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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 ...

Sesame Street for Kinect is ridiculously adorable

Feb 25 // Hamza CTZ Aziz
Sesame Street: Once Upon a MonsterDeveloper: Double FinePublisher: Warner Bros.To be released: Fall 2011 Sesame Street is all about helping children learn and develop and Once Upon a Monster is no different. The scene I described is honestly pretty sad to look at. Kids will look at this and should trigger some feelings of concern. They'll want to know why the monster is sad and try to help it out. One of the ways you'll help Marco out is by doing one of his favorite activities, running through the Electric Forest. One player controls Marco and the player will need to jump and lean left or right in order to avoid obstacles. Player two controls Elmo who's riding on top of Markco. The Elmo player will need to raise his hands up in order to grab objects or lower their body in order to avoid overhead obstacles. Another game that was shown off is a dance mode where Grover puts on disco attire and leads the dance moves. Both players just need to mimic the moves Grover is performing and it's pretty damn hilarious seeing Cookie Monster dance around. The animation for all of the monsters are based on the real puppet movements so they all move as they would in real life. It's so accurate that there were moments that I though I was watching real footage as opposed to in-game images. (Image)There's also voice control in the game and you'll need to speak to your Kinect in order to make some stuff happen. At the end of the chapter, you celebrate Marco's birthday by yelling "Happy birthday" and telling him to "blow out the candles!" It's kind of like Dora the Explorer, except you don't look like a jackass speaking to your TV since nothing actually happens. All of the games are pretty simply and there's no real penalty for messing up. Again, this is Sesame Street and they just want kids to get through without disappointment or failure. It's pretty rare to see a game where it actually tries to impart life lessons. Sesame Workshop, the organization behind Sesame Streets, hopes that players discover how to make friends, learn how to cooperate with others and even face fears. That's pretty fucking rad if you ask me.
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I've been extremely excited for Double Fine's Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster for the Xbox 360 Kinect since the second it was announced. Not sure why and it's kind of weird since I didn't grow up on Sesame Street. It's mo...

Hands-on: Gears of War 3 multiplayer

Feb 24 // Hamza CTZ Aziz
Gears of War 3 (Xbox 360)Developer: Epic GamesPublisher: Microsoft Game StudiosTo be released: September 20, 2011MSRP: $59.99 By and large, Gears of War 3 plays like previous Gears games. However, there are some notable changes, the biggest being that the controls have been slightly altered. Coming in with the Gears 2 setup in mind won't cut it, and it'll take some getting used to the new scheme. Epic found that in past Gears games, players would perform certain actions by accident when trying to do something else, so the new controls should solve this issue. For example, tapping the X button will now be the "use" button, and it will also revive players. Holding the X button will pick up a weapon. Tapping the Y button will perform a curb stomp on a downed player, whereas holding the same button will perform a long execution. Players will start off with the basic executions and will need to prove their proficiency with weapons in order to unlock new execution kills. Executions are now worth bonus experience points, so there's more to it now than simply embarrassing your opponent. These special executions are pretty long animations, so there's a risk/reward system associated with it.  Another big change is that you'll have weapon loadouts. You can choose your weapons before a round starts and after every time you've been killed. Unlike in other games that feature weapon loadouts, however, you can still find weapons placed around the map. A feature I really liked is that you can get a sort of X-ray vision of the map and see where all the weapons spawn by pressing down on the left bumper. It doesn't necessarily tell you if the weapon is still there, but it's a cool feature for players starting out. Pressing the back button also pulls up a map that presents a live overhead view of the battlefield as the match is taking place, so you can see weapons and players in real time. You're of course going to get new weapons, five of which I got to check out and will be featured in the beta: Double barrel sawed-off shotgun: It's a very effective beast up close. Don't bother wasting shells at long range. The reload takes a damn long time. One Shot: It's a monster of a sniper rifle -- so big that it has to be hip-slung. Once equipped, the rifle scans the battlefield with a target laser and it will kill an enemy in one shot, turning them into a fine pink mist. Retro Lancer: This is a gun that was used before the Locust war. It's like the regular Lancer, but with a bayonet instead of a chainsaw. Players can do a charge attack and with enough momentum, will pierce an enemy and raise them over their head. The Digger: Shot that burrows underground to reach its target. A direct hit on a player will cause the weapon to burst out of their chest. Incendiary grenade: Exactly what it sounds like. Bursts on impact and is a useful defensive weapon when you need to keep enemies back. Grenades can now be stuck to the head of a meat shield. Once stuck, the meat shield will be kicked away and will take out anyone close enough. Some old weapons are changed up a little too, such as the Hammerburst, which now features an iron sight, making it very effective at long range. As for the modes, there will be six gametypes shipping with the game. I checked out the three that will be in the beta. Team Deathmatch has been changed up so there's only a set number of lives now, instead of it being a points-focused game. It makes the matches a lot more intense; rounds can easily turn into a four-on-one game by the end if players don't coordinate with each other. One of the new modes is called Capture the Leader. It sees the opposing teams having to find the enemy leader, down them and then use them as a meat shield for a set time in order to score points. Leaders also have special abilities that they can use to help their team. Teams won't be able to score if their leader is being held. As for the third mode, it's King of the Hill and it's been simplified in comparison to Gears of War 2. We also got to see six of the new maps, and you can get info on them here. (GO VOTE!) I have to say, I loved the level design on all the maps. I especially like the fact that some of the maps were colorful and bright. As for my feelings overall on the game, well, it's Gears of War. Aside from the control changes and the Call of Duty-like loadout system, it's still the same thing you've played countless times before, just better all around. If you love Gears, there's no question on whether you're actually going to enjoy this (you will). For people that have never been into a Gears game before, I think you'll finally have a good reason to try again with the third game. (I should know, as I'm not a Gears player.) Something about this actually has me really excited for the final chapter in this story. I think it's that it feels a lot more accessible in comparison to past games. You'll find out soon enough for yourself come this April with the beta.
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Gears of War 3? Kind of a big deal. It is the most anticipated game of 2011, after all. Yesterday we learned that the Epic shooter will be out worldwide on September 20, and we now know that the beta will be released sometime...

