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Review: Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

Nov 01 // Conrad Zimmerman
Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag (PS3 [reviewed], Xbox 360, Wii U, PS4, PC, Xbox One,)Developer: Ubisoft Montreal, Ubisoft AnnecyPublisher: UbisoftRelease Date: October 29, 2013 (PS3, Xbox 360, Wii U) / November 15 (PS4) / November 19 (PC) / November 22 (Xbox One)MSRP: $59.99 Edward Kenway is unique in the realm of playable Assassin's Creed characters in that he is neither an Assassin nor a Templar, but a pirate who holds allegiance to none but himself, seeking to find fortune and an easy life. He becomes embroiled in the affairs of the two organizations when he encounters an Assassin and kills him, taking his robes and assuming his identity long enough to learn of a great treasure being sought by the world's secret powers which would set Kenway up for life, provided he can get there first and sell to the highest bidder. The main campaign follows Edward as he hunts down this treasure, another piece of technology left behind by the precursor race which once controlled all of humanity, while working with other pirates to establish a new republic free from the control of kings and governors. It's a meaty adventure which should take players around thirty hours to accomplish, assuming they attempted to do little else. [embed]264631:51123:0[/embed] As a story, it is perhaps not as powerful as Ezio Auditore's battle with the Borgia or Connor's participation in the American Revolution. That's a problem with having nearly all your lead characters be self-serving criminals; it makes it harder to feel compassion for anybody. Further, both the Templars and Assassins, while central to the plot, take a backseat more befitting their status as secret societies. Their presence and involvement is known, but they operate more in the shadows at a distance which (with the exception of an Assassin-focused secondary quest line) gives them less direct interaction with Kenway and opens the door for an expansion of the game's world beyond the simple black-and-white conflict that pair have engaged in for centuries.  That's probably for the best, because the game makes no bones about characters within the simulation describing the more science-fiction aspects of the Assassin's Creed world. Plot elements once fiercely guarded as secrets are now almost casually discussed between characters who have awareness of such things, an occasionally flagrant reminder that this is as much a game about high technology as historical fantasy. Kenway's status as an outsider caught between factions dovetails neatly with the game's broader, modern-day narrative, the telling of which has dramatically changed in this installment. Having completed the story of Desmond Miles in Assassin's Creed III, players no longer assume his role, but that of an unnamed employee at Abstergo Entertainment whose job it is to perform genetic memory research and relive the adventures of Edward Kenway for use in Animus-produced, commercial "experiences." Presented in a first-person view, these segments outside the Animus are some of the most entertaining the series has yet seen. A parody of the modern game development industry, Abstergo Entertainment is filled with references to the perceived culture within and behind game studios. There are also computers to be hacked in a series of simple mini-games, unlocking supplemental materials which enrich the history of the Templar-controlled parent corporation and open the door for endless future courses the franchise could take. While exploring the pirate history of the West Indies, players will find their time neatly divided between land-based activities and seafaring ones. The game's world is -- as expected of Assassin's Creed -- mammoth in scope. More than half a dozen large land masses exist to explore on foot, from bustling ports to ancient jungle ruins where players can hunt, take on assassination targets, and seek out hundreds of collectibles which litter the landscape. These exist within a larger, oceanic map with dozens of additional, smaller ports, coves and islands and vast stretches of open sea populated by European fleets. Exploring the seas turns up more activities the player can engage in with more variety in their gameplay. Locations where sharks and whales can be harpooned put Kenway on a rowboat to engage the beasts in tense, thrilling combat. A diving bell acquired midway through the campaign allows the exploration of shipwrecks which hide treasure and plans for powerful ship upgrades. The underwater areas have some issues, mostly related to lighting being so poor as to be completely disorienting, but offer a nice challenge in the more difficult regions of the map. And then there are more violent activities. Any ship is a potential target for piracy, carrying goods which can be sold or used to upgrade Kenway's ship, the Jackdaw. Ship battles require a bit of strategy in approaching targets, as you can easily become surrounded and overwhelmed if half-cocked, and it's supremely satisfying when a plan pays off. Ships which are defeated in combat can be sunk for half their cargo or boarded by the Jackdaw's crew. Boarding will bring the two ships together and require the player to kill a certain number of enemy crew members and other objectives such as destroying the enemy ship's flag and powder magazines. Captured ships can then be used to repair the Jackdaw, reduce notoriety and prevent enemy hunters from tracking the player, or press it into service in Kenway's Fleet, a trading sub-game similar to a trading system found in Assassin's Creed III (and equally dull, but totally avoidable for all but the completionist). Boarding ships will likely be, for many, a high-water mark of excitement for when they first encounter the activity. Swinging on a rope from one ship to another, landing on two soldiers (killing them instantly) and drawing swords to deal with the half dozen more surrounding manages to retain its luster for a surprisingly long time, and it can be hard to resist attacking every ship which moves into view to get another taste of that instead of traveling on to the next objective or activity. For the first time in Assassin's Creed history, Black Flag is incredibly respectful of the player's need to cross great distances with a minimum of mucking about. Unlocking fast travel to a map location is as easy as visiting it, with no additional climbing puzzle or maze to traverse. Additionally, every "synchronization point" (a vertically high perch which, when reached, reveals surrounding map details) serves as an additional fast-travel location. Land-based activities in the campaign suffer from feeling more or less the same, one mission to the next. Most follow a formula of tailing a target, usually without raising their awareness, until such time as valuable knowledge is gained or they are otherwise safe to eliminate and while some other diversions do exist, such as the occasional silent infiltration, a bit more variety would have been welcome. Environments are designed to offer a range of paths to accomplish the objectives, allowing the player to stalk at ground level or at height in most circumstances, and Eagle Vision (an ability which lets Kenway identify targets and mark them so that they remain highlighted at all times) plays a much more prominent role, though it doesn't always seem to work as well as intended or even at all in some parts of the game, failing to establish a lock on enemies regardless of how clear the view to them is. It can be difficult to tell when the game might reward or punish the player for their actions, as Black Flag sometimes appears to have a flexible definition of its own rules. A target being tailed may or may not observe a violent combat encounter happening thirty feet behind their backs. Passing directly in front of a guard in a restricted area may or may not immediately impel them to action. The level design of these missions is frequently excellent though, with plenty of patrolling guards and lots of opportunities to dispense with them silently or with style. Should the player be spotted and need to lose unwanted attention, they'll find a more aggressive enemy on their hands. Guards don't give up on tracking down as easily as in past games and they'll continue to hunt for a short time once hidden, fanning out and checking spots until their interest is diminished. They're also pretty fast in a foot chase and able to tackle Kenway and surround him with ease on a long sprint. Hand-to-hand combat remains simplistic, with commands for attacking, countering, and breaking enemy defense being all that's really necessary. Crowded conflicts can be chaotic and it's very easy to accidentally switch targets midway through a combo, making these battles a bit frustrating at times but rarely challenging. Secondary weapons such as smoke bombs, pistols and the rope dart return and can spice things up a bit, but fighting enemies directly is typically less satisfying than picking them off from concealment. Multiplayer offers more of the same, "hide-and-seek" competitive gameplay as has been found in prior editions. Sporting six game modes (all featured previously in the series' last installment) which twist conventional multiplayer games like Capture the Flag and King of the Hill with stealth elements unique to Creed, and eight maps on which to play them. While there's nothing revolutionary to be found in the selection, multiplayer remains a tense, thrilling experience whether on the hunt or in hiding. Sadly, all multiplayer content consists of on-foot gameplay and ship combat has not been made an option, which seems like a tragic missed opportunity. Rather than create new modes, Ubisoft Annecy has instead developed a "Game Lab" system which allows players to redefine the parameters of their games to create new experiences on their own. The depth of these options is highly impressive, allowing the player to set limits on abilities, change the amount of time actions take to perform, and even toggle HUD elements. Game modes players create can be shared with others, with popular modes appearing in a curated playlist. It remains to be seen how well the community of players takes to this feature, but the opportunity certainly exists for some creative game modes. Black Flag sports visuals which still manage to impress on aging console hardware, though not without some problems. Pop-in and some minor screen tearing occurred in our playthrough which, while acceptable within the narrative framework of the Animus, were certainly noticeable. Also, as bright as the brights are, darkness can be so total in some places that it's impossible to see anything but the outline of a highlighted enemy. These issues aside, the design is generally more vibrant, more colorful, and it's hard not to get caught up in the fantasy. This is accompanied by some exceptional audio, including a wide selection of sea shanties the Jackdaw's crew can be ordered to sing, making every voyage seem like a grand adventure. Open-world game design works best when the player feels as though something fun is just around any corner. In this respect, Black Flag is the best Assassin's Creed yet. Strong environment design props up the well-worn, on-foot gameplay and the slightly more persistent enemy AI can present a decent threat to the incautious, but no real ground is broken on land. Sea voyages are the brilliant contribution to the formula, with a range of variety and challenge strong enough to remain compelling through the game's lengthy campaign and beyond, while the remainder is a more polished, streamlined experience than ever before. 
Assassin's Creed review photo
A pirate's life
Another year, another Assassin's Creed. Ubisoft hasn't shown any signs of slowing down on annual releases for the series, despite handily finishing its main story arc. Correctly identifying the best innovation of Assassin's Creed III as its naval combat, this latest title incorporates it as the defining feature and centers the narrative around pirate adventure in the early 18th century.

Review: Cave Story (3DS eShop)

Oct 04 // Jonathan Holmes
[embed]236010:45287:0[/embed] Cave Story (3DS eShop)Developer: Pixel, NicalisPublisher: NicalisRelease: October 4, 2012 MSRP: $9.99 This latest iteration of Cave Story was made to replace the DSiWare version of the game released in 2010. Tyrone and Cave Story creator Daisuke "Pixel" Amaya weren't happy with how that version looked on the 3DS, so they went all out on adapting the game for the newer console. Sadly, technical limitations prohibited them from making this new version a free update to Cave Story DSiWare. Nicalis and Pixel did their best to make up for that by loading up the eShop version with new content. The resolution and playable screen size have been optimized for the 3DS, stereoscopic 3D has been added, the DSiWare's unique feature (Jukebox mode) is still in, and all the modes from Cave Story+ on Steam -- Boss Rush, Sanctuary Time Attack, Curly Story, Wind Fortress, and Nemesis Challenge -- are all here as well. If you're new to Cave Story, check out the review Anthony Burch (writer of Borderlands 2 and Dtoid alum) penned for the original freeware version of the game back in 2006, and/or my review of the WiiWare port back in 2010 (and if you're really curious, the review of the 3DS retail version from 2011). That's where you can get a look at what the main game is all about. For the rest of this review, we'll be focusing on the things that make this new release of Cave Story different from the prior versions we've reviewed. Lets start with the bad news first. The game is missing the larger, redrawn graphics from the WiiWare/Steam/iOS version of the game. Thankfully, the small screen size on the 3DS makes the "old" graphics looks almost identical to the new ones. Ultimately, those new graphics have become largely unnecessary. Their more detailed look was originally put into place in order to make the characters look less flat. The game's 3D display accomplishes the same goal without altering the original artwork. This may be the original art, but this is still the most crisp, well-defined, pronounced version of Cave Story yet.  It's not just the 3D that's responsible for the game's sharp new look. Cave Story eShop has been custom fit for the 3DS' larger screen size, resulting in a sharper level of definition and a stronger sense of place than the DSiWare version. With the action zoomed out, more activity can fit on screen at once, and players will be likely to less likely to focus in on one of the (now smaller) characters with so much going on at one time. That can help the player to take in everything going on and make more informed decisions. It's easier to string a series of jumps or dodge a volley of attacks when you can see them all coming. As much as I prefer the widescreen look, you can revert to original dimensions if you want. The game's controls are also customizable, allowing you to flip the jump button and shoot buttons to suit your fancy. There are a few other balancing tweaks that truly diehard fans may appreciate, but most fans might not pick up on. For instance, the in-game map no longer runs along the bottom screen at all times, which encourages the player to not rely too heavily on it. That's not something that everyone will notice or even care about, but it's an example of the care that went into this revamp. The Boss Rush, Sanctuary Time Attack, and Curly Story modes are just as they were in the WiiWare version. The more notable additions here are the two modes imported from Cave Story+: Wind Fortress and Nemesis Challenge. Both are adapted from level designs from the unreleased beta of the original Cave Story, and are just well-designed as any parts of the main game. They might be even a little better, as both modes assume that the player is skilled enough to get through the game's campaign, and are therefore ready for the roughest stuff that Cave Story can offer. The Wind Fortress starts with a fantastic platforming section where the player's skills at jumping and hovering with precision are immediately pushed to the limit. Your weaponry is limited to the Blade and the Spur, which limits your defensive options when the screen quickly fills with jerkface flying insects that love to knock you to your death. They make mid-air safety a bit of a problem. From there, the focus turns to action, with new enemies and a new boss fight which are focused on tense, nail-biting shootouts. I don't want to spoil what happens, but I'll tell you that the Wind Fortress is a real love letter to the fans. The Nemesis Challenge is an even harsher test of player skill. It starts you off with just ten health, the Booster 0.8 (which allows you to hover for only brief period of time) and the Nemesis, the strangest weapon in the Cave Story world. The base stats for the Nemesis are fairly good, but if you grab even one power up, the gun gets substantially worse in both power and range. Just two power ups will take the weapon to its maximum "upgrade," where it shoots harmless rubber ducks. The only way to make the gun more effective again is to take a hit, forcing the player to swap health for firepower. With only ten health and a horde of enemies in your face, the temptation will be to take down foes fast. The downside to that strategy is that killing enemies is the fastest way to fill the screen with power-ups, which is the last thing you want to do with the Nemesis. Those conditions reward a player who is able to dodge enemies as opposed to destroying them, though that's a lot easier said than done. On top of that, the level design of Nemesis Challenge is about as precarious as it gets. Platforms are few and far between. Combining that stress with the pressure to play in pacifistic style makes for a unique series of obstacles that even the most seasoned Cave Story veterans wont easily overcome. Hopefully by now it's clear that I love Cave Story for eShop, but there are a few things that keep me from proclaiming that it's the only version of the game you have to play. It lacks the highly detailed backgrounds and additional level designs found in the 3DS retail version of the game (like the Inner Wall) and the previously mentioned sprites from the WiiWare/Steam/iOS remakes. It also lacks the full Christmas and soon-to-be-released [redacted] Holiday themed skins found on the Steam version of Cave Story+ (though you do get the Reindeer and Vampire sprite swaps from the WiiWare port).  That said, there is no one version of Cave Story that has everything. This new release has just as much content as any other version of the game, if not more. Overall, it stands right alongside Cave Story+ as one of the best, if not the best, version of Cave Story to date.

For those of you who have lost count, this is the third time that I've reviewed Cave Story, and the second time I've reviewed it on the 3DS platform. That may sound like a lot, but I've actually been slacking. This eShop-spec...


Jetpack Joyride finally out on Android, and it's free!

Sep 28
// Hamza CTZ Aziz
Android owners can finally play one of the most enjoyable mobile games ever with the arrival of Halfbrick's Jetpack Joyride. Best of all, it's free! You can download the game either through Google Play or the Amazon App Store. You really have no excuse here. We gave Jetpack Joyride a 9 out of 10 in our review last year. And did I mention it's free? Because it's free. FREE!

Review: Thirty Flights of Loving

Sep 18 // Patrick Hancock
[embed]235183:45112[/embed] Thirty Flights of Loving (PC)Developer: Blendo GamesPublisher: Blendo GamesRelease: August 20, 2012 (Steam)MSRP: $4.99 It is often said that it is not what you write, but rather what you don't write. There are two stories that epitomize this idea completely: "For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn." (rumored to be penned by Ernest Hemingway) "The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door..." (Knock by Fredric Brown) Both of these incredibly short stories tell a complete tale. The former is a sad, melancholy story about an event no couple wants to experience, while the latter is a horror story reminiscent of The Twilight Zone. What they both share is the immediate sense of intrigue. The reader's mind races to think of all the possibilities that would lead to the situation at hand. The lack of information forces readers to use their imagination to construct their own version of the story. Thirty Flights of Loving works exactly the same way. It isn't so much about what is told to the player, but instead what is not. This fifteen-minute adventure leaves just enough information for the player to start making assumptions, but not enough to know exactly what is going on. The player is intentionally left in the dark as to the finer details of the plot and is then forced to bridge the gaps and draw their own conclusions. There is no spoken or written dialogue throughout the entire game as the complete story is told through interactions and the environment. The surroundings are so lovingly crafted in order to tell such a specific story; everything is done on purpose. Although this attention to detail may not be incredibly obvious on a first playthrough, the included developer commentary sheds a ton of light on the development of Thirty Flights of Loving. After playing through Thirty Flights of Loving, I began to think of storytelling in video games as a whole. How did this tiny little morsel of a story manage to evoke the same emotions that most games can't do with an eight-hour campaign? It does so by removing all of the "fluff" from the plot and gameplay. Character development is progressed only through actions and observations. Unimportant and dull travel time (walking from point A to point B) is simply removed by a scene jump cut. It might seem strange or even annoying at first, but upon some critical thinking, it just makes sense. It is so meticulously and lovingly crafted that it makes the traditional linear storytelling method seem drab and extraneous. This is storytelling distilled to its finest form; it is a game that does not waste your time. Moving forward, I will not look at storytelling the same way again. Concerning gameplay, Thirty Flights of Loving is a first-person adventure game. It consists of simply moving around the environment and interacting with objects and people. There's no health bar, no shooting, and the only time player control is taken away is brief and optional. Yet despite the limited mechanics, relationships are explored and intrigue is piqued. Thirty Flights of Loving also includes Gravity Bone, a very similar game created by Blendo Games. Gravity Bone is just as wonderful at telling a linear story in a short time span and boasts one of the absolute best scenes to take place within a videogame. Both of these games are incredibly important and will hopefully be a jumping-off point for other developers to advance the medium going forward. The art style might seem strange, but it works. Too often are games lauded for their ability to model and texture the human face with incredible detail and not for efficiently using a specific style. All of the characters are skinny and have blocky heads by design. They are not supposed to look like perfect human beings, which ends up creating a unique feel and style specific only to Thirty Flights of Loving and Gravity Bone. The sound effects occasionally sound a bit off, but that is likely due to the fact that the game is created in the Quake II engine. Still, certain sounds seem a bit out of place or jarring. I also experienced a couple of crashes, but only while playing through the game's developer commentary. Thankfully there were no crashes on my various playthroughs of the main game. Both of these issues amount to a small blemish on what is otherwise an incredible experience. So please, get rid of all of your preconceived notions about game length as it correlates to price and quality, and go play Thirty Flights of Loving. Right now. Go. Do it. While you're at it, make sure you play it with the developer's commentary after your first run. Oh, and be sure to also play Gravity Bone if you haven't already. If you have, play it again. You'll never look at linear storytelling the same way again.

You won't get very far on your escapades through the Internet without someone complaining about how much "games these days do nothing but hold your hand." This phrase is most often used when referring to gameplay, but the sam...

Review: Astro A50

Sep 17 // Daniel Starkey
Wireless headphones -- hell, wireless products in general -- suffer from lower response times, battery hassles, and generally inferior ... everything. To a degree, this reputation is certainly deserved. In the same way that laptops will always be inferior to desktops in every way but one, so too have peripherals paid the price of convenience. It’s unfortunate, too, because the headphones, especially those meant for home theaters, do not at all lend themselves well to a perpetually tethered environment. For the best comfort, for the best experience, wireless is arguably the ultimate goal. The A50s are incredible in their ability to assuage my general trepidation towards the cordless world. The A50s have a number of design changes over Astro’s bread-and-butter A40 set. The most striking of these is the primarily metal frame. It gives the set an excellent feeling of quality and strength that the plastic-framed A40s lack. Even the Creative Tactics can’t measure up. The cups are lined with a soft, velvet-like fabric -- a welcome change from the leatherette standard. The headstrap is also lined with this material, coating the padding. The microphone sits on the left side, activated only when pulled down in front of the user's face. The other controls, including volume, power, a switch for three different listening modes, and a basic equalizer are jammed into the the outer edge of the right cup. The proximity of each can be a bit confusing at times. So much packed so closely together -- and the simple fact that while gaming, you can’t see any of the components -- can make selecting the wrong setting or bumping something unintentionally an occasional annoyance. Aurally, the A50 is a phenomenal set, packed with rich, booming base, soothingly smooth midtones and crisp highs. The soundscape is huge and open, not unlike Sennheiser HD 650 -- a pair that retails for nearly twice as much. The effect is so notable that I actually had to ask whether they were closed or open-back. My only gripe here is the inability of the set to handle higher volumes. Don’t get me wrong, they sound spectacular at anything that even remotely resembles “safe,” but it is a bit disconcerting to hear their fail conditions. Wireless sets, unlike their tethered relatives, don’t have to cope with amps or absurd amounts of power streaming in because some idiot 20-something wants to be deaf in five years. The positive side of that fickle coin is that, in contrast to the Creative Tactics, you will never encounter a situation where the volume level of the source limits you to to quiet and muted tones -- it will always get louder. Microphone reception and quality is prismatic. Everyone I asked online said I came through very clear without any issues in understanding me. As mentioned before, the mic boom can be flipped up and away from the face to mute -- a simple yet brilliant feature that makes the whole system just a bit more user-friendly. If you’ve used the A40, then you are familiar with the Mixamp, Astro’s term for the base station. It includes a USB port to charge the headset itself as well a a few basic controls to turn the system on and off. Provided with the station is a small plastic tower that acts as both a tray for the station and a rack to set the headphones on when not in use. Unfortunately, for inputs, the system only accepts optical. The set is largely console-focused and both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 natively support TOSLink. If you’re a PC user, you’d be hard pressed to find a cheap, consumer-grade card that would be compatible, but for everyone else, it shouldn’t be too much of a problem. The final effect, however, is definitely worth the trouble. Because the set only takes optical, Astro thought it would be absurd to compress the the audio stream to the headset as most other wireless sets do. To accomplish this, they used the 5.8 Ghz band, which has the added benefit of being largely free from any form of electromagnetic interference. Astro has been in the business of creating high-end gaming headsets for some time now; building inroads with MLG and other competitive communities has secured their spot as a respected manufacturer. In my experience, however, their products have suffered from lackluster build-quality and a juvenile, ostentatious design. That trend seemed a bit true when they released the A*, a slick, modern reinterpretation of a cell-phone headset. My pair, for example, has survived everything from door jams to being put through a washer and dryer at full heat. While I can’t say with any certainty that the A50s will endure the same punishment, they have given me a bit more confidence in the design and engineering of Astro’s products. At $300, they run on the high-end, but they at least seem to be in the same class as their price would suggest. Gone on are the days of cheap, plastic-y $200 boondoggles. From those ashes have risen a respectable, clean vision of the future of high-end gaming peripherals.

It doesn't take much to really improve the gaming experience. Better seating, better lighting, better company, etc. are sometimes all it takes to go from an utterly insufferable trek through your simulated world of ...

