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Review: Stealth Inc. 2: A Game of Clones

May 25 // Conrad Zimmerman
Stealth Inc. 2: A Game of Clones (PC [reviewed], PS3, PS4, PS Vita, Wii U, Xbox One)Developers: Curve DigitalPublisher: Curve DigitalReleased: October 13, 2014 (Wii U), April 3, 2015 (Xbox One), April 7, 2015 (PS3, PS4, PS Vita),  April 30, 2015 (PC)Price: $14.99 In Stealth Inc. 2 the player controls a quality assurance clone, created for the purpose of testing products in dangerous situations and intended to be disposable. After surviving a test meant to kill them, the clone becomes aware of their nature and breaks loose into the facility, where they discover other trapped clones and an employee determined to kill them in service of a high productivity rating. To free the other clones and escape the PTI Complex, the player must traverse six zones where products are being tested. Each contains test chambers, progressively complex environmental puzzle stages focused on a different product. Test chambers are completed by accessing one or more terminals which open a path to the exit, while avoiding death by way of traps including mines, lasers, whirring blades, and the constantly shifting walls of the facility. That last one is a favorite of the game. Stealth Inc. 2 frequently employs traps which are unforseeable, mostly by crushing the player with walls and usually mocking them after doing so with pithy text. It's a game where level memorization is fundamental to play, an element reinforced by the rank-based scoring system which grades on completion time, number of deaths and the number of times spotted by enemies. While it does occasionally feel a bit mean-spirited, regular checkpoints within a test chamber usually mean that little ground is actually lost when it happens, softening the blow. [embed]292743:58667:0[/embed] The first zone, a testing area for night-vision goggles from which the player initially escapes into the larger facility, introduces basic elements common throughout the remainder of the game. The player's clone can run, jump, and cling to certain ledges, while encountering environmental objects (like pressure switches, force fields, and infrared beams), enemy turrets and robots, and the simple lighting system which determines how visible the clone is. Zones after this introduction each provide an additional piece of equipment around which all test chambers in the zone will revolve. The products vary in their range of function and the simplest objects generally provide the broadest possibilities. The Inflate-A-Mate, a small device which may be thrown and then enlarged remotely to become a rectangular block, is the most utilitarian by far. It can function as a weight for buttons, a platform for climbing or standing on, a wedge to stop moving walls, and a barrier to block lasers or create shadows. It can even be thrown over enemies and expanded mid-flight to crush them or provide a boost for high jumps. The other gadgets may not have as much range, but they have enough to justify ten stages in which to explore them, at least. The "Me Too" lets the player create a second clone, with both clones responding simultaneously to commands and allowing for one to be killed without consequence. A pair of teleporter beacons enables instant relocation for both the player and enemy robots, while a portable light illuminates paths and activates special switches. The least interesting of the gadgets, the "Jack Boy," allows the player to assume control of robots, provided they can sneak up on them and successfully time the use of the device. And while it's fun to control the enemies, the very fact that the robots are the only element the gadget interacts with gives it limited application. It doesn't take long to realize that for an entire zone you will tag the back of at least one robot per test chamber because that's all your gadget does. It's forgivable, especially as there is clever level design at work. Determining the proper approach to clearing a test chamber, where to throw gadgets and what objects to interact with first, is an enjoyable process if you don't mind the occasional bit of trial-and-error learning. A few stages verge on maddening in their difficulty, but these are rare and Stealth Inc. 2 is a moderate challenge, though total completion will require thorough and riskier exploration of stages to free hidden clones. Completing the eight required test chambers in a zone rewards the player with that zone's gadget for use in the facility overworld, necessary to enter the next zone and providing ways to reach collectible items and bonus test chambers. Completing zones also opens up the facility to provide easier access between previously explored areas and aid in the hunt for these extras. The previous Stealth Inc. had no such overworld; levels were instead selected from a menu. The addition does give the game a greater sense of cohesion by minimizing interruption of play and serves the sparse plot with more opportunities for taunting from the scientist (the necessity of which is questionable), but not much more than that. Moving from one door to the next is rarely compelling. There are few enemies and those that exist present little to no challenge, making these passages mostly consist of stuff to clamber over on the way to something worthwhile. It seems like the overworld should be fun, too. As the player accumulates more of the gadgets, the potential is there for complex puzzles requiring the use of multiple items. The way equipment works winds up limiting a lot of that potential, as only one tool can be in the field at a time anc changing tools returns any thrown objects. Stealth Inc. 2 is by no means a bad 2D puzzle platformer, but it doesn't stand out in a genre which has had some impressive entries in the past year. Attempts to improve the experience of its predecessor by adding an overworld feel more like padding than an increase in scope and many of its levels necessitate foreknowledge to complete them successfully. Still, there are pleasures to be found in discovering the many facets of the tools and the puzzles do an admirable job of squeezing out their individual potential in clever ways. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Stealth Inc. 2 Review photo
No trace in the crowd
When Stealth Bastard released four years ago as a freeware title, it was easier to get excited about 2D puzzle platformer games. In the time since, Curve released an expanded version to Steam and ported that game to consoles,...

Axiom Verge photo
Axiom Verge

Axiom Verge is relatively the same on PC, with one helpful upgrade


On Steam this week
May 13
// Conrad Zimmerman
Axiom Verge releases tomorrow on Steam. If you've read my review of the game from its earlier PS4 launch, you already know that I think it's a solidly designed exploration-based platform title. I'm happy to report that it's j...

Jamestown+ on PS4 is the best colonial era shooter yet

Apr 08 // Conrad Zimmerman
Jamestown+ introduces four new craft to pilot, doubling the number found in the PC release. These ships are not wholly original, with special weapons that resemble those of the base set but function in slightly different ways. Crystal and Charge, for example, both fire a slow-moving projectile across the playfield. Where Charge can fire without fully charging, Crystal projectiles have a longer reload time but can be redirected mid-flight. The new ships also have access to a variety of basic shot configurations, unlocked from the in-game shop. This allows players to further customize their ships with spread or multidirectional fire to complement their special weapon selection and opens up a lot of options. Two additional stages have also been added in the new edition, set on the moons of Mars, Deimos and Phobos. These bonus levels tell a side story from the charming rogue John Smith, with Smith escaping a Spanish prison on Deimos and discovering a pirate stronghold guarded by giant enemy crabs on Phobos. They are as well crafted as any original Jamestown stage, populated by unique enemy types and massive bosses, and make fine additions. The new levels also extend the original game's "Gauntlet Mode" (in which all stages are played back-to-back with limited credits) with a new "Super Gauntlet" mode including Deimos and Phobos in the run. [embed]289124:57806:0[/embed] It's also worth noting that the Jamestown experience on PS4 is made ever so much better by controller uniformity on the platform. As much fun as Jamestown could be in local co-op play on PC, you had to actually get it set up first, which could be a real pain in the ass between controllers, mice, and keyboard options. With the PS4 release, you just turn on your controller and hold a button to jump in, easy peasy. If you have yet to experience Jamestown, the new release on PS4 is the way to go, as it gives the most bang for the buck and plays just as well. Even if you're an old hand at it, the new ships bring a fresh variety to the game and do require some new skills despite their similarity to prior vessels, while the bonus stages offer a fun new challenge.
Jamestown+ impressions photo
More ships, more stages, more Jamestown
Jamestown was a wonderful shoot-em-up back when it first released on PC. With bullets blazing across the surface of a colonial Mars, it paired beautiful sprite art with epic music and cooperative local multiplayer to make something really special. With the release of Jamestown+ on PlayStation 4, it's larger than ever.

