Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Need for Speed: The Run Review

Monday, February 6th, 2012

The Need for Speed (NFS) game series needs no introduction, as it’s been around since 1994 and sold well over 100 million copies, introducing an entire generation to the racing game genre where players take various model cars out for a spin on famous tracks around the world. In all the NFS games players can compete in single or multi-player mode and must unlock special achievements that give them access to faster cars and certain racecourses and tracks. Echoing popular movies such as The Fast and the Furious, more recent NFS titles are set in urban settings, letting players show off their street racing skills

Need for Speed: the Run is the latest release in the NFS franchise, facing tall shoes to fill as its predecessor Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit was a critical and commercial success, reviving the franchise and selling 8.5 million copies. Available for PCs as well as Xbox 360, PS3, and Wii gaming consoles, Need for Speed: the Run was a bit of a disappointment to many but has still gotten solid reviews and has plenty to offer NFS fans and those who enjoy racing games in general. The setting for the game is a return of sorts to NFS roots, with players embarking on a cross-country street race in the US that takes players through a wide range of cities and landscapes.

You play the character Jack Rourke, a racer who’d gotten into deep water with the mob and must take down a huge payday by winning a cross-county race. With a bit of the usual requisite storytelling and plot turns, you’re finally behind the wheel and racing across the country, with a minimum of plot interruptions after the early going. You’ll be driving a variety of cars, all with their own strengths and weaknesses, with many of the twists and turns requiring you to mix speed and control, so this isn’t a game that you can simply mash the accelerator and go fast. You’ll need t manage braking and racing lines, as well as dealing with the fact that you can only change cars at certain locations in the game, so you may find yourself stuck with a muscle car in a twisty, curvy stretch where you really need a better handling car.

You’ll also need to not just stay ahead of your competition but meet certain objectives as well as you drive through areas such as San Francisco, Yosemite National Park, Las Vegas, New York, and Chicago. As far as negatives, the game is frustrating slow to load at times when it resets after you run off the road or wreck your car, and once you complete the game there’s not a lot left to unlock or explore as you’re unable to jump to individual points and must instead play an entire series of races.

Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Review

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

Gamers had been eagerly awaiting the release of Elder Scrolls V:Skyrim for years, with the last edition in the Elder Scrolls franchise appearing all the way back in 2007. Bethesda Game Studios didn’t disappoint when they rolled out Skyrim in November 2011, with the game getting nearly universal high praise from reviews at sites such as IGN, Wired, and GameSpot. The game was an immediate hit as far as sales as well, with 3.5 million copies sold within 48 hours of its release.

Available for PC, PlayStation3, and Xbox 360, Skyrim’s plot tasks the player with creating a character and defeating Alduin, a Dragon god who is prophesied to destroy the world. Set two hundred years after Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, the game takes place in the province of Skyrim, located on the planet Nirn. The trademark open world gameplay of the Elder Scrolls series is back in Skyrim, with the player given the option to explore the world at their own pace — and even ignoring the main quests and goals entirely if they choose to do so. The quests built into the game also allow for many hours of gameplay, with some players completing the game but still enjoying it for many hours as they loop back and discover new quests and items.

The deep gameplay and attention to detail sets Skyrim apart, especially with the larger trend among game developers to make things simple and straightforward (and accessible via Facebook) such as casino online games or clones or knock-offs of existing games. Much of the appeal of the Elder Scrolls franchise is that it offers a very different experience for gamers, as far as slower-paced more thoughtful action that lets the gamer control the experience and adventures that unfold instead of being forced to follow a rigid plot or spend most of their time blazing away and blasting opponents to bits.

It’s hard to find much to complain about in Skyrim, with the only real complaints coming from PC gamers struggling with game controls that were more designed with game controllers in mind, as the keyboard-mouse combination can be difficult to use for some fairly common in-game tasks and commands. Other technical issues that cropped up after release — including slow frame rate speeds, crashes, and texture display issues — have largely been addressed in patches released in November 2011 and December 2011.

Hoyle Casino 2012 Review

Friday, January 13th, 2012

The Hoyle Casino series is a trusted standby for many gambling fans, offering the chance to play the best casino games at home without having to venture out to the casino. Hoyle Casino 2012 won’t break your personal bank (priced at $19.99) and gives you instant access any time of the day or night to hundreds of the most popular casino games, including slots, baccarat, Pai Gow, blackjack, poker, craps, and roulette.

