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Destructoid on assignment

Preview: El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron

May 18 // Samit Sarkar
El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [previewed]) Developer: Ignition Entertainment Publisher: Ignition EntertainmentReleased: April 28, 2011 (JP)To be released: July 26, 2011 (NA) / September 9, 2011 (EU) The director of development on El Shaddai, Takeyasu Sawaki, served as a character designer on Devil May Cry and Okami, and Ignition tapped him for El Shaddai because of his experience on both of those games. One of the goals was to design a title that, like Okami, would have immediately arresting non-photorealistic graphics. Bettenhausen said that "Capcom gave [Sawaki] a lot of freedom, but they told him he couldn't go as far as he wanted" with the abstraction and surrealism in Okami's design. Ignition allowed him to unleash his full artistic creativity on El Shaddai, letting him build a team in Tokyo of about 65 people, many of whom had previously worked for companies such as Clover Studio, Konami, and Square Enix.The result is a striking visual style that draws from a diverse array of inspirations, including ancient Japanese art, African tribal art, and Native American art; each of the game's twelve acts features a unique art direction that sets it apart from the others. Of course, with a game based on mythology, the artists were free to interpret the text as they pleased -- Bettenhausen pointed out that no one can definitively say what the Tower of Babel, for example, would have looked like. (The narrative from the Book of Enoch was left essentially intact, though.)Key to El Shaddai's art direction is its utter lack of HUD elements. Visual cues convey vital information to you, whether they're letting you know that you're approaching death (Enoch's armor breaks away during combat) or that your weapon's effectiveness has been reduced (its color changes). Like God of War, the game manages the camera for you, providing some jaw-dropping angles of the action. Ignition also wanted El Shaddai to be a more accessible Devil May Cry-like title. "We felt like a lot of [third-person character action] games had become too complicated, [with] too many buttons [and] too much memorization. Whereas fans of the genre were playing them, nobody else was starting to play these games," Bettenhausen explained. Along with the analog sticks, you will only ever use four buttons in El Shaddai: jump/double-jump (A on Xbox 360/X on PlayStation 3), attack (X/square), block (RB/R1), and disarm/purify (LB/L1). Integrating jumping, blocking, and parrying still allows for a significant variety in combat -- the game's first weapon, the Arch, offers 26 different combos."More accessible" doesn't necessarily mean "easier," though. On the Normal difficulty, said Bettenhausen, the game is "actually pretty hard. [...] By level 5, it was almost Ninja Gaiden, that a regular enemy was killing me." (Good luck with Hard and Extra Hard, which are unlocked upon completion -- only one of the developers has managed to complete the game on the latter difficulty level.)El Shaddai is designed with strategic elements to its combat setup that keep you on your toes. You can carry only one weapon at a time, and after you have sufficiently weakened an enemy, you can disarm it and take its weapon. But the weapons have different levels of effectiveness against particular enemies, so you have to continuously manage your battles in a way that allows you to defeat your opponents with minimal effort. I watched Bettenhausen take on a group of attackers, and after inadvertently disarming someone, he explained that the weapon he stole was going to make the next phase of the battle more difficult because it wasn't ideal for the remaining enemies. But you'll have to either disarm enemies or leave yourself momentarily vulnerable if you want to make short work of them. Weapon become "defiled" over time -- that is, their strength drops -- and in order to restore their vitality, Enoch must periodically "purify" them. The animation takes a few seconds, depending on the weapon equipped, and you're defenseless during it. However, Enoch will automatically purify a stolen weapon during the disarm animation, so it's a very useful combat tactic.Weapons in El Shaddai also affect the way Enoch controls altogether -- his running, jumping, dodging, and inertia. One weapon, the Gale, gives Enoch a dash move that serves him very well in the game's numerous platforming sections. El Shaddai includes jumping puzzles that can get rather complicated, but many of its platforming segments are actually in 2D. According to Bettenhausen, about 40% of the game -- including entire acts, at points -- consists of 2D side-scrolling sequences (they're more plentiful toward the end). Some of these segments offer multiple paths to explore; all the game's secrets must be found in order to achieve the "good" ending.Bettenhausen loved the first 2D level that Sawaki showed him, but the designer expressed trepidations about its viability. "Will Americans and Europeans like this?" he asked Bettenhausen, who had to assure Sawaki that the idea was worth exploring. "Yes! We also love Mario!" The 2D sections vary the pace, and they have a greater focus on platforming. "We felt like the character-action games that came out over the last ten years were more about brawling [and] less about jumping," said Bettenhausen, and Ignition wanted to change that with El Shaddai. As the story goes, in the beginning, God created the Earth. He sent down seven angels to watch over it, known (appropriately enough) as the Watchers, and he entrusted them with an immense amount of power. This power, as it often does, corrupted the Watchers; they and humanity fell in love with each other, and their offspring were known as the Nephilim. (In the Book of Enoch, they're grotesque semi-human monsters, but Sawaki rendered them as "Studio Ghibli, slimy, cute Totoro thing[s].") The Watchers instructed humans to build the Tower of Babel, and each floor was its own utopia. Understandably, this angered God, who decided to unleash an apocalyptic flood on the Earth to wipe everything out for a do-over. As Enoch, you are tasked with finding seven fallen angels in order to prevent that flood of Biblical proportions.The art isn't the only surreal facet of El Shaddai -- its tale is told in the typically over-the-top anime style. Lucifer (known as "Lucifel" here, since the game takes place before his fall from Heaven) serves as a narrator and guide of sorts; because he has traveled through time and taken a shine to modern fashion, he wears a suit, and he talks to God on his cell phone in order to save your game. Yep. Lucifel's time travel plays an important role in the story, since, well, he knows what's going to happen.It takes Enoch 300 years to find the Tower of Babel, and one of the sections I saw and played took place in the City of the Martys, just outside the Tower. Picture the city of Zion from The Matrix Reloaded meeting Mario Kart's Rainbow Road track, and give it a Tron-like look, and you'll have some idea of the art direction of the level. El Shaddai definitely doesn't hold your hand; much of the level consisted of narrow bridges and platforms that you can fall off of, or be knocked by an enemy off of, to your death. A later section of the same level threw airborne enemies with projectile weapons at Enoch; you could either run past them, fight them, or try to time your jumps so that their attacks broke open item containers sprinkled along the path. With its stunning and fantastical art direction, classic "simplicity belies depth" controls, challenging combat and platforming, and unconventional take on Judeo-Christian mythology, El Shaddai is shaping up to be a strong title that may fly under most gamers' radar. "Luckily," said Bettenhausen, "this game doesn't have to sell like a God of War in order to be a success." It likely won't, but perhaps it should.
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"This game is the reason I joined Ignition three years ago," said Shane Bettenhausen, the publisher's director of business development, at a recent demo of El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron in New York. "I hate games that...

Hands-on: Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten

May 15 // Sherilynn Macale
Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten (PlayStation 3)Developer: NISPublisher: NISTo be released: September 2011 To be honest, I know absolutely nothing about the series aside from what I picked up at the NIS Spring Event. It has something to do with hell, right? And cute anime characters with wings or something? Luckily, Steve Carlton, Localization Coordinator at NIS, was able to clear up the plotline for us while schooling me on what’s up with the finer details of the game (and trust me, there are plenty). According to Carlton, the Disgaea games typically involve the crazy hijinks of the Netherworld (or Hell) and the goings on within. This time around, you begin the game as Valvatorez, previously a powerful tyrant overlord who gains his vampirish powers by ingesting human blood. However, after making a promise with a human girl to never to drink the blood of humans again, he loses his powers and drops to the lowest level of Hades, the Netherworld Prison. There, Valvatorez is in charge of training and disciplining Prinnies (the human souls of corrupt criminals and thieves who, after being transformed into comical penguin-like characters, must be trained to both act and speak a certain way in order to atone for their sins). Suddenly, problems! The demons in charge of scaring humans into being good aren’t doing their job. The Netherworld, affected by their slacking, is churning out far too many Prinnies, and Hell just can’t handle the overpopulated upkeep. Oh no! The President of Hell, in an attempt to keep the peace, decides to exterminate all of the Prinnies in one fell swoop. This prompts Valvatorez -- who has promised to keep the Prinnies safe -- to launch an anti-government campaign going against the laws of the Netherworld in order to overthrow the President and discipline everyone on the proper ways to run Hell. Mischief ensues! After getting a chance to test out the game myself, the first thing I noticed was the wacky and over-enthusiastic voice acting (think DeathSpank or a silly infomercial). It’s interesting that they chose a comedic tone for a game that definitely could have been a bit on the darker side. While taking my sweet time enjoying the introduction and studying the cute anime character sprites, some huffy journalist from some media site that’s not Destructoid tapped me on the shoulder and, in an irritated tone, asked if I was playing the game or not. Uhm, obviously, lady. Do you not see the PS3 controller in my hand? I politely told her that, yes, I am playing the game, and I also happen to be taking notes (with a wave of my iPhone in her face). She backed off (das wut I thought, son!) and left me to my gaming. Feeling a bit flustered (dang, people be pushy up in this bizz), I attempted to skip through the rest of the intro dialogue and found that it was fairly slow going. For one, you can’t really just mash X and fly through the script. Pressing start over and over also doesn’t seem to do much in the way of speeding things along. Glancing behind me, I could see the line growing and the amount of people watching my screen filling up. Oh, the pressure! Fortunately, Hamza “CTZ” Aziz was there to pat me on the shoulder and kindly say, “Screw them. They can wait their turn. You’re fine.” Destructoid FTW. After I finally reached a playable part of the game (they start Valvatorez off in his base of operations, sort of like a camp site), I was pleased with how quickly and smoothly I could navigate the map. Swiveling the left analog stick allowed me to steer Valvatorez through the base camp, while tapping L1 or R1 rotated my view by 90 degrees in whatever direction I chose. I could also zoom in or out to three different angles by holding square and again tapping the front left or right trigger buttons. Confusion followed when I realized I had no idea what I was doing or where I was supposed to go. There weren’t exactly any indicators saying, “S’cuse me, dumbass. Yer s’pose ta do this or talk ta this person right hurr.” Maybe this is due to me hurriedly skipping through the dialogue? Though I am something of a speed-reader anyways, so that probably wasn’t it. It took me a bit of talking to random NPCs littered throughout my base (who, according to Carlton, merely serve to supplement the storyline) before I managed to discover a glowing character with pigtails who apparently launches strategy battles for me. I first played through a tutorial that discussed the basic controls of battling. Then, feeling like a smarty-pants, I attempted to execute the button commands I had just learned. But wait, what was happening? Why isn’t X doing what it’s supposed to do, and why isn’t Circle behaving?! Again, maybe this is due to me rushing through the tutorial (though I swear I was paying attention to what does what), or perhaps due to the fact that this is a Japanese-to-English port, and they are still working on the translations for correct button mapping. Either way, it was simple enough to figure out with a little trial and error. The battle configuration was easy to understand and is fairly similar to every other strategy game I’ve played. I deployed fighters, clerics, etc by selecting my base panel (this glowing blue tile on the floor) and deciding on which characters I wanted to send into battle, then positioning them across the grid within their range of movement. A maximum of ten characters from your party can be on the field at any time, while your base panel holds the rest of your deployable stock. Eager to see my army in action, I quickly stationed my characters and executed their attacks, surprised when other minions I happened to place nearby joined in on the attacks for massive collaborative combos! The animations were so nuts that I can’t even really describe to you what it was that I saw (view the trailer for an idea), but I did get a chance to ask Steve Carlton for more details. “The multi-character attacks are random, but there are ways to increase the percentage of them occurring. The way you set up your government across the field affects how each person teams up with one another,” Carlton states. Massive character combo attacks with a huge personal army of minions to deploy? Color me intrigued. Unfortunately I didn’t have time to play through as much of the game as I would have liked, and from a follow-up interview with Steve Carlton, it turns out that I’ve only barely scratched the surface of Disgaea 4. The official trailer, for example, only touches on a few of the awesome features in the game -- like fully customizable maps, monsters that transform into weapons, the ability to log onto the Network and pirate characters from your friends and then discipline them into obedience, etc. Carlton estimates that the game will take maybe 40 hours to wrap up if the player just sticks to the main storyline with a dry run. As is the case with most complicated JRPGs, all of the side quests, mini games, and micro-customization features could possibly log you at anywhere from 200 - 300 hours to fully complete. A few more cool things you can expect from Disgaea 4 include: Weapon Mastery on anything from knuckles to swords (leveling up your weapons reveals unlockable skills and ultimate attacks which you can then also level up in order to become as powerful as possible -- holy crap); tons of monsters to both defeat, capture, and train into recruits for your already massive army; ways to level up your items or characters that involve battling down through different layers of maps within those characters or items; and defeating matches taking place inside of your minions or weapons themselves. PHEW! I’m sure I could go on forever about the incredible depth of Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten and the overwhelming strategy nuances it boasts, but ultimately, it comes down to the players to explore these features themselves. With a release date set for September 2011 and a price point at $49.99 ($59.99 for the Premium Edition), it sounds like NIS has plenty of time to fine tune the otherwise tongue-tying features of the game for its American audiences. Sherilynn "Cheri" Macale is a freelance journalist and illustrator who can't exactly decide what she wants to do with the rest of her life and so does absolutely everything. Harass and prod her via Twitter, check out the badassery on her Website, and leave a friendly message on her Facebook.
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Holy sh*tballs, this game is crazy. How do I even begin to describe how insanely complicated, yet ridiculously awesome Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten appears to be? Explosions, demons, monsters, penguins, pirates, massive p...

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Recap: Valve's Erik Wolpaw speaks at NYU Game Center


May 13
// Samit Sarkar
“I love these things, but I also know that there’s something weird, and kind of bizarre, and strange about them -- like, there’s something really dumb about them. [...] We love them, and, kind of, hate them ...