Review: Ratchet and Clank Collection

Sep 12 // Allistair Pinsof
Ratchet and Clank Collection (PlayStation 3)Developer: Insomniac Games, Idol MindsPublisher: Sony Computer EntertainmentReleased: August 28, 2012MSRP: $39.99As with Jak 2, I had the benefit of coming into Ratchet & Clank one series entry late, where most of the debut’s rough edges had been smoothed out. Going into Ratchet & Clank with curbed expectations, this past week, I was surprised to find that it not only plays well but still looks fantastic! One of the great things of having this collection is that you get the origin story of the series and see how the series evolved along with Sony's console. More than Sly and Jak, Ratchet & Clank nails that Saturday morning cartoon vibe and keeps the plot interesting through strong writing, endearing characters, and great pacing. It’s strange to hear different voices for the characters and no goofy laughs from Clank, but these are still the same two lovable intergalactic heroes I came to love in following entries. [embed]234689:45008[/embed]From the enemy robots' design to the detailed sky box, Ratchet & Clank looks phenomenal for a decade old game. I just can’t get over how detailed the game’s backdrops are with rows of buildings in the distance, flying cars, and birds flying through the clouds. Metropolis was the visual benchmark for the PS2 and it’s fascinating to see how much it evolved over the series. The original R&C was an innovative attempt to blend third-person shooting with platforming, without the sluggish, awkward controls of Mega Man Legends. By comparison to Capcom’s divisive game, Insomniac really pulled off a miracle here and made a platformer that works just as well as a shooter. However, the controls pale in comparison to the sequels. Ratchet feels slow. Aiming is feasible but hardly intuitive. It’s hard to remember, but there were many PlayStation 2 series that were just as annualized as Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed are now. Perhaps I never noticed because the sequels always took great leaps over former entries and found unique ways of rebranding a series. I can list a couple here, but let’s just focus on two exemplary picks: Going Commando and Up Your Arsenal. Though UYA built upon Commando, each game represents a yin-and-yang in the series that would influence the PS3 entries that would follow. Going Commando was a stroke of genius. Along with addressing the lackluster controls of the debut, Insomniac piled on an addictive leveling system, great mini-games, weird Pikmin-esque Clank sections, ship combat, and tons of new stuff -- new gear, new items, new weapons, new enemies, etc. What’s more: Almost all of it are quality additions to the series. While many of the puzzle aspects of GC wouldn’t appear in its sequel, the new focus on more enemies, faster combat, and more options remained.Up Your Arsenal’s improvement and redirection for the franchise is subtle but an unmistakably bold move for Insomniac. Not only did they put the emphasis on shooting more than ever, the game now had a multiplayer mode that was surprisingly great with a Battlefield-esque capture the nodes mode called Siege, Team Deathmatch, and Capture the Flag. Throw in the gadgets from single-player and some vehicles and you have one of the best multiplayer modes of its era. Considering Ubisoft left out multiplayer from its Splinter Cell HD collection -- despite that being the main draw for many series fans -- I’m blown away that it would be included at all. It even works pretty well, depending on the host’s connection. The same can’t be said for the lobby system which is a buggy mess. My system locked-up twice while trying to find a game. It’d turn me off entirely if I weren’t such a big fan of the multiplayer. For most people, the single-player of UYA will be enough. It’s Ratchet & Clank at its most focused and fun. Every level is full of unique moments, compelling scenarios, and intense firefights to be had. Smart additions like blocks to take cover behind, a new control scheme that adds free aim, and a way to swap between weapons quickly make the already great gameplay of Going Commando into a thing bordering on perfection. Whether you are in a mech fight with Clank or bashing things with Ratchet’s wrench with the new Inferno ability, UYA is one of those rare games that makes me smile every minute of the way.Up Your Arsenal isn’t just the high-water mark for the series’ PlayStation 2 days, it was the pinnacle of the 3D platformer in its generation. No other genre entry stood as tall until Super Mario Galaxy and A Crack in Time. Whether you are interested in playing one of the all-time greats in UYA, rekindling nostalgia with Going Commando, or digging up the series’ origins with the debut, there is a lot to enjoy in this package. There are some small complaints that are common with these collections: cutscenes are mostly 4:3 ratio (but oddly in HD), you can’t swap games from menu, and some assets haven’t made a smooth transition to next-gen. It's questionable and discouraging to see Deadlocked missing (yet slated for a PSN release later this year), not to mention the handheld titles, but it’s hard to deny the quality of this package. Seeing these bright, detailed worlds in smooth 60 fps and HD is worth the price of admission. Ratchet & Clank Collection is a reminder of how one developer dared to give some guns to a platforming mascot and made a couple classics in the process. In an era where every third-person shooter comes with bloodstains and a cover mechanic, it's nice to return to this lovable duo and discover that they haven't aged a bit.

For a while there, the 3D platformer was lost on Sony’s platform but then Insomniac found it. And, somehow, the Spyro guys made it better than the genre ever was on the PlayStation. Along with Naughty Dog and Sucker P...

Review: Super Hexagon

Sep 10 // Hamza CTZ Aziz
Super Hexagon (iOS)Developer: DistractionwarePublisher: DistractionwareRelease: September 5, 2012MSRP: $2.99 What makes Super Hexagon such an addictive experience is its simplicity. You control a little triangle that's stationed within the center of the screen. Touching the right side of your screen will move the triangle clockwise, and the left side of the screen moves you counter-clockwise. Tapping the screen will move the triangle ever so slightly, while holding down on the screen will see the shape moving at top speeds. Controls are very responsive, and they need to be as walls in the shape of geometric patterns are constantly advancing toward the center of the level. Levels are randomly generated, while specific pattern configurations are repeated at different points with each replay. The overall goal is to last as long as possible without getting crushed between two walls while you're zig-zagging your way through the endless maze. And I'm not joking when I say you might feel pain around your forehead. Shapes will be moving in one way, while the entire level could be spinning in another direction, all while you have to be aware of every potential threat coming at you from every direction. [embed]234664:45006[/embed] The premise sounds simple enough but I wouldn't doubt it if you hear "Game Over" at least a dozen times before you finally last longer than five seconds. You will die, a lot. The difficulty here isn't in that the game is abusing you, but more that your own abilities are being put to the test. Super Hexagon is about testing your reflexes, reaction speed, memorization, and your instincts, pushing them beyond your self imposed limitations. Colors are constantly changing in the levels, all while the geometric shapes pulse to the wonderful soundtrack by Chipzel. The music picks up at different parts of the track, so you'll get to hear something different instead of restarting from the beginning every time. A big deal in my book, as hearing the same track restart over and over with the retry of a level does get extremely annoying over time in other games.  Restarting a level will become norm, as Super Hexagon isn't kidding around. The lowest difficulty is Hard, going up to Harder, then Hardest. While levels are indefinite, you can technically pass each stage if you last for a full minute. Passing the minute mark rewards you by unlocking even higher difficulties, such as Hardester. This level of masochism will make sense to those that have experienced VVVVVV, the breakout hit by Terry Cavanagh. Super Hexagon is Terry's latest creation, which started life as a hastily put together project during a 48-hour game jam. Terry has since expanded on the original Hexagon, creating a far more enjoyable experience for the iOS, with PC, Mac and maybe even Android versions to come down the line. Super Hexagon is a simple, engaging game, perfect for the mobile experience. You'll go in thinking you'll play a short game, but soon find yourself repeating the same level at least a couple of dozen times, quickly jabbing at the screen to restart after cursing loudly from the ridiculous mistake you just made. Each play through is worth it though, as just breaking your own personal record by a second will give you a level of satisfaction you wouldn't expect to feel. Simply put, Super Hexagon is one of the best mobile gaming experiences I've had this year.
Your brain will vomit rainbows
Super Hexagon is a game that makes your eyeballs feel like they're being forcibly twisted against your will while still in their sockets. It is a game that makes your brain feel like it's being torn up and stitched back toget...

Your guide to Guild Wars 2

Aug 24 // Aerox
If you have any familiarity with other fantasy MMOs, here's the most important thing you need to know when selecting a character: the Trinity is dead. There are no "tanks," or people whose job it is to soak up damage and manage aggro and threat, no dedicated "healers," and no classes whose purpose is to dump out damage and do nothing else. This seems to be the number one biggest thing that people don't understand, even when I explain it to them, so I want to reiterate: the Trinity is dead. Everything you know about tanks, healers, and DPS is wrong. When I say that, I should be clear about what I mean. It's not that there is a "different kind of tanking." There is no tanking. Monsters can and will regularly attack everyone in the party, and everyone has a responsibility to mitigate or avoid the damage. There's not a "different kind of healing." Everyone has a self heal, and can spec to also have some weak group heals on long cooldowns, but healing is not and will not be a central focus of your gameplay, beyond your own responsibility to occasionally heal yourself. Every class is capable of dealing serious damage, and every class has the ability to act in a support capacity, throwing buffs (positive status effects) on their allies and debuffs (negative status effects) on their enemies (called "boons" and "conditions" in Guild Wars 2). And most classes have the ability to hand out some minor healing or regeneration to allies. Despite the notion of everyone being able to do "everything," each class feels quite different from one other because of the weapons they are able to use and their unique mechanics, so the best thing for you to do is read up on the classes and pick which one sounds most interesting. Don't fall into the trap of trying to pick based on archetypes. If you normally enjoy tanking in WoW, don't think you have to pick a Warrior or a Guardian -- there's no tanking because there's no reliable threat management. If you normally play a dedicated healer, you're not going to be standing back and healing anyone in Guild Wars 2, so find a profession that sounds cool and try it it out. Unlike virtually every other MMO on the market, every race can play as every class without any penalty or stat differences, so play around until you find a class that works best for you. Once you have your character created and you've moved through the very short introduction section, you're somewhat unceremoniously dumped right outside your city's starting zone with little direction. You'll see one green star on your map, indicating a portion of your story quest, and not much else. An NPC will direct you to what also appear to be quests -- different hearts on the map indicating people who need help. Your first inclination may be to run straight to your story quests or toward the heart quests -- after all, that's what we've been conditioned to do in almost every MMO since EverQuest. DON'T DO IT! One of the biggest fundamental shifts in thinking you'll have to do when playing Guild Wars 2 is to understand that the game is about exploration, not just running in a straight line. In most games, the best way to level is to do as many quests or dungeons as possible in a short amount of time. In Guild Wars 2, it's much different; the more time you spend wandering around off the beaten path, the more things you'll find to do. In this game, there are many ways to earn experience. You get experience for finding waypoints and points of interest on the map. You get experience for killing things. You get experience for reviving other players. You get experience for World vs. World PvP. You get experience for gathering crafting materials and making things out of them. You can even go back to old zones you never completed and get experience from them -- the game downlevels you to whatever zone you're in so you can do the content without blowing through it, while getting appropriate exp rewards for your actual level. These aren't just tiny amounts of experience, either -- they're significant. It won't be immediately apparent out the gate, but the best way to level in Guild Wars 2 is to do as many different things as possible as you play. In fact, to earn your first level out of the tutorial/intro mission, I recommend turning around, going back inside your race's major city, and exploring the entire thing. When it comes to actual "questing," the majority of "quests" in the game are randomly occurring events. As you walk around and explore the map, events will suddenly begin, or you'll move into range of an in-progress event. These events form what will likely be the core of your PvE experience, and you should always be looking to participate. Again, the best way to find these events is to just wander around exploring the map -- those who only run in a straight line to the heart and story quests will miss out. Events will occupy much of your time in the game, but if you ever get tired of them, or if feel like you are too under-leveled to move forward (and, if you only do story and heart quests and nothing else, you'll hit this point pretty quickly), remember all the other things you can do. Spend some time gathering materials and crafting items, go check out the World vs. World combat, or even check out the other races' starting areas. (Getting to them is simple, although not obvious. Lion's Gate has portals to all five major cities, and can be reached either through the portal in your own city, or by entering the sPvP lobby through your Hero Menu and taking the portal found there.) Remember -- don't focus just on quests, don't be afraid to aimlessly wander and explore, and don't be afraid to check out other zones. The more you explore, the better off you'll be. One of the other aspects of Guild Wars 2 that will probably take some adjusting to is the fact that it's a social game. Not "social game" in the sense that you're spamming farming invites to your friends, but social in that there's a very real incentive to work with other players, and luckily, doing so is simple and generally doesn't require any futzing with parties or raids. Hell, you don't even have to technically talk to anyone, but you will have to work with other people. Again, it's not immediately clear, but working with people in this game is ALWAYS beneficial. There's no kill stealing or even kill tagging. You can't take loot meant for someone else. Even gathering nodes will be unique to your character, meaning no one will swoop in in front of you and snag that ore chunk you had your eye on. If you come across other players, help them! Start attacking their monsters -- they won't mind, since you'll both get experience and treasure. Happen upon a downed or dying player? You'll want to try to revive them, since there's a bit of experience in it for you. If you see a group of people wandering around, follow them. You'll all help each other out, and there's a good chance you'll come across a random event together as a group. Similarly, if you see a whole bunch of players all running in one direction, definitely follow them. A major event is probably about to start or already in progress, and you won't want to miss out. Later in the game at around Level 30, when dungeons become available to you, you WILL have to start dealing with a party system. The dungeons are all five-mans, but, again, remember that the Trinity is dead. It shouldn't be super difficult to find a group, because virtually any group composition should be able to clear any dungeon in the game. You don't have to sit around waiting for a tank or a healer -- you can grab the four nearest Engineers and still have a reasonable chance of completing the dungeon. Simply put, if you're the kind of person who tries to play MMOs solo (which, I admit, often describes me), you're going to have to shift your thinking, or you're not going to have much fun in this game. All that said, my experience in the beta weekend has been that once all the barriers to co-operation are removed, people generally seem to act a whole lot nicer to each other. Now, we get to the combat itself. First off, your main skill set is tied to the weapon you're currently using -- the first five skills on your hotbar correspond directly to your equipped weapon. You start with only one skill in each useable weapon, but they quickly unlock as you kill things -- within two or three hours of play, you should have unlocked most if not all of your weapon skills. Your other five slots are a healing skill, three utility skills, and an elite skill, all of which you can choose from a set that you will unlock as you level up. When it comes to actually killing, throw everything you know about priority systems and rotations out the window. Guild Wars 2 isn't the kind of game where you stand in one place mashing buttons; you need to be moving CONSTANTLY. Almost every skill can be used while moving, even most channeled ones, and as such you should be constantly strafing and circling your target. Generally speaking, you have less skills overall than in most other MMOs, and the skills you do have come with significantly longer cooldowns. The time you're not spending mashing skill buttons instead goes to combat positioning and avoidance. In addition to just moving around your opponent, you also need to learn to dodge. The dodge skill is absolutely critical to survival in the game, and once you move past the first few areas, you'll find that even basic monsters can easily kill you if you're not careful. Many enemies have extremely powerful attacks that can one-shot you, so you need to learn the tells so that you can dodge out of the way. In the event you do go down, don't worry! The downed state, which you should be introduced to in the tutorial, is an expected and normal part of the game. Being downed doesn't necessarily mean you've done something wrong (although there's a good chance you're down because you blew a dodge), and you should quickly be revived by another player in the area. You can also come back from being downed by contributing to an enemy kill while downed, and it will be obvious how to do so when you first enter the state. If you do end up dying, you'll just respawn at a waypoint. As you move through areas, keep an eye out on your map for other downed players -- reviving them will grant you some experience, and they'll certainly appreciate the help. Finally, a few notes about loot, dungeons, and the "end-game." The "end-game" concept central to most MMOs is not present here. In Guild Wars 2, the time it takes to gain a level is designed to be roughly equal, whether you're leveling from 29 to 30 or from 79 to 80. Rather than gating content at the level cap, the content is more evenly spread throughout the entire game. When you do ultimately hit the level cap, you have an opportunity to go back to all the areas you've missed and try them out -- because of the downscaling system, you won't be just blowing through them without a challenge. Five-man dungeons are present in the game, and the first isn't available until level 30, but they don't exist to gear you up. Equivalent versions of all of the loot from dungeons can be found out in the world or crafted -- they instead serve as cosmetic rewards. Loot in general is significantly scaled back from many other games, and you'll find that you're pretty naturally upgrading your gear as you move through the game without any kind of dungeon or raid grinding. Instanced raids don't exist at all, but many will find that some of the major area events serve as de facto, non-instanced, mini-raids, and these are available as early as the starting areas of each race. As should be clear from the above, I spent a significant amount of time in most of the beta events, and had a really positive experience. I think a lot of you, even if you don't normally like MMOs, will enjoy the game as well. That said, I'm sure it won't appeal to everyone, and sadly I think a lot of people may be turned off from it simply because they try to play it like World of Warcraft or Old Republic. That's not to crap on those games (I still have an active World of Warcraft account and a great guild), but it's just to note that you really do have to change the way you think about and play MMOs to really "get" Guild Wars 2. If you read this guide the entire way through, you should have a pretty good idea of how to do so. See you in Tyria! [Jordan, Chris Carter, and I are planning on rolling on the server Ferguson's Crossing, and we expect a few other editors will be playing there as well. We don't have any kind of solid plans for a guild at this point, but if you're looking for a server, feel free to join us!]

With the Guild Wars 2 headstart beginning tomorrow, many of you will be playing the game for the first time. Some of you may still be on the fence about whether to purchase it or not (hint: you should). If you haven't played ...

Review: Counter-Strike: Global Offensive

Aug 24 // Allistair Pinsof
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (PC [reviewed], PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)Developer: Hidden Path Entertainment, ValvePublisher: ValveReleased: August 21, 2012 MSRP: $14.99 Rig: Intel i5-2500k @3.30 GHz, 8GB of RAM, GeForce GTX 580 GPU (SLI)Counter-Strike was born on PC and it is there that its largest community of players will stay. Nevertheless, Valve wished to branch out and get their hands on some of that Call of Duty money. Even so, the game still plays like classic CS: this is white-knuckled gaming not for the easily impatient and frustrated. It’s true that the game has been rebuilt almost completely, but the majority of changes are superficial and surface level: A chime plays when you kill, you are rewarded with progress points and achievements that do nothing, and the game’s player models have become greatly improved.If you are new to the series, here’s what you can expect. CS is a slow-paced game -- funny thing is that it was pretty fast in the days of Rainbow Six -- where two teams try to eliminate each other while attempting a secondary objective (rescue hostages or plant a bomb). The two defining features of the game are the permanent death that forces players to spectate until the next round begins, and the ability to purchase weapons and equipment at the start of each round with money earned from kills and victories. You can find these features in Call of Duty’s Search and Destroy mode as well as Shadowrun (2007), but outside a couple mods for Quake and Unreal Tournament no one has attempted to replicate the full package. [embed]233724:44829[/embed]What I love most of all about CS are the maps and Valve seems to know as much. Nine classic maps are included in this download, in addition to eight new maps for the two new game modes (more on this below). You’ll find some minor changes made to Italy and Dust, but it’s not exactly going to put a stop to your nostalgia or established strategies. Since death comes quickly, you’ll need to learn the maps inside-and-out so you can cover all your corners. You’ll also need to keep quiet, as this is a game where hearing nearby footsteps can change the course of a round. Above all, you’ll need to be incredibly accurate and control your weapon. This is where things get a bit rough for console players. Without accuracy and player awareness, you don’t stand a chance in the brutal servers of CS:GO.Valve has tasked Hidden Path with fitting a square peg in a round hole, but the young developer has done an admirable job of making the game approachable to new console players. There is a well made tutorial to guns, an informative “How to Play” option in the menu, dumb-as-dirt bots to play against offline, and a new player ranking system (ELO rank) that will pair players of the same skill level together over time. Here’s where the things fall apart: CS was never meant for consoles and this latest iteration serves as a reminder.In addition to having far inferior aim controls, console players won’t have access to a browser and are limited to 10 player matches instead of 32 on PC. It’s ironic but Hidden Path have managed to gimp console gamers by abandoning its original plan to port Source. At least on consoles, you’ll have a level playing field with a controller unlike PC where using a controller is the equivalent of gnawing your legs off before a kickboxing match. The PlayStation 3 release supports Move and keyboard/mouse. I'm not sure if this is a good thing though, since these players will have a great advantage on the majority of players. The most noteworthy addition of GO are its two new modes: Arms Race and Demolition. Both of which are variations of the popular Gun Game mod played on CS servers for years -- though, you may be more familiar with Call of Duty: Black Op’s mode that borrows the name and concept. These two modes serve as an excellent entry point for new players, since you are forced to learn the current weapon in your inventory until you get a new one by killing an opponent. This will give you some time to get used to the vicious recoil on some of these guns -- a jarring difference between GO and recent military shooters.Arms Race has respawns so it’s very fast paced but doesn’t feel like CS. Even worse, there are only two maps that come with the mode and neither is very good. Demolition, on the other hand, is almost worth purchasing GO on its own merits. Demolition is the meeting point between Gun Game and classic Disarm CS maps. Once again, players are limited to one weapon they must upgrade through kills but now death is permanent and they need to plant/disarm a bomb. Due to the smaller map size (there is only one plant site), these maps are intense and fast-paced but still capture that CS feel. It helps that all six maps are excellent. Most maps revolve around a central building that houses the bomb site, so if you love old CS maps like Estate and Militia you’ll get a real kick of these new ones. One of the maps is even a shortened version of the classic Train, so you’ll feel right at home on that one. Six maps is a good amount, but it’d be nice if more shortened versions of classic maps were included. After a shaky divorce in 2004, Valve are breaking up the family again with GO. Counter-Strike has always been a game by community, for community. The game started as a mod made by fans and fans of the mod have made the game into something else over the years. If you are a 1.6 or Source player, you’ll find GO to be a bit hollow in terms of features. Gone are the detailed damage reports, server rankings, gambling, and quirky server-side tweaks. I managed to find a couple quality community maps (including faithful recreations of old classics like Backalley), but the pickings are still pretty slim. You’ll find some surf, Goldeneye, and zombie maps, but the mapping and modding community hasn’t arrived just yet.The biggest offender in GO is the removal of free look. This may seem like a trivial thing for new players or those that played in servers that disabled it in past iterations, but it means a lot to me as a long time fan. Before I bought a camera and made short films, CS was my portal into filmmaking. Whenever I died, I’d use free look to spectate the match and craft cinematic films for myself with the remaining players. Please, please, please put this feature back in Valve! Some players also may mourn the removal of sprays -- I’ve been told it can be turned on by server hosts, but I’ve yet to see one in a match.Along with a wide set of achievements and two new modes, the biggest change to CS is a visual one. GO looks like what you remember Source looking like. No better, no worse. There are now multiple sets of player models specific to maps (no more arctic terrorists in the desert). These models look fantastic, but you won’t mistake them for Max Payne 3 characters. I can’t say the graphical upgrade to the levels is as impressive. You’ll barely notice the visual upgrade, but at least the game runs at a very smooth frame rate with settings maxed out. Along with re-balancing established guns’ firepower, spread, and recoil, some new items have been added to the game. The most noticeable additions are the Zeus taser and grenades (molotovs, incendiary, and decoy). The taser is useless and expensive. It will replace the knife as the new troll kill. It’s a one hit kill but you need to be so close to an enemy that you’ll rarely see it pulled off with success. Molotovs and incendiary grenades are perhaps the best weapon added to CS in a decade. These weapons cause a wide spread of flames that will help you do some crowd control in those bottleneck corridors. There are also some new shotguns, submachine guns, and other items, including replacements for the USP pistol and MP5. Don’t worry: There are no riot shields!Though I was surprised to find many of GO’s visual tweaks in Source when I loaded that dinosaur back up, I still prefer GO’s presentation. The HUD, killcam, and achievement notifications give the series a new level of polish and feedback. However, loading old CS games made it apparent just how faulty GO’s netcode is in its current state. Lag wasn’t crippling in the matches I played but it always had a way of rearing its ugly head. GO also makes joining matches and friends a breeze. It’s very much a game of its era, even if its roots are still firmly in the late-’90s. Like Source before it, Global Offensive is at the mercy of its community. Even with all the work Hidden Path and Valve have put into the game, it remains a hollow shell of what CS: Source has grown into. Though the new modes and features they added are nice, the ones community added to Source that are currently missing here are much nicer -- not to mention the things that Hidden Path has oddly removed (free look, sprays). If you want an excuse to play Counter-Strike again or an approachable entry point into this esoteric series, GO is a faithful reminder of what made this the little mod that could. However, in its current state, I have my doubts that this will be the version installed on fans’ desktops for years to come. As for console players, let’s not kid ourselves -- they’ll be gone by the end of the year. It may lack some of the community niceties, beloved maps (Assault, anyone?), and little features of past games, but Global Offensive delivers on the promise of a faithful, polished, and better looking Counter-Strike for whoever wants it. Even if the community doesn't meet the golden standard of 1.6 and Source, CS:GO will remain a multiplayer classic for those willing to put in the time to learn the maps and weapons.

In 1999, I crawled out of Counter-Strike’s wretched vagina to become the man I am today. And, now, I’m tasked with rating the game. How does one even rate his mother? In sixth grade, I would wake up for school a...

