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Hands-on with Aliens: Colonial Marines

Dec 12 // Casey Baker
[embed]239080:45874[/embed] Aliens: Colonial Marines (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC, Wii U)Developer: Gearbox SoftwarePublisher: SEGARelease: February 12, 2013 Aliens: Colonial Marines takes place sometime after the third film, though it sticks much closer in theme to Aliens. The game begins with your team responsible for investigating the Sulaco after it reappears above the atmosphere of LV-426. Upon investigation, you come across Weyland-Utani mercenaries lurking throughout the doomed ship. Immediately this turns into all-out warfare between your ship and the Sulaco, and you and your crew end up crash-landing on the moon right near the presently overrun Hadley's Hope colony. Fans of Aliens will immediately take in many details that tell the chronology of events, such as the turrets used by the original Colonial Marines, now spent of their ammo, or the computer used by Bishop (who is back again, of course) to try to gain access to more of the colony's interface. It's all there, and it's all certainly neat to take in. But then, the Xenomorphs arrive. The single-player campaign starts to give a sense of Déjà vu to any seasoned FPS player. The aliens themselves are not really frightening, not even in the "monster closet" sense like the creatures in Doom 3. This may be because much like the original marines, you have a ton of firepower. Of course, the demo I played had nearly everything already unlocked -- though as per suggestions, I stuck with the weapons you would normally have at this moment in the game. While the aliens certainly looked cool, they didn't necessarily act with any sort of real predatory A.I. as I mowed them down and cleared the area a couple of different times while running back and forth to finish objectives. Going further into the ruined depths of the colony had both high moments and low moments. After helping Bishop set up motion trackers and defending the main comms area, my character and one other marine were tasked with going even deeper into the colony, at which point I was given a smart gun to take down any of the Xenomorphs we might come across. Of course, a huge Xenomorph attack was pretty much telegraphed at this point, so when the swarm came I wasn't exactly shocked. The smartgun also took down so many Xenomorphs with auto-aiming ease that I felt like I was playing any number of other shooters that involve heavy guns and swarms of enemies. Yes, the Xenos were dropping from the ceiling and leaping from dark corners, but they were essentially cannon fodder for a short period before the objectives changed and urged me to move on. The H.R. Giger style of Alien constructs really came into play soon after this point though, as our characters ventured deeper into the infestation and got a good look at the strange squirmy shiny looking metallic "architecture" of the Xenomorphs environments. The demo soon ended after this point, just as soon as things were starting to get truly fresh and interesting. To be fair, slowly making our way through this environment with the motion tracker had it's fair share of tension. The biggest issue I have with what I've seen so far is in the fact that the human menace of the Weyland mercenaries seem to be more of a challenging opponent than the Xenomorphs. The aliens don't seem to have very adaptive A.I. and don't really hide out so much as wait for you to chance upon them. They seem at this point to exist solely to jump at you and quickly get mowed down. This is allayed quite a great deal within the multiplayer structure of the game where I had a chance to play two similar modes: Escape and Survival. I came away much more excited for the multiplayer than the single-player and its desire to feed so much fan service while somehow forgetting to add fresh elements of game design to the mix. In both of these objective-based modes, you play as either a team of human marines (with one spawn and you're out unless revived quickly by a teammate), or a team of Xenomorphs bent on killing the humans before they can finish their objectives. The marines play as expected with the usual weapon loadouts and upgrades we've seen with many other FPS games, just set in the Aliens universe. The Xenomorphs, however, have three different classes -- soldier, spitter, and lurker -- and they're all generally based on closer quarters combat. As the Xenomorphs, you can jump to ceilings and walls and crawl through vents while your vision is altered to see the marines in the level very clearly. You also have special upgradeable moves depending on your class that integrate a little strategy into the different modes. Soldiers are your basic melee-based attackers, while lurkers leap from the shadows, and spitters live up to their name, spitting acid like the hissing Xenomorphs in Alien 3. The gameplay in multiplayer is fast-paced and genuinely fun, and playing as the marines can actually be a much more tense experience than what I witnessed in the single-player campaign. You're constantly ambushed by the opposing Xenos if you're not looking over your shoulder. Getting killed feels especially punishing, as you're forced to watch the comrades you've let down get picked off by the opposing team, one by one. Perhaps the reason the multiplayer appeals to me so much more than what I witnessed of the single-player campaign relates back to personally liking the movie Alien more than Aliens. I prefer my Xenomorph horror of a less blunt and in your face kind, and more of a psychological thriller wherein you're faced with some dangerous unknown and must actually struggle to find a way to survive. As for Aliens: Colonial Marines, as a total package this should be a solid enough shooter to appease all sorts of fans of the series, but it's also a retread of many outdated and familiar gameplay mechanics. Maybe some day, Gearbox will make an open-world thriller of a game based off exploration of LV-223 in Prometheus. But until that time, I believe that if nothing else, Aliens: Colonial Marines will at the very least be a decent franchise tie-in that continues the canon of the series.
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Chestbursting excitement!
Before going out to view Prometheus, I felt it necessary to watch the first three Alien movies again to get a more cohesive feel of the universe. After coming away from this marathon viewing, I noted once again how different ...

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Impressions: Trine 2: Director's Cut on the Wii U


Oh, glorious GamePad
Dec 08
// Casey Baker
When Trine 2 was initially released, I was excited to check it out on Xbox Live Arcade as I had heard many good things about the first one and its open-ended, puzzle-platformer gameplay. Unfortunately, as much I was entranced...

Review: The Last Express (iOS)

Oct 20 // Casey Baker
The Last Express (iOS)Developer: DotEmuPublisher: DotEmuReleased: September 27, 2012MSRP: $4.99 In The Last Express, you take on the role of Robert Cath, an American adventurer who is dashingly handsome, fluent in various languages, and burdened with a questionable criminal past. In many ways, Cath fits into the Indiana Jones archetype -- even to the point that in one very Indiana Jones-ish combat scenario I could've sworn I heard the Wilhelm scream as an enemy died. Cath boards the Orient Express as an unknown, sneaking onto the train via motorcycle and quickly discovering that the friend he was expecting to rendezvous with has instead met his own mysterious demise. The game quickly sets you off onto a sort of choose-your-own-adventure, where you find yourself wandering the various corridors of the train and becoming either a passive or active participant of the events taking place around you. Even when playing casually on an iOS device, The Last Express will easily draw you into its immersive and self-contained universe. Characters pass by in narrow hallways, giving you a look and their pardon as they pass. People mill about in their rooms or in the restaurant car. And at various times you can eavesdrop on their conversations or actively become part of them. Of course, you don't actually have options as to what you will say -- Cath as a character is pretty self-assured and needs no help from our fourth-wall prodding -- though your choice to engage in conversations or ignore key characters will have a direct effect on your playthrough. [embed]236967:45496[/embed] The graphics are incredibly simplistic and the animations aren't even full-frame at times. Somehow, this simplicity is actually to the game's benefit. As you move about the train and watch characters interact, movements and gestures seem incredibly lifelike because of their familiarity -- it sort of feels like watching a simplified Renoir come to life. I know this sounds a bit pretentious, but I was honestly surprised by how such basic palettes and colors could tell such a deep and at times even emotional narrative. Normally, games that contain a murder mystery plot with overarching political intrigue really bore the shit out of me, but where The Last Express succeeds is in truly putting you in the moment. Every minute that passes is another minute towards your last destination, after all, and that final stopping place may change with your decisions from moment to moment. I can honestly say I have never felt the immediacy of my surroundings and actions in the same way as I did while playing through The Last Express. In one playthrough you may develop a love interest, help to defuse conflicts both petty and political, and develop alliances and enemies with various key players onboard. Granted, even though there are multiple ways to end the game, it seems that there is only one true sequence of events that leads to the "good" ending. Honestly, though, I'd be hard pressed to call any of the endings "happy." I've spent a lot of time gushing about the game itself -- I admittedly missed this gem the first time around, so it was exciting to play it in whatever format was available. However, the particular platform it's been released on has some incredibly frustrating issues, and I can't brand the game with a glowing review without considering the worthiness of it as a port. Touch sensitivity is a tricky beast for games ported to iOS, though successfully ported point-and-click adventure games have certainly come to mobile devices before. In complete honesty, I simply can't consider The Last Express among them. This may change with an update down the line, but as of now the game has an incredibly finicky touch control system. I played The Last Express on a 3rd generation iPad and found myself practically fighting with the controls at nearly every juncture. Icons on the screeen represent directions for your character to turn, though they could have been wingdings for all of the worth they had in actually getting my character to move properly. If I pressed on the button signifying "right," half the time the game would do the exact opposite. Pressing the button to move forward one frame would often send my character into a sprint, bypassing everything until the next traincar. These controls were especially frustratung during combat sequences, which play as proto-QTEs where you have to press the right direction with proper timing to survive dangerous fights. I nearly gave up in frustration during one of the late game battles because of this system. It took not only proper timing but bashing on the on-screen directional arrows and hoping they registered with the intended move. People often generally complain about touchscreen control and how awful it is for most mobile games. I argue stongly against this contention, as I have played so many awesome games with incredibly responsive controls that run the gamut from simple puzzle games (Ichi) to more complex adventure games like Swords & Sworcery that have the same familiar point-and-click interface. The Last Express falls on its face with the port's touch implementation, and this is really a shame. While I certainly accepted a certain amount of archaic control scheme frustration, I was surprised at how little work it seemed was actually put into making sure the game worked -- at least on an iPad. This was especially surprising given I was playing through on a device with ample screen space. Fortunately, The Last Express does have a good checkpoint system that even allows you to rewind time and play from an earlier train stop if you failed or missed something along the way. I suppose this and the newly implemented hint system are the major saving graces of this frustrating port. In every other way, it remains faithful to the original -- at least as far as I could surmise. I'm torn on this game, as I would normally give a game of this scope and brilliance a perfect 10, but my constant fight with the controls really did mar my enjoyment. Perhaps it's because the game is supposed to be playable on both iPad and iPhone, though from others' responses I've noticed it really only works on a smaller device. At the end of the day, I'd highly recommend picking up this relatively inexpensive version of The Last Express regardless, even if that means biting the bulllet with the control scheme and dealing with those frustrations. It's a piece of videogame history and a shining example of what can be done to create an experience so much more immersive than the Heavy Rains of today. I just can't rate the port as highly as I'd rate the core experience itself.
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Amazing game, touchy port
When The Last Express was first released in 1997, it was considered an incredibly engaging mystery set on the Orient Express as it traveled from Paris to Constantinople on the eve of World War I. In many ways the game was far...