Hands-on: Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3Ds's Master Quest mode

May 11 // Sherilynn Macale
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (3DS) Developer: Nintendo Publisher: Nintendo To be released: June 19, 2011While I am typically the first in line to snag myself the latest in new consoles or gadgets, the 3DS is one system that I’ve patiently waited on picking up (mainly because it has no games worth playing just yet). But after sitting down with Nintendo to take Ocarina of Time for a test run, it was obvious that they were aiming to take full advantage of the shiny new features of the 3DS and incorporate them into the game as much as possible. Utilizing the 3D depth slider on the side of the handheld moves you from 2D to 3D in an instant, allowing you to control how strong you want your 3D Zelda experience to be. This is a feature that varies from game to game and is, of course, up to the developers to utilize (something that the Nintendo devs clearly took into account in order to make our experience with the game that much more enjoyable.) During this particular test run, I was able to view the remastered version of the Water Temple where everything from the vividness of the shifting water to the textures on the walls was now much more crisp and clear. Even Navi’s trail of sparkling fairy dust popped from the screen as she zipped from one item of interest to the next, chirping her familiar “Hey” and “Listen” catch phrases to grab my attention.I felt silly peering around my handheld looking for the C-Up button to access Navi’s hints as I’ve so often done with the N64 original, only to be pleasantly surprised when I found that they’ve now integrated Navi into the 3DS’s touch screen. A simple tap to Navi’s icon in the top left corner of the bottom screen brings her conveniently to life. And even more convenient still, they’ve managed to integrate the entire menu into the lower hub, making the overall navigation a breeze.You might remember how frustrating and time consuming it may have been to constantly pull open the menu in order to remap Link’s weapons and equipment to the various directional C-buttons.  However, in this updated version of Ocarina of Time, you are able to quickly map any item you want to hot keys (or shortcut keys) on the touch screen by simply tapping them to switch their positions. And hey, less time spent popping open your menu means more time spent actually playing and enjoying the game! The Water Temple, for example, is now much easier to navigate and explore through the use of the integrated touch screen menu. If you’ve played the original, you’ll remember Link’s essential Iron Boots -- an item that provides Link with enough weight to sink him down through the water in order to help him access various levels of the temple. Unequipping these boots, of course, floats him back to the surface.Other items and weapons like Din’s Fire, bombs, and of course Link’s handy slingshot or bow and arrow can also be hot-keyed as desired. But the 3DS takes playing with these old-school favorites to a whole new level by utilizing the system’s gyroscopic aiming feature.With your bow and arrow or slingshot equipped, you can tilt and move your handheld around, twisting and turning in order to shift Link’s aim in the game harmoniously with your own. While this might be awkward to view from afar during, say, a bus ride to work or school, the accuracy of this feature is surprisingly precise and smooth in execution and is something you do not want to miss out on. Can you imagine fishing with this feature? Or even better, playing through the Shooting Range in the Gerudo Fortress? Or bombing your way through the bowling alley minigame? There is so much fun to be had with a system that not only immerses you visually in the Zelda world, but now gives you a physical experience as well. However, if you are anything like me and are easily embarrassed by the thought of swinging your handheld around in public (god forbid I get so into the game that I actually smack someone mid-aim!), you’ll be happy to know that this is a feature we can easily switched on and off. So no worries! We can all secretly enjoy the awesome gyroscopic goodness within the privacy of our own homes.But again, all of these new features are simply add-ons to an already amazing game well loved by fans worldwide. Although the entire Zelda world has been rebuilt visually from the ground up with better textures, sharper graphics, and more lively NPC animations -- the actual layout of the dungeons and puzzles as well as general storyline have been preserved. Little tweaks in the script have been added here and there to help explain the additional features of the 3DS, of course, but other than that the overall Ocarina of Time experience has remained largely unaltered. Why mess with a formula that already works, right?Dan Owsen, a translator present at the preview that has worked on many of the Legend of Zelda games including Ocarina of Time, stated, “[Nintendo] didn’t make too many changes. Usually when we release classic games, we tend to keep the original text. There might be a few places where it could have been polished up, but I think it’s good they just left it as is.” Though while the all-important large chunks of the game have been left untouched, some pieces of the Ocarina of Time world have definitely been through an upgrade. Take, for example, the Gossip Stones (or Sheikah Stones) scattered throughout Hyrule.  Previously, Gossip Stones spat out random hints and babble, or offered the time and remained generally useless to Link’s quest (though I’m sure more than a few of us have sought them out to see if we could discover any hidden Easter Eggs in their pointless blathering). This time around, however, they are now the bearers of indicative Hint Movies that serve to jog your memory and help you solve the more frustrating puzzles in the game, clue you into treasures you may have missed, or lead you to various side quests and mini games. Of course, it’s not going to be that easy to work out the answers from the visions alone. After all, the Hint Movies are exactly that: hints. They are more like leads that tip you off to the locations of puzzle-solving keys, encouraging you to soak in the actual environments of the visions in order to figure out the answer on your own, rather than acting as would-be FAQ/Walkthroughs that give you point-blank solutions. For the more seasoned Zelda players who already know the ins and outs of the game and don’t quite need or feel a use for the new Sheikah Stones (as cool as they might be), 3DS Ocarina of Time offers a newer and better Master Quest mode. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, Master Quest is a more difficult version of the game that originally was only available in limited edition quantities to those who pre-ordered The Wind Waker and later came with GameCubes in the US. It basically ups the ante by challenging the player with much more difficult dungeons, as well as tougher puzzles to solve while following the same, familiar storyline.Nintendo, again keeping to their winning formula, hasn’t changed the dungeons or puzzles from the original Master Quest and has left them pretty much untouched in every shape and form.  Except this time, enemies are smarter, strike harder (double damage!), and the entire Zelda world has been mirror-imaged, forcing you to relearn and explore the environment as a now right-handed Link.And if that’s still not enough awesome Zelda goodness for you, the brand new Boss Challenge Mode could very well be the more exciting experience you’ve been looking for. In this fresh feature, you now have the chance to relive every boss fight you encounter throughout the game, but with a timer! Challenge your friends and compete to see who can get the best time on Dodongo, or race to beat Gohma in this additional element of the game, and then replay it again to beat your own score. But that’s not all. Once you’ve conquered the entire game and have hacked and slashed your way through every big baddie challenger, you will then unlock Boss Gauntlet -- a hardcore run through of every boss in the game, but with a catch: You only have one life. Phew! For the seasoned Zelda veterans only.With remastered visuals, additional features, brand new play modes, and amped replayability that takes total advantage of the 3DS’s abilities, Nintendo has managed to take a title that all Zelda fans look back on fondly and make it even better. Finally! A game worth buying a 3DS for. Will you be standing in the long line with me, $39.99 in hand, to snatch up your own copy of the “new” Zelda: Ocarina of Time on June 19? Sherilynn "Cheri" Macale is a freelance journalist and illustrator who can't exactly decide what she wants to do with the rest of her life and so does absolutely everything. Harass and prod her via Twitter, check out the badassery on her Website, and leave a friendly message on her Facebook.
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Being a huge Zelda fan myself, I can’t tell you how stoked I was to hear I had a chance to preview the 3DS remake of what is possibly the Nintendo 64’s most well-known title, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. ...

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Thor Wii developer discusses smiting and movie tie-ins


May 06
// Allistair Pinsof
Preteens, comic books and a man dressed in tights. No, I’m not talking about your uncle's sex dungeon; I’m describing the scene at Austin Books & Comics this past Sunday, where a release party was held for th...

Hands-on: Red Faction: Armageddon, round two

Apr 26 // Hamza CTZ Aziz
Red Faction: Armageddon (Xbox 360 [Previewed], PlayStation 3, PC)Developer: VolitionPublisher: THQTo be released: May 31, 2011 My demo with Armageddon began with main hero Darius Mason protecting a transport convoy on its way to Bastion, the last stronghold the colony of remaining Mars citizens has in its control. The alien bugs are rampaging all over the planet at this point, so the escort mission sees you fighting wave after wave of aliens.  Essentially all of the guns were playable and every gun is worthwhile to use. The best being the Magnet gun, which launches your target into another enemy or object. It's a hilarious weapon, especially when you're flinging giant boss-esque creatures like little toys.  The Nano-Forge was fully open this time too, so I was able to use some offensive-style attacks on top of rebuilding damaged structures. "Impact" sends out a blast wave that either knocks back enemies or obliterates them. "Shockwave" will suspend enemies in the air for a period of time for some easy target practice. "Berserk" temporally overpowers all your weapons for double the damage. Last but not least is "Shell," a protective bubble that reflects all attacks and devours enemies that try to go through the bubble.  All of your Nano-Forge attacks require a recharge time before you can use them again, but you can cut that time short with the upgrade system. Your abilities, weapons and more can all be upgraded -- this is accomplished in the upgrade stations littered throughout levels.  Once you've reached the colony, you'll be stuck on "bitch quests," as I like to call them, where you have to repair sentry turrets and the water system for the city before you can move forward. These missions don't really do anything for the main story and would be better suited as sidequests or just excluded completely. Eventually during these missions, your dark secret is revealed. You see, Mason was tricked into releasing the alien horde that's plaguing the planet. Needless to say, the civilians in the city all hate your guts once they find out. They start to hunt you down through the level like idiots -- idiots because there are aliens all around but they don't care. That is, until their faces are getting gnawed off.  Shortly after this point, I made my way above ground where storms were tearing the world apart. You're quickly apprehended by the Red Faction police as they believe you were responsible for the alien outbreak. On your way to prison, the Red Faction team is attacked by massive amounts of aliens and you have to save everyone's asses.  With a little convincing (aka knocking out the person in charge of the Red Faction squad), Mason is set free and continues to help defend Mars against the aliens and Marauder's responsible for making Mars' surface uninhabitable, and the real group responsible for releasing the aliens.  After killing so many aliens, it was a nice change of pace to go up against human enemies. My original playthrough saw me going through humans and aliens too, so it's nice to see the theme continues later on in the game.  It was in this section that I got to pilot a new mech as well, a giant spider-like war machine that has a couple of powerful laser attacks. It's pretty badass, and significantly more fun then the standard mech you get in the underground sections. Overall, I think Red Faction: Armageddon has finally won me over. The story -- aside from the lull moments I mentioned -- is engaging and I just love all of the weapons. Still, it's sad that there isn't a traditional versus multiplayer again. The co-op and Infestation modes do make up for that exclusion, at least. 
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I was pretty much on the fence the last time I played Red Faction: Armageddon. My tune has all but changed with my latest playthrough, as I got to experience a lot more that the game has to offer. Plus, the new build was quite a bit more polished, especially in the visuals department. It's not entirely perfect, but all in all, I'm happier with what to expect come next month.

Hands-on: Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine

Apr 22 // Hamza CTZ Aziz
[embed]199351:37874[/embed] Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [previewed], PC)Developer: Relic EntertainmentPublisher: THQTo be released: 2011 THQ wasn't really letting us get into the story beyond the basic plot outline that I described above, which was a real shame. To me, story is key when it comes to these types of shooters, especially since the market is flooded with them. I need to be engaged by the story -- otherwise, what's the point of investing my time and money into a game? And of the snippets I did get of the story, none really impressed me. I did, however, really like the voice acting. The soldiers all speak Old English, like Thor from Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes. Moving on to the combat, it's a seamless mix of melee and shooting. You'll find yourself engaging anywhere from 15 to 30 Orks at a time, and the fearless creatures will run right up to you. There were multiple choke points where I shot enemies in the distance while switching fluidly to my chainsaw sword against enemies that came straight at me. You have a normal and strong attack with the chainsaw sword, and you also have a Fury meter, which, once filled up, will allow you to unleash a powerful melee attack or slow things down bullet-time-style for your guns. Honestly, I found myself having more fun swinging around the chainsaw sword than shooting. I think it had something to do with the fact that I was using a sword that is also a chainsaw. Additionally, you have an evade move as well as sprint and tackle abilities. You'll also be able to perform brutal execution moves. Your hero has a shield on top of regular health, both of which regenerate over time. The only thing holding back the combat is the camera. The camera pulls in really close to Titus, which would be fine if this was just a shooter. As melee is a big factor in the combat, I often found myself lost in the confusion of battle due to the camera pulling in too close; I was sometimes unable to see my character. The visuals are hit-and-miss, too. I loved the character designs for all the races. The Space Marines look as badass as they should, the Chaos class definitely looked fearsome with their devish looks and lightning-like reflexes, and all the various Orks all looked distinctive. The Gothic architecture seen in the majority of the environments off in the background was well designed, too. It was areas that saw me in buildings/close quarters that felt very generic. Only one of the four levels felt like it had some life and attention to detail. Note that what I saw was all pre-alpha gameplay; a majority of my complaints, such as the combat and environmental design, can be addressed between now and launch. I just hope there's a lot more to the story that will bring people in. I'm sure Warhammer 40K fans will eat the game up. For the general consumer who's not familiar with the Warhammer 40K series (like myself), we're in a year where we're seeing a number of established shooters such as Gears of War 3, Uncharted 3, Battlefield 3 and more coming out -- there's just not much to entice Warhammer 40K newbies and draw them away from those heavy hitters. I'm definitely not ready to write this game off completely, though, and want to see if anything is improved come this June at E3. Plus, we haven't even seen anything of the multiplayer yet. 
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The latest game in the Warhammer 40,000 series is taking players in a new direction with Space Marine, a third-person action-adventure title. You play as Captain Titus of the Ultramarines chapter, a genetically modified super...

Hands-on: Outland's co-op mode

Apr 22 // Hamza CTZ Aziz
Outland (PlayStation Network, Xbox Live Arcade [Previewed])Developer: Housemarque Publisher: UbisoftTo be released: April 26 (PSN) / April 27 (XBLA)MSRP: $9.99 / 800 MS Points Outland sees you on a quest in order to stop two powerful goddesses from escaping their imprisonment. In order to do that, you'll need to defeat the goddess's henchmen bosses and take their powers in order to become stronger. I played about the first 15 minutes of the story mode which sees you learning the basics in combat, including how to handle your sword -- the main weapon of Outland. You're able to do combos with your sword and you can juggle enemies too. You'll also be able to do a slide attack which stuns enemies. [embed]185251:33669[/embed] It's not going to be a simple matter of just attacking enemies however. You'll be able to switch your light alignment (Ikaruga's polarity system basically) which works in two ways. When you're attacking enemies, you must be the opposite color alignment of them. There are also lasers going off throughout levels that will hurt you unless you're the same light alignment of the laser attack. It sounds simple enough but a lot of the times you'll find yourself quickly running through laser fields only to come head-to-head against an enemy. You need to have some sharp reflexes in a lot of the scenarios you come across. Check out the video demo by Jonathan Holmes to get a real good idea at what to expect. You don't have to worry about any sort of game over though, as you'll simply respawn back at your last checkpoint if you do die. Plus there's an upgrade system so you can increase your health and energy with all the coins you find throughout Outland. Outland also sports online co-op across all three game modes on offer. So you can work with a friend through the main story, the Arcade time-based challenge mode, and the co-op only challenge rooms. There is no local co-op as the smaller screen ratio ends up hurting the game according to the majority of the feedback Ubisoft and developer Housemarque received. I got to try out a couple of the co-op challenge modes and absolutely enjoyed my experience with the "Keeper of the Light" game. Two players are going through a stage and only one person can change the light orientation for both players. This mode definitely requires a lot of communication as both players really need to work together in order to make it through all of the different lasers and platforms that require specific light orientation. The second challenge room sees players taking on the second boss fight of the game. It's a three stage battle that sees you jumping from platform to platform in order to avoid falling to your death. It's a tough fight and I died a lot. Thankfully players can revive a fallen buddy an infinite amount of times. So one person just needs to stay alive until the boss is killed. Lastly I was shown the bomb juggling challenge room which sees players having to throw bombs at each other in order to get through the level. It's like hot potato, except the bomb can kill you if you mess up. Sadly there's only five challenge rooms but Ubisoft is open to adding more if the fans demand it. The plan for DLC right now is actually centered around what fans really want. So if players want another chapter for the story mode, then Ubisoft will make it happen. The same goes for a PC version of the game. There's only plans for console release, but if there's enough demand and the game sells well, then they'll work on a PC port. All in all, Outland is going to be well worth the purchase. You're getting a game that will take you about six to eight hours to complete, and that's not even including the challenge rooms, arcade mode and the replayability of the single-player campaign. You're getting a solid game all for just $9.99/800 MS Points.
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You know what we don't have enough of anymore? Metroid-vania style adventure games. This style of adventure games is few and far between nowadays but luckily for us there are some developers out there who haven't totally for...