Review: Darksiders II

Aug 14 // Jim Sterling
Darksiders II (PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [reviewed], Wii U)Developer: Vigil GamesPublisher: THQReleased: August 14, 2012 (PC, PS3, 360) / Late 2012 (Wii U)MSRP: $59.99 Darksiders II puts players in the bony boots of Death, a Horseman of the Apocalypse on an ironic quest to bring the slain back to life. His journey starts just after War has been tricked into obliterating mankind, and Death believes that if he can resurrect humanity, he'll clear his brother's name. Along the way, he encounters Corruption, a malevolent force intent on obliterating all existence, and thus finds himself with more urgent matters than his own brother's fate -- not that he cares. Though Death is no less grim than his brother, he is an altogether more enjoyable protagonist, possessed as he is of a caustic wit and an affable disregard for anybody who isn't a member of his family. As always, the weird and wonderful world of Darksiders is brought to life with a host of eccentric and overzealous characters, a fantastical set of locations, and some gorgeous designs courtesy of artist Joe Madureira. Much of Darksiders II will be familiar to fans of War's bloody journey, but make no mistake, this is quite a different experience. While Darksiders was an action game with heavy Zelda influences, its sequel comes close to being a full-blown action role-playing game along the lines of Diablo or Torchlight. There are still many Zelda influences -- items that open up new paths, dungeons with tiered levels, key chests, and hidden maps -- but the package is altogether less shameless this time around, with a greater focus placed on environmental challenges and puzzles that make heavy use of acrobatics, levers, and even a little time travel. [embed]232695:44617[/embed] While none of these puzzles are especially fresh to the action genre -- we've all spent time standing on pressure pads to open gates -- the inventive level design helps them be among the best examples you could hope to see. There are some ingenious puzzles that make use of Death's growing array of gadgets, whether he's throwing bombs at crystallized rock, creating duplicates of himself, or jumping into Aperture Science-inspired portals. None of the mechanics are new, but the implementations are wholly refined. Dungeons are set out with a keen sense of logic, and the challenges within are taxing without ever coming off as contrived. Likewise, Death's movement around the world is full of the same wall-running, ledge clambering, hook-grappling acrobatics we've seen in titles like Uncharted or Prince of Persia, but the elegance and speed with which the Horseman navigates his surroundings creates a fluidity quite unlike that seen with other clambering heroes -- all while demanding quick wit on the part of the player. At times, this fluidity is a little overbearing, as Death's animations feel too "floaty" and unpredictable to cope with some of the more demanding, time-limited areas. A number of times, Death needs to move through a series of environmental obstacles at a pace too quick for his often laggy responses, as Vigil placed too much emphasis on animation over utility. However, these irregular occasions are more than made up for by the many moments the system works successfully -- and looks gorgeous doing so. Combat is where most similarities with the original Darksiders can be found, though Death's respective litheness makes him feel less meaty and far more agile than War ever was. Button-mashing combos, a heavy emphasis on dodging, and a range of increasingly brutal special skills make for a combat system that balances grace and brutality in equal measure. Death's weapon of choice is a pair of scythes, which will always serve as his primary armaments, though he can equip a secondary weapon from a range that includes maces, hammers, glaives, claws, and more. Scythes and secondary weapons can be used in conjunction to create more effective combos, and Death possesses a power gauge that, when full, allows him to assume the spectral form of the Grim Reaper himself, cutting into foes with deadly strength and enhanced resistance. As Death gains experience and rises in level, he can unlock and upgrade abilities from two skill trees. Such abilities include the power to close distances with a teleporting slash, summon demonic minions, or send a murder of crows to steal health. Each power starts off relatively weak, but adding and strengthening each one with subsequent skill points can lead to possession of some utterly vicious playthings. If one ever grows bored of them, the demonic merchant Vulgrim is on hand to reset your points and allow you to start over. Darksiders II's combat system works best in smaller engagements against a moderate selection of foes. Since it's based on counterattacks, being able to concentrate on opponents is paramount, but it has to be said that Vigil sometimes relies too much on undermining this to create a sense of challenge. A fair number of fights, particularly toward the latter portions of the game, swamp the screen with monsters, many of which can power through your attacks in order to break combos. Some of the best battles are one-on-one engagements where timing is of the essence, so these larger, chaotic fights really aren't needed and can be a little infuriating at times. Things are kept interesting with the all-new loot system. Enemies now dispense vast quantities of gold, as well as pauldrons, greaves, vambraces, and weapons. Darksiders II does a solid job of providing more powerful gear at the right intervals, offering enough incentive to keep one hunting for fresh loot. There are also a whole bunch of extra statistics alongside the regular damage/defense boosts, allowing Death to improve his special attacks, increase the chance to perform execution kills, and enjoy a health regen. Possessed weapons are manually upgraded by "feeding" other loot items to them, and each level gained provides a variety of upgrade choices, allowing for tailor-made and significantly powerful armaments. Naturally, merchants are peppered throughout the world, happy to sell new items and buy your unwanted trash. While not strictly open-world, the four realms that Death gradually uncovers can be freely traveled and are vast enough to provide secrets, hidden items, and side quests. Death traverses the game's realms by summoning his ethereal horse, Despair, though there are enough fast travel points to get around the map without much equestrian help. A number of the optional missions rely too heavily on tiresome collection quests, but there are some satisfyingly challenging tasks involving full-fledged dungeons and powerful boss creatures. All told, the main game should take around 20 hours to beat, with plenty of content left unfinished. There's also a "new game plus" mode, a survival-based challenge called the Crucible, and an unlockable "Nightmare" mode that features permanent death. For the hardcore Darksiders fan, there is a ton of stuff to uncover, ranging from the banal to the engrossing. The sheer wealth of content on offer makes the original Darksiders look like an appetizer -- still incredibly enjoyable in its own way, but a morsel in comparison to the main entree. Some of the optional quests feel like time wasters, but the main meat of the game features very little fluff -- even if the "perform three tasks to unlock the real objective" formula is played a few times too many. While predictably structured, the adventure is never boring, and as Death slices his way through progressively more aggressive and bizarre creatures, there's a tremendous sense of build. Sadly, the actual ending is a bit brief and unsatisfying, but it's a fantastic ride to that point. For a vast majority of the time, Darksiders II is a fantastic experience -- highly polished, tightly scripted, and boasting enough moments of exhilaration to make up for the frustrating points. While mostly a high quality experience, an entire section that takes place on apocalyptic Earth seems quite glitchy, with sounds not playing and dialog skipping. It's a comparatively small section of the game and will likely be patched, but it's worth noting that right now the Earth section is a little busted. Still, the rest of the experience is remarkably well put together, with none of the screen-tearing found in the previous game and no other bugs encountered during my playthrough. I wouldn't want to say that Darksiders II is better than Darksiders. Both games are different beasts and provide separate experiences. It's rare to see a sequel retain so much flavor while totally restructuring itself, but Vigil Games knocked it out of the park with aplomb. Neither game is superior, both are enjoyable in different ways, and together they weave one fantastic tale. Those new to the series certainly don't need to know too much to get into it, but existing fans will be able to enjoy the universe in a whole new perspective. As far as I'm concerned, Darksiders II is a great example of a sequel done absolutely right. There are certainly complaints to be had with the title. The latter half feels like it's over a bit too quickly, I'd have loved to have seen more exploration of Death as a protagonist, and I feel that the series' trademark macabre characters needed more of a spotlight. However, with a game that already provides so much, these things feel more like desired garnish rather than missing components. This is one of those games that you can really sink your teeth into, a game that feels full, making you want more without feeling like you need more. Darksiders II takes the best elements from many games and blends them into a seamless, wholly satisfying package. With a unique protagonist, killer art style, savvy level design, and ferocious combat, there's little left for an action fan to want, while the role-playing elements have been enhanced to such a degree that the overall experience feels deeper and more compelling than before. If this game is not a success, then truly the world doesn't know what's good for it.
a great example of a sequel done absolutely right
Every now and then, a game comes along that seems to have the right stuff -- it's got an unforgettable visual style, a quality studio, a respectable marketing budget, and the kind of gameplay that should go over damn well wit...

Review: Spelunky (XBLA)

Jul 02 // Jordan Devore
[embed]230426:44240[/embed] Spelunky (Xbox Live Arcade)Developer: MossmouthPublisher: Microsoft StudiosRelease: July 4, 2012MSRP: 1200 Microsoft Points In Spelunky, your goal is to navigate through what start out as rather traditional cave tunnels, collecting treasure and saving damsels in distress (or pugs -- seriously, there's an option for that) along the way. Of course, it wouldn't be a proper adventure without snakes, bats, spiders, arrow traps, spikes, and the like getting in your way. Technically, all you need to do is not die, but loot certainly won't hurt. Given the game's aforementioned influences, not dying is easier said than done. A brief tutorial will catch you up to speed with the basics, from how bombs and ropes work to your uncanny ability to pick up (and naturally throw) just about anything in the environment. From there, Spelunky is absolutely unafraid of teaching you to pay attention to your surroundings. By playing recklessly, you run the risk of getting killed within a matter of seconds of starting up a round; there is a quick restart button for a reason. Don't let that scare you off, however -- this is a difficult game in the best possible way, with player deaths rarely ever feeling cheap or unwarranted. Occasionally, there will be a remarkable chain reaction of events you couldn't possibly have seen coming, but those often end up being hilarious, if nothing else. This is the type of game where the challenge doesn't lessen -- you simply get better over time. That said, levels will sometimes be dark (one of a selection of random events), essentially requiring you to carry around a torch to reach the end. With so many things out to get you, this type of level can be annoying to encounter. While level layouts may be generated randomly, more often than not, they feel hand crafted. Bits and pieces will begin to feel familiar over time as you become accustomed to the world around you and its rules, but you're always kept on your toes, lest you get shot by that just-hidden-enough arrow trap. It's the little details that come together so perfectly to create memorable moments. For instance, upon nabbing a Golden Idol, a large boulder will appear à la Raiders of the Lost Ark and utterly destroy everything in its path. It just so happens that, every so often, one of these boulders will come crashing into a shop, enraging its shotgun-wielding owner who then literally becomes convinced you are a terrorist. Chances are extremely high it will be this shopkeeper or one like him who ultimately kills you, possibly many levels later ... because they'll wait for you at ensuing level exits. And that's amazing. Spelunky's influences, which span multiple genres and mediums, aren't exactly subtle, but the end result is a game world that feels unique, not copied. It's particularly the kind of secret-filled backdrop those of you who have been gaming for decades will appreciate. I could have looked up on a wiki the fact that one out of countless tombstones will read "Ash," not "RIP," and signal a hard-to-get shotgun buried underneath. But I didn't, and my stumbling upon it with no prior knowledge other than being a fan of The Evil Dead brought a smile to my face. (Don't worry, there are plenty of other, far more interesting secrets that will go unspoiled.) As some of the screenshots in this review suggest, it doesn't take very long at all for Spelunky to get weird. It's hard to tell exactly how much work went into adapting Spelunky for the Xbox 360 controller, but the controls feel wonderful. In fact, I don't have a single complaint. I'm similarly a fan of Derek Yu's new art style, which does away with charming pixel art for an aesthetic more fitting of an HD console. I have a feeling that the music, composed by Eirik Suhrke (Super Crate Box), will be the most divisive of all the big changes made in the move to Xbox Live Arcade. Which isn't to say he did a bad job -- far from it; check out the embedded video above, for example. It's just that George Buzinkai gave us some decidedly catchy songs for the original game. Personally, I really enjoy Suhrke's work and am of the opinion that, since the old game exists already, why not go all out for this new version? Simply put, both composers' soundtracks are entirely fitting for the two distinct art styles. At this point, you must be wondering about the game's new offline deathmatch mode. I was skeptical going in, but you know what? Not only does it not feel tacked on, it's great; there's nothing quite like it. You and three others (which can optionally be AI bots) are placed into a tiny room filled with items and hazards. From there, it usually only takes 15 seconds before everyone is dead, or one lucky soul has managed to somehow come out mostly unscathed. The bots deserve a special mention, because they bring an unrivaled level of chaos to this mode. You have no idea. They jump around the screen frantically while whipping, shooting, or bombing anything and everything that moves. I had intended to only play a handful of rounds but ended up playing deathmatch for hours, completely losing track of time. Although it's an odd comparison to make, if you're a fan of old-school Bomberman -- for me, Super Bomberman 2 -- you'll probably dig this. It's conceptually similar to that, only far more hectic. There is also now the option to play Spelunky cooperatively with up to three other players. Unfortunately, it is, again, local multiplayer only. What makes co-op so terrific here is that it completely changes the dynamic of the game. With more players to help, you don't need to be quite so cautious, and death isn't permanent. As such, people who don't frequently play games can still serve as good co-op buddies. Upon perishing, you assume control of a little ghost who can fly around and push enemies and items with a blast of air. That might not sound like much, but it prevents you from becoming bored and does actually contribute in a meaningful way. For instance, I love to distract shopkeepers while my buddies loot their stores. In single-player, stealing is incredibly risky and often fatal. Here, it's easier to reliably pull off a quick heist with the right teamwork. So long as one player makes it to the end of the level, you're golden. That surviving member will be able to find caskets on later levels which can be broken open to revive deceased players. With the ability to inadvertently harm others, co-op in Spelunky could have been extremely frustrating, but it isn't. Instead, it greatly complements single-player, making the fact that it's not playable online a real shame. Some of you will have not needed to see this or any other review to know that Spelunky is well worth its $15 asking price. For everyone else, you owe it to yourself to, at the very least, go download the demo or even grab the original PC version to get a better understanding of what this game really is. All of the additions for Xbox Live Arcade -- most notably, new graphics and sound, competitive multiplayer, and cooperative play -- come together to flesh out what was already impressive in its earlier stages. To avoid Spelunky is to miss out on an incredibly satisfying, well-designed game.

Derek Yu's Spelunky made a name for itself as a freeware release years ago. Adapting concepts from roguelikes such as randomized levels and permanent death (lots and lots of permanent death), it uses a familiar 2D platformer ...

Review: Origin EON 11-S

Jun 28 // Daniel Starkey
The EON 11-S' build quality is fantastic. The whole case has the no-slip textured surface that feels really nice to the touch, rather than feeling cheap. The chassis is made of really sturdy plastic that is resistant to force and pressure. No part of the frame flexed or bent when I pressed on it. There's also a nice weight to it; not so light that it feels like you're holding air, but not so heavy that it loses utility.  The touchpad feels great, while the buttons themselves are nice and responsive. It isn't overly sensitive, nor is it a pad that will have you dragging your finger across the whole surface three or four times just to get the cursor to move across the screen. The keyboard feels nice as well, though, as one might expect, it is a little cramped. The only real disappointment I had with the machine in terms of basic usability was the lack of a backlit keyboard. While by no means critical, it is a luxury that I have grown very much accustomed to, and given that most machines at this price level come equipped with backlit keys, it is a tad disappointing that they aren't present in this machine.  Sporting an Ivy Bridge i5 clocked at 2.5 Ghz, 8GB of RAM, a 750GB HDD, and an NVIDIA GT 650M with 2GB of VRAM, this pint-sized portable is a powerhouse. Then again, looking at those specs, I was concerned with the unit's battery life. Part of the reason that netbooks are such practical options is that the specs are kept low specifically to maximize the longevity of the limited power they have. To be sure, when running Deus Ex: Human Revolution at maximum settings, the battery was emptying at a rate of about 0.5% per minute. That's quite a bit better than most gaming notebooks we are used to seeing, but it won't survive a full cross-country plane ride. It does, however, give you a fantastic distraction from the creepy guy who's trying to chat you up and the crying baby in the next aisle. If you're mostly just running productivity software, however, then you'll definitely be set for all but the longest of plane rides. When you're on battery and aren't running any graphically intense applications, NVIDIA Optimus dynamically switches to the integrated GPU, saving metric assloads of power. Seriously, this stuff is ridiculous. With full screen brightness, I was able to write for an entire hour using less than 10%. Granted, most of the time you won't be able to eek out quite that much, but you won't be running to the nearest outlet every five seconds, either. During the chaos of E3, for example, my Galaxy Nexus' battery was being routinely slammed by the awful cell phone reception, endless tethering, staff emails, and our regular "Hey, anyone up for grabbing some beers?" Thankfully, the EON 11-S has an always-on USB port. I could actually charge my phone with the tiny netbook resting in my messenger bag, pop the computer open, take some notes at appointments, and go about my business. Not only that, but I could do this all day on a single charge. The sheer utility of this thing is incredible: a netbook fast enough to keep up with the big boys, sturdy enough to take a few hits, and versatile enough to be useful to almost anyone. Hell, even the Great Conrad Zimmerman used the thing to get a quick charge at one of the after parties. In terms of actual power, the EON's general 3DMark score was P3844 with graphics, physics, and combined subscores of 3552, 7470, and 3453, respectively. This clearly demonstrates that the workhorse here is the processor. As such, it excels beyond what one might expect in any game or program that taxes the CPU. I thought that a fair portion of people who would play games on this thing would be doing so with a larger monitor. I used a standard 1920x1080 ASUS screen. Skyrim ran fairly well with 60-second averages (as measured using Fraps) ranging from 42 to 56 frames per second, never dropping below 28 frames per second. I had shadows, textures, and radial blur all at max with 8x AA and 16x anisotropic filtering. Keep in mind that I was also running with over 70 mods, including extreme distance mods, better textures, better shadows, and the like. The strongest case that can be made for the EON 11-S is its sheer utility. I went into last week a skeptic of the high-powered, 11-inch netbook, and I came out very satisfied. This is one of the few pieces I've reviewed that I would absolutely purchase for myself. It's fantastic all around and I truly believe this deserves our Editor's Choice Award.

As I'm sure everyone who is familiar with my previous work on Destructoid is already well aware, I have a thing for portable electronics and laptops in particular. Last week, I was able to put Origin's new 11-inch "netbook" t...

Review: Awesomenauts

May 04 // Maurice Tan
Awesomenauts (Xbox Live Arcade [Reviewed], PlayStation Network)Developer: Ronimo GamesPublisher: DTP EntertainmentReleased: May 2, 2012MSRP: 800 Microsoft Points, $9.99 For those new to MOBA, or "action real-time strategy," the concept in Awesomenauts is relatively simple. Two teams of three players start out on opposite sides of the map, while computer-controlled droid units (creeps) spawn at a regular interval and make their way to the other side through different paths (lanes). When left to their own devices, these similarly powered droids will meet the opposite team's droids somewhere in the middle of a level, maintaining a balance when players don't intervene. When players start killing droids, a team can push to the other side with the intent to destroy a "drillcore" which wins you the match. Along the way, turrets block the path to the drillcore, and enemy players will aim to kill both you and your droids. It leads to a tug-of-war style of play where every player death on one team is an opportunity to push forwards for the other. [embed]226947:43590[/embed] Awesomenauts offers six unique heroes to choose from. Each hero has a button dedicated to basic attack and jump actions, which vary in use between heroes. Some can float, other can double-jump, and a flying monkey can, well, fly. These basic attacks are supplemented by two special skills for each hero, which need to be unlocked with the money (Solar) you earn throughout the match. While having only two skills per hero may sound a bit limited for MOBA veterans, they work extremely well with the fast-paced action and the platforming controls required to survive encounters and to score kills. For example, Leon Chameleon, an assassin DPS hero, can perform a single-jump and a slash attack at the start, and unlock clone and tongue-attack abilities as he progresses through a match. Creating a clone cloaks you, leaving a clone dummy behind as a distraction for you to attack players from behind, or when they least expect it. Collecting more Solar lets you upgrade the clone to move, or even attack with actual damage per hit, and increase the damage you will inflict with your first attack upon decloaking. The tongue, on the other hand, pulls players towards you, and can be upgraded to have a longer range, lifesteal properties, deal more damage, etcetera. Choosing between the two skills and upgrading them to fit your style (in the case of Leon) allows you to either go for a moving clone very quickly, in order to score some early surprise kills, or to focus on upgrading health and basic damage potential to opt for an up-close-and-personal approach using his tongue pull. Or, once you know how and when each ability is best used, spread your Solar between the abilities to counter enemy tactics. The Solar you require for all skill and stat upgrades is generated automatically at a very slow pace, while respawning one-Solar and five-Solar "coins" dot the map. Destroying an enemy droid nets you five Solar, and last-hitting a droid (a MOBA convention) pulls the coin directly towards you. Killing an enemy player is rewarded with a big Solar bonus for you, and half as much for your co-players. So even if you play a support role and don't score as many kills, you'll still benefit from your team's performance. Should you be unfortunate enough to die at the hands of a droid or a turret, however, you'll lose a bit of Solar and the kill reward is dropped on the ground for anyone to pick up. As basic as the premise is -- run in one direction and kill everything -- Awesomenauts offers a vast amount of depth for those who are willing to look below the surface. In part this is due to the way you have to think about how you should spend Solar early in the game, and what kind of upgrades you want to end up with during mid-game. Becoming reasonably proficient with a single character takes a couple of rounds if you are familiar with this type of game, but mastery can still elude you after days of play. Another aspect which adds to replayability is the loadout system. As you play matches and collect experience points to level up, you'll not only unlock new heroes and maps to choose from, but different ability modifiers to assign to your loadout, which can then be purchased and upgraded during a match. Some of these unlockable abilities offer different ways to increase the damage output of your skills, others add different properties (support hero Voltar's heal ray can be turned into a damaging attack, for instance) and yet others offer more tactical offerings. Even if you master one hero with one loadout build, which will take quite a while, you'll always have different builds to try out and master. Better still, no one build is superior to any other, as player skill defines how effective they are. The same is true for the heroes themselves; the new heroes you unlock are in no way whatsoever better or worse than the two heroes you start out with, unless you are incapable of learning from your mistakes and blame a number of unfortunate deaths on the overpowered-ness of whoever killed you. The balancing is excellent, provided you can adapt to evolving situations and change your tactics -- a basic aspect of any MOBA. Although Awesomenauts is a multiplayer game at heart, it can be played in a solo mode with and against bots on each team. The online system in place is rather good, allowing you to start a match with up to three players in local split-screen, with the option to your local team online from the same lobby. Other players will take the place of any bots at any time during an online match, and jumping into a game already in progress gives you a variable amount of Solar to quickly catch up to the average level of heroes in the match, meaning you are never at a big disadvantage. All the individual components in Awesomenauts are lovingly well-crafted and fun variations on typical MOBA games, but while platforming and killing stuff is always fun, the separate parts alone wouldn't matter if the whole wasn't fun enough to play for an extended period of time. Thankfully, it is. In fact, it's ridiculously enjoyable. Whether you play against friends, with friends, or find yourself in a 1-on-1 online match with two bots on either side -- which have an AI that rivals the skill of the average player -- there's a sense of sheer joy as you clasp your controller during heated battles, or curse a team when they work together in an effective way to punish your mistake with a quick kill. The colorful clean artwork and the charm of the heroes, who each have their own theme song and who are inspired by '80s-era cartoons, make sure there is always a smile on your face while you are transfixed on the often frantic action. That's not to say there aren't a few problems that can be found in other MOBA titles as well. Health bars can become obscured when six players are duking it out in close range, the minimap only gives a rough indication of tower health, and sometimes a melee attack has a longer range than the animation would suggest. The AI is good, if predictable with its patterns for some heroes, but at times it is too good for a starting player. Having a few difficulty options for the bots would've helped to allow novice players to practice, although there's something to be said for learning the hard way. These are small issues that can occasionally be bothersome, but they are also mitigated as you become more experienced through the many matches required to hone your skill. Knowing your hero's health level quickly becomes a second nature after you die a lot in the first rounds you play, until you'll eventually know exactly how many hits you can incur before you have to move back. There have always been a few XBLA and PSN titles that come to mind instantly, whenever someone asks for a good game to play with friends. Castle Crashers was one, Dungeon Defenders was another, and Awesomenauts easily makes that list. Sometimes you might lose at the hands of a better team, but even if it makes you ragequit, you'll always come back for another round or two and you'll always learn some new tricks along the way. After playing it for a couple of days straight, I only reached a vague level of mastery over one hero with one specific build, and it will likely take me weeks before I can say I'm any good at all with any of them. The six heroes offer something for everyone, and some people will probably dislike a few heroes that others will love. With more heroes to follow as future content, some may worry that Awesomenauts may suffer the same fate as Dungeon Defenders did on XBLA. However, any new hero content will fall well under the size restrictions imposed by Microsoft, so there is no reason to hold off and wait for a potential PC version down the line unless you don't own either console. Perhaps the game would also benefit from a different mode down the line, such as a Domination/Dominion variant, but what is there in terms of content right now is well worth the price of admission alone. Awesomenauts is one of the first great party games of the year, and it may well end up becoming the best. Get some friends together, try out the 30-minute online demo if you're unconvinced, and you'll have a blast whether the term MOBA frightens you or not.

Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) titles have seen an enormous surge in popularity in recent years, and for good reason, but to date they've been restricted to the PC. These highly skill-based, competitive games offer th...