Preview: How cassowaries saved my life in Far Cry 3

Oct 10 // Casey Baker
Far Cry 3 (PC [previewed with 360 controller], PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)Developer: Ubisoft MontrealPublisher: UbisoftRelease: December 4, 2012 Far Cry 3 starts with a bang -- quite literally, as M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes" accompanies a montage of your character and his friends having an "extreme" vacation at a tropical island named Rook Island, the environment you'll be spending your next several hours in. The montage ends suddenly with a seeming graphical glitch, and the camera pans away from a smartphone where the montage was running as a movie that you're being shown by Vaas, the island's resident psychopath. You find yourself caged like an animal next to your brother, Grant. Apparently a former marine, he quickly takes control of the situation as soon as Vaas turns his back. Grant loosens his shackles and frees you from yours, and as Vaas leaves Grant distracts the posted guard to come over and then brutally kills him. Pretty soon, you find yourself sneaking through an encampment of Vaas' guerrilla soldiers. This section of the game plays as a tutorial of sorts, teaching you how to throw rocks to distract guards and sneak through areas without being seen. Admittedly, the PC build I played crashed a few times through this part because of unforeseen graphic driver compatibility issues -- though this turned out not to be too bad, as each run through afforded another look at the incredibly detailed environment. Graphically, the game shines the most in all of the seemingly insignificant things that the developers have crammed into each area, and this especially shows throughout the intro tutorial. As you hide behind walls and under boulders, you notice both mundane things such as chickens running about or the minutiae of the small village you're in, as well gruesome events such as hanged prisoners and at one point in the distance you see Vas himself picking off the rest of the survivors with a handgun point-blank. I won't spoil too much about what happens after this, but some time passes and you wake up and find yourself under the concerned care of Dennis Rogers, a Liberian National who has found community with the warriors of Rook Island and your allies. At this point, the game opens up and I feel this is where I really got a sense for how Far Cry 3 plays. One of the first real missions I played involved finding a nearby broken down radio tower and fixing the signal for the village that has taken you in. The mission was simple enough -- I had to find a way to the radio tower and then climb up it to repair the main electrical box. Of course, on the way there I got a little distracted with the local fauna and picked a fight with a few wild hogs. After getting my arm nearly bitten off, I managed to kill this small group of hogs and skin them for their hides. You're even treated to a skinning animation that's just a touch more gruesome than the one found in Red Dead Redemption, though it seems to go by much faster. Climbing up the radio tower presented one little concern I have about the game. While normal movement including running and jumping around seem to be pretty fluid, there are certain areas where you climb upwards and the only way to actually access them is to get to special points where you can press a button to go into an animation. This is a little archaic in terms of character movement -- especially among so many games including even the most recent Zelda where climbing up a surface is incredibly fluid, but at least it did generally work well enough that I wasn't too bothered by it in my playthrough. It's certainly been the same way in past games of the series, but I suppose I was a little surprised that stilted movement like this hadn't been taken away completely. The radio tower mission revealed itself to be the start of several similar side missions that I could embark on later. Similar to Assassin's Creed, each time you make it to the top of a new radio tower you open up more of the map. This includes points of interest and routes to your next checkpoint. This was definitely a helpful mission, as it cleared the way to later missions involving collecting various wild plants and animal hides. Collecting these sorts of things is a much more focused and rewarding affair than in the past. Various plants can be mixed to give you herbal health remedies, as well as boosts to your defensive capability and to your accuracy when hunting. Animal hides are great for upgrading your backpack, as well as strengthening your weapons and supplies. Some collectibles -- often called "fetish" items in the game -- are good mainly for selling at your home base or any market for a pretty good price in order to upgrade weapons and armor or buy new ones. Soon after a few introductory missions in the game, Dennis guided me towards Dr. Earnhardt's mansion to possibly rescue Daisy -- one of the friends from the beginning of the game who had also been kidnapped. Earnhardt is a bit eccentric himself, a possibly mad scientist who sends you on a mission involving finding a mushroom in a cave full of toxic fungi. This is definitely one of the trippier sequences in the game, and after playing through it, I hoped there would be more varied missions involving the good doctor. One thing I noticed pretty quickly as I traversed the map is that Ubisoft is really making an effort this time to fill the map up with -- well, just more of everything that the last game lacked. There are side-quests to be found all over the place, including ATV checkpoint races to deliver supplies and small self-contained story missions like one I played involving two star-crossed lovers and a whole mess of pissed off monitor lizards. There are all kinds of possibilities for emergent events, as all sorts of animals roam freely and actually obey the laws of nature. The most exciting event in the game happened during one of these emergent moments. I had just finished a pretty meaty mission involving tons of combat in a rusted out ship. After using some stealth and then later a whole lot of molotov cocktails (I'm happy to say that the realistic burning effect is still present), I had completed the mission successfully and was just sort of wandering around when I happened to wander right into an enemy encampment. As I hid under a deck so as not to alert the guards, I noticed a little icon on the screen informing me that if I shot at cages, I'd let the animals in them out. I didn't really see any cages, so I crept closer until I was right underneath a guard. Finally, I noticed some sort of tropical and probably useless ostrich-looking bird sitting in a cage. Just as the guards became aware of me, I shot the cage for the hell of it and watched as one pissed-off cassowary wreaked havoc on the guards and was soon joined by a couple others. I took this momentary distraction to high-tail it out of the camp and made it about a half mile away before I was joined again by some soldiers in jeeps. At this point my health was waning, so I popped a few shots with a semi-automatic I had looted from a guard earlier and then waited for sweet death. The screen was turning red and my breathing was becoming more labored. I crawled to a bush to let myself breathe my last breath and suddenly the guards seemed to focus their attention at something else. As my health began to regenerate, I crept closer and realized that the pack of cassowaries had followed the guards and were once again dishing out vengeance! I honestly knew little about cassowaries before Far Cry 3. After playing the game and watching them literally kick the shit out of guards and then later kick me nearly to death, I learned from Wikipedia that they are in fact just as dangerous as depicted in the game and have even been known to disembowel other animals. I think cassowaries are my new favorite animal now, replacing the honey badger. Emergent moments like this popped up throughout my playthrough and made the game that much more compelling and fun to play, whether I was focusing on one of the main mission objectives or just running over animals because I was on a wild killing spree. Far Cry 3 seems to offer a very dark and possibly somewhat complex story about a ruthless psychopath and many other dangerous characters around the island. It also offers one of the more entertaining open-world experiences I've played in awhile. I was chased by sharks, spit at by monitor lizards, bitten by wild hogs, and kicked in the guts by cassowaries while passing through areas of both allies and foes and picking up supplies and new missions along the way. The game does a great job of blurring the line between what are the "important" main missions and what are entertaining side missions that you might wander into simply because you happen to be close by. The game also features a huge variety of upgradeable weapons and many ways to travel about the island, as well as areas where enemies will attack you and areas where you can just chill at with your allies and buy new stuff. I came away from my playthrough believing that above all else, the Far Cry series has returned to its roots in terms of offering a great number of creative ways to cause chaos and have a ton of fun while doing so.
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The original Far Cry was an incredibly fun experience, with a varied deadly tropical landscape and relatively intelligent A.I. opponents for the time. The gameplay was both challenging and continuously engaging, and made me a...

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Get acquainted with the allies of Far Cry 3 in this video


Oct 09
// Casey Baker
The trailer above details two of your main allies in Far Cry 3. Dennis Richards is a Liberian National who has found a home among the Rakyat tribe that lives on Rook Island. During my own playthrough that will go up tomorrow...

Preview: Strike Suit Zero and space-based mech warfare

Sep 07 // Casey Baker
Strike Suit Zero (PC)Developer: Born Ready GamesPublisher: DoublesixRelease: TBD You may have seen the trailers for Strike Suit Zero floating around here and elsewhere on the Internet, and the glimpse of giant mechs may have gotten your mind to imagining some heavy duty ground combat sections. This may be a bit misleading, as I was informed by the developers that Strike Suit Zero only takes place hovering thousands of miles above any sort of solid ground, if anywhere near it at all. However, I would definitely urge you not to be disappointed by this news, as the primary transforming mech suit more than makes up for it with its incredible versatility in space warfare. Even with a pre-beta build that we had a chance to play, the combat was both challenging and engaging. In the first mission we previewed, the first large-scale battle took place against a great deal of smaller ships. This helped me get a feel for the basic controls, which are generally mouse and keyboard controls with a few adjustments relating to boosting and extra movement in the Strike Suit. Gamepads and joysticks are also supported, though I stuck with the typical PC controls. The mission's storyline involved coming to the aid of a destroyed Earth base in the midst of a massive civil war between colonists possessing a powerful technology and those still remaining patriotic to the planet. The sense of a large battle taking place was in full effect, as ships on my side engaged in dogfights while I tried my best to keep hordes of enemy ships in my line of fire. With a press of the spacebar, my ship would quickly transform into its mech state -- provided I had enough "flux." In this mode, I could hold down the right mouse button to paint several targets and release it to let go of a barrage of missiles that destroyed several targets at once. The Strike Suit also can dash quickly out of the way of incoming enemy projectiles in full 360-degree movement, and shoots powerful machine gun bursts as its primary weapon. Flux is gained by taking down enemies in chains, and it is entirely possible to stay in this more powerful mode provided you can keep chaining kills and refilling your flux bar. At one point during the session, a comparison was made regarding the space combat to Max Payne -- which I found a little strange at first, but as soon as I figured out how to effectively use the Strike Suit, this comparison completely clicked. As you're battling enemies, you learn quickly to switch back and forth in rapid bursts between your mech suit and your regular ship to effectively store flux and keep enough power stored for stronger enemies. One of the biggest strategies -- especially in the later parts of the second mission we previewed -- can be found in quickly switching to your mech suit to paint a few targets and dodge a few missiles before switching right back to your normal ship mode and boosting out of harm's way. This definitely did give off a similar vibe to Max Payne's bullet-dodge mechanic, as it was all about the best timing to get into a special mode before painting several targets and leaping out of the way. As mentioned before, the game was still in a pre-beta stage so although there was narrative and storyline built in, it was given to us by a hastily Photoshopped and distorted picture of a young and much maligned male pop star as a space commander with a robotic female voice. Of course, we were told to ignore this early build stuff, but in a weird way, it sort of worked. Granted, I'm sure the actual narrative will be handled much more professionally but like early screenings of movies where character dialogue has some odd kinks to be worked out, it was still sort of fun to see some effort put into getting the story and dialogue at least set into place. Overall, I really believe Strike Suit Zero will do an awesome job in reviving the space combat genre for those who grew up with and loved games like Wing Commander. It has intelligent, tough enemy AI and a great Strike Suit advantage that prepares you for the challenges ahead with powerful defensive and offensive abilities. The eerie, otherworldly soundtrack is certainly no slouch either.
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Born Ready Games has a vision to revive large-scale space combat as a viable genre in the vein of games like Wing Commander and Freelancer. With their new PC venture Strike Suit Zero, the company is poised to do exactly that....

Preview: Solving simple puzzles in The Cave

Sep 07 // Casey Baker
The Cave (PlayStation Network, Xbox Live Arcade, PC)Developer: Double Fine ProductionsPublisher: SegaReleases: Early 2013 The Cave is a game that features seven eccentric characters: a Hillbilly, a Knight, Creepy Twins, a Time Traveler, an Adventurer, and a Monk. You play as three of these characters, and apparently in the actual game your choices in this matter will affect the kinds of caves you'll be exploring, as each character is looking for something special to them (such as the twins seeking out their lost mother). Therefore, you may have to play through the game more than once to solve all of the puzzles and play out the characters' stories. You control a single character at a time, and as you progress through levels, you'll find yourself switching between them in a style reminiscent of Gilbert's Maniac Mansion in order to solve puzzles with appropriate timing. When I began the demo, the cave for which the game is named gave me a brief welcome and tutorial, and I was free to wander around the vibrant, beautifully rendered environment. Based on first impressions, I noticed that all of the characters moved around at a pretty quick pace that isn't usual to an adventure game, and that solving puzzles generally relied on finding objects in the environment and using them on other objects to progress deeper into the world. There is no real inventory management and the game plays like a platformer rather than a point-and-click adventure game. A good example of this: as I ran around with my knight, I found a fuse box that was powering a sort of claw machine over a pit of spikes. I knew from earlier in the level that I needed the fuse itself to power up some vending machines, though I wasn't entirely sure what good this would do me. Getting the active fuse required first finding something to stop it from being live and dangerous, and so I went to an earlier point in the level and grabbed a bucket from a well to come back and catch water that was dropping onto the lively fuse. Once I got to the vending machines with the fuse, one of them dropped a hot dog. My knight picked this item up and carried it with him. At this point, the need for your other characters starts to come into play. I knew that I couldn't go further into the level without getting eaten by a giant monstrous lizard creature, and I also knew that the tasty hot dog would play into this whole equation somehow. Between myself and the giant lizard was a deadly pit of spikes, so I decided to climb up and see if I could lure the beast right into the pit. Before using the hot dog, I realized I could possibly use the claw machine to grab the lizard when it came out to investigate. I brought my knight up to the top level of the cave where the mechanics for the claw machine sat. I quickly realized that without the fuse, the machine was no longer active, so I got my second 'set' of characters into play, and brought the twins back to the vending machine to retrieve the fuse. I knew better than to drop the hot dog now, though I could imagine that if I had and needed another one, I'd have to use my third character to bring it back before taking the fuse out of the machine again with the twins. It's this sort of item management that will surely play a key part of solving puzzles in the game. Once the fuse was back in place, I threw the hot dog onto the spikes. Still no dice. The monster needed to be alerted to its meal. Fortunately, at the same level as the spike pit was a bell that could be rung. The solution to the puzzle lay in bringing the knight up to the mechanical claw's main gearbox while using another character to ring the bell. As soon as the lizard was alerted by the twins and wandered out to investigate, the knight pulled the lever, the claw descended, and soon one bellyaching lizard hung high in the air -- safely granting the characters passage. This is where the demo ended, and it didn't exactly give me a great idea of the exact scope of the game. I solved the puzzles pretty quickly and they tended to feel like the sort of puzzles we've come to expect from both the adventure and puzzle-platformer genres. Having said that, my time with the game was certainly enjoyable and the brief demo left me intrigued as to what the cave itself will symbolize for the various characters and their quests. The Cave will be released in early 2013 for PC, PSN, and XBLA.
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At the Sega Booth during PAX Prime 2012, I was able to get a quick demo preview of The Cave, an upcoming puzzle platformer coming to both consoles and PC by Ron Gilbert and Double Fine. From first impressions, I immediately a...

PAX: State of Decay is not just another zombie game

Sep 03 // Casey Baker
State of Decay (Xbox Live Arcade, PC)Developer: Undead LabsPublisher: Microsoft StudiosRelease: TBA 2013 From what I've read about State of Decay around the net, a lot of comparisons have been made in terms of gameplay to Day Z, the well-received mod built off of the Arma 2 engine. While the game has simulation aspects that may hearken back to the Day Z mod, the similarities generally end there. Also, the game has gone through a name change and turned into a completely single-player experience since it initially began. The story of State of Decay begins when your character returns from a fishing trip only to realize that the world he once knew is gone, and in its place is a nightmare of hungry undead corpses. As soon as your character finds and befriends a survivor, you're able to switch between your main character and the survivor, and as you discover more survivors, you begin to build a community that may fend off the zombie apocalypse together. A death in State of Decay is permanent; when a survivor dies, there is no retry button. This survivalist element affects everything in the game -- just about every resource is finite, though as soon as you have enough survivors, you can begin to build an actual, physical community and stock ammo and defenses. The world in State of Decay is persistent. You can leave the game and your survivors only to come back later and learn that your need for food and ammo has increased dramatically, forcing you into an emergent side quest. The game will have a general story arc with about 10 to 15 hours of play in the main quest line, and an infinite number of hours (depending on luck and skill in surviving) in the emergent open world. Different survivors have varying skills as well as character attributes that affect their friendship with you and with the other people. An example of this was explained to me in the form of a character who might have the trait of being a selfish asshole and a supply hoarder, but he's your best sharp-shooter so you sort of need him on the team. With my hands-on PAX preview, I took control of a female survivor named Maya. The build I played was still early, so the graphics weren't super polished, but the intent and gameplay were certainly there. I decided I wanted to get into some trouble, so I jumped into a police car and drove past my community safe zone into the wilderness. The first thing I learned about killing zombies in vehicles is that an open car door is a great way to take down a few extra walkers, provided you're not driving slow enough to let one of them grab on. After running through zombies for a few rounds, Maya's police car was nearly totaled, so I ditched it in some bushes and found myself wandering through the underbrush -- right into the eager arms of several moaning corpses. Using my character's melee weapon (an axe), I chopped and sliced several zombies before deciding that if I didn't move soon, I'd be overwhelmed. Maya made it back onto the main road and jumped into a car just as it began to rock with a ton of zombies crawling all over it. I steered her further away from the zombies and got back out into the open with a few molotovs in hand. During my scuffs with the zombie hordes, I saw one huge brutish zombie and was told by the PR reps that he was certainly one to watch out for. He began to advance towards Maya before he freaked out and started attacking what looked like other zombies, until both I and the developer on hand realized his object of "affection" was actually other survivors. Watching the brutish zombie pummel one of the poor survivors was rather brutal, even when it glitched a little and the survivor was frozen against a lamppost in a near fetal position for a little while until the brutish zombie managed to grab him again and play with him like a cat's toy. I was so mesmerized by the plight of the other survivors, I didn't notice the zombies that had shambled up behind me, and very soon I was overwhelmed. Watching the zombies feast on Maya was also gory, and it signaled the very end of PAX and consequently the end of my hands-on time. Everything I saw and heard about State of Decay made it sound and feel like an incredibly promising title. The game is still in a relatively early stage and, as such, definitely showed some very rough edges, though the most important aspect for now -- the pure intent of the developers' vision -- shines through even after just a few minutes of gameplay. With help from a developer who has an intimate knowledge of the MMO structure, State of Decay is looking to offer a completely novel, persistent open-world experience. The fact that this is planned to be released as an Xbox Live Arcade game in the interest of working towards an amazing MMO experience further in the future is just icing on the cake.
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As PAX wound down to its final hour, I happened to walk by the Microsoft booth once more on my way out and noticed the Xbox Live Arcade game State of Decay finally had some space for me to get a quick runthrough as the conven...