Slots fans have a lot to enjoy, as the game offers over 100 unique slots of various themes and types, including multi-line and progressive video slots. Whether you’re taking a break from online play at some of the top sites listed here or just killing time with some slots play before your next big Vegas trip, you’ll find plenty of different exciting options with fast gameplay and well-designed graphics and bonus features to keep things fun.

Unlike some casino games that are just geared towards slots, Hoyle Casino 2012 offers hundreds of other games, including poker tournaments where you can test out your Texas Hold’em skills. There is also an instructional mode for many games that will offer you tips and pointers as you make your bets, giving you a chance to enjoy the thrill of gambling and try your luck as you learn at the same time.

Games such as Hoyle Casino 2012 can be an excellent way to learn the best casino games before a trip to the casino, as it’s a low-pressure way to learn the ropes without risking even a penny of real money. It can be intimidating to try to learn to play more complicated games like craps for the first time at a casino but playing on your computer removes all those barriers, as no one is around to rush you or get upset if you take your time when figuring out all the betting possibilities and options.

Review: Portal 2

Thursday, April 21st, 2011

The original Portal basically caught everyone who played it completely off guard. It was the product of Valve Software’s time-honored tradition of benevolently devouring smaller companies and teams that they think are being unique or creative. Conceptually beginning as a student project being made at DigiPen, the game (and its creators) were picked up by the company with the intent of fleshing it out in Valve’s proprietary Source engine and turning it into an actual retail product. When it was released in 2007 it amounted to a tiny three-hour-long sliver of the multi-game Orange Box, Valve’s flagship release of that year which included heavyweight names such as Half-Life and Team Fortress. However, it ended up being one of the most original products in recent recollection, both mechanically and thematically. Now, we are seeing the release of a big-budget sequel to the small but remarkable game. It takes the concepts put forth in the original, refines and expands them with a good helping of the series’ signature black humor. It is a formula for a sequel worthy of the Portal name. Any scientist would agree.

I dare anyone reading this to name a game in which you laughed out loud during the base-line tutorial sequence. I bet you either can’t, or have played Portal 2 already. Seriously, this game is really funny. That is the first thing that jumped out at me when I sat down to review it. It’s not like I wasn’t expecting it to be, as the first one was amazingly humorous, but it’s worth noting that when Portal came out back in 2007 no one playing it was yet acclimated to the off-kilter universe it takes place in. Going into the sequel, part of me was worried that the magic would be gone since I already knew all about the fictional cake, weighted companion cubes, and the homicidal computer pulling the strings. Thankfully, the writers of this game are great at their jobs and don’t resort to rehashing old jokes or memes as if to say “hey, remember that game we made that was pretty popular 4 years ago?” Granted, it is the same type of writing (i.e. everything with a mouth or vocoder basically hates main character Chell’s existence and lets the player know it), but it all feels fresh. Some of the most creative insults I have ever heard lie within this game’s dialogue.

Whether you’re unaware of Stephen Merchant, or you love listening to the Ricky Gervais Show as you play partypoker or Halo: Reach in the evenings, he’s bound to make you chuckle, and that’s before the other members of the cast make an appearance.

However, we don’t often come to games for the writing alone. This game is one of those rare instances where almost every elements of it conspires to create a gestalt. At no time did I feel like the story, dialogue, game play, art, and music ever felt disparate. Going one step further, every facet that makes up Portal 2 helps to enhance every other aspect. This was something that was notable about the original Portal–how cohesive it all felt–but it is more impressive in the sequel because of the increased scale. The core gameplay remains fundamentally unchanged. Players again take on the role of Chell, a young woman trapped in a vast underground research facility run by a megalomaniacal computer system named GLaDOS and must try to escape her endless tests using only the series’ staple “portal gun.” For those of you readers who don’t know how the game’s played, this gun shoots portals into walls, one entrance and one exit instantly connecting the two. Generally, each level is a “test chamber” (akin to a devious obstacle course) with a beginning and an end, and players have to figure out how to use this singular mechanic integrated with various other environmental tools in order to traverse the chamber and complete it without dying. The puzzles this time around have grown in complexity due to the inclusion of several new gameplay elements. For instance, lasers and blocks to manipulate them with have been included, as have gels that increase your run speed or jump height when Chell is on top of them. Even with these additions, the levels are typically designed to only utilize a few of them at a time as not to overwhelm players, and the game generally does a great job of tutorializing their uses when new elements get introduced. There were very few instances where a new puzzle piece got integrated in which I wasn’t immediately sure how I needed to use it.

