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Thursday, December 29, 2011

Dead Island (7.9/10)

Dead Island pissed me off.

For those who know me, it's common knowledge that I'm all about all things related to the zombie apocalypse... maybe not going so far as to purchase a pallet of Spam, but I've enjoyed the zombie renaissance that has come about over the last decade immensely. Movies, books, and a glut of games have over-inundated us with zombies of all shapes and sizes. For me though, it's not just the zombies, but rather what humanity will do when the chips are down. I love asking myself what I would do should the undead rise... and just how far I would go to survive. Would I be able to kill a loved one should they become infected? What would I do for food? Hell, I don’t even really know how a toilet works! It's one thing to say it, completely another to do it....

So Dead Island, the new game from Deep Silver and Techland about a zombie outbreak on a resort island should be right up my alley, right? Dismembering bikini clad zombies should be a laugh! With more akin to games like Fallout or Elder Scrolls than Dead Rising or even Left 4 Dead, the RPG elements (complete with side-quests and skill trees) should seal the deal. So what went wrong?

Well, let's start with what Dead Island does right. On the stunningly beautiful, yet wholly fictitious, island of Banoi, you wake up after a rough night of drinking to discover that most everyone is dead and intent on eating the living. You can choose one of four playable characters, each with their own specialty and base statistics. Purna is a firearms expert. Rapper Sam B. is a tank-like character with high endurance and penchant for blunt weapons. Logan, a former football star, is best at throwing weapons. Lastly, Xian Mei is a desk clerk who happens to be trained in martial arts. She's good with blades. Each character has a "Fury" super attack that ties into their specialty. Build up your "Fury" meter by bashing zombies, then unleash your super attack when your back is against the wall.  But here's the kicker, no matter who you choose one thing is constant: you're immune.

Once the rest of the survivors figure this out, it's up to you to brave the island and bring rescue. Since you're the only ones who can survive being bitten, you're once again given the unenviable task of playing errand boy to anyone and everyone who has a problem. There is the main story of course, which involves getting food and water for the survivors who hole themselves up and wait (rather impatiently at some points) for you to complete your assigned tasks. There are four acts to the story, taking you all over the island from the beaches to the city and even the jungle. It starts slowly, but the narrative is actually fairly engaging, as it goes from a quest for blind survival to the search for the origin of the outbreak and its cause. Every time you enter a new area you'll be inundated with requests for help from different people. These sidequests are sometimes fun, sometimes annoying, but are mostly worth completing.

To be honest, this is one issue that I can't really blame solely on Dead Island, but rather on this type of open world RPG in general: it's easy to get distracted from the main mission at hand when you've got to go out and collect water or food for someone (over and over again... these so-called "continuous" quests are the annoying ones) or find some one's lost teddy bear. Basically, there is too much to do. It's the infamous "errand boy" syndrome. Some of these missions are silly, some are clever. Others are heartbreaking like the ones where people want you to finish off their loved ones who have turned or "please find my sister, she's missing!" style quests that never end well. Still, whether or not you partake in these side missions is up to you. Dead Island is definitely of the sort where you get out of it what you put in, if you see what I mean.

When you're out searching for teddy bears or liquor (or more important things like gas or food) you'll naturally face hordes of the undead. They come in several varieties. "Walkers" are your standard shambling zombies. The "Infected" are weaker, but they are the sprinters (and are a pain in the ass). These two types are the most common as you'd expect. But there are also super zombies, reminiscent of Left 4 Dead. "Thugs" are big buggers who can absorb a tremendous amount of damage as well as inflict a ton themselves despite the fact that they are slow. If they hit you, you'll go flying! Some of the others are obviously ripped straight from Left 4 Dead, like the fat "Floater" who will vomit all over the place if you're not careful. I'll leave the others for you to discover.

To combat the walking undead you'll have to make use of anything available. At the beginning of the game you'll be scrounging for useful items like oars, kitchen knives, or pipes. It's a resort island after all, so guns are pretty rare early on and ammo is always at a premium. You'll need to keep an eye on the status of your weapon... chopping off zombie heads will eventually dull your blade. You can repair them at workbenches that are scattered about the resort. Each weapon is upgradable, with four different levels you can purchase. Also, searching through trash cans and collecting random items becomes important as you can modify your arsenal. You'll also need a "mod" blueprint. Have a baseball bat? Grab some nails and you can make a spiked baseball bat that adds bleed damage. That nice machete that guy gave you after you helped him escape some zombies can be modded to deliver an electric shock when used, provided you can find all the parts.

Now, one thing I need to mention at this point is that Dead Island is really meant to be played with friends. Not like Left 4 Dead per say, but rather more akin to Borderlands. Provided your partners are at roughly the same point in the game (or are behind you if you are hosting), then you can play together. You can swap weapons, and help each other out. It's quite fun, screaming into the headset as you're getting eaten, hoping someone will make it to you in time....

The biggest issues with Dead Island lie with some bizarre decisions in the basic design of the game. What annoyed me the most is the auto-save system. The inability to save whenever you want is a major crutch, but this becomes infuriating in the face of one simple fact: the auto-save doesn't always seem to work. It's very weird, when the game first launched it was well documented that some players (especially on the PS3) had major save issues... like they'd play for a while and upon reloading would discover that nothing had saved. I was one such victim, I got set back more than once (hence the fact it took me so long to complete this review... after losing a five hour play session, onto the shelf it went). Sure, there have been some patches they've released that have supposedly fixed the problem, but it doesn't change the main issue at its core. If we had the option to save whenever we want, as is par for the course in open world RPG's like this, then these admittedly major save related headaches wouldn't even have been an issue.

There are a slew of smaller problems that, while not nearly on the level as the save catastrophe, are still head scratching. The menu system isn't nearly as streamlined as it could have been, and takes a while to get used to. Another infuriating issue is weapons magically disappearing. Every character can throw their melee weapons and retrieve them from the dead. When things get hectic and their corpses disappear, sometimes the weapons disappear with them. After you've spent a crap load on upgrading your favorite blade only to search a recent battlefield for five minutes and not find the bloody thing again... well, it's more than a little frustrating.

Another weird problem is that upon reloading a save the game seems to want to start you off where ever the hell it feels like it. I was started once in a place I hadn't even discovered yet! Another thing to keep in mind is that there are several "continuous quests" such as bringing people food or finding some chick's lost necklace which can seemingly reset upon reloading. I ended up focusing on one mission at a time, just to make sure they were actually completed before I'd turn off my system. Again, it's not the end of the world, but you can't escape the feeling that you shouldn't have to do things this way if the game worked as it was supposed to. It feels cheap, especially when you are re-spawned with a zombie already chewing on your love handles!

One last thing to mention: the enemies level with you. This is something that's fairly commonplace in these sorts of games, but Dead Island takes it to the extreme. Regular "walkers" take an insane amount of punishment towards the end of the game before going down regardless of your weapon of choice, and as the game progresses you'll face hordes of them. Then there are the super fast "infected" bastards; when they join the walkers you'll find yourself being attacked from all angles and quickly end up as dead as the zombies you face. This actually provides an interesting dichotomy. On the one hand, I like how it forces you to pick your battles. If you don't like the odds, run! Trust me, after a while, you'll learn that legging it is the more viable option sometimes. But the flip side is that you never really feel like you're making any advancement. Finding that bad ass machete and upgrading so it's on fire should be empowering, but if it has all the effectiveness of a dull butter knife you'll wonder why you even bothered. And all of this without bothering to mention the guns... which seem strangely ineffectual. I mean, I know these are zombies, and I know we are supposed to shoot them in the head, but even that doesn't seem to do a lot of damage consistently. And that's what bothers me, it's the consistency (or lack there of)... which speaks to the entire experience of playing Dead Island if you ask me.

