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Review: Anomaly Warzone Earth (XBLA)

Apr 06 // Maurice Tan
Anomaly Warzone Earth (Xbox Live Arcade)Developer: 11 bit StudiosPublisher: 11 bit StudiosReleased: April 6, 2012MSRP: 800 Microsoft Points For the most part, Anomaly Warzone Earth is identical to the PC version we reviewed last year (it's also available for Macs). In a nutshell, you control a Commander who can use abilities to drop support auras (repair, decoy, smoke, bomb), and buy units to form a squad which you then carefully guide on a manually created path through a map dotted with towers. Along the way, money can be collected by destroying towers or shooting money caches, and spent on new units or unit upgrades. It was a fun mechanic at the time, and it still works well on the Xbox 360. Playing it with a controller was already possible in the PC version, and Anomaly was created with a controller in mind, so it's a no-brainer that it's functional enough this time around. It is a bit of a different way to play it, though. [embed]225336:43288[/embed] Directly controlling your Commander's movement is great. It allows you to become more attached to your Commander, rather than clicking him all over an area while you look elsewhere, and in the process it largely removes the need for direct camera control. The ability menu pops up when you press the A button, which pauses the game, and abilities are dropped where your Commander is standing. This method of using abilities might take some getting used to if you either played the PC version with mouse and keyboard, or are more of a micromanagement player of PC real-time strategy games. In Anomaly on PC, you could simply right-click on the exact area where you wanted to place, say, a repair aura. As your Commander walked over to perform the action, it gave you a short amount of time to think about where you wanted to go next. Likewise, clicking on item pickups with the mouse would let you scroll around the map to see what obstacles lie ahead, while your Commander did his thing. Using a controller, you are more or less inclined to stick close to your squad so you can use abilities as soon as possible. Instead of running the calculations to account for the time it takes to walk to an ideal ability drop from whatever ability item you were planning to pick up, you tend to go back and forth to your squad to keep a closer eye on things. On the PC, you also quickly learned to visualize the radius of various abilities in your mind's eye as you moved your mouse around for the perfect ability placement, and it can also take a few mission to fully adjust to the idea that you need to project this mental ability radius over your Commander when you are in direct control of his movements.  That is not to say that the console controls are inadequate, because they are perfectly functional. At worst, players of the original who tried to secure a spot at the top of the leaderboards of the special Steam winter map -- which was insanely hard -- may bemoan the extra button presses required to swap a unit's position in your squad, due to not being able to drag and drop units into position. This map in question is absent from the XBLA version, however, and on anything but the highest difficulty you don't really need to swap unit positions around to keep them alive for long enough to pass a mission. Beside the story mode and the three bonus Squad Assault levels, which make you plan routes to clear "waves" of enemy towers within a set time limit, a new mode featuring six Tactical Trials has been added. Set in a VR training environment, each Tactical Trial is unique and plays like a puzzle version of Anomaly Warzone Earth. These missions can be very challenging, even for Anomaly veterans, as they make you plan ahead and use abilities with even greater care than may be used to. The new mode also offers a lot of variety, ranging from a mission where you start with no abilities at all, to a map with one-way streets, or the inclusion of a VIP unit you have to protect from harm. It's a great addition to the typical style of play, and even though there are only six of them, the Tactical Trials will take you a fair amount of time to complete. Anomaly Warzone Earth is the same excellent game for same price on a new platform, with an extra mode to boot. If you've already played the PC or Mac version, the Tactical Trials alone are not necessarily worth repurchasing the game for -- although you can unlock a Commander Avatar outfit if you like those kinds of things. If you had missed out on it before, then the PC version with its higher resolutions and multiple control scheme options is arguably still the version of choice, although any difference in playstyle preference between the versions may depend on your affinity with PC strategy in general. In case you don't have a computer to play games on, this XBLA version of Anomaly Warzone Earth is just as good the original, and one less reason to avoid putting off playing this game.
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11 bit Studios' Anomaly Warzone Earth was a creative little "tower offense" title, and a big hit on PC and mobile last year. Now it has finally been released on Xbox Live Arcade. Mouse and keyboard controls are out, full game...

Review: Kinect Star Wars

Apr 05 // Maurice Tan
Kinect Star Wars (Xbox 360, Kinect required)Developer: Terminal Reality, Good Science, LucasArts, Microsoft StudiosPublisher: LucasArts, Microsoft StudiosReleased: April 3, 2012MSRP: $49.99 Even though it was once billed as a hardcore Kinect experience, Kinect Star Wars is nothing of the kind. It's meant for family entertainment pure and simple, primarily aimed at the audience that bought Kinect for games like Kinectimals or Kinect Sports. In other words, people with children or perhaps groups of friends who like to goof off with motion games in a social setting. That said, there are plenty of issues to be found that even younglings may have trouble overlooking. A lack of responsiveness is the most glaring problem that pervades many of the offerings in Kinect Star Wars, and the impact on gameplay is most evident in the game's most lengthy story mode, titled Jedi Destiny: Dark Side Rising. In this mode, you and a co-op partner star as Padawans as they fight through waves of battle droids and Trandoshans, trying to bring an end to some nonsensical nefarious plot set between Episode I and Episode II which doesn't impact the Clone Wars lore in any meaningful way. [embed]225271:43282[/embed] Your lightsaber swings are controlled by waving either your left or right hand around, depending on which you prefer, or with both hands at the hilt. The translation of movements to in-game actions is sadly far from perfect, making it hard to hit a target's head or slash an opponent on the ground. The motion controls can initially result in a form of Kinect waggle, since all you seemingly have to do is land any kind of hits on a target to incapacitate it -- no chopped-off limbs here. However, pace yourself with slow and articulated swings and the game will allow itself to be enjoyed a lot more than if you insist on wildly flailing your arm around. Nevertheless, lightsaber combat is mediocre at best, and not just because of a lack of feedback on your swings. Some types of enemies will use vibroblade knifes of electrostaffs to block your saber strikes, forcing you to jump over them and strike them from behind, block their attack if you can, or dodge to the side and time a counter-attack. Because dodging is practically never recognized correctly, these enemies lead to a lot of frustration as you try to find an opening to land a few hits. On the second and highest difficulty, this leads to a lot of unnecessary deaths as you are hit or kicked in the face without any way to block or evade properly. Fun, it is not. Despite most of Jedi Destiny being on rails, there is some limited movement available. A Force Dash move is at your disposal if you take one step forward with your arms aimed backwards, while your character of choice will walk automatically from scene to scene. As much as it highlights the on-rails aspect of the mode, it never becomes a big impediment on the action, since it's only a few seconds of walking at a time, at worst. Targeting enemies is far more problematic, since you'll be assigned targets you can dash or jump towards, and it can be annoying if you end up fighting multiple tougher types of enemies who will inevitably deal some damage. If you are unlucky, you'll target a Super Battle Droid three times in a row, who will always find a way to kick or punch you unless you keep vaulting over them. The dodge controls are broken enough to ignore it as a reliable evasive maneuver altogether, and the same is true for Force grabs. It's nearly impossible to target a crate or enemy, and only the weakest of enemies can be grabbed to toss around, rendering the move as useless as a pregnant Ewok in battle. On the other hand, whenever Jedi Destiny allows you to do something other than moving from ground target to ground target, it can actually be quite enjoyable. Speeder bike races through the forests of Kashyyyk and the flora of Felucia are entertaining, controlled by holding your arms forwards and banking left and right to move along a narrow path. Space battles, in which you only have to aim a target reticule, are a blast to play, and even feature some of the better set pieces in the prequel trilogy's history as depicted by its films and television shows. Whether you are blasting droid starfighters or capital ship turrets from the turret seat of a YT-2400 light freighter (e.g., Dash Rendar's Outrider), or from a Delta-6 Republic starfighter, it can be strangely empowering in a space battle nerdlust kind of way. Jedi Destiny also offers some occasional nods to the Original Trilogy for Star Wars fans, such as a protocol droid pointing out a faulty power coupling when Chewbacca can't get a ship's hyperdrive to work. Yet for every attempt at appeasing the fans, it has Obi-Wan reference a Sith Master in the time shortly after the events of The Phantom Menace, or throws two random Dathomirian Nightbrothers with Sith lightsabers into the mix. If LucasArts wanted to provide players with a recognizable enemy like Darth Maul, they should have just gone with Savage Opress instead. Even for the more casual of fans, it's a shame that the majority of Jedi Destiny makes you stand, swing, and jump through extended periods of lightsaber combat, as it's by far the weakest link in the entire package. Thankfully, Jedi Destiny is but one of the available modes in Kinect Star Wars. Podracing is an interesting distraction, even if it's once again undermined by excessive control features. Holding out your arms powers up the two engines, while pulling one hand back lets you steer in that direction. Nudge both hands to any side, and you can bash into nearby competitors for some damage. It works remarkably well for the racing aspect itself, but unfortunately that's not all you do in this mode. From time to time you need to pump one hand to the sky to activate a repair bot or laser drone, swing a hand to the side to smack a womprat off your podracer, or clean water from your visor if you hit a moisture vaporator. The problem is, you need those hands to actually steer the damn thing, and performing these distracting actions is a sure way to lose the lead in any race. Rancor Rampage is somewhat of a fleshed-out tech demo, more specifically the monster rampage concept demo seen in one of Kinect's earliest announcement trailers. There is some catharsis to be found here, smashing buildings and grabbing things to throw or munch on, but it can get old rather fast. While there are multiple levels to progress through by earning points in each map, it's more of a throwaway mode to let your child roar and act like a monster -- or annoy the downstairs neighbors -- than anything you'll play more than half an hour at a time. Jedi Duel expands on the occasional "boss" encounters from the Jedi Destiny mode, making you block and parry slow-motion moves in order to fill a bar and launch a counter attack with blows of your own. These duels aren't very fun, but the requirement to execute a nearly flawless series of parries and attacks to unlock more iconic opponents, such as Count Dooku and Darth Vader, is simply ridiculous. Very few players will have the patience to sit through repeated attempts just to get under the required time limit for a Duel, let alone impatient children. Which brings us to the Galactic Dance Off mode. The dancing mode is more or less a lite version of Dance Central, with some tweaks. On-screen prompts for moving a hand or limb in perfect conjunction with the dance moves are a nice addition to the formula, even if registration of badly placed body parts can be spotty from time to time and a training mode is strangely absent. Yes, the adaptation of popular song lyrics to the Star Wars universe can make you cringe when you watch a video of it, but playing it is actually rather fun. There's something silly about the parody approach which elicits scoffing smiles and chuckles rather than making you want to choke your Naboo wife with adolescent anger. Not every song features absolutely terrible lyrics, either, as "We No Speak Huttese" simply features Joh Yowza singing Huttese, and Daft Punk's Aerodynamic has no lyrics whatsoever. Of course, any functional dancing game can be a pleasurable experience, but a lot of the fun in Galactic Dance-off comes from moves and poses which reflect things from the Star Wars movies. Performing the "Bantha Rider" or "Jet Pack" moves is ridiculous enough that you can't help but laugh, and the "Han Shot First" and "New Hope Pose" moves are kind of awesome. If you don't like Just Dance or Dance Central, this mode isn't going to change your mind. For anyone who does like dancing, however, the frivolous nature of the dance moves more than makes up for the cringe factor of the lyrics. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if this dance mode spawns an entire series of lyrically adjusted dance games. As an aside, the higher difficulties you unlock offer many different moves that are a lot more varied than what you would ordinarily be exposed to if you would only play each song only once. Alas, Kinect Star Wars as a package is a mixed, if varied bag of motion tricks. For everything that works well, something else ruins the experience. Kids might have fun with Rancor Rampage and with Jedi Destiny on the easiest setting, but any single adult has no reason to bother with it. Podracing would have been better without all the nonsense to distract you from racing, Duels are best ignored altogether, and dancing is such a universally human expression that you can't really go wrong with it. Despite its flaws, it's a mostly inoffensive title and one that you may find yourself hating far less than Anakin hates sand; you might even enjoy it. The franchise didn't die after the prequel trilogy was released, and if it had, we wouldn't have been able to watch Genndy Tartakovsky's Clone Wars cartoon and the later seasons of the Star Wars: The Clone Wars CGI TV series, or play Republic Commando. Kinect Star Wars isn't going to kill the franchise, nor is it the worst videogame ever made; it's just not a very good one. In those areas where Kinect Star Wars does work, it can be a lot of fun to play, and this makes it so disappointing that it so often falters elsewhere. In the end, how much fun you will have with it is going to depend largely on whether or not you have kids to keep occupied while they play with their friends, or how desperately you need something other than Dance Central 2 to play with your own friends.
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Following a few ramshackle E3 presentations, expectations for Kinect Star Wars were tempered at best. After footage of the game's Galactic Dance Off mode, featuring a dancing Han Solo at the carbonite pit, hit YouTube, these ...

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New Reckoning DLC 'Teeth of Naros' releases April 17


Apr 04
// Maurice Tan
A set of new achievements already hinted at new downloadable content for Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, set in the Teeth of Naros area. EA and 38 Studios have now officially annouced the DLC to be titled "Teeth of Naros," a l...