PAX: Avatar Motocross Madness is actually decent

Sep 03 // Casey Baker
The main game mode I checked out involved a race in an Egyptian desert environment, called Dynasty City. The full game will have three different main locations -- Egypt, Australia, and Iceland -- and about four races at each location, for a total of 12 races. What immediately struck me during my hands-on was that the vehicle handling was pretty tight, and that steering and performing tricks felt natural. In Avatar Motocross Madness, you gain boost through performing tricks in a simplified version of the trick/boost reward system seen in games like Pure. The tricks generally seem to be your standard motocross set, though getting in a timely landing does play an important role lest you face a nasty crash and penalty that halts the game for a moment before letting you get back into the race. The racing seems fairly well balanced, as I felt like I was being challenged enough to keep things interesting throughout the track. It took actual skill to keep up, rather than the sort of rubber-banding A.I. that games of this nature often employ. Avatar Motocross Madness also has a free-roam mode that immediately brought to mind hours I once wasted driving around in Smuggler's Run or even the earlier MX vs. ATV series for PS2. In this mode, you wander around the desert environment grabbing coins and collectibles. I was told that although there was a time limit in the demo shown at PAX, the actual game would have no such restriction. Another mode absent from the demo that is sort of like the free-roam mode is called Trick Session, where you compete against the ghosts of other players or against A.I. bots to get the most tricks in a timed free-roam session. While Avatar Motocross Madness certainly doesn't seem to stray from an expected formula, I came away from the demo actually enjoying my time with it. To be completely honest, I stopped by the neglected booth a couple more times during the weekend just to get a quick fix of a genre that I tend to love as a pick-up-and-play experience. As much as I absolutely hate most titles I've seen that incorporate Xbox avatars into their gameplay, I feel it'd be a shame not to mention this game as a genuinely enjoyable one that's not too casual and not so hardcore that it gets to be frustrating. Let's just hope the price point will match the experience when the game releases in 2013.
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The Xbox 360 indie scene is filled with a ton of throwaway games and "experiences" that incorporate your Xbox Avatar into the gameplay. It's not surprising that Microsoft's own Avatar Motocross Madness for Xbox Live Arcade si...

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PAX: Borderlands 2 Mechromancer character unveiled


Sep 02
// Casey Baker
At a closed-door screening, Gearbox's Mike Neumann officially unveiled the previously described fifth character class, Gaige the Mechromancer. Unsurprisingly, Gaige more or less looks like her concept art as realized in the c...

Interview: Defining 2D stealth in Mark of the Ninja

Aug 23 // Casey Baker
Destructoid: So I've seen a few preview trailers for Mark of the Ninja and from what I can tell, it's stealth game with a sort of Assassin's Creed vibe set in a two-dimensional environment. Where did the idea for this come from? Nels Anderson: Well, 2D stealth games -- they don't really exist, right? There are like, maybe three others ever. Only one of which even existed when we started [Mark of the] Ninja. So, we had to do a lot, a lot, a lot of design work to just figure out how to do this stuff, because, what's the fundamental hiding action of a 3D stealth game? "Like, oh a guy is coming my way, I'm going to go hide in a corner." Except in 2D, of course, you don't have any corners. Ha, yeah exactly. So for me, the initial design process was really about looking at 3D stealth games -- the kind of games that I love -- and then deconstructing them almost, like figuring out why they made the decisions they did, and then pulling that up a level, and then translating that back down to 2D. A lot of these games are about control of space -- where is the space that I have access to and am affected in versus the space that's controlled by the guards, by their control paths, or vision or whatever. So it was kind of like, "How do we do that in 2D instead?" So it just ended up being a lot of iteration, experimentation, "Oh look, a thing doesn't work!" Just turning that over and over again until we finally got the thing pointed in the right direction. In the preview trailer, I noticed one of the big things you do for example is use a grappling hook to get out of the way... Right. So one of the main stealth "things" -- because you don't have stuff on the same plane to break up line of sight (no corners) -- one of the ways we got at good stealthiness was giving the player's ninja a lot more movement abilities than the other agents, so things like the grappling hook where I can do very precise point-to-point movement. You can climb on the walls, you can climb on the ceilings, all that kind of stuff. You can't break line of sight by, say geometry; we can get you out of line of sight instead by you being way more navigable than the enemies are. Right. Kind of on that same note I noticed light and shadow came into play in the trailer -- how much does that affect gameplay? Yeah, that comes into play as well. Like I said, I like stealth games a lot. But, I also understand how they can be inaccessible for some folks because a lot of those core stealth elements that you really need to understand to effectively play the game -- they're all kind of opaque. It's like, "I'm going to make a noise ... is that guy over there going to hear me?" You just try it and then, ope, he does, and then he shoots you in the face. Yeah, it's a lot of trial and error at times ... Even with light and darkness, it ends up just being some HUD element, right? Like, there's a light jam or some kind of meter or whatever. And that's fine, that works, but kind of because the game is in 2D, it's already a little more abstract. You're not embodied in the character if it's first-person or even third-person 3D. So we can put things in the world that may be a little more abstract without it seeming like this exogenous element that's really artificial. So things like light and darkness, for example: we wanted to make it very very explicit when you're hidden and when you're not. Whenever you're in darkness, the whole character's build is completely different so he's mainly black with a few red highlights and a white outline all around him. In light, you can see all the dark blues in his costume, there's no white outline, you can see the flesh tones, so it's really really obvious.  We did the same thing with all the noise systems in the game -- that's a big part of the enemy's perception model. They have what they can see, but also what they can hear. Visualizing what someone can hear, which is a weird thing to think about, is tricky, right? Most games don't bother, or like, there will be a "Ring!" in the world or something. We wanted to make it really really explicit, so that any time a noise is made in the game that the enemies can hear, we literally put an effect on the screen that's this big blue expanding ring that goes out the distance that's how far the noise is going to travel. So you break a light, this thing comes out of it ... So it's like more of a visualization then. I see how the two-dimensional aspect of it makes it so it's much more of that kind of visualization rather than relying (strictly) on spatial aspects. That sounds really interesting, like a nice twist on the formula. Right. Because it's in 2D ... I don't know how you could visualize that in 3D, it'd be like a big, weird dome or something. Anyhow, because it's more abstract you have a little more space to play around with there. Part of the reason I like stealth games is that you can play very intentionally. That's what those games are about. Fundamentally, you're undetected and the world is just kind of running. It's up to you to poke and perturb it as you see fit. Which means you end up formulating plans, "I'm gonna go over here, then this guy is going to react and start walking this way, so then I can go over because now he's over there, blah blah blah." But to get to that point, you have to have a pretty good understanding of how all the systems of the game are working.  So it's kind of like, let's just get people to that as quickly as we can -- not to make the game easy, but we wanted to make an understanding of those core fundamental stealth system just a tool you have at your disposal along with the grappling hooks and smoke bombs and stuff like that. So it's like, these are things I can use to play and to solve these problems in ways I personally find interesting. That was a major design objective where we didn't want to make the game seem like puzzles where you have to find the "one" solution -- the only solution that works. It was very very edifying because we had to playtest the everliving hell out of this. We did more playtesting on this -- by order of magnitude -- than any other game we've made ever. Which is good, but it was edifying near the end, when one of my buddies was playing it; he's not a developer but just a good friend of mine who plays a goodly amount of games. When he played it he was like, "When I finished that bit, it felt like there were lots of other things I could've done." So, hopefully there are lots of other people who feel that way because that was sort of the goal. It's like, "Here are these tools you have your disposal. Use them as you wish." It seems like Dishonored is coming at that from kind of a similar point. It seems like Harvey [Smith] and Raph [Colantonio] and I come from a similar place -- really intentional play, player empowerment, and all of that. "Here's how stuff works. Use it as you see fit." So then, what is learning curve as far as level progression goes? Is it going to be pretty quickly that you're given a lot of tools, or ... ? It's definitely not the case that two levels in you've got everything. Things get more and more doled out. From the first two or three levels, you get the core things you're going to get. The way we approached the game, there aren't like explicit easy, medium and hard settings. When all of the enemies die in one hit because you're sneaking up and stabbing them, you can't just give them more hit points, it doesn't work, right? So instead, what we ended up doing is that every level has three sets of explicit optional goals. They're totally optional but they kind of encourage you to experiment with other mechanics systems in the game that you might not come into if you're just playing it straight ... So what's an example of these kinds of optional goals? One thing might be "Get from point A in this level to point B without ever breaking a light." Other ones are like "Find a way to terrify this guard using this particular item." Oh I see, so those kind of specific stealth goals ... Yes. Some of them are broadly, "Any time in the level, do this" while others are more specifically "in this chunk of a level, do a thing." So those are what we call the "Seals." There are also ... every level has three hidden scrolls ... The game does have explicit levels with a start and end point, it's not like a full, open, totally connected Metroidvania thing -- but there is a good amount of branching and diversity in the paths within any particular level, sort of to reward being explorative ... Explora-tative? Exploring ... Uh ... (laughs) To do more exploration, every level has three of these hidden scrolls in it which kind of tell some of the backstory in an audio log sort of way. Except they're all written in haiku, which I think is totally awesome. And then every level has point-scoring tiers, "For one star ..." so to speak, this many points then that many points, etc. Even in designing that, I wanted to make sure there wasn't a dominant play style in terms of how the game rates your performance. Because that's basically what points do no matter how you gussy it up or change it. When the game gives you points for doing a thing, that's basically the game saying you did the "right thing." I thought it very important that we didn't bias the game toward one particular play style or another. So whenever you stealth kill an enemy, you receive an amount of points but by the end of the level, for whatever enemy you didn't kill you could potentially receive a similar amount of points. You aren't penalized for trying to play the game a single way.  It ends up being, "Approach this thing in the way you find it interesting ..." not "Do it this way because that's the way we point you to ..." Right, so then what is the main storyline? I haven't really ... Yeah, we haven't been talking about the story a lot just because mechanically there's so much to explain up to this point, but we definitely want to talk about it from this point going forward. The high-level is you're part of a ninja clan that has survived until the modern day. Obviously back during Japan's warring states period ninjas really existed but after that they sort of ... they went back to farming or whatever. We had this notion that there was one clan that survived and the did it because they found this strange flower. And what this flower does is, it can be ground up and made into tattoo ink. And whenever someone receives tattoos they get strange powers. It's nothing like ninja magic supernatural powers, more like height of human possibility -- like you're an Olympic athlete in fifteen events. But what they also unfortunately discovered is that anyone who receives these tattoos is also slowly driven insane.  So they end up ritualizing this so someone only receives these tattoos in times of great crisis, like when the clan's very survival is threatened. And then after the clan's survival is assured, whatever champion is selected is asked to ritually kill themselves to ensure they don't become a danger to the clan. Of course, the game opens with you -- the player character -- being the one selected to receive the tattoos because the clan is facing those times of crisis. So that's kind of the narrative thrust that carries through the game. So will that play into the story itself, like as far as when you get further in the levels will the tattoos sort of affect you at all, or can you talk about that ...? Obviously, I don't want to get into pure spoiler territory, but we very intentionally made the decisions we did with respect to all of that stuff. It's not like just a throw-away, "This in a cut scene!" sort of thing. It certainly plays to ... games like Shank and Shank 2 are super pulp, they're like a Rodriguez/Grindhouse action game, which they're totally what they're supposed to be, but with this, we wanted to have something still very stylized but with a little more dramatic heft. With the mechanics and game dynamics and narrative and the tone, all that stuff fit together very nicely. That core power dynamic in stealth games is about this interplay between strength and weakness. When I'm in my element, I'm strong, I'm powerful -- but when I'm not, I'm also very vulnerable and exposed. That's what that whole tattoos thing are about; it gives you all these abilities, but ultimately at this great, terminal cost. So it's like, let's make sure all this stuff points in this good, cohesive direction. [Mark of the Ninja comes out on Xbox Live Arcade on September 7 and may possibly later arrive on PC.]
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I've always had a complicated relationship with stealth games. On the one hand, I love sneaking around and plotting out how I'm going to take out every enemy in a given room. On the other, I get frustrated easily when a game ...

