears to come from a genuine passion for the music, versus selecting songs based on their marketability. Even if you don’t love every track on the disc, the reasons for why each has its place here should be obvious to anyone with a musically open mind.    All of my praise aside, if you’ve tired of the genre or never had any interest, it’s unlikely that Rock Band 3 is going to change that for you. If your interest is piqued because of the game’s new Pro modes -- and it should be -- be wary that it’s a considerable investment in terms of both money, time, and effort. If you’re not prepared to put in the work, it might not be for you.  For fans of the series and the music gaming genre, Rock Band 3 is a must-buy, simply because it’s unsurprisingly the best iteration in the series yet. It’s not only going to replace similar and competing games in your music library, but it makes them look downright dated in comparison. It’s a game that’s so solid that Harmonix could continue to support the game with downloadable content for years to come, and fans would find little to complain about. If they’re already dreaming of a follow-up, they’ve got their work cut out for them, because Rock Band 3 seems about as close to perfect as you’re going to get.
In short, it rocks
With 15 years of developing music games under its belt, saying that Harmonix Music Systems has some experience with the genre is a bit of an understatement. Launching into the spotlight with Guitar Hero in 2005, the Boston-ba...

Review: Super Meat Boy

Oct 17 // Jonathan Holmes
Super Meat Boy (WiiWare, PC, XBLA [reviewed]) Developer: Team Meat Publisher: Team Meat Released: October 20, 2010 [XBLA], TBA 2010 [WiiWare, PC] MSRP: $15 Super Meat Boy is a game about a sentient cube of bloody flesh that's on a mission to reunite with his lady love; a girl made from bandages. Just like with the best of 2D mascot platformers of the 80's and 90's, below this simple premise lies a wealth of gameplay potential. Super Meat Boy takes the very best aspects of the genre and concentrates them into a focused blast of pure, unadulterated run-and-jump bliss. All of the now useless leftovers from the arcade era and stale tropes of console days past have been cut. What's left is a game that feels like a "best of" compilation of classic platformers, while remaining 100% fresh. This is master level craftsmanship in game design. The ingredients that make up Super Meat Boy aren't new, but the recipe is brand new. At its core, the game is really only made from two things; character physics and level design. In the hands of lesser developers, that could lead to a repetitive, stale experience. Luckily, this is Team Meat we're talking about. Their love and understanding of the  platforming genre shows in every inch of this game. That's a lot of inches. There are hundreds of levels here, and more than 12 characters that all play totally differently. The amount of mileage they get out of these simple building blocks is nothing short of astounding. Out of those 12 characters, Meat Boy is the most straight forward. He walks, runs, and jumps; that's it. Still, it took me weeks before I felt like I had come to be an expert at "driving" him. Learning the way he handles, how far he can jump, how fast he can drop, it all takes time, but after a while, you'll be pulling off amazing moves with him without even thinking about it. Holding run accelerates Meat Boy regardless of if he's on the ground or in mid air, which takes some time to fully grasp. He's also slippery as hell, with a touch of stickiness (from the constant bleeding and all), so he can both stick and slide up walls. But how fast do you have to run, and what angle do you have to hit the wall, in order to slide far enough up said wall to clear those spinning blades? Will wall jumping off the side of the ledge give you more horizontal distance that jumping from the top of the ledge, and even if it does, do you have the skill to make the jump without falling to your death? These are the types of questions I was constantly asking myself while playing Super Meat Boy. The game never stops throwing new problems at you, and remixing old problems in new ways that you never could have expected. Just when you think that you've seen the worst that the meat zombies, laser eyes, missile launchers, lava pools, giant fans, poison globs, white worms, salt avalanches, and other assorted death dealers that populate this world offer, suddenly, they'll come at you in a way that you'll feel completely unprepared for. You'll be dead in an instant, and you'll be sure that there was no way you could have survived. You'll feel totally defeated... for a second. Since the game usually respawns you no more than ten seconds away from what just killed you (or 30 seconds on the very last stages of the game), you'll be face to face with your former killer in no time. From there, you'll need to get psychological. You have to refuse to accept your preconceived limitations, trust your instincts, and combine your muscle memory with your analytical mind to find a path to survival. Sometimes it just take seconds, and the previously impossible obstacle course will feel like child's play. With that, you'll have become a better Meat Boy player, and it feels good. Then it's on the next level, where your mind will again be blown with the seemingly insurmountable obstacles before you, and double-blown by your ability to survive them, using levels of skill and creativity that you didn't know you had. Sometimes though, you wont be able to get through a level with just guts and determination alone. You might need a new character to get you