Review: Birds of Steel

Apr 02 // Maurice Tan
Birds of Steel (Xbox 360 [Reviewed], PlayStation 3)Developer: Gaijin EntertainmentPublisher: KonamiReleased: March 13, 2012MSRP: $39.99 Set during World War II, Birds of Steel offers a huge array of aircraft to unlock and fly, each with their own specific feel, stats, and a high level of interior and exterior detail. That Gaijin really loves their aircraft comes as no surprise, and they truly deliver in this regard. Players who look to Birds of Steel for historical authenticity will feel rewarded to say the least. The dedication to such authenticity also impacts the controls and combat mechanics which, depending on what you are looking for in a console flight sim, may put you on either end of the fun spectrum. Difficulty is defined by the flight controls, and comes in three variations -- Simplified, Realistic, and Simulator -- while options for limited fuel and ammo are also at your disposal. Realistic mode is the go-to mode Birds of Steel feels best tailored to, even if it is undeniably hard. Planes will shake under the strain of speed and winds, making it hard to aim and lead your targets, while overzealously trying to make turns without regard for aerodynamics and airspeed will see you unceremoniously stall and spiral out of control. G-forces will blacken or redden your screen, which is a nice visual touch that is long overdue on consoles. [embed]224879:43232[/embed] Simulator mode cranks the physics up a notch, and removes HUD info to make it nearly impossible to tell your airspeed without looking down at your instruments in the cockpit view. On the other hand, Simplified mode is what anyone new to the genre will feel most at home with, removing stall issues and generally feeling more like your typical arcade World War II flight sim. The flight control systems that lie beneath the hood make for an impressive feel, turning the mere act of controlling your airplane into as much of a challenge as actually completing objectives. Flying feels dangerous, as if humankind wasn't meant to be inside a tin can with wings and guns attached to it, let alone using it to wage war in the skies over conflict zones. Try to make a dive-bomb run on Simulator, and you'll even need to extend the air-brakes to control your speed lest the stress of aerodynamic physics turns your plane into a heap of metal, crashing to the Earth below. The caveat of the distinction between the different control difficulties is that most players who are more casual fans of the genre will stick to the Simplified scheme, rendering most of the game a rather boring and unimpressive chore. Meanwhile, the Simulator option may offer exactly what the "hardcore" crowd is looking for, but feels made for flightstick and throttle controls rather than a gamepad. Even the slightest nudge to the side at the wrong time can lead to a complete loss of control and a seemingly inevitable drop towards death. There is always the option to switch to one of the other three planes in your wing, but crashing four times in a row when you are merely trying to make a turn is a less-than-welcome slap on the face if you are struck with a gamepad. This discrepancy between realism and arcade sadly permeates most of Birds of Steel's offerings. Combat in most single-player missions revolves around reaching a checkpoint, watching an in-engine cutscene of planes flying to their target, followed by shooting a number of enemy planes or destroying a number of sea and land targets. Then you return to your carrier or airstrip checkpoint, and the mission is over. Dogfights are meant to portray realism rather than arcade fun, so don't expect to singlehandedly wipe out entire squadrons of enemy planes on your own. Shooting down any enemy plane at an angle often feels more like the result of a lucky shot than that of complete mastery over the combat mechanics. With unlimited ammo, you can drop one to three bombs before you have to wait a minute to "reload," further reducing arcade fun if you are seeking it. Suffice it to say, arcade combat flight sim aficionados should look elsewhere when it comes down to the combat mechanics. It feels made for the harder control scheme options to maintain a fine balance between skill and challenge, and the Simplified controls just don't offer enough of a challenge for most of the game. On the upside, fighting your way through Birds of Steel's single-player components is a pretty lengthy endeavor, with a 1941-1942 Pacific campaign available for play from both the USA and Japanese viewpoints. Aside from the two campaigns, a wealth of single missions can be chosen for the Mediterranean theater, Pacific Ocean theater, and Western and Eastern European fronts. While the campaigns and missions are decent fun to play through, the mission design is disappointing. Each mission does make you feel like you are simply flying a sortie to do a single bombing run or Combat Air Patrol, but in some missions, flying back and forth almost takes more time than you'll spend actually seeing any action. Eventually, single-player may start to bore you as mission after mission begin to feel all too similar. However, there are multiplayer and co-op options abound in Birds of Steel, and it's only here that everything the game has to offer starts to unveil itself. In fact, the majority of the content is hidden away from solo-only players' eyes. Some Single Missions can be played online, while there is always the option to pick AI wingmen in a private match, or completely play offline. A Dynamic Campaign lets you rewrite history (cooperatively if you choose) during eight battles, such as the Battle of Midway or the attack on Pearl Harbor. Success or failure in missions at each "turn" of a dynamic campaign will affect how the battle as a whole will play out in successive missions, meaning you can easily lose yourself playing a dynamic campaign for an extended session of play. A mission editor with plenty of options allows you to further extend your playtime. Although the Missions are an appreciated bonus, competitive multiplayer might be the best aspect of Birds of Steel. As much as the realism detracts from having fun in single-player, multiplayer manages to take the best aspects of the realism Gaijin strove for and turns it into an exhilarating, enjoyable experience. Compared to shooting down AI planes on Simulator difficulty, which is already a challenge when your target reticule moves all over the place, killing a human player in multiplayer takes it to a whole other level. It's hard enough to land even a few hits, let alone enough to take out a player, and while you may not get double-digit kills in an online match, each kill is rewarding and feels like an achievement. Leaderboards, time-specific online events, and tournaments with certain requirements all increase the odds that the online playerbase will remain as active as it is at the time of writing; no mean feat, as the lobbies in console flight sims are often as empty as space itself, a week after a title's launch. Experience points, which can be gained in limited amounts in single-player, are far more easily accumulated in multiplayer, and a hangar filled with dozens of fighters and bombers for different countries in the war is at your disposal to unlock with the XP you collect. Birds of Steel's single-player offerings are rather dull compared to other games in the genre, including Gaijin's own Birds of Prey, but the online components are unrivaled. If you are new to console flight sims, this isn't going to be the best place to start. On the other hand, if you bought a flight stick for your console and have been continuously disappointed by titles in the past two years, this is exactly what you have been waiting for. It's a game meant for simulator fans who like to play hard and play together, and one that is only available on consoles. (Presumably because IL-2 exists on PC.) Those willing to commit to Birds of Steel will remain occupied for a long time. Don't let the option of a more arcade-style control scheme lure you in, however, as it will leave you largely unsatisfied if you are expecting something like Ace Combat. Birds of Steel doesn't quite manage to marry arcade and simulator crowds in a single console title, but it does pull off being the best online combat flight simulator on consoles, bar none.
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Combat flight simulators, like real-time strategy games, are a resilient breed which has always struggled to find its place on consoles. A mouse and keyboard control scheme is almost always preferred over a gamepad when it co...

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Imperium Galactica II invades iPads today


Mar 30
// Maurice Tan
Before working on games like SkyDrift, Sine Mora, and Black Knight Sword, Digital Reality was best known for their excellent 4X titles. Arguably the best of their space empire strategy games, Imperium Galactica II, is now av...
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Awesomenauts is set for liftoff on the first days of May


Mar 30
// Maurice Tan
Dutch indie studio Ronimo Games has unveiled the release date for the rather excellent-looking Awesomenauts. The 2D Multiplayer Online Battle Arena title will hit the PlayStation Store in North America on May 1, 2012. On May...
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Tactics Ogre is half price on the EU PlayStation Store


Mar 30
// Maurice Tan
One of the reasons why I picked up a PlayStation Vita, other than submitting to gadget lust, was the prospect of catching up on those games I had missed out on by never owning a PSP. Some great titles, like Patapon 2, Half Mi...
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The plot thickens in a new Game of Thrones RPG trailer


Mar 29
// Maurice Tan
Just in time for the start of Season 2 of Game of Thrones, Atlus and Focus Home Interactive unleashed a new "epic plot" trailer for Cyanide's upcoming role-playing game. After watching the trailer four times, I still have no...
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Achievements hint at Kollossael new Reckoning DLC


Mar 27
// Maurice Tan
A list of achievements for yet to be announced downloadable content for Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning has appeared on Xbox 360 Achievements. The five achievements look similar in nature to those found in the recently released...
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Canadian Videogame Awards finalists announced


Mar 27
// Maurice Tan
Why yes, there is such a thing as the Canadian Video Game Awards! The 3rd annual edition of the awards show will take place in Vancouver on April 21st, and coincides with Fan Expo Vancouver (limited seating available to Fan E...

Preview: One more turn into the Fray

Mar 26 // Maurice Tan
Fray (PC [previewed], Mac)Developer: Brain CandyPublisher: Brain CandyRelease: May, 2012 As Brain Candy admits, when you think "simultaneous turn-based strategy," it's hard to get around the Frozen Synapse comparison nowadays. Since they weren't aware of another game in the genre being developed, the team's development of their core ideas was never influenced by last year's surprise strategy hit. Not that there is any ill will between Brain Candy and Mode 7. Far from it -- they maintain a friendly relationship of cooperation as only indie studios with somewhat competing titles can. Fray's focus is on taking the turn-based format and making it into a multiplayer game which marries the online playstyle you traditionally expect from first-person shooters. That means respawns and action points, deathmatch modes with simul-turn resolution, and class-based teams coupled with character customization. It sounds too crazy to actually work, but surprisingly enough, it does. Fray is a top-down game in 3D, meaning you can zoom in a little and rotate the camera, but you'll stick with a zoomed out view for battlefield clarity. While the game doesn't show it, it is made up of hexagons to indicate how far you can move each turn. For the purpose of this preview, a round of deathmatch was played using an alpha build of the game. After selecting four out of six available classes (Tank, Medic, Sniper, Support, Shadow, and Assault), each player's team of unique units is randomly placed on a spawn point somewhere on the map. Each turn, a player has a limited amount of time to plan his actions. Each unit has a set amount of action points, indicated by a bar at the bottom of the screen, with which it can move, perform a special action, or shoot. You can move a certain amount of hexes, shoot targets within range of your weapon, etc. At the end of a turn, both players watch as their planned actions play out simultaneously in real time. So far, that might sound very familiar to anyone who has played a simul-turn game before, but Fray adds enough to make it feel fresh. For starters, units can run out of ammo. As long as a unit is within a Support class's area of effect, indicated by a circle if you hover over the unit, it will receive fresh ammo. A Tank is tough unit to get rid of in a combat situation, but it doesn't just depend on health and armor alone. Any unit who is within a Tank's area of effect will have some of the damage it receives diverted to the Tank. Medics heal with a medic gun (think Team Fortress 2) and can drop a healing turret on the battlefield, but only if that class is configured to have a healing turret as equipment. By configuring your classes, you can tailor your units to carry different weapons and equipment to fit your tactics. Using a piece of equipment, such as placing a turret, may cost you a few action points, but it's always nice to have a turret dominating a section of the map. Cover works by breaking line of sight, making it very hard for an enemy to hit you; the line of attack indicated by clicking on a target simply stops when it hits cover protecting an enemy. Different stances don't serve as simple stand, crouch, and prone positions, but instead give you different bonuses depending on your class. Some classes might use a stance to move faster, while others can use an "attack move" stance to shoot at any target they encounter, without having to plan attacks in advance. Maps even offer bonuses you can pick up by moving over them, giving a unit a temporary stat increase, health, ammo, and the like -- bonuses you will need if you opt not to include a class that provides healing and ammunition to your team. As you can probably guess, it leads to a game of tactical movements and actions where you want to lure or push your opponent to move into pre-positioned lanes of fire, block off his escape, circle around to flank his support units, or play around with established military strategies. If a unit dies, you can choose to respawn it at certain spawn points on the map, which in turn means that any unit you kill in a deathmatch mode might end up harassing your rear a few turns later. To protect the pacing in a multiplayer turn-based game, each turn has a default 90-second timer (this timer can be adjusted to shorter and longer settings) which makes planning turns fast-paced without feeling too rushed. There's certainly a bit of a learning curve in the first few turns, as you experiment with your various classes, weapons, stances, and equipment, but anyone familiar with the genre should have no problem easing into it. Once you do, it can become a game of perfecting how you use your classes, and how to mess with your opponent's head. The relatively fast pace and the way combat is resolved makes it feel like your are the commander of a squad playing a round of team-based multiplayer in a shooter. It's nothing like Natural Selection 2, but the type of play and tactics seen in both online shooters and top-down turn-based strategy games has certainly made a good transition to the format Fray is experimenting with. If you hadn't guess by now, Fray is a pure multiplayer game. Brain Candy would love to create a full single-player campaign, but the amount of options at your units' disposal makes creating a proper AI very problematic and time-consuming for the small team. If you're wondering how this is different than Frozen Synapse, it is because units' action in that game revolves around only a few basic actions: walk, aim, crouch or stand, and fire -- a small enough amount of permutations to be able to cope with when programming AI. Add in different weapon choices, equipment, and different stances per class, and you can get a picture of what you would have to deal with when creating a working AI for Fray. Besides deathmatch and team deathmatch, various other modes will be available in the full game when it launches. Players can choose a corporation to play as, which can yield XP bonuses depending on your corporation's performance over a period of time (e.g., weekly bonuses for the top corporation). Leveling up units will also unlock new weapons and equipment, and different tactical bonuses can be gained by ending a turn quickly or by using a stance, for instance allowing you to move a little bit faster in the next turn. One thing that struck me was how mod-able the maps are to suit different styles of play. Even on a map with an open environment and a few bits of cover, the difference between deathmatch, team deathmatch, and King of the Hill modes will easily affect how you play the game, and the potential for many modes and fans coming up with crazy ideas seems limitless. Currently, maps are spread across three "environments"; Paris, the typical cityscape with streets and urban trash to hide behind, a laboratory setting with corridors and gardens for more claustrophobic combat, and a Virtual Reality environment. Being a big fan of Frozen Synapse, it looks like Fray will have little trouble co-existing alongside it with its multiplayer focus and completely different styles of play. Fray is in the last weeks of alpha at the moment, where early fans who pre-ordered the game have been helping out with development and bug tracking. A beta phase is planned to start in a few weeks, and players who end up buying the game after playing it in beta will keep their XP and stats. Like Mode 7's darling, there will also be a "buy one, get one free" scheme to lure a friend into serving as XP fodder while you throw your head back and laugh maniacally. [If you want to know more about Fray's development, take a look at Brain Candy's posts on the Community Blogs!]
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Like so many "older" gamers who grew up during the X-COM glory days of turn-based strategy almost 20 years ago, the folks at Parisian indie studio Brain Candy have been craving some good old TBS action. Not just any kind, bec...