Review: Rainbow Moon

Aug 23 // Casey Baker
Rainbow Moon (PSN)Developer: SideQuest StudiosPublisher: EastAsiaSoftReleased: July 10, 2012 MSRP: $14.99 Rainbow Moon's story begins rather abruptly with the main protagonist, Baldren, getting warped through a magical portal into a new world by his arch-rival Namoris. Baldren is blamed by the locals for all of the monsters appearing lately, and it becomes his duty to find his rival and most importantly, get back to his home. In several hours of gameplay, the main story never really deviates from this, nor does it add any sort of intrigue or wonder to the world as a whole. One of the biggest crimes of Rainbow Moon's story is that characters you gain along the way are generally collected unceremoniously through fetch quests, and aren't really given any sort of interesting backstories. In fact, the game generally progresses through a series of fetch quests that make the mechanics of Rainbow Moon show through early on and wear thin quickly. There isn't much voice work in the game, either, though the little bit of it you'll find can get grating and old before long (the healer, who you'll rely on throughout the game, is an especially irritating example of this). Of course, story isn't the primary draw of strategy RPGs and where Rainbow Moon does admittedly shine is in the actual battle-to-battle gameplay. The combat takes place on large grids where each character has a basic attack and special attacks gained through scroll purchases and leveling up. Like most SRGPs, the combat plays out like an ever-shifting game of chess, where each attack needs to be planned intelligently in order to maximize hits and defend properly. Sometimes enemies drop bags of loot, and a risk/reward system comes into play in moving characters to the loot locations while still in battle in order to maximize the potential of the type and amount of loot you gain through battles. Loot plays a big part in Rainbow Moon, as a good chunk of the game is devoted to managing your resources so that you use raw materials to upgrade your weapons and equipment, or simply sell the materials to get better equipment. There are many other more passive factors that may come into play during a battle, such as the type of weapons your characters use and their viability against enemy weapons, or your positioning on the battlefield and skills that may enhance your party through smart placement. The game has an incredibly gradual learning curve; passive skills barely even play an important role in the first few hundred battles. In fact, the biggest downfall of Rainbow Moon is that it takes it just a bit too easy on the player. You can save absolutely anywhere as long as you're not engaged in a battle, and if you do die, it becomes not much more than a slap on the wrist, as you aren't really punished for death beyond having your health and mana points completely drained and forcing you to seek out a healer to spend hard-earned "Rainbow Coins" to bring your condition back to normal. This might provide its own challenge if the healers weren't nearly always within very close vicinity; tougher dungeons generally become frequent returns to the closest healer instead of any sort of strategic stocking of your supplies. Despite all of my complaints, there is certainly something to be said about Rainbow Moon's main gameplay: like comfort food, it is easy to digest and always reliable. I found myself going back to the game for second and third helpings not necessarily because I believed the game would show me something new and innovative, but because the familiar strategy and loot grab elements made the gameplay generally engaging and dare I say it -- even fun. However, after around 20-30 hours of a repetitive grind-quest that found me repeatedly leveling up to take out enemies in a given area and defeat a boss only to approach new enemies that would require another few hours to once again level up and do the same, I still saw no engaging story in sight and my interest waned. I had acquired several characters in my party and had even leveled up their skills and given them new skills, and yet knew of no interesting backstory for any of them or any truly compelling reason to why they were aiding me on my quest. Admittedly, I don't believe I got anywhere near finishing the game in my hours of playtime, though in many ways, the game feels a lot like a casual iOS title in that it doesn't demand too much of the player other than their time. If the game had an engaging story and actually felt more like a "game" than a procedural chore, I would have been committed to finishing it properly. Instead Rainbow Moon offers you the gameplay you love, with none of the charm or interest.
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Tactical role-playing games gained a more mainstream momentum with titles such as Final Fantasy Tactics and Fire Emblem on the Nintendo DS due to their bright, friendly graphics and user friendliness. After more notable hardc...

Preview: Worms Revolution brings a deluge from the past

Jun 29 // Casey Baker
[embed]230262:44236[/embed] Worms Revolution (PC [previewed], PlayStation Network, Xbox Live Arcade) Developer: Team17 Software Ltd. Publisher: Team17 Software Ltd.Release: End of September (PC), TBD (PSN, XBLA) Genesis of Worms: In the Beginning... The earliest genre of a strategy game in the vein of Worms appeared sometime in the '70s, with a simple demo program on the Apple II known as Artillery. This early prototype featured two pixelated squares meant to represent tanks facing off against each other on a very simple battlefield. The game featured actual physics that showed the trajectory of your projectiles as you shot at the opposing tank. Meanwhile, across the pond, a slacker student was designing his own form of Artillery on a graphing calculator while trying his hardest not to sleep through his mathematics class. As Andy Davidson tells it, "...The earliest form was on a Casio graph-plotting calculator -- we were meant to be doing maths lessons and everything, and I had a little bet with my mate. He said, 'I bet you can't make a game on that.' and I said, 'I bet I can.' ...it was just a basic artillery game, similar to the ones on the Commodore 64...and I showed it to him and he said, 'How the hell did you do that?' and looking back, I'm not sure how I did it -- but that's how boring maths was at school." When Davidson got his hands on an Amiga computer -- especially popular in the UK in the '80s -- he ported over his little project onto his school computer, and even began to add his own features, such as the bottomless water pits that caused instant kills, and "little things running around" that you could individually name. As his game ideas expanded, fellow students became obsessed with the game -- often to the frustration of his teachers. "It was purely a game for me and my mates rather than to do schoolwork; college-work and everything ... eventually it got people skipping lessons to play it. The corner of the art room was basically anarchy -- all you had was people shouting at each other, explosions going off. My form teacher eventually banned it, he just went, 'I never want to see that bloody game in school again.'" At this point, Andy Davidson decided his dream was to get his game published. "So then instead of going to university, I thought -- this is what I want to do. And with it being banned, I knew there was something in there. If a song's been banned, it's usually good. If a film's been banned, it's usually good. So I told them, 'I'm not going to go to University, I'm going to get my game published.'" My form teacher turned around and said, 'Andy, you're good -- but not that good.' Which was, you know, Cheers for the encouragement. So that drove me on as well..." From this point onward, Davidson rewrote and tinkered with his pet project while working in an Amiga shop. He chose to use worms instead of tanks because at that point in game's history worms hadn't been featured as characters yet, and because Davidson knew he could keep it simple and retain humorous animations using the annelids. Davidson offered his customers a chance to play his game, making them unwitting testers who would often spend hours in the shop just to keep playing "Total Wormage." "...I wanted people to like the game who hated video games, I wanted to create a really social thing -- because that's what it was, for you to play with your friends." At a London Computer Show known as the ECTS (European Computer Trade Show), Davidson brought his game forward to be considered for publishing and found a home with Ocean Software and development Team17. The original Worms was published in 1995 on the Amiga personal computer, and later ported to other electronic devices. Worms Revolution: The Approaching Flood Davidson left Team17 after working last on Worms Armageddon for PC because he didn't really like where the series was going. Some time after his departure came the first (somewhat disastrous) foray of Worms in 3D, and then several reiterations of Davidson's basic formula. Interestingly, exactly 17 years have passed since Davidson has returned to work on the series, and with Worms Revolution he and Team17 hope the game will appeal to a larger audience through its new gameplay engine and polished graphics. I had a chance to play a round with Davidson to get an idea of what this next iteration will add to the series. The first immediate noticeable change is the sense of scale in the game. With three-dimensional implementation, the worms appear in an environment more suited to their size while animals and people wander around as giants in the background. One of the first environments I saw was sort of an underground bunker in a mound of dirt at a farm. Other environments include within a sewer, on a beach, and in a scientist's "spooky backyard." The 3D implementation will also be important for a few special weapons, such as one that Davidson showed me where one of the original Worms of the series zip-lined into the foreground and was able to aim at a specific area of the map to blast the opposing team with a grenade. The environments are still structured very similarly to earlier games for strategic purposes, though with a new water physics implementation they're formed in such a way to make it fun to let water splash around and flow fluidly through tunnels and across barriers. The water physics are the biggest new mechanic draw to the series, as two of the water-specific weapons included a water-balloon grenade and an air strike of water balloons that can flood an area, sometimes washing nearby worms into the ocean depths. During my preview, I pelted Davidson's team of worms with several water balloons, slowly drowning at least one of them while pushing the rest just barely to the brink of death. The water physics add an interesting new wrinkle to the strategy as you can try to push the opposing worms towards explosive objects, chemically noxious beakers, or the bottomless sea itself. The water moves fluidly and realistically through the map, flooding areas and causing turn-based damage to worms who sit mindlessly under it. Another strategic implementation is the use of different classes of worms. When the player customizes his/her team of worms, they can choose between four classes for each worm. These classes include a tank type that can both deal and take a lot of damage but moves very slowly; a scout type who moves quickly through the level and can tunnel through dirt quickly but is highly vulnerable; a brainy type who offers health to his teammates and also can set up turrets; and finally, the stock soldier type that most players are already quite familiar with. The worms seem even more expressive than before, as they squirm and wriggle a bit more realistically through the environment and make hilariously dumb faces at the realization of imminent death. The new engine makes everything seem more cartoonish and expressive, including the background animations and player deaths. Worms Revolution includes four basic game types, including a campaign mode with about 40 specific missions, a deathmatch mode, a classic mode for hardcore gamers who want the original weapon set, and a new "Fort" mode, where each team has their own uniquely themed fort, and the strategy is found in deciding whether to infiltrate the enemy fort or defend your own as you lob projectiles at one another. I played a single deathmatch round with Andy and we both blasted each other with a few well-aimed shots of water and shrapnel and misfired a few others with often hilarious results. Though the match was a close one, Andy proved his worth as both a gamer and a developer and won by taking my team down with some incredibly well-aimed hits. The new water physics proved to be a blast to mess around with, and the overall gameplay still retains the same addictive sense of strategic mayhem that has made the Worms series such a lasting gem from the earlier days of gaming. Worms Revolution is planned to be released at the end of September on Steam for around $15.00 and later on Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network for an equivalent price.
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The history of the Worms franchise is a long and storied one, spanning all the way back to the very early days of gaming. In an interview with Andy Davidson, the main creator of the original Worms game, I was given insight in...

Preview: Sleeping Dogs may be a sleeper hit

May 24 // Casey Baker
Sleeping Dogs (PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [previewed]) Developer: United Front Games Publisher: Square EnixRelease: August 14, 2012 (US) / August 16, 2012 (AUS) / August 17, 2012 (EU) The demo I played kicked off with a quick tutorial in which I practiced a new move I was given in a martial arts school (collecting jade statues throughout the world gives you access to more moves.) I learned pretty quickly how fluidly combat works in Sleeping Dogs, as most moves are handled with a certain number of presses/holds of a single button, and grappling and countering both relying on their own button assignments. The simplicity of the combat mechanics helps a lot when facing off against the different enemy types that your protagonist Wei Shen must deal with as he infiltrates the Triad underworld. In one of the early missions I got to check out, Wei's childhood friend Jackie (and low-level Triad) knows of an inside deal where the two of them can boost some stolen goods from a rival gang to impress the higher members of the Triads. As I faced off against various thugs, Wei Shen fought with some awesome martial arts moves. At times, you can use environmental objects to shove enemies into, such as trash bins, supply boxes, etc. When special types of enemies can't be grappled, using the counter with the correct timing yields successful beat-downs. The enemies provided a healthy challenge, though, before the mission ever started I had already visited a few shops to buy food and items that helped give me special perks, such as increased defense and more attack power. I really appreciated this new take on the old "eat things to get health" idea. The perks last for a specific amount of time, as represented by little icons on the top left of the HUD with radial bars that slowly deplete over a period of time. At the end of the mission, Wei is disappointed to learn that Jackie has been concentrating their efforts on stealing some fake designer watches. At least the player is rewarded with some points towards either Triad or Police bonuses for their troubles. These are perks that give you more abilities and weapons in your arsenal as you progress through Sleeping Dogs. Back on the road again, I had to keep reminding myself that everyone drives on the left side of the road in Hong Kong, which made getting from point to point just a little more challenging. The vehicles all handle more loosely than the weighty vehicles in games like Grand Theft Auto. Getting on a fast motorcycle provides some thrills driving through the tightly packed city streets, as the camera shakes realistically and blur effects are used to give a real sense of speed. While riding a motorcycle, you can pop a wheelie and start a mini-game of holding your wheelie as long as possible for points, which are then uploaded to a leaderboard for competing with friends or the global network. Instead of going to another campaign mission, I chose to try one of the 150 side missions the game has to offer. In this case, I was tasked with doing some sight-seeing for a tour guide to capture some scenic shots of the city. The first point I had to stop at was within an ancient Chinese temple, where I quickly went in and shot a photo of a few monks praying. After shooting a good photo of the monks, I was sent off to another point overlooking the coast to take a photo of a beautiful sunset. As I made my way to the coastal overlook, the sun began setting as I aligned myself to take the photo. Looking through the viewfinder, I noticed some wasted dude waving cutesy signs at the camera and generally making an ass of himself. The game then tasked me to "take care of" the drunk dude and so I gave him a swift beat-down before resuming with my task. Before I had a chance to finish the mission, I ran into some thugs on the boardwalk who were guarding a lockbox. The thugs were tougher than the ones I had previously faced, and it was a good struggle before I managed to defeat them all. After finally using various kicks and punches to take down the entire group, I nearly forgot about the lockbox until I was reminded by the developer to go take a look at it. The lockboxes reward the player with all sorts of goodies, from character bios, money and weapons. Another ongoing side mission I checked out involved hacking into a CCTV system with a cool mini-game that involved guessing a set of four numbers by process of elimination. Once the system was hacked, I could go back to my home base and check different cameras around the city to initiate drug busts to help raise my status as a police officer. The drug busts are generally pretty easy little mini-games. After a minute watching gang members hanging around through the security system, the HUD uses an arrow to point out who is making the deal and thus must be arrested. From the very beginning of my demo, one thing I noticed about Sleeping Dogs is that the developers took great care to make the world feel really alive. As you walk around, people are going around their daily tasks in a very convincing way -- so much so that I thought for a moment I was still watching a cutscene when I first had control of my character. The biggest take-away that I got from Sleeping Dogs though was that the developers really care. From the glimpse of the intriguing storyline I got to the incredibly fun combat and living world of the game's version of Hong Kong, Sleeping Dogs is shaping up to be a game that will take a great deal of players by surprise.
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The road Sleeping Dogs has taken since first inception has been a rather rocky one. After starting development as its own beast, Activision took up the game in the interest of creating a third iteration in the (admittedly med...