A special call out needs to be made to the level design. Seeing as Portal’s levels are far more opaque than most games’ (they manage to make the almost all the game’s inherent conceits part of the point) it is easy to notice that they are designed well. And they get challenging fairly quickly. Sometimes, I would hit a point where I was not sure how to progress, and then after being away from the game for a little bit the answer would appear to me bright as day. As with the first, this game really requires that you leave all previous understanding of spatial relationships at the door in order to best surmount its challenges.

The only section of the game that I was not completely enthralled about was a portion of the middle that takes Chell outside of the standard testing chambers seen throughout the rest of the game. I won’t spoil any of the story stuff leading up to this (it had me laughing constantly), but without a discreet start and end point, I found it was far easier to lose sight of where to go. Rather than being ingenious puzzles, these rooms felt like pixel-hunts that tasked me with finding the two walls in the room that I could lay a portal onto. Besides this momentary lull, the game maintains a good clip throughout, winding through its absurd plot beats and passing players from testing chamber to testing chamber, each with an increasingly more complex design.

Mechanics aside, the game also looks and moves great. This mostly flows out of it’s clean techno-organic art direction, but technically its no slouch either. Valve’s Source engine never ceases to amaze me, and it has a few new tricks to show off here. It may not be able to push as many pixels as some of its counterparts (I did notice some rather ugly aliasing on various shadows throughout the game), but it is incredibly versatile. Valve knows how to use their engine like no one else, and therefore Portal 2 looks up to modern standard even on the 8 year old engine. There are lots of little details to satisfy the eyes. Each chamber has plenty of moving parts, some necessary and others superfluous, but it all looks and animates wonderfully. I got the sense that despite being run entirely by machines, the Aperture Science Enrichment Center is a living entity as GLaDOS continues to rebuild the damaged facility around Chell.

This would not be a proper review without mentioning perhaps the most talked about new feature to come to the series: Co-op. I have not yet finished every co-op course, but those that I have completed have left a very good impression. The rules remain fundamentally the same but with the addition of a friend and courses designed to capitalize on the two-player experience. Players take on the roles of two robot test subjects named Atlas and P-Body. The co-op campaign is structured differently, as there is no real story to speak of (though GLaDOS does not cease the constant beratement, especially towards the player who’s “losing”). Rather, there is a hub world from which all of the other co-op courses stem from. Each course is made up of 7 different testing rooms (some of which have multiple parts) and generally has some kind of theme mechanic tying it all together. For instance, one extensively utilizes “hard light” bridges, which as the name suggests are made of light but are impassable.  Many of the courses use the idea in intriguing ways, such as having one player navigate an obstacle course and have the other push buttons to remove hazards from his or her path. To that end, successful navigation is very reliant on good communication. Thankfully, the game gives players all the necessary tools to coordinate their efforts, including a “ping” function that lets players highlight elements of the world they want their partner to interact with as well as full VoiP support. I had very little trouble with the game’s voice chat functionality and cannot wait to see more Valve games employ this custom API. The game keeps track of several different elements of play, such as number of steps taken or portals fired, displaying them on a scoreboard in the hub. In addition, Team Fortress 2 style microtransactions make a return here, though are purely cosmetic. This, however, suggests to me that Portal 2 might become a type of content platform in the same vein as Team Fortress 2, which would be very appreciated.

As I mentioned, part of me was a touch hesitant going into this game as I was not sure that the original Portal needed or could support a much expanded sequel. However, upon playing it through I would recommend this game to anyone. Fundamentally, it is more Portal but expanded and augmented as to make a better, even more fleshed out experience. The core single player is lengthy but doesn’t outstay its welcome by routinely changing up the rules of play, and the co-op is a well thought out addition that adds many more hours of enjoyment. Chances are, if you care about PC games like I do, you already have played and beaten this game. But on the off chance that what I have to say about the game will sway someone’s opinion, please buy Portal 2 as soon as possible. It is a very funny, endearingly demented and mechanically unique experience that would be hard to replicate elsewhere.