Review: Axiom Verge

Mar 30 // Conrad Zimmerman
Axiom Verge (PC, PS4 [reviewed], PS Vita)Developer: Tom HappPublisher: Tom HappReleased: March 31, 2015MSRP: $19.99 Axiom Verge is a 2D exploration platformer set on an alien world. The player controls Trace, a scientist who awakens in a machine on the as-yet undiscovered planet Sudra with no understanding as to how he got there, tasked by the remnants of an ancient race to save them from destruction. As the story develops, through psychic conversations, scripted exploration sequences, and collected texts, Trace will learn some of the history of the planet, its decline, and the role it plays in the universe, discovering that his arrival there isn't the accident he believes it is. The narrative of Axiom Verge functions best in its negative space, the aspects which aren't made explicit. Trace is character who does exhibit a change over the course of events, but it's not a satisfying transition. Initially viewing events with the kind of healthy skepticism one would expect of his scientific profession, he erodes quickly into a one-note good guy figure. That's a bummer because his position in the plot suggests a much more nuanced personality and raises a number of interesting philosophical questions regarding humanity's potential, ambition, and morality. Ultimately, however, he feels as two-dimensional as the sprites comprising him. Setting Trace aside, Sudra and its inhabitants are fascinating. Every part of the planet incorporates biomechanical technology in some way, and the environments pulse eerily with power. The Rushalki, the race of living machines slowly dying with Sudra, are monstrous, beautiful creations made all the more impressive by their 16-bit style of sprite rendering. [embed]289696:57976:0[/embed] The gameplay design follows a familiar pattern of defending against myriad creatures and discovering environmental obstacles for which new equipment is required to pass. With rare exception, the tools collected are useful both for exploration and combat. A drill acquired early on to destroy certain weak blocks can also function as a short-range weapon, for example. The most interesting item, the "Address Disruptor," is a sort of hacking beam which can be used in places where the environment seems to exhibit graphical glitches to clear a path through them or make invisible platforms appear. Enemies are also affected by the Address Disruptor, and every creature responds to it in a different way. Some become easier to kill, others harder, and some develop other exploitable, beneficial traits which are fun to discover and experiment with. Many of these items will also require upgrades along the way, and every such upgrade has a dramatic effect on the player's ability to travel across Sudra. One of the best examples is the remote drone, a little spider robot which can be launched to crawl through narrow spaces and collect items. With upgrades, the drone functions as a teleportation beacon which instantly warps Trace to its current position. Not only is this ability useful for getting into areas the drone's limited capabilities alone can't access, firing the beacon into the air and teleporting to it at the peak of its ascent makes climbing vertical areas much faster and easier. The depth to which the game design incorporates every possible function for each piece of essential equipment is one of its most impressive qualities. In addition to equipment, weapons abound in Axiom Verge. There are dozens of them to collect, all distinct, and the seemingly constant acquisition of them quickly develops into an arsenal. Standard fare, like short-range spread weapons and projectiles which explode on contact are nestled alongside the "Tethered Charge," a ball of electrical energy launched like a yo-yo. Weapons can be switched at any time, either through the main inventory screen or a selection wheel, with the option to assign weapons to two quick-select buttons as well. The variety is interesting, but players will likely find two or three mainstays to use through the majority of the game and only experiment with most of the weapons when first acquired or when faced with one of the game's brutal boss encounters. The real merit of the quantity of killing implements is in how their acquisition affects the seeming pace of play. Discovering these, along with a steady stream of upgrades which increase all weapon damage, range, and projectile size makes the game not only feel dense with content but that it's moving at a constant, rapid pace. Every collected item, even seemingly unreadable text files, helps to provide a forward momentum that pushes the player on and keeps them engaged. Bosses are grotesque, mutated monstrosities and are amazing to behold. These big fights are likely to be overwhelming on the first attempt, as boss enemies typically do a considerable amount of damage relative to the amount of health Trace has when he encounters them. Their patterns are never very complex, making it easy to develop an approach to fighting them based on available weapons, but they have loads of health and maintaining proper execution of the plan while they're slowly worn down is where the challenge lies. There is one exception to this in the largest of the game's bosses, featuring numerous weak points to target and tactics which change with their destruction, where the situation demands a more complex plan than "dodge and shoot." Apart from this standout battle, the bosses are much more interesting to look at than fight a lot of the time. While many games of this style will occasionally lock a player in a few small rooms until they collect a necessary ability to escape, Axiom Verge utilizes this level design technique in some very large areas. At roughly the midpoint, for example, it becomes impossible to leave the two regions at the eastern edge of the world map, a considerable expanse of the game's space which will be returned to and further explored later. With such a large area open to the player to explore, but so many unacquired abilities necessary to explore it, it's an aspect in which the game risks interrupting that sense of steady progress it establishes early on. There are scant tools available when this happens. The game map, a grid-based flat representation of the world's room structure common to the genre, is functional but feature poor, and it can occasionally be difficult to distinguish the light pink wall outline color from the darker pink background used for most rooms. Unfortunately, those gaps are basically the only clues the game gives. While dialogue gives information on what Trace's next objective is, it provides absolutely no useful geographical guidance, which you'd think would be the least that an ancient machine race could do to help. That becomes less of a problem on subsequent playthroughs. Axiom Verge is in many ways built for replay, specifically speed runs, and includes a gameplay mode which eliminates the game's plot pauses and randomized elements to ensure an easy standard for such competition. Many obvious opportunities to exploit the game's design become quickly apparent, such as the save system which returns Trace to the most recently used save room upon death but without eliminating any progress, and it's easy to see how a savvy player could cut down a lot of travel time by collecting an item and seeking a quick death. Axiom Verge is a fun, challenging game. While some aspects of the narrative -- particularly its protagonist -- have rough edges to them, it remains intriguing and mysterious through to its climax. It looks and sounds great, and offers a diversity of weapons rarely seen in games of its type. Easy to get lost in, its sizeable world has a density to match, with hidden rooms and collectibles only available through creative application of acquired abilities. And while the basic gameplay will likely be very familiar, there are a fair few fresh touches which should pleasantly surprise players. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Axiom Verge review photo
Verging on greatness
It seems like a foregone conclusion when looking at Axiom Verge that comparisons are going to be made to Metroid. It is, without doubt, similar in more ways than it differs from Nintendo's iconic franchise. The differences matter, though, and Axiom Verge merges classic environment design with new mechanical twists, producing a game that feels both familiar and fresh at the same time.