Review: Amalur: Reckoning - The Legend of Dead Kel

Mar 26 // Maurice Tan
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning - The Legend of Dead Kel (Xbox 360 [Reviewed], PS3, PC)Developer: 38 Studios, Big Huge GamesPublisher: 38 Studios, Electronic ArtsReleased: March 20, 2012MSRP: 800 Microsoft Points, $9.99 Dead Kel is somewhat of a notorious and undead scallywag, enough to deserve his own legend in Rathir. He has been raiding precious supply ships important to the war effort, so it's up to you to embark on what sounds like a suicide mission; travel to the island of Gallows End from which no ship returns, and hunt down Dead Kel. As if your prospects couldn't get any worse, you are accompanied by a new character, Captain Brattigan, who is as naive as she is a nymphomaniac who can't swim, with a reputation of wrecking her ships to boot. It comes as no surprise that you end up shipwrecked on the island of Gallows End, which isn't quite worth calling a continent, but comparable in size to the desert lands of Detyre. You are not the first to crawl ashore on Gallows End like a drowned rat, as other shipwrecked survivors from decades past have carved out a living on the island in the form of the small village of Cape Solace. All is not right, however, as the village is full of zealots who are mysteriously tied to a deity named Akara, who protects them from the rage of Dead Kel. [embed]224522:43167[/embed] The main quest of "The Legend of Dead Kel" is your standard Reckoning fare. You are sent to different locations on the island in your quest to find the dread pirate and a way home across the seas, and encounter a few of his boss henchmen in the process. Along the way, you learn more about the God Akara, the village's history and religious rites, and unweave a few strands of Fate wherever you go. If you enjoyed Reckoning, you'll simply find more of the same kind of combat and exploration in this DLC's main quest. However, it's the side-quests, additions to the Reckoning formula, and the small touches which provide the most, and more novel, forms of entertainment. The side-quests provide some of the more humorous conversations and thought-provoking quests in the entire game, with many a darker and adult theme permeating life on Gallows End, even if these themes are ultimately not explored to their full potential. Messages in bottles can be found across the idyllic shipwreck island, and pieces of treasure maps can be found in chests to lead you to dig spots for shiny new loot. While the search for collectibles keeps you occupied and eager to explore, much of the fun in "Dead Kel" comes from the completely optional renovation of Gravehal Keep; a ruined fortress of the Dverga, a race of Dwarven mariners who last ruled the island. The monster-infested Gravehal Keep looms over the Cape Solace, which can be claimed for your own. What is without a doubt the best addition to Reckoning is that you can upgrade and populate this ancient fortress to turn it into our own castle from which you can eventually rule like a king. With each upgrade, which costs materials you'll easily find while completing quests, a new wing or shop will open up and new NPCs will offer distractions. A scout can be sent off to collect various items and materials from unsalvaged wrecks, a combat trainer will present you with gold if you quickly kill creatures in a makeshift arena pen, and a bona fide animal trainer can provide you with pets if you supply him with meat, fish, and bugs. These pets offer bonuses to your stats depending on which one you choose. Feed them some more food, and these bonuses will increase. It's a silly bonus addition made sillier when you send the animal trainer to find and domesticate one of the new enemies in "Dead Kel," the Root Golem. This is basically a troll, but a kind that can tunnel underground to move towards you, or grab Boggarts from below the earth to throws at you. Yes, it's Maokai from League of Legends. Eventually, Gravehal Keep offers a host of characters, like a librarian who will translate ancients books you find on your travels on Gallows End, NPCs on the island you can direct to seek safety in your keep to serve as shopkeepers and armorers, and other characters who will offer rewards you wouldn't expect after having played through Reckoning. Some of it is fan service, while other elements such as being able to sit on the throne and listen to petitions make stabs at Fable III's end-game. The thing is, while the whole range of activities supplied by Gravehal Keep can feel a bit like doing fetch quests at times, much of it is supremely fulfilling to waste your time on, and a lot more entertaining than being the King ever was in Lionhead Studios' "innovative" title. More than anything, "The Legend of Dead Kel" offers no shortage of fun and silliness. Captain Brattigan is crafted to be annoying with a high-pitched voice, yet you can't help but come to like her. This is quite an achievement, since not many characters in Amalur are actually likable or even worth remembering the name of. (Go ahead, think of five memorable characters with actual clothes.) Gallows End becomes a home away from home in the world of Amalur, where the island's areas aren't just spaces to run through as you mop up quests in an efficient order, but instead become the locales where you found a hand inside a crab, or where you were asked to provide meat to feed chickens. It experiments with additions we might see in the Amalur franchise down the line, and a sense that the developers working on the DLC had a lot of freedom to come up with, and flesh out, as many crazy ideas as they could. Unless they were directed to do so, which is arguably just as good. On the downside, Dead Kel himself is remarkably boring. The story behind how his fate is tied to Gallows End is decent if unsurprising, but the resolution of the main quest leaves you unfulfilled and wondering if there couldn't have been better ways to decide how Fate is inevitably disrupted by your hand. It's hard to turn an undead pirate captain into the blandest part of an island adventure, but somehow they've managed to do so. The new loot is a mixed bag, depending on how much you've already played Reckoning. Weapons are not as good as you may have already crafted or found, although some of the new items feature some cool new designs. For the loot-hunters, rings and amulets offer a safer better bet of finding improvements for your build of choice, as does the wealth of blacksmithing components you'll collect throughout your adventures on Gallows End. What could have easily been "just another bunch of quests on a new location" has been crafted into a variety of enjoyable elements to occupy yourself with. It's quite long, too, easily taking you six hours or more to complete nearly everything there is to do on the new island. Moreover, it offers an excellent opportunity to try out a new build if you've been stocking up powerful equipment in your stash, but never bothered to commit to a full respec of your abilities before. The additions to the Reckoning formula and the distinct style of the island of Gallows End serve to turn "The Legend of Dead Kel" into the DLC equivalent of a tropical island vacation. It's a fun trip to a relaxing setting far away from the Crystal War, which lets you explore yet another piece of the Amalur's world at your leisure.
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One might wonder if a game like Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning really needs a downloadable content expansion along the lines of "The Legend of Dead Kel," given the enormous amount of quests and content already available i...

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BioShock movie on hold as director may have left


Mar 26
// Maurice Tan
The ill-fated BioShock movie has seemingly been Halo'd. Gore Verbinski had already stepped down to become the project's producer, leaving Juan Carlor Fresnadillo to fill the director seat. Speaking to Indiewire, Fresnadillo s...

Preview: Sieging dungeon gates in Confrontation

Mar 24 // Maurice Tan
Confrontation (PC)Developer: CyanidePublisher: Focus Home InteractiveRelease: April 5, 2012 Following a lengthy introduction cinematic featuring perhaps the most entertainingly serious narrator of the past decade, you find yourself in the ravaged world of Aarklash. There is a war going on (peacetime sucks for action games) and your noble Griffin forces are battling the evil Scorpions for one reason or another. Confrontation is somewhat of a bastard child of Baldur's Gate and Dungeon Siege, using the active pause role-playing combat system of the former and the pace of progression through levels of the latter. With four characters under your command, and a wealth of characters to choose from in the full game, you can customize your force to fit your play style as you wish. Many characters fall in the typical tank, priest, mage, rogue, and other class categories, which helps to give you a basic idea of what the hell you're doing. [embed]224477:43162[/embed] Similar to Baldur's Gate, simply selecting all units and right-clicking on one enemy in a group of enemies will quickly lead to at least one party member's death. In many cases, you need to pause the game (spacebar) and select your individual heroes, followed by utilizing their special abilities and spells to give you the necessary edge in battle. Abilities and spells cost energy, which comes in the form of SP, FP, and MP. MP (Mana) regenerates at a steady pace, while FP (Faith Points) regenerates faster when the hero is surrounded by allies. In practice, it means you can cast one or two spells at the start of a battle, with additional tactical options becoming available again depending on what classes you have in your squad, and how your squad is positioned. These games can be immensely fun and satisfying to fun to play, especially when it's a PC title that throws as many micromanagement options at you as you can handle. Confrontation does seem to be lacking in a few key areas that would've made this a surefire hit, however. Disregarding the slightly aged graphical prowess available on even the highest settings, Confrontation insists on offering you a wealth of tactical options and menus without providing you adequate means to use them. While the F1-F4 keys let you swap between characters, and the same hotkeys are bound to each character's individual abilities, it can be hard to distinguish between both your own characters and the abilities they have. Sometimes one ability has to be cast on an ally to provide a buff, and another ability that looks similar is in fact an offensive spell you need to cast on an enemy target. Likewise, you start out with a team that quickly gains access to quite a few area combat buffs, but what they actually do and how they affect how combat plays out isn't always very clearly communicated. This problem of a lack of clarity is found elsewhere in the UI, too. The character sheet and inventory menus seem thrown together without much thought for best practices in usability, and there are a lot of aspects to tailor for each character. Then again, for those who will end up dedicating themselves to Confrontation, the amount of customization available might be a boon. Each character has two weapon sets (melee and ranged, essentially) to fit their position in a squad. Sometimes the terrain doesn't allow for open battle, forcing you to think about which characters to swap to ranged weaponry in tight quarters. Chests can yield weapon and armor points, which let you upgrade one of your character's proficiencies. Do you want to focus on melee or ranged weaponry? Shields and defense or swords and offense? Physical damage reduction or magical armor? These decisions are made by choosing upgrade paths as you level up, offering a deep customization system for each hero. When leveling up a character, many of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons type of primary attributes can be increased. Wisdom and Intelligence are somewhat representative of the priest and mage attributes you might be familiar with, but they work slightly different in Confrontation. Both attributes provide bonuses to different types of colored magic -- schools of magic if you will. Depending on whether you are building a support character whose focus is on casting buffs, or an offensive mage focusing on offensive magic, choosing the right attributes to level will likely end up being one of the most important aspects for your builds. Of course, specific skills can also be upgraded as you level up to increase their power. Confrontation offers some interesting ideas by taking this approach to customization depth, providing a potential for a good amount of replayability and freedom to choose and create your ultimate squad of badasses, and seemingly offering hours worth of leveling and upgrading your heroes to perfection. It's just a bit of a shame that it doesn't quite look the part for this day and age, and that many of the UI and control systems prevent you from smoothly progressing through series of fights. Despite this sense that the foundation of gameplay systems is solid, you can't help but feel like the title could have used another year of polish to make it more accessible to play, and more enjoyable in the process. Like with Cyanide's A Game of Thrones: Genesis, there are some excellent ideas here while the execution is less worthy of praise. With the release date coming up in two weeks, there's a tiny chance that things may have been vastly improved over the build used for this preview, albeit not a very large one. Confrontation is worth keeping an eye on if you are a lover of the genre who is willing to overlook the game's faults in favor of some hardcore top-down RPG action, but it will probably have limited appeal outside of its niche audience.
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Based on the tabletop wargame, Cyanide's Confrontation brings the fantasy world of Aarklash to the virtual realm. The over-productive French studio which used to primarily work on the Cycling Manager series has diversified it...

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Nyan Cat Adventure nyans onto the App Store


Mar 23
// Maurice Tan
Xbox Live Indie title Nyan Cat Adventure is now available for iOS. A free version gives you the basic "Party" mode and the traditional Nyan Cat to play with, while the $0.99 version gives you more Nyans and more modes. I gave it a spin to see what has changed from 21st Street Games' XBLIG version, and to see whether or not it still induces seizures on the smaller screen real estate.

Preview: What to expect from Risen 2's Treasure Isle DLC

Mar 19 // Maurice Tan
Risen 2: Dark Waters - Treasure Isle (PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3)Developer: Piranha BytesPublisher: Deep SilverRelease: April 27, 2012 (PC); May 22, 2012 (consoles) Treasure Isle offers the chance to hunt down the lost treasure of Captain Steelbeard, who left clues to its hidden location in his diary. The problem is, Steelbeard's diary is missing some pages, and Risen 2 being an RPG, you'll have to traverse the world to find them first. Rather than simply adding another island to the game for a self-contained quest, Treasure Isle's quest line integrates itself into the main game, for the most part. Clues are found on islands you can visit throughout the game proper, and you'll only need the DLC to find them. Because of Risen 2's open world nature, you can always go back to these locations later on if you want to pursue the quest line and search for clues at another time. The search for each clue involves a sub-quest, complete with dialogue, walking around, and hacking and slashing your way through scurvy dogs (and gorillas). After spending about half an hour with one of these sub-quests while getting the hang of the controls, these quests appeared to be pretty fleshed out and far from a throwaway last-minute addition. If you've played any sidequest in a Western RPG like Fallout 3 or The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim in recent years, you probably know what to expect. Once you finally make your way to the eponymous island of treasure, the diary pages you've found throughout the quest line also offer tips for how to survive the traps that were left behind to keep unworthy landlubbers away. The diary is essentially a treasure map idea in book form, which makes you feel a bit like Dr. Jones figuring out the traps guarding the Holy Grail in The Last Crusade. At one point the effect of dialogue and choice in Risen 2 presented itself at an ancient temple, where the guardian of a shiny object offers you a choice. You can listen and offer to help this guardian in return for the artifact, opening up yet another quest in the process, or you can just ignore him, yank the artifact and make a run for it. Doing the latter unleashes all kinds of undead horrors as you try to escape and find your way back to the light of day, but that's the pirate life for you. Treasure Isle's boast of containing about 5 hours of content is quite a large one, but it's not hard to believe you'll end up spending that amount of time with it. Travelling the world to find all the diary pages looked like it would be of the same quality as the main game, and the amount of exploration, dialogue, and action for all the sub-quests that make up the quest for Steelbeard's treasure should make for a lengthy adventure. It looked like Piranha Bytes wanted to offer their fans a little something extra, and perhaps ended up with a lot more than they planned for, but it felt like the DLC won't detract from the main game while simultaneously offering more things to do and more jungles to explore. As for the main game, I was pleasantly surprised with how good it looked and how far Piranha Bytes has come since showing it at gamescom last year. It felt like a proper pirate adventure set in the wilderness of mostly unexplored islands, with a well-executed atmosphere adding to the joyful sense of exploration. Playing a PC build with an Xbox 360 controller, it was easy enough to get into it without having played the original Risen on either platform, and the UI and inventory management seemed fitting for console play without being overly simplified for the PC crowd. Plus, you can use parrots to distract enemies in encounters, or use a little monkey to scout ahead and enter small spaces. Since some of you were wondering about it in previous Risen 2 posts, I asked Deep Silver why the protagonist wears his eye patch the way he does; the strap going over the nose and under his ear. While it was mostly a decision of art direction to make it like that, in the game itself you'll notice that the protagonist actually has multiple straps that bind the eye patch to his head. You don't want to lose it in combat, after all. So, that's another one of life's mystery's solved! The Treasure Isle DLC will be available to anyone who pre-orders the game, regardless of region and platform. For once, Europe doesn't get the shaft.
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"Aaaargh!" is an exclamation often associated with pre-order and "day one" bonus downloadable content. You end up with an extra character, skin, or a weapon or two, often followed by Internet outcry when some of that content ...