Preview: A fresh take on cover-based warfare with Hybrid

Apr 26 // Casey Baker
  Hybrid (Xbox Live Arcade)Developer: 5th CellPublisher: 5th CellRelease: Summer 2012 Hybrid tells a story of a massive war happening between an alien-infected populace called the Variants and the remaining humans (the Paladins) after a pathogen has taken over half of the population. The war is a persistent online event that operates in a similar way as the game Risk does, with Paladins and Variants battling over the capture of continental sections of a large world map. When the player first boots up the game, they must make a choice to join up with the Paladins or the Variants, and this choice will stay with them almost permanently as they jump in and out of battle. The game operates on one large server with various skirmishes taking place in different parts of the map. When the war has been officially declared and the victors have been named, anyone who belongs to the team of victors will gain special perks that will carry over to the next war -- which will begin anew with the end of the last one. The battles in the game are always 3-on-3 affairs. This seems like a small number, but 5th Cell has implemented a smart system of populating the map with drones that help each player achieve more kills. These drones are awarded to the player through kill streaks, and they don't necessarily disappear when you die. The first drone every player gets with the first kill is called a Stalker. This small combat drone follows you around and takes shots at enemies, though it is incredibly susceptible to enemy fire and doesn't last long. If you can successfully get three kills in a row, you're awarded the Warbringer, a much heavier combat drone armed with heavy machine guns. Warbringer actually goes after enemies aggressively and is a great boon to defensive strategies as you leap and fly from cover-to-cover. Finally, achieving five kills in a row give you the Preyon. This drone is more like a heat-seeking missile than a combat drone. She is also incredibly awesome and fun to watch. The Preyon is like a ninja robot assassin, and as soon as you send her out into battle towards your target, she goes straight for the kill. If someone has sent a Preyon after you, the first clue to this is the robotic shriek she gives as she makes a beeline for your throat. In our playthrough, we saw nary a single soul escape from the banshee shriek of the Preyon. Unfortunately, (or perhaps fortunately) the Preyon only goes for a single kill and then disappears so as to keep the game a fair and balanced affair. Beyond the drones, players are also awarded with cool active perks such as teleportation for sneaky kills, passive perks such as boosts to armor or weapon damage, and new weapons/weapon categories. Hamza kicked some serious ass in a round with a powerful shotgun, while I got my ass handed to me attempting to use an assault rifle with burst shots. Of course, I haven't even touched upon the gameplay itself and the main caveat of cover-to-cover shooting. This is possibly because the game is so incredibly fluid that I didn't even think much about how it worked. With the press of the A button, your character automatically flies over to the next piece of cover that your reticule has aimed at. However, you're free to strafe and aim in any direction as you fly. This actually gives you a great competitive advantage in some ways, as you're not constantly worrying about where you're headed so much as who you need to take down as you get there. You're not confined to your initial flight path either. At any time as you're flying, you can aim at a different piece of cover and take off in that direction. This also helps give every player a competitive advantage, as you can quickly change your route if someone has left a grenade waiting at the spot you were headed towards. If you can't seem to find another piece of cover to escape to, you can also quickly press B when you've landed to jump off to your last cover spot. Another wrinkle to this is the fact that cover exists everywhere from grounded platforms to the sides of walls and even the ceiling. The experience of flying about and defying gravity is actually pretty exciting, and the game moves at a surprisingly fast pace that likens it to a twitch shooter. The maps that we played through seemed to be designed in a manner that makes them easy to remember and highly replayable. One such map saw my team and the opposing team heading parallel to each other towards the same conflict point, both teams visible but generally obstructed from damage until the choke point. The maps we saw were generally close quarters and sectional, though overall they were large enough to accommodate strategic battles rather than a chaotic killfest. After a couple of online sessions, I was convinced by Hybrid's cover-based twist and I'm excited to see how the game evolves when it hits the general populace. We were told the game will retail for the usual 1200 space bux and will eventually have a total of 10 maps to play. The developers also mentioned that the perk for being on the winning team of the first war will be "something special." From what I've seen so far of Hybrid, I can't wait to see what else 5th Cell has up their sleeves.
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Historically, 5th Cell is a company known for fun and incredibly innovative games that skew towards a younger audience, such as the surprisingly deep Lock's Quest and the award-winning and beloved Super Scribblenauts (both fo...

Review: Colors! 3D

Apr 19 // Casey Baker
Colors! 3D (Nintendo 3DS)Developer: Collecting SmilesPublisher: Collecting SmilesRelease: April 5 2012MSRP: $6.99 Colors! 3D seems like a simple painting program on the surface. When you open the program up for the first time, you're presented only with a blank white canvas and an overlaying interface that pops up whenever you press the left shoulder button. This interface includes a color wheel, a couple of sliders to drag up and down on your right-hand side, and exactly three options for paintbrush 'type' on your left-hand side. Yet it's this simplicity that makes the application incredibly useful. The interface works for beginners without the need for too much instruction, because it gives you a chance to get a handle on your doodling without too much clutter that would otherwise make the whole experience a complicated and unfriendly mess. If you do need some help, a touch of the question mark on the lower right corner of your interface screen will bring up a cohesive and simple explanation of what every button on your 3DS does in relation to the program. However, this simple interface also works very well for people who are more experienced. The seemingly few options you are given in terms of paintbrush style, opacity and size open themselves up to reveal an incredibly varied palette that allows for all sorts of neat paintbrush tricks. As I grew more familiar with the program, I began to realize that the simple tools I had before me could be used in incredibly complex ways to apply shading, outlining, and watercolor effects. The biggest wrinkle in Colors! 3D that separates it from applications already available on the eShop (such as Inchworm Animation) is the use of 3D layering. With a simple flick of the main analog control nub, you switch between layers of the foreground and background on the fly. The program features a total of five layers to mess around with, though clever artists have already found ways to make their art seem even more three dimensional through a keen use of shading and blending. Personally, I've enjoyed making artwork of topographical features using this method, such as a simplistic Google satellite sort of view of a river winding through a canyon between two mountain ranges. After you're finished with your artwork, you can press a "play" button and watch as every stroke you've made with your digital paintbrush is shown in a sped-up movie. This is especially useful when you're viewing other artists' works online, as it gives you tons of insight into the creative process and how amazing artwork is achieved. At any time while this is playing, you can press the control nub in any direction and get treated to a side view of all five layers to understand which ones are being worked on at any given time. The online portion of Colors! 3D is possibly the most exciting aspect of the program and the greatest compliment to it's usefulness as an application. After you've finished working on your masterpiece, you can upload it to the Colors! online gallery (at colorslive.com -- my username is CaseyDtoid, natch). Once it's published, other artists can 'like' it (giving you stars that become larger and brighter with more comments) or comment on it. The top ranked paintings, as well as the best of any given week, are accessed easily from the main gallery page, and every painting that you 'like' is added to your favorites to be viewed or downloaded at your own leisure. After uploading a few of my doodles and getting a couple of accolades from other artists, I thought I was on the path to becoming an official 'artiste.' A week and a half later, and I'm continuously blown away by artists who make my sad little doodles look like something my 10-year-old nephew could outrank in a couple of minutes. The online 3D gallery of the Colors! art community is very nearly worth the asking price alone, as it provides an incredibly viable tool for aspiring artists and a continuous source of near-limitless inspiration. Beyond the program and the online gallery, the developers also saw fit to throw in some cool extras. At any time, you can use the 3DS' local play feature with others who have Colors! 3D to join in a cooperative painting session. This is a great way to have creative art sessions with friends, or just an excuse to have a party and draw a frightening 3D cavalcade of catgirls with penises and flying corgis. If you feel like your art skill is pretty low and you'd rather use the application as a coloring book, you can do that as well. In the 'Extras' section of Colors! 3D you'll find a page devoted to coloring book images, and selecting any one of these allows you to color in pre-set images that automatically apply shading as you go. The great thing about the coloring book feature also happens to be my one niggling concern about the application is a whole. It is virtually impossible to color outside of the pre-set black lines until you lift your stylus up again. This is excellent for total newbies (like me) who have enough trouble staying within the lines. After noticing this feature, I really wished it was implemented in the main program for whenever you used bold, black lines. I understood the absence of a 'fill' button that the developers purposefully implemented in order to get people to hone their craft, but for a doodler like me, using the black line as a guidance/outline line would've helped a lot when I was first getting my bearings with the program. That said, it's actually not impossible to work around this issue. Early on, I learned by watching other artists at their craft that using layers as you work to create your boundaries is incredibly effective. You can draw a quick outline of what you're envisioning in the immediate foreground, and then step a layer back and color it in without accidentally blotting out your outline. Once you're finished, copying this layer to the foreground 'fills in' your painting without blotting out the initial outline. In general, these sorts of clever uses of your five layers can be a great asset in creating some eye-popping, beautiful paintings. When all is said and done, I found very little to dislike with Colors! 3D and I urge anyone with even the vaguest interest in art, and especially in utilizing the 3D aspect of the 3DS, to give this application a purchase. At $6.99, the program offers an incredible amount of utility and ease for every kind of artist, from the lazy school doodler to the masterpiece painter honing his or her craft. Besides all that, it's a simple and incredibly fun tool with an amazing community of artists proudly displaying their beautiful and funny 3D images.
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While Nintendo's 3DS system has seen the release of an abundance of great games recently on the eShop, there has also been a dearth of applications that really utilize the 3DS' functionality. At launch, the system saw some gr...

Preview: Teaming up in Ghost Recon: Future Soldier

Mar 22 // Casey Baker
Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Future Soldier (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [previewed], PC)Developer: Ubisoft Paris / Ubisoft Red StormPublisher: UbisoftRelease: May 22, 2012 (US) / May 25, 2012 (UK) I immediately noticed that the controls and the camera in Ghost Recon: Future Soldier both feel closer to the Rainbow Six series than to the original Ghost Recon games. Future Soldier generally moves at a much faster pace than GRAW or GRAW 2, and using cover has been refined a great deal as well. An online cooperative mode called "Guerrilla" set my team of four at a small outdoor location, which we were instructed to defend from incoming groups of soldiers. With each successive wave of soldiers, the challenge ramped up considerably so that newer enemies deployed more skill or firepower. Our team bottomed out at the tenth wave, when jeeps with turrets were introduced, as well as soldiers with riot shields who rushed our base at every possible moment and made it very difficult to coordinate our attacks without getting taken down. Guerrilla was really fun and addictive, as our team shouted out plans and devised strategies together to take down the incoming soldiers. As a reward for completing each wave, we received certain gameplay perks, such as defense turrets that we could set around the perimeter of our base area, or a guided satellite missile to deploy at an opportune moment. Between each wave, you can also switch weapons and grenades and stock up on ammo. I generally favored a sniper rifle until the turret-mounted jeeps appeared; then I decided that a grenade launcher would be much more useful. For the most part, the A.I. was also pretty intelligent, with soldiers flanking, taking cover and rushing us when our defense was weak. I do have to mention one strange glitch during my play-through, though -- one of the enemy soldiers (let's call him "Hank") would tend to get lost somehow in his A.I. subroutine and would stand around in a corner near our base. I had to seek him out and kill him on more than one occasion so that we could properly advance to the next wave. This bug didn't necessarily affect our overall gameplay much, and "Hank" generally disappeared in later waves, but since the game is set for release in only a couple of months, I certainly hope the developers are planning to fix this issue. After getting our asses handed to us several times on the 10th wave, we decided to give up and move on to the main campaign. Future Soldier's faster pace depends largely upon the presence of three other live squadmates. Coordinating attacks with them works more quickly than patiently planning and choosing where to deploy A.I. partners. I played through two different campaign missions, Firefly Rain and Valiant Hammer. In Firefly Rain, the sixth mission of the game, our team advanced through an enemy base in a dry chaparral environment with limited cover. As mentioned in earlier looks at the game, your soldiers can turn invisible by crouching and moving slowly through the environment. The moment you engage in live combat, every squadmate is exposed, so getting to cover becomes crucial to survival. I really appreciated the sorts of combat scenarios that our team encountered -- they forced us to use critical thinking and cooperative strategic planning. In one area we were pinned down by turret towers and heavy machine guns, so a partner and I eventually found a way to flank the enemy position and discover a good vantage point to help our teammates advance from the forward position. Valiant Hammer, Future Soldier's tenth mission, began in a forest at night with a large enemy presence. In both of the missions I played, a crucial and very familiar part of the strategy involved marking targets (numbered 1 through 4) and then using teamwork to decide who would take down which target and when. This became especially important in the tenth mission, as our group of four snuck through the forest and carefully took down groups of soldiers without alerting anyone to our presence. At times, we had to take out multiple targets, and as we watched enemy movement patterns it became very important to know exactly which targets our teammates were going to clear. The uniqueness of Future Soldier comes in playing with a group of other friends and advancing upon enemies with an eye to strategy and careful planning. I came away from the experience excited at the prospect of investing a good chunk of my life in playing through both the campaign and the multiplayer modes with a strong and determined squad. Ghost Recon: Future Soldier releases on May 22nd, which coincides with my birthday. If the game offers the same strong experience that the GRAW series brought onto the market a few years ago, I know one of the gifts I'll be getting myself and my twin to bring on another great year of cooperative online games.
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When I first bought my Xbox 360, one of the games I purchased with it was the original Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter. After beating the main campaign and really enjoying my time with it, I jumped online and discovered a co...