Review: Pillars of Eternity

Mar 26 // Conrad Zimmerman
Pillars of Eternity (PC)Developer: Obsidian EntertainmentPublisher: Paradox InteractiveReleased: March 26, 2015MSRP: $44.99 The world of Eora, the setting for Pillars of Eternity, is a magical place. The environments are meticulously crafted and beautiful. Whether it be shimmering rock formations growing from the ground in mountainous terrain or a hideous altar in a dank and forgotten tomb, the visual design instills an urge to seek out every nook and cranny of a map. Character models do not fare as well, with muddled features and skin textures. They aren't hideous, per se, but simply stand out in a manner which is unappealing in comparison to the game's otherwise consistently good visual design. The player takes the role of an immigrant seeking a fresh start in the colonies of the Eastern Reach, whose encounter with a mysterious cult awakens a great and terrible power within them. Worse yet, the region isn't the bright opportunity it was promised to be. A curse has fallen over the land, its children are born hollow monsters without souls, and the helpless populace is growing increasingly desperate. Taking place in just a tiny region of the larger world of Eora, the Eastern Reach is still dense with lore. Five nations interact in these colonies, with thousands of years of history, and there's a remarkable amount of information to learn about it as progress is made through conversations or written volumes. The materials often raise as many questions as they answer, as there is much the people of Eora are still learning about their world, and there's a real sense of mystery and wonder about it from beginning to end. [embed]289590:57936:0[/embed] If you don't like reading, you're going to have a pretty miserable time. A surprising quantity of dialogue is voiced, all performed brilliantly, but this is just a fraction of the content. And, as is often the case in fantasy settings, there are a ton of odd names and places to keep track of, including nearly a dozen deities, assorted personalities, and events -- and there will be a quiz. Thankfully, the game maintains an exhaustive cyclopedia which can easily be referenced most of the time (although, not during conversations when it would be of the greatest value). Key to this setting is the concept of a soul as a quantifiable element, a form of seemingly self-perpetuating energy. Much remains unknown about souls and a field of study, Animancy, has arisen to research and experiment with them. In their natural cycle, souls take residence in bodies prior to birth, giving them life until their point of expiration, with the soul eventually moving on to a new life. Each time it transitions, a soul loses parts of itself (or perhaps gains lost parts of others), effectively becoming a new person. The soul, however, retains most of the experiences of its past lives, locked away from its present one except in rare cases when a soul becomes awakened. Such an awakening happens to the player's character early in the story and becomes the focus of their quest, seeking a means of reversing the effect before it drives them mad. Now what is known as a "Watcher," the player can experience the past lives of others and speak to souls which have yet to move on, but is plagued by visions and nightmares. Gifted and cursed, the Watcher will learn of the role they once played in shaping the world of Eora and how they might yet change it again. Despite taking place in a relatively small region, there remains a massive scope to the events in the main plot and an enemy truly worthy of revulsion. By contrast, the companions the player will meet along the way are all likable figures. Even the curmudgeonly Durance, a priest with a complicated love/hate relationship toward his Goddess, comes across as someone you'd like to go on an adventure with. There are eight companions to meet, each with their own reasons for traveling that can be explored in optional quests and conversations on the road. Up to five companions can travel with the Watcher at a time, and custom adventurers can be created by hiring them from any inn in the Eastern Reach, useful for filling gaps in a combat strategy. All exploration and combat in Pillars of Eternity plays out as issued commands executed in real-time. The passage of time can be slowed to make issuing commands easier (the reverse is available to make trekking across previously explored areas faster), but there's frequently so much activity in battles with a party of six that the always available option to pause and strategize is a necessity. Pausing is so crucial, an entire menu is dedicated to offering a wide range of situations in which the game can be made to automatically pause. It's a godsend in a combat system which is all about micromanagement. Moving individual characters into and out of harm's way, targeting spells and abilities (taking into account casting time) to maximize effects, switching equipment to adjust for differing enemy types, and other such second-to-second decisions quickly become a part of every fight. As such, the experience of a typical combat encounter is a bit like being in a fun sort of traffic jam that you can have an impact on the result of. The action inches forward one step at a time, the player reacting to movements of the enemies, seizing opportunities, until the tide turns and the last enemy dregs are mopped up without interference. There is a lot to keep track of, and it can be easy for party members to be knocked unconscious if not attended to, which can then weaken the entire party until they start dropping like dominoes. The system has a simple interface, point and click for movement and attack with other abilities available above a character's portrait. Mastering it, however, requires considerable planning and strategy in both preparation and execution. Death, curiously, is an aspect in which Pillars is quite forgiving. When hit, characters lose points in two stats, health and endurance. If the character runs out of endurance, they will be knocked unconscious and are out of the fight until it ends. If they lose all of their health, they become maimed, and any subsequent damage will almost certainly kill them. While there is certainly a risk to the character when this happens, the effect is removed with rest and it's rare to be in a position where rest is impossible (either by using a single-use item in the field or traveling to an inn). The difficulty of combat encourages discretion, as does the game's character growth system which only awards experience for accomplishing goals and exploring the world, not for killing enemies. When characters attain a new level, points may be spent to increase their skills and they can acquire new class-based abilities, chosen from a list. Leveling up is a much more streamlined approach than character creation, eschewing any option to control the development of attributes in favor of the game's six basic skills. This makes leveling up feel like less of a chore than many other games of this type, a welcome trait when the player may be dealing with half a dozen characters all earning a level at the same time. Equipment is the other means to improving a character's abilities. Shops in the various communities carry special arms and armor at random for exorbitant prices, often with potent effects. Equipment can also be enchanted to confer bonuses, or even crafted entirely, using materials collected from monsters and the environment. The crafting system is not complex or deep, just an available list of things which can be made based on recipes, materials, and level, but it does provide ways to gain an additional edge. Pillars of Eternity offers a lot of content and a good variety of ways to experience it. Four difficulty settings exist, along with the brutal "Trial by Iron" mode, which allows only one save file, automatically deleted if the Watcher dies. Dozens of side quests and lesser tasks are available by chatting with townsfolk or just stumbling around in some cases. A stronghold acquired early in the game can be restored to its former glory, offering more quests and assorted benefits, but must also be defended from threats both outside its walls and from the unexplored depths below. Many quests can be resolved in multiple ways, with different effects on the player's reputation in the world, allowing for a considerable amount of narrative replay value as well. A decent range of racial types pairs well with a wide variety of character classes, especially in the range of magic-using classes which have a noticeable diversity in the function of their abilities. Obsidian has crafted a game full of challenge, intrigue, betrayal, and heart. The Eastern Reach is bleak and hopeful at the same time, and the main plot is packed with twists and surprises with staggering ramifications for a world players will feel they have become part of. Its combat is tense and relentless despite the capability to pause at any point, the mechanics offering complex strategic challenges with difficulty settings to accommodate most levels of skill. Pillars of Eternity proudly carries on the legacy of the classic computer RPG, and those who remember them with fondness should find in it a welcome addition to the genre. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Pillars of Eternity photo
It's all about soul
Pillars of Eternity is a sort of game which appeared unlikely to exist again in any meaningful way. Isometric, party-based role-playing games certainly seemed like the sort of thing people made, "back in the day," something t...