Then there are the technical issues. There are a lot of them: frame-rate drops, texture pop ins, lag... and I had the game completely lock up on me a couple of times, both online and off. Hit detection is really hit and miss. Normally, I'd pass this off with a shrug due to the scope of what the developers were trying to achieve, but these issues are so consistently prevalent that they are impossible to ignore. Dead Island honestly seems like an unfinished game in this regard, like it was rushed to meet a deadline.

The graphics are really hit and miss. Some of the environments look great, others not so much. Same with the character animations. There are some consistent pop-in and texture loading issues seemingly every time a new area loads up. Oh, and the cutscenes are laughably bad, especially with the lip-syncing.... like worse than a bad kung fu movie bad. When compared to the beautiful beaches and jungles you explore, again, the inconsistency is mind boggling. The same can't be said for the sound work, which is generally pretty poor. The zombies sound great (it'd be hard to screw that up, even if their aural cues get repetitive), but the voice acting from the host of NPC's and even the cutscenes themselves aren't terribly impressive.

Here's the thing... if Dead Island worked as advertised it would be a 9.5/10 easily. When it gets it right, it really gets it right! It's bloody brutal in the gameplay department, with a story that takes some time to develop but is ultimately satisfying. There are a ton of collectibles to find if you are so inclined. But sadly, the technical and design issues end up rendering what should have been an awesome game merely passable, with poor implementation making it more frustrating than fun in a lot of areas. The truth is I wanted to like Dead Island more than I actually did. With a little more development time to iron out some of the technical issues and a few different design decisions and it could have been exceptional. My only saving grace might be the fact that the ending sets it up for a sequel... so here's hoping they get it right the next time out.


Score = 7.9 / 10

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (8.4/10)

To read the official full length review follow the link here: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. 

The Call of Duty franchise is known for jaw-dropping set pieces, fast and frantic gunplay, and the most popular online multiplayer experience ever. The most recent installment, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, was heralded as the most anticipated release in history. The fact that Infinity Ward, makers of the previous Modern Warfare titles, was now teamed up with Sledgehammer games didn't dissuade anyone. The release did not disappoint in this regard, as the game shattered sales records virtually across the board. For a great many gamers out there, this is their definitive gaming experience. But for a franchise that has set the bar so high and has such a fiercely loyal fanbase, does MW3 live up to the hype surrounding it?

If you want to read more of my specific thoughts about the game, follow the link to read the full length review at Game Over Online! 


Score = 8.4 / 10

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Super Mario 3D Land (9.4/10)

I purchased a 3DS back when the price dropped a few months ago. There were a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, I haven't actually owned a handheld system since the original GameBoy (which made me feel old). Secondly, I really wanted to play the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D remake. Plus, there are so many great titles that were available on the DS systems that I never had a chance to play. Since the 3DS was backwards compatible, it seemed like a great chance to have the best of both worlds as it were. And while I love my 3DS, I've been less than impressed with the admittedly small launch library (Ocarina of Time being the one truly awesome game available for the new system). However, I was unaware of just how fully my mind would be blown when I picked up the new Super Mario 3D Land. Not only does it bring back childhood memories of the classic Super Mario Bros. games I played as a child, but it utilizes the 3D technology in such a proficient way that it truly surprised, and more importantly, impressed me.

Super Mario 3D Land is the first game I've played where the 3D effects are more of a help than a hindrance. I've been dabbling in some of the other titles that have been available (don't worry, the reviews are coming), but from that standpoint the new Mario game nails it. It's the first game I've played on the 3DS that really harnesses the awesome power of glasses-less 3D. It looks great, and didn't give me headaches the way some of the other titles have. But most importantly, it actually enhances the experience. There are some 3D related puzzles, but that's not what I'm talking about. There were actually a few moments where Mario falls and it gave me a weird vertigo sensation... awesome! This is the future here people!

In a stunning (and completely unexpected) turn of events, Princess Peach is kidnapped by the evil Bowser and his cronies. Mario hastens after the villains to rescue her. It's hilarious, after each world Mario will receive a message from the Princess complete with "Maaaariiiiooooooo!!" scream. It's the very definition of "old hat," (that is to say it's been done)... but hey, it's been working for this long. If it ain't broke I suppose....

So off goes Mario, leaping and jumping his way through eight crazy worlds. Each world has multiple levels, perhaps a Toad House or two, and a boss level at the end. Probably my favorite thing about Super Mario 3D Land is the level design. Some of the levels are incredibly clever, utilizing all three axis. There are some parts that are more of the classic 2D side scrolling we all remember, but mostly you have control of Mario in all three dimensions. The way the levels are designed gave me a feeling of control over our plumber pal that I haven't really experienced before.

I had several "Wow... that's awesome!" moments that came right at the beginning of the level as I saw what I was up against. And that kept happening. Even late in the game there were new gimmicks, gizmos, and environments getting pulled out of the developer's bag of tricks. Some harkened back to previous games (including several wonderful homages to the originals), others were entirely new... and unexpected. I can't recall a game that had me smiling so consistently, nodding at each new trial that was tossed into the mix.

To help Mario traverse the challenges before him, you'll find a slew of different power-ups. Beyond Mushrooms to help you grow and Fire Flowers giving you some offensive options, the Tanooki suit makes its triumphant return. This raccoon-esque suit allows Mario to glide after he jumps. It really helps in some of the harder platforming sections. You'll also gain a Boomerang Flower on rare occasion, allowing you to toss the winged projectiles at your foes... a welcome change from the other way around!

What's nice though is that you can keep one power-up in reserve. By tapping the bottom screen you pop it out and can even switch back and forth between what you currently have. For example, if you're already powered up with a Fire Flower and you get a Super Leaf and turn into Tanooki Mario, then the Fire Flower goes down into your bottom screen inventory. If you prefer the Fire Flower (or the situation requires it), activate the power-up and when you switch the Super Leaf will automatically go into the inventory instead.

You'll not be completely alone either as you attempt to free the Princess. Your loyal friends the Toads show up from time to time. Sometimes they have houses in each world where you can go in, say "Hullo!" and get a free power up. You'll also notice binoculars in some of the levels. You can use these to look around and see what challenges await (by tilting the 3DS to look, it's a very well done and effective technique). However, keep an eye out for Toad and his buddies. They are usually mere specks in the distance, but if you can get the camera centered and zoom in then they will drop some goodies for you.

As we've grown accustomed to, each level has three hidden "Stars" to discover. Some of them are right in front of you, others are fiendishly hidden. You'll need to actually search out the hidden stars though, as certain levels won't be unlocked (including some of the boss levels at the end of each world) unless you have the requisite number of stars. Unlocking hidden levels I understand, but I didn't like the fact that you couldn't finish out a world without backtracking. Still, it adds a lot of replay value to the game as I went back repeatedly to certain levels to search for the illusive ones I had missed. 

But one thing that I found interesting is that the game is surprisingly easy. The levels are pretty short and relatively straightforward (of course, the aforementioned variety keeps things from getting stale).  After the first couple of worlds I never had less than forty lives. And if you do have trouble, the game removes any shred of challenge. There was one part where I simply couldn't get the timing right on these jumps and would subsequently fall to my death. It was almost a running gag, as I ran through half a dozen lives. Then, the next time the game reloaded, I was given a white Tanooki suit that allowed me to not only fly, but also be invincible. It was like an invincible star mixed with the raccoon suit. Of course, that didn't help with the mistimed jumps... and if you lose enough lives you'll get the infamous "P-Wing" which shoots you straight to your goal at the end of the level. I understand the reasoning behind this. After all, the game is designed for a younger demographic in mind. Still, I kinda felt like the game was feeling sorry for me. Of course, you don't have to use the magic suit if you don't want.