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How Double Fine used their creative juices to survive


Mar 13
// Maurice Tan
In their GDC session "Creative Panic: How Agility Turned Terror Into Triumph," Double Fine's Tim Schafer, Brad Muir, Lee Petty, and Nathan Martz talked about how they used a two-week break during Brütal Legend's producti...

Review: I Am Alive

Mar 06 // Maurice Tan
I Am Alive (Xbox Live Arcade [reviewed], PlayStation Network)Developer: Ubisoft ShanghaiPublisher: UbisoftReleased: March 7, 2012 (XBLA) / Spring 2012 (PSN)MSRP: 1200 Microsoft Points / $14.99 It's been roughly a year since "The Event," a massive catastrophe that has destroyed civilization. Earthquakes and volcanic ash hint at a natural disaster, but nobody is left to explain what caused it. Cities across America lie in ruins, all color removed from the world by layers of ash and dust, and those who were able to flee during the chaos have done so. What is left of urban civilization is a bleak, harsh environment where a tribal gang culture has emerged from the ashes, and a dog-eat-dog mentality prevails above all others. I Am Alive's everyman protagonist finds himself at the edge of Haventon, his hometown, visibly scarred from his survivalist trek to reach his wife and daughter, whom he hasn't heard from since The Event. He is a man with a singular purpose, but also a man who hasn't forgotten what it means to be human. It doesn't take long before you are sidetracked from the quest to find your family. You encounter a little girl in need of help, and a mysterious voice on the radio by the name of Henry wants you to bring her to safety. Thus starts a chain of events that sees you running, walking, coughing, climbing, slashing, and shooting your way all over Haventon to find the last remaining safe camps where your family might be hiding. [embed]223064:42892[/embed] For the most part, I Am Alive delivers on its promise to bring to life a true survivalist's adventure in a world gone to hell, both in terms of gameplay mechanics and how it conveys an oppressive atmosphere of hopelessness. Objectives offer a linear path, which can often be deviated from in favor of risky exploration. Health doesn't regenerate, and must be replenished with various items scarred across the city. Stamina is equally important, as it not only allows you to run and sprint, but also redefines how we look at climbing in games. Whenever you show off your acrobatic side it costs stamina, which will regenerate every time you take a breather on safe ground. Once your stamina bar empties out, you can continue running or climbing a little further by mashing the trigger, but doing so will quickly reduce the maximum size of your stamina bar. Performing jumps while climbing will take a large cut out of your stamina bar, rendering it a calculated necessity rather than the shortcut such a maneuver offers in games like Uncharted or Assassin's Creed. Since the size of your stamina bar translates directly to how far you can climb, it becomes imperative to plan how you want to approach a climbing endeavor and to spot places where you can stand to recover ahead of time. Most of the time such paths will be clearly indicated to push the player forwards without getting stuck. Sometimes, however, there is simply no place to recover as you go off the beaten path to scale large buildings or climb to those hard-to-reach places that are most likely to offer precious items. Pivots can be found and utilized to create a resting place on a walls where you can recover when there is no safe place in sight, but these are too rare to rely on throughout the game. You just have to be smart. Much has been said about the way I Am Alive handles enemy encounters. The game attempts to portray a moral conundrum by letting you perceive each non-player character as a human first, and a potential enemy of variable threat second. Sometimes armed civilians will instinctively threaten you in to protect their food or territory, and they'll allow you to slowly walk around without bothering them if you don't want to kill them for no good reason. Gangs, however, are another matter entirely. Increasingly large gangs will obstruct your progress. Their members are always male; women are reduced to victims after The Event. Armed with only a machete, a gun, and later a bow, you are usually not in any position to fight your way out of an engagement as in a typical third-person action-adventure. Obnoxious gang members can wield guns themselves, which forces you to think about your tactics. It's never wise to bring a knife to a gun-fight, after all. Thankfully, I Am Alive offers ways to turn any enemy encounter into a tactical puzzle. A surprise kill with your machete can take out whoever thinks you are an easy target who likes to be pushed around. Whip out your gun immediately afterwards, and anyone who doesn't have a gun to fire back will raise their hands and heed your orders to back off -- for a while. This leads to a lot of fun encounters, because you can tell gang members to back off until they are at the edge of a cliff or a fire, and then kick them into it like a regular Leon Kennedy or Chris Redfield. Aim at gang members for too long without taking action, however, and they'll call your bluff and attack. There's also an option to take down someone in a direct melee confrontation, but this requires a bit of mashing the right trigger to push your machete into their fleshy bits, and it completely leaves you open to other enemies. Some gang members will have more dominant personalities than others, too, which means you can kill the "leaders" and make the weak followers drop to their knees so you can knock them out. The combat system is unique, and works well as long as you execute it the right way. You'll quickly learn to take out gun-wielding thugs with a surprise kill right off the bat, then kick whoever is left to their death if the environment allows for it. Because bullets are very hard to come by, you'll start to rely on your bow as soon as you get it. An arrow can be shot and then recovered, meaning you can line up a group of gang members, shoot the nearest one with your bow, pick up the arrow as you keep foes away at gunpoint, and repeat the process until you are in the clear again. What is a rather big omission is the complete lack of a non-violent solution. Unless gang members completely submit to your dominance by kneeling down, they will run after you and try to kill you the moment you lower your gun. It results in some ridiculous situations where some bad guys, who obviously would rather just run away if given the choice, are stuck in their encounter with you and will tell you they'll leave you alone, but won't. You are forced to kill them unless you want to get a machete in your back, and upon death they will sometimes ask you with their last breath, "Why did you have to kill me?" Well, because you didn't have the AI routine to flee, that's why. This forces you to resort to violence in order to get past aggressive groups of enemies that obstruct you (i.e., the vast majority), and the lack of a penalty for killing them eliminates any moral compass the game carefully tries to construct. What makes this omission so striking is the way I Am Alive tries to make you ponder about your humanity in all other areas of the game. You'll come across friendly survivors in need who will usually require a valuable item in order to "survive." In return, they tell you a little bit about what happened in Haventon during The Event, and perhaps drop a hint about where you might find your wife and daughter. But even though this makes you feel like the good guy if you help them out -- and it does so very effectively -- you'll find an ever-growing hole in your heart as you drain the life of a hundred thugs who may have just been in the wrong company. The AI's predictable patterns and its insistence on suicide-by-survivor turn what could've been an intriguing sense of moral ambiguity and pondering into something else. Something that is about as carefully constructed as a LEGO base built by a blind person, without fingers, who also happens to lack any form of tactile sensory perception. Another way I Am Alive is at risk of ruining its own immersive qualities is in its approach to checkpoints. The game is cut into episodes, and every death will cost you a "retry" -- an item you can also collect in the world -- which puts you back at the latest checkpoint. Run out of retries, and it's back to the start of the last episode. While the episodes aren't that long, the prospect of running out of retries later in the game is always in the back of your mind, hovering above you like the sword of Damocles. An encounter with a gang can easily go wrong if you make a mistake, costing you health items, too much ammo, or a retry if you die.  It becomes a habit to just return to the start of the current episode if you waste more than two bullets or retries within the first 15 minutes, especially since you'll encounter a couple of trial-and-error sections where an enemy appears out of nowhere behind you, or a platform suddenly gives way and drops you to your death. Sometimes a death also sends you back to a disorienting checkpoint where you have no idea if you had already explored other levels of a structure, or what items you had or hadn't picked up. Such checkpoints can make restarting the episode just as effective as backtracking, just to make sure you grabbed everything you could. As much as you'll be tempted to hoard retries, you'll never run out on "Normal" difficulty setting as you are given a minimum of three retries whenever you reach a save point. "Survivor" difficulty on the other hand makes you work for every retry by finding them in the world or by helping survivors. If you start out on Normal, which is highly recommended to get a feel for the city and mechanics, then don't think too much about the retries and you'll stay more connected to the engrossing world it has to offer. While the AI can be dumb and the checkpoints can occasionally be punishing, they never ruin what I Am Alive does right: it can completely draw you in and make you forget you are playing a game. The story of The Event is told as much by the visual narrative along your trek through the devastated cityscape as by its inhabitants. A thick haze of dust and ash increasingly limits your vision as you delve deeper into Haventon, hampering stamina regeneration and forcing you to either plan for short trips outside, or save enough stamina to periodically climb above the deadly cloud. Every time you start to run out of stamina, a panic-inducing orchestra will rise to a crescendo as you frantically clutch your controller to find a safe spot. It turns every long climbing expedition into an incredibly tense affair, rather than simple button mashing. Moreover, the entire atmosphere of Haventon -- and your encounters with both the city and The Event's few friendly survivors -- lets you connect to some level of innate humanity the longer you play I Am Alive; each time you kill someone by mistake, you will actually feel bad. It's just a shame that part of this effect goes to waste, since you end up killing so many people who are judged to be "bad" by the game that you end up feeling like a version of Judge Dredd who happens to be compassionate when he's off-duty. On the upside, you get to shoot arrows at the crotches of enemies in body armor, which goes a long way toward delivering satisfaction in any game. Despite the times you'll roll your eyes while patiently and carefully going through I Am Alive, you'll never stop being spellbound by it. It's not a short game by any means, clocking at an average 6-7 hours without finding all the survivors (and not counting a few hours' worth of reloading episodes). Once you've finished the expertly paced adventure on Normal difficulty, though, you'll almost instantly jump straight into Survivor mode, with its sparser retries, items, and ammunition drops, if only to find and help all the survivors and try to improve on your score. The ending will likely be a topic for discussion, too, as it hovers between being ballsy and a clear opening for future DLC. Hopefully, it will be the former and not the latter. As a downloadable title, I Am Alive is a remarkable accomplishment. Not only does it create an atmospheric world that feels real enough to identify with, but it succeeds at delivering a unique experience geared towards an adult audience while simultaneously being a fun game to play. It's a roller coaster of emotions, sometimes not exactly the ones the game intended you to feel, but a hell of a ride nonetheless.
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Years in the making at different studios, Ubisoft's I Am Alive brings the Xbox Live Arcade "House Party" to a close with a post-apocalyptic bang. A story of survival, it's full of ideas and twists on the action-adventure conv...