Review: LA Cops

Mar 13 // Conrad Zimmerman
LA Cops (PC [Reviewed], Xbox One)Developer: LA Cops LtdPublisher: Team17Released: March 13, 2015MSRP: $14.99 LA Cops attempts to evoke American police fiction of the 1970s through a number of recognizable tropes. Vignettes preceding missions include the beleaguered police chief trying to wrangle loose cannons, cops willing to go outside the law for justice, and even a nod toward gender integration conflicts as a female detective joins the squad. These touchstones are there but never thoroughly explored, winding up as little more than weak references to the genre. It doesn't help that the cutscene content is shoddy. A simplistic plot somehow manages to be a bit confusing, as half the scenes set up character conflicts which see no expansion or satisfactory resolution while others introduce key characters without any clear exposition to give the player a reason to care. Dull writing is performed with stiff voice acting across the board, falling emotionally flat in nearly every example. Worse yet, all such content sounds as though the actors wore buckets over their heads for the recording sessions. [embed]289031:57776:0[/embed] Missions play out from a top-down perspective, with players using two detectives to raid buildings and dispense justice to occupying criminals. Vastly outnumbered and easily killed, the idea is that the player is to use these characters in tandem by directly controlling one and issuing move orders to the other to even the odds. The most basic strategy for this is ordering the inactive cop to move in and then timing movement of the controlled cop to enter at the same time to clear rooms in a hail of bullets. Another option would be to position one cop on a blind corner, then assume control of the other cop and use them to lure enemies into a trap. It doesn't seem to matter which approach is used because AI controlled partners are, to put it mildly, inconsistent in their combat abilities. A vision cone shows which direction the partner is focusing their attention, but that doesn't mean they won't whip around and tag a guy running up behind them. They might. They might not. It also doesn't mean that they're any more likely to immediately shoot enemies within range and line of sight. It could happen, sure, but they could also just get gunned down by enemies who have walked right past a corner into the cone before pulling off a shot. Trying to use both cops through the entirety of the game, even the halfway point, is miserable. Despite warnings that players won't get very far without their partners, it's actually much easier to work through levels one cop at a time, treating the stationary partner as an extra life because using both cops is basically just asking for one of them to die. But by eschewing the tandem strategy, LA Cops becomes just a game where the player moves from room to room picking off enemies before they can shoot back and there are much better examples of that gameplay to be found elsewhere. Worse, the scoring system used to determine performance runs totally counter to the teamwork mechanic. Aside from being shot, criminals can also be arrested with a melee attack which renders them harmless. Arresting earns twice the points of killing, but there's no good way to do it using both cops because the AI might just shoot the nearest crook before they can be arrested (or not, whatever). It's as if LA Cops is actively encouraging the player to completely ignore its main selling point which, in light of how that's worked out, might be just as well. At least there's plenty of it. There are nine "story" missions with an additional five unrelated bonus stages and three difficulty settings. Nearly all contain multiple floors, and there are some secondary objectives which at least attempt to offer some variety. The more interesting missions include waves of enemies coming in from specific points on a floor or civilians to avoid shooting, but other tasks like reaching a hostage within a time limit (irrelevant since it cannot be achieved before dealing with all criminals on the floor) and the usually pointless destruction of environmental objects just feel like time wasters. There are six characters the player can select from to complete missions. While they differ at the outset across four statistics (speed, health, damage, and clip size), they're ultimately all the same due to the experience progression system. Completing missions earns XP which may be spent to increase individual stats or unlock new weapons, but all characters have the same potential and can gain access to the same guns, making there no reason to choose one over another apart from aesthetic appeal and little reason to switch to new characters once experience has been spent on those who have been used before. The pop minimalist art style of LA Cops is probably its most redeeming quality, sadly. Clean lines and high contrast colors make it stand out in the field of top-down shooters, and this design serves the gameplay by making it easy to pick out enemies and objectives. The visuals and the soundtrack, which consists of funky guitar tracks that fit neatly with the themes, are about the only elements of the game that aren't actively working against it. While there was clear opportunity in the buddy cop formula LA Cops attempted to create, the end result is a mess. Totally undermined by poor teammate AI, the central strategic hook is lost, resulting in a bland game confused about what it wants the player to do.
LA Cops review photo
Move along, nothing to see here
At first glance, the potential for LA Cops to be an interesting title is great. A top-down shooter in the style of a retro cop squad drama, its main appeal lies in the combination of real-time action with teamwork management, one player using two characters to systematically take down a criminal enterprise. It's just too bad that one of those cops always has to be Barney Fife.

Review: White Night

Mar 11 // Conrad Zimmerman
White Night (PC, PS4 [reviewed], Xbox One)Developer: OSome StudioPublisher: ActivisionReleased: March 3, 2015MSRP: $14.99 Set near Boston in the latter years of the Great Depression, White Night tells a pulp horror tale with noir trappings. Driven off road in a storm by the ghostly form of a woman, the player begins wounded at the gates of decrepit Vesper mansion, home of a once powerful family with a grim legacy. What begins as a simple effort to make it through the night develops into an exploration of the Vesper family and how it connects to the apparition which drew the player in. Storytelling is the major aspect of White Night, and the one which it most capably succeeds at. As the player explores, they'll find dozens of journal entries, notes, photos, bits of private correspondence, and newspaper clippings relating to the Vespers. Walls are covered with family portraits and art, most of which can be examined and rarely see their descriptions recycled (though the art occasionally is). Narrative creeps in at the corners, these expository bits gradually developing into a fascinating tale of gloom, desperation, and madness. They're wonderful, and encourage a thorough exploration of every room. Voice-acted narration from the protagonist comes in at points as well, though these are typically far less interesting and hindered a bit by a youthful voice which doesn't seem to match the character. [embed]288768:57713:0[/embed] Taking an unusual approach to visual design, the game is presented in 3D, using fixed camera angles, almost exclusively in black and white. Stark and captivating, the sharp contrast and its limitations effectively draw the eye to details and discrepancies. The darkness is oppressive and encroaching, yet often preferable to the light which reveals that there actually are horrible things in hiding. It's a stylish look that well serves play dominated by object collection and interaction, as the player's view is often limited to their immediate vicinity. This, paired with the fixed cameras, is occasionally disorienting, as landmarks which could be used to identify the player's relative position are rendered invisible in the dark, which does make the experience more intense (albeit at the risk of frustration). Light and darkness are used literally and metaphorically throughout the game as core concepts. The player is helpless in the dark, unable to interact with the environment in any meaningful way. Inside the mansion, as working light fixtures are few and far between, the player must rely on matches for light. A maximum of twelve matches can be carried at one time, and the length of time they burn is affected by factors like movement, making it hard to gauge how much time one has, and (as anyone who's been down to a few matches will tell you) they're unreliable. There is a little thrill to be had from running dangerously low, only to have two matches in a row come up as duds. As time is spent out of the light, thrumming bass begins to build in volume and add a layer of frantic intensity which is exciting. Refills of matches are plentiful, however, and the amount of time the player has to actually spend in the dark before succumbing to it is considerable. One could play so poorly that victory becomes impossible, but the likelihood of this happening unintentionally seems low. The use of matches for light also hinders the player's ability to interact with objects which require the use of both hands, making most puzzles in the game follow a pattern of finding the objective, then finding a light source which allows for interaction with the objective, which may then lead to another puzzle. Most puzzles aren't difficult to solve, requiring just a touch of logical deduction based on easily found clues. If the player is struggling, they can reference an in-game hint system that collects observations the player has made and puts them a newspaper layout which usually points out what may have been overlooked. Occasionally, the protagonist will chime in with a comment of their own which indicates where they should check next. These features do a good job of cutting down fruitless wandering to find the next goal without explicit hand holding. The real killers are the ghostly forms of the Vesper family matriarch. Found in almost every room of the mansion at some point, these spirits roam about or obstruct progress and give chase when they see the player. If caught, the game is immediately over, which occasionally feels a tad unreasonable in light of the fixed cameras, but it does make their presence something to be feared and being hunted by them provides some tense moments. Ghosts can be evaded, usually by exiting the room they occupy or by getting a bit of distance in darkness (they're blind, a fact the game fails to point out until halfway through). They can also be destroyed with electric light, and a considerable percentage of the player's time will be spent figuring out how to turn on lights just to kill ghosts in their path. White Night bills itself as "survival" horror, a case made on the basis of its loose extrapolation of mechanics found in other games attributed to that genre. Players expecting a traditional survival experience of limited resources against considerable odds will likely find it underwhelming. Very rarely is a significant challenge presented, save for a few larger rooms with a lot of ghosts to avoid (easily overcome with a little persistence, though the trial and error can be wearisome). Limited resources, while still limited, are plentiful and widely distributed. Save points, though not numerous, are placed well to minimize the distance between them and any point of major interest. The trappings of survival horror are there, but there is no teeth to the gameplay. It would be more accurate to say that White Night is an exploration adventure, an interactive story in the "weird tale" tradition. Just enough obstacles exist to make that story feel as though it was earned, that the player participated in the telling, but conveying the story is the priority. From clever exploitation of gameplay mechanics to the pages and pages of rich exposition which carefully unravel and the moody jazz soundtrack, everything exists in service to the fiction. In that, it succeeds, and it's a story worth experiencing and deserving of praise. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
White Night review photo
Stay in the light
When people look back upon the great horror games of this year, they're probably going to forget about White Night, and that's understandable. It doesn't break any ground, it isn't littered with jump scares to draw in the You...