Hands-on: Turtle Beach Ear Force PX5 headset

Feb 24 // Hamza CTZ Aziz
Ear Force PX5 (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, portable devices)Manufacturer: Turtle BeachRetailers: Best Buy, GameStopMSRP: $249.95 First, let's take a look at the new tech behind the Ear Force PX5 headset. You're still getting Dolby 5.1 and 7.1 virtual surround sound, as usual. The big addition -- and a first for the headset market -- is the inclusion of two radios. One is for uncompressed game audio, and the other is a Bluetooth radio for wireless chat with cell phones and the PlayStation 3. Yup, you'll be able to sync up phones to take calls through the headset or even stream music over Bluetooth, all while playing games. As for the wireless transmitter, it's largely the same as the last model, but it's now on a 2.4 GHz radio frequency for improved sound quality. Here's the real big thing about the Ear Force PX5: you'll be able to store up to 18 audio presets that will give you an edge in competitive games. The example I was given was a Search and Destroy match in Call of Duty. You can play through the round with normal audio, and once it's down to you and someone else, you can simply press a button on the Ear Force to tune out sound that's outside of the footstep audio frequency. Yes, you'll be able to fine-tune the headset to the point that you can only hear someone's footsteps, or whatever critical audio cues you need to hear. Users will be able to download the Preset Manager program from Turtle Beach, which lets you create custom audio settings. Best of all, this program is free. There's also a social website that Turtle Beach will be launching, where users can create, share and rate custom audio settings. Turtle Beach will also have 100 custom presets ready for download at launch. On the headset are two buttons that allow you to change the current audio setting. On the left side, you can toggle between the nine custom channels. The right side of the headset has a main button that lets you hot-swap between your favorite audio setting and the last channel you selected. To create these, Turtle Beach will provide a developer level version of the preset manager called the PX5 Advanced Sound Editor, which allows developers to create not only voices, but also custom presets for their own titles. Just as the consumer PX5 Preset Manager tool will be free, the developer PX5 Advanced Sound Editor will be distributed to developer at no charge. On top of creating these game-changing settings, players can customize other features, such as drowning out people's heavy breathing or create a threshold in case you end up in lobbies with screaming kids. You can create the same settings for yourself, too -- perfect for those of you who can't help but scream in rage or joy. Turtle Beach is working on a series of headsets, and this first entry in the product line will run you $249.95. The other entries will be revealed at E3. Turtle Beach has taken a very interesting approach to the headset field. Obviously, owners of these headsets are going to have a marked advantage when it comes to online multiplayer games thanks to the PX5. I'm curious to see how people will react to this extra advantage players will get. If there is one thing to complain about, however, I want to point out that that the buttons that allow you to switch channels are annoyingly small. You might lose a few seconds searching for the buttons as you try to switch channels, especially as you're getting used to the headset, and sometimes you don't have even a second to spare when it comes to games like Halo: Reach or Call of Duty: Black Ops.. [Some facts about the headset were incorrect. Preview has been updated with corrections.]
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Turtle Beach's next headset -- the Ear Force PX5 -- stands in sharp contrast to their past headsets. The most striking element is that it actually feels like a good headset now. Previous Turtle Beach headsets were clunky and ...

Hands-on: The first mission of Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Feb 24 // Hamza CTZ Aziz
Deus Ex: Human Revolution (PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [Previewed])Developer: Eidos Montreal Publisher: Square Enix To be released: TBD 2011 Before getting into the actual gameplay, I want to briefly touch on the intro cinematic. It's a beautiful sequence that shows bits and pieces of Adam Jensen's transformation into an augmented soldier and it actually sent a chill down my spine -- if only because it reminded me a lot of the intro to the Ghost in the Shell anime (link NSFW). I've been fascinated with the field of cybernetics ever since I saw Mamoru Oshii's film all those years ago and thought Human Revolution's intro was a lovely nod. It's not easy for companies that specialize in the most important revolution in human society. Not only do they have to worry about rival organizations, but there are also human groups that oppose humanity's perversion against god or nature. One of these "Purists" groups have attacked a manufacturing plant owned by Sarif Industries where they've taken hostages. David Sarif's company has suffered enough already, and asks Adam to go in and resolve the situation. Upon landing at the facility where the crisis is taking place, I'm given the chance to pick what augmentations (augs for short) I can put into Adam. All of the augs you can equip/use are visible from the start, but you have to earn XP in order for Adam to upgrade. Jonathan Jacques-Belletete, art director on the project, explained that not every aug is working from the start since Adam's flesh and brain aren't fully compatible yet. Jonathan likened it to that of a baby where they learn to speak and walk as they develop. As you gain XP, though -- from killing or not killing people, sneaking into places, finishing quests, etc -- you'll unlock Praxis points which go toward unlocking augmentations (Praxis points can also be found in the world.) A new aug requires two Praxis points, while upgrades to unlocked augs will cost only one point. I went ahead and chose the cloaking system, aim stabilizer, and the Typhon Explosive System which launches miniature grenades in a 360 degree ark. Once unlocked, these abilities are attached to the D-pad on controllers (which I i figured out after I triggered the Typhon system on accident) and upgrading the abilities usually makes the feature more efficient in some way (speed, duration, power, etc). Using these special attacks -- which include the special lethal close quarter kills -- requires one full slot of your battery meter. You'll always have one battery slot that will be full (it takes a bit to recharge) and extra batteries will need to be replenished with items. All of the upgrades are based around the four core mechanics of Human Revolution: combat, stealth, hacking, and social. Everything in the game is designed with those four concepts in mind. It's up to the player to decide how they will upgrade Adam. A killing machine, a smooth talker or even a jack-of-all-trades who specializes in a little of everything -- the choice is yours. Once I was set, I went into the building and questioned the police who were standing guard around the perimeter. They weren't happy they were being held back by David Sarif, but they did at least help out by providing intel on the hostages, the Purist group, and the two ways of entering the building. Before arriving at the scene, David Sarif gave me the option of going in lethal or non-lethal. I went with lethal and was given a weapon, but I wanted to go through the level without getting into too many conflicts. As I made my way toward the front entrance, I came across a lone guard patrolling the area. Once his back was turned to me, I went up behind him and was given the option to perform a lethal or non-lethal kill with a simple press of the button. I went with non-lethal and an animated scene took place with Adam knocking the guard out. I dragged his unconscious body to a hiding spot but during this process, another guard came upon me and opened fire, alerting several other guards protecting the front entrance. There was only one path for the guards to get to me, so a few of them slowly came in one-by-one and I was able to take them out with relative ease. For the rest, I made use of the cover mechanics (described in the last preview) and cleared the area. This was a situation I noticed a number of times during my playthrough. If the guards were forced into taking one path toward you, it was somewhat easy to kill them. It's when the bad guys can come at you in any direction that proved to be difficult. Half the time, they used actual tactics against me; other times, they were stupid and simply rushed in. After several attempts of trying to get in through the front entrance of the building, I finally decided to use the roof access instead. I was getting my ass handed to me playing this game "FPS style" so I did my best to sneak around instead. Even then, I still came across situations where I got into firefights and even when they would funnel toward me, I died a lot. The game is very realistic in that only a few bullets will take you or the enemy out. Plus, you're not afforded that many bullets.  As for the weapons system, you're given a few options of managing your inventory. Pressing Back on the Xbox 360 controller will bring up your menu where among other things, you can access your Resident Evil 4-like inventory management screen. You can also hot swap between two guns with a simple button press and there's a quick-select screen which pauses the action and pulls up a radial menu with all the items you can equip. I eventually made my way to the end of the section, where I confront the leader of the Purist group, Sanders. He was holding a hostage at gunpoint and I was given the option to use force, or try to talk him out of killing the hostage. I wasn't having luck with the weapons before so I went with the peaceful route. I used a variety of methods to try and talk Sanders down; eventually, Sanders let the hostage go, but in the process, a deal allowing Sanders to escape was made. I was happy that I managed to save the hostage, but shortly realized I missed a room somewhere along the line that held more hostages ... and they were all killed. Whoops! I may have resolved the crisis, but I still let some innocent bystanders die, which was reflected in the conversation I had before leaving the manufacturing plant. It's been a long time since a first-person shooter has presented me with such a challenge that I die over and over. That's the beauty of the Deus Ex series, as it's a role-playing game hiding in a first-person shell. I had to re-wire my play style in order to adapt to the freeing, open-ended experience. I'm interested in seeing just how different I'll be able to play through this game. I won't necessarily do multiple playthroughs, since it's a good 25 to 35 hours, but I will at least experiment from mission to mission. And I know I won't have the patience to attempt a no-kill run, but it's nice that the option is there. That open-ended nature also applies to the multiple endings, and it won't simply be a matter of good, bad, or neutral; there will be morally "gray" endings as well. After all was said and done, I had to put the controller down. A shame -- the next level is when Human Revolution truly opens up into a non-linear experience. You'll be able to explore the city, get side-quests from NPCs, and really dive in to the Deus Ex universe. I've never played the Deus Ex series proper before, so I'm looking forward to really getting that chance come later this year.
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When we left off, Deus Ex: Human Revolution main protagonist Adam Jensen got his ass royally handed to him while trying to protect Dr. Megan Reed, who had discovered the key to human augmentation. Six months later, Adam is...