Hands-on: Shadows of the Damned

Apr 21 // Hamza CTZ Aziz
Shadows of the Damned (PlayStation 3 [previewed], Xbox 360)Developer: Grasshopper ManufacturePublisher: Electronic ArtsTo be released: June 21, 2011 The basic premise of Shadows of the Damned is that your girlfriend gets kidnapped, you get pissed, then you go save her. Sure, it's not all that original, but it's how this typical "damsel in distress" story is presented that has me looking forward to the release come this June. You play as Garcia Hotspur, a demon hunter who's so good at his trade that he has finally pissed off the Lord of the Underworld, Fleming, enough to come after you. Fleming kidnaps your one true love, Paula, and drags her off into Hell. Garcia follows Fleming, and for the next 10 to 15 hours you'll be dispatching the minions of Hell as you try to find Paula. Along for the ride is your friend Johnson, a former demon who's also a flaming skull on a stick. Johnson is your guide through the game, and the duo will constantly be cracking jokes and helping each other through the adventure. Garcia can swing Johnson around as a weapon, and you can hold down the melee button to charge up Johnson for a super attack. Johnson can also transform into one of Garcia's three main guns -- pistol, machine gun, and shotgun. As you fight the hordes of the Underworld, you'll come across enemies that are covered in darkness. Normal shots won't work on them, so that's where your weapon's secondary light shot comes into play. Shoot a demon with a light shot and you'll knock the darkness off, leaving it vulnerable for your regular bullets (or bones in this case as all your weapons utilize bones, teeth, or skulls as ammo). The darkness can also be knocked off by a torch melee attack. Shooting enemies a second time with your light attack will stun enemies, allowing you to perform execution kills. I wasn't given an exact figure, but expect "a bunch" of execution kills. I saw at least six during my playthrough, each as visceral as the next. On top of the demons, you'll also have a secondary enemy to worry about -- the darkness itself. Certain areas of a stage will be consumed in darkness, and every second you remain in it will drain Garcia's health. In most cases, there will be something in the environment that will light up the area for a short period of time and allow you to dispatch enemies. In my demo, I needed to light up a fireworks launcher using Johnson's head and had a very short amount of light to work with before the darkness took over again. Later in the demo, I came across a mini-boss that was surrounded in darkness. There was no light source, but the darkness didn't fill up the entire area. Normally, a player would attack the demon's weak-spot, leave the darkened area, refill health, then repeat the process. Since EA saw it fit to leave infinite health on, I simply stayed in the darkness until the mini-boss was killed. As you're going on this demon-killing rampage, you'll find yourself running into a demon named Christopher. In classic Shinji Mikami fashion, Christopher is like Resident Evil 4's merchant in that you'll be purchasing health, ammo, and upgrades for abilities and weapons in exchange for the white gems you collect from killing demons.  At one point in the demo, Garcia hops on a giant chandelier and uses it to ascend a giant tower. The room is filled with darkness, so Garcia needs to swing the chandelier around the tower and destroy numerous dark balls in order to continue his ascent. It was a simple change of pace, one I hope is an indication that there will always be something like this to shake up the gameplay. The demo concludes right before a boss fight against a demon named George. You've already kicked George's ass once, but this time he transforms (by pulling out his own heart and eating it) and then summons a horse to ride around on. While these screens don't do any justice, the game looks really good. I just love the character designs, especially the fucked-up demons. As a giant Suda51 fan, I know I'm going to end up enjoying Shadows of the Damned. The basic concept of "saving the girl" is beyond played out, but it's the Suda51 touch that I know is going to keep me engaged throughout the entire experience. That's why I'm worried about how Shadows of the Damned is going to do in sales. I know what to expect because I've played Suda51/Grasshopper games before. While the games are great, they generally have a history of doing poorly in sales, and that's in large part because they're not advertised properly or at all. At the very least, I'm glad to see the game is now coming out on June 21 instead of the week of E3 as it was originally scheduled.
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Take Suda51's creative mind, Shinji Mikami's long history with the survival horror genre, and Akira Yamaoka's brilliant musical skills and you get Shadows of the Damned. From what I've seen at least, Grasshopper Manufacture's...

Preview: F.E.A.R. 3's four multiplayer modes

Apr 14 // Hamza CTZ Aziz
F.3.A.R. (PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [Previewed]Developer: Day 1 StudiosPublisher: Warner Bros. Interactive EntertainmentTo be released: May 2011 Let's start with my least favorite of the modes and work our way to my favorite. In "Soul King," all players start off as the Spectre, a ghost who can posses humans and other monsters. Spectres only have one simple projectile attack, meaning players will want to find and possess humans that make use of assault rifles, shotguns and more. The overall goal is to kill enemies, collect their soul and be the player with the most collected souls at the end. Getting killed will see you losing half of your cache of souls. My main reason why I didn't like this mode is that there's too much going on. On top of worrying about the three human players, there's a continuous funnel of AI characters coming in from all over the map. There's a never-ending stock of humans to possess, but the draw back of that is you'll be getting shot up from all over the map too. I was getting killed more than I was actually killing. Next up, we have "Soul Survivor." Four players will start off in a room and Alma will randomly corrupt one of the players, turning them to the ghost side. The corrupted player now has a limited amount of time to corrupt the remaining humans while the human players must defend themselves against waves of Armacham soldiers. This mode was pretty fun in that the three human players really have to work together while the corrupted player needs to strike at the right moment, such as when the players are separated. Human players can't be killed -- only downed -- which sees them crawling around on the floor and only able to wield a pistol. It's in this state that they can either be healed by a buddy or corrupted by a ghost. Once a person has been corrupted, they'll join over to the ghost side and have to corrupt the remaining humans. "Contractions" mode is very similar to the zombie mode in Call of Duty: Black Ops. Waves of enemies attack and you have to defend your base. You'll even board up your base, Black Ops style. In between each wave, players can secure treasure chests from the map and use them to purchase new weapons before the following stronger wave attacks. So why is this mode called "Contractions"? Because each wave of enemies are spawned during one of Alma's contractions. Remember, she's pregnant because she's a rapist. The environment shakes and you see a shock wave hit the stage with each contraction. If that's not enough, Alma actual appears on the map and will punish players that shoot at her or look her in the eyes. Alma's punishments are random, but expect to either be slowed down, have vision distorted, be teleported somewhere far away from your team and more. The maps featured in "Contraction" also get hit with fog that becomes thicker with each passing wave. Some reps from developer Day 1 Studios laughed at the idea of anyone being able to get past wave 10 that night. Not only do the enemies get harder, but you'll also be barely able to see the enemies until it's too late. Last, and my favorite of the modes, is "Fucking Run!" Seriously, it's called "Fucking Run!" Four players must run from checkpoint to checkpoint all while shooting enemies and trying to avoid Alma's "Wall of Death," which is a giant, all-consuming fog that will end the mode for everyone if even just one player gets hit. Running from checkpoint to checkpoint sounds simple enough, but more enemies populate the path the further you go. Plus, the "Wall of Death" gains speed with each passing moment. It was honestly thrilling to run through the city streets with the fear of being consumed by Alma's dangerous powers. The map is pretty linear but you'll find some areas where you can swap out for stronger weapons. The catch is that you'll lose time going for these better weapons, thus allowing the doom cloud to get closer. Each mode offers only two three maps each and are all up to four players. I asked if we'd see any competitive versus modes at all, but WB wasn't talking. They didn't outright deny my question so we may see something, hopefully. Controls are pretty much your standard first-person shooter affair. The overall package is good, but it's hard to judge if all the modes will be able to hold people's attention after a few months. One final note as a first-person shooter lover: You can actually reload while you're running. I don't know about you, but I've always hated the fact you can't reload and run in most FPS games. [Editor's note: The game is still officially called F.3.A.R. Yup, it's stupid, I know.]
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F.E.A.R 3 is the latest in the spooky first-person shooter franchise where you and your dead ghost brother have to save the world from your pregnant ghost mom. Or something. Honestly, it's hard to pay attention to the story ...

Ocarina of Time 3DS 'much closer' to original vision

Apr 13 // Hamza CTZ Aziz
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (3DS)Developer: NintendoPublisher: NintendoTo be released: June 19, 2011 I don't think you'll truly appreciate the new visuals until you hit the Market in Hyrule Castle. Everything looks vivid and full of life as opposed to just static images. Shops are now crammed with items instead of being nothing but bare-boned shelves. The church actually has a ceiling with Triforce-looking chandeliers now instead of complete blackness. I'd recommend everyone do a side-by-side comparison in order to see just how much has changed. You'll be able to better appreciate the visuals thanks to the streamlined menu system now too. The top screen is free of the clutter like in the N64 version -- everything is neatly placed on the touch screen. Accessing your map and items is far less of an excruciating process than it used to be. Oh, and as far as the 3D part goes, while Nick Chester didn't enjoy it that much, I had no problem at all. In fact, this was the first game I've played on the 3DS that I wanted to play with the 3D on. The 3D effects look great but note you'll want to slide off the 3D if you're going to be using the gyroscopic first-person aiming feature. I do agree with Nick's take on how accurate moving the 3DS around correlates with your actions on screen. It's a nice little feature, and one you can skip altogether by just using the directional stick. As for the Master Quest content, you'll be able to access it as soon as you beat Ocarina of Time first. You have to earn it! Ocarina of Time for the 3DS is exactly what you remember of it, but now in a prettier package. Pricing has yet to be announced, but I wouldn't be surprised if it's around the $39.99 mark like most 3DS games.
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The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time for the Nintendo 64 was one of the best games ever created. Not many people will argue with that statement. However, something that even the most hardcore Zelda fans will agree with is tha...

Hands-on: High Flyer Death Defyer

Apr 12 // Sherilynn Macale
High Flyer Death Defyer (iPhone, iPod Touch, Android, iPad [Previewed]) Developer: Game Mechanic Studios Publisher: Game Mechanic Studios To Be Released: Summer 2011 HFDD is a primarily tilt-based mobile game that relies on the sensitivity of your device to steer you left or right, send you nose-diving through the environment, or slow you down for more maneuverability in order to avoid obstacles. A simple tap to the screen deploys your jetpack and will allow you to fly safely upon floating platforms. Activate your jetpack too late and it will overheat and explode! But for those of you lucky enough to land healthy and whole, these platforms will act as checkpoints while you progress through the highly explorative world of HFDD. But why do you need checkpoints? HFDD isn’t some bubblegum candy game where you’re happily prancing through the air while tra-la-la-ing through one level to the next. You’re probably going to die! While thorough details concerning the storyline are pending announcement closer to the predicted release date (sometime in Summer 2011), President and Creative Director, Jason Alejandre, was still able to let this little tidbit slip.   “We can’t tell you much about the plot of the game at this point, as we’ll be revealing more about the plot, characters, and world of HFDD over the coming months. All I can really say is that our protagonist -- a treasure hunting member of the Death Defyer squad -- starts out as a bit of an anti-hero looking for fortune, sort of like Han Solo, but ends up discovering something much larger and far more sinister. The details of the plot -- and the sinister force -- will be unveiled soon.” Alejandre mentioned three different worlds in HFDD, each containing 10 different levels. In the level I was able to explore during WonderCon, I found myself barrel rolling past menacing red propellers that threatened to chop me into delicious little pieces of man-flesh (though a simple swipe across the screen was enough to twirl me out of harm’s reach.) I also steered myself through blue stealth rings which, at the time, I mistook for “power ups”, but was later able to clear up with Alejandre. “The stealth rings are really there to protect you from detection by the bad guys and, from a gameplay perspective, to get players to fully explore each level, instead of just nose diving straight to the bottom. So they aren’t exactly power ups, per say. But, in addition to the O-shaped stealth rings you saw, there are harder-to-find D-shaped rings that take players down an alternate path for extra treasures, challenges, and replayability.” Being the sort of player who enjoys exploring and searching out those little hidden Easter eggs or glitches that you can only find by veering off the predicted path, it was cool to hear that Game Mechanic Studious had sorted out this little detail and catered to my particular audience. After getting a taste of the game for myself, Alejandre showed me a quick animated preview of a mechanical beast perched atop a floating rock, amused when I immediately began firing off questions about the monster, asking about its origins, how he plans to incorporate it into the game, and what its purpose within the story would be. Is it there to help us in the game? Are there more of them? Alejandre replied with, “The mechanically-augmented beast is indeed your ally, and he’ll help your hero in navigating the world, escaping bad guys and advancing the plot, but I can’t reveal any more than that for now. We’ll have more announcements about the ally beast -- as well as other huge monsters and the roles they will play -- closer to launch.” Navigation in HFDD is incredibly simple and responsive, and the controls are easy enough to pick up and execute. Meaning your grandma will probably even get a kick out of it. Speaking of sharing, I did inquire for us social game types about whether or not we’d be able to compete with friends via leaderboards or social media networks, etc. To which Alejandre replied, “We’re exploring every possible option for scores and leaderboard tracking and will integrate those wherever appropriate. We really want to encourage players to challenge their friends and other Death Defyers through the social channels, so you can post your fastest time and be like, “Beat that!” Or if you earn a really tough trophy, be all, “Can you do it?!” We like that community feel, and want it to be more present in mobile gaming.” After only two months of development (including art direction, level design, controls, and engineering), High Flyer Death Defyer is already shaping up to be something uniquely special. While certain parts of the game definitely remind me of flight navigation favorites like Star Fox or Jak & Daxter, there’s just enough originality to make this title distinct. I was surprised by the level of detail they had put into the smallest of animations. For example, I was fortunate enough to be able to view one of the supposed many death animations when HFDD glitched for a moment (something I’m sure they’ll be working the kinks out of during further development). I’m looking forward to seeing how they integrate social media into the game (as this is definitely a huge part of mobile gaming nowadays.) I'm also looking forward to discovering more about who our protagonist is running from, what sort of cool treasures he might collect, and what other awesome equipment and allies he might run into during his adventures (if any). High Flyer Death Defyer should be available via iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch, and Android, with a release date aimed for Summer 2011. There’s no announcement on a final price point yet, but it will be competitively priced as they are eager to get the game into as many hands as possible. With that said, does HFDD look like your cup of tea? What do you hope to see out of this game? Sherilynn "Cheri" Macale is a freelance journalist and illustrator who can't exactly decide what she wants to do with the rest of her life and so does absolutely everything. Harass and prod her via Twitter, check out the badassery on her Website, and leave a friendly message on her Facebook.
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Afraid of heights? Can’t climb down a ladder to save your life? Would you rather eat dirt than step one foot into a roller coaster? Well suck it up, buddy. This game isn’t for the weak of heart. In Higher ...