Review: Legend of Grimrock

Apr 10 // Patrick Hancock
Legend of Grimrock (PC)Developer: Almost HumanPublisher: Almost HumanRelease: April 11, 2012MSRP: $14.99 Though it may not seem like it at first, Legend of Grimrock does have a story. You begin by either choosing one of four preset characters or creating your own. Other than the opening and closing cinematics, there are absolutely no cutscenes. You'll never have control taken away from you as you watch your characters act on their own. Instead, when your team is resting, you will begin hearing a voice in your dreams with seemingly useful information. You're left wondering how and why you're hearing this voice and more importantly who it could be. Meanwhile, you'll be finding notes left all around the dungeon, many written and signed by a single person. These often contain useful information about your surrounding area, recipes, or journal entries from someone who has been in your exact predicament before. At times, you may question just how reliable all of this information really is, but when it comes down to it, these notes and dreams are all you have to go off of. The story did a great job of keeping me interested and I really enjoyed how well it was told. I never had to read paragraphs of text or idly sit back and watch as a cutscene laid everything out for me. I appreciated that the game allowed me to put many of the pieces together myself instead of holding my hand. There's also the potential for expansions and user-created dungeons in the future which is definitely something to get excited about. Legend of Grimrock sports tile-based movement combined with real-time combat. The strict movement may be a bit jarring for some people in the beginning, but after an hour or so you'll become accustomed to it. This type of movement is a clear throwback to the games of yore and really ends up working well within the confines of the game. If there was free movement, then a lot of the puzzles simply wouldn't work as well. The combat is pretty straightforward. Your party is set up in a 2x2 grid, with only the front two being able to use melee attacks as the members in the back cannot reach. You can rearrange your party on the fly by simply dragging them into place. Naturally, you'll want to place any mages or rogues in the back row due to their low health and defense, and place any warriors in the front. In the early game, combat is frantic - you'll be swapping members in and out, attacking, and then swapping them back in an effort to keep everyone alive. Eventually things calm down as mages learn spells and rogues gain more abilities, but combat never feels boring. In order to reduce the amount of damage you receive, you'll want to constantly be moving while fighting.  Strafing and attacking in quick succession is easily the most effective way to approach most of the battles. However, there were plenty of times when I found myself backed into a corner faced with multiple enemies blocking my way. Something that struck me as a bit odd was the magic system. Not how it works, but rather that it's not explained in the game at all. In order to figure out how to use the magic casting system, you'll have to open up the digital manual that comes with the game. All magic is cast by dialing a specific combination of runes. You'll unlock more spells as you level up, but in order to know what spells require what combinations, you'll have to either experiment or find scrolls throughout the dungeon. Once you master the system, casting spells mid-fight is incredibly satisfying. Legend of Grimrock's strongest element is easily the puzzles you'll find strewn throughout the dungeon. I lost count as to how many times I threw my fist in the air and shouted, "YES!" after successfully completing a puzzle. I can't stress enough how well the guys over at Almost Human nailed the puzzle difficulty.  Most puzzles will consist of you activating pressure plates or finding secret buttons to press on the walls. In some cases, there will be hints written on the walls or in scrolls that you can find around the area. Some are quite dastardly, and required me to break out the ol’ paper and pencil to get a better look at them.  There are also optional puzzles that are way more difficult than what you'll normally encounter. Occasionally, you'll come across large iron doors that will take a lot of wit and a keen eye to open. I managed to open about three of these doors in my playthrough, but left many more closed. I felt defeated and I loved it.  The only frustrating moments I had were the few rooms in which I felt death was inescapable on the first try. Some rooms have traps that will unleash a flood of enemies at you, many times with only one way out. Without the knowledge of where and when they will attack, it's almost impossible to survive on the first attempt. After reloading your save, it becomes significantly easier, but it is a minor annoyance. Now, if I were designing a dungeon and wanted to weed out the weak ones, I would totally build rooms just like this. However, in terms of gameplay, these rooms end up being slightly annoying. If you're like me, you might be nervous about the environments in Legend of Grimrock. A lot of the early screenshots and videos show very generic-looking stone walls. In total, there are three types of environments and they change at just the right times. Towards the end of the first section, I was growing tired of seeing the same walls and thought I was going to go insane. It seems as if this was intentional - after all, this is a dungeon. Sure enough, the next floor down had a new tileset for me to get used to and explore. The game thankfully auto-maps the dungeons for you, although if you're feeling hardcore, you have the option to turn it off. The game even provides graph paper for you in the "extras" folder of your download! The enemies within the dungeon are quite varied and are equally terrifying. You'll run into your regular fanfare of spiders and skeleton warriors, but soon enough you'll turn the corner, see something staring back at you, and immediately turn and run in an attempt to mentally prepare yourself for what you just saw. You really get a sense of character progression, as enemies that took meticulous planning two floors ago are now going down in just a few attacks. Don't ever get too comfortable, though; a new enemy is likely just around the corner waiting to kick your butt. Exploration is easily one of my favorite aspects of any game and Legend of Grimrock did not let me down. There are a ton of secrets for you to discover within these dungeon walls. I was scanning just about every inch of every floor to make sure I didn't overlook any secret switches or buttons. The act of finding secrets and treasures is extremely rewarding, even if the loot reward isn't always as amazing. A lot of people bring up Dungeon Master when looking at Legend of Grimrock. I had never played Dungeon Master before, so I went ahead and took a crack at it. After playing it for a bit, it's clear that they are indeed very similar. However, Legend of Grimrock has all of the conveniences that you'd expect a game to have in 2012, like improved visuals and better UI. If you're like me and this is your first foray into the world of first-person dungeon crawling, don't worry! If you are at all interested in what it brings to the table, you'll have a wonderful and exciting jaunt through this dungeon. While there aren't many dungeon environments and the occasional "trap" rooms can be a bit annoying, these small issues are relatively minor quibbles when compared to the greater experience.  I have to give Almost Human a lot of credit. The level design, enemy placement, and especially the puzzles are all, by and large, wonderfully crafted. There are a few instances where the "traps" seem more unfair than clever, but that hardly tarnishes what is otherwise a terrific experience. You'll be hard-pressed to find a modern game like Legend of Grimrock any time soon, but with a game of this quality, you won't need one. Oh, and remember to save often.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are in the company of a grid-based, first-person dungeon crawler in the year 2012. No, you are not dreaming. You've just been presented with Legend of Grimrock from the folks over at Almost Human. Whe...

Review: Sine Mora

Mar 20 // Allistair Pinsof
[embed]224060:43113[/embed] Sine Mora (Xbox Live Arcade)Developers: Digital Reality, Grasshopper Manufacture Publisher: Microsoft StudiosReleased: March 21, 2012MSRP: 1200 Microsoft Points As Dtoid’s shmup guy, I often gloss over story details in this genre. After all, it seems no one cares -- least of all the developer, in some cases. Do we really need to know why doll-piloted airships must destroy mechs modeled after schoolgirls in skirts? Not really. That and deciphering these games' stories is often near impossible without a press release attempting to make sense of the madness. Imagine my surprise then when I booted up Sine Mora and was floored by the story. It’s not just good; it’s not just great; it’s easily one of the strongest stories to ever grace this medium. The fantasy world built within this game is one of the richest I’ve ever encountered in any medium. It is filled with wonderful concepts that could be expanded into novels, but remain tiny details for the sake of story flow. It's smart sci-fi told with heart and soul. For instance, Sine Mora's fiction tells of an Eternal War -- a war that never ends because one side with innate time travel abilities constantly time-jumps to avoid extinction. What an awesome concept! I want an entire game just about that one single idea! Imagine Sin City meets Star Wars meets Time Bandits and you are close, even if a couple hundred area codes away. Sine Mora is, at its core, a revenge story. A revenge story about a time traveling, airship-piloting bison -- Yes, BISON! --  whose son dies in a war, so the father seeks revenge on the empire that ordered his son to be shot for disobeying a command. At the same time, there is another story about a rebellion against the great Layil Empire that rules the planet of Seol. The Sin City likeness comes from the game's dark noir tone and non-linear storytelling. Frequently throughout the game you see an event play out unexplained only to reappear in a new context later. There are so many amazing "A-ha!" moments that left my mouth agape. Once you get to the final levels that present an intricate web of characters at the same place at different times, it's enough to make your head spin. I found the story alone made replays much more enjoyable, since I discovered new nuances to the plot and characters. What I love about Sine Mora is that its characters aren’t heroes with paper-thin personalities. They have depth and flaws that make them interesting. For instance, the father bison character blackmails a rape victim with leukemia to fight with him because she is all he can get. Then there is another pilot, a woman incapable of giving birth, who dedicates her life to finding greatness in the deaths of others. The story is full of spectacular twists, non-linear jumps that don’t feel showy, and brilliantly written walls of text that separate the game’s chapters. The most amazing thing of all? You can ignore all of this and still have a fantastic time with Sine Mora! When I previewed the game at Tokyo Game Show last year, I found myself occupying the role of the hopeful skeptic. On one hand, Hungarian developer Digital Reality cited all the right influences (Einhander, Battle Geraga, R-Type). On the other, they’ve made almost nothing but complex PC military strategy games since they were founded in 1994! I liked what I saw in the TGS demo, but I had to wonder if these were the right guys to pull off this awfully ambitious shmup. Digital Reality weren’t alone in this project, however, and it shows (in a very good way!) Grasshopper Manufacture (No More Hereos, Shadows of the Damned) handled the art direction, music, and sound, while nine or so developers from Digital Reality handled the rest. The result is one of the most gorgeous, unique-looking games of this generation. Everything from the candy-coated bullets to the surreal, Mœbius-inspired character design is a feast for the eyes. The bosses, designed by Mahiro Maeda (Neon Genesis Evangelion) are especially elaborate. One train boss, as bizarre as it sounds, brings Final Fantasy 7’s Midgar to the HD-era with fantastic results! In a time where all shmup developers work for CAVE or wish they worked for CAVE, Sine Mora’s visuals are bold and refreshing. No other game looks like it and few look as good. Sine Mora has a couple different modes (Boss Training, Score Attack, Arcade), but the main draw is the Story Mode. This rather lengthy campaign (about three hours) is comparable to the recent Mortal Kombat in its lofty ambitions in creating storytelling and variety that aren’t usually associated to a niche genre. In Story Mode, you play across 16 or so levels with different pilots and planes. Each pilot has their own ability, ships have their own feel, and you also have a “Capsule” that lets you slow down time. The game's story is told through text screens and brief cutscenes, which can be fast-forwarded. Arcade mode lets you combine the three ships, seven pilots, and Arcade Mode-only Capsules. This opens the door to a lot of different options. Sine Mora’s slow-mo ability (Speed Up) is so much fun that it’s hard to imagine playing without it, but if you are curious there is a Reflect ability and a Rewind Time ability that drastically change combat. Each game stage in Arcade Mode has a Chronome map that shows you ever possible combination and which ones you have tried -- it’s hard to miss the Battle Garraga influence when you take a look at this daunting graphic that presents numerous options to the player.Sine Mora embraces many genre conventions, such as upgradable weapons and score tokens you can pick-up, but it does these things on its own terms. Since the Enkie race that you play as has an innate ability to time travel, time is your health in this game. If you run out of time, you lose. This means two things: 1) You are always under the pressure of a ticking clock. 2) Time is a valuable resource that you must always pay attention to.Each level is broken up into individual sections that give you a certain amount of time. You gain time by killing enemies and picking up time tokens. Time is always running out, but only receiving damage will make it drastically decrease. You can easily lose ten seconds on a powerful boss attack, but you can gain it back by killing enemies and picking-up time tokens. This unique health system has its strengths and weaknesses. It keeps players from feeling the frustration of one-hit deaths, but it creates new ones by blurring the line between time attack and surviving. For example, you can find yourself at a damning boss fight with very little time left. It’s one thing to die from a perplexing bullet pattern -- which this game has in spades -- but it’s another thing to die before you even have a chance to properly approach. In the end, it’s more about player expectation than the game’s actual rules. I found that once I accepted this strange set-up, I was able to beat a boss. Like most shmups, you just need to focus on memorizing its patterns and weaknesses; pay the clock no mind and you'll do just fine. It’s still an odd feeling to have time literally working against you. In the very least, it ties wonderfully into the game’s story and ideas.Sine Mora is an exceptional shmup but it's not without flaws. As with many first time shmup developers, Digital Reality get some basics wrong. The backgrounds and bullets are a bit too colorful for their own good, as they occasionally blend together. Then there are the missiles and tiny bullets that can easily be missed without possessing stellar vision and familiarity with the stage. The most damaging part of the game’s design is its constant in-game cutscenes that will turn away hi-score chasers, despite the game having a great scoring system. You can fast-forward these scenes by holding down the left bumper, but it'd be much better if you could just skip them altogether in arcade replays. In trying to appeal to both casuals and hardcore shmup players, Sine Mora trips on some compromises made. Along with the above aspects, there are conventions that maybe shouldn’t have been adapted. Why do we need to start a stage with no power-ups when we would have had at least three if we played the game from the start? Why am I prompted to exit the game to the menu after beating a chapter? Why does restarting a chapter bring me to a previous chapter? These strange design choices and (maybe) glitches sour the player experience and may keep casuals from exploring further into the game, which would be a damn shame. Who knew a contemporary shmup would have so many worthy talking points? Did I mention this game is in Hungarian? Or that the soundtrack is by the composer of Silent Hill? How about the game’s unlockable alternative story that contains lengthy philosophical musings, informed by Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, on reality, purpose, and love? It's an odd thing but I found Sine Mora to be substantially more cerebral and moving than Journey, Dear Esther, and other celebrated "Art Games." Sine Mora isn’t only of the best shmups in years, it’s one of the boldest and most fascinating games of this generation, period. What it lacks in finesse, it more than makes up for in its original art direction and deep lore. It’s a shmup that not only offers replayability and strategic choice, but also a story that can be discussed, worshiped, and analyzed for months to come. Digital Reality and Grasshopper Manufacture have created an absolute revolution in contemporary game design that proves beautiful, original things can still be done beyond the realm of first- and third-person shooters. It’s just as brave and elegant as Journey, while being as accessible and fun as a cherished Irem classic. Even if you think this game isn’t for you based on genre, Sine Mora may unexpectedly surprise and delight you. I worry that there will never be another game like Sine Mora, when I should be happy there is at least one. This is that one. And, thankfully, it’s eternal.

What I’m concerned with is the aristocracy of the mind. It is our obligation to select -- through our experiences, knowledge, and heart -- what is eternal and what is worthless. [...] But if I don’t represent ...

Review: ZiGGURAT

Feb 20 // Allistair Pinsof
ZiGGURAT (iOS)Developer: Action Button EntertainmentPublisher: Freshuu Inc.Released: February 17, 2012MSRP: $0.99ZiGGURAT doesn’t play like any other iPhone game. Yet, at a glance, it looks familiar and simple enough. You stand stationary on top of a rectangular pyramid (or, five-dollar-word, ziggurat) and shoot down aliens until you inevitably lose. You could reduce ZiGGURAT to being yet another touch-based last stand action game. The difference is in the details and until you put your hands to the game, it will be difficult to properly understand what a difference these details make. I understand why people like games such as Canabalt and Jetpack Joyride. I enjoy them too. I just don’t like them. iPhone games, more often then not, resemble the simplicity of ‘80s arcade cabinets, but rarely duplicate their depth and complexity. These two given examples both revolve around random elements that are out of the player’s control. They also have a well-defined plateau -- a point where a player can’t improve -- that would keep any arcade cabinet from leaving the Namco factory due to quality control. The best thing I can say about ZiGGURAT is that my score was always consistent. This is a rarity among iPhone games, because they typically don’t have the controls, rules, and intelligent design in order to build such a strong experience that is linked entirely to player skill and not random variables. ZiGGURAT’s controls are what makes it both fun and challenging. You control your avatar’s gun -- his feet remained glued on top of the pyramid -- by swiping your finger across the bottom of the screen, so your finger is rarely in the way of the action. Even more curious is the gun’s functionality. Holding down your finger charges up the gun. You can rapid fire it to drop small pellets around you; hold it for one second to shoot across the screen; hold it for three to release an explosive shot. In a stroke of design genius, the gun will permanently go back to a weaker state after four or so seconds, requiring you to strike when the iron is hot, if you ever wish to beat your previous score.Even within this simple construct, there is a lot to learn through play. For example, a light shot will knock enemies toward other enemies. Use it well to pile a group of alien freaks in a corner and blast away. Even more important is the maximum charge shot, which can cause a chain reaction of explosions if enemies are close together. An entirely different discussion could be had on tackling the different enemy types. While "kill things" sums things up pretty well, knowing how to do it well takes practice. There is an aiming guide that can be turned on in the options, but I found it only hindered my play. When dealing with such an abstract control scheme, it's best to let your intuition come to grips with the mechanics. There is also a Slingshot control scheme which seems more like a jab at the Angry Birds crowd than a viable option. Then again, the game's creator said he plays best using two thumbs so maybe experimenting is good. Once the rules and unique enemy patterns are understood, ZiGGURAT becomes a much more calculated, strategic action game. You don’t crawl up the leaderboard by firing fast. You improve by firing smart. Wait for a yellow alien to be in the vicinity of others before firing. Hit the nasty red alien while he is stationed at the bottom of the pyramid. Don’t worry about the big alien until you HAVE to worry about him. Am I spoiling your fun? Don’t worry, there is plenty to go around. You'll find yourself discovering new strategies. After playing the game obsessively for the past two days, I've gone from wimp to prominently placing on the leaderboard. As opposed to the popular and boring generatively-based games on the iPhone, ZiGGURAT is thoughtfully composed. This element immediately stands out, as you find your heart racing to the rad chiptune soundtrack. You’ll never forget the first time you hear that shrill noise, introducing the game’s nastiest enemy: the red force-field alien. While the pixel art isn’t anything special, I love how the sun sets and moon rises as you play. It makes each high score more memorable, since you are literally seeing the moon that high for the first time. You feel you are stepping into uncharted waters which makes your inevitable death feel more real. Even better, the game has an end that only a skillful few will reach, so there is a very tangible goal involved when playing. However, you can keep playing and getting your score up after this narrative moment. Just because ZiGGURAT has a deliberately slow pace doesn’t mean things don’t get tense. The game I played before sitting down to write ended with my best score yet (267). Even with the music off, my heart was racing and my hands were frozen stiff. It was one of the best gaming experiences I’ve had in ages and ... I had it on an iPhone? ZiGGURAT succeeds where past action-based iPhone games have failed because the developer put the proper attention on balance and controls instead of unlockables and multiple backdrops. Instead of becoming impossibly hard, the game has a very reasonable difficulty change as time progresses. It's hard enough to keep you from breezing through it, but easy enough to convince that you haven't seen your best game yet. I can see myself spending hours at an arcade playing ZiGGURAT, yet I can't picture myself controlling it without my phone. That's the genius of it. With five more games coming out this year, I can't wait to see what Action Button Entertainment creates next after making this addictive, must-have debut.

I hate iPhone games, but I like them in theory. As things stand, the iPhone is the breeding ground for a new generation of game designers, lazier than any that has come before it. One that uses unnecessary leveling mechan...

Review: Lumines: Electronic Symphony

Feb 14 // Dale North
Lumines: Electronic Symphony (PlayStation Vita)Developer: Q EntertainmentPublisher: UbisoftReleased: February 15, 2012MSRP: $39.99 Lumines' rhythmically timed block-dropping puzzle formula was already so close to perfect, not much was needed for a follow-up. We just wanted more, that's all. Finally, after half a decade, Q Entertainment hits us with more of the good stuff in Lumines: Electronic Symphony on the PS Vita, and while it looks fancier and sounds better than ever, that same super-addictive action is still at its core. It's as good as ever, and in some strange new ways, better than ever. My hands are numb from playing so much. I'll continue writing a review beyond this because that's what I'm paid to do, but we can just call it right now: this needs to be at the top of your Vita launch list.  If you're new to the franchise, Lumines has you dropping a cluster of four blocks made up any combination of two colors. Your job is to drop these blocks to create a square or rectangle comprised of blocks of the same color, which will clear them from the board and add to your score. The dropping of these blocks must be timed to fall within a measure of the backround song, as a "clear bar" scans the play field, passing by every four beats. It's a very simple formula, and that's what makes it so easy to pick up and hard to put down.  Of course, the other half of the Lumines magic is great music to play to, and the strange, hypnotic visuals that accompany these songs. There's more than 30 toe-tappers this time around, and there's not a dud in the bunch. Aphex Twin, Amon Tobin, and The Chemical Brothers are just some of the top acts that keep Electronic Symphony hopping. Lumines: Electronic Symphony doesn't change much of the basic gameplay, but they've worked around it with some new upgrades and abilities. The avatar you pick isn't just a goofy picture anymore as it adds special abilities to your game. You'll fill up a meter through normal play, and when it's full you'll be able to tap your avatar to use its special ability. These are small perks that make your life a bit easier, like the ability to increase the wait time for your next blocks, or the ability to change your next block into a bonus block. You can even change the color of the blocks or stop the timeline with earned avatar abilities. It's a small tweak to the basic Lumines formula, but experienced players will tell you that even a small tip of the scales in your favor makes a big difference in the long run. Another change for Electronic Symphony is the new shuffle block, which randomly changes the color of each block in the play space. While that may sound like the worst thing ever to happen to Lumines, you'll be thanking your lucky stars when you can drop one in a huge pile of unmatched blocks. It almost always helps by clearing some of your mess, letting you play longer without "topping out." The shuffle block has saved my ass so many times that it is easily my favorite addition to the old formula. Trust me, you'll be just as happy to see it as you used to see the chain block come up in your queue.   A new experience system rewards you for all those hours you'll sink into the game. Logged in, your profile will track your games, keep your stats, and give you experience points in all of the modes, letting you unlock avatars and other bonuses with what you've earned. Your level and stats are also shared with your friends, and the game's interface makes it really easy to see where you stand among them with post-game reports and worldwide leaderboards. I've already lost a good chunk of my work week trying to stay on top of the leaderboards, and I'm betting that this high level of connectivity is going to make Electronic Symphony one of the most popular online launch titles for Vita. Speaking of socially connected features, this game's World Block mode is pretty nifty. Each day, every connected Lumines player's cleared blocks go toward erasing a huge "world block," which is made up of two million smaller blocks that reset every 24 hours. You can check your contributions each day to see how much you've helped. It will be neat to see what happens when the world block is cleared.  Of all the game modes, Electronic Symphony's Voyage mode will probably suck up most of your free time. This is the main attraction, where you'll continue playing until you fill up the play space with unmatched blocks or give up. As it stands now, to top the current leaderboards, you'd have to play in Voyage mode for a couple of hours straight. If you suck, this is time you will never get back. I've always loved Lumines' time attack modes, and they return in this game as Stopwatch matches. There's also a multiplayer Duel mode, a challenge-based Master mode, and the returning Playlist mode, all of which are like crack in their own way. There are only a few small scuffs on an otherwise flawless surface. Being a Vita game, touch controls are available, with swipes sliding and dropping blocks. They work well enough when the action is relatively calm, but when things pick up a bit, they simply do not cut the mustard. The load times aren't terrible, but they are just long enough for you to notice them and wonder why they're there.  The way I see it, everyone already loves Lumines, so this review serves no one, especially when you consider that Electronic Symphony is the best one yet with its gorgeous high-resolution visuals, rocking soundtrack, new gameplay mechanics, and awesome connectivity features. No Vita should be sold without a copy of this game.

If Lumines was your drug on the PSP, know that it's been refined and made stronger. This is the hard sh*t, folks. You're in danger of totally crashing and burning with Lumines: Electronic Symphony on the Vita. This is th...