Impressions: MLB 11 The Show (3D, HR Derby with PS Move)

Feb 23 // Samit Sarkar
The depth goes “into” the screen, as on the Nintendo 3DS, while the HUD elements -- including the score line at the top of the screen, any statistical or interface overlays, and baserunner windows when you’ve got men on first or third -- stand out because they float “above” the screen. The Show doesn’t shout “THREE-DEE” from the rooftops, and it’s much more enjoyable for it. Even better, the options menu includes a slider that functions similarly to the physical slider on the body of the 3DS, allowing you to customize the subtlety of the 3D effect. Just for kicks, I turned it up all the way, which led to some very unpleasant ghosting for me. I assume that’s because I’m severely nearsighted and I wear fairly thick eyeglasses -- as it is, I have to deal with slight chromatic aberration at the edges of my lenses. As with any 3D effect, your mileage may vary; I found the effect most comfortable when I set the slider at about 30 or 40% full. Home Run Derby is little more than a fun diversion from the meat of MLB 11, and I was alternately impressed and disappointed by the implementation of PlayStation Move in the mode. I should mention at the outset that HR Derby is the only part of MLB 11 that supports Move; you can’t use it for anything else. When playing a Derby with Move, your slugger doesn’t appear in the batter’s box; all you see is a bat floating in mid-air. I found the tracking of the wand to be highly accurate, just as in most Move games I’ve played -- the orientation of the on-screen corresponds to the position in which you’re holding the wand. But that’s about as far as the accuracy goes; as for the actual act of swinging, you might as well be playing Wii Sports. You can stand up and get in a batting stance if you really want to, but it’s by no means necessary (although you do have to swing left-handed, or backhanded, if your hitter is a lefty). I was able to blast a ball over 470 feet just by flicking my wrist gently -- hitting depends only on the timing of the swing and the angle of the bat. (If you swing downward, for instance, you’re just going to drive the ball into the ground.) That is, you can have just as much success with a full home-run hitter’s swing as with a quick motion of your wrist. I was initially expecting the mode to demand a more true-to-life swing, but the PR rep pointed out that the Derby is something you’d generally only play as a party game. And you sure as hell don’t want to be the one guy at a party who’s taking everything way too seriously, pretending to be David Ortiz -- spitting in your hands and all -- while everyone else is just messing around, trying to have a good time.
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When I first checked out MLB 11 The Show a few weeks ago, I spent a portion of the hands-on demo playing the game in 3D. I also tried the Home Run Derby mode, which debuted last year and now supports PlayStation Move. Sony S...

