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Put your body into it: Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13 on Kinect

Feb 23 // Samit Sarkar
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13 (Xbox 360 [previewed], PlayStation 3)Developer: EA TiburonPublisher: EA SportsRelease: March 27, 2012 (NA) / March 30, 2012 (worldwide) Tiburon has been contemplating Kinect support for Tiger Woods PGA Tour since before the peripheral’s debut in November 2010. But a couple of important considerations prevented them from implementing it until this year. For one thing, the studio “wanted to make sure that Microsoft was far enough along in advancing their [Kinect] libraries,” Nielsen explained, referring to the software side of Kinect upon which developers build their games. In addition, Tiburon had to work with a compressed development period for Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12: The Masters; EA had moved up its ship date from the series’ traditional mid-summer release to the end of March, so it would coincide with the Masters Tournament. “We wanted to make sure that we had the full cycle to do the proper R&D, to investigate the different types of things that we wanted to do to capture that golf swing. And we’ve spent basically this entire year working on that,” said Nielsen. The fruits of their labors are impressive: PGA Tour 13 boasts full Kinect support, and in-game voice functionality to boot. The only thing you can’t do without a controller is aim the club’s sweet spot at a specific point on the ball. Otherwise, the whole game is Kinect-enabled, with gestures that mimic a golfer’s actions in ways that I occasionally even found amusing. Unlike the setup on Wii or PlayStation Move, you don’t swing toward your TV; since Kinect has to track your entire body, you stand with your feet pointing ahead, and swing across the screen from right to left (or left to right, if you’re a lefty). Here’s how you might play a hole on Kinect. Before taking your tee shot, you say “aim shot” out loud, then hold your left hand to your brow -- as if to block the sun’s rays while you squint into the distance -- to zoom the camera to the general landing zone. Here, you hold out your open left hand, then close it into a fist to drag the aiming reticle around. Once you’re satisfied with the location, you clasp your hands together around your invisible golf club and swing away. (Psst... If it’s more comfortable, you can actually play the game with a real club in your hands. Microsoft won’t tell you that, since their marketing for Kinect hinges on the device obviating the need for any extra peripherals, but don’t let them stop you.) After your drive lands safely on the fairway, you look to switch to an iron for the approach shot. “Change club, 5-iron,” you tell the game, and proceed to send the ball flying toward the back of the green. But the pin’s near the front, so you point your fist at the bottom of the screen to put backspin on the ball in mid-air. Once the ball’s on the green, you crouch in front of your TV to check the lie of the green. Now you’re ready to putt -- but everything’s riding on a birdie here, so you ask the game for a “putt preview” to check the ball’s path before proceeding. With a smooth, controlled motion, you sink the putt; your only regret is that Kinect doesn’t render your triumphant fist-pump in the game. I found the experience’s fidelity remarkable. On the higher difficulty levels, Kinect translates your entire body’s movement to your on-screen golfer’s swing. Rotating your hips and arms too far will send the ball off course; overextending your backswing or swinging too quickly will add too much power to your swing when you might have been looking for some touch; a herky-jerky, stuttering motion will provide less reliable results than one with a smooth cadence. As you swing, you’ll see the same trail that shows up when you play PGA Tour 13 with a controller -- a visual cue that offers feedback on your motion. The motion controls gave me very little trouble. After a quick tutorial from Nielsen, I followed the copious on-screen prompts and managed to birdie the first hole I played. The aiming mode sometimes held on too long, failing to detect when I had opened my fist to signify that I’d finished moving the cursor. Other than that, the game never felt unresponsive or did anything I didn’t want it to do. According to Nielsen, Kinect’s machine learning technology made that possible. “We [got] six-year-old kids, adults, big, small, tall -- all shapes and sizes -- and we had them record their swings, gestures, putts, chips, [and] full swings,” he told me. The developers tagged that data, and used it to teach Kinect to differentiate between golf swings and other motions. “When we first started doing it,” said Nielsen, “you could do a baseball swing, and it would hit [the ball].” That’s not the case anymore. Golfing isn’t the only place where Kinect comes into play. Tiburon has redesigned the game’s menus for Kinect, taking cues from Harmonix’s Dance Central interface and the PlayStation 3’s XMB, so you almost never have to pick up a controller. You navigate tabs to the left and right, scrolling up and down through options within tabs. A right-hand swipe to the left selects, while a left-hand gesture backs out. I had a modicum of skepticism about the Kinect functionality in PGA Tour 13, but once I played last year’s iteration with PlayStation Move, I figured Tiburon knew what they were doing. After trying Kinect with this game -- the peripheral’s first-ever sports simulation title -- I won’t soon doubt the studio again.
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Most core gamers saw Microsoft’s Kinect sensor and scoffed, dismissing out of hand its potential for use in anything but kids’ games and casual experiences. The people at EA Tiburon, however -- having already impl...

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PGA Tour 13's Tiger Legacy Challenge makes you go 'awww'


Feb 21
// Samit Sarkar
In his 2008 best-seller, Outliers: The Story of Success, journalist Malcolm Gladwell posited a theory that he called the "10,000-Hour Rule." Achieving success in any field, he asserted, depends largely upon amassing 10,000 h...

Make the shot you want in Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13

Feb 21 // Samit Sarkar
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13 (Xbox 360 [previewed], PlayStation 3)Developer: EA TiburonPublisher: EA SportsRelease: March 27, 2012 (NA) / March 30, 2012 (worldwide)Situations like the one I outlined above, along with PGA Tour 13's vastly expanded shot controls (dubbed Total Swing Control), serve to highlight how severely previous games in the franchise limited your shot-making ability. The new mechanics give you full control over a virtual golfer's swing with both analog sticks, opening up the possibilities and putting the onus on you to execute the perfect shot. The left stick, as ever, governs the arc of your swing, while the right stick aims your club at a particular point on the ball.In past Tiger Woods games, you might have flicked the left stick forward as hard as possible, in an effort to add power to your shot. But I'm going to let you in on a little secret, courtesy of Brent Nielsen, the game's Executive Producer at EA Tiburon: all you were doing was wearing down your left stick more quickly. This year, the game translates your exact left-stick motion into a swing, and it provides useful pre- and post-shot feedback to help you fine-tune that swing. An on-screen trail represents the arc your backswing should follow to execute your shot; a notch on the arc signifies the point at which you should begin swinging forward. You can extend your backswing or swing your club forward more quickly for extra power, but that will afford you a smaller margin of error on the accuracy of your follow-through. Tempo is important, too; a smooth back-and-forth motion is your best bet. Note that the arc of your swing will follow your left-stick motion exactly, thanks to new animations. I pulled back on the stick in all kinds of directions, and watched as my golfer changed his motion to reflect the new swing planes. After the shot, the game will tell you how well you executed your shot, providing information about over/underswinging, tempo, and accuracy.The right stick points your club's sweet spot at different spots on the ball; this aspect of the swing will vary with the ball's lie. Until now, sitting in deep sand, for example, only affected a shot's power -- all you had to do was swing harder to send the ball flying farther. "It was a math equation," Nielsen told me, lamenting that you had no fine control over a shot's trajectory. Previous Tiger Woods games compensated for that by offering a variety of shot types, such as punch, flop, and pitch, but they couldn't hide the fact that the short game has always been the weakest part of videogame golf. In PGA Tour 13, hitting the top of the ball will produce a line drive, while aiming low will result in a shot with a high arc. (Of course, you can aim anywhere in between.) On the lower difficulty levels (Amateur and Pro), all you have to do is use the right stick to move the sweet spot cursor to a particular place. But Tour Pro and Tournament require you to hold the right stick in place at that spot while swinging with the left! You can keep the shot even lower -- say, to avoid tree branches -- by moving the ball back in your stance and hitting it from your back foot. The game also lets you open or close your stance to add draw or fade, respectively, to your shot. According to EA, all the permutations provided by Total Swing Control add up to about 62.5 million possible shots.Also new this year is the Tiger Legacy Challenge mode, which lets you relive important milestones in Woods' storied career. You start out practicing in Tiger's backyard as a toddler, whacking balls into a net and aiming for the kiddie pool. The next step for toddler Tiger is a 1978 appearance on The Mike Douglas Show with his father, where he shows off his skills for the host, and guests Bob Hope and Jimmy Stewart. EA Tiburon created seven different models of Woods at various ages, and you play through ten eras over the course of his career. It seems like a charming way to illustrate Woods' path from two-year-old wunderkind to the top of the golfing world. Last year, EA Tiburon redesigned the game around The Masters, delivering an experience like no other in a truncated development cycle. With a full year in the oven, PGA Tour 13 looks like it could provide the franchise's most significant change since the introduction of analog-stick swinging.
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Imagine yourself on Tea Olive, the first hole of the famed Masters course at Augusta National. Trying to avoid the bunker on the right side of the fairway, you aim your tee shot to the left -- but alas, you push it a bit too ...