Review: Okamiden

Friday, April 15th, 2011

Okamiden is a fitting tribute to the end of the much-beloved Nintendo DS. Arguably the system’s swan-song, the game is an example of what is possible near the end of a device’s lifecycle. Packed inside its cartridge is a sprawling adventure lasting more than twenty hours in a fully realized, beautifully cel-shaded, 3D world. The title is an apt Japanese pun combining the name Okami with the word “Gaiden” meaning side-story. While Okamiden works well as an addendum to the original tale of Amaterasu, make no mistake, it is a worthy sequel all its own. For being on a handheld, nothing about the game feels limited as the move to the DS has been kind to the series. It might not be as long as the original but there’s still plenty of depth with lots to explore in the land of Nippon.

The most striking feature of the game is its ability to maintain the soul of the series by faithfully duplicating its iconic art style, quirky sense of humor, and immeasurable charm. Set a mere nine months after the events of Okami, the child of Amaterasu, Chibiterasu, descends to Earth in order to rid the land of evil. It seems people have, once again, lost faith in the Gods so its up to Chibi along with several partners met along the way, to battle demons and restore peace to the world. While the story may take a few missteps, it is largely an enjoyable experience, driving players forward on the lengthy adventure. It’s filled with unforgettable characters both big and small and takes players on a journey through locales both familiar and strange.

In fact the first few hours may feel a bit too familiar, almost to the game’s detriment, retreading old ground and revisiting many of the same locations from the first Okami. Fans of the original might be overwhelmed by a nagging sense of déjà vu. However, Okamiden does manage to step out of the shadow of its predecessor and soon ventures forth into new territory.

When the first Okami hit the PS2 in 2006, it quickly became a cult classic, garnering a devout fan following but lackluster sales. In 2008, the game was given a second chance when it was ported to the Wii and the game’s brush mechanic was translated to the system’s remote control. However, Okamiden makes the best use of the drawing technique, pairing the DS’s touch screen with the Celestial Brush makes the series feel right at home on Nintendo’s handheld.

Many of the classic brush techniques return. At any time, Chibi can summon the powers of the Celestial Brush by clicking the L or R buttons and drawing on-screen. Cutting through an enemy or obstacle is as easy as drawing a horizontal slash. Cherry bombs can be placed by drawing a circle with a line for a fuse. The mechanic is far more responsive and much easier to pull off than its PS2 and Wii incarnations. However, with the DS comes a loss of analog controls as the system’s d-pad manages Chibi’s movement around the environment. It’s not ideal and, at first, feels downright clunky. Yet over time it’s easy to adapt and isn’t much of a problem. That being said it’s hard not to imagine how much better it would control on a 3DS with the circle pad.

In addition to drawing brush techniques, the touch screen is used to guide Chibi’s pals through various environments by creating a path for them to follow. It’s a nice addition regardless of being previously seen in other games. Yet despite encountering several partners along the way, they mostly come equipped with the same abilities including the guide mechanic. While some can direct water, others fire and lightning, it’s essentially the same thing and would have been nice to see a little more variety. Still, the characters themselves are a great ensemble and lend a layer of depth to the storytelling.

Of course, Chibiterasu and his cohorts run into their share of boss battles and Okamiden manages to create a few memorable encounters thanks to some clever and imaginative enemy design. The boss fights use the various brush techniques to their strengths, sometimes forcing players to juggle between several abilities. However, some of the ordinary combat can feel repetitive.

The game follows the same fighting design as the original, pitting players in self-contained arenas with a number of lesser enemies. Rather than being rewarded with experience points like most RPGs, battles offer money which can be traded in for weapon upgrades, items, and learning new brush techniques. It’s a solid system and works well though it can be exploited from time to time. Many enemies can be bested by repeatedly using the Slash technique, spamming the L or R button without giving them a chance to recover. It’s when the game throws in enemies which are immune to some moves that the combat offers a challenge.