However, once you've defeated Bowser and rescued the Princess (sorry, by this point I don't consider that a spoiler) you unlock the "Secret Worlds." These levels are much more difficult. Oh, and there is no super magical Tanooki suit to save you this time! In fact, be wary, there are poisoned Mushrooms that have negative effects out there as well! You've just got to get it right: it takes time and patience to get through these challenges.  After beating the first world you unlock Luigi as a playable character, which was a nice surprise. I have a feeling I'll be chipping away at these for a while, not to mention going back and getting all the hidden stars from the previous worlds as well.

I love my new 3DS, but up until now it was just for the fact that I could go back and play all the games I missed from the previous DS generations. But Super Mario 3D Land is one of those games that makes it worth purchasing a new system in the first place. It's an absolute blast to play, reminding me of childhood memories while innovating at the same time. It's fun, funny, and challenging in all the right places. The 3D effects actually work, and what's more, actually enhance the game experience. It's the first example I've seen (with the possible exception of the movie Avatar, provided you saw it in the theater) where the 3D is more than just a gimmick. If you own a 3DS, then this is one title you can't miss!


Score = 9.4 / 10

Friday, December 2, 2011

Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary (8.3/10)

Over the course of writing all these reviews, I'm increasingly reminded that there are some noticeable absences from my gaming resume. With the current trend of re-releasing games from the previous generation of consoles with shiny new HD graphics, we have been given a sublime opportunity to replay some true classics. The God of War Collection allowed us to replay Kratos' adventures, and with the new God of War: Origins Collection, now the entire saga is available on PS3. The ICO and Shadow of the Collection (something I'll finish up soon), gives us the chance to play (or re-play) two games that regularly appear on reviewers "Top 10 Games of All Time" lists. Recently, there was also a Metal Gear Solid HD Collection released, which is something I'll have to pick up as well when I have the time (and money); I never played any of those either.

However, of all these classic titles now available again (or for the first time!) for our gaming pleasure, the one I've been most excited about is without a doubt the remake of the original Halo: Combat Evolved. I jumped on the Halo bandwagon with Halo 3, and have played and enjoyed these games immensely (with the exception of Halo: ODST, which sucked). Now I, along with the rest of you, have the opportunity to go back and play not only a truly classic FPS, but one of the forerunners (inside joke!) of the modern online gaming experience.

For me, the highlight of playing Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary was the chance to see Master Chief's story begin. It actually takes place just after Halo: Reach ends. The faceless Master Chief is a Spartan, the last of a group of cybernetically enhanced soldiers. Humanity faces a threat never before encountered: a ruthless race of aliens known as the Covenant who are intent on taking control of the newly discovered Halo rings. These structures aren't natural formations, but rather massive hoops so big they have their own atmosphere. On board the ship "Pillar of Autumn," Chief is thawed out of cryo-stasis to join the fight. Naturally, he is the only one who can get the job done. With their ship hopelessly damaged, Chief takes the computer AI Cortana, sticks her into his helmet, and they all crash land on Halo.

At first, their mission is simple: help find and protect the rest of the survivors. However, before long they discover the true nature of the rings, and what their purpose actually is. Those who know the canon already know about the Flood, but for me it was interesting to see how it all began. Plus, there are hidden terminals for you to find that have some awesome CGI videos... but do they just tell the back story of Combat Evolved, or are we seeing hints at Halo 4? Stay tuned....

Anniversary is the original Halo game remade with a shiny HD graphics engine... but that's really the only change that has been made. Everything else from the original release is as it was, just prettier. You can even hold down the "Back/Select" button and it will revert to the original Xbox graphics. My, how far we have come! Still, it's not all flowers; a lot of the design is full repetitive, dark corridors that still all look the same. The cutscenes are also made over. But to be honest, it doesn't really look like a lot of effort went into them. They seemed very jerky, with some laughably bad lip-syncing. Still, considering what awaits you should you revert to the original graphics, the difference is night and day.

The Halo series is known, probably more than anything else (with the exception of the super hot, scantily clad AI hologram... oh yeah, and the Chief himself of course), for re-defining the FPS genre. While things have come a long way in the intervening ten years, the fact that Anniversary still boasts some intense and frantic action even by today's standards shows just how mind blowing it was way back when. When you're out in the open and vehicles come into play, things become an exercise in strategy mixed with mad dashes from cover to cover. Of course, I still suck at driving the Warthogs, I've never gotten the hang of those damn things! In the halls and corridors of Halo it turns even more hectic as you never know what you'll find around the corner. Late on in the game the action is virtually non-stop, no matter where you are. Sweaty palms are common to say the least!

However, if there is one thing about playing a nicer-looking-but-otherwise-completely-unchanged game is that it's still a ten year old game. Things have come a long way in ten years. I was constantly noticing little things... things that the industry as a whole have left behind. The simplistic level design is one such example. Sure, there are some wide open areas, but most of the game smacks of old-school corridor shooters: a maze-like construct of similar looking areas. It's easy to get turned around. This is exacerbated by the fact that there aren't really any objective markers to follow, meaning you can spend a significant amount of time backtracking. That doesn't include those areas that you have to backtrack through anyway. Checkpoint placement is inconsistent at best. Sometimes dying will set you surprisingly far back... a frustrating realization to say the least.

The AI, both ally and enemy, are apparently untouched, and still as good as they ever were. That's saying something for the time it was made: it has aged well! All of the classic weapons are present (as you would expect since this is where it all began... duh!), including the infamously over-powered pistol. As fun and intense as the gun battles can be, at higher difficulties (including the legendary "Legendary Difficulty") it's nuts! Still, for the most part, Anniversary serves as a living reminder that the industry has, in fact, learned from its mistakes in the intervening time. And let's be honest, if they had remade Halo: Combat Evolved with the intent to fix these issues then it wouldn't have been the same game, now would it?

Regular readers know I'm not a huge fan of online multiplayer, but the Halo games are one of the few series I actually enjoy playing online with friends. This new Halo remake brings back most of the classic multiplayer maps from the original, but it's all run through the Halo: Reach servers. It's a blast. A co-op mode was also added, a welcome addition. It's definitely fun (not to mention being worth a laugh or three) to try and take on the Covenant with a friend!

In the end, I came away with mixed feelings about my time with Anniversary. On the one hand, it was great to see how the saga began, to see Master Chief and Cortana start their journey. While I understand that Anniversary isn't true to the original multiplayer experience (something to which I have no frame of reference), I had fun playing online using the Reach engines. However, the other side of the coin is that inescapable feeling that you're playing an old game. Not a bad game by any stretch of the imagination, but an old one. A lot of the basic design is very dated, and that's putting it politely. Switching back to the old graphics is both scary, eye-opening, and thrilling, all at the same time. And as I said before, it provides perspective... the fact of the matter is that the gaming industry has, for the most part, evolved on its own, leaving some of those outdated models behind. Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary is still absolutely worth your time whether you're new to the experience or reliving a classic, but for me I appreciated said perspective more than anything. It's a good time to be a gamer. I can't wait to see what the next ten years brings!


Score = 8.3 / 10

P.S. Now we can only hope that they will decide to remake Halo 2. As I understand it from true Halo-ites, this is the definitive Halo experience.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Lord of the Rings: War in the North (6.2/10)

To read the official full-length review follow the link here: Lord of the Rings: War in the North.

Being a card carrying Lord of the Rings nerd, I approached the new game Lord of the Rings: War in the North with a certain amount of trepidation. You see, I'm also a Star Wars nerd, and any Star Wars nerd will tell you that you have to be careful with video game adaptations. More often than not, you'll wind up disappointed not only due to sub-par products, but more so because our collective expectations are just too high. We want these interactive experiences to live up to the lofty standards we have set in our own minds. So a Lord of the Rings game set concurrent with the journey of Frodo and the Fellowship telling the store of what transpired in the northern ranges of Middle Earth should be a blast, right? Sadly, it isn’t. While the core gameplay and the general idea are fine, War in the North is beset with numerous interface issues that render it frustrating to the point that it’s almost (note, almost) unplayable.