Review: Helldivers

Mar 03 // Conrad Zimmerman
Helldivers (PS4 [reviewed], PS3, PS Vita)Developer: Arrowhead Game StudiosPublisher: Sony Computer Entertainment AmericaReleased: March 3, 2015MSRP: $19.99 Helldivers is a squad-based sci-fi shooter, presented from an overhead perspective. Players take the role of a Helldiver, a special forces soldier trained to drop onto enemy planets from orbit as the tip of humanity's conquering spear. Given command of a ship, Helldivers are directed to venture into star systems controlled by three alien races which threaten Super Earth's way of life, pressing forward in an effort to conquer alien homeworlds. While there's an absence of any real plot, the setting of Helldivers does enough to establish itself as a pointed satire of American exceptionalism, colonialism, and military pride. From propaganda messages promoting the idea that Super Earth is spreading "democracy" through the galaxy (by the totally legitimate means of conquest), to the flavor dialogue spoken by Helldivers in the midst of a firefight ("Have a nice cup of liber-tea!"), it presents a scenario in which it's made perfectly clear that there are no "good guys" in this war, only conquerors. With tongue planted firmly in cheek, the sparse but effective setting material does just enough to allow the player to consider what they're engaging in without distracting from the action, while delivering wry chuckles here and there. [embed]288491:57587:0[/embed] Gameplay takes the form of planetary assaults, planned from the player's orbiting ship. Choosing between one of the three fronts of the galactic war, players are presented with a range of incrementally difficult worlds to attack, each with missions which must be completed to deliver it into the control of the Super Earth government. Missions consist of objectives which, while varying based on which race is being fought, boil down to defending control points, activating Super Earth technology already on the planet, escorting people and supplies, and destroying enemy installations. It's a decent variety, and missions tend to offer a mix of objectives across the maps, rarely weighing too heavily on any one type of activity once the player is taking on missions with three and four objectives to complete. Escort tasks will probably still be everyone's least favorite thing to do, whether it's leading a group of survivors or following a supply train, but there isn't a whole lot of punishment received for failing objectives on a mission, so long as you can get off the planet. Every mission ends with a last stand scenario where the team must hold out against oncoming enemies for an extraction shuttle to carry them safely away, and at least one Helldiver must extract for the mission to succeed. On the ground, Helldivers plays with an interesting balance of stealth and combat. Enemy patrols roam the map, looking for your squad. At worst, these are small packs of a few enemies that can be easily dispatched, but they're a tremendous threat to the mission. If a patrol spots the squad, they have to be killed immediately. Within seconds, patrol units can call in reinforcements to do real damage. And, while those troops are being dealt with, more patrols are moving in and calling their own squads of heavy hitters, snowballing into an massive conflict. Before long, the only options available become retreat or death. This system allows the game to produce two distinct, potent forms of tension for the player. Combat encounters are exhilarating, with enemies actively working to flank and surround, Helldivers firing madly into hordes. That's all good stuff. But the system of patrol units makes it equally tense to be out of combat, knowing that an encounter with the potential to escalate into an unsalvageable mess could happen at any moment. The three enemy races, Bugs, Illuminates, and Cyborgs, are all distinct entities. Illuminate patrols consist of lone scouting robots, while the Cyborgs have a pack of light troopers surrounding a sturdier commander and Bugs use units of four scouts, all able to call reinforcements. Cyborgs focus more on ranged weapons and Bugs take up a hard melee approach to combat. All of the races have their light, medium, and heavy enemy types, but that and a common enemy in humanity is about all they share. Helldivers can access many implements of destruction to help bring democracy to the galaxy. Players select a primary weapon before missions from a pretty standard selection of assault rifles, shotguns and submachine guns, though more exotic flamethrowers and laser cannons are options too. All of the weapons are fun to play with and there is no weapon with disadvantages that cannot be overcome by skillful use. In addition to guns, players complete their loadout with four "strategems," special abilities provided by the Helldiver's vessel in orbit. Strategems come in many shapes and sizes. Some drop in a pod with extra ammunition, powerful secondary weapons, or even vehicles. Others provide defensive countermeasures, like enemy lures and antipersonnel mines, while more offensive strategems lay down strafing fire or drop explosives. They're even used to heal and return fallen comrades to the battle. Coordinating with your squad in selecting them further enhances their power, as more squad members means more options. These powerful tools also come with some downsides. Deploying a strategem is a two-step process which begins by using a communication device to input an authorization code, achieved by correctly tapping out an onscreen sequence for the desired strategem with the directional pad. This puts a targeting beacon in the player's hand, which may be thrown into the field to indicate where the strategem should be deployed. Here's the hitch: If one wanted to get technical, one could say it's actually a three-step process, in that the first step is putting down the gun. If you're tapping away at codes, you are not shooting that horde of cyborgs bearing down on you, and you're certainly not going to be able to take out that patrol creeping up from behind. And then there's gravity. The Helldiver's requisitions arrive on the planet essentially the same way the Helldivers themselves did; they're dropped in from orbit. And while it seems obvious that you would avoid the immediate area around a beacon to which a phone booth sized hunk of metal is expected to plummet any second now, that little beacon can be overlooked when the bullets are flying (this is, of course, also a useful tactic for eliminating more troublesome enemies). It's especially risky when reviving squad members, as there's always doubt as to exactly where in the proximity of the beacon one to three people are going to suddenly crash on. Losing one Helldiver in the act of reviving another is a common occurence. There is a certain measure of glee to be taken from Helldivers' unsympathetic attitude toward its rules of engagement. Friendly fire isn't a possibility; it's a certainty, but it's one the game applies to all living things and can be exploited as a combat strategy. Defensive turrets are able to distinguish friend from foe, but they cannot distinguish between foe and friend standing in front of foe. They'll just cut down anything in the direction of a target, knocking a hapless Helldiver prone and struggling for life. Death happens so often and so quickly, it becomes a source of constant humor. You will eventually see someone crushed by an extraction shuttle as it lands and you will probably laugh. They will probably laugh too. Completing missions earns experience points toward increasing rank, with higher ranks gaining access to more powerful weaponry. Weapons and strategems can be upgraded by spending resource points, earned with each rank and by collecting samples scattered throughout mission areas. Finishing all of the missions on a planet provides its own reward, either a new strategem or bonus experience points. Missions also award influence, representing the player's contribution to the larger galactic war participated in by all players. Influence is earned by finishing all mission objectives successfully, escaping with the full squad intact, and keeping casualties to a minimum, with higher difficulties multiplying the amount of influence earned. These points are used to determine leaderboard rankings, but also to determine the course of the war. A single war will last four to six weeks, with the results affecting the difficulty of the war to follow. Each front is represented by a map with sectors separating Super Earth and the enemy homeworlds. Sectors become controlled by Super Earth when enough influence has been earned by all players, eventually extending all the way to the enemy homeworld. Reaching a homeworld triggers an event during which players have a limited amount of time to assault the source of an enemy race in the hope of conquering them completely, a feat which will require far more people than the small group playing in pre-release. The galactic war doesn't have a huge impact on the game, other than providing an excuse for event missions to occur. Yet, it does make you feel as though you're contributing to the accomplishment of a goal, and it's satisfying to see the rundown of which sectors have been taken and lost since the last time you played. It feels like something's happening around you, even if that something may just be statistics. Helldivers is best experienced as a multiplayer game, and joining an online session is about as quick and easy as starting a mission of your own. A couple of quick menu selections and you will, quite literally, drop in on another player's mission in progress. Local multiplayer is also an option and, in the absence of outside life, it's still enjoyable solo. Playing alone requires different strategies and offers less flexibility in strategem selection, which does make the already brutal higher difficulties seem even more insurmountable, but the satisfaction of single-handedly conquering a planet cannot be denied. Unrelenting and brutal, Helldivers delivers fast-paced combat, epic standoffs and a comical approach to death. Its enemies are varied, powerful and a constant threat to the players. While the full impact of the larger multiplayer experience remains to be seen, it still adds a nice little scratch to the progress itch. The strategem system provides great flexibility in squad building with many ways to build out team roles to maximize defensive and offensive capabilities. With procedural map generation and just enough mission and enemy variety to prevent a sense of repetition, the twelve levels of difficulty ought to keep players challenged for a good long time. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Helldivers review photo
In the grim darkness of the near future...
Mankind has expanded throughout the galaxy, having come together under one government, a "managed" democracy. From the Super Earth homeworld, humanity spreads its message of liberation and freedom to every planet they land upon; the liberation of their natural resources and freedom from human opposition, that is. And if you don't like it, expect them to spread a whole lot of ordinance instead.