Hands-on: inFAMOUS 2 ups the ante

Apr 12 // Dale North
inFAMOUS 2 (PlayStation 3) Developer: Sucker Punch Productions Publisher: Sony To be released: June 7, 2011 Overall improvements It's hard to pinpoint what exactly has changed from the first inFamous game when talking about the "feel" of the game, but I can say that it feels better as Cole seems to get around better in inFAMOUS 2. Movements seem a bit more fluid and smooth, and it seems easier to determine how you'll latch onto poles, buildings and other interactive areas. The camera shows marked improvement too. No longer does it feel like the camera is fixed on Cole's back in a limited view that requires a lot of panning, meaningless frantic spinning of the view when you feel like something is on your tail. When the game introduces something larger than Cole, like a huge boss, the camera pans out and works the scale a bit so that you can get everything important in one field of view. With the visuals, again, it's hard to pinpoint what has improved, but you can definitely tell they've worked on it. This sequel is definitely more colorful, and there's a lot more visual appeal in the settings. inFAMOUS 2's world looks a bit more lively and animated, which makes it a bit more exciting to explore. Forced Conduits There was not a lot of story background in the single-player demo mission called Forced Conduits, but I was having too much fun blowing shit up to care. The mission has Cole out turning warehouses upside down looking for hidden safes that might contain blast cores before the enemy did. This took me to a few dead ends, but it gave me plenty of opportunity to try out new attacks. Cole's melee attack uses a new weapon called the Amp, which adds a shock to the impact. I was also able to pull off flashy combos using cued button presses. Of course, there's new electrical attacks, which I used to blow up anything destructible in these warehouses to find the safes. The demo ended with a sub-boss fight against an ice-wielding beast called Titan. It was about three times taller than Cole or other enemies, and likely that much stronger, so I threw electrical attacks at it from a distance to wear it down. Up close, after taking its strength down a bit, I was able to mash a button to expose its weak point and take it down for good. This was a short but satisfying demo that showed that Cole moves better than ever. Like a Boss: One of the inFAMOUS 2 demos I played tonight was designed to show the improved scope and scale of boss fights. Going up against a building-tall Behemoth did a great job of showing how Sucker Punch has focused their energies into bringing this franchise to a higher level. So how big is this boss? Cole himself said it best in the cinematic leading up to this boss battle: "No. Way." This boss was so big that I had to run forward down the street, turn around, and look upward to even see it all. Being several stories tall, the Behemoth easily plowed through buildings and and other structures in this city as it made its way down streets. You'd think its massive size would make for an easy target, but it proved to be strong against any attacks other than ones that directly connected with its weak points, which were hidden during most of its attacks. Cole's normal attacks did a fair amount of damage to these exposed weak points, but hurling vehicles at it using his kinetic ability really did the trick. They could have just touched up inFamous' electrically charged sandbox gameplay for a sequel, but Sucker Punch decided on a full elevation of every game concept within. They say that they went into this game with the philosophy of leaving no game aspect unturned. This definitely shows. The ante has definitely been upped with inFAMOUS 2 and I can't wait to play more of this game.
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I don't follow sports, but I know there's some kind of most improved award that they give players. From what I've seen so far, the gaming equivalent of this award would have to go to inFAMOUS 2. I thoroughly enjoyed the first...

Hands-on: User-generated content in inFAMOUS 2

Apr 12 // Dale North
inFAMOUS 2 (PlayStation 3) Developer: Sucker Punch Productions Publisher: Sony To be released: June 7, 2011 Demos: My favorite demo mission made creative use of prompts and text, rather than your standard "beat 10 baddies to proceed" type of mission. In this one, Cole meets two ladies on a rooftop. His goal is to impress these females with a grand tale of his conquests as a hero as Cole and his pal Zeke create this story as they go along. What's fun is that the made up bits play out before Cole as they talk to the girls, putting him in some hairy (and funny) situations. As the tall tale grows taller, Cole finds himself in some pretty rough spots. In one part, while he's out to save a damsel in distress, a dozen heavy gunners appear out of nowhere. As the (fake) story goes, Cole takes them all out out once, which means that Cole really does have to take them out all at once! Later, snipers pop out of nowhere while bailing out another helpless person strapped to some bombs. The string of BS that the two are feeding these ladies has Cole running all over the city, doing ridiculous things just so he can say he did them.  Another demo was a play on the classic game Space Invaders. Called inVaders (get it?), this one had Cole blasting shots into the air over the city to take down a grid wave of invaders before they could land. And just like the classic game, these invaders gradually increased the speed of their back-and-forth decent. The creator even managed to work in a good stand-in for a UFO fly-by, just like in the classic. This was a short, one-wave demo, but I was told that a full mission could work out to be much longer. I asked how long it would take to put a mission like this together with the creation tools and was told that it would only take a couple of hours for someone with a bit of experience.  Creation Tools: For creative types, the tools supplied for user-generated content are like a game on their own. You can go nuts modifying and dropping in objects to create just about anything you can think up. The logic system lets you take your designs and make a real game out of them. Being visual, you can see how logic nodes connect to take your ideas into and make them real mission functions. You'll set triggers and conditions for these modes, and you'll have the ability to make missions of a very high level of complexity.  My time with the creation system wasn't enough to get past the initial learning curve, but I was able to see what a well-versed creator could do with the same tools. I watched as a Sucker Punch staff member took my idea of a sort of disc toss-ish game where Cole would have to throw cars through a series of goals to proceed through a sort of course and make a working demo in only a few minutes. The logic looked fairly simple when he showed it to me, but it was encouraging to see how little work was required to make a fun mission.  Several templates for mission design are included in the creation tools, which is great for those that can't wrap their head completely around the logic required. You're also free to start work on a mission, upload it, and let someone with a better grasp of the system finish it up. It seems that Sucker Punch has gone out of their way to let you add whatever you desire to their new baby, letting you share in the fun. The beauty in this is that we'll end up with a single-player game that never really ends as there will always be fresh content created by gamers to try out. What's encouraging is that inFAMOUS 2 seems to invite creativity. It truly welcomes creators. Take a powerful character like Cole, stick him in a huge, varied world, and then add in tools for players to create their own missions and you have the gift that keeps on giving. I think gamers are going to have a lot of fun with this.
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To me, the original inFAMOUS featured an almost ideal sandbox game world. Running around with such explosive, limitless power made me feel like I could do anything in the game, and that felt pretty great. But now I know that ...

Preview: Alice: Madness Returns

Apr 08 // Hamza CTZ Aziz
Alice: Madness Returns (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [previewed], PC) Developer: Spicy Horse Publisher: Electronic Arts To be released: June 14, 2011 Alice begins her adventure in the Hatter's domain, and like everything else in Wonderland, the place has gone through some extreme changes. All of the domains have gone through a shift in power and we come to discover later in the game that there's a huge power struggle going on in Wonderland. In the case of the Hatter's domain, it is now under the rule of the March Hare and Dormouse. Immediately upon entering the first area, I was completely taken aback by the absolutely beautiful set piece. The visuals are just gorgeous, stunning and very surreal. Developer Spicy Horse wanted to make everything look like you're stepping into a painting, something they certainly pulled off. As I started near the beginning, the game will run you through some basic tutorials on the controls and mechanics you'll be dealing with. My first task was to get used to the platforming mechanics and learn Alice's jumping abilities. Pressing A on the Xbox 360 controller will see Alice jump and holding the A button after pressing it will see Alice float down. Alice also has the ability to do multi-jumps (up to three) that will give her a slight boost each time you press A in the air. Navigating the early part of the Hatter's domain requires you to jump between stationary and moving platforms, and to utilize the various air vents that will help Alice get to platforms too far away for a normal jump. After about a few minutes, Alice will come across the first enemy type and I was able to make use of the four main weapons at my disposal. The first weapon I tried out was the iconic Vorpal Blade which is merely a butcher knife, but very fitting for someone going through a mental breakdown. Nothing says crazy like wielding a kitchen knife around. While the Vorpal Blade is good for quick and fast actions, the hammer-like Hobby Horse is great for the heavy attacks. Alice also has two long-range weapons. The Pepper Grinder acts like a machine gun and the Teapot Cannon is the grenade launcher-like weapon. Both of these guns have infinite ammo, but they also require a cool down time so you can't abuse the weapons. As you go through the levels, you'll come across teeth which you can find in the world, hidden in boxes and after defeating enemies. The teeth are the game's currency which you'll apply to upgrading all of your weapons. You can upgrade your weapon's strength, rate of fire, reload time and more. The upgrade system is similar to that of God of War and you'll simply need to access the upgrade option in the pause menu and chose what weapons to upgrade. Health can be upgraded too, but contrary to the menu system for weapon upgrades, it will instead involve the player going through Challenge Rooms. EA wasn't ready to elaborate on what these rooms will require of the player. Alice has some other special abilities to help on her quest as well. The main being her "Focus Mode" which is basically a lock-on system. Locking on an enemy will allow Alice to strafe and move around her opponents with ease. Flicking the right stick will also let you cycle through multiple enemies to focus on. Alice can also dodge attacks in any direction with the combination of the the right bumper and directional stick. Alice explodes into a mess of butterflies and reassembles into her femme fatale self a few feet away from where she just stood. I found myself using this dodge ability to also navigate around levels because I prefer moving through levels as fast as possible. Another thing Alice can do is her ability to shrink down in size, which allows the player to enter areas normal-sized Alice can't. There are special flowers scattered around the levels called Shrink Flowers which heal Alice when she shrinks down into them. You'll also be able to discover hidden graffiti while in the flowers that lead to secret rooms or reveal hidden platforms. So that's a lot of weapons and abilities, but how does it actually feel in combat? Great, actually. While Alice: Madness Returns has a God of War vibe going for it, the combat is actually very different. Spicy Horse didn't want to just make a simple hack-n-slash game. They wanted to make it so that each enemy is basically a puzzle. For example, one enemy type was completely covered in armor in the front and my weapons weren't causing any damage. With this enemy class, you have to dodge out of the way at the very last second before it strikes it's blade down, thus getting its weapon stuck into the ground. This leaves the enemy's unarmored backside exposed for the player to attack. The battlefield will also become like a chess game as you're swarmed with multiple enemy types and you'll have to figure out which types to attack first so you're not overwhelmed by all the different baddies. In the case you do get overwhelmed and you're near death, Alice will be able to go into Hysteria Mode which temporally leaves Alice invulnerable and unleash massive damage in her rampage. Hysteria Mode doesn't last long and it won't always be an option when you're on your last amount of health so don't depend on it to always save your ass. After getting a small taste of the Hatter's domain, I played through the Queen's Land section that Samit Sarkar saw before. As I was running around this environment, I was told how each of the six domains will all have completely unique looks and enemies in them. There's always going to be something new for the player to get transfixed on, right down to the different outfits Alice will adorn to match the theme of each setting. The game won't all be taking place in Wonderland either. You'll actually be going to London, but don't expect to do any fighting. The London parts only make up about 15 percent of the game and are designed to push the story forward. Once Alice is back in the real world, she puts together the repressed bits of memory she's discovered until something in London triggers her memory of Wonderland and it's back down the rabbit hole she goes. Fans of the original will love all of the nods and references. For instance, remember the Dodos? Well they're back in Madness Returns, except they're all dead and slowly being cooked over an open fire. Newcomers to the series, like myself, won't need to have played the original American McGee's Alice to appreciate the new game. But the time I got with Madness Returns was so charming that I am now going to play the original game to better appreciate American McGee's latest before it's released this June. And even though it was a small taste, I strongly believe that Alice: Madness Returns will be one of my top ten games of 2011.
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Alice: Madness Returns picks up eleven years after the original game and we quickly learn that Alice is still not right in the head. Alice still suffers from survivor's guilt after her family was killed in a deadly fire, s...

Preview: Spider-Man: Edge of Time

Apr 04 // Hamza CTZ Aziz
Spider-Man: Edge of Time (All major platforms)Developer: BeenoxPublisher: ActivisionTo be released: Fall 2011 As we found out when the game was announced, the big "catch" of Edge of Time is the "cause-and-effect" gameplay mechanic. Amazing Spider-Man's actions will have a direct effect on 2099's world and the environment will change around you in real time. In the section Beenox showed me, the two Spideys are in the same building (in their respective time lines) and Spider-Man 2099 is getting his ass handed to him in a fight with a giant robot. In Amazing Spider-Man's timeline the first giant robot prototype was still in development, so he has to destroy the robot before 2099 is killed. Once the robot is destroyed in the that timeline, the robot in the future timeline disappears and is replaced by several human-sized robots that 2099 has to fight. Later in the demo, when you're playing as 2099, rooms will transform right before your eyes revealing new areas to explore and threats -- it's like real-time Day of the Tentacle. For all of the major events, the cause-and-effect elements are scripted. Beenox says that there are little things the players will be able to do to create changes, though. My guess is that it'll be something like finding secret rooms and items to help upgrade abilities. At the start of the game, Amazing doesn't really trust 2099 at all. Who can blame him though? I'd be pissed off too if a voice in my head is suddenly telling me everything about my life is wrong and I'm about to die. So there's trust issues and the voice acting by Josh Keaton (Amazing) and Chris Barnes (2099) portray the frustration of both characters splendidly. Yes, Neil Patrick Harris won't be reprising his role and shamelessly stealing a voice acting award. When the two Spideys are talking to each other, you'll see whoever is not being controlled at the time on the bottom-right of your screen. You'll actually see Spider-Man fighting and doing his own thing while you're playing with the other. Think of it like a picture-in-picture feature in TVs. The game seamlessly switches between the past and the future gameplay. For example, in the cause-and-effect example I gave, the player switches over to 2099's timeline once the giant robot was destroyed. As for the core gameplay, it's largely similar to that of Shattered Dimensions. You swing, you punch, you web and there's plenty of smart ass remarks from the two wallcrawlers. Amazing has a new "evade" move that allows him to dodge attacks and 2099 can produce a holographic image of himself that will distract enemies. You can upgrade both Spider-Mans' skills and it'll be largely similar to the Shattered Dimension system. Other than that, you can forget the first-person fist fights, which is for the best as that feature in Shattered Dimensions was very out of place. The end of the demo sees 2099 take a shortcut down an elevator shaft where you'll spend a good five minutes maneuvering 2099 through gaps and openings down the shaft, much like the free falling sections in God of War III. Activision and Beenox weren't ready to tell us anything about Edge of Time's villains (they wouldn't even mention the scientist's name) but we can expect villains that haven't appeared in games before. The overall theme of the game has a very dark feeling to it too, as evidence by how Spider-Man 2099 is carrying a dead Amazing Spider-Man with his costume thrown to pieces at the start screen. Did you like Shattered Dimensions? Well, then you'll like Edge of Time. The game was developed during the production of Beenox's last Spider-Man game and this is considered to be a standalone entry to the Spider-Man universe. Technically, yes, Amazing and 2099 are from different dimensions. Nothing with time travel ever makes sense and at the very least, Peter David (co-creator of Spider-Man 2099 and narrative lead of Edge of Time) will make up something to explain things.
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The next Spider-Man adventure will see Amazing Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2099 working together through time in order to fix a timestream gone awry. When Spider-Man 2099 is fighting an evil scientist, the madman som...