If you want to read more of my specific thoughts about the game, follow the link to read the full length review at Game Over Online.


Score = 6.2 / 10

Ratchet and Clank: All 4 One (7.7/10)

To read the official full-length review follow the link here: Ratchet and Clank: All 4 One.

Having never played any of the Ratchet and Clank series, I really wasn't sure what to expect with the latest installment entitled Ratchet and Clank: All 4 One. All I really knew about the franchise was that the main protagonist has big ears, a robot buddy, and a penchant for over-the-top weaponry. Regarded as an action platformer with a crazy armory, the good people at Insomniac Games took the reins and gave it a co-op focus. And I have to tell you, my time with Ratchet and Clank: All 4 One was a surprisingly enjoyable, if flawed, experience. Despite some technical issues and odd design decisions (namely the overly repetitious parts that elongated the game), if you have friends to play with all the better, as that's definitely the way to go. 

If you want to read more of my specific thoughts about the game, follow the link to read the full length review at Game Over Online!


Score = 7.7 / 10

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception (9.4/10)

I have a sneaking suspicion that this fall may well represent some sort of nexus in the space-time continuum. It seems like every other game that has come out serves as the end of a major trilogy (or at least the third game in a major series). But despite the high profile shooters (Battlefield 3 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3) taking most of the spotlight, easily the "finale" I've been most looking forward to is Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception. Stellar graphics, gripping set pieces, challenging puzzles, and the best voice acting in the business are all hallmarks of the series. But does Uncharted's previous pedigree set the bar too high for what could be the last installment in a series that has become iconic in its own right?

I know not everyone will agree with this, but for me the Uncharted franchise has set a new standard in video game storytelling. The phrase "interactive movie" has been used more than once to describe these games, and that holds true for the third installment. I don't necessarily mean the story itself (everyone should know by now that Uncharted is basically a cross between Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider-it's the video game equivalent of a summer popcorn movie), but rather in the way all the pieces come together. The cut scenes and voice acting are still top notch, but it's the way they are woven so seamlessly with the standard cover-based shooting, puzzle, and platforming sections that really bring the whole package together. It's one of those instances where the overall product is greater than the sum of its parts.

This time out Nate and Sully are searching for a city long lost to legend: Ubar, the mythical "Atlantis of the Sands." Naturally, it turns out that the ring Drake wears around his neck, supposedly the very ring of Sir Francis Drake himself, is the key that will lead them there. This is essentially bringing the story full circle, tying together the threads from the previous titles, and dramatically expanding the backstory and relationships of the main players.

There is even a brilliant section early on where you walk in the shoes of a young Nathan Drake when he first meets his mentor. It's ripped almost unabashedly from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (something a surprising number of reviewers have commented on), but that doesn't make this peek into their past any less enjoyable as it shows how their connection and partnership was forged. The expected twist towards the end is eye rolling, but still enjoyable... and without giving away any spoilers, there are some awesome "trippy" scenes that are really well done.

However, the setup of the narrative is beginning to feel stale at best and predictable at worst. They all follow the same basic pattern: opening scene, discovery, conflict, Elena shows up, and then the major twist at the end. Pepper in some fun, yet completely unbelievable and unrealistic set pieces, along with some relatively clever puzzles to slow down the gameplay at regular intervals and you could almost set your watch to it.

After two reviews, I find I'm running out of random adjectives to describe the graphical prowess of these games. Needless to say, it is once again superb. From the particle physics of the sand in the desert (even better than the snow in Uncharted 2 if you ask me) to the amazing lighting effects, excellent animations (both in-game and during cut scenes) and phenomenally detailed environments, there are very few titles that can compare to this series. The fact that the game runs smoothly with virtually no pop-in or lag is the icing on this very pretty cake. Uncharted 3 is simply gorgeous; there is really nothing else to say!

I'm also running out of superlatives when it comes to the cast and acting. It seems like we can't walk five paces these days without tripping over a stack of games that have Nolan North as a principle actor, but frankly I'm happy the industry has latched on to someone as talented as him. He is Nathan Drake, and his sense of comic timing is fantastic. I don't think it would work nearly as well if not for the facial animations and cinematography, but even during regular gameplay his random lines made me smile. The rest of the cast returns to their roles and also do an exemplary job. Along with some new characters, including the creepy new villainess Katherine Marlowe (brilliantly voiced by Rosalind Ayres), I honestly can't think of a series that has better voice-work.

In fact, probably the biggest knock against Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception is the fact that we've seen it all before. The gunplay hasn't changed much (and neither has the fact that Nate has a bad habit of staying stuck to cover, one of the only complaints I've had about this series). The platforming, while generally excellent, still suffers from occasional moments of "Where am I supposed to jump now?" The puzzles Nate needs to solve using his handy notebook are still prevalent, but not nearly as common as they were in the previous games.

Also, they have added a lot of residual animations to Drake when he moves... like reaching out and putting his hand on the wall to steady himself for example. While this is a nice touch, it feels a little weird as you wonder if it's you, the player, that is actually doing these things. And while most of the time it looks perfectly natural, at others it doesn't look nearly as smooth. I think it's one of those unfortunate instances where you'll only notice it when it's not working.

Actually, there is one issue with Uncharted 3 that really stands out for me: there are some fairly major difficulty spikes that are just downright frustrating. Wave after wave of increasingly difficult foes will be thrown at you... repeatedly. The previous installments also did this, albeit only towards the end. With the third game, it seems like they've upped the ante early on, and then it only gets more intense as you go. This wouldn't be such an issue if not for the fact that dying will sometimes set you surprisingly far back; the checkpoints seem to be broken.

What's worse is that the game also has a bad habit of respawning you knee deep in the sh*t. It gets to the point that you're memorizing where the bad guys will show up, just so you can mow them down in order before they have time to flank you. Getting to what you think must be the end of a section only to killed by the nineteenth hockey-pad wearing, shotgun totting jackass you've encountered (this round) and then being respawned under the watchful eye of multiple snipers and guys with machine guns leads to some pretty choice words being thrown at the TV... along with the occasional controller.

However, none of these issues really detract from what is an awesome game. Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception is a fitting conclusion (or is it? bum bum BUM!) to Naughty Dog's brilliant franchise. I don't think Drake's Deception is as good as Among Thieves, but that might be solely down to the fact that the formula might be getting a little stale. The difficulty spikes can make some sections more frustrating than fun, and Drake would have died something like a bazillion times in real life at last count as he pulls off his incomparable feats or dare-devilry. Still, Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception is absolutely worth your time (I didn't even mention the multiplayer, which is apparently supposed to be quite fun). There are few games (let alone series) that are as beautiful, engaging, immersive, well paced, and fun as these are. If this is Nate's last hurrah, I'm sorry to see him and his friends go... but I honestly hope Drake and company return for more adventures.


Score = 9.4 / 10

Battlefield 3 (9.4/10)

In the overpopulated world of military shooters, two titles/series (and their respective developers) have risen above the rest and become synonymous with the genre: Call of Duty and Battlefield. Both series have their roots in World War II shooters, both made the transition to the "modern" variations, and both are a blast to play! Oh yeah, and both have their own loyal fans who will defend their preferred game to the virtual death. Silly fanboys....

While I've enjoyed the annual Call of Duty game the last several years, I've struggled with a faint feeling that's it's more of the same with a slightly different coat of paint. I know most people won't agree with me on this, but I think the series has become stagnant. The Battlefield: Bad Company series came onto the scene with it's own shtick: destructible environments. Suddenly camping was no longer the safe option as the building or cover you were hiding behind could simply be destroyed given enough time and firepower. However, with the latest installment of the series, Battlefield 3 is attempting to not only halt the Call of Duty leviathan, but also improve gaming and shooters in general. Boasting a brand new graphics engine called Frostbite 2 and some truly amazing dynamic lighting and particle physics effects, it looks phenomenal. This is not just "this year's version." EA and DICE are trying to truly take these sorts of games to the next level. And for that, I thank them... because they succeed.