Preview: RED Frontier features insect tanks

Mar 13 // Casey Baker
RED Frontier (PC) Developer: ZEAL Game Studio Publisher: Paradox Interactive Release: TBA 2012 In RED Frontier, you can choose between a variety of different types of Commanders (such as Assault, Engineer, Infiltrator, etc) for different play styles, though you have three main forms of contract choices to use for battle. These choices include Independent, Mox, and, my personal favorite, the insect-like Arachron units. Though each choice has the same basic types of units such as a tank type or smaller and faster attack drones, the art style and way of attacking vastly differs between them. The game features large maps with up to 12 players simultaneously engaged in combat. During my hands-on time I went up against Rasmus Davidsson, Lead Designer for ZEAL Game studios on a map where the sole objective was to capture points while battling off your enemy by strategically choosing your units every time you respawn. In terms of strategy, it was a little difficult for me to get a peg on how different gameplay sessions may play out. I generally stuck to surrounding myself with small bee-like drones while sending in a heavy worm-like unit to deal the massive damage against my enemy's tanks. This strategy seemed to work pretty well, after awhile the developer found ways to tear through my defenses and take me down though. The action did seem generally fast-paced and frenetic, though I couldn't tell if this was necessarily a good thing, as the game was still in a pretty early stage and with only two players on the map it was difficult to tell how changing up my strategy would influence the game at large. Truthfully, I came away from my time with the game really wishing I could see it being played on a much grander scale, as I have a feeling that the faster pace is better suited to a bunch of players battling it out over capture points. In terms of art style and the general gameplay idea, I found RED Frontier to be interesting, though not entirely innovative. With some polishing and perhaps a bigger pool of players, this title may be great for the RTS fan looking for a game which tries to modernize the genre.
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At the Paradox Interactive preview event I attended during GDC, ZEAL Game Studio showed me an interesting active real-time strategy hybrid game called RED Frontier. It fuses the strategy of RTS games with much more action-ori...

Preview: A Game of Dwarves has you digging out a kingdom

Mar 13 // Casey Baker
A Game of Dwarves (PC [previewed], PSN) Developer: ZEAL Game Studios Publisher: Paradox Interactive Release: TBA A Game of Dwarves is about protecting a dwarf king while using an ever expanding team of dwarves to develop an underground kingdom through building items and collecting resources. Much of the main gameplay I saw involved digging through blocks of dirt and stone to create underground pockets for your dwarves to turn into rooms for sleeping, gardening, or further looting. In this way, the game so far is very much like a simplified hybrid of Minecraft and The Sims (and more vaguely, Dwarf Fortress). I was told by the developer on hand that the game features around 80 levels of Earth to dig down through, with randomized pockets where enemies appear or large stores of resources can be found. My dwarves ran into a small dungeon where an orc rested, and my two military dwarves made short work of the orc and looted the place before we continued digging further into the Earth. The four main resource types I could collect/harvest were gold, food, stone and wood. As you collect resources, you're given the ability to build items for functional or purely cosmetic reasons. When I had collected enough resources I built a little dwarf room with sad cheap little stone beds and a couple of wall torches, while the developer tiled the main throne room and made it look a little more stately. Gold is one of the most important resources, as collecting enough of it allows you to spawn more dwarves to do your bidding, whether that be to continue digging, to farm, or to fight off enemies. Of course, as you gain more dwarves you need to make sure they are properly fed and well-rested, otherwise your kingdom will go nowhere due to your own negligence. Though what I saw of the game was just the very beginning and more of a tutorial than a demonstration of the full game's progress, I could see how it could be addictive on a very fundamental level. It combines resource management with looting in a way that keeps the player engaged enough to want to see just how large they can make their dwarf kingdom. If ZEAL Game Studio can create interesting and challenging objectives to accomplish, diverse enemies and enough new items to come across, A Game of Dwarves may be a great fantasy-inspired addition to the few resource management games left on the market today.
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While at Paradox Interactive's loft apartments for a preview event during GDC, I had a chance to look at a pre-alpha build of A Game of Dwarves, a game that features relatively simplified resource management and a whole lot o...

Preview: Showdown Effect promises 2D action movie clichés

Mar 13 // Casey Baker
The Showdown Effect (PC [previewed], Mac) Developer: Arrowhead Game Studios / Pixeldiet Entertainment Publisher: Paradox Interactive Release: Q3 2012 The very early build of The Showdown Effect I was shown provided one map of a "Neo-Tokyo" environment that had stuff actively going on in the background while your player and one other runs and leaps about the environment in dramatic action-movie style. Though I didn't get to see it in action, I was told by the developers that one of the main ideas behind The Showdown Effect involved using one-liners at opportune moments as you fought other players across the (admittedly pretty large) 2.5D maps. The idea is that you choose a character among several action movie stereotypes gleaned from movies like Rambo, Alien, or Die Hard. As each character battles, you have a button that spews forth a one-liner that grants you extra points when successfully done, such as after a kill. From what I was told using a one-liner is a risk, as you may be killed by another player in the middle of your sentence and receive no bonus from it while looking like a total fool. In the map that I ran around on, weapon pickups were numerous with SMG's and shotguns as well as a rocket launcher and a katana. The art style was reminiscent of Shadow Complex, with large side-scrolling levels and random stuff happening in the background. I struggled a little with the controls simply because I'm more of a console player, but I was told by the developers that gamepad support was going to be implemented as well. One of the mechanics still in an early implementation is bleeding damage, where a character who is hit by bullets begins to spout out blood and has to find a safe spot to bandage themselves in order to fully heal. The graphical effect of this was neat, though I wasn't sure how much of an effect on gameplay it would have in a regular session. I really dug the style of The Showdown Effect, but I couldn't get a good feel of the final product from the very early pre-alpha build I was shown. As is the case with early previews of games like this, a whole lot might change before the game is released. I can say that the developers are certainly headed in an interesting direction for the game, and I look forward to a preview of a more finished product in the future.
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While at GDC, I had a very early first-look at a game called The Showdown Effect which revolved around playing as an action movie stereotype. What I was shown was more of a very early prototype (almost still even an...

Preview: Dungeonland has cute art and delicious violence

Mar 13 // Casey Baker
Dungeonland (PC [previewed], Mac) Developer: Critical Studios Publisher: Paradox Interactive Release: TBA 2012 Dungeonland takes much of its basic gameplay mechanisms from classic hack'n'slash arcade games like Gauntlet, supporting a top-down isometric view of your characters as they battle their way through a colorful theme park that has been built by the Evil Lord Dungeon Master for the sole purpose of giving heroes something to do on their downtime. The game features a total of three huge, colorful themed maps with randomized locations, enemies and loot so that no two experiences are the same. I played through a map that felt very much like wandering around inside of a brightly colored theme park, attacking enemies that were both adorable and vicious. The art design of the enemies is purposefully cute and cuddly, though their deaths are emphasized by a splattering of blood all over the playing field. In the regular co-op mode, up to three players can join a game, with drop-in/drop-out gameplay in the same vein as Left 4 Dead, and the game has a heavy emphasis on teamwork as the difficulty level can be very high if you're not properly helping your team out. One instance of this sort of gameplay came through the mage class of player that one of the developers chose to use, who could effectively make teammates invulnerable with a Team Fortress 2-style beam of light while the player attacked large enemies or groups of smaller ones. Beyond the normal co-op mode, I was told there is also an "Infinite Dungeon" mode that continues to throw harder enemies and varied loot at you through an infinite amount of randomized dungeons. Additionally, there's the "Dungeon Master" mode where one player among a total of four gets to be the Dungeon Master and strategically chooses the enemies and loot to throw at the other three players. During my playtime, I played as both the Rogue and Warrior class of characters. I noticed a bit of difference between each, as the Rogue class is best used when keeping a distance from the enemies while throwing daggers or bombs at them. In contrast, the Warrior class is all about charging in and trying to do as much damage as possible before retreat. The experience was quite fun with other players, as the developers goaded me on about my propensity to viciously kill harmless sheep (They could turn evil at any moment, right?), and later helped me take down harder enemies by granting me invulnerability from afar as I rushed into battle. Though no plans have been made to carry this game over to consoles (possibly due to complications arising from using a more computer-friendly Dungeon Master mode), I played it using an Xbox 360 controller and could easily see at least the main co-op gameplay translating well to consoles. Keep Dungeonland on your radar, as it may turn out to be a rather fun co-operative multiplayer experience.
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During GDC I had a chance to spend some time over at Paradox Interactive's loft apartment, hanging out with various developers of upcoming downloadable PC/Mac games. One of the games that impressed me quite a bit despite its ...

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GDC: Quantic Dream shows off new prototype video 'Kara'


Mar 08
// Casey Baker
Yesterday at a Quantic Dream's GDC session about motion capture called, "Virtual Actors and Emotion in Games," David Cage revealed a new prototype video in the vein of 2000's "Casting Call" for the future of motion capturing....

Preview: How Max Payne 3 made me a believer again

Mar 01 // Casey Baker
Max Payne 3 (PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [previewed]) Developer: Rockstar Studios Publisher: Rockstar Games Release: May 15, 2012 (360, PS3) / May 29, 2012 (PC) Max and his acquaintance Raul Passos enter a soccer stadium in Sao Paulo, Brazil, planning to pay off a ransom to a group that has kidnapped the trophy wife of real estate mogul Rodrigo Branco. Unfortunately for Max, things get muddled when an unknown third party takes Fabiana Branco and leaves Max with a sniper bullet in his shoulder. I took over here, and as I pushed an injured and slightly hallucinating Max along the dim hallways of the stadium, it became apparent that most of the Max Payne series' standout qualities have been retained. While the story is no longer told in static comic panels, it is still conveyed with great stylistic flair, including direct narration and witty one-liners from Max. Cut-scenes bleed into gameplay, and the storytelling keeps a graphic novel perspective. Words stand out boldly on-screen as they are narrated. The story moves through a series of flashbacks that take place in New York, and the cut-scenes often transition seamlessly from present-day Sao Paulo to New York. Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to check out any New York levels, but I did get a peek at how the storyline would integrate the present and the past. As I reached my first large combat scenario in an abandoned training room, Rockstar representatives began to tell me how to effectively use the newest iteration of bullet-time, and it took a few tries deflating a lone soccer ball before I really got the hang of it. You can go into bullet-time at any moment by clicking down on the right stick; as a result, time slows down and frenetic combat situations become much more manageable. One thing that was immediately noticeable was that the game really encourages bullet-time, as aiming becomes a much more refined affair in this mode. I noticed that when I tried to play the game like it was Red Dead Redemption, my gun had a much weightier feel to it, and I would often swing wide of my target and miss it entirely, spraying a random set of lockers with my bullets instead. This strategic use of bullet-time really makes Max Payne 3 shine. A fair bit of criticism has been aimed at earlier Rockstar efforts because of their cover-based shooting mechanics, where it felt like you basically used the exact same strategy in every combat scenario. You'd find a good place to duck down, and then pop up and try to hit dudes who were little tiny heads popping around cover. Max Payne 3 truly flips this conceit on its head: I found cover rather ineffective, as enemies would often either rush me or flank me, making it difficult to return fire as my reticule swung wildly. Instead, the real rush of combat in this game comes from actually running headlong into a room full of bad guys, switching on bullet-time, and then using your weaponry and every environmental object at your disposal to take care of them all. It's like a much more evolved version of John Woo's Stranglehold. Bullet-time, and especially the shootdodge mechanic that you can initiate by running in any direction and pressing the right bumper, can be a glory to behold. With the Euphoria engine at play, Max actually moves quite realistically. He actually twists around in the air (or while prone on the ground) as he aims in every direction. My favorite move would be to run into a room of bad guys, initiate the shootdodge mechanic with a flying leap, and then flip around, shooting everyone in the room as I flew backwards onto the ground. Sometimes Max would even shoot under one of his legs in one smooth natural motion, which was both hilarious and awesome at the same time. As you use bullet-time, you can press the A button (on the Xbox 360 controller) to slow time down to a near-standstill, and whenever you kill the last enemy in the room, you're treated to a final kill-cam that lets you watch as the blood splatters realistically out of a dude's head while you're still pumping him with bullets. This seriously never gets old, and I found myself abusing the mechanic as much as possible. I continued through the stadium, shooting bad guys with dramatic flair. As I reached the actual stadium stairs, I decided to get really clever and leaped into the air above a bunch of guys hiding out in the bleachers below me. I managed to take down four of them before hitting the ground with a brutal thud that caused everyone in the room to laugh and reminded me that physics were still at play. A little later on, I climbed up into a tower and initiated an action sequence where I had to snipe from above, protecting Passos from enemies flanking him on all sides. The sniping was spot-on as well, as I had to really lead my shots and account for the direction and movement of my enemies. Here too, bullet-time was necessary to get in good shots and do it in enough time to save my acquaintance. The stadium level ended with Payne and Passos just missing Fabiana as she's taken away, and at this point I handed the controller off to Tara Long to get a feel of the game. Tara soon demonstrated another really awesome aspect of Max Payne 3: the automatic melee combat system. Just about every time you get near an enemy, Max knocks them out, and you have a chance to execute them with a bullet to the head at point-blank range while engaged in bullet-time. Tara proved to be pretty merciless, employing the tactic of running up to enemies and smacking them down before a shotgun blast in the face or the nuts. Though we both played in complete free-aim mode (and thus made it a bit more difficult for ourselves), you can always turn aim assist on if you're having trouble. Another aspect of the combat that came into play in the second level was using the environment to one's advantage. Max was running through the docks of the Tiete River on a rainy night, and throughout the level there are places where the environment can help turn the tide of combat to your advantage. One such point was a boat landing, where a truck sat just beyond the water's edge. The player had the option to shoot the obstruction blocking the truck's tire from rolling downhill, which sent it rolling into the river along with a few bad dudes. Also sprinkled around the level were the inevitable gas canisters, though using them was a strategic affair -- they took a while to explode, so timing was important. Both levels we played were great examples of how the series is retaining its noir feel through visual flourishes. The stadium level saw Max hallucinating a bit as he struggled to get through the area with his wounded arm (which, by the way, he quipped, is his "second favorite drinking arm"), and the gritty arena was rife with dark corners and minimal but effective lighting. The docks level included impressive rain and storm effects, as the wet asphalt glistened and lit up with every lightning flash. After jumping back into the game to finish the docks segment, I came away from the whole experience incredibly pumped for what Max Payne 3 will have to offer. With a cohesive storyline that's told in a similar but more evolved fashion and tight combat mechanics that make you feel like the bad-ass that Max Payne always has been, I sincerely cannot wait until this game comes out in May. Though I didn't get to see the multiplayer in action at all, I was told it will be a very engaging experience and will even include bullet-time for those in your line of sight. Also included will be an exciting Gang Wars mode, where the objective will constantly shift based entirely on how each match is progressing. Knowing Rockstar, the multiplayer will add a great deal of replay value to an already stellar single-player experience. Any fears I had about where Rockstar was taking the series have been effectively put to rest, and I can't wait to glue myself to the television set to see how Max's story will progress.
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I didn't have the highest of hopes going into the preview for Max Payne 3. I love the series, and though I know the latest has been getting preened and primped by Rockstar to match the caliber of their games, initial impressi...