Preview: L.A. Noire

Mar 25 // Samit Sarkar
L.A. Noire (PlayStation 3 [previewed], Xbox 360) Developers: Team Bondi / Rockstar Games Publisher: Rockstar Games To be released: May 17, 2011 (NA) / May 20, 2011 (EU) “We want to give players the opportunity to experience what it’s like to be a detective,” explained the Rockstar PR representative who showed off the game. In L.A. Noire, you are not an agent of chaos; you are Cole Phelps, a Los Angeles Police Department officer, and you have to act the part. Should you attempt to go on a vehicular killing spree, pedestrians will do their best to get out of the way of your car, and if you manage to mow enough of them down anyway -- or wreak havoc in other ways that would be considered unbecoming of an officer of the law -- the game will eventually stop you in your tracks and force you to return to an earlier save game. Phelps is a war hero, having earned a Silver Star at the Battle of Okinawa, but he’s not entirely proud of his service in World War II, and he decides to join the LAPD in 1947 to try and atone for some of his past. You begin the game as a beat cop, and the department eventually promotes you to detective, which is when you start to investigate some headline-making cases. I saw one such case, “The Red Lipstick Murder,” which is the first one that you work upon being brought to the homicide desk. (Cases are assigned from one of four desks: traffic, vice, homicide, and arson.) You’ll play through more than 20 cases that range in length from 45 to 90 minutes; while each one is a self-contained story, the four desks also have their own arcs, and the game offers an overarching narrative for Phelps as well. Many of the cases in L.A. Noire take inspiration from real-life crimes committed in Los Angeles during the ’40s, such as the infamous Black Dahlia murder, which gets mentioned in the game and serves as a backstory of sorts for the homicide desk. Before each case begins, you’re treated to a short vignette of the crime itself, in the vein of Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Your superior officer at homicide is an Irishman who isn’t named Captain Dudley Smith, but might as well be; he notes that the murder in the Red Lipstick case bears the hallmarks of a serial killer called “The Werewolf.” It’s up to you to solve the case, figuring out whether it’s indeed the handiwork of The Werewolf or just a copycat. You’re assigned a partner, Rusty Galloway, a gruff, middle-aged detective, and the two of you head off to the crime scene. Eight square miles of postwar L.A. have been recreated in L.A. Noire, but I didn’t get to see much of it, since Rockstar skipped the driving in my demo. The rep mentioned that among the gameplay elements you’ll come across in the city are unassigned cases. These mini-cases will “pause” your main case, since you can only concentrate on one mission at a time; the side missions take five to ten minutes to complete. A gruesome scene awaits you at the site of the murder. After Galloway tells the vulture-like reporters to “scram,” and you talk to the cop who found the body on his lovers’-lane beat, you walk over to the crime scene. A woman is lying on her back, stark naked, on the grass; a few phrases scrawled on her body with crimson lipstick catch your eye immediately. Clearly, this is a game for mature audiences -- there’s nothing “hot” about this sequence, unless you’re a necrophiliac. Here, you can examine parts of the body more closely -- apparently, cops in the ’40s hadn’t yet started to use gloves in their investigations. Turning the head reveals that it’s basically been caved in; the medical examiner notes that the blunt force trauma was likely the cause of death. Looking at the hand, you notice a bruise on the victim’s finger; it appears that something was taken from it, probably a ring. After completing your examination, you begin to explore the immediate vicinity of the body. As in Heavy Rain’s crime-scene sequences, many of the items you’ll come across have no relevance to the case, while others are clues. You find some lipstick, but the tube is new, so it couldn’t have been used on the victim. Then there’s a small brass globe. It requires some manipulation in a puzzle to unlock its secret: the item is a lighter from the Bamba Club. All of the clues you find, along with locations you visit and people you speak with, are catalogued in your notebook. Since this is your first homicide case, everything is relatively easy to find at the crime scene, but if you get stumped later on, your partner will point things out to you. Once you’re done, you head to the Bamba Club with Galloway, where you question the bartender and owner. The barkeep identifies the victim as Celine Henry, and McColl, the owner, knew her. The interrogation sequences are where the game’s vaunted MotionScan technology really shines. The face of every single character -- over 400 in total, including random pedestrians -- was put in the game with MotionScan, and it’s hard to hold back hyperbole in discussing the results. You’ll need to read people’s faces in order to ascertain whether they’re telling the truth, and you can actually do that. It’s uncanny. After each line from a person you’re talking with, the game presents you with three options. If they stare unflinchingly into your eyes, you can choose to take the individual at their word (“truth”). If their body language suggests that they’re withholding some information -- perhaps with shifting eyes -- but you don’t have any proof to contradict them, you can challenge their statement with “doubt.” And if you have evidence in your notebook that invalidates what they’re telling you, then “lie” is the way to go. The questions that you can ask will vary, depending on the evidence you’ve collected so far. There’s no way to “fail” an investigation -- unless you die, the game will always move forward, even if you’re not making the “correct” choices in an interrogation (doing that will just open up different lines of questioning). Each case has a “highest efficiency” solution, but if you don’t obtain certain clues, you’ll just have to solve the case in a more roundabout way, talking to more people or going to new locations. When you ask McColl if he thinks that Mrs. Henry’s husband, Jacob, killed her, he says no in an offhand manner. But he sits with a furrowed brow, biting his lip; you get the idea that he’s not being entirely straight with you. So you doubt his words, and he gives you some important information by the end of your discussion. Before leaving the club, you call in to the station, asking the secretary to look up the license plate that McColl mentioned. Then you and Galloway leave for the Henry residence. After discovering that someone broke into the house, you head inside and look around. There’s an “investigation theme” that plays during these sequences; piano chimes hint at items to explore, and the music ends once you’ve found everything. You then decide to speak with a neighbor, Jennifer, who is stunned to hear of Celine’s death and recounts some of the events of the previous night. Apparently, Jacob and Celine fought; he hit her in the face and left, and she then got soused before driving off to the Bamba. From here, you drive over to Jacob’s apartment, where you pull out your guns before kicking in the door. Jacob appears astonished when accused of Celine’s murder. The rep pointed out that some characters are better liars than others, so if you’re having a tough time figuring things out, you can use Intuition Points (earned as you rank up in the game) to remove one of the three choices, or try the Rockstar Social Club to see which answers other gamers have chosen. Jacob claims not to know some things that you know he knows -- thanks to your handy little notebook -- so you call him out on his lies. Galloway taunts Jacob, which leads to a fistfight between you and the suspect after he slugs your partner. Since everything from the neck down in L.A. Noire relies on standard motion-capture techniques, there’s a jarring disconnect between the utterly realistic facial animation and the comparatively ordinary body movement. The fight looked like hand-to-hand combat from an average videogame, but I did like the fact that Phelps’ fedora popped off when Jacob punched him. The demo ended after Phelps subdued Jacob. The fight, which lasted less than thirty seconds, was the only true bit of videogame “action” in the entire demo. The PR rep said that Team Bondi is trying to provide a realistic experience, and L.A. Noire seems to be a true detective simulator. It doesn’t try to gussy up the job with unnecessary action sequences; since using his gun is always the last resort for a real cop, Team Bondi wants those moments to be rare and special for you. Instead, L.A. Noire trots along at a very deliberate pace, with few “gamey” conceits. A real detective needs a keen eye and a meticulousness about him; you’ll have to take your time exploring crime scenes and use your brain -- along with the evidence at hand -- to solve cases. As Phelps, you have to be a good guy, but between the variety in crime-scene investigations and witness/suspect interrogations, this game may turn out to be more legitimately open-ended than any Rockstar game before it.
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Until last year, Team Bondi’s L.A. Noire had been something of an enigma. Since it bears the Rockstar name, many assumed that it would simply be a Grand Theft Auto-style adventure set in 1940s Los Angeles instead of the...

Preview: Shadows of the Damned

Mar 08 // Samit Sarkar
Shadows of the Damned (PlayStation 3 [previewed], Xbox 360) Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture Publisher: Electronic Arts To be released: June 7, 2011 Garcia Hotspur is “a demon hunter who has killed one too many demons,” explained the EA rep who demoed the game to me. By doing that, Hotspur has incurred the wrath of the Lord of the Underworld, who has a decidedly un-hellish name, Fleming. He decides to teach Hotspur a lesson by absconding with the demon hunter’s true love, Paula, down into hell. Lucky for Hotspur, he has a buddy named Johnson who is a former demon who escaped from hell. Johnson also happens to be a flaming skull on a stick, which is why he’s so useful to Hotspur: Garcia needs to use the power of light to defeat the forces of darkness. Johnson serves as a “torchgun,” and as Hotspur’s obligatory wise-cracking British sidekick. This is Suda’s kind of love story, explained the rep -- this is his version of “rescuing the princess.” As a former demon, Johnson is Hotspur’s way into hell -- he transforms into a motorcycle and drives straight in. In this game, the outskirts of hell comprise an Old-World town, replete with cobblestone streets. Fleming has thrown some of his minions to impede Hotspur’s progress -- just your typical blood-oozing demon spawn. The basic shooting action, with its over-the-shoulder camera, is very reminiscent of Resident Evil, but it’s not as plodding as that series (although it’s not exactly Devil May Cry, either). A key mechanic that ratchets up the tension is “darkness.” A dark blue haze envelops Hotspur, making it difficult to see and draining his health. The best way to get rid of darkness is to listen for the bleating of a goat, which will lead to a goat head that Hotspur can shoot, “because goats eat everything -- even darkness.” Enemies remain coated in an inky goop that Hotspur must remove with light -- either by hitting them with his Johnson, blowing up light barrels, or using his light gun -- before he can use his regular weapons on them. Johnson can be used as a melee weapon, but he can also turn into a pistol (called “Boner,” because it fires bones, and I wonder why else), a shotgun, and a machine gun. Demons drop red gems that can be used to improve the guns’ attributes (such as clip size and rate of fire), and blue gems will allow Hotspur to upgrade his weapons entirely. According to the EA rep, Suda wanted to bring a B-movie “grindhouse” feel to the proceedings, which is why Shadows features awful accents; cheesy, puerile humor; and visual filters such as film grain and vignetting. The rep mentioned influences such as Robert Rodriguez’s Desperado and Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead series. Hotspur sports a leather jacket and spouts gloriously ridiculous lines like, “My wrath is your hell!” There’s also Suda’s own peculiar humor; one segment of the demo featured a gate covered in glowing purple bramble -- demon pubes. Charming! Suda’s vision of hell, like No More Heroes, is very over-the-top: the gate to hell is a large structure with a massive, carnival-esque “Welcome to Hell” sign sitting on its roof. The darkness in Shadows will also introduce puzzle elements -- in the demon-pubes section, a large hand sat on a platform spewing darkness into the area, and the gates were adorned with babies’ heads that required sustenance (in the form of eyeballs and brains) before they would open. The gradually approaching wall of darkness forced Hotspur to be quick, and it included the additional concern of more demons. Enemies will hang out within the darkness, since they’re much stronger there, and in this case, Hotspur had to temporarily endure the darkness to solve the puzzle. He fed the babies in order to open the gates and gain access to a goat head and the staircase that led up to the hand. Once there, he merely shoved his Johnson into its palm in order to stop the darkness from coming out.After this segment, I saw the loading screen before the next area; in what the rep described as a “Suda touch,” the screen features a creepy two-dimensional animated map of hell, tracking your progress through the game. Once the chapter loaded, the rep explained that the boss in this section is George, a gluttonous beast with a harmonica lodged in his throat. Each boss has a particular backstory that will be logged in the game’s “Johnsonpedia,” a chronicle of Hotspur’s journey. One of Fleming’s favorite things to do is mess with Hotspur’s head by showing him visions of Paula in a white corset -- this particular one was darting around an open-air meat market, and at one point, her head fell right off before she calmly screwed it back on. Right then, she began convulsing, and ripped herself in half to reveal George. That was where my demo ended; the rep teased a “kick-ass” boss battle. So far, Shadows appears to be a fairly conventional third-person shooter with some interesting gameplay conceits (the darkness, Johnson) and a hell of a lot of style. (This is Suda’s first game on the HD platforms, and the Unreal Engine really lets his artistic vision shine through.) I’m curious to see more of its psychological horror elements, like the stuff with Paula, as well as to find out more about the story in general. I can’t comment much on the score, since the noise level at the press event covered up the game’s sound, but I’m sure Yamaoka’s orchestration will bring a lot to the table. The sum of the parts of Shadows of the Damned sounds appealing enough, but I’m hoping the final product will offer more.
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Grasshopper Manufacture’s Suda51 is renowned for quirky, out-there games that often have something to say, even if it’s through juvenile humor. As the creator of Capcom’s seminal Resident Evil franchise, Shi...

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The story of Alice: Madness Returns will make you think


Mar 08
// Samit Sarkar
American McGee's Alice is finally getting a sequel eleven years after its release in Alice: Madness Returns, and both the creator, American McGee himself, and the original writer/executive producer, R.J. Berg, are returning a...