Battlefield 3 tells the story of Sergeant Blackburn as he attempts to foil a terrorist plot. Problem is, he's currently being held by the CIA for "what he had done." The narrative then unfolds in a flashback, flashforward style as you go back to the beginning and find out how Sgt. Blackburn got into this pickle. After the PLR (the bad guys) stage a coup in Iran, Blackburn and his squad stumble across a nuclear weapon... in a box built to hold three of them. The question is, where are the other two? Oh yeah, and the nukes are Russian. What do they have to do with this? The search takes you takes you to battlefields all over the world and even the air above it.

You won't just control the good sergeant either: multiple characters join the fight, telling the tale from different perspectives.  It's a great tool, keeping you wondering what's going on, what will happen next, and most importantly, what you'll get to do. This decidedly bucks the trend of sub par story telling in the shooter genre. Rather than simply providing an excuse to shoot things, Battlefield 3's story is engaging enough to provide a motive. Also, the campaign is one of the more meaty offerings we've had in a while, lasting a solid 7 to 8 hours. Sure, it's a little cliched as these stories often are, and the leap of faith you're expected to take towards the end is far fetched, but overall it's easily the best "story" to a game like this since Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.

Battlefield 3 is beautiful... simply beautiful. I think my first impression involved texting my friends and calling it "sexy." The new Frostbite 2 engine creates some of the most impressively realistic graphics I've seen in a game. The lighting in particular is awesome. Throw a grenade and the way the light filters through the dust will change depending on your point of view. The attention to detail is amazing. At one point a sniper shot through a window... there was a bullet hole in both the window and the drapes. Then there are the destructible environments the series is known for. Be it chipping away at a concrete barrier with a machine gun or simply blowing the crap out of it with a tank, the resulting damage looks amazingly real. And this is all without putting any emphasis on the cutscenes that drive the story mode. While not active in any way, these dialogue scenes look great in their own right.

While I could go on and on about the graphics, I will add just one more thing. As impressive as it looks on consoles, if you have a good gaming PC, that's the way to go. I have a good friend with a beastly rig and let me tell you, it's like night and day. Plus, multiplayer has more people in one match on PC. I sincerely hope that the Frostbite 2 engine becomes available for other developers to utilize-this is the future here people.

The sound work it excellent too, but we've come to expect that from DICE. The music is somber in all the right places, dramatic in the others. The voice acting is surprisingly good, but as is always the problem with military shooters, it can be hard to hear orders mid-firefight with all that is going on when you're firing a 50 cal. from the back of a Humvee. 

I don't need to tell you that the game play is your standard first person shooter. We've been there, and Battlefield 3 performs as you'd expect. The gunplay is tight and responsive, although I did have to adjust the aiming sensitivity. And while the firefights are just as intense and harrowing as you'd expect, what really sets Battlefield 3 apart is the vehicle sections. My favorites were the mission where you control a tank in a massive battle, and then the one where you fly a fighter. The fighter section is essentially on rails (as opposed to the multiplayer where you actually fly the jets), but that's okay, I'm happy to be along for the ride and enjoy the scenery. These moments break up the pacing nicely, and are truly breathtaking to look at.

To be honest, there really isn't a whole lot to find fault with Battlefield 3. I guess if I had to get really picky I'd tell you the checkpoints might be a bit too far apart and you'll sometimes restart with enemies already shooting you, but that's more or less par for the course. The ally AI, while decent, is by no means particularly helpful... they're just kind of there. The game is also surprisingly difficult, with not only some rather random difficulty spikes in the course of the main game, but also a large disparity between the difficulty levels. I played through the campaign on easy and normal, and normal was a damn sight more difficult than I expected. 

From a technical standpoint, whenever you have such high end graphics there are bound to be some glitches, and Battlefield 3 is no exception. Minor warping (when either you or the NPC's are moved or slide super fast, like it's trying to catch up), while not common, is easily the most noticeable issue. For such a complex system, I didn't encounter too many texture issues or framerate drops. To be honest, it runs surprisingly well.

Now, for those of you who are regular readers, you know I'm not a huge fan of online multiplayer. However, for Battlefield 3 I decided to take it somewhat seriously. And I have to tell you, it's fantastic. The maps are massive.  One time after getting caught in a cross fire in a rather daring (if I do say so myself) attempt to run to cover, I respawned and literally had no idea where I was. I had been fighting on a hilltop and woke up under an overpass. Following the mini-map I figured out I was a looooong way from the battle. After mentally calculating how long it would take to jog back into the fray (and feeling mildly disgruntled), I suddenly noticed a tank sitting next to me. "Right on!" thought I, climbing in and driving back to the conflict in style.

This is just one example of how Battlefield 3 multiplayer actually feels like a battlefield. Tanks, choppers, and planes can all be piloted and driven by anyone at any time (as long as they are available). Sure, the controls can take a lot of getting used to (especially the helicopter, my only kill with that bad boy was accidentally crashing into someone... poor sod), but they add a whole new dimension that keeps things fresh. When everything comes together at the end of the round (all the players are fighting over the last objective, planes are flying over head dropping ordinance, helicopters are rattling their machine guns, pulverizing buildings, and tanks are finishing the job), it's actually kind of scary. I hope and pray I'm never in combat, but I wonder when things get really bad, if it isn't at least a little like this. While I know it's cliche to say it, it really does make me respect those who do this for real all the more.

The rewards from ruling the battlefield involve a pretty straightforward XP and upgrade system. There are four different classes specializing in different aspects of warfare, and as you use each one you gain XP and can then unlock different accessories and weapons to use the next time you choose that class. It's a nice, well put together system, plus it adds a feeling of accomplishment as you rank up.

Outside of your standard matches, there is a tacked on co-op mode that allows you and a friend to basically replay smallish sections of the campaign with waves of enemies attacking. To be frank, these distractions are far too short and not really all that fun, nor do they have the inherent intensity that comes with the standard multiplayer.

All told, Battlefield 3 is probably the best shooter I've played since Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. From a technical standpoint it's the best, most advanced, and prettiest shooter I've ever played. I really hope other developers are allowed to use the Frostbite 2 engine, it's phenomenal. The campaign is a high octane roller coaster that is surprisingly well told. It's engaging, providing not just an excuse to shoot people, but rather a compelling reason. With the stigma of being CoD's main competition, DICE and EA have gone all out. The result is something special: they've gifted us something new in gaming's most overcrowded genre. That, in and of itself, says something. If you are at all a fan of military shooters, Battlefield 3 shouldn't be missed.


Score = 9.4 / 10

Monday, October 31, 2011

Ace Combat: Assault Horizon (8.6/10)

To read the official, full length review follow the link here: Ace Combat: Assault Horizon.

Waaaaay back when I was just a small Simon, we had a Mac Plus in our house. It was our first computer and kind of a big deal... for me because of a game called Falcon. Falcon was an F-16 flight simulator. I played the hell out of that game as a kid-it was one of my first experiences in gaming. Top Gun was big at the box office and the overly romanticized life of a fighter pilot captured my imagination. While the flight simulator genre hasn't since been one of my favorites, I still remember those carefree days of my youth shooting down enemy MiG's by the dozens. Fortunately, I can recapture some of that magic with the excellent Ace Combat series, the most recent installment being Ace Combat: Assault Horizon.

Overall, Ace Combat: Assault Horizon is an excellent diversion from most modern military shooters which take place, you know, on the ground. I'm still on the fence about the new DFM mode. It works well, but I don't like how you're more of less forced to use it. However, by allowing you to not only fly a whole slew of fighters from around the world (and some that are still on the drawing board), but also pilot different types of planes in different types of missions (like the helicopter, door gunner, and bomber raid sections), AC:AH offers enough options to keep things from getting boring. When it gets it right, when you take out three enemy fighters in succession, looping in and out of DFM and dodging missiles, it's difficult not to smile as their wreckage plummets from the sky. While it most assuredly falls under the "niche" title heading, Ace Combat: Assault Horizon is definitely worth your time if you're looking for something a little different.