Review: Rhythm Heaven Fever

Feb 13 // Jonathan Holmes
[embed]220990:42680[/embed] Rhythm Heaven Fever (Wii)Developer: Nintendo, TNXPublisher: NintendoReleased: February 13, 2012MSRP: $29.99 Unlike other music games that try to simulate the physical act of playing an instrument, Rhythm Heaven Fever imparts onto the player how it feels to play music. Have you ever heard a musician say something like, "When I'm playing, sometimes I feel like I'm flying over the ocean at supersonic speeds, in the middle of a wrestling match with a giant flaming octopus, or making love to a beautiful, ethereal being while riding a cloud to heaven"? I sure have, but I've rarely seen a rhythm game take those emotions and try to directly express them to the player. That's just the start of what makes the Rhythm Heaven series so special -- it dares to give you a peek inside the emotional state of a truly passionate musician (in this case, that musician is Tsunku, the series' musical director). While this game doesn't have any flaming octopi, it does feature a samurai battling a hoard of spectral demons, pets flying high above the ocean at supersonic speeds while playing badminton, an extremely aroused-sounding pair of cloud-riding wood elves, and plenty of strange times with a variety of enthusiastic simians. Rhythm Heaven Fever brings those kinds of surreal, intangible flights of fancy and interprets them literally, all while set to undeniably infectious beats. With something that strange, you have to really work to make it all palatable. Rhythm Heaven Fever seems to know this and works extra hard to be accessible. The visuals are well-crafted yet extremely easy to digest in a manner of seconds, like a well-designed traffic sign. The music is also fairly simple yet very strong and comes in just about every style you could think of. It's extremely expressive stuff, though never in a potentially offensive or annoying way. The same goes for the sound effects. While they aren't quite in the same spotlight as the visuals and soundtrack, they are just as important in the big picture. Every sound in the game has an undeniable "oomph" and were clearly chosen (along with the title's multiple bizarre scenarios) for how much direct pleasure they can evoke from the player, not on how much sense they make. For example, you'll have a grand old time helping three metal dummies "donk-donk" into each other in order to power their otherworldly space blimp. It's fun in a way you that could never see coming -- inexplicably bizarre yet undeniably satisfying. The controls are also more fun than they probably deserve to be. Inputs don't come much more simple than this -- everything is triggered by either pressing A, pinching A and B together, or holding both then letting go at just the right time. It doesn't require memorizing the layout of a three-plus button controller like the GBA Rhythm Heaven did, and it doesn't require any really fine motor dexterity like the flick motions in the DS title. While Rhythm Heaven Fever can be extremely difficult at times, that difficulty is never due to the controls. If you fail at this game (and trust me, you will), it will always be due to your inability to keep the beat. Playing through each regular stage is like learning one part of a longer, more complex song. After four regular stages, you play a "remix" stage that re-appropriates the four previous scenarios and fuses them together into an all all-new, full-length composition. While I really enjoy the individual stages, these remix levels are where the game really shines, as they test your ability to remain fluid and focused in even the most unpredictable sonic climates. Like any good videogame, Rhythm Heaven Fever gently but firmly teaches you how to play, gradually cultivating your level of skill so that, by the end, you can pull off feats of superhuman rhythm that you probably never thought were possible. That's a goofy way of saying that the difficulty scaling in the game is just about perfect. This largely comes from the surprisingly large variety of ways that the game sees fit to challenge the player's internal beat. Sometimes the visuals are there to assist you in keeping the rhythm, but then they'll suddenly flip the script on you, potentially throwing you off time and forcing you to really flex your internal metronome. Conversely, there will be times when the tempo changes radically, so you'll need visual cues to help you stay on beat. In particularly tough stages, the visuals and the beat will alternate in throwing you off and hooking you back onto the beat, truly testing your capacity to follow the rhythm regardless of distraction and intimidation. That's just the start of how the game will make you sweat.  Later on, the game starts layering auditory and visual cues, requiring you to keep track of two or more things at once. There are layers of book-wielding cheerleaders, layers of bouncing footballs, and even layers of adorably wiggling seals. They'll force you to simultaneously think fast and think ahead, all while keeping your unwavering tempo alive. All of a sudden, the downbeats will change to upbeats, forcing you to appreciate the negative rhythmic space that you had previously worked to avoid.  Then there are the "Simon says" cues, anticipation cues, fake-out cues, and the sudden evacuation of all cues, making you rely on muscle memory and instinct. Once you get used to that, you'll be tasked with switching from hitting A to pinching A and B together to letting go of your pinch at just the right time. Between all the visual, auditory, and tactile mix-ups, there is almost always a new challenge to experience in Rhythm Heaven Fever. I've played through the game twice already (once with the Japanese import and again with the English localization), and I still have trouble surviving some of the later stages. As tough as the game can be, it still prioritizes the player's joy over any focus on reaching an end state like a high score. Just like playing a real concert (and unlike other games like Guitar Hero or PaRappa the Rapper), you don't instantly stop playing your tune after you make too many mistakes. No matter what, you'll never be kicked out of the band mid-performance. Also like playing in a real band, you'll never know exactly what the audience thinks of your playing. There are no in-game meters or other gauges to indicate how well you're playing. You'll only get a rating once a song is complete, after which you'll be asked to play it again, be permitted to move on, or be praised with honors. What exactly you did right or did wrong is rarely spelled out for you, because as any musician who has tried to please an audience knows, the tastes of music fans is never that easy to read. That's pretty much everything there is to say about the main "campaign," but there is a lot more to Rhythm Heaven Fever than that. There are tons of unlockables, most of which are all-new endless games that can be played for the rest of your life if you're good enough. They'll test not only your rhythmic skill but also your rhythmic endurance. I'm sure that you'll find that, when it comes to keeping a beat, some of you are sprinters whereas others are long-distance runners, and finding out which of the two you are helps you to assess your musical strengths and weaknesses. Then there are the two-player modes, a new addition to the series. The regular two-player levels are pretty fun, but there are conspicuously few of them. It wouldn't have been that tough to make every level in the game playable for two, but instead, we get a fraction of that number. These levels also don't challenge the players to do anything all that differently than what they do in the one-player mode. Thankfully, the endless two-player levels are really fun and truly test your ability to work in conjunction with one another to a beat. They are a unique experience in the Rhythm Heaven world, and I can only hope that the next game in the series has more of them. Also on the downside, a few of the levels seem a little too similar to some from the GBA and DS titles to be considered continuations or tributes to those past experiences. If you haven't played the handheld games before, this won't be a problem for you, but if this is not your first Rhythm Heaven, you may feel a little annoyed that the robots-on-a-conveyor-belt stage is almost identical to one in the DS game. There are differences, however -- instead of filling the robots with fluid, you now screw their heads on and make their E.T.-like hearts come to life. As much as this stage may feel like a modified rerun, it's undeniably still fun and arguably better than the one present in the DS title. The sound effects are more satisfying, the music is catchier, and the beat mix-ups are trickier. Later on, the stage is brought back for a second round, adding new visual twists to test your rhythm. Though not as fresh as the rest of the game, it's still a surprisingly engaging and eye-opening experience. Hmm, that didn't really sound like much of a downer, did it? Let me try again. Rhythm Heaven Fever is a relatively short game, but that's like saying that the new three-hour CD box set you just purchased is "relatively short." Just like with a new CD, it's understood that this game was meant to be listened to (and played) over and over again. It will take most players many hours to get through the game once and much, much longer to unlock all of the the additional content, including four stages from the original GBA title and an endless mode that you can only unlock once you get perfects on each and every stage. It may sound like a pain but it's not. Even if I didn't have any external motivation to play through these stages again, I'd still be sure to return to the game every few months, just like I pick up my favorite movie or CD every few months for a repeat experience. Rhythm Heaven Fever is the kind of game that may be "over" in less time than other AAA titles, but you'll be singing the songs to yourself, be visualizing the scenarios in your mind, and be tempted to play them all again for many years to come. Again, I failed to express a true downer. I'll take one last crack at it.  Rhythm Heaven Fever lacks the option to play the game in Japanese. This will probably only bother people (like myself) who imported the Japanese title a while back and have grown to love its unique sound. The English localization is pretty great, though. Sometimes it's slightly less expressive than the original, sometimes it's slightly funnier and more involving due to the translation. Regardless of whether it hits high or hits low, it always hits pretty close to the target. Still, I imagine that whichever version you're most familiar with will be the one you prefer. There is also one endless level from the Japanese build that is missing, one about a weird Japanese standup comedy duo. These comedians are birds. One smacks the other in the face sometimes. I love that mini-game. It's been swapped out for Mr. Upbeat, one of the more boring endless mini-games from the GBA title. That is an undeniable downer, but it's still just one small missing thread in what is otherwise an excellently woven localization. Just as I still sing classic Sesame Street songs to myself when I'm in a particularly good mood, or as I can watch old Terry Gilliam animations whenever I need a quick smile-inducing experience, I think I'll be playing Rhythm Heaven Fever on a periodic basis for at least the next 30 years. Thirty bones is a steal for this level of high-quality fun. You'd have to be a completely foul-brained life hater to pass this one up. Rhythm Heaven Fever offers the simplicity and elegance of "One Note Samba" or "Blister in the Sun," the directness of the art of Mike Mignola or Pendleton Ward, and the understated but endlessly variable gameplay design of arcade titles like Pac-Man Champion Edition DX or Super Mario Bros. It's one of my favorite games of this generation -- a title that offers a much stronger education in game design and a more pure, direct, and genuine experience than most games on the market.

What does it take for a game to be universally enjoyable? That's the question most game developers would love to be able to answer, but it's easier said than done. My guess is that it comes down to exploiting the medium for w...

Review: Uncharted: Golden Abyss

Feb 13 // Dale North
[Review Note: We used the Japanese release of Uncharted: Golden Abyss for this review. This release features the same English voices and text that we'll see in the domestic release. If any features change upon domestic release, we'll update this review.]  Uncharted: Golden Abyss (PlayStation Vita)Developer: Sony Bend StudiosPublisher: Sony Computer EntertainmentReleased: February 22, 2012MSRP: $49.99 For those following the series, Uncharted: Golden Abyss is a prequel story, though it doesn't seem to establish much in the way of backstory. Nathan Drake may have a few less cuts and bruises in this game, but he's basically the same protagonist you've come to know and love. The rest of the cast is new, save for an old friend that series fans will immediately recognize. This old friend may have less gray hair, but he still has the same terrible shirts and jokes.  Golden Abyss has Drake working for a somewhat shady old friend named Jason Dante. He reports for duty as a historical expert for Dante in the deep forests of Central America. During their work they meet Marisa Chase, the granddaughter of a famous archaeologist. Chase is looking for her grandfather, who has gone missing during his an expedition. The group gets mixed up with a retired general from the region that is on the hunt for treasure. It seems that everyone is looking for the same ruins, but for different reasons. The story is great, and there's some really nice plot twists and lore to be enjoyed and explored. Golden Abyss may not have quite the character depth that Naughty Dog pumped into previous series games' characters, but that not to say that the characters are bad in any way. You'll still totally hate the bad guys, sympathize with the heroine, and laugh heartily at Drake's snarky interjections. No corners were cut as far as the characters are concerned, mind you. It's just that, while good, they're not quite to the impossibly high level that Naughty Dog has set with previous games. That said, the voice acting is exactly on par with what you've experienced with the console games. Nolan North is at his best, wisecracking like a champ as Drake. Voice actress Christine Lakin also does a fine job as Marisa Chase and when Drake and his old friend meet up in the second half of the game, the wisecracks come non-stop. In the latter half of the game there's a hilarious run of "...that's what she said" jokes between the pair. I think that most players will be surprised at how much dialogue is in this game. Everything is fully voiced, making you wonder how they fit it all on that tiny little Vita cartridge. Drake has learned several new tricks with this first portable outing. The various new input controls of the Vita are all used in Golden Abyss, making the game a perfect showcase for the system. And while just about all of the touch and motion controls are optional, they're implemented so well that I'm sure most players will end up using them and enjoying them.  The front touch screen and back touch panel are used extensively. Basic commands, like picking up items and weapons, can now be done by simply touching them on the screen. This way you won't have to walk over to it and hit a button. Flinging grenades is a joy now, as you literally flick them in the direction you want them to go with the front screen. Fist fighting also uses the touch screen, and it's much better than you'd think, with swipey cinematic attacks and dodges mixing up the standard punching and kicking. I love that the sniper rifle's zoom can be controlled by either a slider on the front screen, or by running a finger up and down across the back touch panel. The touch control even extends to exploration. You can jump from ledge to ledge with buttons and the analog stick, just as you always have, or you can simply touch a ledge to have Drake jump to it. In fact, he will follow a line you've traced across the screen with your finger to do things like move across ledges and over or under obstacles. Again, the touch controls in these cases are totally optional, but they're pretty slick, and trying them once will likely sell you on them. My favorite new addition to Uncharted's control is the motion control-enabled aiming assist. You'll still use the right analog stick to aim your weapons, but the Vita's motion sensors let you tilt the system to fine tune your aim. While larger gestures let you move the reticle from enemy to enemy, I used it more for correcting my aim, and quickly fell in love with the feature. Being able to tilt to fine tune aim is so intuitive that I don't know how I ever lived without it. The only touch control that is not optional is found in the game's cutscenes. You'll swipe your way through fist fights and narrow escapes. These "quick time events" start out as pretty standard, but get really creative toward the end. I don't want to spoil any of the situations, so just know that you'll be furiously swiping in all directions as quick as you can, gritting your teeth all the while. It seems like Bend had a lot of fun putting these events together, and I'm sure you will, too.  Sure, there's a lot of new tricks with this outing, but the game's core is classic Uncharted. This means you'll get more of that perfect mix of tense platforming and climbing and epic gunfights, all presented with cinematic flair. The first time things get hairy and you find yourself hanging from a rope with shooters firing from above and snipers aiming from below, you'll feel right at home. There's no way the game's creators could have been more true to Uncharted's gameplay. They nailed it. I'm glad to say that series fans will also feel right at home with the controls. The exemplary dual joysticks of the Vita do a lot to blur that line between portable and home console. There's absolutely no learning curve here for anyone that has played any of the previous games. Nothing is lost in translation. The Uncharted series has always incorporated puzzles, and you'll find plenty in Golden Abyss. In fact, I'd bet there are more puzzle-like instances in this latest title than in any of the other ones. While enjoyable, the majority of them are pretty shallow, and rely on the the front and rear touch panels. Your hands will be all over the screen doing things like making charcoal rubbings of ancient carvings, or rubbing dirt and/or rust off artifacts to uncover clues. The game's makers are absolutely unapologetic in their excitement for rubbing things, so much so that their studio logo is presented with a charcoal rub graphics.  There are a few other more interesting types of touch puzzles in the mix. You'll have to use your fingers to spin combination locks to gain access to treasures, and re-assembling ripped up maps, posters and other papers is pretty fun, though you'll do it so often that you'll wonder why so many things are ripped up in the forests of Central America. Fortunately, these iPhone game-like diversions give way to some really neat puzzles near the end of the game. These are more like your classic puzzles from treasure hunting games, and they're all pretty enjoyable.  Fans of item hunting will be glad to hear that Golden Abyss has more hidden items, treasures and other artifacts to find than any other of the series titles. Maybe too many! I found that I was almost tripping over collectable gems and coins during the adventure, and found a few more by accident. It's almost unbelievable how many findable items are in this game. Drake's in-game journal contains several pages of empty "slots" for all of these items, and it's a bit daunting going through them. I'd dare say that only the most hardcore will even attempt to collect them all, and that they'll probably need multiple playthroughs to do so. As an amateur photographer I really enjoyed the new camera-based quests in Golden Abyss. Drake is free to bring up his camera at any time to shoot any of the game's lovely scenery to be kept in his journal, but there are also several requested pictures to collect. You're given examples to try to match with your own photos, and the game grades you on them, with collection requiring a 100 percent match. Photography uses the Vita's tilt function to aim and the rear touchscreen to zoom.  Uncharted: Golden Abyss is a beautiful game. From a visual standpoint, it's quite easily the most impressive portable game I've seen. So much of the polished presentation and cinematic style of the PS3 games can be found in this Vita title, which is especially impressive when you consider that this is a launch title. Seeing is believing, as online footage and screenshots do this game no justice. Bend's outstanding work on this game makes it easy to forget that you're playing a portable game. At announcement, Sony kept saying that the Vita is capable of PS3-like experiences, and Golden Abyss serves as proof. The Uncharted series is known for its beautiful backdrops, and Golden Abyss is no exception. While treasure hunting adventure games all have similar settings, Bend cranked the pretty up to 11 in this one. Some of the texture art is positively eye-popping; I found myself doing double takes many times in my first playthrough. Lush, green forests give way to sun-drenched temple ruins in the game's first hours. Beyond that explore vast underground caves that lead to gaming eye candy that's so dazzling that I'd hate to ruin it for you. You'll see everything from dumpy lean-tos to impossibly scenic waterfalls on your journey, wondering how the game system isn't overheating from rendering them. This game is also lovely in motion. The same high quality motion capture you enjoyed in the console games is present in Golden Abyss. Even moving water is stunningly realistic in this game. And despite some reports, I never experienced any kind of slow down or stuttering. Golden Abyss ran smoothly from beginning to end for me. Talk about coming out strong! From launch day Sony has a flagship title and a potential system seller with Uncharted: Golden Abyss -- it's that good. It's everything you'd expect from an Uncharted title as a graphical powerhouse, and it serves as a technical showcase for Sony's newest hardware. It does such a good job of taking advantage of all of Vita's capabilities. It's as if Sony knew that this had to be amazing, and then spared no expense to make it so. As far as single-player gaming goes, franchise fans will not be disappointed with the series' first portable game. Though smaller, Golden Abyss is still the deep, varied and highly entertaining adventure they've come to expect, with almost nothing lost in the move. And with more than 30 game chapters and about 12 hours of gameplay, this is a full Uncharted experience. There's no multiplayer, though, so some followers of the series may miss that.  With Uncharted: Golden Abyss we have the first must-buy for Sony's PlayStation Vita. It takes the series' much-loved gameplay, storytelling and presentation, and adds on innovative touch and tilt features to make a game that fits perfectly alongside its predecessors. Prepare to be amazed by a portable videogame.

You may have had enough of hanging from glowing ledges, jumping from crumbling floors and narrow escapes from massive explosions, but I can't get enough of the adventures of "Dude Raider" Nathan Drake. I loved all of the PS3 ...

Review: PixelJunk Eden (PC)

Feb 09 // Jordan Devore
PixelJunk Eden (PlayStation Network, Steam [reviewed])Developer: Q-GamesPublisher: Q-GamesReleased: February 2, 2012 MSRP: $9.99Rig: Intel i7-2600k @3.40 GHz, with 8GB of RAM, GeForce GTX 580 GPU (SLI) The core of PixelJunk Eden remains the same for Steam, so rather than completely reiterate what was covered in our original review years ago, I'll summarize the basics. Thankfully, this is a rather minimalistic game, so there's not much to set up. As a little creature called a "Grimp," you feel compelled to use your acrobatic prowess to launch into floating enemies. This recklessness results in an explosion of much-need pollen that gets absorbed by nearby plants. Once fully pollinated, these plants will sprout the next time you bump into them. In terms of objectives, that's practically it. By helping plants grow, you're able to reach new heights and collect pick-ups called Spectra. There are five in each garden to find and collecting them is necessary for unlocking additional gardens. Levels are spacious and non-linear, so it can be more challenging to reach the Spectra than one might initially think. The biggest change for returning players is the control scheme: it's been redesigned for mouse and keyboard. I tend to prefer the comfort of a gamepad outside of, say, real-time strategy, but Q-Games has done such an excellent job with the controls here that I have a hard time imagining playing Eden any other way. Which is good, because there currently is no gamepad support in this version. Given the amount of precision you need to reach certain areas, the new controls don't immediately feel quite right and take some practice -- but the end result is undeniably good. The pacing is such that you're given plenty of time to become acquainted with the controls as you're eased into Eden with fairly straightforward level design. Zen gaming is the category I'd toss Eden in, but that doesn't mean it's boring. The soundtrack by Baiyon had me eager to fetch my headphones every single time and enter a state of bliss. Ending a session of Eden -- breaking the spell -- feels like stepping back into reality. As you become more skilled, you can't help but try zipping through gardens as quickly and stylishly as possible. This is reinforced by a much-needed addition: quick warps. Narrowly missing a jump and plummeting to the bottom of the stage is frustrating, or rather, it would be. At the press of a button, some energy is shaved off and you're teleported back to your last position. Another welcome change to Eden is that now, you don't have to find all five of a garden's Spectra in one go. Instead, you collect one, get sent back to the level-select screen, and can then jump back in. After getting all five, you're able to freely play through the garden, recollecting every Spectra in a single session if you so choose. This may seem like a minor thing, but it greatly helps to alleviate much of the frustration from levels with wind, gravity flipping, and other annoyances. Finally, the five gardens from the PlayStation Network version's "Encore" expansion are included at no additional cost. If you're anything like me, you won't want Eden to end, so this gesture is greatly appreciated. These levels are as solid as the rest of the game. It's a shame to see a few features -- particularly multiplayer -- get cut from this version of PixelJunk Eden, but the warp ability, new controls, and restructured pacing more than make up for the loss. This Steam edition is a must-download for new and returning players alike.

At this point, I think there's at least one game in the ongoing PixelJunk series for everyone. For the longest time, PixelJunk Monsters was the obvious go-to choice for me, but I've since flirted with the idea of giving Pixel...