Review: Wargame: European Escalation

Mar 01 // Maurice Tan
Wargame: European Escalation (PC)Developer: Eugen SystemsPublisher: Focus Home InteractiveReleased: February 23, 2012MSRP: $39.99Rig: Intel E8400 Core2 Duo @3.0GHz, 4GB RAM, ATI Radeon HD4830 512MB, Windows 7 64-bit Eugen Systems impressed with their Act of War games and followed it up with the ambitious R.U.S.E.. This time around, they've left the accessibility of their previous titles far behind in favor of the kind of hardcore military RTS they've been waiting to work on. Wargame doesn't quite go as far into niche territory as a simultaneous turn-based strategy game with hexes does, but it's by all accounts a game geared toward the kind of military fetishists who thought the only good thing about Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was when the AC-130 was told to use SABOT rounds. This passion for military hardware, especially tanks, is evident on many levels of Wargame. Countless units and unit variations for NATO and Warsaw Pact forces have all been painstakingly recreated in full detail, but the level of dedication doesn't stop there. Set during an alternate-history period of the 1975-1985 Cold War era with a focus on conventional warfare, it quickly becomes clear just how serious Eugen is about its hardware and tactics. [embed]222814:42869[/embed] Something that RTS titles generally fail at is bridging the gap between creating a game that is fun to play and easy to understand, and the intricate complexities that stem from a mindset of military power in the 20th century. Usually you have your tanks, infantry, and artillery that all do a pre-set level of mitigated damage against different types of units. Once you figure out how it works, you either mass powerful units and attack, or use whatever rock-paper-scissors system there is to counter opposing forces effectively. It makes for a fun but unrealistic RTS like we've seen in games such as World in Conflict and Ground Control, but where Wargame differs is in the way it looks at what a military unit is. Instead of offering to build a few types of tanks that differ in their uses slightly, a tank in Wargame isn't simply a unit you use to shoot at things. It's a weapon platform first, and an armored and mobile one second. A helicopter? That's a flying platform for air-to-ground missiles, rocket pods, and machine guns. Nothing more and nothing less. This way of thinking offers a fresh take on the strategy genre, supported by a plethora of different available units that all have their own weapons and statistics. Before long, you no longer think of infantry as a group of grunts that's only good against other infantry or capturing locations, but as a mobile anti-air or anti-tank weapon that just happens to be wielded by human beings. Likewise, a tank becomes a specific type of anti-armor gun that is able to drive around, preferably with as many other kinds of weaponry you can fit on it. There is still a counter-system in place, but it's all centered on individual weapon systems and their effectiveness versus armor and infantry -- weapons you can even turn on and off for each unit. Once you've wrapped your head around this philosophy, you start to understand that Wargame is not a game of tank rushes or single-unit spam, but rather one that hands you a thousand pieces of machinery and wants you to turn it into the best-oiled war machine. Any armored column can rule the open terrain, but forests and hedgerows that litter the map can provide cover for tanks, AA guns, or infantry with their respective and highly specialized offensive capabilities. Within a few missions you are forced to accept the merit in learning about weapon systems, as traditional RTS tactics lead to failure or Pyrrhic victories. For example, placing infantry with anti-tank missiles at the edge of a forest can completely obliterate armor at range, while infantry with RPGs in the middle of a forest has a smaller range to ambush anyone crazy enough to come close without scouting ahead; any infantry caught in the open, however, ends up as minced meat. What seem like paltry armored personnel carriers meant for transporting infantry can end up destroying your tanks with missiles at a huge range. Let them come close to your tanks, though, while keeping your units hidden in cover by manually turning off their individual weapons, and let loose salvos of doom to wipe out the pesky buggers. Add in varying levels of accuracy for ordnance and for units on the move -- as well as the ability to suppress, panic, and rout units using overwhelming fire -- and the military math starts to translate to the practicality of ambushing incoming forces from a static and hidden defensive position. It also means the enemy can do the same, and it often will. In your mind's eye, maps in Wargame soon become segmented into sectors where any forest or hedgerow will arouse suspicion. There is no fog of war in the traditional sense, leaving you to rely on the line of sight from your units to define the level of battlefield intelligence you have on enemy positions. This makes recon units key to survival, and only after a sector is deemed clear enough should you attempt to move in with costly armor. Different designated zones on the map can be captured with expensive command units, who need to remain immobile within such a zone to take control of it. Each zone adds a resource trickle of income, and as long as you have a zone at the edge of the map, reinforcements can be placed anywhere and will take the fastest route to wherever you wanted them to go. The resulting game of recon, offensive, and temporary entrenchment is something that tends to take a lot of time (or skill) to execute properly. The problem is that you can't always afford to take this slow-paced and calculated approach, since you tend to start with a limited amount of resources in many of the campaign missions. Capturing each new zone for the income increase required to support your grand strategy is a tense affair, as ambushes abound and a "shock and awe" tactic will simply turn your armor into scrap metal. Long-range artillery and MLRS are fun to use, but are highly inaccurate unless you provide them with nearby recon support. You can't just sit back and let your artillery shoot for an hour hoping for the best, either, as all units require supplies to repair, refuel, and restock ammunition. Supplies that need to be brought in by truck or helicopter, or from a nearby F.O.B. (Field Operating Base) which serves as a large supply depot. Beyond the risk of losing your recon units as you try to scout ahead and look for safe passage, there is always a risk of running out of units. Each type of unit you unlock by spending command points, gained by completing objectives in single-player or by playing multiplayer, offers only a limited amount of those units to call in during a mission. Use them well, and they will gain experience to make them stronger and tougher -- and slightly more expensive to "buy" during the next mission. Lose a few of them, and you lose them forever. Lose all units of one type, and you simply can't bring them into play for the remainder of that campaign's chapter. It's a bit of an odd system, as there is a steep learning curve in Wargame that will inevitably make you lose a good amount of units before you learn how to use them properly, not to mention that it doesn't make sense for the Warsaw Pact to run out of T-72 tanks. While you can choose to replay campaign missions in order to keep more units alive, another option is to just unlock a different or a more powerful unit type. It's a way to encourage the player to try out different units, perhaps, although newer model variations of the same unit are increasingly more expensive and can become a big drain on your resource pool. Another oddity is the lack of a "drag to aim direction" option for groups, as tanks have different levels of armor plating on their front, sides, and rear. They tend to turn the right way on their own without it becoming problematic, but given the amount of micromanagement that permeates the game all the way to ammo and fuel supply, it's a rather strange omission. There are a few other weird instances of balancing from a realism perspective, such as anti-air vehicles being able to rout a T-80b tank, or infantry shooting down armor-plated choppers using assault rifles. These are also the instances where you remember you are playing something meant to be entertainment, not a simulation. All of this may make Wargame sound daunting given its complexity. At its core, though, it isn't all that hard to grasp for any strategy veteran willing to jump into it. You have to make a mental switch and adapt to its way of thinking, but it doesn't take long before you can look at any terrain map in an atlas or on Google Maps and notice prime ambush locations everywhere. If you ever wanted to bring out your inner Patton, this is without a doubt the best game you could play. However, it will kick your ass until you learn how to play it fast and hard. The AI can be downright brutal at times, making continuous attempts to flank and ambush you. It certainly adds a lot of challenge to the campaign, but for some players this may prove to be too much. To give you an indication, I spent the better part of a day trying to pass a single mission with a dozen restarts to no avail. Especially during wide and open levels, it can be very hard to maintain recon and tactical superiority across the huge stretches of land, using the sparse resources you have. It's as if Eugen wanted to give you as much control over as large a map as they could get away with, and only later decided they couldn't give you the amount of units they would've liked to populate such a map, without completely overwhelming what a regular person's brain is capable of handling. As a result, you are continuously fighting against the odds to outwit an ever-mobile AI across the map with the units you have, and often not the units you would've loved to have. Still, the game is never unfair to you as every loss only makes you angry at yourself for making the stupid decisions that cost you the mission. Although it would've been nice to have seen some more variety in the map geography, which consistently tends to look like your typical mainland European countryside, the emergent diversity from the terrain's features makes every map unique to multiple strategies and all kinds of natural defensive strongholds -- as long as you know where to look. This is something that translates well to multiplayer, too. Using the game's default "score" system, a round of multiplayer revolves around scoring points reflected by the cost of both your own and your opponent's units; the first player to destroy enough units will win. A foe might go all out on expensive helicopters that could wipe out your expensive armor, but countering with cheap anti-air could then win you the game. Likewise, one opposing team member might focus on massing artillery to halt your offensive, but that doesn't mean you can't circle around with cheap and fast tank destroyers or APCs and tip the balance in your favor. That is not to say that cheap units win the day, as more expensive tanks will easily destroy cheaper tanks in a jousting match of shells. It just means you have to master your weapon systems and the manner you deliver ordnance in the most effective way possible. The complexity at the tactical level also means that multiple attacks across the map can lead to an information overload for a player, enabling distractions to perform stealthy flanking maneuvers. The combination of utilizing terrain, the vast amount of tactical methods to apply force through an almost ridiculous amount of different units, and the random nature of playing against a human opponent, means you could be playing Wargame for a long time to come before claiming you are any good at it. In case you not that competitively minded, a one vs. one skirmish mode lets you play against the AI, and a co-op vs. AI "comp stomp" mode is currently being worked on. All of it runs remarkably well on my low-end rig, too, even on mostly high detail at a resolution of 1920x1200. There might be some minor slowdown at times on older rigs when you zoom in for a detailed look at the action, but since you'll spend most of your time zoomed out to a bird's eye view it never becomes detrimental to the gameplay. Wargame: European Escalation is the closest you'll get to a full-fledged military simulation of the Cold War era of modern warfare that is still fun to play. It's a cold, calculated affair set in the last decades of the 20th century where the tradition of the Clausewitz style of military doctrine for large-scale operations was still relevant; a style rendered almost obsolete by postmodern 21st century asymmetrical warfare. There is no room for personal glory in the age of industrialized warfare depicted in Wargame, where war is won encounter by encounter, battle by battle, and in which the only human elements that remain are the effect of morale on performance and the personal affliction of losing a high-value unit. In such a sterile environment, it can be hard to imagine there is any room left for personality, yet you still create your own personal stories through enacting your tactical prowess in the field. You will fondly remember that one time you ambushed a group of M1A1 Abrams tanks with your hidden Spetznaz troops, or that time you drew out a large enemy force with a feint and wiped them out with a pincer move. Even then, such user-generated tactical narratives only serve the greater purpose of victory at a strategic level. Such is the way of war from the command perspective; a way of thinking in movement vectors, weapon platforms, terrain, and statistics. After two decades, Wargame: European Escalation finally does modern warfare right.
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Growing up during the dawn of PC strategy games, playing everything from Dune II and Command & Conquer to Panzer General, took its toll on my teenage years. History classes only became worth paying attention to when it co...

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Five ways to suck at Wargame: European Escalation


Feb 24
// Maurice Tan
Wargame: European Escalation was released for PC yesterday. After failing at a certain mission and losing momentum, leading to a 1.5-hour mission, I realized there are a couple of ways to play this game if you've played many ...
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Dat DLC: Dungeon Defenders 'Barbarian Hero'


Feb 24
// Maurice Tan
[In "Dat DLC," we check out some recent downloadable content to give you an impression of what you may or may not have missed out on.] After tinkering with the gender-swapped versions of the existing four young heroes in Dun...
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Mass Effect 3 CG trailer gets an extended cut


Feb 21
// Maurice Tan
We saw a brief Mass Effect 3 CG trailer last weekend, which Jonathan Holmes didn't care for because he hates good videogames. Now we have the full extended cut version with even more dramatic Earthlings who fight for the least interesting planet in the Mass Effect universe! I guess nobody would give a damn if it was the Volus home world that was invaded in a trailer, eh? Two more weeks...

Review: Alan Wake's American Nightmare

Feb 20 // Maurice Tan
Alan Wake's American Nightmare (Xbox Live Arcade)Developer: Remedy EntertainmentPublisher: Microsoft StudiosReleased: February 22, 2012MSRP: 1200 Microsoft Points ($15) Following the events of Alan Wake's finale and the novelist's subsequent dark adventures in The Signal and The Writer, Alan has made his way back to yet another piece of Americana: desert-ridden Arizona. During his absense, Alan's dark half Mr. Scratch has been running amok in the "real world" and continues to grow ever more powerful. Tonight, it's time to put an end to his rule of malice. Tonight, evil lurks in Night Springs. [embed]222126:42741[/embed] American Nightmare follows the structure of an episode of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, inspired by the supernatural and science fiction pulp action genre, as Alan tries to piece together a final solution to rid the world of Mr. Scratch. From a roadside diner and motel, to a mountain observatory and a drive-in, Remedy has once again tried to portray an easily identifiable world within a world and succeeded. Environments are somewhat more open than the largely confined areas seen in Alan Wake, and finding manuscript pages, which now also unlock better weapons, encourages exploration. Before long, you start to notice that there are far more missing manuscript pages than you can find in a level, even when sweeping it extensively. There's a simple reason for this, and it's not one that everyone is going to like: American Nightmare's story mode makes you retread the same levels multiple times before its conclusion. Each time, enemy encounters become more challenging, new types of enemies are introduced, and new collectibles can be found. Different and new paths through the levels also present themselves, although this difference can be marginal at best. There's a story-related reason for returning to this familiar ground and the characters who inhabit these levels add to the intrigue somewhat. Even though you won't just be doing the same thing multiple times in a row, it can become a bit too familiar before the journey is over. Thankfully, this repeated journey is an enjoyable one. I seem to be one of the few people who didn't have any problems with the controls and combat in Alan Wake, but combat is definitely a bit tighter this time around. Largely due to the new weapons and the faster regeneration speed of the flashlight -- which also renders the use of batteries mostly obsolete -- you'll find yourself lighting up and blasting Taken without too much trouble. A few new insectoid and raven classes of Taken may prove to be troublesome if you have existing phobias; hell, you might even develop a few new ones along the way. Some other new enemies include a Taken that launches darkness grenades at you, the Splitter who splits into two smaller versions if you focus your beam on him, and a The Hills Have Eyes type of mutated hillbilly giant who wields a buzz saw. Some of these new enemies don't exactly fit in the darkness-infested altered reality of the original Alan Wake, but Alan is trapped in a Night Springs story (the fictional Twilight Zone-style show in the Wake universe), so it's easy enough to overlook in favor of improvements on the gameplay. Although American Nightmare is billed to be accessible to new players, it's still largely tailored to fans of the original game. Manuscript pages fill gaps for those new to the Alan Wake universe, but this self-contained spin-off story still picks up some time after the last "special feature" piece of downloadable content, The Writer, and many allusions to the original can be found in radio shows, cutscenes, and TV viewings. You don't need to be an Alan Wake veteran to enjoy it, but it most definitely helps. Since Alan is supposed to be trapped inside an episode of Night Springs (or is he?), TV sets will no longer show you the little Night Springs episodes when you turn them on. Instead, you'll find Mr. Scratch talking to you through the magic of live action video. Mr. Scratch is brilliant as a Alan's psychopathic alter ego made flesh, and serves as one of the more believable and memorable examples of a purely evil videogame antagonist in recent history. He is Wake's version of George Stark in Stephen King's The Dark Half, a tale alluded to often in American Nightmare. These little videos also add a lot of character to create a more tangible opponent -- something Alan Wake was missing -- and what Mr. Scratch is lacking in mystery compared to the Dark Presence in the original game, he more than makes up for with sheer evil. Besides the new story and updated combat, a conceptually brilliant mechanic sees the light of day in American Nightmare. Alan can now reshape reality by recreating a setting to match his manuscript pages, which triggers an event that was not supposed to happen according to Mr. Scratch's plans. For the first time since you were able to turn words into objects by shining your flashlight onto them in Alan Wake and its DLC, you finally get to put your often hinted-at powers to work and really play as the creative artist who can wield the power of creation to combat the Dark Presence's influences. As innovative and ambitious as the mechanic sounds, however, it's sadly underused and underdeveloped. Instead of being able to actually be creative with this weapon of creativity, altering reality through the process of exerting free will and breaking the chain of predetermination, you end up following a streamlined design. The act of reshaping reality is as simple as walking to markers on your map to press a button, until a setting is deemed complete enough to allow you to progress. It's a shame, since the first time you see the results of your reality-reshaping actions alongside a booming soundtrack, your mind is overwhelmed with the sheer possibilities of such a mechanic within the Alan Wake universe. The second time you do it, it's a case of déjà vu. The third time, it's Groundhog Day. Since American Nightmare acts as both a continuation of the story and a self-contained spin-off experiment, this is definitely one of the key aspects we'll want to see further explored in the future of the franchise. Given the limitations of a downloadable title, it's understandable that Remedy didn't take this all the way, but it fits the Wake universe so perfectly that just a taste of it is simply not enough. Through your repeated journey, you'll meet characters with whom you can interact a bit more than before. The voice acting of the second character you'll meet is cringeworthy, as is her mindboggling insistance on holding her arms in creepily peculiar position that is as robotic as her voice. While you are talking to these characters, you're free to walk around a bit as you go through the motions of a conversation, leading to a lot of cases of jumping around and aiming your gun at their faces while you're telling them not to be afraid. Still, American Nightmare manages to make a hipster girl sexy against all odds, so it deserves credit for that. What criticisms one can raise against American Nightmare's story mode tend to vanish while playing the game's third act, as increasingly tense combat encounters are accompanied by rock music and ramp up the pacing to the finale. It's during this last act that all the elements of gameplay, visuals, and music start to fully work together, and it's only then that you finally reach a state of perfect flow while playing it. Even the matter of going through the same levels is eventually forgiven as everything falls into place -- it's almost the complete opposite of the third act in any Stephen King storyline. Moreover, the title looks and feels like a full-fledged title. While it's not quite as long as Alan Wake was, it's equally as satisfying most console shooters' campaigns. By the time you finish it, you have to remind yourself that it's "only" an XBLA title. The story mode is worth the price of admission alone and it's a no-brainer for Wake fans to pick it up just to see more of their favorite hero, but American Nightmare also offers a new "Arcade Action" mode called Fight Till Dawn. More like Mercenaries and less like a Horde mode, this is where you'll improve on the combat skills you may have honed while beating the harder difficulties of the original game. Five levels give you ten minutes to blast through as many waves as possible for the highest score. Every time you shoot or dodge an enemy, your multiplier bar increases. Get hit, and you lose all your multiplier progress. It's a frantic mode that forces you to never get hit if you want to compete on the leaderboards, and one that you'll quickly find yourself playing for an hour here and there. Even though the new weapons feel like overkill for Wake veterans in the story mode, their relative strengths and weaknesses come to fruition in this Arcade mode. It also highlights the occasional dysfunction of your dodge move, unfortunately. This dodge move is key to maintaining and increasing your multiplier during large group encounters, but can also be a bit fickle about working as advertised. Occasionally it will let you down like a childhood friend during times of crisis when you thought you could count on it. After putting a couple of days into Arcade mode, you will learn to work around it, turning the dodge move into a somewhat flaccid extension of your virtual persona, like a numb arm you flail around as a last resort against an oppresive foe of darkness. Once you've performed well enough in the standard five levels, you can unlock their Nightmare difficulty versions that start you out at a different location on the map, and mixes up weapon and ammo locations. Any player who doesn't get enough of a challenge from the story mode will get his ass kicked in these Nightmare levels. The levels are far darker, there is only one escape zone of light to regenerate your health, and waves keep spawning regardless of your progression. It's no small feat to survive one of these levels, let alone reach a high score, and despite the odd annoying Taken grenadier who can regularly hit you out of the blue thanks to the lack of a proper grenade indicator, this is by far one of the tensest experiences you'll find on the Xbox 360's entire digital platform. Arcade mode is a very welcome addition overall, especially since most of American Nightmare is lacking in the mystery and brooding atmosphere that Alan Wake had plenty of. The renewed focus on better combat and high octane action empowers Mr. Wake beyond the weak and shaken physical and mental survivalist of the original. Then again, Alan has already fought his fears and claimed victory over a smoke monster, his irrational Ego, and a thousand Taken, so he is ready to kick some ass this time around. Having said that, anyone who claims there is no tension to be found at all has simply never played any of the Arcade mode levels on Nightmare. Alan Wake's American Nightmare is as close to a full console title as we've seen on Xbox Live Arcade to date. Its story mode is fun foray into the twisted universe of Alan Wake, even if some of what's going on won't always make complete sense to any but the most dedicated of fans. Remedy has admirably tackled the repetitive nature of the campaign in order to get the most out of the the content they had, although it does start to wear thin at the midway point. Thankfully, a strong final act and a ridiculously addictive Arcade mode more than make up for it. For the hardcore Alan Wake fans, there is a lot to love in this new title. You can enjoy it fully without knowing about everything that happened in the original, the DLC special features, and the expanded universe from the Limited Edition book, but you are most definitely rewarded for having stuck with Alan in his past adventures. If anything, my main gripe with American Nightmare is that it shows Remedy can take the Alan Wake series to places that could blow us away if someone would just give them the resources to create another full retail title, yet we are only allowed glimpses of various mechanics and experiments in their downloadable titles to date. If that makes you think it's not worth playing, think again. Alan Wake's American Nightmare is a worthwhile expansion to the novelist's saga and one that you'll come back to time and time again, quite literally until the break of dawn.
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Ask any fan why they like Alan Wake, and you'll hear different stories. Some will talk about how they enjoyed the Stephen King, Twin Peaks, and Lost inspired storyline and setting. Others will laud the tense experience on the...