Preview: Collisions are a glorious thing in DiRT Showdown

Jan 27 // Casey Baker
DiRT Showdown (PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360) Developer: Codemasters Publisher: Codemasters Release: May 2012 Just to clarify, DiRT Showdown is not a direct sequel to DiRT 3. In fact, as the Codemasters guys were quick to tell me, after getting feedback from their fans on how jarring the differences between the Gymkhana events and the regular rally events in DiRT 3 were, the team decided on offering players two entirely separate games that focused on these different aspects. The next true iteration of DiRT will be focused on the deep rally racing experience while DiRT Showdown should appease the demolition and stunt junkies who appreciated where Gymkhana took the series. DiRT Showdown isn't just some expansion, nor should it be considered DiRT 3.5. The game is a fully fledged beast with around 52 events spanning 19 locations and three different play styles -- Speed, Style, and Destruction. Many will be happy to know that pretty much every event can either be played via two-player split screen or online with up to eight players. Speed encompasses DiRT Showdown's racing modes, which include Race-offs, Lap Attacks, and Eliminator and Dominator. I was able to get some hands-on time with a Nevada track in Race-off mode called "8 Ball" due to the figure eight shape of the track. Immediately after getting my hands on the controller, I noticed how much faster the game generally felt than previous entries, with boosting being an important part of getting ahead amidst aggressive drivers. The handling veers more towards arcade than simulation, so much so that I at first found myself swerving around the gravel track, kicking up dust, because I've been so accustomed to the weightier feeling of previous DiRT cars. The race itself was both fast-paced and thrilling, and at one point I got into a collision with several cars, causing my own vehicle to do several barrel rolls before somehow making it back onto the track to still come out in the lead. Style introduces the new Ken Block-branded Hoonigan events that take place in large stadiums and allow a lot of exploration. Hoonigan events include Smash Hunter, Trick Rush, and Head 2 Head mode, and all generally focus on allowing a player to wander around a stadium pulling off awesome stunts or smashing a number of blocks with finesse. I didn't get a chance to check out any Hoonigan events, though from what I'm told, they're a much more varied version of the free-roam stadiums one could unlock in DiRT 3, each with their own specific goals and career progression. Finally, Destruction is heavily influenced by the Demolition Derby events found in GRID. The modes include Rampage, Hard Target, and Knockout. I had a chance to check out a Rampage event on the San Francisco track "Golden Gate." Rampage is a pure Demolition Derby mode with a variety of interestingly designed vehicles (including a hearse) where garnering the most points involves smashing into cars with as much force and strategy as possible, then making use of the last 30 seconds of the match to garner even more points. While T-boning and colliding hard with other vehicles and causing massive damage to pretty much everything in my path, I could quickly see how this may be the favorite party mode for gamers, both online and off. While the difficulty settings in DiRT Showdown can be adjusted to ramp up A.I. intelligence (i.e. cruelty towards you and others on the track), the real focus through the career mode will be on upgrading your vehicle so that it fits your play style. If you go with a heavier vehicle, you'll probably be focusing on speed and damage upgrades, but if you go with a lighter vehicle, you may find yourself along an upgrade path towards acceleration and agility. Succeeding in events earns you the cash to access these upgrades, so Codemasters wants to make sure the game is challenging and engaging enough for anyone on any difficulty level. DiRT Showdown won't be the game to appease fans of pure rally racing, but it's gearing up to be an exciting spin-off for the stunt junkie who wants demolition, pyrotechnics, and awesome stunt-filled races to the tune of cheering crowds.
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Codemaster's DiRT series has always been known for offering gamers a rally racing series with a great physics engine and smart A.I. opponents that push back as aggressively as the player pushes them. Perhaps the greatest si...

VVVVVV for the 3DS is... well, it's VVVVVV

Dec 21 // Casey Baker
VVVVVV(Nintendo eShop)Developer: NicalisPublisher: NicalisRelease: Q1 2012 If you've never experienced the gloriousness of VVVVVV, I can assure you right now that this is a worthy addition to your 3DS library, even if it happened to be a lazy 2D port. In a nutshell, VVVVVV is a platforming game with the seemingly simple mechanic of switching gravity so that your character is either traversing on the ceiling or on the floor. Except, as you quickly learn whilst traveling through the Metroidvania-style levels, this simple mechanism is exploited in every imaginable way to make the game as difficult as possible yet still somehow addictive enough to seem like the next checkpoint is just... within... reach... Fortunately, VVVVVV is not simply a port. While the graphics stay as steadfast and simple as ever (with pretty much everything rendered in a rudimentary ASCII art style), the addition of a third dimension does make the game pop out a little more and give you just a little bit more depth perception. Just don't go into this game expecting a Super Mario 3D Land abundance of depth detail, or even the same sort of detail given to Pushmo. The game is still simple ASCII art, after all. Expect a nice level of layered 3D much in the same vein of Nintendo's 3D Classics and you'll be fine. The biggest addition to VVVVVV for the 3DS comes in the extra "player-created" levels that are accessible at any time in the main menu screen and are never locked out to you or dependent on your progress in the game. There are tons and tons of levels in this list, including levels created by indie designers such as Minecraft's Notch. I got a chance to check out some of these levels, and I can assure you that they are all ridiculously hard and you will die many, many times. I asked Tyrone if there would be a level editor to create even more levels, and he told me that while no plans for such were in place just yet, it really depended on fan feedback and how popular the game becomes on the eShop. Will VVVVVV be as glorious on the 3DS as it has been on PCs and Macs across America? Possibly. It will definitely make you want to either throw your 3DS across the room or try that damn level just one ... more ... time ...
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During the eShop preview event, Tyrone Rodriguez of Nicalis was on hand to demonstrate the 3DS iteration of the revered, renowned, and hard-as-balls VVVVVV. I can confirm here officially - the game is still as insanely difficult and as infuriatingly addictive as ever. As for new additions to the VVVVVV gameplay structure, well...

Colors! 3D lets you doodle in three dimensions

Dec 21 // Casey Baker
Colors! 3D (Nintendo eShop)Developer: Collecting SmilesPublisher: Collecting SmilesRelease: January 2012MSRP: $6.99 (US) I sat down with Jens Andersson, the founder of Collecting Smiles (and lead designer for The Darkness). He handed me a 3DS and showed me a few of the tutorial parts of Colors! 3D to help me understand how someone is even able to paint and draw three-dimensional images. Colors! 3D relies on five layers/planes on the Z-axis -- at any time, you can switch between any one of the layers and begin drawing and painting to your heart's content. What I really love about this is that it allows you to basically create diorama-like images where, for example, clouds float in the background while an animal grazes in the foreground and a windmill sits somewhere between those two planes. What's also really cool about this is that, at any time, you can press left on the digital pad and the application will begin to rotate the image so that you can look at all five planes at once and understand immediately where they sit in 3D space. Though the DS homebrew application's pressure-sensitive screen is no longer a part of the application's paintbrush thickness designator, deciding how thick you want your paintbrush is made incredibly easy with a slider on the right side of the screen. In fact, sliders for both thickness and opacity of your paintbrush sit on the right side while color selection and paintbrush type are found on the left. From there, you can pretty much go nuts with your doodles or sketches, while more advanced options sit in an inventory at the bottom of the screen (including a mode where you can take 2D images from your 3DS camera to work from). When you want to switch planes, simply press a button that allows you to switch from one to the next; if you paint with the 3D enabled, you can generally tell which plane you're painting on without having to keep checking by rotating your image. If this all sounds a little complicated, spending five minutes with the application is probably enough to get even the most casual of doodlers over the learning curve, as all of the controls feel intuitive and easily accessible. After the tutorial, Jens switched gears a little and showed me the collaborative mode with a fellow artist. In this mode, you and up to three other local users of Colors! 3D can jump onto a canvas and demonstrate your own creative talents on the painting, and the program saves your work even if one of you jumps offline. Having an actual artist on the other end, I was more than a little hesitant to add anything to the already cool painting he had begun, so instead I listened in and watched on my screen as changes to the painting were made in real time. Finally, Jens showed me one more cool feature that'll be great for the younger crowd: the ability to download images that are basically coloring book templates from the Colors! Live site. The great thing about these templates is that you simply cannot color outside of the lines. Though there is no "fill" button that cheapens the experience by instantly adding swatches of color, you don't have to worry about accidentally coloring over lines or creating a mess of an image based off your own low level of skill. You can color in areas with wild abandon and your work will look amazing. Jens even intimated to me that there are subtle little filters such as shaders that add a little bit more polish to what you're coloring in. My initial impression of Colors! 3D was incredibly promising. I've spent hours in the eShop's (unrelated) Inchworm Animation Studio making ridiculous little doodles, and though this application won't include animation besides the ability to watch one's work being created, the aspect of creating awesome little 3D diorama-like images or using 3D in new and interesting ways has me excited for the possibilities... ... especially the idea of creating horrible three-dimensional nightmares of corgis, Ekans, and flying Chou Aniki musclemen with fellow Dtoid staff.
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One of the most exciting eShop games I had a chance to preview last week wasn't actually a game. It was an application and a continuation of a fan favorite DS homebrew app that never carried over to DSiWare (though it did mak...

Mighty Switch Force has an 'Ugly Checkpoint Dog'

Dec 15 // Casey Baker
Mighty Switch Force (Nintendo eShop)Developer: WayForward TechnologiesPublisher: WayForward TechnologiesRelease: December 22 (EU),  TBA (US) In Mighty Switch Force, you control your cyborg character in a way that's reminiscent of the Mega Man X series (a similar shooting mechanic plus tight and responsive but not overly difficult jumping) while trying to find all five Hooligan Sisters throughout each level. The biggest twist comes in a form similar to earlier WayForward games (such as Mighty Flip Champs) -- a simple mechanic that progressively offers more complex and engaging situations. When you first begin, you're not given any sort of tutorial on what you must do and instead have to figure out how to traverse the levels with special platforms that "flip" in and out of the foreground depending on a button press. As you beat each level, a new twist is added to the mechanic, such as enemies that can only be killed through smart use of the platforms or specialized platforms that give you added abilities when you interact with them. The art style of the game is wonderful, with interesting enemies and all kinds of activity in both the foreground and background. In one stage, for example, I noticed a running monorail repeatedly charging through in the distance while everything else was happening up front. The 3D is implemented quite well -- it's predominately sprite-based with layered 3D, sort of like the 3D Classics updates only with more depth and thought given to events happening in the background. The game will feature a total of 16 levels, with the added challenge of clearing each level under the par time. Though the levels are initially pretty short, they become more complex as you get further and new mind-bending puzzles are thrown in at every juncture. Fortunately, you have your trusty "Ugly Checkpoint Dog" (it's actual name) popping up whenever you reach a new puzzle segment, twitching spasmodically and wagging its tail while waiting patiently for your death. This game will not be a particularly lengthy excursion by any means (maybe a couple hours for the first playthrough), though the great art style and generally fluid and responsive gameplay will keep you coming back for more. Personally, I'm excited for Mighty Switch Force, and at a price that promises to be quite a bit under the $10 mark, I don't think this infectiously humorous and entertaining game should be passed up. As an added bonus, the soundtrack by the esteemed Jake Kaufman will be released for free the same day as the game! Enjoy a free track right now! Jake Kaufman - Mighty Switch Force OST - "BGM - Yummy"
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During a session with some of Nintendo's first- and third-party 3DS eShop game developers yesterday, I got a chance to check out the (incredibly promising) future of the eShop. I first got some hands-on time with WayForward's...