Review: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

Nov 19 // Jonathan Holmes
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (Wii)Developer: NintendoPublisher: NintendoReleased: November 20, 2011MSRP: $49.99 Skyward Sword feels like the perfect celebration of the Zelda series' 25-year history. From the packed-in CD containing the best music from the franchise performed by a full orchestra, to the option to purchase the game with a golden Wii Remote Plus, the whole package feels more like an event than any other Nintendo release in recent memory. It would be a shame if the game weren't able to match the quality of its optional pack-ins (I'm looking at you, Epic Mickey). Thankfully, Skyward Sword delivers. It features more new ideas and changes than the series has seen since Majora's Mask while simultaneously working to include and refine all of the best ideas from the past 3D Zelda titles. In Skyward Sword, you will go back in time, sail across a vast and daunting sea, travel to an otherworldly dimension, and in the process, become emotionally connected to a small, strange community filled with amazing, unforgettable characters. You'll also skydive off your porch without a parachute, ride bird-back into battle against a giant shark monster made of black mist and hatred, be sexually harassed by a bad-ass dude in white lipstick, commune with robots, hit a cat in the face, play a harp for butterflies, get your face hugged by the Zelda equivalent of a face hugger, and use your remote-controlled flying beetle to launch death from above upon herds of giant electric desert crustaceans. The game's storyline also feels like a refined evolution of the traditional series narrative. Like most Zelda titles, Skyward Sword is a coming-of-age story, but this time, it starts off from the perspective of a teenager. The game is about Link and Zelda both coming into adulthood, going out into the world, leaving the sheltered past of childhood behind, and discovering themselves and each other. It just so happens that in this scenario, that "sheltered past" is quite literally the equivalent of a magical bomb shelter. Before waging war against invading demons, the Goddess of the Zelda world created a small village in the sky, inhabited by the chosen few in order to keep them safe from the coming battle. Skyward Sword tells the tale of Zelda and Link leaving that behind for the first time and, in doing so, setting the entire Legend of Zelda timeline into motion. Along the way, they encounter plenty of people, with concepts of sexuality and gender always bubbling right below the surface. First up is that guy I mentioned previously -- the sexually threatening, emotionally disturbed villain Ghirahim, who seems to represent the idea of unhinged, wholesale abuse of power. Then there is Impa, his female counterpart/nemesis, who similarly blends male and female gender archetypes together while exemplifying the greater virtues commonly associated with both sexes. Largely through dealing with these two characters, Link and Zelda learn what it means to be a man and a woman (respectively). It feels so good to see the heroes and villains of a Zelda game have so much symbolic weight again. As much as I love Ganon, beyond his mildly interesting childhood, he's basically a one-note tune. I can't even remember what the villains of the GBA and DS titles were motivated by. Twilight Princess's Zant and Midna were interesting experiments in atypical characterizations, but with Skyward Sword, the series is back to giving us a cast of characters that completely defies expectation. Great ideas are important and all, but they won't mean a lot without excellent craftsmanship to back them up. Skyward Sword doesn't disappoint on this front. The art direction, music, pacing, and sound design are all fantastic. The game has a Wind Waker-style cel-shaded look, but instead of showing influence from children's manga and Warner Bros. cartoons, the game appears to take its visual inspiration from Studio Ghibli and Lilo and Stitch-era Disney films, all while retaining the signature Zelda style. That visual style, combined with extremely expressive animation, music (often performed by a full orchestra), and sound design, results in a game that can take the smallest moments and make them feel like a symphony. Early on in the game, there is a moment when Zelda looks at Link and everything comes together so perfectly that I literally did not press the button to move the scene along for a full 30 seconds. I didn't want the moment to end. The look on Zelda's face, the way her eyes animated, the music, her body language -- it was all so beautiful. Though she barely says a word, you can tell from all the other elements coming together that Zelda wants Link; she loves him like a brother but wants him and their relationship to be more, though she's just not sure if he'll ever make that happen. In the hands of other developers, that one moment would have been instantly forgettable, just another bit of dialogue in a typical videogame cutscene. In the hands of the Skyward Sword team, it's a moment that I'm still talking about now, even after experiencing the hundreds of other similarly striking sequences that the game has to offer. For me, the really great thing about Skyward Sword's presentation is that it takes things to such a fantastic, artistically beautiful level without ever sacrificing its videogame-ness. Other than some frightfully beautiful singing, the game features no voice acting, and it's only better for it. Beyond that, videogame logic is still mixed into the experience at all times. Wandering around the woods and see a tree stump? Have a seat on it and you'll get all your health back in a flash. Meet a monster in the basement? Don't be afraid, he's a good dude. In fact, he just wants to be human! If you collect enough gratitude energy from the people in your town (in the form of little glowing energy blobs that look exactly like the Star Bits from Super Mario Galaxy), you just might help him become a person. The game is packed with little moments like that which say loud and clear that Skyward Sword is a videogame and proud of it. Skyward Sword is also not afraid to take risks. Probably the biggest risk it takes is the implementation of mandatory MotionPlus controls. That's right: nearly all the action here is motion-controlled. This results in a game where all the combat feels much more real. Although it's initially more difficult, it is ultimately all the more rewarding and exciting for it. In past 3D Zelda games, it became easy to just Z-target to guard, wait for an opening, and then jam the attack button in order to win. That won't work in Skyward Sword. You must direct your strikes with intent and precision if you want to win most battles, though the game does a good job of slowly teaching you exactly how to go about this. Remember Ghirahim, that sexually charged villain I mentioned earlier? He will not let you proceed very far until you learn how to aim your strikes. In fact, he'll yank your sword right out of your hands and throw it at your head if you just flail wildly at him, as if to say "your days of button-mashing your way through the Zelda series are officially over." From there, the game continues to throw tougher and more cleverly defended enemies at you, forcing you to fight smarter. The Bokoblins armed with taser swords immediately come to mind. Ignore how they're guarding, and you're sure to clash swords with them, which will lead to your taking a shock, losing some health, and leaving yourself vulnerable. Add to that the fact that your shield can only take a limited amount of hits now, and you have a Zelda game that forces you to take every battle seriously. That may sound like a lot of work, but once you get good at the game, both in terms of dexterity and strategy, it feels more satisfying than any other title in the series (and just about any other swordplay-focused game, for that matter). Speaking of broken shields and the need for strategy, Skyward Sword's flow often feels more like Monster Hunter Tri than Ocarina of Time. You'll constantly be heading back to town to buy new shields and supplies while crafting new items and bolstering your equipment with ingredients and goods found in the wild. These hunter/gatherer gameplay elements definitely feel inspired by Monster Hunter, but thankfully, the monotony that sometimes plagues that series isn't present here. Part of that is because each area in the game is like a virtual jungle gym, with plenty for this new, very active Link to do. Like in Majora's Mask, there aren't a ton of different areas, but they are all huge, with plenty to do, and new options, environments, and dungeons are always opening up. As in the better Metroid games, returning to previously explored areas of Skyward Sword with new weapons and abilities will yield the potential for new lands to explore, puzzles to solve, items to collect, and challenges to overcome. That's true of just about any Zelda game, but what makes Skyward Sword special is how fast-paced and streamlined it is. Even during those moments when I was just messing around, catching bugs, doing favors for NPCs, and exploring the game's world, I still felt like I was getting more done per minute than I ever had in past 3D Zelda games. Part of that comes from the game's run button, which is managed by an energy gauge (which is also tied to wall climbing, rolling, climbing up ladders, etc.). The ability to speed up your movement and perform more acrobatic maneuvers makes the game faster and more exciting while giving your mind a constant task of resource management to keep it occupied. The real-time inventory, which is fast and easy to navigate, is also a big plus. There are also the new gameplay elements of Dowsing (which helps you track down specific people, places, or things) and an on-map marker system, both of which do a lot to help you navigate your surroundings while never making it too easy to get to your next destination. Then there is the game's "overworld," the illustrious Skyloft and its surrounding sky islands. This generally safe and benign area gives us what most fans wanted from Wind Waker's ocean -- an alternate form of transportation that's a joy to operate while delivering a sense total of freedom and plenty of little things to do if you feel like it. Yet it remains compact and focused enough that you'll never feel like you're stuck or slowed down. The game's signature instrument, the Goddess Harp, offers a similar experience. It's easy to learn and difficult to completely master, yet never a chore to play. You can even keep playing it while you're walking around. Better yet, the music you play will fit seamlessly into the game's score. That's just another testament to Nintendo's unified goal of making Skyward Sword the most slick, smart, fast-paced 3D Zelda yet. Last but not least, there is the amazing finale and post-game content to behold. Nintendo has that information embargoed until November 20th, but if I have my druthers, I'll be back to update this review with information on these amazing new features then. Suffice it to say, they both left a strong impression on me. For my tastes, Skyward Sword is a near-perfect experience. That said, I can still recognize why others may have problems with the game. Some will hate the motion controls, not because they are poorly implemented, but because... they just hate motion controls. I've let quite a few of my motion control-hating friends come over and check out the game, and while most of them came to really enjoy how the game played, almost all of them were put off by the initial experience of working with the game's 1:1 sword controls, stating that the game was too hard or that they needed to be aware of their own body while playing. Simply put, a lot of people want videogames to free them of the shackles of their own lack of coordination, to make it so all you have to do is hit the buttons at the right time to win. Though the game rarely requires you to do more than flick your wrist up, down, left, or right, it's still more physically demanding than a solely button-based game. That may be more than some players are willing to deal with in this highly competitive market. For that reason alone, Nintendo should have allowed for Classic Controller support. It wouldn't have been as fun for me to play the game that way, but for others, I'm sure it would have been preferable, at least during the initial stages of adjusting to all the other new aspect to the game. For similar reasons, the game probably should have had optional voice acting. I wouldn't have utilized it, but I know a lot of people who won't tolerate "reading" the story of a videogame anymore, even if it's a perfect fit for the non-realistic tone and modern fairytale style. Beyond that, some of the few bosses felt a little too easy, though they were usually followed up by a challenge that more than made up for their lack of grit. There was also a fetch quest towards the end that wasn't quite as fun as it should have been. Other than all that, the game is pretty much perfect. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is my new favorite 3D Zelda title, beating out Majora's Mask and Wind Waker by a substantial margin. It would be hard to go back to any of those games now. All of the gameplay innovations, emotionally involving moments, beautiful little details, and purely blissful experiences in this game have me completely and utterly spoiled. It's a very different Zelda game, one that will undoubtedly turn off some and absolutely enthrall others, but that's part of what Zelda does best, right? Fans of the series are still debating which game in the series is the best, and the arrival of Skyward Sword won't change that. Either way, there is no arguing that Skyward Sword is one of the most painstakingly crafted, lovingly developed titles in Nintendo's long, illustrious history. If you like videogames at all, you'd be goofy to not give it a try.

If the Wii had launched with The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, everything would have been different. Instead, the console launched with The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, a game that sent all the wrong messages to thir...

Review: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Nov 10 // Jim Sterling
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [reviewed], PC)Developer: Bethesda SoftworksPublisher: Bethesda Game StudiosReleased: November 11, 2011MSRP: $59.99 The mountains of Skyrim are beautiful to behold, truly breathtaking in scale and bursting at the seams with things to see and do. Not all is well in the shadow of the snow-capped rocks, however. It has been two centuries since the Oblivion Crisis changed Tamriel forever, but the resulting peace couldn't last for eternity. Cyrodiil's expansive Empire has laid claim to Skyrim and abolished the traditional customs of its people, the Nords. An inauspicious threat of civil war hangs over the people as rebellious Stormcloaks plot to drive Imperial forces from the region and gain popular favor amongst the local Nordic Jarls. Though common folk strive to keep to themselves, events have taken their toll on every citizen. Inevitably, it is the player's destiny to become deeply embroiled in these events, as well as many more. Yet again, The Elder Scrolls casts its adventurers into the role of a mysterious prisoner, this time due for the chopping block. However, a stay of execution is granted by the sudden appearance of apocalyptic dragons -- once thought to be creatures of mere legend. The first of these scaly monstrosities is but one of an army, as the mythical creatures reawaken all over Skyrim, and the player -- soon to realize his destiny as a dragon-slaying Dovahkiin (Dragonborn) -- must confront the beasts and save the world.  The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim can take a handful of hours to beat. That is, if you consider wrapping up the official story quest as "beating" an Elder Scrolls game. Nobody should, however, for the main plot is but a mere morsel of what Skyrim has to offer, to the point where it isn't even the most sprawling and epic quest on the menu. To focus only on the main narrative would be to ignore the deliciously macabre Dark Brotherhood resurrection, the various twisted meetings with capricious Daedric Princes, or the vengeful tale of The Companions and their grim secret.  Bethesda's games have always felt like online encyclopedia browsing, where one opens a page, finds more interesting ones within, and ends up with twenty unread articles open before long. In Skyrim, this approach is taken to extremes, with opportunities for adventure found in every city, cave, farm and forest hideout. Thanks to the "Radiant" storytelling system, these adventures can be procedurally generated as well. While there are fully scripted quests boasting their own characters and narrative threads, there is an infinite amount of miscellaneous objectives that can appear at any point. These range from simple tasks (such as collecting a bounty note in a tavern and slaying the target) to more intricate missions (like pulling off a successful burglary for the Thieves Guild). The game is also smart enough to place objective locations in unexplored areas of the gargantuan map, improvising in order to encourage further exploration.  At the time of writing, I have put over fifty hours into the game, and my journal menu still lists more than forty unfinished jobs. These are just the tasks I've found, and I doubt I've scratched the surface as I am willing to bet there are many finely layered quests that I still have not stumbled across.  Of course, all this content would be meaningless if the game itself were no fun, but Skyrim is perhaps the most encouraging, rewarding and downright indulging Western role-playing game I have ever played. That sounds hyperbolic, and perhaps it is, but it's something I truly feel in my bones. With Skyrim, Bethesda has taken everything successful from previous Elder Scrolls games and mixed it with the best elements of recent Fallout installments, all while leaving behind the chaff. The result is a game as deep and flexible as Oblivion but as accessible and intuitive as Fallout 3. More importantly, it's better than both.  Before our budding hero can embark on his or her quest, one must first work out if it's a he or a she. The in-depth character creator from Oblivion is back, offering a wealth of options to spawn warriors as handsome or ugly as desired. Every race has been given a significant visual overhaul, with Orcs looking tougher, Elves gaining harsher features, and humans receiving far more believable, subtle faces. Tamriel's exotic races -- the Khajiit and Argonians -- have benefited the most from Skyrim's fresh visuals, earning richly detailed animalistic features that cause them to look less like vaguely re-skinned humans. Each race possesses a predetermined aptitude for certain talents alongside unique special abilities (Argonians once again breathe underwater while Imperials can access the calming "Voice of the Emperor" power), but every race will be able to make use of whatever skills the player ends up choosing.  Skyrim gives starting players all the tools they need to test every type of hero they could potentially become. Armed with rudimentary stealth, weaponry and alchemy skills, as well as a few weak spells, one's fresh-faced avatar serves as a fertile testing ground that can be specialized in many directions to suit the needs of every individual. As with previous Elder Scrolls games, there is no traditional experience system. Instead, skills gain levels with repeated use, and contribute toward a rank meter that determines the player's overall level. This creates a natural progression in which characters evolve based entirely on how one wants to enjoy the game. If a player tends to sneak around a lot, the character will become increasingly stealthy. If the player likes to swing two-handed axes around, the character becomes more proficient at wielding heavy melee equipment. The only stats you'll have to worry about are Health, Magicka and Stamina, one of which can be upgraded with each successful level gain.  Every time a level is earned, a skill point is also awarded. Skill points are invested into various perks arranged on individual skill trees. There are trees for each school of magic, as well as light armor, heavy armor, sneaking, lock-picking, alchemy and other familiar Elder Scrolls abilities. As players become more experienced in various skills, new paths on the tree will unlock, allowing points to be sunk into ever more useful abilities. For example, the Speechcraft skill tree has perks that make it easier to intimidate people in conversations, or cause items to be sold at cheaper prices in stores. Heavy Armor has perks that grant additional defense bonuses if the character is wearing a matching set of armor pieces, while spell perks can reduce Magicka costs or even dual-cast incantations to make them stronger. Although these perks aren't quite as obvious and game-changing as those found in Fallout, they are nonetheless crucial in creating a powerful Dovahkiin.  The natural way in which characters are built ensures a huge variety of potential warriors. My own character is a battlemage who specializes in Conjuration and Destruction magic, backing up his spellcasting with a measure of sword-wielding experience. Sword in one hand, magic spell readied in the other, I'm able to summon a daemon from the Oblivion plane and send it to charge ahead while I throw fireballs and soften up the target. Once the enemy is weak enough, I can charge in and finish it off with the sword -- which can often be accompanied by a brutal execution animation. What's great about my character is how I was able to incrementally tweak it to maximize strengths and limit weaknesses. For example, my hero was a bit of a glass cannon at first: able to dish out punishment but prone to getting slaughtered if enemies could close in. I therefore spent some time focusing on Heavy Armor, using just enough skill points to give me a defensive edge. Now I have a character that feels like a battle tank. He's slow and and has very poor stamina (you can't have everything), but he will soak up plenty of damage while devastating all but the hardiest of foes.  This is just one potential build of many. I could have had a lightning-quick scout, or a character with Illusion magic that renders him invisible and causes enemies to furiously attack one another. The possibilities aren't endless, but they may as well be. Furthermore, dedicated players who reach the pinnacle of their talents will enjoy power equal to a demigod. By the time the character is sufficiently leveled, there's no reason not to feel on top of the world and downright almighty. That isn't to say the game becomes a complete cakewalk -- tougher enemies will rise to the challenge -- but players aren't punished for leveling up, as often felt like the case in Oblivion.  Another change from Oblivion is the in-game menu. The menu screen features crossroad-style navigation that points to skill trees, available magic, items and the map. Simply moving in the right direction fluidly opens up the corresponding menu, allowing for easy and swift access. Unlike the clutter seen in previous Elder Scrolls interfaces, these screens are clear and clean, sacrificing pompous stylishness for pure functionality. The item menu is particularly cool, with each item fully viewable in 3D within the screen -- you can even zoom in and rotate anything in the inventory, which comes in handy for a few quests.  Combat is dramatically improved. Magic spells are similar to the Plasmids found in BioShock, equipped to one of the Dovahkiin's hands and readied for use whenever weapons are drawn. Players can choose to have a sword in one hand with a spell in the other, or even have two spells at once. Some spells issue a constant spray of damage, while others are projectile-based; some have instant effects, and others take a moment to charge up. As with everything in Skyrim, flexibility is the essence of the experience, and players can tailor their combat to suit any preference. A large number of "Favorites" can also be mapped to a special menu that's brought up at the touch of a button, allowing heroes to change weapons and spells and use potions on the fly.  For those not magically inclined, there's a huge variety of weapons with which to dispense death. One-handed and two-handed melee weapons are joined by bows and staves to create a healthy and versatile arsenal. Although combat retains the unwieldy hack-n'-slash flavor of prior games, things are slightly more refined, with blocking and counter-attacking given a greater focus. Fights feel so much more involved than they did in previous Elder Scrolls games, especially since every blow feels like it connects with a mighty impact. Those looking for intricate and graceful melee will be disappointed, but those who want brutal, manic, in-your-face engagements have come to the right game.  What else is there to say? What about the crafting, smithing and enchanting? You can make your own weapons with materials found around the world, becoming an alchemist and create new potions, or imbue weapons with powerful sorcery. These systems are simple, yet require practice and dedication from those players looking to make their own gear. Even then, they don't have to if they don't want to, and can rely on shops when they get new stock. It's all up to you.  As a Dragonborn, the hero will gain access to Thu'ums, or Shouts. These shouts are spoken in the language of dragons, and their words invoke powerful effects. As players discover Thu'ums written on walls around Skyrim, they absorb their power and gain new skills. These range from simple Shouts that blast out fire or ice to more unique skills, such as surging forward at super speed or summoning a lightning storm. Once learned, a Shout needs to be unlocked with a Dragon Soul, but to win a Dragon Soul, one needs to fight a dragon.  Dragons are not merely scripted boss battles that have been set to occur at a few predetermined points. In Skyrim, these living legends can come at any time and launch an attack upon any location. These randomly generated creatures will start appearing in the world once a certain point in the main story has been reached, and their regular appearances dominate everything. The best time to meet a dragon is undoubtedly in a city, as guards will leave their posts to join in the fight and turn what is already a huge encounter into something truly epic. The winged lizards swoop across the sky, raining down fire or frost on everything in their wake. They'll land on buildings, smash into the ground and provide truly memorable battles every time they show up. As a choral rendition of the Elder Scrolls theme strikes up and players struggle valiantly to bring their reptilian foe to the ground, only a heart of stone could fail to be roused. Once the dragon finally draws its last breath and begins to burn away, leaving behind only its huge skeleton, most players would be hard-pressed to not just stand there silently for a few moments, taking in everything that just happened. The surrounding NPCs will be doing the same thing, too, making these reflectively calm moments almost as engaging as the fights themselves.  Skyrim can do epic, that's a given. It is, however, the little things that make The Elder Scrolls V what it is. The game is stuffed to its brim with tiny flourishes that seem so insignificant yet make the world of difference between a game that feels like a game, and a game that feels like it's alive. Swimming in a river to catch some fish, dropping an unwanted item on the floor and having an NPC "helpfully" return it to you, gaining a trusty follower who comments on your actions and surrounding locations -- these are the things that really place Skyrim a cut above the rest. Long after gamers have stopped recounting grand scrimmages against tribes of giants, talk will persist of that time an elf tried to sell a player some drugs outside of town, or the bandits that attempted to scare the hero away rather than blindly attack. To talk of such tiny details in a game where storm clouds can be summoned at will sounds silly, but without these minor touches, the overall ambitious scale would mean much less. Providing the backbone for all this content is a brand-new iteration of the Gamebryo Engine, dubbed Creation. The difference this makes is huge, permeating every facet of the experience from graphics to glitches. Skyrim's huge open world looks inspiring: cities and caves appear to be unique, while character models are detailed and finally resemble human beings -- or their Orc/Elf/Khajiit/Argonian equivalent. The game's lavish sound design seals the deal and adds that final breath of life to the production. Voice acting is fairly varied as far as Bethesda games go, though certain ones are reused a lot. Still, the acting is commendable and the affected Scandinavian accents used by many of the local Nords is quite endearing. The music is absolutely sublime -- quiet and atmospheric when it needs to be, but stirringly evocative at just the right moment.  As far as bugs go, some are bound to exist in a world so large, but I am yet to find anything game-breaking. The only persisting issue is with NPC allies, who can sometimes get lost and fail to return to their default locations. Some will get stuck attempting to perform an action, and if the player doesn't notice they're missing, they could be lost forever in the sprawling world. Other potential allies will still recognize the player as having someone with them, meaning lost comrades won't be replaced until a quest calls for a specific follower, automatically dismissing the lost one (though he/she will still remain lost). I've also had the game freeze once or twice, but one can never be sure if that's a fault of the game or the console trying to run it. Compared to previous games, however, bugs are essentially negligible, and while I'm sure the coming months will find plenty of problems, I can notice nothing so far that ruins what is an absolutely captivating experience.  The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is every single reason to love a Western role-playing game, condensed into a single comprehensive experience with nothing lost in the conversion process. It is a game that will drown those who step into its absorbing, overwhelmingly detailed world, a game that will bury you and refuse to let go. Yet your submergence will be agreeable, your burial ecstatic, and the hands placed around your throat welcomed like those of a lover's. To play Skyrim is to enter into a relationship, one that provides feelings of empowerment, yet demands total submission.  Submit you will, for The Elder Scrolls V is the new zenith of role-playing games and it commands you to look up.

Preparing for a new Elder Scrolls game is like preparing to die. One must ensure they get all their worldly affairs in order, speak with the people who mean everything to them, and have a final meal. After all, once that disc...

Review: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3

Nov 09 // Jim Sterling
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (Xbox 360 [reviewed], PlayStation 3, PC)Developer: Infinity Ward, Sledgehammer GamesPublisher: ActivisionReleased: November 8, 2011MSRP: $59.99 Modern Warfare 3 tosses players right back into the fictional near-future setting that has seen World War 3 break out across the United States and Europe. Captain Price and his unit are still wanted men, and they're still on the tail of the madman who ignited conflict between Russia and America, Vladimir Makarov. As ever, the story shifts focus between various units and multiple player characters before culminating in what may be one of the most brutally gratifying showdowns a videogame has ever presented.  As one of those rare sorts who enjoys Modern Warfare the most for its narrative campaign, I can confirm that this concluding story in the saga is a satisfactory one. The usual collection of roller-coaster moments is out in full force, with daring helicopter escapes, explosive war zones and chilling tours through ruined city streets presented with the usual class and polish that Infinity Ward brings to the table. As always, the single-player mode is but a five-hour romp, but its length is more than enough to present a thrilling, adrenaline-pumping sequence of high-speed shootouts across a wide variety of locations around the world.  Modern Warfare 3 has to be commended on just how immersive it is. Featuring engaging player character animations and environments packed full of violent action, the game never once loses its grip on the player's attention, compelling him or her to press ever onward in search of the next big "wow" moment. Even more notable is the fact that -- for once -- Infinity Ward has created a story that flows almost perfectly. Previous games' plots felt rather alienated from the gameplay; they amounted to a litany of set pieces with only vague expository details littered throughout. In this final chapter, the drawstrings have been pulled together to create a tighter bond between game and story, making for a near-perfect send-off for the current story arc. That said, the game doesn't quite pack the same punch as its predecessor when it comes to those set pieces, mostly because it's hard to take the action much further than Modern Warfare 2 did. As is the problem with many third entries in franchises that won't totally reinvent themselves, all Modern Warfare 3 can do is refine what came before, and while it certainly does that, the potential to surprise players has degraded a little. This doesn't mean the game is ineffective -- it can still draw the awe from a gamer -- but those looking for something as memorable as the famous nuke sequence from the original Modern Warfare or Modern Warfare 2's "No Russian" level will be a little let down.  As well as the single-player, a new batch of Special Ops missions is available to play either solo or with a co-op partner. It contains its own ranking system and related gameplay bonuses; players will be able to unlock up to three "tiers" of missions, each with their own objectives, enemies and courses. Mostly taken from stages in the campaign, these missions involve such tasks as collecting toxic samples from poisonous bombs or disarming explosives on a submarine. There's nothing here that could claim to be truly unique or interesting, but it does make for a lot of extra content on top of what we've come to expect.  New to Special Ops is a plethora of Survival Maps in which up to two players must hold out against waves of incoming enemies. This is Modern Warfare's more grounded answer to Treyarch's Zombies mode, with points going toward unlocking weapons, perks, and equipment upgrades. I absolutely love this new mode and appreciate that a rather large selection of maps is on offer. My only gripe is the two-player limit, as survival modes are always best with a team of at least four, and I see no reason for the restriction. Of course, competitive multiplayer is the mode almost everybody thinks about when it comes to Call of Duty, and I can confirm that Modern Warfare 3 boasts what may be the best multiplayer the series has had to date. Improving what worked in previous games and altering less successful elements, MW3 provides an experience that feels both deeper and more streamlined -- giving players all they need to jump right into the action but holding a lot of extra toys to play with under the surface. The biggest change has come to the Killstreak system, a previously contentious subject among the COD community. There are now three "Strike Packages" tailored to different sorts of players, balanced in a way that ensures everybody gets to enjoy the game and feels rewarded for helping their team in whatever way they know best. Players can equip three streak abilities, and unlock new ones by earning unlock points during gameplay.  Making use of Strike Packages is more about earning points than simply scoring kills, meaning those who help players in other ways -- be it by capturing flags or assisting kills -- get a bonus, too. It's a fantastic way of dealing with the thorny issue of imbalanced killstreaks in prior games, and as someone who primarily plays Domination, I love the idea of getting a prize for my various support actions. The Assault Package is designed for those who can string together multiple kills without dying. Those who partake of this package can earn abilities such as Assault Drones or Predator Missile Strikes, designed entirely to annihilate enemy players. Support Package users can keep their streaks even after death and earn gadgets that help the player's team out, such as UAV Recon or Anti-Air Turrets. Finally, the Specialist Package awards new Perks to those who can maintain streaks in a single spawn. These Perks are added to ones the player already has equipped, allowing for the potential to enjoy huge benefits if one can survive long enough.  Perks themselves have been given the usual spring cleaning as well. Some, such as Stopping Power and Last Stand, have been traded out, while new additions include Blind Eye (invisible to aircraft) and Assassin (undetectable by thermal sensors, UAVs, or pretty much any electronic equipment). Perks seem geared far more toward personal support than giving players a true combat edge this time around. Most Perks with a focus on killing power have been eliminated, while those improving survivability are abundant. I have to say, I like it. A subtler Perk system is what the game needed, especially with the Strike Packages adding more definitive variety to the proceedings.  Action unfolds across sixteen maps, all of which are incredibly well designed with a beautiful balance between tight corridors and wide-open spaces. Familiar modes such as Search & Destroy and Headquarters are joined by Team Defender and Kill Confirmed. In Team Defender, the team earns points if a player can capture and carry a flag without getting killed and dropping it. Kill Confirmed is a great twist on Deathmatch in which the team won't get a point for a kill unless the victim's dropped dog tag is collected. Naturally, the opposing players can capture the dog tag themselves to deny that kill. Both of these modes are merely variants of familiar gameplay, but they are very good variants, and I foresee Kill Confirmed in particular becoming popular. All of this content is added to the usual class progression and a weapon proficiency system that allows new guns and upgrades to be collected. With eighty levels to achieve and subsequent Prestige ranks available, there is a silly amount of content for those players literally obsessed with Call of Duty -- and there are a lot of them! For those obsessives, Activision has also provided Call of Duty Elite, a subscription-based social network where players can create their own private clans, indulge in extensive stat-tracking, share videos and access mobile apps. COD Elite deserves its own review and will be covered separately, but let it be known for those worried about being nickel-and-dimed that Elite is entirely optional and perfectly forgettable if all you want to do is play the game. Nothing has been withheld from the main title, and Elite will only further absorb those players who have become addicted to the point of needing professional help.  Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 treads familiar ground and focuses on tweaking rather than reinventing, and that's just fine. While there are no major revelations or surprises, this is still a gorgeously produced package that gives military shooter fans exactly what they want. There's a reason why Call of Duty is the most powerful videogame franchise of the modern era, and Modern Warfare 3 serves as a reminder -- it's just that damn good at what it does. Whether you like what it does is a matter of personal taste, but the skill and experience brought to the table is hard to refute. Modern Warfare 3 gets it done, and it gets it done damn well.