Review: Warp

Feb 17 // Maurice Tan
Warp (Xbox Live Arcade [Reviewed], PlayStation Network, PC)Developer: TrapdoorPublisher: Electronic ArtsReleased: February 15, 2012 (XBLA), March 13, 2012 (PSN, PC)MSRP: 800 Microsoft Points, $9.99 After being captured and submitted to various control orientation tests in a series of chambers, the little alien protagonist in Warp escapes his confines with a single goal on his mind: find a way off the research facility, find the means to do so, and optionally murder everyone in his (or her?) path. While unarmed, the critter you control can warp short distances through solid objects, and even inside of them. That includes humans. Once inside, you can wiggle your left analog stick around until they explode, possibly at the cost of your left hand's motor functions decades from now. Along the way you'll unlock new powers by absorbing various other aliens held in containment at the facility. Doing so allows you to project an "echo" decoy which can be used to swap your creature's location with an object highlighted by your echo, or launch objects across distances so you can then warp into them. [embed]222047:42725[/embed] Practically all of the puzzles in Warp revolve around these basic mechanics. You move objects around by interchanging them with your position, warp into soldiers or turrets to dispose of them, or launch objects into wall-mounted "buttons." It's a simple concept that is supported by a drive for exploration to hunt down film canisters to destroy, and tiny blobs called Grubs that let you unlock special skills or traits to help you progress more easily. It's also a concept that is pretty fun to play, in theory. In practice, however, the means of doing all these things suffers from the game's lackluster controls. A tiny indicator shows you where you'll end up when you warp, but aiming has to be pretty precise at times. If you're not careful, you end up warping right next to a soldier instead of inside of him, or just off a ledge so you fall to your doom. Although you get the hang of this over the course of the game, it never fails to feel like you are trying to aim a single shot at an enemy in a twin-stick shooter. Sometimes you'll die because you aimed poorly. Other times you'll die because you were moving a decoy, the decoy got destroyed, and subsequently you accidentally moved your warping alien directly into a hazard. Then there are times when a section pressures you to perform quickly, even though you can't always tell where you'll end up under the stress of impending death. Thankfully, checkpoints abound and there are only a few sections where you have to replay more than a single frustrating segment. Which is great, because you'll die a lot. However, every time you die you have to sit through a five-second loading screen, which isn't that long but definitely long enough to make every death more annoying than it already is when plenty of deaths occur due to the loose controls. What makes it especially odd that a lot of the issues found in Warp actually exist is the level of polish found in nearly every other aspect. The visual style is a clean mix of Team Fortress 2 and Evil Genius cartoon-y style graphics. Almost every new gameplay concept is expertly introduced to the player, with a minimal and effective interface to boot. Then there is the humor, which pops up here and there and adds a certain level of charm to the non-human characters. Shiny visuals and polished tutorials can't hide some of the fundamental problems with Warp, though. Besides the controls working against the player at the most important of times, there is a certain soullessness to Warp that is hard to explain. You'll find yourself going through the motions, moving from segment to segment with the intention of having fun, yet finding little of it. Sure, there is a level of challenge stemming from the puzzles and finding the best way to perform a mix of action under a time restraint, but you'll be hard pressed to really care about any of it. Part of it might be due to the somewhat problematic goal of feeling attached to your creature. It devours defenseless other aliens for its own gain, feels committed to exploding every human it can since statistics are tracked and compared to your friends at the bottom of the screen, and generally makes you act like a dick to your captors. Captors they might be, but most of your victims probably just work there to support their families. They even scream at you, "What did I do to deserve this?" Whatever frustrations you may or may not have while playing it, they culminate in the game's final level and boss. Because it wasn't enough to make you hope for the best when you are trying to control Warp's alien, someone decided it would be even more fun to make the level itself rock back and forth, bumping you into inadvertent deaths and yet another loading screen until you are ready to scream. If you do commit to completion, you'll unlock access to a number of challenge levels throughout the game that can be played again from the main menu. These give you bonus Grubs if you perform well enough, and high scores to celebrate on leaderboards. The Grubs themselves can give you some nice upgrades that save you a lot of trouble, particularly the upgrades that let you walk faster or allow you to turn your decoy into a mine that can knock out a troublesome shielded guard. As useful as they are, Warp tries its best to make you forget you even can upgrade -- and you can easily complete the game without them if you want to. Whether or not it's worth even starting will depend on how much you like this subgenre of stealth gameplay and on how willing you are to overlook its faults. As much as Warp's presentation gives you the illusion that you are playing a charming game full of personality, a lot of the initial goodwill and attachment to the cute critter protagonist is slowly eroded by your actions and the problematic controls. In the end, all that is left at your disposal is a virtual representation of your imminent failure and repetitive demise.
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Xbox Live Arcade's House Party kicked off with Warp, a stealth-centric puzzle-platforming title with a charming yet violent aesthetic. With a somewhat creative way of adding a breath of fresh air to the top-down stealth genre...