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Kate Upton demonstrates MLB 2K12 pitching to MLB stars


Feb 20
// Samit Sarkar
David Price, you are a lucky man.Last week, 2K Sports released a second digital short promoting next month's release of MLB 2K12. Called "Finger Mechanics," it features Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue cover model Kate Upton...

Preview: Mixing it up with MLB 2K12

Feb 17 // Samit Sarkar
MLB 2K12 (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [previewed], PC, Wii, PSP, DS, PlayStation 2)Developer: Visual ConceptsPublisher: 2K SportsRelease: March 6, 2012MSRP: $59.99 (PS3, 360) / $69.99 (360 Combo Pack with NBA 2K12)It's unclear at this point whether Take-Two will renew its exclusive licensing agreement with Major League Baseball. But even if this is the last MLB 2K game, the developers at Visual Concepts aren't phoning it in: they're focusing on fixing gameplay instead of buzzword-filled new features, and I give them credit for that. It's not a flashy approach, but if they pull it off, I expect fans to give the game a better reception.Visual Concepts has fixated on the pitcher-batter confrontation, the heart of baseball. Unlike McGilberry in his perfect game, real MLB pitchers constantly mix up their strategies for attacking hitters. That's what separates them from minor-league hurlers: they rarely abuse a pitch or return to a particular location in a certain situation. They have to adapt because they're facing MLB hitters, who got to the big-league level by punishing pitchers who became predictable. If you tend to go with, say, a splitter in the dirt on 0-2, and a shoulder-high fastball on a 1-2 count, hitters in MLB 2K12 will quickly pick up on that habit and learn to lay off. In addition, if the pitcher you're playing with has four or five pitches in his repertoire, and you consistently stick to one or two, batters will come to expect them -- and when a hitter knows what to look for, he's much more dangerous. (The game determines the baseline frequencies for each pitcher -- whether he tends to throw a certain pitch 8% of the time or 28% of the time -- from his Inside Edge scouting data.)MLB 2K12 gives you a good deal of feedback to tip you off to your tendencies. Analyst Steve Phillips might point one out with a comment. The visual feedback is more immediate and noticeable. All of your pitches are lined up on the left side of the screen as circular icons with numerical effectiveness ratings. If you're beginning to overuse a pitch (that is, throwing it too often compared to the Inside Edge data), the icon's background will turn from a neutral teal to yellow. That's a warning that you're becoming too predictable. If you continue to throw that pitch, the background will eventually become red, which lets you know that hitters are starting to look for it above your other options.It's also important to mix up your location and keep hitters on their toes. Going to the down-and-away well too often will cause that corner of the strike zone to turn black, which is a sign that you should go elsewhere. It'll be tougher to hit your spots, though, since Visual Concepts has tweaked breaking balls to be more realistic. You won't get the same sharp break on a 12-6 curveball if you start it above the strike zone as if you start it chest-high. At any time, you can pull up a screen showing exactly how many pitches you've thrown in each area, as well as Inside Edge data that illustrates a pitcher's real-life pitch frequencies. In practice, the adaptive hitting AI indeed made my life miserable when I began to overuse my fastball. A pitch's effectiveness rating also drops when you give up hits with it, and it varies from hitter to hitter. I only spent an hour or so with the game, but I had a couple of long innings because batters began to hammer my outside-corner heater after they learned to expect that pitch in that spot. That was doubly true for Albert Pujols. He smacked my fastball in his first at-bat for a single, and when I faced him again two innings later, I noticed that the fastball's rating had decreased. It appears that MLB 2K12 will really force you to adapt just as real pitchers do.Visual Concepts hasn't neglected hitting, either. Criticisms of past MLB 2K games always mentioned that they lacked hit variety -- it seemed as if you'd keep seeing the same soft liners to infielders. New ball physics this year have greatly improved hit variety and distribution, and it's all tied to the pitch that was thrown and the way the hitter made contact, just as it should be.Throwing in the field has also seen a significant upgrade. The new throw meter dynamically responds to your fielder's position. If you're charging a slow roller and you cue up a throw that your fielder has to make on the run, the green section of the throw meter will be much smaller than it would have been had you allowed him to set his feet before throwing to first. Of course, the meter also depends on the skill of the fielder in question, so someone with a more accurate arm will have a larger "sweet spot" even if someone's upending him with a slide as he's releasing the ball. The one new mode in MLB 2K12 is called MLB Today Season, and it's a spin on the traditional season setups in sports games. It allows you to play along with a real-life team, one game at a time. Let's say you're a Dodgers fan, and they lost the first two games of the 2012 season to the Padres. The MLB Today engine will import the exact scores and statistics from those games into your MLB Today Season, and you can pick up from there with the next game on April 7th and try to alter the course of the Dodgers' season.MLB Today Season forces you to play game-by-game, so you can't play at any pace other than that of your team's real-life counterpart. But by the end of September, the real Dodgers might be languishing in fourth place while your in-game Dodgers are celebrating an NL West crown!My Player has also seen a tweak in the direction of NBA 2K12: you'll select a role for your player that will affect the way your attributes develop. Speedsters won't hit a lot of home runs, but they'll be able to run down balls in the gap and steal a lot of bases. Sluggers, on the other hand, won't be fleet of foot. I'm still not sure that MLB 2K12 will be a legitimate competitor to Sony's MLB 12 The Show. But I liked what I saw, and it appears that the competition will be as close as it's ever been between these two franchises. Here's hoping Visual Concepts finally gets it right.
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This is the third year in a row that 2K Sports is holding its Perfect Game Challenge for its MLB 2K series. They're changing the format this time, but previously, the first person to throw a verified perfect game would win $1...

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MLB/NBA 2K12 Combo Pack due out for $69.99 on Xbox 360


Feb 17
// Samit Sarkar
2K Sports' next baseball game, MLB 2K12, launches on March 6, 2012, for 360, PS3, Wii, PC, PS2, PSP, and DS. It will be the only simulation baseball title available on the Xbox 360, where MLB 2K12 alone will retail for $59.99...
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Warriors Orochi 3 coming to PSN due to Japanese voiceover


Feb 16
// Samit Sarkar
Tecmo Koei's upcoming myth-based hack-n-slash action title, Warriors Orochi 3, will be launching for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 next month, in North America on March 20 and in Europe on March 30. The game will be a full-price...