Preview: MLB 11 The Show

Feb 22 // Samit Sarkar
MLB 11 The Show (PlayStation 3 [previewed], PlayStation Portable, PlayStation 2) Developer: SCE San Diego Studio Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment To be released: March 8, 2011 The analog hitting and fielding in MLB 11 works very similarly to the way it does in MLB 2K. To hit, you pull back on the right stick to bring your hands back, and then flick upward to swing the bat. Timing is critical; you’ll want to pull back to preload your swing during the pitcher’s windup, so the swing ends up being one fluid motion (pulling back too early or too late will greatly reduce your chances of making contact). The option to use a contact swing or power swing still exists with a button press before the pitch. There are two ways to check your swing: pull down on the stick after you’ve started to push it upward, or merely let it go upward to the neutral position. To bunt, just push forward from neutral. I’m not a very good hitter in The Show as it is, since I spend most of my time playing as a pitcher in Road to the Show, so I had difficulty making contact. But the system feels great, and it’s good to see that it doesn’t offer any reduced functionality compared to button hitting. Analog fielding is really going to test your stick accuracy. Imagine the baseball diamond transposed onto the right stick: right is for first base, up is for second base, and so on. You push the stick in the direction of the base you want to throw to, and the longer you hold it there, the harder the throw will be. (For throws to the cutoff man, you hold L1 and flick.) The system asks for a deft touch. If you don’t flick toward cardinal east, north, west, or south, your throw will be off -- and if you hold the stick too long, it’s probably going to sail over your target’s head. On a stolen base opportunity, I had my catcher throw the ball to second base. But I pushed the stick up and slightly left; as a result, the throw ended up on the shortstop side of the second-base bag, and the runner slid safely in. And I saw more than a few instances in which my opponent air-mailed a routine throw, giving me an extra base or two. Analog pitching, too, requires pinpoint control -- especially with hurlers who aren’t aces. The system is both timing- and control-sensitive, just like real pitching. Unlike the gesture-based pitching in MLB 2K, where a four-seam fastball and a two-seam fastball require different movements, the basic analog-stick motion is the same for every pitch. Pulling down on the right stick initiates the windup, and a small baseball icon starts to move downward toward a horizontal yellow line on the vertical pitching meter. The idea is to flick the stick upward at the moment that the ball hits the yellow line. The intensity of the flick determines the amount of effort that your pitcher puts into the delivery, but you’ll quickly tire him out if you try too many throws with extra “oomph.” Of course, it’s only that simple if you want to throw the pitch over the heart of the plate. Once you start moving the ball around the plate, a direction indicator above the vertical pitch meter will correspond to how far your pitch deviates from dead center. With a pitch thrown right down the pipe, you’ll flick straight upward. But if you’re aiming to the right or left, you’ll have to flick the stick upward and to the right or left, respectively; the further away from the middle of the plate you’re aiming, the more your flick will deviate from true north, so to speak. The timing of the delivery will be quicker if you’re pitching out of the stretch instead of the windup, and if you don’t hit the yellow line exactly, your pitch will break less or more (depending on whether you’re early or late, respectively). As you can see, there’s a lot to take in. Analog pitching is also very unforgiving in its challenge; missing either the timing or the positioning may cause your pitch to end up in a place you don’t want it to go. You’ll be throwing many more balls than in years past, and what’s exciting is that the system really differentiates the wheat from the chaff. I created a pitcher in Road to the Show, and I noticed that I had to be very conservative in aiming with the 61-rated minor-leaguer. You simply won’t be painting the corners at will, and that’s the way it should be. I did notice one major issue inherent in the system: the meter in local two-player (or four-player, as the case may be; MLB 11 includes a co-op mode) games doesn’t give you the left/right control display. That makes sense, since you don’t want your opponent to know if you’re throwing inside or outside. But that means that determining location when pitching against a human opponent who’s sitting next to you is purely a “feel” exercise: you have to have an idea of how far left/right you’re aiming, and then you have to flick upward and left/right by yourself -- without the help of the on-screen indicator. It seems like something that’s going to take a long time to learn. If you’re having a lot of trouble, you can switch to Rookie difficulty, where you’ll only have to worry about the release-point timing, not the side-to-side control. [For a more succinct video explanation of analog pitching in MLB 11, go here.] This year, Road to the Show (RTTS) has changed up its player creation setup. You’ll still be allocating attribute points, but at the start, you have to balance your player on a set of sliders. Pitchers, for example, can be stamina guys or power guys, Maddux-like control freaks or hurlers with lots of movement on their pitches, and have a balanced repertoire or feature one dominant pitch. Similarly, you’ll have to put your hitter somewhere on the spectrum between power and contact, and arm strength and accuracy for fielders. These characteristics will determine the initial layout of your player’s attributes, and since you can’t max out any one rating at the start, you’ll have to play through RTTS to improve your skills. Sony San Diego really focused on visual improvements in MLB 11. I selected “rain” as the weather for an exhibition game, and noticed that the skies started out overcast and gradually darkened before a drizzle began. The field also looked wet; the infield dirt filled with darkened splotches, especially in the base paths. Also new is an optional eight-pitch warmup session for starting pitchers. You can turn this off, but if you leave it on and skip the warmup process, your starter will begin the game cold. I’m going to need to spend a lot more time with MLB 11 before I can decide if I prefer its analog controls to the tried-and-true button controls of yore. Everything else seems like a further evolution of a series that’s been great for years, so I’m excited to get my hands on the full game in the next couple of weeks. You can try it out for yourself right now: a four-inning demo went up on the PlayStation Store today.
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Sony’s competitor in the baseball space, 2K Sports’ Major League Baseball 2K franchise, has included analog-stick controls for years. But the folks at Sony San Diego, the studio behind the MLB The Show series, vow...