Whether or not Call of Duty deserves its status as the most powerful videogame franchise of the modern era is a debate that will likely rage long after its star has faded. No matter what one thinks of Activision's market-domi...

Review: Dungeon Defenders

Oct 17 // Maurice Tan
Dungeon Defenders (Xbox Live Arcade [Reviewed], PlayStation Network, PC)Developer: Trendy EntertainmentPublisher: Trendy Entertainment, Reverb Publishing, D3PublisherReleased: October 18, 2011 (PSN), October 19, 2011 (XBLA, PC)MSRP: 1200 Microsoft Points, $14.99 Let me elaborate on that for a moment. Dungeon Defenders can be insanely hard. That is, if you are mad enough to attempt playing it on even the medium (default) difficulty all by yourself. As an action/roleplaying game/tower defense hybrid, Dungeon Defenders is all about managing waves of incoming hordes with an upgradable character who sometimes has to defend multiple Eternia Crystals -- the game's "cores" if you will -- usually leaving you with one too many paths to juggle. If you don't have anyone to play with, or if you don't want to bother with random people online, you can probably make it through the game's 13 campaign missions by yourself on the easy difficulty, and only then attempt it on a higher difficulty with your upgraded gear and character. Yet even on this "easy difficulty" the game is quite challenging regardless of whether or not you are a veteran tower defense player. In fact, I would go as far as to say you would need to be either a masochist, or indeed a Cenobite, to buy Dungeon Defenders if your sole purpose is to play solo. Naturally, being an idiot masochist, I jumped into this game choosing an advanced hero class and started playing it on its medium difficulty in singleplayer, because hey, I have played a videogame before! Suffice it to say, it taught me new sensations of pain I wasn't aware I could feel. With that out of the way, it has to be said that this is a game created for 2-4 player co-op bliss (online, locally, or taking a local party online), and boy is it one for the ages. Dungeon Defenders offers a choice of four classes that are progressively more challenging to learn and use effectively. The Apprentice is the most traditional class, with his barricades and different kinds of towers to deal ranged damage from behind protection. The Squire can block off paths himself by blocking, or build blockades and towers aimed at funneling and then destroying groups of enemies. The Huntress is a mix of ranged support and harassment, wielding different types of crossbows (or gatling guns) and an arrangement of traps to damage and stun incoming waves. She is a bit harder to use as these traps initially have a low detonation count until you level up a bit, which results in having to repair them in the heat of battle lest they lose all their detonation counters, thus forcing you to buy a new trap for full price. The Monk -- of the Aang variety -- is the priest type of class who can lay down auras to slow, damage or turn enemies against each other, as well as summon healing auras. Like the Huntress, the Monk is more of a co-op support class than the kind of class you'd want to wield solo. When you throw them all together, you have the Apprentice to build towers, the Squire to hold off a narrow path, the Huntress to stealthily lay down traps and harass enemies, and the Monk to support and manage dealing with the enemy wave's paths of impending doom. Each class also has a few special abilities to help them out in battle, besides the five unique defenses they can summon. Buying a tower, aura or trap costs mana, which can be harvested by collecting the mana crystals that enemies drop or looting preset chests across the map that respawn after every wave. Upgrading a defensive position costs 100 mana initially, regardless of how much it cost to build it in the first place, and upgrading it even further doubles the cost until it's no longer cost-efficient to do so. Between each wave you have a Build Phase to strategize and communicate your approach to the next wave at your leisure. While you can build, repair, and upgrade towers when a wave is assaulting your positions, your hero will do so at a far slower pace than during the Build Phase; hence the name. What this comes down to is going from a planning phase to make sure everyone's resources are used in the best way possible and everyone is covering the right approach to make the most of their class's strengths, followed by a hectic cooperative battle for survival as something, somewhere, is bound to go wrong at some point. In the meantime, each player will be hunting for precious mana, to put back into tightening the defenses, and for the glorious loot of which there is a copious amount. Whatever loot you don't want, you can either store in an inventory that is shared between all your characters, trade with friends, or sell for mana in a mana bank (your currency) that is, again, shared to keep cross-hero management as painless as possible. A Tavern serves as a lobby, where you choose what you want to play and tinker with your inventory at the Tavernkeep. Here you can sell off your loot -- which you can also do during a mission's Build Phase if you want to -- or spend hard earned mana on XP bonuses, character respecs, renaming your hero, or buying rare and randomized weapons and armor. Did I mention you can buy a pet that deals damage and buffs you stats? PETS! As if it wasn't enough to have all your prior tower defense experience reduced to nothing if you attempt playing the game solo on a difficulty above your station, a glance at Dungeon Defenders' achievements & trophies makes it clear: Trendy Entertainment isn't about to make it easy for anyone. The game is very hard, sure, but it provides a pleasurable pain. Every failure is a chance to learn and try again with a slightly beefed up character than the last time. With four classes and four difficulties to choose from, the campaign alone offers countless hours of entertainment. Each campaign level can also be played in Survival mode or Pure Strategy mode, the latter of which forces you to depend on your defenses alone. Since that was apparently not enough for Trendy Entertainment, each campaign level you complete unlocks a unique challenge level. In these challenges you'll play a variation on the standard gameplay by attacking the monsters instead of defending, protecting a teleporting Etheria Crystal across the map, find yourself in a rain of goblins, and even crazier stuff like having one hero randomly become "the chicken" who is easily killed and can't jump. Finally, there is a Player vs. Player challenge to pit you and your friends' heroes in an arena style battle. All of this content would be useless if the core gameplay wasn't solid or fun to play, but thankfully Dungeon Defenders delivers on this front as well. There are a few minor gripes that may annoy some players, as no game is perfect. The inventory is pretty large and easy to manage, but if you forget to sell off loot during a long game session, you might fill it up. Then you have to sell off your loot during a mission just to be able to pick up the remaining loot, which can break up the pacing. The final mission in the campaign ends in a cutscene before you can pick up all the loot from the last wave, which is a bit annoying since you could do that in every other mission before choosing to move on to the next one. Dungeon Defenders also has a lot of features that are only ever explained during loading screen tips and the only explanation of anything can be found in a single tutorial video. It could have done with a dedicated help section in the menu, where you could find which mission modifier means what, how stats affect your hero's performance, how a level score is calculated, or even just to get an overview of the different defenses and abilities each hero has before you choose one. The tutorial video in itself does a decent job explaining the basics, but it is a bit barren overall given the huge amount of content, class abilities, defenses, and modes the game throws at you. Then there is the matter of singleplayer, which was mentioned earlier. If you are going to play some singleplayer -- whether you lack friends to play with or just want to grind a bit while they are unavailable -- just start the game on Easy with an Apprentice or Squire class. After a run-through on that difficulty, you'll be in a much better position to deal with the game's Medium difficulty, which has a nasty habit of throwing overwhelmingly powerful waves at you at the very last moment. Everything you can do in solo mode is really meant to help you develop your character for co-op, and despite seemingly not really being designed as singleplayer game, you can still get hours of enjoyment out of the campaign levels and even the Survival and Pure Strategy modifiers -- as long as you don't jump in head over heels. The challenges are a different matter. These are primarily made for co-op play with relatively high level characters, and they are insanely hard to complete on your own. You can switch between your created heroes during the Build Phase in any type of level to make up for the lack of defense variety, but it's a last resort that doesn't quite offer a good argument for going solo. You would need to create and level up four different heroes with a lot of grinding just to make proper use of the system. Whatever issues Dungeon Defenders may have are minor, however, and lay with the singleplayer component of a game designed to be played cooperatively. It will detract as much from the total experience as being able to play Left 4 Dead with AI bots detracts from the multiplayer fun you can have with that game. Dungeon Defenders is filled to the brim with deliciously challenging co-op content and so much variety and loot that you could keep playing it for dozens upon dozens of hours. It takes the leveling and loot addiction from Diablo and Torchlight, throws it into the "tower defense variant" format that has become so popular, and succeeds at all levels. Dungeon Defenders doesn't just deliver in offering a huge package of cooperative fun, but raises the bar for downloadable titles by offering more than the average full-priced retail title does these days. It strikes a balance between action, RPG, and tower defense in a way that turns it into the Castle Crashers of tower defense. It will keep you occupied for weeks and months to come, provided you have the local or online friends to play with. If you don't, you can always decide that yes, you are a Cenobite and by the gods that cannot hear you, you will finish that campaign on Insane difficulty all by yourself with your four level 70 heroes. Dungeon Defenders is really meant to be played with three friends to raise hell with, though, and you will still come to know the true meaning of pain well before you beat it on the highest difficulty.

A lot has been said and written about games being art in the last decade. Some games can elicit different emotions. Sometimes they aim to be interactive drama. And sometimes they are meant as a metaphorical reflection on a st...

Review: The Binding of Isaac

Oct 02 // Jordan Devore
[embed]212806:41103[/embed] The Binding of Isaac (PC [Reviewed], Mac)Developer: Edmund McMillen and Florian HimslPublisher: Edmund McMillenReleased: September 28, 2011MSRP: $4.99 While The Binding of Isaac is indeed the story of a parent being asked to sacrifice their child in the name of faith, as the title would suggest, I don't see it offending players. There is a message about extremism in religion to take away, though it never really becomes preachy. The setup is a good one, and it provides the necessary context for a lot of interesting elements found in Isaac. Having escaped to the basement to avoid his mother's wrath, you play a crying, naked boy who has to fight off monstrosities (some of which are relatives) with his tears. Yeah, your starter weapon is projectile crying. So good. The basement itself is split up into a bunch of single rooms, with much of the world design similar to that of The Legend of Zelda's dungeons. In fact, the game is broken up into multiple floors, each with an end boss to conquer before you can further descend. Between the bombs, treasure chests, and even keys, long-time gamers are going to feel right at home with Isaac's conventions. Despite being a roguelike -- and as a result, having permanent death, randomization of items and levels, etc. -- this is very much an approachable game, even if it is at times immensely difficult. The mechanics are mostly straightfoward, and combat itself is familiar four-directional shooting. The WASD keys are used for movement, with shooting assigned to either the arrow keys or your mouse. You are restricted to up/down/left/right firing, but enemies are balanced accordingly, and attacking from an angle can be done if you shoot while walking a certain way. The controls aren't as tight as I would've liked, but you get used to them eventually. Note: there is no native gamepad support. Beyond your default attack, which can be upgraded through pick-ups to something other than tears, you can find one-time use items (pills and tarot cards), and you also have an equipment slot for items that recharge as you progress. Bombs, coins, keys, and hearts are also thrown into the mix. The end result, thanks to randomization and a wide assortment of potential collectibles, means playing The Binding of Isaac won't grow old anytime soon. Having played for more than ten hours myself, I'm still coming across previously unseen items and enemies on a regular basis. Perhaps one of the biggest selling points is the visual style. If you're at all familiar with Edmund's work prior to Super Meat Boy, you know what to expect. It's a wonderful blend of fleshy grossness and lighthearted, even sometimes cute, humor. (Disclaimer: I am totally into dark comedy.) Going back to the items you can collect -- stuff like dog food, a wire coat hanger, and syringes -- they are actually visually represented by changes to your character's appearance. And since these stat upgrades stack, your character usually ends up looking pretty ridiculous. Given the huge variety present in Isaac, not all playthroughs are going to be successful. This can be frustrating, but I feel like a reasonable amount of balance was reached given the variability. Even if you don't ultimately win, you're likely to come across enough new content to make the attempt worth doing; you lose your progress, but not your knowledge. That even goes for bosses, too -- there are around twenty in total, and almost all are satisfying to fight against. Major props must also be given for the excellent soundtrack, which I personally adore. It's by Danny Baranowsky, who previously collaborated with McMillen on Super Meat Boy and has made a name for himself by contributing to other great independent games. Chilling, catchy, and very fitting. The way in which content is accessed in Isaac is interesting. Beating the game unlocks additional levels, puts more items and bosses in the rotation, and probably something else I'm forgetting. Forgive me -- this stuff isn't exactly explained explicitly; it's a roguelike! All part of the fun. There are also multiple playable characters and endings. For those wondering why there are individual Steam achievements for reaching the full conclusion nine separate times, there's a reason. All told, The Binding of Isaac is a deceptively deep game. That it only costs $4.99 is nothing short of astounding. I don't see myself putting it down until I hit that magical 100% completion mark, which is hours and hours away at this point. This is one trip that I recommend to everyone open-minded enough to give it a chance.

If I weren't already so fond of game jams -- and rapid prototyping in general -- The Binding of Isaac likely would have pushed me into such fandom. It began life as a week-long project between Team Meat's Edmund McMillen and ...

Review: Kirby Mass Attack

Sep 16 // Jim Sterling
Kirby Mass Attack (Nintendo DS)Developer: HAL Laboratory, Inc.Publisher: NintendoReleased: September 19, 2011MSRP: $29.99 Kirby Mass Attack sees our pink hero split into ten pieces by the nefarious leader of the Skull Gang, Necrodeus -- who logically believes that ten small Kirbys are easier to beat than one huge one. His gambit actually pays off, but just before he can defeat the last Kirby, a star representing our hero's heart saves him and leads him on a quest to regroup and defeat Necrodeus. This happens because Kirby games are known for tightly scripted, incredibly logical stories. The entire platforming adventure is played using just the stylus. Tapping anywhere on the screen sends all Kirbys to the designated spot, holding the stylus in place allows you to draw a line that the Kirbys will float along, while flicking each individual Kirby sends him flying in the desired direction -- crucial for reaching high places or latching onto flying enemies. It's a simple control scheme, but HAL does an exemplary job of exploiting it to create a huge variety of unique gameplay situations.  Players start with just a single Kirby, but it doesn't take long to build a veritable swarm. Each level is full of delicious fruit for Kirby to eat, and once he eats 100 points' worth of the stuff, another puffball spawns -- the process continuing until a miniature army of ten has been amassed. Getting to watch an entire scrum of Kirbys waddling along and clambering over each other as they run across the stage is a joy in and of itself.  All Kirbys respond to the same command, so pointing anywhere on the screen will send the whole group to the required destination. If you point at an enemy, the Kirbys will jump on it and proceed to pummel their victim to death in a rather nightmarish fashion, reminiscent of army ants cutting a spider to pieces. Bigger enemies require more Kirbys to take down efficiently, otherwise they're prone to shaking off the attackers. The Kirbys are also needed to grab onto levers, weigh down platforms, and bash into blocks, with some of these objectives demanding a minimum number of heroes. Each Kirby can be lost, although players always have a chance to save them and can always regain fallen heroes with more fruit. When a Kirby is hit, he turns blue, and if he's hit again, he'll become a ghost and start to float away. Flicking a live Kirby onto the ghost, however, will see it dragged back to earth and resurrected. What I love about this system is that it's both delightfully cute and disturbingly morbid at the same time, which seems to be a running theme for the whole Kirby series.  Thanks to the simple control scheme and tightly designed stages, there's a pleasant lack of confusion in controlling ten characters at once, but there are a few persistent flaws in an otherwise elegant system. The camera manages to become an issue in several places, as one can't move the screen to deal with any Kirbys straying from the pack, and there's sometimes not enough space in front of the group for you to lead them with the stylus. Also, while the Kirbys generally stick together, there will be occurrences where one or two decide to get stuck on a ledge or straggle behind, and majority control is always given the lowest Kirby onscreen -- if one falls from a high place, that's the one the camera will track, even if you need to be in the higher position. These are minor inconveniences at best, but they do cause some light fist-shaking on occasion.  Any irritation is more than made up for with the sheer wealth of clever gameplay design on offer. The platforming and boss challenges are many and varied, with challenges perfectly adapted to the touch-screen interface. For instance, you can't just dogpile on any enemy. Some have spikes in nasty places, requiring you to fling the Kirbys on certain exposed spots. Others will fire projectiles that shoot into the sky and come crashing back down, requiring you to intermittently call off an attack, run to safety, then recommence an assault. As the game progresses, there are all sorts of new situations to occur, with very little in the way of repeated gimmickry.  Like most Kirby games, Mass Attack is not a strictly challenging game -- if your only concern is getting to the end of each stage. However, finding hidden medallions and earning Gold Stars for getting your Kirbys through every level unscathed is another matter entirely. This kind of meta-challenge is something the Kirby series excels in, and its strict enforcement in Mass Attack makes for one of the most deceptively challenging Kirby games around, if you want it to be. Trying to keep ten Kirbys from getting hurt in order to achieve a Gold Star is something that will take even experienced players quite a lot of practice.  The hidden medallions scattered throughout each stage are worth your time too, as they unlock some of the best extra content a game has ever had. Acquiring a certain number of medallions unlocks a new item in the "extras" menu, and while some of them are very simple little minigames like the "whack-a-mole" spin-off, there's a number of shockingly deep items that could be considered full-fledged games in their own right. There's a lively little pinball game, a series of RPG-styled turn-based battles, and even a five-level top-down scrolling shooter! While none of these games are five-hour experiences, the fact that HAL went out of its way to create such engaging sub-games is remarkable. There's enough extra content to keep players invested far beyond the main game.  Kirby Mass Attack is one of those games that seem just so incredibly happy to be here. It revels in itself without becoming self-indulgent, presenting a cute and colorful, gorgeously designed world that manages to be lovable with just enough of a dark edge to stop things growing too saccharine. In other words, it's a Kirby game, through and through, and it couldn't be more amusing.  With five worlds that contain a sizable variety of levels apiece, plenty of reason to replay old stages, and the most stunning array of extra minigames I've seen in a long time, Kirby Mass Attack is a surprisingly deep, rich and versatile bundle of fun. Mix in that classic Kirby charm and you also have one of the finest adventures to ever grace a DS. Cleverly designed, overwhelmingly cute, and devoted to fun, Kirby Mass Attack is a game that should become part of your handheld library without question.

Kirby's Epic Yarn was a triumph, but there's no denying that Kirby's true home is on a handheld platform. It's where he debuted and it's where he's had his biggest adventures. Kirby Mass Attack brings Kirby home, both in term...

Review: The Ico & Shadow of the Colossus Collection

Sep 08 // Dale North
The Ico & Shadow of the Colossus Collection (PlayStation 3)Developer: Team ICO Publisher: Sony Computer EntertainmentTo be released: September 27, 2011MSRP: $39.99  Ico Here's the CliffsNotes version of Ico's story for those who have somehow missed this game: Ico's opening shows a young boy with horns being dragged off to a massive stone temple. He is placed inside a large stone container and put on an even larger stone shelf containing many more of these containers. The boy was to be the next sacrifice. Some kind of natural tremor happens just after his imprisonment and this allows him to escape. While working to make his way out of the temple, he encounters a mysterious girl held captive in some kind of bird cage, held up and away from scary shadow people who seem to want to drag her underground.  After freeing her, the boy finds out that they will have to work together to make it out of the temple.  Ico's gameplay is platforming, but the twist is that this boy has to drag along his companion, Yorda. Literally. You'll hold down the L1 button to hold her hand and guide her away from danger, onto platforms, over ledges and more. She really sucks at all of that, but at least she holds some mysterious power that lets her open temple doors for Ico. Together their powers make for excellent puzzle platforming. There's also a bit of scaredy-cat combat, with Ico swinging a little stick at Yorda's creepy pursuers. Your stick doesn't do much, so the swinging is frantic and sad. Still, you'll find yourself doing what you can so that she isn't dragged under.  Puzzle-platforming, dragging a girl around and wimpy stick combat together sounds tedious, but it works really well, and we have Team Ico's beautifully paced and designed levels to thank for that. Fantastic artwork, eerie audio and innovative storytelling all add to this combination to make this an unforgettable experience. It's a game that you'll be happy to get lost in. It's one of those rare games that takes you away to another place, one that's hard to forget after completion. Sure, you could nitpick on edge/ledge detection or the syrupy-slow camera movement, but I promise you that once you complete this hauntingly beautiful title, you won't be hung up on minor details like that.  Everything I've said so far applies to both the original and the PS3 remake, so if you've somehow missed this game, I'm hoping my high praise will get you to pick it up. Well, either that or its technical upgrades. Ico is even better now with its graphical overhaul. It won't blow your eyes out with color and shininess, though. Ico was always a visually muted game, and the remake does not change that. The lighting seems to have been tweaked; it's so pretty now, though not always perfect. The higher-resolution textures make the game's design and architecture even easier to appreciate. It's so true to the original that those who have played Ico won't think much about it after it gets going. They did just enough with this overhaul to make sure that anyone who wouldn't be able to get over early PS2-era graphics would have nothing to complain about here. Seriously, there's nothing to complain about. Shadow of the Colossus If you thought the opening to Ico was depressing and heavy, get a load of this: A desperate guy travels to a strange land on the back of his trusty horse. His only other companion is his dead girlfriend. Their journey ends at a sort of temple (Team Ico loves temples), and there he places this girl on an altar, begging for her life to be restored. A huge voice from the sky actually responds, telling him that he has to visit every corner of this realm to slay 16 colossi in order for his wish to be granted. Sure, no prob.  Shadow's gameplay is a mix of open-world exploration/platforming and massive, drawn-out, insanely-scaled boss battles. Our hero has to travel rugged, varied land by horse, guided only by a legendary sword that focuses sunlight as a sort of compass. About 25 percent of the fun is looking for the big bastards, and the other 75 is taking them down. Beasts of every type await you, and all of them are so huge that you'll have to scale them, working up them like you would a tower in a 3D platformer. You'll ride on the backs of massive flying creatures, hang from the fur of stories-tall upright bipedal walkers, and roll and duck from mountain-sized rammers. Each one is an absolute wonder, so much so that if you're anything like me you'll die many times just marveling at them.  The magic in Shadow is the scale, and how it shows just how weak you are in comparison. Scaling these beasts takes so long that you could look at each of the colossi as a game level. After scaling them, if you manage to survive and hang on, all sense of accomplishment fades as you peck away at the colossus's life bar with your little weapons. Each beast has a weak spot, and you'll have to use every trick in the book to find them and attack them with your comparatively small and weak sword or arrows. Only after successfully scaling a beast, managing your limited grip strength, and getting in enough hits to take its life will it fall. Trip up and you'll start all over. Trust me on this: you'll start over many, many times. Some of those times you may curse the game's wonky camera or Agro's (the horse) reluctance to let you mount, but most of the time it will be your fault. You won't care about any of this when you see just how beautifully this game's story unfolds. The original game had a few issues in the graphics department. Maybe Team Ico dreamed too big for the PS2, as I remember the game's frame rate coming down to a stutter in some really intense sections. Pop-in and other graphical glitches were blemishes on this otherwise beautiful game. I'm glad to say that all of these issues disappear in the PS3 version. And unlike Ico's upgrade, which was more subtle, Shadow's really shows off all the fine art and detail we missed in the original. This looks pretty close to a modern-day PS3 release. Everything from wall textures to backdrops looks so much better that I found myself a bit distracted during the heat of battle. I really shouldn't be dying this much, considering how many times I've played this game! Summary Everyone wins with this collection. I don't know of a fan of Team Ico's games who wouldn't kill to play them again in high definition at 1080p, not to mention with added Trophy support and a 3D option. If you're like me, and have played each of these games a few times, you'll probably forget that you're playing a PS2 game most of the time. Both games really look so good that they feel new. I'm sure that current fans of these games needed no convincing, so I'll stop here. Oh, but you've got to see the colossi in 3D! Borrow a 3D television if you must. Those who have somehow missed either or both of these titles have the perfect excuse to jump in now. The price is right at $40 for the two. You can see what all the buzz is about without having to deal with those blurry old PS2 textures and frame rates, or hiked collector's asking prices for the originals. You shouldn't notice that these are old games aside from a few small glitches. My guess is that new players will be sucked in, joining current fans in adding both of these titles to their all-time favorites list.  To the new player: I've slapped a lot of scores on a lot of games in my games-writing career, but I'm asking you to forget about scores for now. Both of these games remain at the top of my list of games to recommend, even today. I really can't think of any other games that I'd recommend more. The originals are both so lovingly crafted and inspiring that I think gamers 50 years from now will still be talking about them. No, they're not perfect, but they're both fine examples of brilliant game design, and they both put forth an experience you won't soon forget. Please, play these games.