Free-falling into combat in Battlefield 3

Oct 21 // Casey Baker
Battlefield 3 (PC, PlayStation 3 [previewed], Xbox 360)Developer: EA DICEPublisher: Electronic ArtsRelease: October 25, 2011 As has been revealed in the preview trailer, Damavand Peak's main attraction is the area where you base jump off of the mountain and take a long ride down into the next base capture zone. However, in Rush mode, this isn't where you begin your quest to destroy M-COM stations. Damavand Peak has you starting around a mountainous area with some great choke points. While this area is pretty big, letting you move about and strategize where you'll be attacking or defending, it is nothing compared to what the map has in store for you later on. Once my team destroyed a couple of M-COMs and I finally made my way to the peak drop-off point, like many of my fellow journalists, I got a little confused about how to get to the next objective. I watched as my teammates ran around and we collectively took it all in. We were situated on an area high up on the mountain with a few heliports on the rocky crags that jutted out over a massive descent. The next objective was somewhere below us in an area that looked like what would typically be an instant-death or out-of-bounds area in older Battlefield games. Whatever was below us was so far down that you couldn't really make out any of it. Clearly, we weren't used to actually having this much space between us and our next objective. Finally, someone decided to take the plunge, and I watched them disappear over the side. "Wait, did he just ..." I thought, trying to comprehend why no message about player suicide came up soon afterward. Right away, another teammate followed. I chased after him, stopping just sort of the drop. I watched as he plummeted. And then his chute opened. "Ohhh, rad," I thought. I may have even said it aloud. But then I remembered that there were also choppers up here. I decided to get fancy, and ran over to one. I took off and giddily descended down the face of the mountain, watching as other team members parachuted above and below me. As my descent became more rapid, I realized I was going to have to pull up if I wanted to land gently. Instead, I decided to let the copter do its own thing and bailed, parachuting a short distance to the next base, where a firefight was already under way. One of the two M-COMs was already destroyed, but the other was tucked away in a warehouse. I had landed behind the warehouse and so I ran back around, where an enemy took me out through an open window. As the fight wore on, I came to realize that the whole base-jumping aspect is just one part of the excitement of this map. Granted, it's an awesome sequence, and I even laughed when I ran off the side and pulled a smoothly animated running man mid-air before I decided to pull the cord. The control is much better when parachuting than it ever was in Battlefield: Bad Company 2, as you can actually steer yourself a lot more in a way that's reminiscent of Pilot Wings. However, there are other ways to get down the side of the mountain, including the aforementioned helicopter. The helicopters at the top add an interesting wrinkle, as at one point while parachuting I realized that two enemies had occupied the space on the roof of the warehouse, and were armed with rocket launchers. Fortunately, they were so busy scanning the skies for helicopters that they didn't notice me. I pulled an action-movie routine, parachuting into cover just behind them at a rooftop doorway before opening fire and easily dispatching the both of them. Soon after this, the focal point became the M-COM station itself, and getting to it required either jumping through a window below or chancing the descent right up to the roof above. The defending team played hardball, though, and the rest of the match was spent trying our best to wear down enemy defenses to get a crack at that last station. Another multiplayer map of interest is the Tehran Highway map. This is the night map with the giant highway/freeway towering over everything. Much of the map involves either fighting it out in the streets or taking to the buildings beyond and finding good sniping positions. If you remain in the streets, though, you really have to keep an eye out for tanks. I didn't get to check out the full scope of the map because I was playing a smaller deathmatch mode (I believe it was squad deathmatch) and we were sort of confined to the area right around the giant highway. This map will definitely be great for snipers, especially when it's fully open with the hills around the city and the city itself. I'm not entirely sure whether you can actually get on top of the giant highway and snipe from there; no one that I know of managed to get up that high in our confined area. I'm sure the Conquest mode of this map will be much more massive and open in that regard. At any rate, the map promises to have some great nighttime battles, with the beautiful new lighting effects lighting up the night sky. [embed]213551:41248[/embed] Finally, the map that PC players got a chance to check out in the beta, Caspian Border, looks pretty beautiful on the PlayStation 3. While taking the long trek to one of the capture points in a Conquest round, I actually stopped for a moment to look at some plants and flowers, just because I was surprised that there was a pretty good amount of detail in such a minor element of the map. Of course, this is another one of those huge maps where using vehicles is ideal to get from your starting base to the enemy points, though unlike Operation Firestorm, it's a scenic and forested walk if you're stuck on foot, with a lot of great sniping points. This is also another one of those maps where being airborne is pure unbridled joy, so long as you can control it. We have only a few more days before Battlefield 3 is upon us, and I'm going to be picking up my copy as soon as I can, shutting myself off from all other distractions (as much as I can, anyhow) to get in some playtime and squad up with friends and family. The anticipation is painful, but it's finally almost over now.
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Before Battlefield 3 drops on Tuesday, I want to use this one last chance to express my excitement for my favorite multiplayer map: Damavand Peak. While at the EA Final Hours event a few weeks back, I got to play a nice long...

The incredibly immersive world of Zelda: Skyward Sword

Oct 21 // Casey Baker
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (Wii)Developer: NintendoPublisher: NintendoRelease: November 20, 2011 (US) / November 18, 2011 (EU) / November 23, 2011 (JP) In my last preview, I mentioned something about how catching bugs is an important part of the game's economy. Just as item-gathering is important, catching a wide variety of bugs is also incredibly important, but for an entirely different reason. In fact, as you may have noticed in older trailers (including these ones from way back in the middle of September), your inventory screen has two large, separate boxes -- one for bugs (12 types in total) and one for items (16 in total). While 12 types of bugs may not seem like a huge amount to catch, it's not a matter of catching one or two sparkly bugs of each to fulfill a sidequest where said sparkly bugs fly around your head as a weird, super kawaii princess girl congratulates you for your efforts. This time around, the bugs are actually needed if you ever want to have potions that grant you additional power. Within the item shop in Skyloft's main bazaar, a little man-witch stirs bug-filled potions that improve upon those you already have, such as a more powerful heart potion that refills more health than the standard version. Considering how challenging even the weakest of the Bokoblins are in a fight, you're going to want to collect bugs. Fortunately, good ol' Beedle is back in Skyward Sword, flying around Skyloft in a little airship. While I never got to actually meet the newly revised Beedle, I was told that he was up there waiting in case I ever needed a net. If I had more time to play, I would have figured out how to get up to him and bought myself a net post-haste. Though I was interested in updating my potions (seriously, the base potions are basic), I was actually more interested in the thrill of catching some damned bugs! In the volcanic Eldin Province, I found the most adorable little bugs ever! I guess they were technically a sort of dung-beetle, but instead of dung, these little tiny bugs were rolling little tiny boulders. Seriously! Little tiny bugs rolling little tiny boulders! I was so excited by this random detail that I immediately began chasing after them. They ran away like crazy with their boulders in tow and then committed suicide by dropping into the lava that covers the Eldin Province. Later, I tried to catch them again by running at them and succeeded in squashing them all. I was clearly pretty clumsy without a net. Speaking of the Eldin Province, I have to admit that I never actually made it into the second dungeon. In fact, I don't think I saw a single journalist face off against the boss waiting for them at the end of that dungeon. In my seven-plus hours of straight gameplay, I focused only on the primary quest and made it as far as almost being granted access into the second dungeon, the Earth Temple, which looked (from the journalist playing next to me who got a little further) like a classic fire temple. There were several times when I came across special cubic stones called Goddess Cubes. Using my Skyward Strike technique, I whisked them away to another location, where a sidequest that would lead me to a treasure waited. At any point, I could find one of the many bird statues that dotted the landscape and served as quick travel points to take to the skies and seek out where these Goddess Cubes would lead me. However, as I looked at the clock and noticed how much time I had already wasted, I bypassed all of them to see more of the main quest. In the same way, I never had a chance to upgrade my gear. I did get very close to finally collecting the right items and the necessary number of each to get my wooden shield upgraded to the banded shield, which supposedly has more durability than the first version that falls apart after the first Bokoblin attack, if you don't know what you're doing. The Eldin Province is massive in its own right, and it's also where the real challenge begins. It's incredibly dangerous to traverse with all of the lava and fire-breathing enemies. When you first make your way to the volcanic region, you meet the species of friendly creatures that live here. Instead of the boulder-eating Gorons that you'd expect, though, they are mole people called Mogmas who ask for your help in defeating a band of Bokoblins that has been causing trouble around their peaceful villages as of late. Once you agree to help them, they provide you with digging mitts, which pretty much work as expected. One of the bigger advantages of the digging mitts is that they help find steam vents that can be used to reach higher ground via your sailcloth. Considering how rocky and treacherous the terrain around the Eldin Province is, this ability comes in handy on more than one occasion. Bokoblins have set up camp throughout the region, and much of your exploration involves knocking over their guard towers to create new paths or finding steam vents and running up steep hills from where they're hurling boulders down on you. In order to gain entrance to the Earth Temple, you have to collect five shards of the key that will open the way. This part took me more than an hour on its own, and I never actually managed to find the last shard. Nintendo has added some really devious puzzles, and the Eldin Province overworld pretty much acts like a dungeon itself, with exploration rewarded by new areas and possible shard locations. The enemies in this area are tricky to kill. Aside from the ever-pesky Bokoblins, there are these strange little fiery seal-like creatures called Pyrups that like to hide among rocks or inside wall cracks and spit a constant stream of fire at you. The trick to killing them is to either roll a bomb into the nooks that they peek out from like demonic hermit crabs or to toss one into the holes above them. I had some trouble with this, as every time I tried to get close enough for an easy roll, they began spewing fire, immediately ruining any hope of not blasting a bomb in my own face. Tossing the bombs into the holes above was a much easier task, as I could often find higher ground to simplify matters. After spending so much time with The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, I still feel like I've only scratched the surface. I never actually caught a single bug or followed my dowsing beacon to a single Goddess Cube's final location. I barely even explored all of Skyloft or had time for any of its inhabitants' possible side quests (save for helping a kitty that later turned demonic at night, forcing me to throw it off the side of the floating city, the little bastard). Somehow, I spent a full seven hours of a day exploring dungeons, fighting a wide variety of tricky enemies with a range of different attack strategies and novel combat concepts, skewering pumpkins, smashing innocent little bugs, and collecting all kinds of items that could help me in my quest. The wait until November 20 is going to be a hard one.
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One thing I haven't really had a chance to get into in my last couple of previews of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is how much more immersive the entire world actually is compared to past Zelda games. In some ways, it's ...

The newly revamped co-op mode of Battlefield 3

Oct 13 // Casey Baker
The enemies breached from all sides, their flashlights blinding us as they came in through windows and battered-down doors. I quickly hunkered down under a desk while my teammate uttered a few words of surprise as he was taken down in the other room. I realized I would have to be quick if we were ever going to get past the first part of the mission, so I tossed a couple of grenades, stepped out of cover for a moment to take down who was left, and then ran to the darkened room, where my downed teammate was still engaged in an intense gun fight with a guy shining his flashlight at him. Fortunately, my teammate took him down and I ran over and helped him up. This scenario played out many times over the next parts of the mission (usually I was the one down while my teammate dove from cover to help me, as I was often a little too gung-ho to get into the action.) Even though we had set the gameplay to "Easy" mode, the enemies provided a serious challenge and we had to communicate frequently to call out where enemies were taking us down from or to coordinate attacks where one of us would distract the enemy AI and the other would flank them. At one point in the mission, we even had to separate with one of us taking the floor below and the other taking the floor above. Through consecutive playthroughs we noticed that the gameplay would even change up at this part a bit, so that one of us was always immediately attacked as we breached a door while the other had a moment to breathe before running into the room. Most of all, this mode was actually really exciting. It was filled with tense moments and with a good co-op buddy it provided a challenging and fun scenario that required serious strategy and good communication. We played through the map at least six times before we managed to beat it, though in one of those instances we had to restart the game because it stopped bringing us to any new checkpoints when we were ready to breach a door. Even with this potentially game-breaking glitch (which we made sure the reps were well aware of), we didn't really mind as it gave us an excuse to play through the beginning again and figure out what new way we could approach the earlier intense firefights. Granted, even our build of the game was still not the finished product, so our experience of the glitch is probably (hopefully) already being dealt with before release. The mission ended with an exciting little portion where I commandeered a jeep and drove it through a parking garage with the enemy surrounding us as my partner did his best to take potshots from the window. I completely controlled the driving, and it gave me a moment of feeling like a total Die Hard badass as I avoided insane enemies shooting machine guns from their cars and even launching rockets at our vehicle as we swerved and veered out of the garage. If this mission was anything to go by, the other five co-op missions included in Battlefield 3 should be an awesome addition to the normal multiplayer modes with a lot of replayability and tense moments of intense combat. With a good buddy at your side, spouting one-liners and dropping fools will make you feel like a true action/buddy cop movie badass.
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Fans of Battlefield: Bad Company 2 clamored for a cooperative mode for months after the game released, and when it finally came in the form of "Onslaught Mode," many were disappointed at its lackluster AI and generally tac...


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