Hands-on: MotorStorm: Apocalypse

Feb 22 // Max Scoville
MotorStorm: Apocalypse (PlayStation 3)Developer: Evolution StudiosPublisher: Sony Computer EntertainmentTo be released: March 16, 2011 (EU) / April 12, 2011 (NA) The basic premise of MotorStorm: Apocalypse -- for those unfamiliar with the series -- is no-holds-barred racing that almost completely disregards the laws of physics, reality, and motor vehicles in general. You can choose from monster trucks, street racers, dirt bikes, and more. Of course, all of these vehicles have a turbo-boost. Or nitrous, or super-speed. I’m not sure what the official name is, but I really don’t care. It’s the shit that makes you go ridiculously fast, and it’s really fun. One of the things that initially made me fall in love with MotorStorm: Pacific Rift (the most recent entry in the series) was the fact that if you used your boost too much, your car would blow up. This is a game where you literally go so fast, you explode. On certain tracks, you can drive through water to cool down your engine, and use your boost longer. Conversely, on other tracks, there is molten lava and patches of ground that are arbitrarily on fire. Driving through them will make your car blow up faster, just like in real life. MotorStorm: Apocalypse keeps a lot of the fun stuff from Pacific Rift, but there are a number of new additions. You know, aside from being the first title in the series that doesn’t sound like a flavor of Mountain Dew. Arctic Burst, Thin Ice Freeze, Baja Blast, Arctic Edge: Which of these is actually a MotorStorm title? Apocalypse is also the first MotorStorm game that can run in 3D. I got to try that out, and it was okay. As far as 3D gaming goes, I’ve only played around with the 3DS. Last week was the first time I’ve seen a 3DTV in action, so I don’t really have a basis of comparison. It didn’t look terrible, but I didn’t have my mind blown or anything. Honestly, I just don’t care about 3D. It doesn’t do anything to improve the gameplay. And unless you’ve got plenty of extra glasses, any friends you have over will probably get a headache waiting for their turn to play. That being said, I’d prefer to play MotorStorm: Apocalypse in 2D, because as cool as they are, the 3D effects don’t make up for how ridiculous I feel when wearing the required glasses. If it wasn’t readily apparent, MotorStorm: Apocalypse takes place in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The tracks are collapsed buildings, wrecked highways, and demolished suburbs. In addition to the standard hazards like cliffs and obstacles, there are also crazy people on the sides of the road shooting at you with rocket launchers and hurling molotovs. It’s straight out of The Road Warrior.  I’m a huge fan of Mad Max and Fallout, so I was excited about this premise. After playing, though, I was a little disappointed. It’s an ambitious game, really. Driving a rocket-powered monster truck over the rooftop of a half-exploded skyscraper while lunatics are hurling firebombs at you; that’s not something you do every day. The level designs are absolutely beautiful, but they weren't as fun to play as I'd expected. At one point, while playing one of the city tracks, I said, “It sorta feels like a Spider-Man game where Spider-Man’s lost most of his Spider-Powers, and also, he got transformed into a motorcycle.” Again, what sounds awesome in theory isn’t always as fun in practice. Another problem I had was the constant presence of crap all over the tracks. Broken-down cars, oil drums, rubble, crazy people. I get it: it’s the end of the world, and trash collection isn’t happening this week. It all looks really cool, but I felt that this many obstacles just impeded gameplay. Well, you know, with the exception of running people over, which is just hilarious. MotorStorm: Apocalypse features five new vehicle classes: supercar, superbike, muscle car, chopper and the hot hatch. New things are usually fun, but in the case of MotorStorm, the addition of new vehicles makes things really interesting. If you weren’t aware, all thirteen classes of vehicles race at once. Guess what happens when you run over a guy on an ATV with a monster truck: the ATV guy dies. It’s awesome. The monster truck is a lot slower, though, so it’s a toss-up. You like running people over, or going fast? I had a lot of fun with the “hot hatch,” which I kept referring to as “this ridiculous smartcar,” much to the annoyance of the game’s art director. It's one of the new classes, and it’s a souped-up hatchback. You're racing against monster trucks, muscle cars, and guys on choppers... with a tricked-out Geo Metro lookalike. I spoke with Apocalypse’s art director, Simon O’Brien, and asked him about the inspiration for the game’s tracks. A lot of them looked really familiar. This makes sense, because they were loosely based on the West Coast, with specific attention to the Bay Area. As far as specific landmarks go, nobody was trying to recreate any actual locations.  There’s a particular track set on a boardwalk that looked really familiar, but I couldn’t place it. Turns out, the inspiration was a mix of the Santa Monica Pier, the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, and Fisherman’s Wharf. Having lived near all these places, I can vouch for its amalgamated authenticity. The online multiplayer for Apocalypse features a neat system for earning experience. Instead of giving players a bunch of boring stats to tweak, like speed or steering, there’s a slew of different perks that can be unlocked. For example, having your vehicle give you a longer “please stop using the turbo-boost!” warning before it explodes, or what about this: when your car does explode, it lets off a sonic boom that’ll knock other racers off-course. In addition to crazy explosion-related perks, you can also unlock new decals and stuff to stick on your car. I didn’t get to see it, but I was assured that all the vehicles could be customized extensively, so everyone on the Internet can know if you have a horrible sense of color coordination. Aside from online multiplayer (which supports up to sixteen players), I was happy to hear that four-player split-screen play is available. As much as I hate actually playing split-screen, it makes video games a social activity, so I'm happy to see it included. One element that I doubt anyone will hype much is the in-game camera. It’s a simple concept: If you do some super-badass shit, and wanna show it off, hit pause. Take some pictures. Seems corny, but with the amount of detail in MotorStorm’s vehicles and tracks, and the speed at which the game gets played, there’s a lot you might miss. The camera offers a great way to take a closer look. While there’s no option to take 3D pictures yet, Simon said it was a feature he’d like to see, possibly as DLC. And he’s the art director, so that’s a good sign. Overall, I think MotorStorm: Apocalypse is a fun game, and that the MotorStorm series is the spiritual successor to games like Road Rash and San Francisco Rush. If I had a copy of Apocalypse, I would probably play the crap out of it, but it didn’t immediately grab me the same way its predecessor did. While I want to applaud the imaginative post-apocalyptic look this new installment is taking, the new tracks looked better than they played, and the amount of rubble on the track hindered the game's fun. Given, it's still fun as hell; it's just not as fun as ultra-mega-turbo-hell.
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When I first saw MotorStorm: Pacific Rift a couple years ago, I rolled my eyes. At a glance, it looked like one of those super-fast racing-inspired games for loud children. While I wasn’t terribly wrong with that assess...

Preview: Top Spin 4 (Player Creator, Career, more)