Two of the finest PlayStation 2 titles I know of were created by the same team. Both Shadow of the Colossus and Ico were crafted by the creative minds at Team Ico, a group that is slow to release games, but makes masterpieces...

Review: Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Aug 22 // Jim Sterling
Deus Ex: Human Revolution (PC [reviewed], PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [reviewed])Developer: Eidos MontrealPublisher: Square EnixTo be released: August 23, 2011MSRP: $59.99 (PS3, 360) / $49.99 (PC) Deus Ex: Human Revolution tells the story of Adam Jensen, head of security at Sarif Industries, an American corporation making huge strides in augmentation technology. However, not all of humanity is appreciative of Sarif's dabbling in human progress, and after a group of mercenaries attacks the company headquarters, Jensen is mortally wounded. He doesn't quite die, however, becoming both the beneficiary and victim of his own company's latest step forward in human modification. He returns to the world of the living better than he ever was, but that doesn't mean he has to be happy about it. After all, he never asked for this. Thus the scene is set for a game that travels around the world, weaving social commentary and philosophy on the nature of transhumanism throughout a tale that touches on corporate espionage, global conspiracy, and well-intentioned extremism. As well as living up to the sacred legacy kickstarted by the original Deus Ex, Human Revolution's narrative takes the very best of Metal Gear Solid, merrily pinches elements from Blade Runner, and adds its own unique blend of fascinating characters and satisfying plot twists. It is, in short, one of the most intriguingly written, thematically ambitious games I have ever played. In no small part does Human Revolution owe its narrative success to an absorbing atmosphere. This crapsack world, driven by stunning advances in technology but stifled by class conflict and growing social resentment, is an absolute joy to navigate despite being so utterly depressing. From the tightly designed action stages to the overwhelming hub maps, there's a consistency to the game's world that one only rarely sees, and everything from interactive newspapers, hacked emails and conversations between non-player characters creates a compelling ambiance for a world that is hard to want to leave. It's most certainly a world nobody in their right mind would ever want to live in, but it's an intoxicating place to visit. Human Revolution is mindful of the huge weight that the Deus Ex name carries, and I am thrilled to report that it lives up to the daunting demands that such a pedigree entails. As with the original classic, this is a game designed to let you play it your way, with a variety of upgradable augmentations to create an Adam Jensen that suits your personal idiom. Whether you want to be stealthy or aggressive, lethal or merciful, you have the tools to do the job. The game breaks itself into four very distinct play styles, all designed to bleed into each other and provide players with a variety of options and backup plans. The styles are combat, hacking, stealth, and social, with each one deserving of its own review. Combat is a unique blend of first-person and third-person gameplay, where forward-thinking and pragmatic actions are rewarded. While there is a run-and-gun option in the first-person perspective, such activity would be suicide. Even when one fully upgrades their ability to absorb damage, Jensen is far from immortal and will drop in seconds when exposed to gunfire. With a right-click (or shoulder button press), however, Jensen will stick to a wall and the camera will shift to a third-person perspective. This is not only crucial for stealthy play, it also gives a great vantage point in what can become a very intense cover-based shooter. Success in combat isn't just determined by picking a bit of cover and opening fire, however -- the enemy A.I. is some of the most aggressive and adaptive I've seen, with opponents more than happy to flank, initiate pincer attackers, and even retreat to their own cover when needed. Success in combat is determined by careful planning. Securing an exit should things go wrong, choosing (and changing) advantageous positions, and identifying which target to fire upon first, as well as which weapons to use, are crucial. This is not a game that just lets you open fire and trust in your reflexes; this is a game in which strategy is just as important as skill. Adam Jensen may be an augmented human, but he is still a human, and the game never lets you forget it. Stealth is simply superb, and players who wish to remain subtle will find that the game is perfectly tailored to their secret-agent fantasies. The third-person viewpoint in cover gives players an excellent view of the surrounding area and allows them to memorize enemy movement patterns without becoming exposed. Even with this benefit, however, stealth is no cakewalk. Enemies don't just march along patrol routes, oblivious to their surroundings. They love to intermittently walk backwards, or stop at crossroads in corridors to check all available directions. Sometimes players only get a brief window of opportunity in which they can act, and failure can mean a swift death unless there's a good place to hide. This said, the enemy A.I. isn't at a genius level, and can be broken. While opposing soldiers are formidable foes in battle, they can be exploited in ways that sometimes take the sting out of the immersion. For instance, they can very happily stand in front of air vents while you're crouched inside and allow themselves to be shot to death. Sometimes they'll stand back and fire into the vent, or toss grenades in there, but other times they'll be sitting ducks. For the most part, stealth and combat can be tense, but there are those moments where the game can be twisted in unscrupulous ways. Whether players choose to be stealthy or violent, they will find that the "Takedown" ability is a lifesaver. When Adam gets close to an enemy, he can instantly neutralize him with a single keystroke. The camera will switch to third-person and Jensen will take down an opponent with a beautiful, empowering combat animation. Simply pressing the "Q" key will see Adam knock an enemy unconscious, whereas keeping it held will cause him to extend some vicious blades from his arm and put the poor victim away permanently. Do not think that this skill is a game-breaker, however. Adam can only perform takedowns if he has at least one full energy bar, and only the first bar ever recharges automatically (others need to be refilled by consumable items). Furthermore, takedowns always make noise (with lethal ones being louder) and will alert nearby enemies. Unless Adam can drag the body to a hiding place and make a daring escape, alarm bells will ring pretty quickly. Hacking is by far one of the most essential elements of the game, and it's highly recommended that hack augmentations are equipped early. Not only does hacking net significant amounts of XP (used to obtain "Praxis" kits, which buy new augmentations) and cash, it also unlocks doors to vital equipment and plot-sensitive areas, rewards players with heaps of cool information and Easter eggs, and eliminates various security measures such as lasers, alarms, cameras and turrets. The hacking system is a surprisingly enjoyable minigame in which you capture various nodes on a map, with the goal being to reach a green sphere that cracks the network. Along the way, there are special nodes that bestow extra benefits such as XP and cash bonuses, or make the network easier to complete. However, each node captured has a chance to alert the network, which will begin a countdown that ends with the hacker getting booted. Hackers can also fortify nodes to slow down network traces, and use collectible software to bolster their efforts -- notably the "Stop" worm that temporarily halts network tracing and the "Nuke" virus that instantly captures a node without the threat of detection. Despite the initial sense of intimidation that the hacking system can radiate, it's a deceptively simple game that rewards forward thinking, careful planning, and useful augmentations. The only downside to the hacking is that various cool skills, such as the ability to control enemy turrets and robots, aren't all that useful. Their applicable uses in the game are minimal due to the limited number of computers that actually control such items, and the sheer effort it takes to reach them (chances are good that if you got to a security computer that controls robots, you've either already neutralized the enemies that the robot could have attacked, or have no need to re-enter the area it patrols). One can safely save their Praxis kits and ignore the turret/robot augments, but other hacking upgrades are damn near vital. Finally, we have the social gameplay. This aspect is presented as a variety of "Social Boss Battles" in which Jensen must verbally outwit an opponent in a debate. This represents one of the game's most accomplished innovations, and also its biggest missed opportunity. In short, these conversational fights are incredibly well done, with the player needing to anticipate which responses will work best against characters, using whatever they've learned about their personalities and how they react to Jensen's words. While the facial animations aren't quite on par with L.A. Noire, there's still a lot to be gleaned from seeing how a character's expression changes throughout a conversation, and how stressed or angry they become with provocative statements. Each of these sequences is engaging and unique, just as accomplished as anything found in RPGs like Mass Effect. Unfortunately, these moments are also quite easy. The game's one social augmentation, which allows players to better read opponents and release pheromones to influence their reactions, is simply not needed. I was able to win every social boss battle in the game without using the ability; it's not difficult at all to see which responses will work against the strongly designed personalities Jensen encounters. In fact, while replaying the game's first debate, I tried to fail and still ended up succeeding. Furthermore, these boss fights are simply too rare. While I appreciate that Eidos Montreal probably didn't want to bog the game down with too much conversation, I felt they really could have added a few more of these sequences and lost nothing. As previously stated, all of these gameplay types are enhanced with a variety of augmentations. Over the course of the game, it's possible to obtain almost all of them, although the order in which they are claimed is entirely up to the player, and they vary in usefulness from essential to practically pointless. With well-chosen augments, Jensen will be able to sprint longer, take extra damage, hack more efficiently, jump from tall buildings without dying, and punch through walls. There are some really cool powers, but there are duff ones as well. The Typhoon, for example, sends out a 360-degree shockwave that kills anything caught in its radius. However, due to it being suicidal to get surrounded by enemies, the practical application of such an ability is negligible at best. You'd have to go out of your way to set up a situation where it'd be needed, and there's always a better strategy on offer. Same goes for the ability to perform takedowns on two enemies at once. While it sounds great in theory -- and I should note, the animations are awesome -- it's very rare to have two enemies close enough together for it to work, and even rarer for such a takedown to be a sensible tactic. I would rather have had several of these worthless augmentations nixed in order for deeper enhancements to others. The cloaking system, the ability to see through walls, and the social abilities could have had a lot more done with them, and Eidos could have come up with additional practical uses for the more alluring powers. As it stands, the game very clearly favors players with certain abilities -- chiefly, hacking skills, high jumps, extra lifting strength and the power to fall from great heights. With these skills unlocked as soon as possible, there is nowhere that Adam cannot explore, whereas specializing in other augmentations early on will cause the player to miss out on several worthwhile areas. One cannot be too upset by this, however, considering the excellent uses of the truly worthwhile powers. As explained earlier, it should never be forgotten that Jensen is a human, one who can die very easily when handled without care, but players will still feel like a cut above their human inferiors when they can smash through a wall and break the neck of the poor goon standing on the other side. It's just one of those things that never gets old. There's no question about Human Revolution's sheer volume of content. There's lots to see, even more to do, and multiple ways of enjoying both. While one could theoretically blast through Human Revolution in eight or ten hours, there's much, much more to be getting on with. City-based hub areas contain side quests that are as lengthy and intricate as any of the mandatory tasks. I managed to spend a whole five hours simply wandering around the Detroit hub, soaking in the sights, exploring every square inch, listening to enthralling NPC conversations, and beating all the quests. What truly impresses isn't so much the scale of the game, but its staggering consistency of quality. Every quest is a compelling story; every level is beautifully, ingeniously designed; and not once does the game ever become dull or lose its pacing. The only notable issues are small and forgettable -- sometimes an NPC's dialog won't sync with its mouth properly, and on the Xbox 360, earning Achievements causes the game to stutter temporarily. The PC version's biggest issue is that cutscenes are very badly compressed; otherwise it's a gorgeous game with mouse and keyboard controls that feel intuitive and surprisingly well-adapted to stealth-based gameplay. Of course, hacking's also a lot easier when one doesn't use a gamepad. Whether you go for console or PC, however, you will be impressed with the visuals. The art direction, with its heavy focus on shades of gold and contrasting black, makes for a game that looks like none other, and the impressive animations, finely detailed environments, and stylish augmentation effects only seal the deal. This is a beautiful videogame, and that beauty is carried over into the sound. Voice acting is solid (though one or two black characters seem alarmingly close to caricatures), explosions and weapon effects feel heavy and impactful, and the musical score is sublime. If you're looking for a game with production values, then Eidos Montreal has delivered more than you could have bargained for. Deus Ex: Human Revolution, like its augmented hero, is a step above its mundane peers. With its flowing, open approach to mission structure, thoroughly engrossing story and gorgeous visuals, this is the kind of game that all others should strive to be. While there are some elements that don't feel quite as developed as they should have been, and augmentation is more Hobson's choice than true choice, Human Revolution provides a level of quality that only the most adamant cynic could fail to be impressed by. More importantly, it is everything a fan of Deus Ex could want in a game, and it effortlessly embraces the arduous task of living up to the legacy, standing next to its 2000 predecessor and holding its head up in pride. This game is truly deserving of the name Deus Ex. In fact, there's no other name it could have had.

In the year 2027, mankind is about to enter a new era of self-propagated evolution. Technology that blends man and machine has allowed "augmented" humans to run faster, think quicker, grow stronger, and rise above their ...

Review: Ms. Splosion Man

Jul 11 // Nick Chester
Ms. Splosion Man (Xbox Live Arcade)Developer: Twisted Pixel GamesPublisher: Microsoft Game StudiosTo be released: July 13, 2011Price: 800 Microsoft Points ($10)To say that Ms. Splosion Man is simply 'Splosion Man with a bow wouldn't do justice to the actual work Twisted Pixel has done with this follow-up. Even still, much of what I've already said in my 'Splosion Man review in 2009 applies, at least at its most basic level. The game immediately feels like 'Splosion Man; if Twisted Pixel has made any tweaks to physics or speed, it's not evident. The gameplay remains the same, and fans of the original will find there aren't any real new tricks to learn. The game is still all about exploding to reach new heights, avoiding environmental hazards, and crossing the finish line without pulling your hair out over the game's tricky combustion-based platforming. But that's not to say that Twisted Pixel hasn't taken every measure to make Ms. Splosion Man feel wholly novel within that fundamental gameplay framework. You're not a few 'splosions in before the developer is revealing its new cards, and they're all about the game's environments. Ms. Splosion Man can play on and interact with everything from rails to Donkey Kong Country barrel-inspired cannons, and more. The result is that the game's 50-plus stages are more interesting and more varied, as Twisted Pixel is able to play with the world and level design in all sorts of clever (and sometimes devious) ways.   [embed]205816:39856[/embed] True to life, Ms. Splosion Man has a tougher time in the workplace than her male counterpart. By mixing and matching tools both new and old, Twisted Pixel has managed to design levels that are even tougher than those found in the original. Ms. Splosion Man requires precision and killer reflexes to a far greater degree than its predecessor. With all of the "just made it" moments scattered throughout the game, Ms. Splosion Man is an easy candidate for "Most Toes Curled" and "Most Butt Cheeks Clenched" awards in 2011. Some areas can become frustrating as you die repeatedly at the hands of Twisted Pixel's sadistic level designers, but nothing truly feels "toss the controller at your pet" impossible. With every failure, I knew it was of my own doing, and I was constantly pushing myself to try again and again until I got it right. New to Ms. Splosion Man is a Super Mario Bros. 3-inspired world map, versus the last game's vanilla level-select screen. (Boxes with level names on them are so 2009, really.) It's not only an aesthetic improvement, but a functional one as well. The new map design allowed Twisted Pixel to add "tougher" levels (marked in red, with a scary skull face!) on non-critical paths for players looking for an extra challenge. Some levels even have alternate exits that lead to hidden levels, including a cute reference to Super Mario World's "Star Road." While the most resolute players could probably clear all of the worlds in one or two sittings, I wouldn't recommend it. As I mentioned earlier, the game can become irritatingly difficult at times, and you'll likely want to step back and take a breather before tackling some of the challenges. Even still, if you were to make it to the final boss encounter (and find all of the hidden shoes and levels) in one sitting, there are more than a few reasons to keep playing. Multiplayer is back, with up to four Ms. Splosion Men (both online and off, in any combination) blasting through a fresh set of levels. As it was with the first game, these levels are often tougher than the single-player levels, chiefly because many spots require stellar communication between players. And you know how that goes, especially online. There's also an unlockable "Two Girls, One Controller" mode that has one player controlling two Ms. Splosion Men on one controller. Or you can cuddle up with another player and play on one controller. Either way, it's probably one of the most batshit crazy ways to play a videogame outside of just waving your hands at a camera or something. Ms. Splosion Man also keeps track of scores (based on a number of variables) and level completion time, and posts them to online leaderboards. I found myself headed back into levels I had previously conquered simply to best the five people who were playing the game last week for review. As extra incentive to become the best Ms. Splosion Man you can be, Twisted Pixel has also included "ghost" data, allowing you to not only race against your own previous runs, but the runs of the world's top performers. Twisted Pixel's offbeat sense of humor is featured prominently in Ms. Splosion Man, although there appear to be more pop-culture references and inside jokes than in any of its previous games. While this isn't a bad thing by any means, it also means that the humor may not be universal. For example, I find Twisted Pixel's obsession with '90s-era Arnold Schwarzenegger films hilarious, but it might not click with some who aren't familiar with those movies. Still, it's nice to see that while Twisted Pixel obviously takes its game design seriously, it's more than willing to have a little fun (sometimes at its own expense) to get a laugh. Ms. Splosion Man, in every respect, is a step up from Twisted Pixel's first foray into the Jumpsplode genre.* It's more of an evolution than a revolution, though: if you didn't like what the developer had to offer with 'Splosion Man, you're free to take a pass. (Also, consider taking up wasp nest collecting instead of playing videogames.) If you enjoyed the developer's first incendiary platformer, you've got no excuse not to go pink for Ms. Splosion Man. * Later perfected by Capcom's MaXplosion, of course. Debug: 2

Twisted Pixel's Ms. Splosion Man is like 'Splosion Man, but with more pink -- and the lead character wears a bow in her hair. Wait, she doesn't have hair... how does that bow stay in? Why doesn't it just burn up? This game makes no sense. Score: 2 out of 10 -- Lacks realism; too pink; every button does, like, basically the same thingJust kidding. The game's pretty awesome. No duh, right?

Review: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D

Jun 17 // Jim Sterling
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D (3DS)Developer: Nintendo, GrezzoPublisher: NintendoReleased: June 19, 2011MSRP: $39.99 It's difficult to review The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D simply as a game, because it's a game most of you have likely played many times since 1998. At its core, this is the same Ocarina of Time that you remember from the Nintendo 64 era, with all its charm, and all its 1998-era design.  Focusing simply on the game's enhancements, it has to be said that the graphics alone make this the definitive version of Ocarina of Time. Characters are so much more detailed, with far superior animation, and the notorious "Vaseline" effect applied to background scenery is nowhere to be found. Many of the buildings have been given extensive redesigns, bringing Hyrule to life with greater intricacy and more color. I won't go as far as to call the game beautiful, but it's undeniably prettier in its new clothes. Ocarina 3D provides a far richer visual experience, yet remains so true to the original vision of the game that you might be tricked into thinking the graphics aren't improved very much. It's only when you directly compare character models and scenery between the 3DS and N64 that you really get a sense of how much better Ocarina 3D looks. It's a testament to how authentic the graphical overhaul is that it can be so dramatic and yet feel so subtle.  Sadly, the sound did not get similar treatment. It's by no means a poor audio experience, but it has not been enhanced from the N64 version. It's a good job that music is still absolutely stellar. [embed]203972:39501[/embed] As the name implies, Ocarina of Time is presented with the same 3D visuals you've come to know and sometimes love on the 3DS. While it doesn't exactly add anything to the gameplay, the title certainly looks better with the 3D enhancement. Colors are a little deeper with the 3D slider turned up, and the game appears ever so slightly washed out when you turn the effect down. It doesn't look hideous, by any means, but it is noticeably less pleasant without the 3D coating.  Thanks to the touchscreen, Ocarina's controls are much more efficient and useful, unless you're the type who doesn't like to get thumbprints on the screen. If you're a stylus-only 3DS player, you'll find the lower screen's inventory more fiddly to navigate. If you don't mind using your thumb, then equipping items and whipping out your ocarina is quick and easy.  Gyroscope controls are also included for use with ranged items such as the slingshot or bow. Unfortunately, the 3DS' contradictory design is such that the motion control won't work with the 3D visuals, unless you rotate your head along with the screen at a perfect angle. Failure to do so results in you getting an eyeful of painful screen blur. Fortunately, the 3D slider is conveniently located, and you can always just stick to traditional controls.  As far as the actual button input goes, Ocarina 3D feels surprisingly at home on the 3DS. The only issue is with the targeting system, which requires a press of the left shoulder button. It's feels pretty awkward to keep your finger placed there while trying to move and attack at once, but it's certainly no deal breaker.  For the most part, Ocarina of Time 3D is a joy to play, but there are a handful of niggles. Being a relatively faithful port, a number of annoyances from the 1998 original have carried over to the main game, such as the busybody owl who forces you into conversations. He still tricks you into letting him repeat his dialog by placing your cursor to "Yes" when he asks if you want him to explain things again. Stupid owl bastard. Some of the contextual commands, such as picking up Cuccos, are pretty dodgy, with Link struggling to get a hold on a running chicken because the right command won't appear properly. It's also worth noting that, while it was groundbreaking at the time, the famous Z-targeting system doesn't always work right, and Link will sometimes not focus on an enemy despite the screen's targeting reticule telling you he has. Oh, and Navi ... she's as excruciatingly infuriating as she ever was. So that's good to know. These issues, which still occasionally annoying, do as much to demean the experience today as they did over a decade ago. By that, I mean they do very little indeed. Ocarina of Time still holds up as one of the truly inspiring adventures in the medium of videogames. It's an absorbing, evocative world, and now it's one that can be taken anywhere. To cement this version's place as the ultimate package, Ocarina of Time 3D also includes the mirrored Master Quest version of the game and a Boss Rush mode. These extras are unlocked after completing the original version, and will surely add a little more longevity to game that already provides enough entertainment for the asking price. Ocarina of Time 3D is a game that makes you appreciate how far the medium has come. Ten years ago, the idea of running something like Ocarina on a handheld system would be inconceivable. Now, not only do we get it, but we get an improved version with superior graphics. That's the sort of thing that fascinates me, and makes me very happy to be a gamer in the here and now.  In many ways, this is one of the most pointless reviews I've ever written, as you already know if you're getting Ocarina of Time 3D. More than any other game, I feel the decision to purchase or not was made by gamers the moment it was announced. However, if for some reason you are on the fence, let me tell you that Ocarina of Time 3D is the ultimate version of one of the most endearing videogames you could ever hope to play.  Nothing more needs to be said. 

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is a powerful game. It's a game that, once it sinks its claws into a gamer, never lets go. Equal parts innocent and morbid, charming and disturbing, silly and melancholic, Ocarina of Time ...

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