Preview: Revel in Warriors Orochi 3's absurd fan service

Feb 16 // Samit Sarkar
Warriors Orochi 3 (PlayStation Network [previewed], Xbox 360)Developer: Omega ForcePublisher: Tecmo KoeiRelease: December 22, 2011 (JP) / March 20, 2012 (NA) / March 30, 2012 (EU)After vanquishing the Serpent King (in Warriors Orochi 2), our heroes -- the military leaders from Koei's Dynasty Warriors and Samurai Warriors series -- return to their territorial wars, endlessly clashing with each other for control of ancient China and Japan. Amid this chaos comes a mythical beast, an eight-headed serpent that lays waste to the warlords' homelands. Their ranks decimated by constant conflict, the remaining leaders are too few and too weak to put up much of a fight.When all hope appears to be lost, a "mysterious woman" named Kaguya arrives, bringing one chance at salvation. She explains that the men must travel back in time with her to unite with their former enemies and stand as one against the Hydra. Only then, Kaguya says, will humanity have a chance. Mythology, eh? That's the starting point for the game's Story Mode. The initial setup is reminiscent of Dynasty Warriors 7, except your "town" is the human forces' base camp on the night before the final showdown against the Hydra. Once you've selected three characters (from over 120 choices), you travel back in time to a particular battle. In each battle, you attempt to rewrite history in a way that will help your cause.You can switch between the members of your trio with R2 and L2, so it helps to have a diversified team. When a particular gauge is full, you can all engage in a "True Triple Attack," a devastating special combo. While both the Story Mode and Free Mode support co-op play, it's unfortunately limited to two players, not three. In the mission I played, the enemy trapped us inside a fortress and set it ablaze, leaving us for dead. But in this timeline, a side gate opened up, and we were able to escape and force the demon-warrior Shuten Doji to retreat. The game features an in-depth "bonds" system that has a significant effect on the story. Fighting alongside characters, or interacting with them in camp (by, for example, holding banquets), will strengthen your bond with them. Characters to whom you're bonded strongly will perform better in battle and may unlock special stages and attacks. In addition, your bonds and unlocks will affect which of the three story endings you see: Normal, Good, and True. Aside from co-op play, WO3 offers another online mode: Musou Battlefields. Here, you can edit battlefields from missions you've already completed, changing elements such as voice lines and music. You can also choose how the mission itself will play out, altering the strength and number of the forces themselves, as well as the sequence of events during the fight. Having done all that, the game allows you to upload your masterpiece so other players can attempt to complete your stage.Now that I think about it, the preposterous storylines of the Warriors Orochi games make sense. If you'd been playing Dynasty Warriors and Samurai Warriors titles for years, you were probably desperate for something to come along and break up the monotony. Warriors Orochi 3 looks like it will do that in a spectacular way; it's even bringing in characters from other Tecmo Koei games, like Ryu Hayabusa from Ninja Gaiden and Ayane of Dead or Alive fame. I salute your craziness, Tecmo Koei -- if you're going for madcap insanity, you might as well go all the way, right?
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Koei's Warriors Orochi series has always been about fan service, explained Tecmo Koei's Sean Corcoran during a demo in New York last week. But it seems like developer Omega Force is really taking that ethos to heart this time...

Preview: Conquer China on the go in Dynasty Warriors Next

Feb 15 // Samit Sarkar
Dynasty Warriors Next (PlayStation Vita)Developer: Omega ForcePublisher: Tecmo KoeiRelease: December 17, 2011 (JP) / February 22, 2012 (NA, EU) / February 23, 2012 (AUS)System launch titles usually go out of their way to demonstrate the various features of the platform, and DWN is no different. It's designed specifically for the Vita, taking advantage of seemingly every single one of the handheld's long list of technological talents. A lot of it seemed silly to me, but there's also some genuinely interesting functionality to be found in the package.The standard Campaign Mode lets you choose from 65 characters of various origin (Wu, Wei, Shu, Jin, and Other) and play through an episode pulled from Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the historical novel that spawned this entire franchise. It helps to know the individual stories: the subordinates you pick to bring into battle with you will be more effective if they're actually relevant to the mission. Taking into account the way many people play handhelds -- in short bursts -- Omega Force has compressed battles for the Vita, so even the longest conflicts won't take more than 20 minutes to complete. Conquest Mode is also a single-player affair, but you can interact with friends through the Vita's web- and location-based connectivity. In case the name didn't give it away, your mission in the turn-based mode is to unite all of ancient China's disparate kingdoms under one banner, which is, of course, diplomatic phrasing for "make war on your neighbors until you've bent them all to your will." Conquest is a much more strategic setup than the campaign's set sequence of battles for each character; it resembles a game of Risk, with ancient China -- instead of the whole world -- as your playground.Each territory on the Conquest map has its own level, and in order to be able to invade a nearby region, it must have a lower level than the place from which you're setting forth. (Invasions play out as standard campaign-like battles.) In the mode's economy, territories earn money, which can be spent on items such as buffs for your forces. The spoils of a successful invasion, in addition to increased income, include the ability to force a defeated officer to serve as an ally. Conquest strategy extends to defense, since you have to be vigilant for enemy incursions into your own lands.This mode becomes even more intriguing when taken online. You can play competitively or cooperatively with up to three other friends over Wi-Fi, with additional bonuses through proximity with them (as detected by 3G and GPS). Upon defeating a human opponent, you can offer them a Mission Battle. Here, the two of you compete in one of four mini-games such as Race (tilt the Vita to control a horse and rider through an obstacle course) and Breakthrough (swipe on the screen and shake the Vita to defeat a horde of enemies); the winner earns some extra experience points, not to mention bragging rights, and a better ranking on the Conquest leaderboard. For a perhaps less contentious experience, you can join with friends in the four-player co-op Coalition Mode, which works through the Vita's ad hoc connectivity (that is, your buddies have to be in the vicinity). I didn't get to check out this mode myself, but it includes four different courses designed specifically for co-op play. In the Sentinel game, you have to hold off waves of enemies, while the object of Marauder is to capture all the bases on the map. Blitz tasks you with capturing the main enemy camp as quickly as possible, and Sudden Death is a twist on Marauder in which you'll lose a life if you take one hit. For all its potential to destroy friendships, Coalition offers chances at rare weapons and items.Omega Force has brought touch and gyroscope functionality into gameplay, mostly in ways that seemed like gimmicky contrivances. When you use the new Speed Musou attack, the game will prompt you to swipe on the screen or shake the device to rack up more hits. Occasionally, a "sudden encounter" will arise, and you might be asked to slap away incoming arrows on the touchscreen or target enemies with gyroscope aiming. The new duel setup, which I didn't get to see, also makes use of touch controls.Some changes are welcome. Tapping on the right bumper initiates a charge in any desired direction and keeps your combo meter going for a bit, like manualing between rails in a Tony Hawk game. The new move makes it much easier to maintain long chains of attacks. The life bar is gone -- DWN features the modern "screen turns red when you take damage" health system -- and it's been replaced with the Break Gauge. When that's full, you can unleash a powerful Direct Break attack, which allows you to capture bases in one shot; a base taken with a Direct Break can't be recaptured by the enemy. Although I didn't feel the need for a lot of the functionality that Omega Force implemented, it was easy to see that there's a ton of content in DWN. Heck, the studio has even brought back the fan-favorite Edit Mode, so you can create a character and blaze your own legendary trail. Look for a full review from our resident Dynasty Warriors expert, Jim Sterling, next week.
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I assume I'm not alone in lacking the ability to tell the difference between Dynasty Warriors games (or at least, between the ones of a particular console generation). I've played, or watched friends play, DW6 and DW7, but fr...