Feb 21 // Samit Sarkar
Top Spin 4 (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [previewed], Wii) Developer: 2K Czech Publisher: 2K Sports To be released: March 15, 2011 (NA) / March 18, 2011 (EU) In Top Spin 4, 2K Czech has intertwined the game modes like never before. The Career mode still entails creating a player and taking him/her from “Newcomer” to “Legend” status. But the game’s currency, experience points (XP), is now doled out in every mode. “We really tried to break the barriers down, so that you create your player, and then you do whatever you want with him,” said executive producer François Giuntini. So if you’re at a stage in your career where you’re losing a lot, you can build up your skills by playing Exhibition matches or defeating online opponents, and then return to the Career. It wasn’t only the gameplay in Top Spin 3 that suffered from a difficult-to-penetrate nature; according to Giuntini, the developers “received some similar comments on accessibility regarding the Player Creator.” So the team streamlined the interface but didn’t do away with the complex depth that TS3 offered. Here, the Player Creator includes a bunch of presets so you can jump in and quickly create a decent-looking character. Sliders to change body features allow for deeper customization, and the “expert” layer is the system for editing facial points that was in TS3. Differentiating created players was a major focus for the development team. The easiest way to dominate in TS3 -- even online -- was simply to max out your player’s Power rating. And player progression could feel intimidating or unclear to novices: Giuntini explained that some players didn’t understand why they should put points into one attribute over another. So 2K Czech simplified that system while giving players the tools to determine their own unique traits; you won’t be assigning XP to individual attributes anymore. TS4 contains three core play styles: serve and volley (blast the ball and then approach the net), offensive baseline (return the ball hard from the line), and defensive baseline (generally weaker players with the speed/agility to reach more balls). When you accrue enough XP to reach the next level, you merely choose which of those three areas you’d like to gain a level in. This way, you can easily create someone whose strengths are in line with the play style you have in mind. And if you don’t have a particular style in mind, you’ll at least have an idea -- depending on how you’re faring against your opponents -- of the areas in which you’d like to improve. Let’s say you’ve got a decent serve, but you can see that you’re losing points that you shouldn’t lose because you’re not fast enough to run down balls that aren’t coming right at you. You might then put your XP into a defensive baseline level. Your levels in each field add up to your overall level: the level-10 player that 2K showed me had two levels in serve and volley, and four each in offensive and defensive baseline. The level cap is 20 overall, not in each of the three areas. But that setup alone is rather limited -- thousands of players will share a particular combination of levels. So 2K Czech deepened the system with coaches. As you level up, you’ll unlock access to a pool of coaches (out of about 100 in total) that depends on your particular talents (i.e., the way in which you’ve allocated your levels). For example, you might need to have a few baseline defense levels before you can hire a coach who focuses on your baseline defense, since that’s his specialty. Coaches serve a similar purpose in TS4 as in real life: they help you improve your skills and prepare for individual opponents. The coaches are split into bronze, silver, and gold tiers. Early on, bronze coaches give you XP bonuses to help you rank up more quickly. Silver coaches will start giving you stronger attribute bonuses (e.g., +10 power) and gameplay skills. The latter are context-sensitive buffs that trigger automatically during gameplay. For example, I saw a “wrong-foot bonus,” which provides enhanced precision on ball placement when you wrong-foot your opponent (catch him off balance). Coaches also give you objectives for working on your skills, like successfully completing ten slice shots. (Remember, all of this can be accomplished in any game mode -- not just Career.) You can swap coaches at any time, so if you’re having trouble beating a particular opponent in your career, or if you notice that you’re losing to a specific type of player online, you can switch coaches to someone who will perhaps further improve your strong attributes or compensate for your weaker ones. Thankfully, you only have to play through Career mode and reach level 20 once. After you do that, you’ll be able to distribute 20 levels from the start to any future created player, and then you’ll have a particular list of coaches with which to further specialize that player. 2K Czech has also restructured the Career mode itself. The interface has been revamped; the home screen displays rankings, in-game news, and your next objectives. You’ll still be playing through amateur and pro tournaments, but there’s now more variety thanks to unranked preparation events (such as training exercises, special events, and exhibition matches with alternate rules). In addition, you can go for objectives like the series rankings. Each offers a selection of related tournaments (hardcourt, grass, Europe, etc.), and you get XP for doing well. World Tour, which is the Top Spin franchise’s online career mode, will now refresh with a new “season” each week. The tournament rankings are reset every seven days, but overall rankings will persist. Online tourneys are single-elimination affairs, and 2K has promised improved matchmaking in general to keep you playing against foes who are at a similar skill level. The demo concluded with some hands-on time in a doubles match; I played with three other developers. Four players can play locally, while online games are limited to two players on one console versus two on another. The doubles game brought out the competitive streak within us; we were all ooh-ing and ahh-ing on every volley. I soon realized that the crowd was as into it as we were -- the fans were gasping along with the players in the room. Pretty cool, eh?
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When I last sat in on a Top Spin 4 demo, I didn’t notice a whole lot that differentiated the game from its predecessor. I recently had the chance to take a deeper look at it in a longer session, and now I’m ready ...

Jurassic Park is like Heavy Rain, but with dinosaurs

Feb 18 // Hamza CTZ Aziz
Jurassic Park: The Game (PC, Mac, )Developer: Telltale GamesPublisher: Telltale GamesTo be released: April 2011MSRP: $34.99 or $29.99 with pre-orders In the Jurassic Park movie, Dennis Nedry attempted to smuggle dinosaur embryos to a rival organization. Dennis was killed by a Dilophosaurus, and the can of embryos was seemingly lost. There were people waiting for Dennis to deliver on the goods and Jurassic Park: The Game tells a new story that attempts to tie this loose end. For my hands-on portion of the game, I was introduced to Jurassic Park chief veterinarian Gerry Harding and his daughter Jess Harding. Along for the ride is a girl named Nina and unbeknown to the Hardings, Nina is on the island looking for the Barbasol can full of dino embryos. Nina is passed out in the backseat of the Harding's jeep due to some injuries that were in all likelihood inflicted by some kind of dinosaur. The Hardings are trying to get Nina help when they come across a baby triceratops blocking the road. The gate to the triceratops enclosure was somehow opened up, so the player -- as Gerry -- needs to figure out how to move the triceratops back into the pen. Your options at first are to push the triceratops or pull the food that it's happily munching away on. Neither of those work; the only thing left was to figure out the gate situation. The gate was locked in place, so I had to go to the nearby control room in order to get it open. The control room required a key code to get access to, and the code happened to be in the glove box of the jeep. As Jess, you find the key code and help her dad open the control room. The triceratops, gate room and the car are all presented as their own "scenes," and moving between each area is a simple matter of pressing the D-pad. With the car now interactable, I used the combination of the car's horn and high beams to annoy the triceratops long enough for Gerry to grab the triceratops food and lure it back into its pen. Things are looking good until the horn malfunctions and won't stop making noise. This pisses off the alpha male triceratops, who is also in the pen, and it busts the gate's doors off before Gerry can fully close the gate. The triceratops charges into the jeep a few times before the player, now controlling Jess, can pull the wires out to stop the horn. All of this commotion happens to grab the attention of a T-Rex and the two big dinosaurs have at it. While the dinosaurs are fighting, Jess and Gerry, carrying a passed out Nina, are trying to get to the control room for safety. The demo ended once the trio make it to safety. Everything I've just described all requires correct button presses as they pop up on the screen to complete. Tapping the buttons, rotating the joystick -- all the usual stuff you see in QTE sequences are present. Messing up the QTE moments will result in some pretty damn brutal deaths. The T-Rex notices Jess whiles she's making a run for the control room and if you mess up at all, the T-Rex will chomp right down on Jess. It's a rough scene, especially considering that Jess is a pre-teen little girl and the last thing you see of her is her arm and legs sticking out of the T-Rex's mouth as it shakes its head, trying to consume the girl. Other violent deaths I saw where characters getting stepped on, flung into the air by tails and getting crushed inside of the vehicle.  While getting killed doesn't have a serious consequence (you're put right back into sequence), Kevin Boyle, the executive producer on the game, told me that he hopes you'll get invested in the characters so that seeing them die will get to you on an emotional level. Since I only played a brief section of the game, I can't say I was sad seeing my characters die. In fact, it was kind of funny, and I know I'm going to be purposely screwing up the QTE moments just too see all the ways you can die. All in all, I was pleasantly surprised by how Telltale is tackling Jurassic Park. It's about using your wits rather than shooting velociraptors in the face. As for the dinosaurs, expect to see all of those mentioned so far plus some others, including a species that has never been in a Jurassic Park movie. After careful consideration, I've decided to endorse this park. Okay, so I lied about the Jurassic Park quotes, kind of. 
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Hold on to your butts! It's a Jurassic Park: The Game preview! Okay, that's the first and only Jurassic Park quote you'll have to deal with. Yes, I got to go hands-on with the first of five episodes of Jurassic Park and I was...