Okamiden is a testament to the quality of games which greet the end of a console. It’s a tribute to the system’s strengths, pushing as much power as possible from the little portable. Throughout the game, it’s easy to feel a sense of awe at what the developers were able to accomplish on Nintendo’s handheld. The story is not perfect, even feeling artificially prolonged as it meanders a bit during the third act and old tropes of Eastern game design such as revisiting all the previous bosses rear their ugly head. But it’s easy to overlook such shortcomings when the experience is filled with charming characters and an engaging narrative wrapped around solid game mechanics and the wonderful Ukiyo-e inspired art.

Magicka MicroReview

Thursday, March 24th, 2011

I read once that when designing a game, it is important to not include mechanics just for the sake of having them.  For example, don’t include a crafting system in your roleplaying game if you don’t have the time or resources to make it seriously compelling.  To take this idea once step further, when it comes to smaller projects I think it is almost necessary to design a single mechanic and build the rest of the game around it.  Magicka is an action game with heavy RPG overtones that really takes this philosophy to heart.  You (and up to 3 other friends you can partner with) all play wizards and the game mostly consists of your party hurling spells at hordes of goblins, orcs, and other ugly monstrosities.  So far, this sounds like it could be a stripped down Diablo analog (as if we don’t have enough of those in the world).  However, due to the nature of the game, the spellcasting system is really the star of the show.

The game lets you play with 8 different forces; fire, water, earth, lightning, shield, life, ice, and arcane.  Each has different properties and behaviors associated with it.  For example, lightning can jump between targets, ice slows, and arcane makes targets pop into meaty chunks when they die.  I say “targets” as opposed to “enemies” because it is worth noting that any spell can be cast against any being in the game.  I have accidentally wasted many an ally because they ran in front of the business end of my staff. All players can summon up to 5 elements at a time which will combine into a spell reflecting the properties of all its member components. For instance, earth can allow you to launch a boulder missile that does impact damage and fire burns. Combining the two creates a fireball. There are some rules about spell creation, as all elements have an opposite, which will negate each other if summoned together. Fire and ice are an obvious example of this. Other elements interact with each other constructively, however. Fire and water make steam which can combine with lightning to make a spell that moistens and shocks, a feat usually impossible in a single spell as water and lightning are opposed.

This depth is what makes the system so remarkable, but the game is also mind-blowingly frantic, especially in multiplayer. When I have been in multiplayer games, everything is blowing up all the time as I hammer on the buttons for spell combos that I know and trust with blind muscle memory. I should also mention the game’s quirky, referential sense of humor–the characters therein don’t so much make jokes as they talk about stuff you know about (e.g. Star Wars, Dungeons and Dragons, Monty Python, Lovecraftian fiction, etc.) but through insane fake-Swedish voice-overs.  This game is definitely worth a look, especially at the 10$ price they’re asking for it.  But it’s probably better to show than it is to talk about. Follow the links for a few snippets of gameplay I shot with a friend.

Magicka Dungeon Fight

Magicka Bridge Massacre

Magicka Lightning Suicide


Dragon Age II: After the Hype

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011

After about a hundred hours and some four play-throughs with Dragon Age II it’s fairly easy to see what all of the commotion is about. Not the stinging hype that’s been around since the game was first announced, but the incredibly mixed user reviewers that have plagued the last month. For what it’s worth, Dragon Age II is a decent RPG and a worthy time sink if you’re the type that absolutely loves anything that Bioware has managed to crank out over the course of its existence. However, even with the improvements in virtually every technical aspect the game ultimately feels like its missing something.

Bioware made no effort to cover up the fact that the vast majority of the quests are fairly mundane fetch quests that usually plague MMORPGs. You’ll find random items lying about and you’ll direct your Hawke to drop it off somewhere for a bit of XP and some coin. When you’re not doing that, you’re killing someone then telling someone that you’ve killed someone. It’s in this that the leading narrative just isn’t very strong. You’ll always have something to do, there’s no doubt about that, it’s just that sometimes you’ll end up questioning why you’re doing it in the first place. The actual main plot quests are a bit more complex and complimented by the spectacular voice acting, but they don’t make up the majority of the game.