A class guide to Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

Feb 17 // Maurice Tan
For the purpose of this guide, I'll focus on a Normal difficulty playthrough and on a general playstyle of XP efficiency. Reckoning allows for a lot of different playstyles -- although most of them involve a lot of button mashing -- so this isn't so much a guide for the best builds as it is one that is simply intended to help you choose what you'll want to work towards. General rules Loot. Every. Thing. A set piece can be in any chest or under any hidden pile of rocks, so look everywhere you can. Don't worry about gold. Sell your excess baggage and the purple items you won't need, until you get a nice amount of cash. You won't likely spend a lot of money, since you'll find the equipment in the world or you'll craft it yourself. Once you have enough (a couple of hundred thousand is plenty), simply salvage everything through Blacksmithing. More about that later. Fateshifting You should use the Fateshifting ability as often as possible. It can be tempting to save up Fate for that one big encounter or that one boss, just so you can get double XP for the big fish. That's smart, but just don't overdo it. More often than not, you'll save up a full Fate bar and fight through 10+ encounters just so you'll have a full bar when it will yield the highest expected bonus -- or to help you deal with finishing off that boss. In that time, you could've used your Fateshifting ability and filled up a new bar, provided you use different special attacks to generate Fate efficiently. Being conservative with your Fate bar isn't a bad thing, but after 8+ hours you'll have a good idea of how the dungeons and big quest encounters are paced, so use Fateshifting when it seems likely that you'll get plenty of chances to fill it up again. The four abilities One of the downsides of Reckoning's ability system is that you effectively only have access to the four abilities you map to the face buttons. You can cast sustained abilities and remap them afterwards, but it's worth keeping this in mind when you start investing in more than four abilities; there's a good chance you will never use those remnant and excess abilities from earlier in the game. The Finesse tree The rogue's ability tree. Meant for the sneaky and stabby-stab types, the Finesse tree is actually more about dealing damage through hit & run attacks than it is about being a thief in the purist sense. Weapon of choice First off, you'll want to decide whether to go for Daggers or Faeblades. To be honest, there's not a very large difference between them if you're mashing the same attack button over and over. Faeblades have a wider reach, so they tend to hit more enemies with a single combo. Faeblades also tend to do more damage than Daggers when you find them along the way, but they are slower -- if marginally so. While it's mostly a matter of what feels best to you, my personal preference goes to the Faeblades. The dodge-attack from Precise Weaponry III lets you spin upwards and attack enemies all around you, while giving you extra Fate once you've upgraded this ability. While the Dagger's charge lets you poison more enemies in a group, the charge attack for either weapon isn't that great and doesn't usually do more damage than using that time to perform basic attacks. If you're serious about the Finesse tree, you will also end up with a few sustained and passive Poison abilities. If you mix the Finesse and Sorcery trees you'll have enough mana to always keep Envenomed Edge -- the poison attack buff -- active at a 15% mana cost. Combine that with the wider reach of the Faeblades, and you're more likely to poison everyone in a group without ever having to think about it. Again, when it comes to just attacking enemies, there is not a huge difference between Faeblades and Daggers, so just experiment with what feels the most fun to play with. The Arrow branch is a different story. A good bow can absolutely destroy enemies at range, but you have to pace yourself given the limited amount of arrows and the short delay before your quiver fills up again. Arrow Storm does not do a huge amount of damage so it's not a must, but you'll want to put points in every other Arrow branch ability if you're going to make an Archer character.Sneaking and backstabbing Being all sneaky might sound intriguing. It's not. Although you'll come across a dozen or so enemies that would be better off dispatched with backstabs so nobody notices you, Reckoning is about creating your own personal über hero. A successful one-hit backstab will save you about 10 seconds of combat at best, not counting the time required to sneak your way to your target. You can dodge while sneaking, which makes sneaking a lot faster, but in the end it's not a very effective ability to put points in. If you really want to play a rogue who assaults people from behind, you could try combining backstabs with Smoke Bombs and some of the other wide-area stun abilities found in the other ability trees, but it's not as effective as simply slicing and dicing your way through your foes. Key abilities Besides the Weapon Mastery branch and the damage output for your weapon of choice, you may want to give Shadow Flare a miss. It doesn't do a lot of damage, and being able to push away some enemies is actually counterproductive to a melee Finesse class. Why push them away when you can hit them instead? Putting one point in Shadow Flare does unlock Enduring Agony later on, which gives you a great bonus to all typical Finesse attacks. The four abilities in the Poison branch can be a mixed bag, but the first (Envenomed Edge) and last (Paralytic Poisons) abilities in this branch are worth exploring. Not only do you get bonus damage over time, but the ability to get a chance to stun poisoned enemies later on is something that costs very little, yet gives you oh so much. Poison resistance mostly keeps you from doing less melee damage against poisonous attackers, while the ability to make the odd corpse explode in a poison cloud is not terribly useful to melee Finesse players. You'll often combo enemies away from the last corpse. Blade Honing is a must-have for melee characters. Just getting an increase in Critical Hit damage doesn't sound like much on paper, but in practice you're going to end up with very crit-heavy weapons once you start tinkering with Sagecraft and Blacksmithing. Because Blade Honing also works for Longswords and Greatswords, it's the main reason to bother with the Finesse tree if you are focusing on a damage-heavy Might character. Execution, the high-level passive ability, is mostly useful for Archers. You'll do passive bleeding damage with every arrow by the time you unlock this ability, and most Daggers and Faeblades don't do that much bleeding damage unless you craft them that way. Combine the fire rate of your bow with the multi-shot of your bow's charged attack, and rack up the bonus Bleeding damage. Gambit, which lets you throw 7 traps in an area in front of you, is great for all types of players, especially ranged ones. It stalls a group of enemies for a little bit, but most of all it's a lot of fun to see them bounce from trap to trap. At 80 mana, it's also a very expensive pleasure that doesn't do very good damage by the time you unlock it. Frost Traps, (poison and smoke) Bombs, and Lunge simply depend on your playstyle. If you're going pure Finesse, these abilities will give you the crowd control you need to manage a large battle. Bombs stun enemies and project a poison cloud once upgraded, turning you invisible in the process so you can sneak in a quick backstab, but the question is if you need enemies to be stunned. If you're fine handling groups on your own with basic attacks and dodges, you won't need these. There's something to be said for Poison Bombs since you'll inevitably have the +70% Poison effect from Enduring Agony, but the bombs are very slow to reload and require you to be near a group of enemies for maximum effect. Frost Traps can be used to plan ahead and lure enemies into your traps, followed by ranged attacks with your Bow (or Chakrams). If you're more of an offensive type of melee player, just put your points into damage abilities instead. When building an Archer, you'll want these traps to give you the necessary breathing space between quiver reloads, though. Lunge costs far too much mana to be effective. It reaches about twice the distance of a dodge, and after putting 5 points into it you get a measly 100 Physical Damage in return. For the melee rogues, you're better off just using the dodge-attack abilities for your Daggers or Faeblades. Equipment In general, mana can be a problem for a pure Finesse player. Most Finesse armor doesn't give you a lot of mana or mana regeneration, but you don't really need all that much if you play smart. If you forgo spamming Bombs and Gambit, and ignore Lunge, you'll be fine with the sustained cost of keeping up your poison and critical hit buffs. Similarly, health can be an issue if you don't have access to the Healing Surge ability from the Sorcery tree, or its bloodsucking Faer Gorta minion. If you're going pure Finesse, make sure to put some points in Alchemy for health and mana potions or, better yet, just buy a ton of them since gold is not a problem in this game. Another option is to create your own equipment to fulfill these gaps in your build, socket specific health and mana regeneration gems into the odd useful socketable piece of armor, or use a few rings or an amulet to give you that regen. Since you'll also find more useful rings and amulets that give you bonus damage and XP, you might just want to stick with a socketable regeneration gem or the potions solution. The Sorcery tree I doubt I need to tell anyone how to be a mage, but there are a few nuances to the spells you can pick. Weapon of choice There's not a lot of choice here. The Staff is your main weapon, and your Chakrams keep groups at bay. You can use the Scepter if you must, but the mana drain for every attack is a downer. It doesn't hit and stagger groups of enemies as nicely as the Chakrams do, so you're probably better off ignoring the Scepter altogether. The Chakrams are worth looking into for every player, as they are perhaps the most effective secondary weapon in the game. They don't seem that powerful if you focus on the stats, but they hit anyone in a long wide strip in front of you and the damage output in groups can reach ridiculous proportions. A full combo of attacks will also make the discs hit enemies in close proximity around you when they fly back from the final attack. Time it right, and you'll evade getting hit in close combat just by sticking with the Chakrams. The dodge-attack move from Arcade Weaponry IV is also a fun way to juggle anyone who happens to get in your way. The downside is that in order to unlock the dodge-attack, you'll need a point in Arcane Weaponry III. This ability lets you do a delayed attack for your Staff and Chakrams, but it bounces you backwards when you do this with the Chakrams. This in turn puts you further away from the enemies you want to hit, but what's worse: it takes too long to recover from the dodge-attack and leaves you open to attack. Especially when in Fateshifting mode, it can happen that you try to time your Chakram attacks to hit single enemies at range and sometimes you'll accidentally do a delayed attack when you turn to swap targets. It costs precious time, so learn to work your way around it if you can. Still, the mix of physical and elemental damage combined with the reach and damage potential make the Chakrams a worthwhile addition to any arsenal. Use some fire damage Chakrams to deal with most of the annoying enemies you want to take out at range, and never worry again. Finally, the charge attack for the Chakrams can be risky, but it gives you a lot of Fate when executed in the middle of a group of enemies. Abilities The Faer Gorta minion is the main attraction, since it's a skeleton that gives you health while it distracts enemies and staggers them. Did I mention it's a skeleton? Trust me, you'll want one. For the dedicated Sorcery player, the Tempest (lightning storm) is arguably the weakest spell. It takes forever to charge, doesn't have a very large radius, and the damage is not very high. If you ignore the entire Lightning branch, you can put the remaining points into Skillful Defense from the Might tree instead. However, the Storm Bolt does have the ability to stun small clusters of enemies which can be helpful to close the distance when playing with a mixed class. If wreaking havoc with spells if your jazz, focus on Elemental Rage, Meteor, and Winter's Embrace instead. Meteor slows down the action and does massive amounts of damage. Follow it up with Elemental Rage to stagger the enemies even more, and then charge up and cast Winter's Embrace (ice storm) while they recover. If anyone is left standing, they will be slowed by the freezing attack and you can wipe them out at your leisure. Because these three elemental damage spells only leave the Faer Gorta as the fourth ability, you probably won't use Healing Surge very often once you reach level 30+. Any small-to-medium amounts of health you lose can be returned through the Faer Gorta, and during combat you can rely on health potions to escape death. If you are still low-level, you'll have to micromanage your spells a little bit more until you get to the massive damage dealing spells. Mark of Flame in particular requires a bit of positioning and skill. Damage-wise, your Chakrams should outperform the Storm Bolt, but as a pure Sorcery player you'll end up with points in the Storm Bolt simply to unlock the later, more useful branches. Since you have it, you might as well use it in the meantime.Equipment Your Sorcery equipment should provide you with all the mana and mana regen you need to keep casting during any regular encounter. Some extra (elemental) resistance is always nice to keep you from worrying about the ranged spellcasters that are harder to evade, which you'll get from most types of equipment. If you want, you can tailor some socketable equipment to give you bonuses to health and mana, or elemental damage output. I suggest just trying out what playstyle works for you, and tailoring your equipment around it. If you tend to dive into the action and take a lot of damage, add some extra health and health regen to your build. If you hardly ever get below the 50% health mark, opt for damage output instead. The Might tree The Might player will be slow but unstoppable. You know what a knight is, right? There you go, then. Weapons of choice Another case of "how you like to play" here. Personally, I found that Greatswords are where it's at as your primary weapon. The charge attack lets you mow through enemies and adds some mobility thanks to the whirlwind attack. Greatswords tend to have the second highest amount of single hit damage as well, but lack speed. Longswords are faster, but come on now. Do you want to be Eddard Stark or some hedge knight with yet another peasantly Longsword?  Hammers are a good secondary weapon because of their moveset. The do more damage than the Greatsword, but are too slow as a primary weapon. In fact, some players might find them too slow altogether. The block-attack and parry-attack can be a good counter with the Hammer, but it's far too easy to get hit by surrounding enemies. It's the same for your charge attack. On paper, it's powerful. In practice, you're going to need some time to get skilled at timing all the Hammer moves.  With 109 points in Might, you might be better off with a Hammer than a pair of Chakrams as your secondary weapon, though. You can unlock the Chakrams if you want, but the question is whether you want reach to hit those faraway foes or pure melee damage output whenever you can get away with it. Abilities Most of the Might player's abilities are Passive, letting you focus on dishing out damage instead. Relentless Assault is your most useful active ability, keeping you from being staggered in mid-combo. Adrenaline Surge keeps you alive when you are low on health, plus it stacks well with the Bloodlust upgrade for Relentless Assault to give you back some health through attacks. Battle Frenzy should be active at all times. It's not so much the added damage bonus you need, but the Stoneskin and Celerity upgrades can be very helpful during large fights; it gives you that edge to stay alive and mobile. Having said that, if you're not purely speccing for a Might build, Battle Frenzy isn't always very useful unless you know you can kill a lot of enemies in a row. Concussive Force gives you 60% bonus vs. stunned enemies, which is excellent in combination with a Smoke Bomb or the Finesse player's poison stuns. Quake on the other hand is an early skill that you might not use that often later in the game, especially once you unlock Wrath. Quake itself does too little damage, and the only benefit is being able to stun groups of enemies. Once stunned, they'll suffer bonus damage from your attacks thanks to Concussive Force. But from the moment you unlock Wrath, you can simply roll into a group, mash the assigned button to stagger the group, and then deal massive amounts of damage all around you. If anyone is left after Wrath, throw in a War Cry to reduce their armor, or make them panic if you upgrade the ability with Terror. The downside of panic is that you'll need some Chakrams to hit them from afar unless you want to run after the little buggers. Finally, Harpoon is simply a low-level ability to mess around with. You can use it to snatch single enemies from afar, or to close the distance to a group of larger enemies, but the damage is negligible. Since it also costs you an Ability slot, you're not likely to use this later in the game. Cross-spec builds Finesse/Sorcery Arguably the best thing about a Finesse/Sorcery build is the bonus you receive from the mixed Destiny. Your dodge move is replaced with a Poison Blink (teleport) which doesn't just poison everyone in your path, but also gets you out of buggy situations when you are stuck behind an NPC. The bonus to Piercing Damage, Elemental Damage, and Critical Hits from the Destiny means you'll want to try out a Faeblade/Chakram build. The Chakrams usually do Elemental Damage and stagger a lot of enemies in front of you. When they get close, wipe them out with your Faeblade (or Dagger) combos. Then Blink a lot and use the special attacks to gain bonus Fate so you can Fateshift more often for bonus XP. In the process, you'll unlock the health siphoning Faer Gorta to control the crowd, meaning you won't need those points in Frost Traps or Bombs. Casting costs will also be low thanks to points in the Sorcery tree, and you'll have enough mana to sustain your active melee buffs from the Finesse tree. The downside to this build is that it can become a bit repetitive. Any direct damage spell from the Sorcery tree pales in comparison to the damage output from your weapons, and at best you'll hurl a lightning bolt here and there since you put a point in there to progress through the Sorcery tree. Because you won't have the required amount of ability points to unlock the high level fire and ice attacks, a lot of the battles are going to feel the same; expect a lot of button mashing and looking awesome while doing it. A more radical approach is to just ignore all the melee Weapon Mastery abilities from the Finesse tree in favor of bow abilities, and put points in the Sorcery tree to unlock Chakram bonuses, the upgraded Faer Gorta, and the Spheres of Protection. That way you usually don't have to worry about health, and it only costs you 80 mana once in a while to summon the critter again. The big drawbacks for this build are that you require a high level character to get the most out of this build, the lack of melee damage output, and the amount of points you'll have to put into Sorcery just to get that Faer Gorta and failsafe shield. You'll also lack the points to become a master Archer since you will no longer be able to unlock the ultimate Finesse Destiny which gives you the bonus to ranged damage. If you want to go ranged, you're better off focusing on damage output in the Finesse tree and Destinies. Finesse/Might If you're feeling particularly risky, combine your Faeblades or Daggers with the Might tree. What you'll want to go for here is the Battle Frenzy ability to deal increased damage as you slay enemies, and the upgraded Relentless Assault ability so you won't get interrupted and steal health with your quick strikes. The Finesse weapons will give you the speed to dish out a lot of damage, and since you won't put any points into any of the Might tree's weapon masteries, you'll gain some more durability from the other abilities. After all, you need to put points into something in order to unlock the higher level Might abilities. When you do run out of health, Adrenaline Surge kicks in to let you deal even more damage, at which point you can simply use Relentless Assault again to steal that health back. The reason for the Finesse weapons is that they are simply faster and tend to keep you close to your enemies, whereas the Greatsword will usually make encounters with more agile enemies very annoying. You won't die easily, but in order to benefit from a Battle Frenzy trigger it's better to stay close to your foes. The Piercing Damage from your weapons offsets the lack of a War Cry Might ability that reduces enemy armor, and the bonus to Critical Hits from the upgraded Adrenaline Surge is a killer combination with your crit-heavy weapons. For even more damage, throw a Smoke Bomb to stun a group and then destroy them with your +60% damage bonus against stunned enemies from Concussive Force. Ouch! Might/Sorcery This build has a few options. Pick your favorite Might weapon (Greatsword/Longsword/Hammer) and combine it with either the Scepter or the Chakrams as your ranged secondary weapon. You'll still want your typical Might build with extra health, resistance, and Relentless Assault. Battle Frenzy is an option, but with a slow weapon you might not find that much use for it depending on what types of enemies you are fighting. For the Sorcery tree, choose between an elemental branch or the trusty Faer Gorta. You should be beefy enough to not require the minion to distract anyone in combat, and he costs a lot of points to become effective. At best, you'll unlock Elemental Rage or Tempest -- the latter of which takes too long to cast to be effective for my liking. The benefit of going for Tempest is being able to use the Storm Bolt to stun enemies and close the distance. The Sphere of Protection might be a bit overkill unless you want to play as a tank. If you ask me, the Mark of Flame is too much hassle to cast and activate on a group, so why not try out the upgrade for Ice Barrage? Frostshackle increases damage, and adds to the freezing effect you could craft into your Might weapon. Enemies all around you will be even slower while your damage keeps increasing thanks to your Might abilities. Slow and steady wins the day! Might/Sorcery/Finesse As the Jack of All Trades, you're going to lose out on some of the more fun high-end abilities in each tree. At best, you'll wield a Might weapon for close range melee in combination with some Chakrams for long-range group attacks. You won't have enough points to fully unlock the Arrow branch, the Faer Gorta minion, or the elemental spells. The Universalist Destiny gives you a trophy/achievement and unlocks all the Weapon Mastery branches, meaning you can tailor your last few skill points to fit your weapons and attacks of choice. The +20% damage bonus to melee, ranged, and magic attacks is nice, but you'll likely find more enjoyment in focusing on two ability trees at the most -- if you want variety, just respec your build. Skills Whatever class you'll tailor for yourself, you'll want a few skills maxed out as soon as possible. In particular, Blacksmithing and Sagecrafting. Once you have enough cash from selling equipment (200K should be enough), start salvaging every single item you can. The most powerful equipment has to be crafted, especially if you are going on a melee route. I've seen a build that crit for over 3 million damage on the official forums, which is about 1,000 times more powerful than you need to be on Normal difficulty. Damage % components (Improved or Master Damaging Bindings) are a must, and for a nice overview of which weapons use what kind of components, check out this Wiki entry. One trick people seem to use a lot is saving, salvaging an item with the specs they want in a component, and reloading until they get a component with the right specs. Another option is to insert a gem into a socketable weapon, then salvage it. The stats the gem provides can transfer to a component. Also, buy Repair Kits. It's cheaper than paying for repairs, and as long as you only use them when an item is reaching critical durability, you should have enough on you at all times. If you are one of the 1%, buy every single items in a shop and salvage the whole lot. You're probably better off doing this in the higher level shops of the game, of course. Detect Hidden needs 5 points into it as soon as you can afford it. 2 points lets you see hidden treasures on the map, which is incredibly useful. 5 points lets you see Hidden Doors, which is also nice. You don't want to run around knowing there might be a piece of armor from a set behind that door you cannot open, do you? You can max out this skill if you want, which shows you all the treasures and lorestones on the map. If you tend to explore everything anyway, you won't need it. However, "collecting" all the lorestones of a type can give you a very nice permanent bonus, so it's up to you how anal you are about finding these map collectibles through mere exploring alone. Because you won't run out of gold, Alchemy is not a necessity for most players. There are enough vendors around to just buy your potions. Besides, you'll often just forget to use the buff potions or you won't even need them if you aren't playing on Hard. Just keep a few special ones in your backpack for the boss fights, and sell the rest. Lockpicking is useful for those locked chests, but you don't need a massive amount of points in this skill because lockpicking is easy. Simply try out if lockpicking works with the pick's initial position in the minigame, then try it 30 degrees to the right or left, and then try out the other side. 9 out of 10 times you'll find the right spot without losing too many picks. Dispelling is another matter. With 4 points into Dispelling, you won't get the "dark sigils" anymore -- the penalty icons that kick you out of the minigame. It can still be hard to time it right, so if you want to open every single chest, put some points in here. Mercantile is useless because you'll have enough gold. If you can spare it, just put 3 points into it so you get some gold whenever you have to discard white items in the middle of a dungeon. You'll feel less bad for destroying an item, and it lets you scan which items that are worth the least before you destroy them. Persuasion is a tricky one. It can open up some dialogue options, usually just leading to a little more gold or items you won't need. Sometimes it will save you part of a questline, but then you could lose out on XP from killing monsters along the way. Unless you are a terrible thief, you're not likely to ever have to bribe anyone for your crimes, so don't worry about that aspect of the Persuasion skill. If they bust you, just go questing in another area for a day or two. Just put points in Persuasion if you tend to go through all the conversation trees in Mass Effect. Finally, Stealth is only useful if you like to backstab enemies and steal items in the various Traveler faction quests. With a few points into Stealth, you shouldn't have much trouble stealing anything as long as you are patient enough to let the alert indicator fall back to 0%. Trainers Trainers give you an extra point in a skill, permanently. It costs you some cash, but you'll always have enough cash. Trainers only allow you to buy a skillpoint if you already have the required amount of skillpoints in that skill, and higher level trainers require higher levels of skill. One trick to game the system is to buy the skills you can, respec at a Fateweaver according to the trainer requirements, and then buy the rest of the skills that weren't available before. Finally, respec to your old build with the added bonus of extra permanent skillpoints. You can't exploit this by going to the same trainer 10 times in a row with this method, but it's a decent way to actually use all that gold you'll collect. It's also a bit lame and a slightly lengthy process, so it's up to you if you want to max out your character this way. Progressing through the storyline Finally(!), while you may have set out to create your ideal character based on those abilities and skills that match your playstyle, there is still one issue. Sidequests. There are hundreds of them! Chances are, you've played an RPG before and you don't mind a bit of reading, or you would never have made it this far. And in that case, you know you're going to accept all of those sidequests until you get sick of them. If you do that, you'll also likely ignore a few Story quests in favor of wrapping up the sidequests in the areas leading up to the Story quest locations. Don't. Complete a line of Story quests, and fulfill a handful of sidequests and Faction quests along the way so you don't end up being underleveled at a boss. The reason for doing so is that Story quests will give you a permanent Twist of Fate bonus. (The Faction quest lines do so as well.) After you've received one of these Twists of Fate, then by all means go wrap up your sidequests and ignore the Story for a while. Some of the early-to-mid game Twists of Fate give you bonuses like +5% XP, so you'll want to have that before you start spending 10 hours on doing various sidequests. The easiest solution is to just make the Twists of Fate the points in the game where you take a break from the storyline, and use the permanent bonus to get through sidequests a little faster. Above all else... Just have fun with it! Experiment. Make a build that lets you be a powerhouse without wearing pants. A respec is practically free since you end up with millions of gold near the end of the game, but you can always save and try. Of course, that would be a very inefficient usage of your precious videogame time. But Reckoning is about finding what "clicks" with your personal playstyle, so don't feel obligated to stick with a certain build just because it has a higher damage output. Fun trumps all aspects of building your character, especially when you're going to spend 70 hours.
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The piece of Amalur we've seen in Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning may only be a slice of the franchise plans for a larger world, but it's pretty damn big already. As with any role-playing game, it can help to know what kinds of...