Preview: Alice: Madness Returns

Mar 08 // Samit Sarkar
Alice: Madness Returns (PlayStation 3 [previewed], Xbox 360, PC) Developer: Spicy Horse Publisher: Electronic Arts To be released: June 14, 2011 The original Alice was the first M-rated game that EA published, and while the ESRB hasn’t rated its sequel yet, I’d be shocked if Madness Returns received anything other than a “Mature” tag. If you’ve seen any of the trailers for this game, then you know that it presents a twisted vision of Wonderland, which has suffered as Alice’s inner demons have tortured her. According to Joel Wade, a producer on the game at EA, the team at Shanghai-based studio Spicy Horse went for an art style that would “make it feel like you [were] stepping into a painting.” The look reminded me of another EA Partners title, Brütal Legend, but while the games share a ruddy color palette at points, the theme here is less metal than it is macabre. Alice alternates between Wonderland, the warped world within her mind, and her miserable existence in late-nineteenth-century London. In Madness Returns, Wonderland isn’t just a refuge to which she can escape from her depressing life; Wade repeatedly referred to it as a “tool” that Alice uses to explore her memories, with the ultimate goal of uncovering the truth behind her family’s death. Each memory Alice comes across will offer clues to help her solve the mystery. They’re the carrots on the proverbial stick, the rewards attained for completing segments of the game. The memories vary in scope: some are mere snippets of voice-over dialogue, while others are full-on Victorian-puppet-theatre-esque productions. Wonderland is a representation of Alice’s own mind; as she progresses through it, the environment changes to reflect her deepening psychosis. The early phases of the game are bursting with vibrant hues, but the area that I saw, Queensland, comes much later; it’s almost as dark as one of the circles of Hell, as envisioned by Visceral Games in Dante’s Inferno. Indeed, Wade explained that the Spicy Horse artists endeavored to give each of the provinces in Wonderland its own unique theme. In Queensland, an ominous sky hangs over a crumbling world, and Alice herself has changed: she previously wore a blue-and-white dress, but now sports a crimson one adorned with the suits from playing cards -- remember, the Queen of Hearts used to rule over this region. Madness Returns is a third-person action game with some platforming elements and puzzles. My demo began with Alice using a shrink flower. These items offer currency that can be used to upgrade weapons, but as you may have guessed, they also shrink Alice while revealing hidden platforms and graffiti left by Wonderland’s insane children. In this case, the crazy kids had scrawled the phrase “this way,” along with an arrow, on the wall, directing Alice’s attention toward floating, moving platforms. It was at this point that I saw Alice use one of her weapons for the first time. Alice has four weapons at her disposal -- they’re “Wonder-fied versions,” said Wade, of everyday objects. Her famed Vorpal Blade, a kitchen knife in real life, is back for quick slashing action, and her old Hobby Horse functions as a mace. The other two weapons are used for ranged attacks: the Teapot Cannon, which lobs explosive blasts of, uh, tea; and the Pepper Grinder, which is essentially a crank-operated machine gun. While standing on a platform, Alice fired her Teapot Cannon at a broken section of wall, blowing it away to reveal one of the game’s collectibles, a bottle, ensconced in an alcove. Eventually, Alice made it across the chasm and encountered a combat scenario. Each particular enemy has its own vulnerability, requiring Alice to mix up her weapon usage in order to be effective. Defensive tactics are important, too -- Alice can dodge by sliding sideways, exploding into a cloud of brilliant azure butterflies as she does so, and she can also whip out her umbrella and use it to reflect projectiles. If things are getting too hairy, she can drop a Clockwork Rabbit, which draws enemies to it (or at least draws their attention) like pipe bombs in Left 4 Dead. It’s not just a diversionary tactic, though; it functions as a time bomb, and Alice can detonate it at her leisure or let it explode on its own. Inventive, creepy enemy design is notable in Madness Returns. The creatures I saw weren’t particularly clever or challenging in combat, but they certainly looked intimidating -- one clubs-themed beast with a skull for a head had a clover-shaped hole in his chest. After dispatching the enemies before her, Alice entered a gazebo to collect a memory, which consisted of a voice-over reminding her how much she loves food -- and specifically, cake. Once she completed the next combat arena, Alice pushed forward, only to encounter a character called the Executioner, the Queen’s henchman; he had been harassing her for a while. Here, Alice ran from the fearsome scythe-wielding thug down a corridor toward the camera, until she reached a clearing with a cake sitting on a table. Its icing read, “Eat Me,” so Alice dug in with both hands. Just as Alice can use flowers to shrink herself, she can use cake to grow into a giant version of herself. The Executioner, faced with Alice towering over him, quivered in fear and dropped his scythe; Alice finally got rid of him with a swift stomp, signaling the end of the demo. Alice’s insanity will affect her quest for the truth, Wade told me. When I asked him if the game would use psychological elements to mess with players’ minds, he explained that at some point, the line between reality and Wonderland will begin to blur. The story comes from R.J. Berg, who also executive-produced and wrote the first Alice; it’s an original tale, but draws on Lewis Carroll’s original Alice in Wonderland books. Wade promised that the narrative is smart, and that it will get gamers thinking. If Spicy Horse can manage to do that while keeping the environment and combat varied, American McGee’s Alice may have a triumphant return, indeed. [Editor’s note: You can watch the same gameplay demo that I saw, online (part 1, part 2). --Samit]
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Eleven years ago, American McGee’s Alice saw an accidental fire consume Alice’s home in Victorian London, along with her family. Wracked with survivor’s guilt, Alice attempted to commit suicide and was commi...

Preview: Yar's Revenge

Mar 03 // Samit Sarkar
Yar’s Revenge (Xbox Live Arcade [previewed], PlayStation Network, PC) Developer: Killspace Entertainment Publisher: Atari To be released: Spring 2011 MSRP: 800 Microsoft Points / $9.99 In the “story” of the 2600 game, the evil Qotile attacked the Yars’ home planet, and it was up to you to fight back. This time around, the Qotile have taken over and enslaved the Yars, but the player character is one Yar who has awakened after the Qotile brainwashed her -- hence the subtle apostrophe shift from Yars’ to Yar’s in the title -- and is taking the fight to them in order to save her species. It’s not just the gameplay and story that Killspace is changing up in Yar’s Revenge: the Yars’ planet is now a colorful three-dimensional place -- it doesn’t have a ton of texture detail, but it’s still pretty. Over the course of the game, you’ll make your way from a lush Yar (Yarian? Yarish?) village to the forbidding Qotile mothership. In addition, the game has an anime-inspired art style; the PR rep compared it to Ghost in the Shell. That look comes through most prominently in the game’s between-level “cutscenes,” which are basically just comic panels overlaid with the text of the story. In the new Yar’s Revenge, Yars are basically humans in mech suits. The “on-rails” nature of the game pertains to movement through the world, which the game handles for you. In your mech suit, you have full control of your unnamed Yar -- you’re able to fly around the screen on a two-dimensional plane, which is how you avoid obstacles such as physical objects in the world and enemy fire. (You can check out a snippet of gameplay footage here.) The right trigger fires a never-ending stream of bullets. You can hold the left trigger to lock on to multiple baddies at once, and then let go of the button to fire missiles at all of them. There’s also a powerful rail gun at your disposal, courtesy of the left bumper. The only real vestige of Yars’ Revenge is the shield, which you activate with the A button -- it envelops your Yar within a rainbow-colored bubble that resembles the barrier between the Zorlon Cannon and the Qotile in the 2600 game. Like other rail shooters, the objective in Yar’s Revenge is to build up your point total. As you take out enemies while soaring through the game world, you’ll pick up score multipliers that will be very helpful if you can maintain them. Unfortunately, I was unable to do so, even with the help of a partner. Yes, Yar’s Revenge includes drop-in/drop-out co-op support; a second Yar can join the fight on the same screen, and it appeared that they share one health bar (so if either player dies, you have to start the level over again). I played three different levels and saw some varied and challenging environments, and the different enemies forced me to change up my weapon usage, too. I sucked at the game, but if you’re a fan of rail shooters, you might want to keep your eye on Yar’s Revenge.
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Yars’ Revenge, which launched in May 1981 for the Atari 2600, ended up being Atari’s best-selling original title on the seminal console. Twenty-nine years later, the publisher is releasing a reboot of sorts that r...

Preview: Hunted: The Demon's Forge

Mar 02 // Samit Sarkar
Hunted: The Demon’s Forge (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [previewed], PC) Developer: inXile Entertainment Publisher: Bethesda Softworks To be released: May 31, 2011 (NA) / June 3, 2011 (EU) Hunted is an entirely cooperative experience: if you’re not playing with a human partner, the AI will control the character you’re not playing. The game supports split-screen and System Link play offline, in addition to online co-op. Both characters can perform melee attacks and ranged attacks, and use magic spells, but each player has a strength and a weakness. The brawny Caddoc is a manly man equipped with a sword and shield; his crossbow doesn’t do much damage at all, and he can only unlock special skills and abilities for his melee attacks. These include a shield dash and a “berserk” mode that “Hulks him out,” as Findley put it. On the other hand, E’lara -- a well-endowed elven rogue -- is weak when it comes to hand-to-hand combat, but her bow is not to be trifled with. Archery upgrades include the self-explanatory Arctic Arrow and Explosive Arrow. What would a co-op game be without team attacks? With Hunted’s “Battle Charge” system, either character can use magic to compensate for the other’s weak point. For example, Caddoc can imbue E’lara’s feeble sword with lightning, temporarily giving her a strong melee attack. Enemies also have their own specific vulnerabilities, so you’ll have to figure out which attacks and spells work best against which baddies. I played the first half hour or so of the game by myself. It begins in a flame-lit underground cave with an appropriately creepy ambiance: red candles lining the walls, cobwebs in corridors, rats scurrying across the dirt floor, and skeletons lying around. You control Caddoc, and after walking forward and pushing through an ornate wooden door, a cutscene begins. A beguiling, chesty woman in a skimpy outifit, whose skin could use some melanin -- or any, really -- appears in front of Caddoc, tempting him to touch something called the Death Stone with promises of “powers beyond your wildest dreams.” Upon doing so, he sees a vision of a warrior fighting a dragon -- and then wakes up. At this point, I played through a basic tutorial segment, making my way through a lush forest as Caddoc while an AI-controlled E’lara tagged along. I familiarized myself with the combat system by stabbing and firing arrows into some overgrown spiders. The cover system is serviceable but somewhat clunky -- I couldn’t get in and out of cover as quickly or as easily as I wanted to -- and the melee combat is simple, with your typical light and heavy attacks, but feels substantial. Pressing the right trigger brings up the ranged attack (a crossbow, in Caddoc’s case), and pressing X or Y will return to melee. I found the block animation (or lack thereof) to be a bit off-putting: unlike, say, God of War -- where Kratos will automatically turn to block in the direction of an incoming attack -- you can aim Caddoc’s shield whichever way you want to, and you’ll block attacks if you’re holding the left trigger, but it will actually look as if he’s getting hit from behind. After filling up on mana in a forest pool, Caddoc notices the strange, forbidding door from his dream. He’s wary of it, but the carefree E’lara suggests pushing ahead. Hunted is bogged down by some pretty rote dark-fantasy tropes and dialogue, but its saving grace is the funny banter between its leads. No relationship between them -- aside from a mutually beneficial loot-adventuring arrangement -- is immediately apparent, but their interplay suggests there’s more to it than that, even if it’s not necessarily romantic. So the two of them open the door and keep going, passing a beautiful scenic outlook over a chasm into which numerous waterfalls pour. Eventually, they come across an area full of stone pillars, where the enchanting woman from Caddoc’s dream hops out of a portal and introduces herself as Seraphine (voiced by Lucy Lawless). She asks Caddoc to touch the Death Stone that’s lying in front of them, but as a guy who looks like he’s, y’know, been through some shit, he decides against it. E’lara, however, has no such misgivings, and -- against Caddoc’s cry of “no!” -- places her hand upon it. Bad idea. The sky turns an ominous purple color and fills with lightning as the stones around Caddoc and E’lara begin to collapse. They’re able to sprint to safety, and Seraphine shows up again, surprised that they survived. It’s unclear whether she’s a friend or foe, but she gives you some tasks. That segment was mostly linear, but Findley told me that things really open up; even in the early part of the game that I played, I noticed more than a few side paths -- one of which led to a unique weapon. Yes, Hunted is going to satiate loot whores’ grinding desires; you can pick up weapons off of enemy corpses, and each one has attributes such as “melee +30.” Caddoc and E’lara had to work together in order to procure the rare weapon, joining forces to solve a simple puzzle. (For instance, Caddoc has the strength to move stones or sections of wall.) This aspect of Hunted means that you can expect a longer experience than the typical modern action game; according to Findley, it’s closer to twenty hours than it is to ten. I skipped forward to a later part of the game, and was joined by a human partner for the section. I chose to play as E’lara here (checkpoints throughout the world allow you to switch freely between the two), at a point where the combat gets more strategic than mere hack-and-slash. We purchased magic spells and special skills -- all of which are further upgradable through a skill tree -- and assigned them to the D-pad. It’s up to you and your partner to use your powers together in smart ways during combat; one particularly effective combination was to freeze enemies with my Arctic Arrow and then have my partner, as Caddoc, smash them into chunks of ice. We proceeded forward into a town square overrun with orc-like enemies called Wargar, and this is where the situation became overwhelming. You can revive your partner if they go down, but you don’t have to actually make your way over to them -- instead, you can merely toss a vial of revival potion toward them, as long as they’re within your line of sight. Unfortunately, Hunted doesn’t do a very good job of letting you know that your comrade is in trouble; a small red arrow does show up, but unless your buddy is screaming in your ear that he needs help, you might not even be aware that he’s down. You can crawl when you’re incapacitated, but since the game is so co-op-focused, you’re both forced to return to the previous checkpoint if either of you dies. Once we finally made it through that area alive, the town’s mayor asked us to help retrieve his daughter. We headed into a prototypical fantasy dungeon, replete with confusing paths, traps, ambushes, and a massive talking head made of rock. The head required an “azure light” in order to let us pass, so we had to find a blue flame and then bring it back. I encountered a bug in which my arrow wouldn’t actually show up as being lit, but eventually got it to work. Thing is, I couldn’t switch to my melee at any point (the flame would go out if I did), so I needed Caddoc to protect me if things got hairy. Naturally, they did -- a large spider and a tall flaming skeleton ambushed us along the way back to the talking head -- and I was at least able to fire blue-flame arrows into them. We finally were able to escape the catacombs after I fired an arrow right into the stone face’s eye. We were trying to get through as quickly as possible, but it did seem that there was more to do -- the game does include numerous optional side quests -- in the area. Hunted seems like an enjoyable romp, especially for fantasy fans who want a more modern twist on the classic genre. Its story doesn’t look like it will offer anything that you haven’t seen before from Dungeons & Dragons-style fiction, but I found its co-op experience to be fun (as long as you’re communicating with your partner); it has the potential to really shine.
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I recently sat down with Matt Findley, president of inXile Entertainment, to play and discuss the studio’s upcoming hack-and-slash action game, Hunted: The Demon’s Forge. “Fantasy’s the roots” of...