Impressions: Your first look at Dead Island

Feb 17 // Hamza CTZ Aziz
Dead Island (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Steam, PC [Previewed]) Developer: Techland Publisher: Deep Silver To be released: Late 2011 The first thing that needs to be stated about Dead Island is that it is just visually gorgeous. The Chrome Engine shows off the huge tropical island paradise called Banoi Island in such vivid detail, and every inch of the island -- from little villages to a large city -- can be explored. While the game isn't linear, there are some sections that need to be opened up within the main storyline in order to get to other parts of the island. As for the story, you play as one of four playable characters who recently checked into the Royal Palms Resort hotel. While on this vacation, the player wakes up after a night of heavy partying to discover that some kind of zombie outbreak has been unleashed on the island. From here, I was shown the first mission, which serves as a sort of tutorial to the player.  Your character has found himself holed up in a beach hut surrounded by zombies with other survivors fearing for their lives. One of the survivors begs you to go assist a lone person fending off the horde outside. The player then picks up a pipe and goes out to bash in some heads.  Aside from the fact that the main four characters are immune to the zombie infection for some reason, they're all just normal people. So swinging the pipe will come off sloppy and wild at the start of the game. As you progress, though, your character will learn how to handle weapons better. Part of that comes from the skill tree system where you'll be able to learn new skills and upgrade abilities, such as learning the dash attack. The skill tree system wasn't shown off during this preview, but we'll have more info on how it works soon. While there are guns, the main focus of Dead Island's combat mechanics are the melee weapons. You'll be getting your hands on pipes, machetes, shovels, bats -- even a freaking tree branch can be used as a weapon. The weapons do degrade over time and will eventually bust, so you'll have to find another weapon, or you can get it repaired at various locations on the island. Additionally, you can't simply go around swinging constantly at enemies. After a few swings, your character will be out of stamina and must catch their breath before attacking again. Of all the features Deep Silver showed off, they seemed the most excited about how we'll be able to kill zombies. The main thing they want people to take away from Dead Island is all the gory ways you'll be able to kill the walking dead. You can chop a zombie's legs and arms off and just watch him as he flops around trying to gnaw at your ankles. As for the zombies themselves, you'll have the standard slow zombies and the annoying running class. On top of that, there will be the special class zombies which will remind you a lot of the special infected from Left 4 Dead. Similar to the zombies, the four playable characters each have a different play style, too. The cool thing with all of this is that friends will be easily able to jump in or out for four-player (online only) co-op fun times. Don't worry, you'll have the option of being whatever character you want so it's totally possible, for example, for four assassin characters to work together in co-op.  While there's still a lot of work going on with Dead Island, we can expect the experience to similar to Fallout thanks to all of the sidequests you can take on. Techland really wants players to get absorbed into the story and if the trailer is any indication, we're in for a treat. What I got to see was a really early alpha build of Dead Island. While it was pretty and the way you can chop zombies up was cool, I still need to see a lot more. More importantly, I want to get real hands on with the game and see first-hand how satisfying it'll be slicing up zombies. The entire concept sounds great and it's really refreshing to see a different type of zombie game out there. I know many of you are sick of the zombie genre, but I think there's room for one more when it comes to Dead Island.
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Hey, remember Dead Island?! No? That's okay, since the last time we saw some real info on this project was back in 2009. Developer Techland and publisher Deep Silver have been quietly working on their zombie title for the pas...

Preview: MLB 2K11 (Franchise, My Player, more)