Preview: Slicing samurai in Ninja Gaiden Sigma Plus

Feb 14 // Samit Sarkar
[embed]221706:42681[/embed] Ninja Gaiden Sigma Plus (PlayStation Vita)Developer: Team NinjaPublisher: Tecmo KoeiRelease: February 22, 2012Although it's been eight years since Ninja Gaiden came out on the original Xbox, the source material for this port of a port remains a veritable classic, and an Itagaki-less Team Ninja has achieved a mostly smooth transition to the Vita. The handheld's dual analog sticks are key for a third-person action title; camera control is paramount in a game where ninja frequently sneak up on Ryu from behind. And its snappy face buttons do their job, holding up to the assault from your fingers as you furiously enter combos. I never felt like the device got in the way; success or failure depended only upon my skill, and that's how it should be.You'll need some new skills to do well in Sigma Plus, though. Sigma launched in mid-2007, a time early enough in the PS3's life that developers were still shoehorning motion controls into their games. In that game, you could shake the Sixaxis to make Ninpo (magic) attacks more devastating. As a Vita launch title, Sigma Plus is similarly tasked with exploiting its platform's various abilities. Team Ninja has shifted Ninpo powering to the rear touchpad, while adding gyroscope support for first-person aiming and touchscreen controls for launching projectile weapons. None of this stuff appears in the first chapter, which is all I played, so I can't comment on its implementation. Oh, and it's all optional, thankfully. If you're having trouble with the exacting combat, you now have a couple of options. Practice sessions come in the form of Ninja Trials, 76 bite-size challenges in which you can hone your skills on the go. But in case you want an easier experience overall, feel free to choose the new "Hero Mode" difficulty setting, which automates dodging and provides unlimited Ninpo. Another first is Trophy support, since Sigma came out before PSN Trophies existed.As you can see from the trailer and screenshots here, Sigma Plus is showing its age. It doesn't look bad per se, but it's clearly not up to par with the best that the Vita's launch lineup has to offer. Texture detail is lacking throughout, and environmental effects such as flames look simplistic. Luckily, the game retains its trademark fluidity; I experienced no frame rate issues.If you've already completed Sigma, there may not be a lot for you to do in Sigma Plus. But Team Ninja has designed this port with an eye toward accessibility, so folks who might have been turned off by Ninja Gaiden's renowned difficulty have a reason to check it out. Look for a full review from Dale later this week.
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In case you were wondering, that silver line in the right half of the header image above is Ryu Hayabusa's katana. It's a long samurai sword, and I couldn't fit all of it into the picture. That sleek blade is the last thing t...

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Rockstar: 'Don't count out' another L.A. Noire game


Feb 14
// Samit Sarkar
The years-long L.A. Noire saga had a sad ending last year, but fans of the game may yet have a reason for optimism. In the latest edition of its "Asked & Answered" series, a Q&A with fans, Rockstar Games responded to ...

Preview: Shepard & company visit Mars in Mass Effect 3

Feb 13 // Samit Sarkar
Mass Effect 3 (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [previewed], PC) Developer: BioWare Edmonton (single-player) / BioWare Montreal (multiplayer) Publisher: Electronic Arts Release: March 6, 2012 (NA) / March 8, 2012 (AUS) / March 9, 2012 (EU) / March 15, 2012 (JP) Each demo station featured a default male Shepard of the soldier variety, in a fresh ME3 game with no save data imported. Once we landed on Mars, the game presented me with an upgrade screen in which I could allocate skill points to each member of my party. An EA PR rep explained that the series’ RPG elements, which BioWare streamlined in Mass Effect 2, have returned in full force for ME3. This also applies to weapon upgrades: you’ll find attachments that you can graft onto your guns at workbenches. And for quick orders in battle, you can assign one power from each party member to right/left on the D-pad. After customizing my characters, I headed in the direction of the facility, an imposing white metal structure that stood in stark contrast to the rusty Martian surface. A cutscene soon played, showing Cerberus agents executing employees of the base. I immediately fired upon the soldiers, igniting a shootout among the rocks, crates, and vehicles strewn about the clearing. Shepard’s rolling dodge came in handy, and my pistol discharged rounds as quickly as I could hammer the right trigger. Many action RPGs suffer from putting story ahead of gameplay; I’ve heard that the combat in the first two Mass Effect games is serviceable at best. That doesn’t seem to be the case here: while I don’t have a point of comparison, I can say that I had no issues with the responsiveness of the gunplay in ME3. Soon after fighting my way inside, my trio ran into a room filled with the clamor of gunshots and metallic thumps. The sounds emanated from the air vents, and Shepard’s crew took cover until an old friend, Liara T’Soni, popped out of a vent and finished off the Cerberus operatives who had been chasing her. Here, Shepard ordered Vega to return outside and secure an exit strategy, and Liara replaced him in the group. Once she came along, the work of lead writer Mac Walters and crew really began to become apparent. I didn’t know any of these characters or their backstories beforehand, but the ME3 writers have done an excellent job of implementing expository dialogue in cutscenes without it feeling forced. Even in my short session, the cutscenes elegantly conveyed the history between the characters -- whether through Ashley questioning where Shepard’s allegiances lie (due to his past work for Cerberus), or with a lingering look of longing from Liara in Shepard’s direction. The good doctor explained that the facility’s archives contained a Prothean artifact, and after we were stymied by a locked door, it dawned upon us that the mission came down to a race for the technology between us and Cerberus, who were quickly sealing off the base. From there, skirmishes became more heated, as a wider variety of enemies pushed me to use my teammates strategically. Liara’s biotics proved effective on shielded foes: I instructed her to lift them into the air, arms flailing slowly, to give me a free shot. A tramway in the distance would ferry us to the archives, but we had to step outside in order to get to it. Unfortunately, the fast-approaching dust storm had just about arrived, wreaking havoc on Vega’s radio signal. The three of us quickly returned indoors and made our way to the tram, hopping into a creaking cable car. Shortly after it started moving, it halted with a jerk, and Cerberus forces began taking potshots at us from the landing platform. Sadly, my time with the game ended there. Even as a first-time Mass Effect player, I felt drawn to the mission and immersed in the game’s sci-fi universe, equally charmed by the story, combat, and RPG elements. I couldn’t grasp the significance of most of the terms that Shepard, Liara, and Ashley were bandying about, but I wanted to keep playing and learn more. Personally, I still wouldn’t dream of touching ME3 without having at least played its predecessor, but my session instilled faith that if you want to jump directly into this game, you’ll likely be able to enjoy yourself without feeling completely lost. Try ME3 for yourself when the demo, with single-player and co-op content, launches tomorrow.
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The bleak, ruddy Martian landscape comes into view as Commander Shepard, Ashley Williams, and James Vega descend upon the Red Planet. Massive sandstorm clouds billow in the distance, their monolithic surface broken only by pe...