The biggest complaint to be found in Origins, the games predecessor, is that the combat was painstakingly slow. Characters would hunker over and lumber towards their destination in a weird combat stance before finally taking action in slow, methodic animations. Sure, swinging a huge sword almost as big as your body isn’t an easy task but this is a video game. If you’re going to be shooting fire balls out of your fingertips swinging a big sword with some style isn’t a bad thing. Dragon Age 2 accomplishes this and more: the swagger a mage wields their staff with is entertaining and the long forgotten melee rogue traverses the combat field with stunning precision (granted the AI might have you leaping into a wall since stairs are so 2010).

Much of the game has been streamlined by comparison to the slower-paced Origins. You’re not going to be scouring every shopkeeper’s inventory or every corner in a dungeon to get an ingredient for an explosive. Instead, you find the actual piece of the formula lying around the world along with different formulas and recipes. Items can only be created at a specific shop or in your home, but with no longer being occupied on finding specific shards or springs, using grenades and poison is actually much more affordable than it was before. Likewise, you no longer need to actually know the poison skill to be able to use the poison, so you can give all of your heavy damage classes a damaging poison, your tank a poison that lowers enemy damage and a poison that slows down enemy attack speed on your mage.

Further on the technical aspects, Dragon Age II is a better looking game than Origins, which to be completely honest isn’t saying all that much. The majority of the game is filled with varying degrees of brown, gray and green. Hawke’s class-specific Champion sets are fantastic to look at and the Grey Warden armor is to die for, incorporating the long lost blue to the drab palette. If you’ve got the hardware to support it, the texture patch is definitely worthwhile and helps bring the game to life the way it should be.

Odds are if you’re a fan of the series or Bioware you’ve likely already purchased the game. If you’re on the fence about Dragon Age II it’s a 30-40 hour affair with excellent characters, improved combat and a streamlined experience (read: dumbed down in many regards). Here’s to seeing how the downloadable content fills out the rest of the experience. Dragon Age II gets a 7. Not bad score, but not a great one either — still worth a playthrough, but not about to go down in gaming history as a landmark title.

RIFT: The Early Game

Sunday, March 20th, 2011

It is difficult to take a critical look at massively multiplayer online games.  They’re huge, for one thing and are largely dependent on extraneous variables such as the community that populates them and the quality of post-release support.  However, as a genre the MMO is an important and unusual entity.  We are at a bit of a crossroads when it comes to MMORPGs, as World of Warcraft’s popularity is plateauing and several other large-budget games are nearing the end of their development cycles, hoping to simultaneously diversify the market and take the crown away from Blizzard.  Enter Trion Worlds’ RIFT, a game that is so obviously not looking to reinvent the genre but rather iterate on and refine the paradigm that we are used to.  And it does that very well.  This is not intended to be a review, as it is almost impossible to write a definitive piece on something that has the potential to grow and evolve the way MMOs must.  Alternatively, I want to chronicle my experience with the game in order to convey what it is like from a player-level perspective.  So, without further ado, let us venture to Telara.

Levels 1-15


You have done this before.  Anyone who has ever played an MMO has.  I was presented with two faction options, the smugly pious and subsequently kind of boring Guardians, or the spunky technomagical Defiants.  Logically I chose the latter.  Then, I had to pick a race.  Both factions have variants of humans and elves.  Dwarves and the third Guardian race and the Defiant can be Bahmi (who are basically bulky blue people with dreadlocks).  I chose to be a Kelari (dark elf) and was then asked what “calling” I wanted, either warrior, rogue, mage, or cleric.  This is where the game begins to become more interesting.  A player’s calling is not quite their class, it is more like their archetype and defines what potential classes he or she can choose to take up.  I want to spend a good paragraph or two talking about this game’s class system, because it is one of the coolest I’ve yet seen.  I picked to be a mage.  After tweaking my avatar’s image a bit (e.g. making my face thinner and adding some snazzy violet eye markings), I was thrust into the world of Telara.
The whole establishing sequence of the game is pretty neat.  I’m not a big proponent of story in MMOs by virtue of the fact that a player is inevitably sharing the story with tens of thousands of other people.  However, they handle this well.  Players play “ascendants” who are people brought back from the dead in order to save the world from some evil god of death bent on obliterating all things.  But the game opens in medias res, during the apocalypse that you were created to stop.  It also provides a good introduction to most of the systems that make this game unique.  This game does not need to rely on front-loaded tutorials or anything, because as I mentioned, if you have ever played an MMO, you will be able to intuit how to play this game.
Within the first few seconds of play, I got my first soul.  Your souls are, in essence, pieces of your specialization.  Each functions as a class in and of itself with a complete skill tree and special functionality.  Each tree is interesting because it is broken up into two parts, the “branches” (which you actually put points into) and the “roots” (which you do not).  The branches are typically passive abilities or augmentations that aid you in fulfilling whatever the soul in question is geared towards.  The roots, on the other hand, are generally activated abilities that unlock as you put more points in the given tree.  However, possibly more interesting is the fact that you are allowed 3 souls at any given time.  The interplay between them can be remarkable.  For instance, at start I equipped my mage with a warlock, necromancer, and chloromancer (life mage) soul.  I unlocked a branch ability on my necro tree that increases death damage and a “life drain” skill on my warlock which deals death damage and returns a portion to me as health.  My chloromancer’s heals aided my survivability even more, making me far more durable than a mage has any right being.  The skills that I unlocked also do a really good job of being different but equal.  I haven’t seen too many skills that are inherently better than others just because I got them at a higher level.