If you want to read more of my specific thoughts about the game, follow the link to read the full length review at Game Over Online


Score = 8.6 / 10

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Pro Evolution Soccer 2012 (7.7/10)

To read the official, full length review follow the link here: Pro Evolution Soccer 2012.

Historically, the FIFA series set the benchmark mostly because of a bigger budget and therefore licensing rights, while PES held the crown for better mechanics and actual gameplay. But in recent years FIFA, has improved in the area PES held the title, creating a surprisingly accurate on-pitch experience. Striving for realism, the inherent difference between a game and a simulation, has pushed FIFA over the edge and into the driver's seat. I feel like PES 2012, while still a pretty good soccer game in it's own right, has fallen significantly behind the FIFA series, like a player past his prime who has lost a step... and he knows it.

If you want to read more of my specific thoughts about the game, follow the link to read the full length review at Game Over Online.


Score = 7.7 / 10

Monday, October 24, 2011

Batman: Arkham Asylum (9.2/10)

Batman has always been a bit hit and miss for me. While I never read too many comics growing up, I loved the classic Batman movie with Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson. The sequels however... well, you've probably seen them, you know what I'm talking about. I also never watched the Adam West show a whole lot, nor the old cartoons, but I have caught some of the newer ones and they are pretty good. And then there are the games which, like most comic or movie tie-ins, usually leave a lot to be desired... until now. Batman: Arkham Asylum is not only one of the better action games out there, it's easily one of the best super hero video game adaptations that has been made to date.

As the game begins, Batman is returning the Joker to the infamous penal island to go back behind bars where he belongs... but not all is as it seems! Without giving too much away, the entire escapade was a plot by the Joker to trap the Caped Crusader on the island... while he lets all the crazies and super villains out. But Batman knows that with the Joker, there is always something else going on, and this time is no exception. Before long, Batman is facing off against a slew of iconic arch-enemies and a seemingly endless supply of thugs for him to beat up on.

The gameplay is an intriguing mix of action, adventure, and stealth all rolled into one. Usually when a team attempts to mix varying styles together it ends up that all of them are sub-par, but that's not the case here. The fact that Arkham Asylum hones them all to near perfection is all the more impressive. 

Combat is a simple exercise in timing: one button to attack, one to stun, and one to counter. The trick comes down to mixing them up correctly and watching for the onscreen cues that indicate an incoming attack. It seems easy at first, but as you face more challenging enemies in greater quantities, it will test your skills and timing. But it's when you silently drop from the shadows into a group of seven or eight thugs whom you then beat senseless without getting so much as touched that you feel like a proper Bat-ass... wait, that doesn't sound right.

Batman isn't bullet proof, so if the enemies are armed, it's better to stick to the shadows and avoid direct confrontation. These clever little stealth sections make a welcome break from the combat. By hiding in the rafters and moving from place to place unseen, it's easy to flank enemies for silent take-downs, or even hang off an outcropping for a quick inverted take-down leaving them strung up like so much meat. Get caught in the open and you'll fast turn into Swiss cheese, so be prepared to retreat to high vantage points with a quickness. These are almost like mini-puzzles on their own, both challenging and rewarding to take out an entire room full of armed thugs, watching their heart rates rise as they keep finding the unconscious forms of their friends.

The argument can be made that above all else, the Dark Knight is a detective first and foremost. A quick button press activates "Detective Mode," whereby Batman's visor allows him to see, well, everything really. He can follow a trail of whiskey breath in the air to track down a traitor, see where a wall might be structurally weak and thus vulnerable to a dab of explosive gel (a cool new gadget I had endless fun with), or even see the glowing skeletons of guards through walls. In fact, it's incredibly handy, almost making the game too easy. Apparently the developers considered this, because for some reason, I found it quite jarring and distracting when leaving detective mode on for extended periods of time. I don't know if it's the color contrast, but I preferred to switch it on and off when searching an area.

You'll have access to a wide variety of Batman's iconic toys. Batarangs (including multiple ones, or a very cool remote controlled version), Explosive Gels, Batclaws, and even the Line Launcher are at your disposal. They are not only well realized and relatively easy to control, but also serve a purpose in combat as well as exploration. Laying down explosive gel in the path of multiple guards while their backs are turned, only to detonate them all the next time they complete their circuit is a thing of beauty. When searching out the  massive number of collectibles scattered about the asylum and grounds, a lot of places you won't have to access until you have the proper tool. This means a lot of backtracking Zelda-style over familiar ground and extensive note taking so you can find your way back to the goodies.

And trust me when I tell you, if you're a completionist like me, you'll be searching constantly. The Riddler has left over two hundred collectibles for you to discover. Some are in directly in your path, others are fiendishly hidden in out of the way corners. In fact, some are hidden in places you'll need to mentally map and return to when you have the proper tool for the job. I've played through the game twice and still haven't found them all. There are also interview tapes involving the clinical diagnosis of the super-villains who populate Arkham. Again, I was never much into the comics, so these back stories are welcome as they expand the story, the characters, and the universe. With so many iconic foes to face, Batman needs to learn all he can to defeat them!

This leads to a quick side note about the boss fights. These climactic moments are hit and miss, but sadly more of the latter than the former. Actually, they are probably the biggest drawback to Arkham Asylum. The disappointment stems not just from the fact that they are overly formulaic, but rather because with such iconic villains to choose from, they aren't particularly well written. I don't want to spoil any one encounter, but there are a couple of times that I knew one was coming up, my reaction was more along the lines of "Really? This is what I'm supposed to do?" This negative trend is almost (notice, almost) a true hindrance if not for the Scarecrow sections, which are fantastic. These simple platforming levels are as clever as they are creepy. They serve as a nice surprise, as well as a welcome break in the action.

The relatively simple upgrade system allows you to progressively enhance The Caped Crusader, each upgrade feeling fresh and adding something to combat or the devices you carry. You gain XP not just by beating up bad guys or advancing the story, but also by finding Joker Teeth and Riddler trophies, so it behooves you to search them out.

Graphically, Arkham Asylum may a bit dated now (texture issues and matting up close, poor facial animations, etc.) but the in-game action animations are among some of the best I've ever seen. Batman moves seamlessly from one bad guy to the next, dealing out painful, yet smooth, beat downs culminating in a slow motion close up as the last foe falls.

The sound work is also excellent, bringing in most of the cast from the cartoon series. The incomparable Mark Hamill returns as the Joker, and he is bloody brilliant as the Clown Prince of Crime. While his exceptional performance steals the show, the rest of the voice acting is superb as well. The moody soundtrack heightens the atmosphere, bringing the dank island to even greater life.

Outside of the main story mode are the challenge maps you unlock by finding Riddler trophies amongst other things. The challenge maps are a fun... challenge. Basically, they work by pitting our hero against waves of enemies and a clock. The goal of these challenges is to get the best score, achieved by racking up higher and higher combos. These are fun once or twice, but the novelty wears off quickly.

In the end, Batman: Arkham Asylum stands as probably my favorite super hero game to date. The combat is visceral, violent, and ultimately satisfying. The gadgets work great, and are effective in all sorts of situations. It's fun to experiment! The stealth sections, admittedly something I'm not usually a huge fan of, work exceptionally well. Using detective mode to track an enemy, plan an assault against armed guards, or discover hidden collectibles, made me really feel like I was always in control. In fact, when you add everything together (a few boss fights aside), I really felt like I was Batman. It's rare to experience such transference with a game, and I can only think of a few titles that can compare in that regard. I can't think of much higher praise than that. 