through. Through secret warp zones and collectible bandages, you'll unlock a variety of platforming icons from other independent games. Each has their own strengths and weaknesses, but none of them stray too far from the "run and jump" basics. Jill from BDSM platformer Mighty Jill Off can slow her descent while falling if you mash jump. Tim from Braid is always moving at full speed, which frees up his jump button to activate his patented time reversal potion. Commander Video from Bit.Trip RUNNER can float like Peach from Super Mario Bros. 2, while the Pink Knight from Castle Crashers has a struggle-kick double-jump like Yoshi from Yoshi's Island. Some characters are definitely more useful than others (I ended up using the Kid from I Wanna Be the Guy as much as I could after unlocking him in Chapter 5), but they all have their moments to shine. There was one level that I was sure that I could never beat. It seemed flat out impossible, and it might have been with the character I was using. It involves jumping over a set of spikes while staying with a moving platform, and dodging black globs with teeth (reminiscent of the Isz from The Maxx) which can also explode into a spreadshot of smaller, equally deadly toothy globs. I tried that level with every character I knew how to use, and failed repeatedly, until I tried Flywrench. He/she is the heaviest, most sluggish character in the game. Turns out, the weird little abstract hero was perfect for the job. Thanks to his/her triple jump and accelerated decent speed (due to wrenches being heaver than meat?), I was able to get through the level fairly painlessly. At that moment,  I fell in love with Flywrench, at least a little bit. That was just one of literally hundreds of memorable "Eureka! I love you!" moments that I've experience in my play through of Super Meat Boy. Out of the game's 7 chapters and 300+ levels, I've managed to clear a little over 290. I've beaten every "lightworld" level, but the semi-optional "darkworld" stages are something else. These hard-as-hell, remixed versions of initially unlocked Super Meat Boy stages are only playable once you beat their lightworld equivalents within a predetermined time frame. You don't need to beat them all to see the first ending, but to get the "true ending" you must clear at least 85 of them, and beat a tougher version of the last boss. But that's not all. There are special warp zones and minus levels that can only unlocked via secret methods. You can try to unlock those at any time. Then after you beat the game, there's a set of 40 new levels that feature a new playable character (and incredibly hilarious, inappropriate pop music. On top of all that, there are currently 20 free XBLA-exclusive DLC stages, grouped under the name "The Butcher Boy." These stages are part of a larger, free DLC initiative called  "Teh Internets." Team Meat has pledged to continue to give us new levels through Teh Internets for as long as they possibly can. I've also heard that there is a 13th character that is unlocked once you get a 100% on the entire game. Sadly, I think it will be a long time before I see that character for myself, but I'll have a great time trying to get there. So that's the heart of what makes Super Meat Boy amazing; thousands of tiny 2D platforming adventures that together form more than the sum of their parts. Beyond that, you've got all the gravy; the amazing hand-animated cut scenes, the replay system that shows you all of your (likely many) deaths at once, the 4-color, 4-bit, and 8-bit retro warp zones, the phenomenal soundtrack, and the game's multiple boss battles. If there is one part of the Super Meat Boy experience that doesn't quite hold up to the rest, it's these boss battles. All of the bosses are masterfully designed from a visual standpoint, but they are not all truly memorable gameplay experience. Some of the boss fights are fantastic, while others feel exactly like playing a standard stage of the game. That's by no means a bad thing, as a standard stage in Super Meat Boy is still a lot of fun, but I couldn't help but expect that the boss fights would offer something different. That's partially because  a lot of the boss fights are really different. Taking on a giant blob of amorous, kissy faced clotted blood, and later, an enormous Meat Boy devil zombie, are both fantastic experiences. Other battles, like running from a giant chainsaw robot, or racing against a Brownie who has all of Meat Boy's platforming skills, both feel a little less thunderous in comparison. Yeah, that's about all I have for complaints regarding Super Meat Boy. In every other regard, the game just nails it. Unlike a lot of games from a small team, it doesn't try too hard to be different. Instead, it just strives to be the best at what it does, and it gets there. Team Meat has done more here to refine and evolve the genre that started with Donkey Kong than the real Donkey Kong sequels (including the Super Mario series) have done in ages. For that alone, I can say that Super Meat Boy stands amongst my favorite games of all time. First there was Donkey Kong, then came Mario, Mega Man, and Sonic. Now we have Meat Boy. The world's newest 2D platforming legend has arrived. Score: 9.5 -- Superb (9s are a hallmark of excellence. There may be flaws, but they are negligible and won't cause massive damage to what is a supreme title.)

My middle finger has been partially numb for over two weeks. I may have permanent nerve damage. I blame Super Meat Boy for this. The game doesn't actually requires use of the right middle finger (though I'm sure that wont sto...

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