Again, if you’ve played an MMO, you’ve done this part before.  Early game fetch quests and kill X amount of monster Y quests abound as the game slowly exposed new features and the requisite tutorial of each.  Once I found the time machine and was shot back to the past to try to stop the future destruction of the world, it opened up but I found myself presented with awfully familiar quest structure.  Trion does break it up some, with quests that require using a particular item in a particular place to get some desired result (or summon an awful hellspawn that you have to then kill) as well as the titular rifts (which kind of function like micro-raids against primal forces that can happen anywhere), but it’s generally standard early game fair.  However, one evening I was hanging out with a friend on the Freemarch, and the sky grew dark.  We then saw on our map murderous hordes of Abyssal TideLords and their thralls pouring out of water rifts all over the zone.  This was my introduction to Invasions.  The entire zone had to rally to fight back the hordes of sea creatures, lest they overwhelm the entire Freemarch.  It was at this point that I realized that the game I’m playing is different.  This sequence gave me a sense of agency that few other MMOs I’ve played have approached.  If the TideLords won the Invasion, they would have established footholds throughout the region and populated it with their spawn, making it a deathtrap for the relative newbies the area was designed for.  These invasions are basically area-wide public quests, and they’re lots of fun, albeit a tad chaotic, seeing as there might be 6 or more raid groups running all over the place and converging on single targets of interest.  I wish I had a screencap of one of these invasions, just to show the mess of polygons and particle effects it sometimes devolves into.
At around level 15, I made it to the Defiant capital of Meridian.  Seeing all that was inside that city made me think “Wow, there is still a lot that I don’t know about this game.”  But I will continue on and write on the next block of levels as soon as I can.



Batman: Arkham City’s Debut Game Play Trailer

Friday, March 18th, 2011

If someone stopped you on the street and asked you to name every single video game that’s taken advantage of the Batman franchise you probably wouldn’t be able to do it. Going back over two decades worth of gaming, the dark knight has seen his fair share of ups and downs, innovation and regression, and everything in between. When Arkham Asylum was released two years ago, it appeared to be the culmination of everything you’d ever want in a Batman title. Thankfully, there are some developers out there that make sure that we’re never as satisfied as we think we are. The song featured is “Short Change Hero” by The Heavy.

Review: Killzone 3

Sunday, March 6th, 2011

The story of Killzone 3 picks up mere moments after the events of the last game. Series protagonist Tomas “Sev” Sevchenko, Rico, and the rest of the ISA forces are left stranded behind enemy lines, deep inside hostile Helghan territory. The third installment in Sony’s vicious sci-fi shooter is a direct continuation of the ongoing space saga, yet players new to the franchise need not worry. While Killzone 3 tells a more ambitious tale, the storytelling is not necessarily its strong suit. Long-time fans of the franchise might be pleased with the game’s conclusions but those simply looking for great moment-to-moment combat and a thrill-ride of roller-coaster proportions are going to get a lot out of the experience. Developer Guerrilla Games puts its best boot forward when it puts players on the ground, gun in hand, chaos reigning, against an army of red-eyed soldiers.