Preview: Mass Effect iOS app Datapad and game Infiltrator

Feb 10 // Samit Sarkar
Mass Effect Datapad (iOS)Developer: Electronic ArtsPublisher: Electronic ArtsRelease date: TBD (near ME3 launch on March 6, 2012)MSRP: FreeDatapad is a digital compendium of Mass Effect lore -- in effect, it puts Commander Shepard's Codex in your hands for perusal at your leisure. It's free of Mass Effect 3 spoilers, but it provides details on the series so far. Whether you're new to the franchise, or you need a refresher on the differences between Salarians and Quarians, Datapad is your one-stop shop for background information on the Mass Effect universe. You can even go through important decision points to see how things might've turned out differently, like whether Anderson or Udina was placed on the Council at the end of the original Mass Effect.It'll be nice to enjoy Mass Effect 3 with Datapad open on your iDevice as a quick reference, but the fun doesn't have to end there. EA wants to keep you engaged with Mass Effect even when you're not playing, and to that end, the app includes a Mail tab that will be updated with messages from characters as you play through ME3. (Datapad is tied to your Origin account, which is how it keeps track of your progress in the game.) There's also a Galaxy At War tab: yes, Datapad will affect Shepard's "Galactic Readiness" rating through the ME3 metagame, along with the main game's co-op mode and the iOS game, Infiltrator. EA wasn't showing off exactly how that will play out in the app, so I can't provide further details. Mass Effect Infiltrator (iOS [previewed], Android)Developer: IronMonkey StudiosPublisher: Electronic ArtsRelease date: TBD (near ME3 launch on March 6, 2012)MSRP: TBDInfiltrator is a cover-based third-person shooter from IronMonkey Studios, the folks behind the excellent Dead Space iOS game. It plays just like that title, with touch "zones" on the screen instead of virtual analog sticks. I saw the game on an iPad, where swiping on the left half of the screen controls movement and moving a finger on the right half aims your weapon.You play as Randall Ezno, an infiltrator (obviously) who's working for Cerberus -- for now. Ezno "specializes in snatch-and-grab operations: taking alien species and bringing them back to Cerberus for testing," but he eventually uncovers unsavory details about the organization that force him to reconsider his position. In the ten-minute demo I saw, Ezno is sent to an ice planet to hunt down a Turian. Unfortunately, though, some Geth troopers get in the way. Once you slide behind cover, taking enemies down is as simple as tapping on them, which causes Ezno to pop up and start firing. He has a variety of attacks at his disposal, including ordinary weapons like shotguns and sniper rifles as well as biotic powers such as Pull and Leash. A slow-motion effect that briefly ensues after a successful kill encourages you to chain them together, which awards you with style points. Levels consist of a series of skirmishes, and the game assesses your performance (time, health, style) after each battle. In addition to grades, you receive credits with which you can upgrade Ezno's abilities. You also pick up Intel, which random defeated foes leave behind. Intel is Infiltrator's contribution to Shepard's "Galactic Readiness" through Galaxy At War; Ezno himself does not appear in ME3. (Note that none of the Galaxy At War stuff -- whether through ME3 co-op, Datapad, or Infiltrator -- is necessary. You can still achieve the best ending in ME3 without ever touching any of it.)Ezno makes quick work of the standard-issue Geth, but the snowy environs soon reveal some Geth Juggernauts. After tapping on the upper-right corner to switch weapons, Ezno waits for the red-armored attackers to get within range of his shotgun before blowing them away. Later on, he whips out a long-range rifle to give a Turian sniper a dose of his own medicine. I'd tell you about what happens once the infiltrator finds his target, but sadly, the EA rep playing through the level died before making it to the end. He explained that the level presents you with a Paragon/Renegade prompt: Ezno can capture the Turian gently, or show the alien who's in charge with a smack.As you can see from the screenshots, Infiltrator features impressive visuals for an iOS title, even more so than Dead Space. While I didn't get to see the game in action on an iPad in my hands -- for demonstration purposes, it was hooked up to a TV via HDMI -- I can say that its graphics are about on par with early games from the current console generation. EA wasn't talking about the price, but for comparison's sake, Dead Space on iOS costs $6.99. Look for it on the App Store near the March 6th launch of ME3.
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[Update: I had initially been informed otherwise, but I've since checked with EA, and it turns out that Datapad is not exclusive to the iPad. It will be a universal iOS app. I apologize for the confusion and have updated the ...

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Recap: 1st Annual NY Videogame Critics Circle Awards


Feb 03
// Samit Sarkar
The American videogame industry, and the majority of the people writing critically about it, has coalesced largely on the West Coast. But the New York scene has been ascendant in recent years, and the growing number of criti...
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Madden NFL 13 cover opened up to 64-player fan vote


Feb 03
// Samit Sarkar
2011 was the second year in a row in which EA Sports let fans choose the Madden NFL cover athlete, and the people voted 13 million times to whittle down a field of 32 options to put Cleveland Browns running back Peyton Hillis...

THQ lays off 240, board of directors takes 50% pay cut

Feb 01 // Samit Sarkar
THQ expects that the layoffs will cost about $8.5 million -- $8 million in severance for affected employees, and $0.5 million in contract terminations -- and that the company will incur additional costs of $2.5 million for abandoning other "fixed assets." Most of the layoffs will come before the end of the company's 2012 fiscal year on March 31, and the rest will occur between then and the end of the fiscal second quarter on September 30.The same SEC document noted that THQ president and CEO Brian Farrell's base salary will drop by 50%, from $718,500 to $359,250, for one year as of February 13, 2012. In addition, if THQ fires him "without cause" or if he resigns for "good reason," the bonus-based part of his severance package will now match his highest-ever annual bonus, instead of being three times as much as that previous high. The non-employee members of the company's board of directors (i.e., everyone except Farrell) are also taking a 50% pay cut for a year, although their cuts go into effect today.THQ has promised further details in its third-quarter conference call, scheduled for tomorrow afternoon.THQ Investor Relations - SEC Form 8-K, 02/01/2012 [THQ]
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The hits just keep on coming for THQ. Last week, the publisher announced a shift away from licensed kids' games, likely related to poor multiplatform uDraw tablet sales. Yesterday, NASDAQ warned THQ that its underperforming s...

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Get your Starhawk beta code here! (Update: all gone!)


Feb 01
// Samit Sarkar
LightBox Interactive has been running a private beta for its upcoming PS3 shooter, Starhawk, for a few months now. The studio is gradually opening up access over the course of the next few weeks, with a fully public beta sche...
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Madden NFL 12 says Giants will be Super Bowl XLVI champs


Jan 30
// Samit Sarkar
When it comes to Super Bowl soothsaying, EA Sports' Madden NFL games almost have it down to a science. The sports sim has correctly predicted the winner of six of the last eight Super Bowls; the first time it was wrong was b...

Review: NFL Blitz

Jan 27 // Samit Sarkar
NFL Blitz (PlayStation Network, Xbox Live Arcade [reviewed]) Developer: EA Tiburon Publisher: EA Sports Released: January 3, 2012 (PSN) / January 4, 2012 (XBLA) MSRP: $14.99 (PSN) / 1200 Microsoft Points (XBLA) In almost every respect, the game plays like NFL Blitz as you remember it, for better and (sometimes) worse. Yes, it’s a shame that the NFL’s recent focus on the dangers of concussions has forced EA to excise the original Blitz’s post-play antics. But while you can’t perform elbow drops after tackles anymore, anything goes until the whistle blows -- and it’s still funny, over a decade later, to see a linebacker deliver a powerbomb to a wideout. It’s also as frustrating as ever to dive at someone from behind, or grab him and spin him around, subsequently flinging him forward for a few extra yards. Almost all the old animations have returned, which unfortunately means that players still have no sideline logic -- you can’t manually step out of bounds before enabling a cheat code, but CPU receivers never go out of their way to keep their feet in-bounds. And the game still endows defenders with superhuman speed, even without turbo, so they can catch up to receivers who might otherwise have scampered into the end zone on a long passing play. (Really, Vince Wilfork shouldn’t be able to outrun Hakeem Nicks.) In fact, there’s not a whole lot of player differentiation to speak of. EA didn’t even account for left-handed quarterbacks, so Michael Vick and Tim Tebow are both righties as far as Blitz is concerned. And while teams’ home and away jerseys exist, users have no control over them, so games will sometimes feature both teams in their home colors or road whites. Players do actually have ratings in four areas, but the only place you can view them is within the Elite League mode. And I didn’t have more trouble defeating supposedly better teams, or less against worse teams. I’m guessing that’s a function of the designers’ desire to ensure that games ultimately come down to the skill of the players holding the controllers, not the ones on the virtual gridiron. Balance always had paramount importance in Midway’s arcade classics, and this game is no different. One welcome concession to modern football games is the inclusion of an option for icon passing, so you can throw to receivers with the face buttons instead of having to switch between them with the left stick. Today’s gamers also expect more out of an arcade title than exhibition games, and NFL Blitz is no slouch in that department. For a $15 downloadable release, this game is packed with content. The single-player Blitz Gauntlet mode lets you customize a team for a three-tier ladder. Each tier includes games with three NFL teams and a boss battle -- with power-ups scattered on the field -- against a squad of fantasy characters, like horses, hot dogs, or zombies. There are twelve different characters, so you’ll have to complete the Gauntlet four times if you want to unlock them all. The online package is even more impressive. EA has included a trading-card mode, Elite League, which resembles the Ultimate Team setups in simulation franchises like Madden and FIFA. Here, you create a team and are given a smattering of cards featuring decent players. Completing online games earns you Blitz Bucks, which you can spend on a wide variety of content, such as card packs to improve your team, or power-ups and cheats to help yourself out online. (Thankfully, you earn Bucks even when you play poorly and lose.) Elite League also offers Risk and Reward games, in which you can lay cards on the line and try to take some from your opponent. NFL Blitz’s online co-op offerings are similarly robust. You can simply jump into a co-op game with up to three different friends, including a guest on the couch with you. For those who want a deeper experience, there’s the Blitz Teams mode, in which you create a team -- with a custom name, logo, and banner -- and invite a buddy, whether local guest or online friend, to be the co-owner. Then it’s up to the two of you to take your Blitz Team to the top of local, regional, and national leaderboards. None of the games I played were lag-free, but the latency wasn’t so bad as to be a hindrance. EA has gone the extra yard online, with a feature set that rivals full retail games. But Blitz was always meant to be played with friends in the same room, and by bringing back all of the fast-paced thrills of the old games, EA has not only evoked nostalgia, but rekindled ancient rivalries and their attendant arcane rules. Back in the day, my high-school buddies and I played NFL Blitz 2000 all the time, with an important twist: “no wimps.” That is, we always had to go for it on 4th down, and we always had to go for two after a touchdown. I played NFL Blitz with some of the same friends last week, and once I reminded them of “no wimps,” it was as if nothing had changed in a dozen years.
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The long-in-the-works high-definition revival of NFL Blitz has finally arrived, less than three months after EA officially announced it last fall. It’s an idea that gamers of all stripes could get behind; after all, you...