Review: Blackhole

Mar 02 // Conrad Zimmerman
Blackhole (PC [reviewed], PS3, PS4, PS Vita, Xbox One)Developer: FiolaSoft GamesPublisher: FiolaSoft GamesReleased: February 27, 2015MSRP: $14.99 Blackhole tells the story of the star ship Endura and its crew who, tasked with saving the Earth from impending doom, find themselves trapped inside a multi-dimensional entity. Only the ship's most menial laborer and its artificial intelligence, Aluria, can rescue the crew, repair the Endura, and finish the mission. As "the coffee guy," players will explore the entity's varied dimensions, collecting "selfburns" (nanobots capable of fixing the ship) while looking for critical ship components and missing crewmembers. The writing in Blackhole is surprisingly good, with an intriguing mystery behind the origins of Aluria and the true purpose of the Endura's mission slowly revealed as the player progresses. Peppered liberally with jokes riffing on pop culture and sci-fi tropes, conversations with the crew are fully voiced with solid performances throughout. Occasionally corny but never dull, it scores big on charm despite suffering a bit in presentation due to its stage-based progression. [embed]288460:57582:0[/embed] Each dimension in the game contains a central hub area with about ten stages to explore, each containing multiple selfburns to be collected and ending with levels in which a crewmember can be rescued and a missing ship part retrieved. And this is where the plot progression becomes a bit of a hassle, as finishing a level opens up a new dialogue with a crewmember (who is supposed to be locating the next part or crewmember), but the player is expected to travel back to the beginning of the hub area to speak with them and get an update on their progress. It isn't mandatory that you speak with crew members immediately, and the hub stages are designed to loop back to their origin point (so the player will get to them eventually if they just keep moving forward), but then those conversations just stack up and the player has to sit through them all right after the high of accomplishing a dimension's most challenging stage. It kills the pacing and has the potential to turn what should be a light break from the action into a chore to be endured. Blackhole offers puzzles and platforming through its central mechanic, gravity platforms. Touching a gravity platform rotates the world around the player, usually opening a new route through the same environment they just traversed. Every stage in the game features this mechanic as a central component, tucking selfburns into areas only accessible when approached from the proper stage orientation. Only one selfburn has to be collected from a stage to unlock the next (and there's usually one that's significantly easier to nab), which allows the player to progress past levels which present a struggle. Eventually, stages will have to be revisited to collect more selfburns, as each dimension has a minimum requirement before allowing progress to the next set of levels. The gravity platform mechanic puts a tremendous demand on level design, and Blackhole delivers brilliantly in this respect. Every stage brings a new challenge that feels fresh and each dimension is unique, with its own stage elements that utilize gravity platforms in new ways. These include pulley systems, climbable walls, trampolines, and more, all of which function in different ways based on the stage orientation. The variety is broad and each environmental object is explored thoroughly, as levels squeeze every bit of potential use for them through the course of the dimension. It's a thinker's game, but equally demanding of platform skills. Knowing how to reach a selfburn is one thing, while actually executing that plan can be quite another. Simply collecting the selfburns isn't enough either; the player must also exit the level from where they started it and death returns the coffee guy to the stage entrance to start all over again. Only the selfburns collected in the best run count toward the total, meaning that to actually earn all of them requires a perfect, single run through the stage in which all selfburns are picked up and the exit reached. It often means executing a variety of difficult maneuvers, one after another, and completely finishing a stage feels like a real accomplishment. Packed full of challenges in an endearing package, Blackhole is an excellent 2D platform adventure which succeeds in nearly every aspect of its design. It's polished, visually attractive, and doesn't skimp on variety or difficulty. While the story could be delivered in a more convenient fashion, its writing is of a quality rarely seen in action/puzzle titles, performed skillfully by its actors and accompanied by catchy stage music. In a time when there seems to be a sudden rush of 2D platform titles, Blackhole is a cut above the rest. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Blackhole review photo
In space, no one can hear you giggle
There certainly have been a lot of creative 2D platform games releasing over the last couple of months, enough that there seems to be some genuine competition in the genre. If you're finding yourself in a position where it has become difficult to choose, allow me to make it easier.  Get Blackhole. Problem solved.