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Splash Damage addressing common shooter issues with Brink


Mar 01
// Samit Sarkar
I gathered from my conversation with Brink’s lead writer, Edward Stern, that the game’s developers at Splash Damage believe certain problems to be endemic to the shooter genre, and that they’re trying to pro...
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Brink blurs the lines between single- and multiplayer


Mar 01
// Samit Sarkar
Splash Damage’s upcoming first-person shooter, Brink, does away with the traditional videogame dichotomy between solo and multiplayer modes. “We’re used to there being a real difference between single-player...

Preview: Brink

Mar 01 // Samit Sarkar
Brink (PlayStation 3 [previewed], Xbox 360, PC) Developer: Splash Damage Publisher: Bethesda Softworks To be released: May 17, 2011 (NA) / May 20, 2011 (EU, AUS) Brink takes place on The Ark, a floating utopia constructed from genetically engineered white coral that humans built as a refuge from a flooded Earth for 5,000 inhabitants. But ten times as many people now call The Ark home, and amid dwindling resources and overcrowding, two factions have risen up to compete for control of the decaying city: “Security,” which is attempting to maintain order, and “Resistance,” which is fighting to escape. Each force has its own playable campaign, but lead writer Edward Stern promised that the story isn’t as cut and dry as “hero cops versus evil terrorists.” “Both sides think they’re right; that’s just way more involving and engaging than if it’s, like, ‘Well, I’m just evil; I’m born to do evil; that’s all I do. Woke up this morning, going to do some evil,’” he said with a grin. Mentioning the moral ambiguity of Deus Ex as an inspiration, Stern discussed the mission I played, “Dirty Bomb.” If you play it in the Security campaign, your commander tells you that you’re fighting to keep a bio-weapon out of the hands of the Resistance. But as a Resistance fighter, you’re told that the Security side is attempting to steal your medical supplies. “Who are you going to believe? We’re not going to definitively tell you one way or the other,” said Stern, asserting that the story underpinnings of the missions in Brink have a motivational significance aside from the nature of the MacGuffin. Stern told me that one of his “wilder goals” for Brink is that its fiction will sit in players’ minds even when they’re not playing the game. Much of the story is relayed through the environment, which he called “the best narrator we’ve got.” The mission I tried was set in Container City, a slum on The Ark composed of steel girders, sheet metal, and shipping containers. The ragtag shanty town was clearly constructed haphazardly, and sat rusting into the ocean. “You don’t build out of steel, at sea, if you think [what you’re building is] going to last for a long time,” Stern pointed out, saying that the awful conditions in Container City effectively communicate to the player why the Resistance is so damn desperate to leave The Ark. Unlockable audio diaries provide more story details. Of course, some people just want to jump in and start shooting dudes in the face, so all of the story is optional. Brink is an overwhelming game at first; even aside from its frantic 8-on-8 pace, its interface is extremely busy -- it beams so much data at your eyeballs with text, icons, bars, and gauges that you’ll feel like you’re staring straight into The Matrix. But it’s a testament to Splash Damage’s elegant HUD design that I was able to pick up on everything pretty quickly, whether it was the small circles indicating remaining rounds in a clip and remaining time in a reloading animation, or my teammates’ health bars. Splash Damage has done a wonderful job of communicating tasks to players through the game’s objective wheel. At any time, you can hold up on the D-pad to bring up a round menu with the current objectives taking up “slices” of the pie depending on how pressing the tasks are (the wheel changes constantly). Even easier, you can just tap up, and the game will automatically direct you toward the most important objective with an on-screen indicator (and distance measurement). Thanks to this setup, I never found myself unclear on what to do next. I stuck with the Medic class for most of my playtime, although I did spend some time as an Engineer. The Medic can buff other players’ health (as well as his own), and he also has the ability to revive incapacitated teammates. I really liked the revive mechanic in Brink. In games such as Battlefield: Bad Company 2, one of my favorite online shooters, stupid medics will often revive a player in the middle of a firefight, whereas the guy just wanted to respawn. As a Medic in Brink, you’ll toss a revive syringe to a downed comrade, and he can decide whether to revive himself or respawn. (Medics can eventually unlock an upgrade that allows them to revive themselves.) Soldiers carry high-explosive charges for demolition objectives, and they can supply their teammates with ammunition. Engineers can plant mines (and later, set up turrets), and they can also disarm mines as well as HE charges. In addition, they can boost other players’ weapon damage. By far the most intriguing and intimidating class is the Operative, who -- like the Spy in Team Fortress 2 -- can disguise himself as a fallen enemy and complete hacking objectives. That’s just the start of the customization that Brink offers. You can unlock abilities -- some class-specific, some universal -- that give you extra skills. They include extra mines, scavenging ammo off of dead bodies, an EMP grenade that slows down the timer on charges, and an Operative-only sticky bomb. You can only bring three abilities into battle with you. In addition, you can choose from three body types (light, normal, heavy). Light bodies have the least health, but with the “S.M.A.R.T.” parkour movement system, they can clamber up levels in ways that normal and heavy players simply don’t have access to. Finally, the game includes a wealth of cosmetic options, such as tattoos and headgear. If you find a combination that you like, you can save it in one of eight character slots. The customization means that you can literally play Brink however you want. Stern suggested that I play as a Medic, and then gave me a challenge: play for five minutes without firing a single shot; just go around healing and reviving your teammates. The game doles out XP like it’s the end of the world -- and I guess on The Ark, it kinda is -- so you receive experience for pretty much everything you do, whether it’s healing your teammates, supplying comrades with ammo, or even just being near an objective. “I mean, it’s called a shooter; how much of your time do you actually spend shooting? We wanted to make it so that there’s lots you can do, even when you’re not pulling the trigger,” said Stern. In fact, Brink emphasizes XP over the standard statistics that are measured in shooters. The scoreboard at the end of a round lists XP, but doesn’t even mention kill/death ratio (Stern assured me that the game tracks that data, but explained that the focus here is on teamwork, not individual performance). “It’s cool to be James Bond,” acknowledged Stern, but “it’s also really cool to be the guy who revived James Bond with a second to go.” Many of the players in the matches I played were AI-controlled bots, but I was hard-pressed to tell the difference. My teammates acquitted themselves admirably in combat, completing objectives and controlling choke points. (This is vital, for reasons I will explore in a separate post.) I did see a few instances of bots getting caught on level geometry and running in pace, but Stern explained that I was playing a beta version, and that the team is still ironing out the kinks. Bots or not, I found that I was able to earn gobs of experience points -- and have a lot of fun -- just by supporting my team as a Medic, just as Stern had proposed; I died only a few times, since I was able to heal and revive myself. (You have “ammo” for your health buff; it recharges over time.) If Medic doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, you can switch classes in the middle of a round at stations placed throughout maps. I dabbled as an Engineer for some time, still mostly supporting my team by building staircases and dealing out damage buffs, and enjoyed that role as well. Brink truly looks to have something for everyone; which class will you play?
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Brink, the upcoming first-person shooter from Enemy Territory developer Splash Damage, is bringing a novel approach to a crowded market. It incorporates elements from a variety of popular genres, but does so in a way that mak...

Preview: The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings

Feb 25 // Samit Sarkar
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings (PC) Developer: CD Projekt Red Studio Publisher: Atari (NA) / CD Projekt (C. Europe) / 1C (E. Europe, Russia) / Namco Bandai (elsewhere) To be released: May 17, 2011 The Witcher ran on BioWare’s Aurora engine, but CD Projekt built its own engine for this game; in the studio’s humble opinion, according to Ohle, it’s “the best built-for-an-RPG engine that’s out there.” It allows for a much less linear experience than the first game -- your choices play an even more vital role here, since the storyline can branch in numerous directions, concluding in one of 16 different ways. To drive that point home, the segment of the game that I saw took place around the Dwarven town of Vergan, which is an area that many players might not even see because the plot diverges before you get to it. That’s one of the many ways in which CD Projekt sets itself apart, Ohle explained. Many big-name publishers wouldn’t likely want to budget for content that most players won’t come across, but CD Projekt feels that it adds to the game’s replayability and makes the game world seem more real. “If you’re [...] walking around and you see a little crack in [a] wall, if you follow it, you might find something cool,” he said. Ohle told me that the team put a great deal of effort into crafting a believable fantasy world; in order to more fully realize Vergan and make it seem like a place in which Dwarves would really live, the developers drew inspiration from sources such as The Lord of the Rings. Vergan is a decent-sized burg, and I noticed a lot of stone and wood was used in its construction. The local bar is a loud, lively meeting place at any time of day. Dwarven children played in the street while other NPCs uttered a couple of lines of dialogue as protagonist Geralt walked past. Another major change is the combat system. You don’t have to keep switching between combat styles anymore -- everything occurs in real time, and Ohle compared the new setup to Batman: Arkham Asylum. You have quick attacks (left click) and strong attacks (right click); holding Ctrl slows down time somewhat, allowing you to swap weapons or choose and cast spells (Q). Blocking at the right moment will parry an incoming attack, which gives you an opportunity to counter, while the space bar can be used for dodging. To fans of the first game, this might sound like a cop-out, but from what I saw, it certainly doesn’t mean that enemies are any easier to take down. In fact, Ohle almost died in a fight with a single large beast because he wasn’t quite powerful enough for the area. Unlike most modern Western games, enemies in The Witcher 2 don’t scale to the player’s level -- as Ohle put it, “If you wander into the wrong place, you’re probably going to get your ass kicked.” Combat is tied to the game’s four skill trees: training, swordsmanship, magic, and alchemy. You can now change your appearance depending on the items you have crafted and equipped; there’s nothing too outlandish, since CD Projekt wanted to remain mostly faithful to the canon of Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher books, but you’ll be able to customize Geralt’s looks within the bounds of the fiction. The studio has also revamped the inventory management, a major gripe with the original game. I saw a section of an option sub-quest -- the demo was half an hour long, so it’s clear that this is a massive game -- in which Geralt was tasked with investigating a series of dead young men. On his way to the catacombs where the most recent victim lay, Ohle ran into some trouble and commenced a lakeside battle. I should note that The Witcher 2 looks beautiful, even in the early beta version that I saw: Geralt and his opponents splashed around in ankle-deep water while his spells dealt damage with colorful clouds that engulfed the enemies. Once Ohle reached the victim’s corpse, he had Geralt play forensic investigator, examining the body for clues. “Fingernail marks all over his back -- huh, at least he had some fun before he died,” Geralt noted, concluding that a local succubus likely had her way with the man, then consumed the energy within him and left him to die. After finding a book of love poems on the corpse and recognizing it as belonging to Geralt’s friend, Dandelion, a bard, Ohle headed back to Vergan to find him. The game’s quest journal is actually written as if Dandelion were narrating your story; by the end of the game, it will be a compendium of your exploits in book form. Once Geralt began talking to Dandelion in Vergan’s inn, the game’s dialogue really began to stand out to me. The Witcher 2 can be a damn funny game, and even when it’s not, at least the conversations aren’t cheesy; this time around, CD Projekt brought in a native English speaker to help maintain the story’s quality. Geralt’s plan was to use Dandelion as bait to lure the succubus into revealing her true form. But first, Dandelion wanted to sing his anthem for Vergan to Geralt; when he asked Geralt if he liked it, the monster hunter retorted, “Well... it rhymes.” The Witcher 2 has a full day/night cycle; the next portion of the quest had to be accomplished after midnight, so Geralt meditated until then. (Unlike in the first game, you can meditate anywhere.) He met up with Dandelion near the succubus’ hideout, and when Dandelion seemed flippant about seducing her, Geralt pointed out that “her beauty’s killed several men,” as far as he could tell. “Now you tell me!” exclaimed a frightened Dandelion. Here, Ohle actually took control of Dandelion, whose task was to compose a ballad to bring out the succubus. Armed with his trusty lute and poetry book (which you can examine in the game’s journal), Ohle succeeded in arousing the succubus’ attention. At this point, Ohle had the option of going back to Geralt so he could take care of the succubus, but he decided to enter her underground lair himself. “Fucking idiot actually went in!” gasped an exasperated Geralt. So Geralt followed his friend down into the succubus’ den. A well-endowed naked woman floated before him, with Dandelion strapped to her bed. (The sequel is trying to tell its story in a less silly manner, so the “sex cards” that were in The Witcher are gone, but you can rest assured that there’s plenty of unabashedly mature content in this game.) Ohle told me that he could just attack the demon at this point, but he decided to question her instead. The succubus admitted to having her fun with the formerly-living corpse in the catacombs, but insisted that he was still alive when she finished with him. In a show of good faith, she promised to release Dandelion when he woke up. The build I saw wasn’t optimized, so the game chugged in spots. I also noticed some hitches in walking around the world, although Ohle explained that the game world is fully seamless, so there won’t be any loading pauses in the retail version. He also noted that players who have completed The Witcher will be able to import their save game into Assassins of Kings, where some of your choices from the first game will influence the outcome of your story. The Witcher 2 isn’t necessarily my kind of game, but I could see that it’s shaping up to be a really impressive PC RPG. Like the alluring succubus in the demo, it can be a cruel mistress, but the ride sure seems like it’s going to be enjoyable.
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At a recent press event in New York, I saw a demo of The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, the follow-up to the critically acclaimed 2007 medieval fantasy RPG from Polish studio CD Projekt. Knowing that the original game had its...