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Skyrim wins big at Annual Interactive Achievement Awards


Feb 10
// Maurice Tan
The Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences (AIAS) handed out the Annual Interactive Achievement Awards (IAAs) at D.I.C.E. last night, and saw The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim as the big winner. It took home the IAA for Game of t...

Dream games we'd like to see Kickstarted into reality

Feb 09 // Maurice Tan
Homeworld 3 It's not a widely-known fact, but PR people for Relic studios constantly have to remind the press not to ask about a potential new Homeworld game, and instead concentrate on whatever Warhammer 40K-related thing they're working on at present. Even nine years on, that's how well-regarded the games are. And with few exceptions, they've yet to be equaled. I would absolutely love to see the lessons Relic has learned from Dawn of War and Company of Heroes and even Space Marine applied to a game set in the Age of S'jet. Volition Space Shooter I think we've all reconciled ourselves with the fact that a new Freespace title by Volition is just not going to happen. THQ is not in any position to fund a risky niche title for the foreseeable future, and then there is the whole IP ownership thing. Funding and the right environment, not lack of interest, has always been a key obstacle for such a game, and there's no reason why fans of PC space combat sims wouldn't jump on it given the opportunity. I'm sure Mad Catz would also be happy to release a few branded joysticks to match. A Volition Space Shooter doesn't even have to a full-fledged title. Smaller and mid-sized games thrive on the digital distribution platforms, and once you have a successful title it becomes a lot easier to make another one. After all, if publishers love anything, it's a franchise with as many sequels you can get away with. As for the IP rights issue for Freespace, I don't think we are that attached to that universe. As long as it's by Volition, plays mostly the same, and we get to shoot at giant capital ships in space, we'll play it. Robot Entertainment RTS When Ensemble Studios closed, it shattered into a few studios. Two of them which shall not be named were later acquired by Zynga for their respective Words with Friends and We Farm. A third, Windstorm Studios, made Atomic City Adventures. So that leaves Robot Entertainment, with their Orcs Must Die! and Hero Academy success stories, as the only remnant of Ensemble worth mentioning. Because it's clear that they still have a lot of talent when it comes to different approaches to strategy, it's about time they returned to their RTS roots. The past two games have made different types of audiences familiar with the studio name, something that will help immensely in spreading the word required for a successful crowdfunding endeavor. And who would argue against even a bite-sized or mid-priced strategy game from some of the people who gave us Age of Empires and Age of Mythology? Mega Man Legends 3 Seeing as Capcom fans quickly drummed up $2,000 need to convince someone to release a crappy, unreleased version of Resident Evil for the Game Boy Color, I think it's safe to bet that there is a financial well there that's just waiting to be tapped. If Capcom were to start taking hand outs towards funding the development of Capcom vs. SNK 3, Darkstalkers 4, Strider 3, or Mega Man Legends 3, they'd find themselves swimming in money in no time. My Little Pony: FIS/Regular Show/Adventure Time My other thought is that the ever growing legions of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, Regular Show, and Adventure Time fans would be more than willing to shell out cash up front for the promise of a game based on their respective, beloved cartoon program.   If they really want to make cash fast, they should make all the games dating sims. There are hundreds of thousands of affluent young Americans who desperately want to see Princess Bubblegum and Marceline the Vampire Queen have a lover's quarrel, leading to the inevitable make-up and make-out. There are even more who would do anything to attend an all night virtual cuddle party with the likes of Rainbow Dash and Twilight Sparkle.  Furries -- it's like money in the bank. A new Maniac Mansion game Technically, this could be what Tim Schafer is giving us, but it's doubtful. Day of the Tentacle (technically Maniac Mansion 2) is my favorite point-and-click adventure game of all time, so seeing a new game set in this same universe would make my head explode from happiness. Purple Tentacle 4 life!  Mother 4 As Tony Ponce pointed out to me, we would need a Mother compilation and localized release of Mother 3 first, but why don't we just get all of those and Mother 4?! IT CAN BE A MOTHER EXTRAVAGANZA!  A new 2D Metroid game This needs to happen. Seriously. A new 2D Metroid game just seriously needs to happen. Mirror's Edge 2 I know DICE isn't exactly an indie studio, but man, I would love to see a sequel to Mirror's Edge. Sure, it was a divisive and flawed game that definitely didn't live up to its hype or potential. But the videogame industry is all about iteration: new IPs don't always succeed initially, but if given the chance, talented developers can build on on good-but-not-great games to make tremendous sequels that make us all forget about how mediocre the first game may have been. Major franchises like Assassin's Creed, Mass Effect, and Uncharted all began with decent-to-good titles, and with their respective sequels, they blossomed into some of the most beloved series of this console generation. Mirror's Edge had a unique concept and captivating art design, but fell short in bringing those elements together in a complete experience. I imagine a lot of folks would be willing to give DICE money for another try. Other notable games we'd like to see: Jim Sterling: Edge of Twilight, Faith and a .45 Niero Gonzalez: Mother HD Allistair Pinsof: Full Throttle 2, Little Big Adventure 3, The Crossing Jonathan Ross: A new Myth by Bungie Jordan Devore: Timesplitters 2 or 3 on Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, and Steam
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Double Fine's attempt at securing funding for an adventure game that everybody seemingly wants has resulted in a massive crowdsourcing success story in less than a day. It sure didn't hurt that you could basically pre-order a...

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The Dark Eye: Chains of Satinav looks delicious


Feb 08
// Maurice Tan
I'll be honest, Daedalic Entertainment's upcoming adventure game The Dark Eye: Chains of Satinav only caught my eye because of the beautiful handdrawn graphics in the screenshots, and the above teaser video. While the video ...

Review: Iron Brigade: Rise of the Martian Bear

Feb 08 // Maurice Tan
Iron Brigade: Rise of the Martian Bear (Xbox Live Arcade)Developer: Double Fine ProductionsPublisher: Microsoft Game StudiosReleased: February 1, 2012MSRP: 400 Microsoft Points Rise of the Martian Bear picks up right after the Iron Brigade's grand finale in the Pacific theater. Far from being defeated, the nefarious Vladimir Farnsworth has survived by becoming one with the Broadcast. Oh yeah, and he is now using a bear as an avatar by having retrofitted it with tubes, CRT monitors, and a matching beard and moustache. Vlad has spread the Broadcast into space, so it's up to you to launch the USS McKinley -- your mobile base of operations -- into space to track him down. The downloadable content's five campaign missions form a chapter similar to the ones you played in the main game, and similar in length, taking you from Earth to the Moon and finally to Mars. [embed]221320:42642[/embed] Like the missions found in Iron Brigade, the new missions are meant to be played cooperatively. You can play them solo if you want to, but there's a good chance you'll have a hard time doing so. I hadn't started up the original Trenched after completing it shortly after its American release, and never touched the Survival mode once it was renamed. Suffice it to say it took me a good amount of attempts to even pass the first new mission on my own, until I reached a high enough level to use some of the more advanced new loot. Far from being impossible, the new missions do fall into the "Hard" category of missions that you may have experienced in the Pacific campaign. Some new enemies enter the fray in the form of the aerial Noids with their ranged attacks, the emplacement-hunting Amplifiers, and the miniature swarms of Cathys that try to suicide bomb you. Both the Noids and Cathys attack you in favor of whatever it is you are trying to defend -- as long as your Trench is operational -- but since you can't really die in most of these levels, they are more of a distraction than a real threat. One level also adds a new decoy mechanic, allowing you to turn on two remote tower constructs that attract all Tubes to attack them until they are destroyed by the Monovision threat. While it's an interesting mechanic to throw into the mix, giving you some breathing room in a wave if you've lost some of your emplacements, one of these towers is too far away from the general action to be practical unless you've failed the mission enough times to plan it into your wave strategy. As DLC goes, Rise of the Martian Bear isn't the most innovative piece of downloadable content out there. It does the job by adding new levels and a boss encounter, but nothing about it really screams "fresh." If you were annoyed by the shield-projecting Jacobs in the vanilla game, they are still the primary source of frustration in the DLC missions. I really wish Double Fine had added a way to prioritize targets for your towers, even if it took a special support emplacement to allow one person to do this at the cost of Scrap. A few levels, and the Survival levels in particular, can lead to a bit too many trial-and-error retries when you are trying to prevent your base from receiving any damage from Tubes protected by Jacobs. Even with a team of three, it's all too easy to be a little too late in responding to multiple shielded threats, especially when you have to run up close to deal with the Jacobs as they are obscured from long range manual fire. Having said that, Iron Brigade is still an exceptionally fun game to play with a couple of friends, and the new missions give you a good couple of hours worth of extra content before you acquire gold stars on all of the new levels. In addition, the two extra Survival levels in Rise of the Martian Bear make it very easy to just play a game here and there and unlock some loot in the process. Speaking of which, the new loot provided by the expansion is all pretty good, exotic, and varied enough to encourage going back to the original missions and try out some new tactics with your new weapons, emplacements, and chassis parts. Your enjoyment is going to largely depend on willing co-op partners, as failure in a mission forces you to sit through unskippable in-game cutscenes and one of them has a terrible and inescapable bear pun. Try to finish this mission by yourself while you're underpowered, and it will drive you insane. You'll also likely opt to rely on sniper emplacement for most types of enemies if you're playing solo, as the Noids, Volt Droppers, and other aerial enemies that litter the new maps don't seem to suffer that much damage from even your upgraded anti-air turrets. Then again, what boredom and frustration you might encounter by attempting to walk the lonely path is easily remedied by playing with others and by coming up with creative and complementary Trench builds. Rise of the Martian Bear simply adds more of the same with some minor additions, but when that means more Iron Brigade goodness at a bargain price, it's hard to argue against it.
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Europeans finally got to play Double Fine's excellent mech-meets-tower defense game Iron Brigade late last year, after a long delay caused by the unfortunate trademark debacle surrounding the initial title -- Trenched -- resu...

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Sleeping Dogs takes the fight to Hong Kong's true crime


Feb 08
// Maurice Tan
Last year, Activision killed United Front Games' True Crime: Hong Kong and Square Enix subsequently picked it up, raising hopes for a better tomorrow. It has now been retitled Sleeping Dogs, with a tequila-infused live-actio...

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