Review: Aaru's Awakening

Feb 24 // Conrad Zimmerman
Aaru's Awakening (PC [Reviewed], PS3, PS4)Developer: Lumenox GamesPublisher: Lumenox GamesReleased: February 24, 2015MSRP: $14.99 Players control Aaru, tasked by his master to destroy the temples devoted to the world's other deities. His tale, told through a storybook narration, is one about the trappings of faith, subservience, and the necessity of questioning authority. The plot is unremarkable and straightforward, serving up enough to establish the world of Lumenox and the character of Aaru, but little else. The game presents a 2D platforming style of play with an emphasis on challenging level design. Aaru can run left or right, jump, and employ an air-dash in any direction, but what makes him truly special is his teleportation ability. This is performed by firing a ball of light into the environment, acting as a targeting beacon Aaru can instantly move to. Like the air-dash, this teleportation ball can be fired at any angle and can also be charged up to increase its velocity. The ball is also a physical object that will bounce off surfaces and be destroyed by nearly anything which would also injure or kill Aaru. These properties of the teleport ball open up vast possibilities that the game's environments take full advantage of. To be successful, players will have to learn to use the ball in a variety of ways, such as firing it through tiny corridors Aaru is too large to pass, using it to keep aloft over lengthy stretches of deadly spikes, even applying it as a weapon by teleporting into enemies. By the mid-point of the game, maneuvers which require precise application of all three of Aaru's abilities become commonplace with little room for error. [embed]287961:57479:0[/embed] Controlling Aaru works well enough with a gamepad, but the better choice for most players will probably be to use keyboard and mouse. From an accuracy standpoint, aiming air-dashes and the teleport ball seems a touch easier with a mouse than an analog stick. The default controller scheme also binds the jump command to up on the left stick which makes it easy to accidentally jump at the wrong time, but the necessity of the right stick to aim effectively prohibits use of face buttons, so there aren't a lot of options to work with. Players will want that level of precision in the controls, too, as Aaru is not a hardy warrior. Most of the world's surfaces are covered in spikes, thorns, or water, all of which will kill instantly. Hell, just about everything kills instantly, with the exception of some enemy projectiles and pockets of gas or flowing water that can be survived if further contact can be avoided during a brief healing period. Odds are, if it looks like it might kill you, it probably will, sending Aaru back to the last checkpoint reached in the stage. It's likely players will die in excess of fifty times on their first attempt to navigate later levels. Thankfully, the game is generally liberal with checkpoints, though there are a few sequences which seem almost unreasonable in length, chaining together one difficult maneuver after another without any break. If this proves to be too simple for players, an additional challenge can be found in attempting to clear stages within target times, rewarded with medals. This is totally optional and excruciatingly difficult to accomplish in most stages. There is satisfaction to be had from earning these medals, but some elements in many levels appear in a random fashion, which undermines the goal of achieving that flawless, fast run through repetition. Aaru's Awakening features nineteen standard stages and five boss encounters, which take the form of more environmental puzzles but with a non-linear twist. Each features glowing targets in a variety of colors which need to be teleported to. Clearing all the targets of a set will grant access to an adjoining room with a challenging sequence to complete, but each destroyed target also impacts the main room where the boss resides by provoking a special attack or adding more obstacles. The targets can be approached in any order, which gives some control over how difficult the main room becomes, but all will eventually have to be hit to clear the stage and defeat the boss. This approach to boss design is excellent in the context of the game's minimal combat mechanics. Much like standard stages, checkpoints are established often (with the clearing of every secondary room), cutting down on the frustration of having to retread old ground. Unfortunately, the targets have no distinguishing characteristics beyond their color. This can make it difficult to differentiate between them, which in turn makes it harder to establish an effective approach. It's especially a bummer when considering how much attention has been paid to other facets of the visuals in Aaru's Awakening. The world of Lumenox is conveyed through a pencil drawing style which gives it a detailed, somewhat grungy look. Animations are smooth, particularly in the case of Aaru, as plenty of frames have been dedicated to animating him to reflect the changing angle of the targeting arrow. Sound design hits and misses in equal measure. Ambient music tracks which play during stages set an appropriate mood and do a lot to enhance the experience, but sound effects are often a bit grating and there are instances where respawning after a death produces a sharp noise which borders on painful, especially when you're likely to hear it fifty times or more over a few minutes. A fine game which presents a grueling challenge, Aaru's Awakening is perfect for the player who thinks 2D platform games today just aren't difficult enough. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Aaru's Awakening photo
Darkness before the Dawn
Aaru's Awakening is an unrelenting challenge of a game, which places players in the world of Lumenox, a mystical land in a precarious state of balance between four deities who rule it, Dawn, Day, Dusk, and Night. Now that balance is being disrupted, as Dawn sends a faithful warrior, Aaru, to travel the domains of the other gods on a quest to remake the world. Dark and twisted lands await.

Review: Harold

Feb 20 // Conrad Zimmerman
Harold (PC)Developer: Moon Spider StudioPublisher: Moon Spider StudioReleased: February 12, 2015MSRP: $19.99 The premise of Harold is centered in a school where angels are trained to become guardians of humanity. For their final exam, students are tasked with safely guiding a human as they race through deadly obstacle courses, working to ensure their human not only survives but is at the head of the pack. Players assume the role of Gabe, a top student who has coasted by on natural talent and needs only to place third in the final exam races to earn a coveted scholarship to Archangel Academy. In a cruel twist, Gabe has been matched up with Harold, a determined but physically inept racer. Where other angels are paired with athletes able to nimbly hop around obstacles, Harold will run straight into them and die without intervention, taking Gabe's hopes of higher education with him. Harold himself isn't so much controlled as he is prompted to act. In the vein of an auto-running platformer, he trundles straight along the path until he's compelled to jump by a button press or sent into a brief sprint with the expenditure of the "Puff Power" collected during the race (also used as extra lives for Harold). A sprint extends the length of a jump, but that's the extent of Harold's physical prowess, far from enough to safely navigate a course alone. To succeed, the player must manage Harold and his environment simultaneously to finish each of the game's twelve races. [embed]287901:57417:0[/embed] Each race is presented as a series of screens which Harold crosses from left to right, typically containing one or more objects that can be moved or manipulated for his benefit. There is considerable variety in environmental objects and how they're interacted with, using different applications of the left analog stick. Platforms can be pushed and pulled, quick flicks bash barriers with a wispy battering ram, and gears turn with rotations. Some objects, like wooden bridges and snare traps, won't stop Harold but offer opportunities to propel him forward more quickly. When multiple objects exist, pulling the triggers allows the player to switch between interactive elements. These objects are not only helpful to Harold, they can be a hindrance to the other racers. Every manipulable object has the potential to disrupt other racers and slow them down while additionally rewarding the player with more Puff Power for sprinting and mishaps of their own.  It's an exercise similar to plate spinning. Under the constant pressure of advancement through the course, the player has to remain mindful of Harold's position to time sprints and jumps, while ensuring that the coming challenges are prepared for his arrival. There is barely enough time to recognize what actions need to be taken before those actions must be performed, which makes it exhilarating to play when some confidence has been gained. As the courses become more difficult and introduce more complex configuration of objects, the game even grants the ability to pan ahead one race segment and get greater lead time on establishing the course. This is yet another plate. Moving ahead means leaving Harold to his own devices until the player returns to the prior screen or Harold catches up, further dividing focus. It also means additional opportunities to create interference for opponents ahead of Harold, which quickly becomes as important as keeping him alive if he's going to finish third or better. It would be horrible to leap into one of these races cold. Certainly, learning the intricacies of a course is one of the great pleasures of a racing game, but Harold is so demanding of the player's focus that running a stage without some knowledge of its contents would probably frustrate most players into quickly quitting. Moon Spider has wisely implemented a progression system which prevents this by putting the player through a practice mode on new stages before the race can be attempted. The practice mode presents the segments of the course individually as exercises, making sure the player can get Harold through each segment while also providing indications of optimal paths achievable by collecting the three stars on each screen. After completing a race, an even more difficult "challenge" mode becomes available for the stage in which Harold must navigate the course and collect stars while running at top speed. If Harold dies in this mode, that's the end of the attempt, making the stages extremely hard. Mastering a stage's challenge mode all but guarantees one has the skill to take first place in a replay of the main race, if desired. Harold is a satisfying challenge, but it may be a little too demanding of accuracy at times. I found rotating actions to be particularly difficult to perform evenly and had frequent issues getting back and forth flicks to register correctly. While I, as the player, am perfectly willing to accept the most responsibility for this, it's worth keeping in mind for the easily frustrated, especially as the game offers no means of reassigning controls nor allows for any input method other than a controller. Harold is also a looker of a game. Employing a hand-drawn animation style, it's bright and colorful, with exquisite detail. The visuals are almost wasted on a game where the player barely has a chance to observe their surroundings. Cutscenes before stages are not nearly as impressive from an animation standpoint, but do enjoy well performed narration and Harold's escalating pre-race mishaps are generally funny. Between its charming premise, beautiful graphics, and demanding gameplay, Harold is a winner in the end. Players who appreciate auto-running platform games should find it to be a fresh approach to the concepts found in such titles and a worthy challenge. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Harold review photo
Divine interference
Moon Spider Studio has released its debut title, Harold, an endearing and challenging race game about the most incompetent runner ever to need protection from a guardian angel. With some quick thinking, quicker thumbs, and an opportunistic eye, players guide the titular Harold to victory against all odds. Who doesn't love an underdog?