Killzone has quickly become the Playstation’s hallmark shooter, packing all of Sony’s recent technological initiatives into one box such as Move and 3D support. As far as your eyes and ears are concerned, Killzone 3 is a sensational treat. There’s substance to this world with many layers and no detail left unchecked. Ash floats through the air, snow crunches under the weight of footsteps, the metallic grown and pneumatic hiss of the Helghast jetpack, and the satisfying twangs of the game’s weaponry are parts of a much greater audio-visual landscape. Of course, the sequel has seen some much-needed tweaks and improvements to its core mechanics which make actually playing the game a more enjoyable experience.

Controls feel much better this time around, fixing the slow and down-right laggy shooting of Killzone 2. Things are much snappier and more responsive. While the combat feels better, the same can’t be said about the game’s use of six-axis for turning valves and placing explosives. Luckily, the game’s cover system has also seen improvement. Moving in and out of cover is much easier while running towards safety and hitting the trigger results in a nifty slide which now feels like a no-brainer and is extremely satisfying when you pull it off.

Critics of the last game’s setting felt there were too many destroyed cities in varying shades of brown and grey. Killzone 3 fixes that and offers more variety in terms of environments as well as gameplay. From Helghan jungles to snow-covered factories, the game features more locales in a diverse color palette. Vehicle missions break up the action and offer some variety in terms of gameplay, almost to the detriment of the experience. While the basic gunplay of Killzone 3 is finely tuned, certain vehicle sections make the game feel unbalanced. The campaign is pockmarked with sections where the difficulty suddenly skyrockets. Generally these were relegated to a few on-rails sections piloting the gun of a ship or tank where I found myself dying without really knowing why. In these moments, it felt more could have been done to give players some direction.

While the action is intense it is often cut short, falling victim to the hackneyed storytelling. Throughout the campaign, Sev will clear only a room or two before the screen fades to black to begin another cutscene. It constantly disrupts the flow of the experience and one can only guess there had to be a more elegant way to tell the story. It’s a shame considering how much effort Guerrilla puts into creating its first-person perspective. Sev controls with a sense of body and weight and is not merely a moving camera. By jumping back and forth like that, the game detracts from the immersive quality of the first-person perspective the studio so expertly crafted.

Apart from Malcolm McDowell’s portrayal of the Helghast arms dealer, Jordan Stahl, most of the cast is forgettable. The story falls flat because it is filled with unlikeable characters which is a shame considering the potential in the desperate situation between Sev and Rico. However, by the tenth time Rico disobeys an order and runs head-first into a fight, players are just left rolling their eyes. Other story issues include an odd moment where a scene from early in the game is revisited but with different results. It’s a jarring oversight that makes the whole thing feel like an after thought. While the stakes are high, the gravity of the story never hits home which hindered my desire to press on. However make no mistake, while the storytelling may be underwhelming, actually playing the game is an entirely different, worthwhile, and enjoyable experience. The combat feels great and responsive which is why the online multiplayer is such an addictive feature.

Five soldier types make up the online classes which include the Marksman; a sniper class, Medic, Engineer, Infiltrator, and Tactician. Each class feels unique and if teammates do their job, using their soldier’s abilities, it really can turn the tide of an online battle. A leveling system is in place, allowing players to unlock new weapons and upgrade the abilities of each class. Want to increase the speed of repairs? Drops some points into the Engineer’s repair tool, and so forth. While these classes are fun, it’s frustrating to see guns can’t move between different classes. If you like playing as a medic but don’t enjoy the three primary weapons available to that class, you’re out of luck. It would have been nice to mix and match guns to the various classes. The series’ trademark mode, Warzone, is back. This online mode is a mix of several game types such as Team Deathmatch (referred to in-game as Bodycount), a king-of-the-hill variant, capture the flag, and more which changes several times throughout one session. It keeps things fresh and can be incredibly rewarding.

There’s no denying the people behind Killzone 3 not only understand the architecture of the PS3, but get what it takes to make a beautiful game with jaw-dropping setpieces and a quality multiplayer component. While it’s a shame to see the single-player story get bogged down with so many issues, there’s no denying there are so many things to love about Killzone 3 then there are things to hate. The series keeps upping the ante in terms of action as well as quality which makes me hopeful to see just how far this franchise can go.