Score = 9.2 / 10

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Battlefield: Bad Company 2 (8.9/10)

The "realistic military shooter" genre is easily the most popular and best selling in all of video games, but it's also the most overcrowded. The Call of Duty phenomenon may have changed the landscape of modern gaming, but it's also spawned a plethora of imitators. Some of these tweak that template slightly and are quite fun (Medal of Honor), but most are merely passable (Homefront). The biggest competition to the Call of Duty juggernaut is the Battlefield series. Like CoD, Battlefield has it's roots in World War II shooters, but then evolved into the modern era. Following in the footsteps of CoD 4: Modern Warfare, DICE and EA created their own modern version, Battlefield: Bad Company. While I played the first Bad Company game ages ago (and I'll get around to reviewing it eventually when I have time to replay it), I thought I'd review it's sequel first, Battlefield: Bad Company 2

The Bad Company games follow a motley crew of cliched grunts who constantly find themselves in the worst possible situation. They are Sweetwater (the smart techie guy), Haggard (the gruff Southerner who provides most of the comic relief), Sergent Redford (known as "Sarge," who is one day closer to retirement and acts as the elder statesman of the group), and you... who takes control of Preston Marlowe. While the original game had the good ol' boys of "B" company chasing after a horde of gold, the sequel has them hunting down the mythical super-weapon the Japanese had developed during World War II.

Their search takes them from sweltering jungles to frozen mountain peaks and back-all stock locales for this sort of game. The story is largely forgettable, merely providing a framework to shoot stuff, but I will say that it's better presented and flows much more smoothly than all the CoD games since the first Modern Warfare. Sure, it's riddled with cliches and there's not much original going on, but that's hardly why we are here. We want to shoot up the bad guys... and once again it's the Russians.

From the gameplay standpoint, it's impossible not to compare Battlefield and Call of Duty directly. The gameplay is virtually identical: the gunplay, graphics, controls, and the lack of a "true" cover mechanic, right down to the standard set pieces like vehicle sections, sniper missions, calling in air strikes, are all present and accounted for. It's in the way the game plays where you'll notice a difference. It's slight, but plays a major role. As a rule, CoD is defined by over-the-top, albeit intense, sections that, while entertaining, are actually unrealistic. For every "Wow!!!" moment I've always found myself rolling my eyes twice as often. It's like an 80's action movie. Battlefield, on the other hand, is not quite as gung ho, rewarding more patience and caution. Some of the titular moments are as ludicrous as CoD, but for the most part the game plays much slower over all.

But what the Battlefield series is really known for are more open, and more importantly, destructible environments. Personally, I think it's a lot less linear than CoD, allowing you multiple ways to complete some objectives. Other areas turn into shooting galleries, something we are all too familiar with. But what I really love about Battlefield: Bad Company 2 is the fact that the landscape is constantly in flux. Pretty much everything can be blown up, blown down, or blown sideways. Some campy punk sniping you from way over yonder? Destroy his cover brick by brick till you can get a clear shot. Alternatively, grab an RPG and blow a hole in the wall. The enemy AI is pretty smart, making good use of cover as well as employing flanking tactics if you are pinned down. Be wary too, if you can chip away at an enemy's cover to expose them, they can do the same to you!

Speaking of AI, for the most part your squad (who are nearly always with you) does a good job of supporting you. More importantly, they stay out of your way (usually). The problem lies in the fact it seems like they can't die. Combine that with the lack of a squad healing mechanic and you might find yourself taking cover next to a teammate in a position you think must be safe only to wind up quickly dead. How this happened can be a mystery, because it's not always obvious where you are getting shot or blown up from. Ultimately, you can get stuck in that hateful position of having to try multiple paths to reach your objective. This normally isn't so bad, but naturally Battlefield employs a checkpoint based save system which means you'll be doing the same bit over and over. Early on this wasn't an issue as it seemed to autosave often, but again, towards the end everything kind of falls apart. The checkpoints are too infrequent, and you have to complete the same sections over and over.

As with most games like this, there are collectibles littering up the place for you to find if you are so inclined. I like the fact that you "collect" different guns. You'll find some and pick others up from fallen foes. But because there are ammo drops everywhere, you can pick and choose your loadout depending on the situation. If you find yourself needing a rocket launcher to take out that pesky helicopter (for the umpteenth time), and you die, you'll probably respawn close to a drop point so you can change up your arsenal. The other nice thing is that because there are ammo dumps everywhere as well, you don't have to rely on your enemy's inferior weapons. I don't think I ever ran out of ammo on my preferred weapon once the entire campaign.

While the graphics and animations are pretty good as a rule (although not spectacular), the destructible environments look pretty awesome. The dust effects are especially impressive, although they do tend to murky up the battlefield a bit too much. The fact that any bit of cover can disappear at an alarming rate means you won't have much time to catch your breath or, more importantly, regain your health. You've got to be ready to move on in an instant if you are compromised. Of course, it's crazy fun blowing stuff up, especially when entire buildings come crashing down under sustained fire.

The voice actors do a pretty good job with a limited (or limiting, I suppose) script. A lot of the trade mark humor is back from the original Bad Company game. The banter between squad mates can be a bit hit or miss, but some of it is pure gold, especially from Haggard. However, I will say, unequivocally, that the sound effects are some of the best I've ever heard. If you fire your gun indoors it echoes realistically. Fire your sniper rifle and you'll hear the "crack" of the sonic boom a beat later. It's fantastic.

I feel the need to quickly mention something I often gripe about with these sorts of games: what I call the blood splatter factor. When you get hit, blood appears in your peripheral vision. The more blood the worse off you are. With some games (CoD in particular), this phenomenon is far too invasive, obscuring your vision and making a bad situation worse. Battlefield: Bad Company 2 does a great job of keeping your damage indicator to a minimum without limiting your field of view. Personally, I'm grateful. 

Now, I know I'll get endless guff for admitting this, but I haven't played Battlefield online yet. I'm not a huge fan of online multiplayer in general, but from everything I've heard there are two kinds of people in the world: those who like CoD online, and those who prefer Battlefield. CoD is faster paced, with generally smaller maps and a more arcade-like feel. Battlefield is focused on bigger maps and the previously described destructible environments. From everything I've been told its much more strategic and team oriented. I think each series are worth playing in their own right because they are both excellent shooters; it really comes down to which style you prefer.

Battlefield: Bad Company 2 is an excellent shooter in its own right. The destructible environments add a new wrinkle in what is rapidly becoming a tired formula, giving this series it's own identifiable personality. I know I'm doing these out of order, but with the absolutely awesome looking Battlefield 3 (which, incidentally, is not a sequel to Battlefield: Bad Company 2) coming out next month, I thought I'd take the time to knock out a quick retrospective on the Call of Duty's main competition. Now I don't know which sequel I'm looking forward to more... Battlefield 3 or Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. Either way, a lot of terrorists are going to get shot up this fall.


Score = 8.9 / 10

Monday, October 17, 2011

Assassin's Creed II (9.1/10)

One of the great things about games like Assassin's Creed is there are virtually endless possibilities to expand the created universe. Can you imagine having a person of Japanese origin as the test subject? You could play as his ancestor, a proper ninja in feudal Japan! Seems like the perfect evolution from the Desmond/Altair story arc, doesn't it? However, Ubisoft chose to stick with Desmond's tale, although this time the story takes place in the shared memories of another of his ancestors... a man named Ezio Auditore da Firenze (try saying that three times fast) in Renaissance Italy.

The game starts where the original left off: Desmond and Lucy escaping from the Abstergo Corporation. Something funny is going on with Desmond... there are times when he seems to hang on to some of the skills and abilities (like Eagle Vision) of his infamous ancestor, Altair. But he is still pretty green, as you'll soon find out as he tries to fight with the guards. However, they manage to escape and join a small underground group of assassins working against the ancient Templars and their Abstergo front.