Twisted Metal: A different kind of multiplayer game

Dec 19 // Samit Sarkar
Twisted Metal (PlayStation 3) Developer: Eat Sleep Play Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment Release: February 14, 2012 In the hour or so that I spent with Twisted Metal, I kept noticing one aspect of the combat: it can take a pretty long time to kill someone. That’s not an accident, according to the Sony producer who demoed the game for me. He explained that the design decision was a result of Jaffe’s dislike of the pace in most multiplayer shooters -- the series co-creator isn’t a fan of the endless spawn-die-spawn cycle. In those games, it doesn’t take many bullets to kill you, and firefights rarely last long. Twisted Metal, on the other hand, offers a much higher degree of “survivability,” said the producer. You’re going to have to work for a kill, but the designers believe that increased survivability only makes the game more thrilling. Here, combat is “all about the chase,” which, I guess, makes sense for a game featuring vehicular mayhem. In addition, the folks at Eat Sleep Play are hoping that longer lives will help to reduce the amount of frustration that new players have to endure while learning the ropes. That decision makes a lot of sense, since it will likely take more than a few hours to understand Twisted Metal’s chaos. Multiplayer is the focus of this game, and it’s clear that Eat Sleep Play is devoting a great deal of development time to important facets such as balancing vehicles’ abilities and tweaking weapon damage, but the modes and options are so numerous and varied that I found myself overwhelmed during the demo. Jaffe has likened Twisted Metal to a fighting game, and the comparison seems apt -- I don’t have any understanding of the minutiae of fighting games, and it’s impossible for me to have fun with them unless I’m playing someone who’s just as clueless. The depth here is staggering; with such a steep learning curve, it’s important for the game to teach newbies well, and ensure that they can have fun, too. You can outfit vehicles with an arsenal of your choosing. Each car has two special attacks, in addition to its standard firepower. A high degree of destructibility means that level geometry is always in flux. Some of the cars are better used as support vehicles, like the Juggernaut, a slow tractor-trailer that can open its rear doors for up to two teammates to hang out and man turrets. Many weapons employ a risk/reward mechanic: charging attacks makes them more effective, but in many cases, also more difficult to succeed with. One of the playable vehicles is a damn helicopter, and Sweet Tooth can transform into a freakin’ mech. The variety of opportunities will likely give rise to high-level strategic play, and will hopefully lend Twisted Metal a long shelf life. I played in three different levels: one set in the suburbs, another in a theme park, and a snowy take on New York. Although there’s plenty of work to be done before the game’s Valentine’s Day launch, the environments impressed me with their size, destructibility, and variability. The level set in a fictionalized New York is full of secret shortcuts, and its verticality -- you can go up into buildings, or head down into the subway -- provides for great hide-and-seek gameplay. The theme park balances a large open area, complete with a Ferris wheel that can be detached from its moorings, and winding narrow paths on its outskirts. The suburban landscape is sparsely populated and offers near-total destruction. All of them seem to offer play spaces that are “fair” to both sides without having mirrored halves. I played with the classic control scheme, where the face buttons cover vehicle control and the triggers fire weapons. Eat Sleep Play is also including controls based on modern racing games, with acceleration and braking on the triggers. As I said earlier, Twisted Metal isn’t exactly a pick-up-and-play experience, but once I figured out the controls, I did manage to race around the maps and score some kills. The frame rate never dropped during the fast-paced action, and I didn’t see any silly AI bot behavior. While online play is the star of the show, the game also offers local split-screen action for up to four players, just like old times. However you play, you’ll need to invest a good amount of time to learn the ins and outs of Twisted Metal, even if you’re not new to the series. Thankfully, it looks like it will be worth it.
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Unless you count the continued popularity of Mario Kart, we’re a long way from the ’90s heyday of car combat games. Modern multiplayer combat primarily concerns games in which people shoot each other, but David Ja...

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Trailer for FIFA Soccer on Vita shows off unique features


Dec 16
// Samit Sarkar
EA Sports is bringing just one game to the PlayStation Vita launch party, but it looks as if that title will be one of the stars of the show. I played FIFA Soccer back in mid-October, and came away feeling like EA Canada has...

Preview: PixelJunk 4am

Dec 15 // Samit Sarkar
PixelJunk 4am (PlayStation Move) Developer: Q-Games Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment Release: Spring 2012 PixelJunk 4am is Q-Games’ second collaboration with the Japanese artist Baiyon, who also did the art and music for PixelJunk Eden. The relaxing electronic music in that game, which rose and fell with your actions, suited that experience perfectly. 4am ups the ante somewhat, although the atmosphere is still more “lounge” than “rave.” [Update: Per Q-Games, Baiyon himself calls it “deep.”] While Baiyon’s tracks determine the mood, the PlayStation Move gives you an incredible degree of control over the specific sounds coming into your ears. The foundation consists of four different lines: kick, bass, rhythm, and synth. They’re controlled by the X, square, circle, and triangle buttons, respectively, and the ball on the Move wand changes color to match the track. These “long-play elements” are complemented by four one-off gestures: flicking the Move controller up, down, left, or right plays a particular sound. The result is nothing short of astounding. Holding the Move wand in your hand and waving it around to transform the groove, you feel like a digital shaman taming the spirits of song with a plastic whip. The PlayStation Eye camera and the Move controller combine to give you a three-dimensional performance space. To lay down the base tracks, you hold down the trigger and reach out until you feel the controller vibrate and bring it back into the center before releasing the trigger, unleashing the musical line. You also have effects modulation at your disposal: hold the Move button and move the wand to play with an element, perhaps distorting the sound with a phaser. 4am furthers the DJ experience by letting you mute a particular track -- cut out the bass for a bit -- by double-tapping the face button for that track, or mute everything but a particular track -- just the drums right here -- by holding its face button. The software offers three different visualizers, each with its own ambience and set of sounds. You can switch between them, and because doing so doesn’t stop the music, you can cull your favorite elements from each setting and blend them as you desire. Music is meant to be enjoyed by an audience, and 4am lets you broadcast your DJing live over the PlayStation Network through the app. Q-Games will be putting out a free “viewer,” so you don’t need to buy the software in order to be able to enjoy performances. Just turn on your PS3 and tune in to your favorite DJ to get the party started.
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The music/rhythm genre is full of experiences that a reductive person might call “performance simulators.” In essence, games like Rock Band lay out a track of notes to hit -- whether with your voice or a controlle...