Preview: The Gunstringer

Feb 25 // Max Scoville
The Gunstringer (Xbox Live Arcade)Developer: Twisted PixelPublisher: Microsoft Game StudiosTo be released: Spring 2011 The game opens with a live-action sequence of people entering a theater with “The Gunstringer” on the marquee in big letters. We then see footage of stagehands carrying a puppet up to the main stage, where he’s put down next to a fake tombstone and covered in dirt. Then, the curtain goes up, and this puppet -- now computer-generated -- is dragging himself up from the grave. All this sounds very ghoulish and creepy, but I assure you, it’s done with quirky charm. This whole introductory scene is narrated, but since I was playing at a press event, there were about fifteen other loud noise simulators being played within the immediate vicinity. The Gunstringer is a classic revenge tale: our hero was a member of a Wild West posse, but was betrayed. Now, he’s back from the dead to seek vengeance on the other members.  And also, he’s a puppet. The lights come up and The Gunstringer drags himself into a sunny corral full of cacti and hay bales covered with beer cans, and we’re put through a painless little tutorial session on the game’s controls. Now, considering there is no controller involved, “controls” seems like the wrong word. Semantics aside, the game teaches us how to shoot things. Hey you. Yes, you. Right there, on the computer reading this. Put your right hand out in front of you like you’re holding a pistol. Now, move it around. There, that’s how you aim in The Gunstringer. Now, hold your left hand up like you’re holding a yo-yo. (Or a marionette, if you’re familiar with the feeling.) There. Those are the controls.  By aiming with your right hand, you move around a large crosshair shaped like a the cylinder of a revolver, or perhaps a ring of caps for a cap gun. When this passes over enemies, they become highlighted in red, meaning they’re targeted. By flicking your forearm up (as though a pistol’s recoil had moved it), The Gunstringer will quickly fire off rounds at these enemies. It’s like like dead-eye mode in Red Dead Redemption. Except you’re playing as a marionette. And you don’t have a controller in your hand. Movement controls are equally simple. By lifting your left hand up, The Gunstringer will leap into the air. Moving your left hand from side to side will make him run to the right or left. At certain points in the game, you’ll take cover behind objects while enemies shoot at you, or hurl sticks of dynamite. While taking cover, you’re able to target enemies, but must blow your cover to fire. This entails moving your left hand left or right, and flicking your right hand up quickly. I spoke with Twisted Pixel’s Jay Stuckwisch, who told me about other weapons, activated by different gestures, that you’ll see later in the game. One example he gave was if you make a punching motion, The Gunstringer will do a whirlwind roundhouse-punch-type special move. At another point, a man’s arm -- a live-action arm, I mean -- will enter the frame and squash enemies or put down explosives in helpful places for you. Jay mentioned that it becomes possible to control this mysterious Monty Python-esque hand. After playing through the prologue tutorial -- which involved jumping over fences while shooting vultures and mountain goats -- I was treated to a nice training boss. “Wavy Tube Man” is a former member of The Gunstringer’s posse, his title being “posse secretary/events coordinator.” He is literally a wavy tube man, the kind seen outside car dealerships and furniture stores. To fight him, The Gunstringer hides behind crates and hay bales, ducking out to shoot him as much as possible without getting slapped by hiss wacky waving inflatable arm-flailing armtubes. After defeating Wavy Tube Man, The Gunstringer produces a photograph of the posse, and crosses Tube Man out. Based on this picture, the posse’s other members will probably pose more of a challenge. A couple of examples would be the man with a mustache who looks like a robot, and the ancient sagely Pai Mei lookalike. On paper, The Gunstringer is a simple on-rails Wild-West shooter. In the hands of the curious individuals at Twisted Pixel, however, The Gunstringer is a lot more. It looks like Team America: World Police crossed with Monty Python’s Flying Circus and doused heavily in some kind of tangy southwestern flavor-sauce. 
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Twisted Pixel is easily one of my favorite studios these days. With titles like 'Splosion Man and Comic Jumper, what they’re currently doing with videogames reminds me a lot of what Nickelodeon and MTV were doing with c...

Hands-on: Dead Space 2: Severed

Feb 25 // Hamza CTZ Aziz
Dead Space 2: Severed (Xbox 360 [Previewed], PlayStation 3)Developer: Visceral GamesPublisher: Electronic ArtsTo be released: March 1, 2011MSRP: MS Points/$6.99 I'm not going to touch on the storyline other than that you play as Gabriel and you're trying to rescue Lexine from the Necromorph nightmare. The experience is only two chapters long, so telling you anything more would just spoil things too much. But I will talk about what you can expect gameplay-wise. "Severed" is a more of an action experience; fitting, since Gabriel's profession is that of a security guard. As such, your weapon loadout includes a Pulse Rifle and Seeker Rifle at the start of the game. The store will contain all the weapons featured in the regular game and you'll be able to upgrade guns on any workbenches you come across. As for the suit, it can be upgraded, but you won't come across any new suits. (You can, however, equip any of the suits you've purchased through DLC.) The game starts you off in the Titan Mines, about six hours before Isaac makes his way through. The first section entirely takes place in parts you've never seen before, although you do eventually come across areas that were in the main, on-disc campaign. Scott Probst, producer on Dead Space 2, demoed the new content for me and told me that "Severed" is made up of about "50/50" new and old content. Visceral "wanted to play up the fact that [Gabriel] is going through similar areas because we're paying an ode to Isaac." Scott continued by talking about the hospital level, where you'll get to hours after Isaac has made his way through. "A lot of things that took place in the hospital when you were playing as Isaac are now different or changed based on what Isaac did there. Even though it's a place you've seen before, it's not the same type of gameplay or same type of combat in many instances." Even on normal, the attack waves are crazy intense, which plays into the whole action focus. You're overwhelmed a lot more in comparison to Isaac's adventure -- and the return of an old enemy type, the Twitcher, makes the combat even more scary. Twitchers are the super-fast Necromorphs that you came across in the original Dead Space after the USM Valor made contact with the Ishimura. They were absent in Dead Space 2, and I think you'll be wishing they were never brought back at all, in a good, yelling-out-loud kind of way. You'll also go up against non-Necromorphs, but that's all I'll say in that regard. Is this add-on worth it? Well if you're a big fan of the Dead Space mythology then totally, especially those of you who have replayed Dead Space 2 multiple times. If there's anything wrong with this DLC, it's that it's not long enough. (I'm guesstimating it's going to be under a couple of hours overall.) Lastly, there's no plans for a PC version of "Severed." When I asked Scott about it, he wouldn't confirm nor deny it was coming. So fingers crossed, PC folks.
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Can't get enough Dead Space 2? Well you're in luck, as a new single-player experience is being released next week! The downloadable content, called "Severed," contains two new chapters and follows Gabriel Weller and Lexine Mu...

First impressions of Batman: Arkham City

Feb 25 // Hamza CTZ Aziz
Batman: Arkham City (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC)Developer: Rocksteady StudiosPublisher: Warner Bros. Interactive EntertainmentTo be released: TBA 2011 Arkham City is a sprawling urban area, and as such, Gotham's criminal masterminds are all vying to take control of it. In the case of the presentation I saw, it's Two-Face who has stirred up some ruckus by taking Catwoman hostage. In order for someone like Two-Face to take over, he needs to recruit thugs for his cause, and what better way to do that than kill the infamous Selina Kyle? With some help from Alfred and the new Cryptographic Sequencer V2, a gadget that hacks into audio frequencies so you can eavesdrop, Batman figures out that Selina is being held hostage at the nearby courthouse. The city is huge, so walking there would be pretty annoying. Thankfully, Batman's gliding ability has been greatly improved. We see Batman diving and rising through the air in order to gain momentum towards his destination. The city is full of life, and along the way, Batman comes across a group of thugs that are attacking Jack Ryder (recognize the name, Batman fans?) on the streets below. Batman identifies one as a Riddler informant, and you'll want to interrogate these thugs in order to find and collect all the Riddler trophies. The informant needs to be the last one standing, so Batman literally drops in on one thug and then takes the rest out. Once the Riddler thug is isolated, he quickly spills the secrets before he's punched out by Batman. One of the trophies is nearby, so Batman uses the batclaw to do the new grapple boost maneuver, launching himself into the air and gliding to his goal. The trophy is within a bear trap, so Batman fires his batclaw to grab it. In addition, the batclaw can now be used in combat to reel enemies in. From here, we make our way to the courthouse. Once inside, a cutscene shows Two-Face arguing with himself about what he's about to do to Catwoman. The evil side wins out, of course, and we see that Catwoman is being hung upside-down over a steaming vat of what looks to be acid. After the scene, Batman uses Detective Mode to identify the biggest threats in the room of nearly fifty thugs. Batman first heads upward to take out a guy with a machine gun overseeing the room. From here, Batman tightrope-walks to the middle of the courthouse, locks on to a machete-wielding thug, and drops down on him. As soon as Batman drops in, the entire room clears out -- except for a few stragglers, and Two-Face, who is now shooting at him. As soon as all the enemies are dispatched, Two-Face actually manages to hit Batman with a shot; another cut-scene kicks in with him about to end Catwoman's life. She manages to get her arms free and break out; in the scuffle, she almost gets shot by Two-Face before Batman saves the day. With Two-Face strung up in place of Catwoman (and oddly just left there), Batman questions her about what's going on in Arkham City. Some of the dialogue was actually censored to prevent spoilers, but the gist of it is that someone's plotting something big against Batman. Before he can find out more, the Joker makes his presence known, almost sniping Catwoman in the head. During this scene, the player hears Joker's voice -- the evil clown isn't doing so well, if his coughing fits are any indication. Batman needs to figure out where the bullet came from and does some CSI-ing to identify that Joker's shot originated in the giant clock tower located a few blocks away. Before taking off, Batman heads downstairs to see Calendar Man in his little prison cell. Rocksteady has done a lot of work with the dialogue and you can just hang back and overhear tons of conversations. In the case of Calendar Man, he'll tell you stories about the murders that he committed on major holidays, which are actually tied to your console or PC's calendar. So play Arkham City on Christmas Day, and he'll tell you all about his evil deeds on the happiest day of the year. Back outside, Batman grabs a ride off a helicopter patrolling the area, until he reaches the clock tower. Batman jumps and we're shown another new move, where he dives straight into an enemy and connects with a throat grab. It's a pretty brutal and awesome takedown. Another new move shown off was the "Beat Down," which sees Batman throwing out a fury of lightning-fast strikes ending in an uppercut. Perfect for taking down heavily armed thugs. Bats then makes his way in, only to be greeted by Harley Quinn and four armed thugs overseeing a room full of hostages. Quinn attacks Batman, but is simply thrown to the ground. Easily defeated, she makes her exit and leaves the four guards to deal with Batman.  The thugs start to have a hilarious conversation about how they're about to get their asses handed to them by Batman. When they finally work up the nerve to actually shoot, Batman throws down the new smoke bomb item and disappears above. The guards freak out and disperse around the room and here we see some more new attacks. First, Batman sneaks up behind two of the thugs and performs a new double takedown by slamming their heads into each other. He then goes towards baddie number three, and takes him out by hanging off a ledge and using his legs to choke the guy out. Finally, Batman gets behind the confessional booth, where the final guard is holding a hostage. Batman can now bust through objects with just his bare hands, and does so to take the guy out. These are all-around badass moves. Once the room is cleared, Batman heads to the top of the building, only to discover that Joker was remote-controlling the sniper rifle. The room is also filled with explosives, so he needs to act quickly to lock in on the frequency Joker was using with the Cryptographic Sequencer. Once achieved, Batman dives out of the window seconds before the bomb goes off, and this is where the demo ends. Transitioning from one objective to the next is presented without any major breaks, as opposed to something like Grand Theft Auto. Even though you're set in an open-world arena, it still looks like you'll be going through the game on a somewhat linear path. Combat looks better than ever, too, and you have twice as many moves as in Arkham Asylum. The visuals and art direction are as stellar as ever too. You're in a much bigger environment, but that same intense Batman atmosphere is very much present. I simply cannot wait for Batman: Arkham City.
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Arkham Asylum has been closed, and the criminal scum have all been rounded up into Arkham City, a super-prison made up of districts that once were part of Gotham City. The new prison is five times the size of Arkham Island an...

Hands-on: Orcs Must Die!

Feb 25 // Colette Bennett
[embed]194575:36601[/embed] Orcs Must Die! (PC) Developer: Robot EntertainmentPublisher: Robot EntertainmentTo be released: 2011 My first thought when I sat down for my playthrough of Robot's first original IP was that it reminded me a bit of how it felt to sit in front of World of Warcraft (or any similarly-themed MMO for that matter). Orcs Must Die! is a single-player game, but everything from viewing your character in a third person perspective to the use of hotkeys for spells and traps reminded me of that MMO feeling. However, I prefer to play games that have finite endings, so already Orcs Must Die! featured something to please me that MMOs cannot offer. Playing as an nameless main character who is rather brawny and looks a bit like a Dreamworks hero, I started on a dungeon-like map called The Hallway that was fairly simple. My job was to protect the Rift, a glowing source of power at the end of my map, from the oncoming waves of orcs. In my arsenal in this early level of the game, I had at my disposal several traps such as spikes I could lay on the floor and walls and a bog-like muck which causes slowdown. I also had a sword in hand, so for any orcs that managed to somehow make it past the traps I laid, I was able to go in and stop them with a few slashes. Take that, beasts! The average brand of orc was slow, so they were really better to practice against in the early level I played -- I wouldn't call them a challenge. These early orcs are best for when you are trying to get a handle on how to use the traps you have and figure out what works best.  Speaking of traps, there are going to be quite a few of them (and best of all, they can't hurt you -- I guess they only have it out for orcs). Robot has not confirmed a specific number, but in addition to the spikes and bog-muck, I also got to play with larger scale traps such as a swinging mace, which you can mount from the ceiling, and a spiked rolling log you can send down a flight of stairs. Pots of boiling acid were also mentioned, but we did not see them in the levels we played. I have to admit that there is something really absurdly rewarding about sending a pack of orcs flying with a spring trap and watching them drown in a nearby lava pit. I also like that your character makes smartass remarks as he sends the denizens of the underworld flying to meet their doom. In the second level we got hands on time with, the Sorcerer's Tower, things got complex and we got a peek at the possibilities of the game in its middle stages. This level had a door at the bottom, with the aforementioned lava pit off to one side. The path the orcs can take spirals up the tower, with plenty of environmental goodies you can use (there's even a big gun on the highest level.) This level also introduces several new types of orcs (Robot tells us there will be eight types in total.) Some heavies ambled in, which I expected, but most annoying were some smaller, faster guys who make a kind of shrieking noise as they roll past. It's a shame you can't step on them. This level also taught me that certain types of attacks with my melee bow were more useful than others. A headshot took an orc down faster, for instance, than body shots, and appeared to generate more total points for my score. I also had gained a new spell (fireballs!), and Orcs also dropped resources such as health and loot. It was easy for me to see how the game could grow challenging as it progresses, as you only have ten slots for traps and your melee weapons combined. Once you have more than ten traps at your disposal, you're going to have choose which ones you want to take into each level, so there will be some trial and error involved there. You can also call for help and have an archer come in and shoot orcs in the face alongside you. Nothing like some teamwork to make a killing spree worthwhile! Orcs Must Die! is still in development, so although it will be shown off at this year's PAX East, there are still many more developments in store. Robot tells us that DLC is definitely possible and that a Mac release has not yet been decided on, so if you want those things, be sure to give them your feedback if you play the game at PAX. I'm looking forward to more delicious orc slaughtering when this one hits later this year.
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Just to be fair, I'm going to throw this out there before I go one word further: I LOVE tower defense games. With all my heart. As soon as I saw the first preview for Orcs Must Die! during my trip to Robot Entertainment ...


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