Feb 16 // Samit Sarkar
Major League Baseball 2K11 (PS3, 360 [previewed], Wii, PC, PSP, PS2) Developer: Visual Concepts Publisher: 2K Sports To be released: March 8, 2011 Last time, I spoke about the improved fielding in MLB 2K11. A great deal of the responsibility for the upgrades rests with the reworked and expanded animation library. In 2K10, any fielding animation could play for any fielder; a second baseman could have the same catch animation as an outfielder, and a player’s abilities had nothing to do with it. “2K9 was such a disaster that we wanted full coverage [in 2K10] to avoid any goofiness,” Bailey confessed. This time around, animations are broken down into tiers based on positions and player ratings. So if you have Manny Ramirez in the field, he simply won’t have access to the same wall-scaling or diving-catch animations that Carl Crawford can trigger. Visual Concepts didn’t only add fielding animations, either. Speedsters like Ichiro will now scamper out of the box to try and beat out choppers. That’s one of a few entirely new hit types: a mistimed contact swing might result in a chopper, whereas a failed power swing could lead to an infield fly. The hitting camera hearkens back to the zoomed-out view from two years ago -- Bailey told me that “if people liked the 2K9 camera more than 2K10’s, they’ll love 2K11’s.” It’s now situation-specific, and it follows the ball from afar where appropriate. In many sports games, Bailey noted, the presentation gives away the outcome. I thought of Madden’s first-down chain-gang measurements: after playing the game for a while, you know instantly whether or not you got a first down, because only one of two chain-gang cutscenes (a “success” and a “failure”) can play. When you hit (or gave up) a home run in MLB 2K10 or MLB 10, you’d know at the crack of the bat that the ball was leaving the yard, thanks to a particular camera angle. “We removed all tells,” said Bailey, which keeps you guessing on a long drive -- will it die on the warning track, or make it into the seats? Baseball is a sport dominated by streaks -- someone who finishes the season with a .340 batting average might have been hitting .400 for a few weeks, and .250 for a spell. MLB 2K11’s all-new Dynamic Player Ratings feature takes that into account. With DPR enabled, players’ ratings will fluctuate based on their performance over the past 30 days. The adjustments are themselves ratings-dependent: if Robinson Cano hits .280 for a month, his attributes might drop a bit, but a .280 month for a guy like Lance Berkman means he’s on a hot streak, and he’ll get a ratings bump. (Contact rating changes reflect a player’s batting average, while Power attribute changes depend on slugging percentage.) Your favorite power hitter’s real-life performance figures to play a significant role in your ability to hit homers in MLB Today. If A-Rod has another historic April this year, like he did in 2007, he’s going to be a beast in the game. “MLB Today feels more like a ‘today’ feature than ever,” said Bailey proudly. And DPR will force you to act more like a manager than ever before in Franchise -- will you sit a cold hitter to see if the benching snaps him out of his funk? Visual Concepts set out to make surface upgrades and under-the-hood improvements to Franchise in 2K11. Interface-wise, Bailey explained, the team wanted to bring information to the forefront. Every player in your organization now has a potential rating up to five stars, and you’ll be able to see who has already peaked as well as who’s still growing. Nick Swisher has no fifth star, which signifies that he won’t be anything more than a four-star player. The five-star potential system entails statistics-based player progression, since the Franchise stats in 2K10 tended to be wonky -- Bailey admitted that ERAs, WHIPs, and homers were too high, while IP were low. Player ratings don’t just depend on recent performance. Bailey told me that Visual Concepts “really wanted to capture the whole player health concept this year,” so injuries -- and injury management -- are now a big part of Franchise (if you want them to be). If a player gets injured, he might be down on the field for a bit, and you’ll see the trainer come out to help him. When simulating games, a pop-up will ask you how to proceed: you can have the guy play hurt (with lowered ratings), give him a few days off, put him on the 15- or 60-day DL, or have the CPU manage the injury for you. Older guys might come down with nagging injuries like a chronic ankle issue that simply won’t go away, and in general, veterans will need off-days more often if they’re going to maintain their energy (fatigue causes ratings to drop). What does all this mean for the My Player mode, which debuted last year? Thanks to the tiered animation system, your created player will get visibly better as you add points to his attributes. A 55-rated third baseman might bobble a sharp grounder long enough for a runner to safely make it to first, but when his rating rises a bit, he’ll field the ball more cleanly. Visual Concepts also realized that you could blow through the minors in 2K10, so it’s going to take more time and effort on your part to reach the bigs in 2K11. Your player won’t be called up before he’s ready, since the major-league team wants you to be able to contribute instead of stink it up with a 60-rated scrub. And you’ll have to be more well-rounded; being great in one area and nothing else won’t be good enough to get the call. In addition, My Player goals are more oriented toward helping the team as opposed to individual achievement -- you might be called upon for a sacrifice bunt instead of a base hit. I brought up 2K10’s messed-up manager AI for pitchers, and Bailey freely acknowledged that it was awful; he told me I was being too nice about a system where a manager left my starter in for twelve innings. But 2K11 doesn’t go by pitcher stamina or energy, concepts that are “too videogamey,” according to Bailey. “If it says ‘52 energy,’ what does that mean to me? Can I pitch three more innings? One more inning?” Instead, in-game managers will focus on your pitch count, just like real MLB coaches. On the pause screen, you’ll see your current and expected pitch count, and when you reach the upper limits of the expected range for the day, you’ll probably get pulled. Of course, an awful start might force a manager to yank you, too; don’t think you’ll be able to hang around for long after a four-run first. This makes it more challenging to earn upgrade points, since you have to pitch well and stay within your pitch count in order to avoid being sent to the showers. You’ll also have to be mindful of pitch counts in Franchise -- if you abuse your pitchers like Joe Torre would overwork Yankee relievers, they’ll wear down. Finally, Bailey assured me that 2K11 has been tuned to create more realistic pitch counts; you won’t be able to work your way through nine innings on only 50 pitches. MLB 2K might finally be able to challenge Sony’s MLB The Show series. Bailey and the team at Visual Concepts aren’t even particularly worried that MLB 11 includes analog-stick controls. That may sound arrogant, but with MLB 2K11, 2K Sports may actually have a contender on their hands. We’ll find out in a few short weeks.
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In my first preview of 2K Sports’ Major League Baseball 2K11, I wrote that developer Visual Concepts is working on fixing “underlying issues” to refine what was a solid foundation in MLB 2K10. I saw the game...

MLB 2K11 devs flattered but not impressed by MLB 11 adopting analog controls

Feb 15 // Samit Sarkar
But Bailey pointed out that analog controls aren't inherently good or bad; "it's how it's done, not what you do." From what he's heard of MLB 11, he doesn't think too much of its analog pitching: Every single one of their pitches is going to be down-up. Well, you know, as a 2K player, that's going to get boring to me, because that's a four-seam fastball -- that's the easiest pitch in our game. [Editor's note: The analog pitching in MLB 2K requires right-stick gestures that are specific to each pitch type. I recently had a hands-on demo of MLB 11, and I'll post a full preview -- including my thoughts on its new analog-stick controls -- after I spend some more time with it today. In my time with MLB 11, I didn't find its analog pitching to be quite as cut-and-dry as the way Bailey put it, but he's correct in that you pull the stick down and then push it upward to throw every pitch in the game. In a nutshell: if you're throwing to the left side of the strike zone, you'll have to push up and left, and vice versa; it's challenging in its own way.] The battle for baseball supremacy between the two franchises is really heating up now that both series will offer analog controls. Bailey understandably prefers his own game; which one will you favor come March 8th, when both MLB 11 The Show and MLB 2K11 launch? (In addition to an MLB 11 preview, I'll soon have more details on the improvements that Visual Concepts is making to the game modes in MLB 2K11.)
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For a few years now, 2K Sports' MLB 2K games have featured analog-stick controls for pitching, hitting, and fielding. But Sony's MLB The Show franchise has stuck with simple button presses until this year; MLB 11 The Show wil...


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