Preview: Sorcery

Dec 14 // Samit Sarkar
Sorcery (PlayStation Move) Developer: The Workshop Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment Release: Spring 2012 Sorcery’s senior designer and creative director, Brian Upton, opened my demo by pointing out the principal difference between this and other motion-controlled games. “A lot of motion games basically boil down to Simon Says,” he told me, explaining that such games typically throw up gesture prompts at certain points and ask you to merely repeat those gestures in order to win. Sorcery is certainly a gesture-based experience as well, but it’s one that puts the onus on you to forge your way ahead with the tools at hand. The protagonist is a young sorcerer’s apprentice who’s just starting out in the world of wizardry. His master’s cat dares him to venture into Lochbarrow, the land of the undead, and -- being a carefree young farm boy -- he does. In this case, their curiosity only results in the apprentice accidentally unleashing the power of nightmare upon the world. So the two of them set off through the Faerie Realm to right this cosmic wrong, and perhaps do some growing up along the way. The cat serves as a feline Navi of sorts: she doesn’t participate in gameplay -- Upton assured me that “there are no escort missions” -- but provides hints and gives out bits of story. She has a deep knowledge of, and involvement in, the world; the bond between boy and cat intensifies over the course of the game. Upton showed me a world partway through the game called Endless Stair, and noted that for the purposes of the demo, the developers had armed the apprentice with abilities he wouldn’t actually have access to at that point in the full game. Endless Stair is a bright, colorful outdoor area, with an aesthetic that instantly reminded me of the PlayStation-era Spyro games (Upton could see where I was coming from, but told me that the team didn’t specifically take inspiration from that series). The apprentice came upon an open area with numerous bogies, the world’s basic grunt enemies, waiting to take him down. As a mage-like character, it behooves you to engage in mid-range combat, firing away with your projectiles and area-of-effect spells; enemies are much more dangerous at close range, and melee isn’t your strong suit. Upton made quick work of the bogies, showing off a variety of elemental attacks.Arcane Bolt is your standard projectile attack; you can fire straight ahead, or twist the Move wand in your hand for an arcing shot. It becomes much more powerful when combined with other elements. Upton laid down a trail of fire -- which you are impervious to -- and then shot bolts through the flames to set enemies alight. He then switched to wind and whipped up a “Firenado” after throwing down some more fire. I can think of few things more terrifying than a flaming vortex careening toward me, and indeed, it proved supremely effective against bogies hiding behind rocks. You also have ice powers at your disposal, which allow you to encase enemies in blocks of ice (for shattering with Arcane Bolt) or slow them down with a gradual area-of-effect frost. Switching between elements requires quick gestures with the wand while the Move button is held down. (Upton told me that in light of focus testing feedback, The Workshop will implement button controls for spell switching.) However, he asserted that “once you learn [the gesture system], it’s really, really fast, and lets you do these powerful combos.” The team also noticed during focus testing that players who were familiar with motion games immediately began to waggle furiously, firing off many bolts in quick succession. Sorcery goes out of its way to teach players not to do that; while the game doesn’t get too difficult, Upton warned, “If you just spam bolts, you will die.” After defeating his foes, Upton picked up a sigil fragment that one of the bogies had dropped. He then brought it to a group of broken rocks and used a mending spell to patch up the stone. Stepping on it opened up a portal to a new area, with a chest and a large urn from which water dripped. The gold that Upton looted from the chest can be used to purchase potion ingredients from an alchemist, and the alchemy system allows you to brew dozens of different potions that bestow upgrades upon you when consumed. Your other main ability is telekinesis; Upton used it to rip off the urn’s lid, flooding the area below. The control method, with a Move wand in your right hand and a Navigation Controller (or DualShock 3) in your left, feels good. Yet Sorcery offers limited camera control and no lock-on targeting; when I expressed trepidations about that to Upton, he dismissed my concerns. The pinpoint control that PlayStation Move offers, he said, obviates the need for the control scheme seen in typical third-person action games. Sorcery manages the camera for you, and Move is accurate enough to ask players to simply aim where they want their attacks to go. In my experience, it didn’t quite work as Upton described. Then again, I did inadvertently rotate the Move controller “backward” in my hand (with my thumb, rather than my index finger, near the trigger), which throws off the Move’s targeting. It was much smoother sailing once I fixed the wand’s orientation. Either way, the development team is still tweaking the targeting, and I hope it’ll be as good as it needs to be by the time the game launches next spring.
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I imagine our Reviews Editor, Jim Sterling, isn’t alone in yearning for PlayStation Move-exclusive titles beyond the scope of minigame collections and tech demos. Sony announced one such game, Sorcery, back at E3 2010, ...

Preview: Escape Plan

Dec 13 // Samit Sarkar
Escape Plan (PlayStation Vita) Developer: Fun Bits Interactive Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment Release: February 22, 2012 Lil and Laarg (pronounced large) are the last living prisoners in a factory where Bakuki, the head of the plant, is planning to recycle them into his minions. It’s your job to help them escape, but that won’t be easy, since the two of them are rather helpless little creatures. They need your continual attention, lest they meet some terrible (or even pedestrian) end. Fun Bits has dubbed Escape Plan a “touching experience,” and indeed, you control almost everything in the game with the Vita’s front touchscreen or rear touchpad (the right stick is used for camera movement). Lil and Laarg are charmingly aloof little things who move somewhat like lemmings: once they start walking, they will continue to do so until either you tell them to stop, or they encounter an obstacle. The fundamental challenge in each room is to clear a safe path for them to proceed. What I haven’t touched on is just how amusing Escape Plan is. Even failure is funny; death in this game evokes Limbo in its sudden, gruesome-yet-somehow-also-whimsical nature. “We wanted death to be entertaining, because in so many games when you die, it’s a tragic thing and [a setback],” said Millar. Lil and Laarg are fragile, squishy beings, and Escape Plan makes this clear early on. One of the first rooms is basically empty, except for a single brick lying on the floor -- not much of an obstacle, right? But if you neglect to clear it out of the way, the oblivious Lil will trip over it and die from falling on his face. (Both Lil and Laarg have their own death counters plastered on their bellies, so you’ll know exactly how many times you’ve led each of them to their doom.) It’s that kind of smart teaching moment that marks an exceptional puzzle game. The best ones bake their tutorials into the game, as opposed to text pop-ups, and Escape Plan’s stages do a great job of explaining the gameplay. Fun Bits also recognizes that as a launch Vita title, Escape Plan has the added duty of helping to familiarize users with the hardware, so the game’s stages force players to explore the system’s functionality. An early level starts Lil out on a platform with a precipitous drop at the end. On the wall are three panels that you have to pop out into the foreground by tapping on the Vita’s rear touchpad, in order to form a walkway for Lil. He also has the ability to drink coffee and, with a pinch (touching the screen and the pad simultaneously), scoot forward in a caffeine-powered dash. At some point, Lil comes across a fellow prisoner, a rotund creature locked in a cage. Once he frees Laarg, the two of them team up to help each other get out of the factory alive. Many rooms will require you to switch between Lil and Laarg. Both have unique talents. Along with Lil’s dash, he can inhale air from gas tanks and inflate himself, which allows him to float to otherwise unreachable areas. Laarg’s size means he’s slow and top-heavy -- if you swipe repeatedly to try and get him to move faster, you’ll just knock the poor fella over -- but his bulk comes in handy thanks to a butt-smash that can go through floors. (Trying this without a mattress beneath him, however, results in a grisly splat of a death.) Even in my short demo, which lasted only 20 minutes, I saw a wide variety of hazardous puzzles. In one, poisonous gas spews from two holes in a pipe; holding a finger on the screen over a hole blocks the fumes there, but causes a more rapid flow out of the other opening. Another features sheep-like creatures that can be used as guinea pigs to test the dangers in the room. Bakuki’s minions, whom Millar characterized as “caffeinated, evil little Oompa-Loompas that will kill you on sight,” also come into play; they fire lethal blowgun darts, so you have to avoid or kill them. The game has some fiendish timing puzzles, too: Millar, who had been leaning over so I could get a better view of the screen, explained after dying a few times in one stage that he needed to take back full control of the system in order to complete the level. As of now, Fun Bits is in cleanup mode, furiously squashing bugs as they come up. I saw some minor issues with text being garbled or in another language, but had no issues with vital concerns like the responsiveness of the touchscreen and touchpad. Sony would do well to promote Escape Plan alongside its major tent-pole franchises at launch: it offers a pick-up-and-play experience that looks great and showcases the many facets of the Vita hardware. I’m excited to try the full game in February.
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Sony has lined up more than a few heavy hitters for the launch of its new handheld, the PlayStation Vita, next February -- major franchises such as Uncharted, Resistance, and Katamari Damacy. But I’ve been more impresse...