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Bud Light turns man into Pac-Man in Super Bowl ad


This will probably never happen to you
Jan 23
// Conrad Zimmerman
Bud Light has released one of the ads which will air during the upcoming Super Bowl XLIX, in which an unsuspecting beer consumer becomes the player of a fully-realized, physical Pac-Man game while a live DJ spins music in a ...
Sims 4 Free Trial photo
Sims 4 Free Trial

Play The Sims 4 free for 48 hours on Origin


Breathing virtual life into Origin Game Time
Jan 23
// Conrad Zimmerman
Electronic Arts has added The Sims 4 to its Origin Game Time program, which offers a trial period on some major releases in the Origin library. Players can install The Sims 4 now through Origin and play free for 48 hours, sta...
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Blacklight developer Zombie Studios closes doors


Leaves behind twenty year legacy
Jan 08
// Conrad Zimmerman
Zombie Studios, the developer behind Blacklight and responsible for launching the Spec Ops series, has stated they are shutting down operations after more than two decades in the industry. The announcement comes by ...
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Indiegogo providing new services for successful projects


Crowdfunding platform extending relationship with customers
Jan 07
// Conrad Zimmerman
Indiegogo has launched a new program, offering post-campaign support for projects which reach their crowdfunding goals. The new service, dubbed "InDemand," allows creators to continue to accept contributions after their ...
Poi photo
Poi

Poi trailer offers hope for the 3D platformer


Oh, how I miss them
Jan 07
// Conrad Zimmerman
This is the kind of thing I like to find when I wake up in the morning. It's a teaser trailer for a 3D platformer, Poi, and watching it makes me think that there's a bold adventure just waiting out there for me to exper...
League of Legends photo
League of Legends

Riot Games building dedicated network for League of Legends traffic


On track for the end of March
Jan 06
// Conrad Zimmerman
Riot Games has been toiling away on a new network designed to improve player connections to League of Legends. Detailed in a forum thread, this dedicated network will provide more direct connections to game servers,...
Limited edition New 3DS photo
Limited edition New 3DS

Nintendo offering limited edition New 3DS to Club Nintendo members


Seeking the willing to spread the word
Jan 06
// Conrad Zimmerman
Some Nintendo fans in Europe woke up to a surprise this morning, an opportunity for a limited "Ambassador" edition of the New 3DS handheld. The limited edition hardware bundles in an exclusive front cover plate, a pair of Sup...
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New screens to tease next episode of The Walking Dead


Third episode of second season to launch soon
May 02
// Conrad Zimmerman
Telltale Games has released a few screenshots for The Walking Dead's next installment, In Harm's Way. Clementine and the other survivors from the cabin have gotten themselves into a bit of a pickle, it would seem. We still don't have a release date for In Harm's Way, but Telltale assures that it's coming in the very near future.
Wii U photo
Wii U

Capcom confirms GBA games coming to Wii U


Mega Man Battle Network 3 first announced
Apr 29
// Conrad Zimmerman
Nintendo started launching Game Boy Advance titles for the Wii U Virtual Console earlier this month, but now the third-parties are getting in the act. Speaking with IGN, a representative of Capcom has confirmed Mega Man Battl...
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Enjoy some video of the E.T. landfill excavation


One man's trash is another man's history
Apr 28
// Conrad Zimmerman
As you may have heard, one of gaming's great urban legends was confirmed over the weekend. Atari did, in fact, dump a large quantity of retail copies of E.T. - The Extra-Terrestrial (and other games) in a New Mexico lan...
Oddworld photo
Oddworld

PlayStation cross-buy announced for Oddworld: New 'n' Tasty


Pricing revealed while teasing announcement of release date
Apr 25
// Conrad Zimmerman
Oddworld Inhabitants divulged a few salient details regarding the upcoming release of Oddworld: New 'n' Tasty, remake of the original Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee. Most notably, the studio has announced that the game will be offer...
Ground Zeroes photo
Ground Zeroes

Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes patch coming May 1


Update makes platform-exclusive missions available to all
Apr 25
// Conrad Zimmerman
Konami has announced that it will be releasing a title update for Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes on May 1. The patch will unlock the up-to-now platform exclusive missions "Deja Vu" and "Jamais Vu" (available only in t...
Gardening Mama photo
Gardening Mama

Gardening Mama 2: Forest Friends ships to US retailers


You can buy this thing!
Apr 22
// Conrad Zimmerman
Majesco has announced that Gardening Mama 2: Forest Friends has shipped to North American retailers where you may offer currency in exchange for a copy.  Maybe it's just because I haven't played a Mama game si...
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Batman: Arkham Origins Cold, Cold Heart DLC launched


New trailer to tease the Freeze
Apr 22
// Conrad Zimmerman
The next bit of additional content for Batman: Arkham Origins has released today and I'm personally hoping that they deliver when it comes to Victor Fries. I find him to be criminally under-appreciated as a villain for ...
PAX photo
Holmes talks with creator Jason Cirillo
One of the most common questions one gets asked when visiting a show like PAX East is, "what's the most fun game you've played this weekend." Woah Dave was my automatic response to any such query this past weekend. An a...

World of Darkness photo
World of Darkness

Development ceased on World of Darkness MMO


CCP CEO states, 'efforts were falling regretfully short.'
Apr 14
// Conrad Zimmerman
CCP Games announced today that development has been halted on the World of Darkness massively multiplayer online game. In a statement, CCP CEO Hilmar Veigar Pétursson expressed regret over the decision, sayin...
 photo

Cooperative multiplayer mode coming to Nuclear Throne


Vlambeer shoot-em-up to get even shootier
Apr 12
// Conrad Zimmerman
Today at PAX East, Vlambeer's Rami Ismail announced that their latest game, Nuclear Throne, will feature cooperative multiplayer. The mode will allow for up to four players to play simultaneously, either locally or over ...
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Borderlands 2 PS Vita bundle available May 6


Game available separately a week later
Apr 08
// Conrad Zimmerman
Sony has announced a release date for the Borderlands 2 PlayStation Vita bundle today via PlayStation Blog. The bundle, which marks the first release of the handheld's slimmer hardware redesign in North America, will be avai...






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