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Ravens RB Ray Rice voted onto NFL Blitz digital 'cover'


Dec 12
// Samit Sarkar
If there's a marketing opportunity to be exploited, you can bet that Spike and the producers of the network's annual Video Game Awards will be there to take advantage of it -- no matter how absurd it may seem. I can just imag...

Preview: Touch My Katamari

Dec 12 // Samit Sarkar
Touch My Katamari (PlayStation Vita) Developer: Namco Bandai Publisher: Namco Bandai Release: December 17, 2011 (JP) / February 22, 2012 (NA, EU) Namco has released Katamari games for the PSP and iOS, but they’ve suffered from a lack of dual-stick controls. Touch My Katamari is the first handheld title in the series to be released on a platform with two analog sticks, and it’s great to bring the feel of the console games to a portable device. You can also move The Prince around with the Vita’s front touchscreen, and it’s ideal for menu navigation, but I prefer the sticks for gameplay. Touch My Katamari is also the first Katamari game to tweak the now-familiar gameplay mechanic of rolling up everything in sight into a ball of ever-increasing size. Now, you can horizontally stretch the Prince’s katamari into a rolling-pin-like form, or squeeze it into a disc-like figure. These aren’t merely aesthetic changes: altering the katamari’s shape allows the Prince to reach areas he might have been previously unable to access, or roll up objects more easily. I played in a messy bedroom, and by stretching my katamari, I was able to roll underneath a low desk to pick up some junk that was lying underneath. The rolling pin also cuts a wider swath across open areas, allowing you to pick up more items in a single pass. With the Ferris wheel shape, I could fit my katamari into a narrow gap; the katamari also moves up and down ramps more quickly like this. To stretch, you put your fingers in the middle of the Vita’s rear touchpad and pull them apart; to squeeze, you make the opposite motion. Double-tapping the touchpad resets your katamari to its original spheroid shape. The gestures are simple, and I found the pad to be responsive. I didn’t get to play more than one stage, so I can’t say for sure if the overall level design actually makes these gameplay changes meaningful, but they made a difference in the cluttered bedroom. Playing through stages earns candy, the game’s currency; you can use it to buy stuff for the King and unlock new modes as well as music. (The music, by the way, is as delightfully zany and catchy as ever.) The game also utilizes the Vita’s location-based “Near” functionality, allowing you to exchange information such as high scores with other players in your area. Beating their scores gives you extra candy, and who doesn’t love that?
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Everybody loves Katamari Damacy, right? Keita Takahashi’s silly, quirky creation -- classified by publisher Namco Bandai in the genre of “rolling action” -- is, by now, a beloved series. But for many fans, t...

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November NPD: Xbox 360, Call of Duty, Skyrim lead sales


Dec 09
// Samit Sarkar
As usual, this past November saw the launches of some of the most popular and critically acclaimed games in recent memory. Nothing was going to top Call of Duty, of course; in fact, that mammoth franchise showed continued gro...
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EA developing music-mixing 'Harmony' tool, debuts in SSX


Oct 31
// Samit Sarkar
One of my favorite facets of SSX Tricky was its fusion of audio and gameplay. The game would mute its thumping house/hip-hop soundtrack as you soared off a ramp, leaving only the sound of the air whistling past your rider unt...
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SSX slides to February 14 launch, reveals Deadly Descents


Oct 31
// Samit Sarkar
EA recently released a "Survive It" trailer for its upcoming SSX game. The new video ends with the news that the title's launch has been pushed back slightly -- it was originally set to release in January 2012, but will now ...

Preview: Mass Effect 3 (co-op)

Oct 27 // Samit Sarkar
Mass Effect 3 (Xbox 360 [previewed], PlayStation 3, PC) Developer: BioWare Edmonton (single-player) / BioWare Montreal (multiplayer) Publisher: Electronic Arts Release: March 6, 2012 (NA) / March 9, 2012 (EU) The Mass Effect franchise isn't one that I'd been planning to jump into with the third game, but according to BioWare marketing director David Silverman, that's absolutely possible with Mass Effect 3 -- in fact, it has been a major consideration for BioWare during the game's development, and it factored into the decision to bring a co-op mode into the series. Having laid the foundation with greatly improved combat, BioWare Montreal has created a way for gamers to play Mass Effect as a shooter with their friends, remain immersed in the franchise's rich fiction, and work toward a better campaign ending. In Mass Effect 3, the Reapers have returned to make war on the entire universe. Commander Shepard and his/her allies are going to have their hands pretty full with that threat, obviously, but you can help them out by taking the fight to the Reapers cooperatively. The co-op mode is the main part of "Galaxy at War," a setup in which you prepare for a counterattack against the Reapers. In co-op, this is accomplished by traveling to hotbeds of conflict scattered throughout the galaxy in an effort to marshal resources for the war effort. These supplies will manifest themselves as Shepard's "Galactic Readiness" rating, which will factor into his success against the Reapers in Mass Effect 3's final battle. (Fear not, co-op haters: You can eschew this mode entirely and still obtain the "best" ending to the story.) The "Horde"-style mode sees you join up to three other players to face twelve increasingly difficult waves of enemies in each galactic hotspot, with the final surge being the one in which your crew makes its escape. It's not as simple as killing all the enemies in sight; secondary objectives include picking up data packets and defending a teammate while they perform a hack. You won't be playing as any of your favorite Mass Effect characters, but instead will be forging your own legend. In creating your co-op warrior, you can choose from six different races (Human, Asari, Drell, Krogan, Salarian, and Turian) -- each of which has a unique ability, such as a Krogan charge -- and the same six classes that are available in the campaign. Progression is capped at level 20, and you can upgrade your character's weapons, armor, and powers along the way. Maxed-out co-op characters provide a buff to Shepard's forces in the form of a "squad leader." If most of this sounds rather rote to you, then we're on the same page. Based on my very limited co-op playtime -- I was only able to play for about ten minutes -- I think I can best describe the mode as... pedestrian. Admittedly, I might have enjoyed it more if I were familiar with the Mass Effect universe, but except for the aliens' various special abilities spicing up combat encounters, I didn't see anything particularly interesting, let alone remarkable. Ignoring some noticeable AI bugs (this was a pre-alpha demo), the mode just felt generic to me: I was shooting aliens in a futuristic sci-fi setting, and I didn't think that was engaging enough on its own. Don't get me wrong: the mode isn't bad or anything. It's impressive that BioWare has upgraded the series' combat to the point where a co-op mode such as this, one that's played as a third-person shooter, is even viable. And it's possible -- likely, even -- that Mass Effect fans will find its progression and overarching story context compelling. Maybe there's some strategic interplay between the races/classes, or some mind-blowing stuff that BioWare is keeping under wraps. But I didn't get enough of a sense of that in my short demo, and with the fiction's trappings stripped away, the mode's moment-to-moment gunplay seemed merely competent. From what I've heard, Mass Effect 2 was outstanding; competence from its successor shouldn't suffice.
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Almost as soon as BioWare finally confirmed Mass Effect 3's long-rumored cooperative multiplayer mode earlier this month, they released a multiplayer FAQ to try and mitigate the predictable Internet backlash. I've never playe...


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