Along with Lucy, Desmond joins Shaun (a smartass historian who seems out of place, solely there to provide crass humor, until you realize just how important his job actually is...) and Rebecca (a computer savvy girl who has built their own Animus) so Desmond can uncover more of the plot hinted at the end of the first game with the glyphs left by the mysterious Subject 16. It's an enigma wrapped in a riddle wrapped in a vest... not unlike Nelson Muntz.  But there is more! They are using the Animus to train Desmond (the aforementioned weirdness causes a "Bleeding Effect," whereby he will retain some of the skills of his forebears) to become a proper assassin and join the Order.

So he agrees to "go back under" as it were, this time revisiting the memories of his ancestor Ezio in Italy. Ezio is a brash young chap, constantly getting into scrapes, chasing after the ladies, and generally being an irresponsible fool. But there is conspiracy and treachery afoot, and soon he finds himself the head of his family. They relocate to his uncle's villa (there is a great insider joke here that I won't spoil...) in Monteriggioni. Therein, Ezio learns that his family has a long history with the Assassin's Order (duh!), so he learns their ways in an effort to avenge his family's honor and stop the Templars. This time the bad guys are various influential families in the Italian nobility, and once again everything revolves around finding the mysterious "Apple of Eden." 

The use of historical fact blended with liberal re-imagination allows the writers to take real world locations, like Rome, with real life historical figures and mix them together to fit the story they are trying to tell. Ezio eventually meets Niccholo Macchiavelli (famous for his writing of The Prince, and his ideology of "The ends justify the means" is incredibly fitting to the Assassin's Creed dogma) and Leonardo da Vinci (one of the most famous, and more importantly, influential inventors and artists in history). They join forces to help stop the Borgia family who are seeking the secrets of the "Apple" for the Templars.

Now, without giving away any spoilers, I'll just say that the story takes a turn at Weird Ave. and Reeeeeaaaaaalllly? St. It's not bad as it is, but I have to agree with Desmond's last words at the end of the game... "What the f***?!" Trust me, play it and see... it's bizarre that they chose to take this story down this path. 

Assassin's Creed 2 plays pretty much the same as the first; however, Rome as the central location for you to explore is truly magnificent... as it must have once been. Not only is it gigantic, but it's wonderfully realized and detailed. I can't emphasize this enough, especially with free-running and exploration at the forefront of the experience. The open world sandbox style lends itself perfectly to this sort of narrative, and there is a ton of stuff out there for you to find.

One of the biggest complaints of the original was the lack of variety in gameplay. AC2 seeks to remedy this by offering plenty more options in story missions. You're no longer stuck doing the same pattern of interrogating people/pickpocketing/eavesdropping to gain enough information to actually go through with assassinating your target. Now it seems like the missions evolve naturally, and things don't always turn out as you might expect. The story missions blend together much more smoothly, and there are plenty of side missions and optional things you can do if you so choose. Finding and looting treasures or completing missions nets you funds you can then spend to upgrade your home base at the villa, right down to purchasing famous artwork to adorn the walls.

There are lots of little things like this that really add to the overall experience. Buying famous works of art to spruce up the homestead is just the beginning. You can even dye Ezio's clothes different colors! Oh, and Ezio can swim, something Altair, for some inane reason, couldn't seem to manage. Since this alternate version of true historical events is the basis for the Assassin's Creed universe, one nice touch is the database whereby you can access tidbits of actual information on the cast and locations. Every time I'd enter a new area or meet a new historical figure I'd take a moment to read up on them. I actually felt like I learned something... which was nice.

One thing that irked me about the first game, as good as it was, was the collectibles. There were feathers and Templars everywhere. If you did them all, you got... bloody nothing! Argh! There are tons of this sort of thing in AC2 as well, but there is actually a pay off this time around. By finding all the feathers your poor deceased younger brother left all over the place, you'll get a cool cape that allows Ezio to walk around each area unmolested. Discovering Codex pages means that your new friend Leonardo da Vinci can make you new weapons, including dual hidden blades (nice!) and even a gun (nicer!)! There are even some rudimentary vehicle sections. What's more, there are now interactive platforming puzzles that far outstrip those from the previous game. These hidden sections are brilliant additions not only for their challenge and entertainment value, but also because they serve to give you a break from the rest of the story. Seek them out, they are totally worth it!

The action is also basically similar with Ezio climbing all over everything and fighting against endless numbers of guards. However, despite the fact that most of your combat is still waiting on your foes to attack so you can counter, there is a lot more variety in both how you approach combat and the enemy types themselves. You can purchase a plethora of weapons to carry; some work better in certain situations than others. Plus, you can actually disarm opponents and use their own weapons against them! Once again the brutal finishing animations left me smiling sadistically. There are a whole bunch of new animations because of all the new weapons. I loved trying to see them all! The climbing/platforming is still hit and miss in my book. It works fine and looks pretty smooth, but you need to have the camera lined up precisely on precarious jumps or Ezio (like Altair before him) will leap majestically into thin air... and then impersonate a pepperoni pizza upon landing.

In fact, I think that the biggest thing going against AC2 (apart from the bizarre conclusion to the story) is the fact that everything is a little too big. With such a huge space to explore, so many hidden things to find, and such a wide spread and complex narrative, it's easy to get overwhelmed. Switching back and forth between Desmond in the present and Ezio in the past can sometimes be a bit jarring, not to mention confusing, as the plot begins to unravel. To do everything in AC2 would involve a major time commitment, and I really don't feel like the game has any replay value. Still, it is what it is, and I really enjoyed my time in Rome.

I honestly feel like the framework created here for "story telling" has a lot of potential. The idea of the Animus is fascinating! While I won't go so far as so suggest that the Assassin's Creed series has limited itself by sticking solely with Desmond, I'd hate to see such potential squandered. AC2 is a great game, fixing the problems of the original and adding a wonderful new world to explore. My only real complaint is that the story has gone a little too far down the proverbial rabbit hole for my taste (hence the fact I scored it the same as the first). With so many things to do in Rome it's easy to lose the thread, a problem compounded in the third installment Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood (to read my review follow the link here). With Assassin's Creed: Revelations upcoming this holiday season supposedly rounding out the Desmond/Altair/Ezio story arc, I'm really hoping Ubisoft will continue the series with a different setting.

Maybe they could do one with someone of South American origin? How cool would it be to play Assassin's Creed in the jungle during Mayan times? So many possibilities...


Score = 9.1 / 10

P.S. It is absolutely worth taking the time to find all of the hidden messages left by Subject 16. Each is part of a video file. Upon finding them all you can watch a short scene that leaves you wondering about the very nature of humanity... our past, present, and future. It's fantastic, if a little over the top.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Rage (8.1/10)

To read the official full length review follow the link here: RAGE.

In the end, Rage reminds me a lot of Borderlands, another game that, while uniquely awesome in its own way, ultimately left me disappointed: same basic locale, same silent protagonist, same pseudo-open world, same focus on driving to missions, same sidequest driven, bare-bones story. To be honest, the fact that Rage is a better shooter with much better vehicle controls is tempered by the lack of RPG elements that would allow you to invest in, or "own," your character. Instead, you're just sort of... there. Having a coherent story to drive the action is necessary, and while we certainly see a distinct lack of that in modern shooters, at least most have more than Rage offers in that regard. Don't get me wrong, Rage is a good game, and one that is certainly worth your time, but I couldn't help feeling like there were a string of missed opportunities to build on a solid foundation that left me not only wanting more, but wondering just how good it could have been. 

If you want to read more of my specific thoughts about the game, follow the link to read the full length review at Game Over Online! 


Score = 8.1 / 10

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Gears of War 3 (9.3/10)

I love the Gears of War series. Seriously, I went out and bought the books that tell the story in between the games. I've even got my own COG tags (thank you GameStop and their PowerUp Rewards program). For the longest time whenever my best friend was in town we would play the first game because the co-op was a blast (probably beat that game over a dozen times easy). As I say, I love these games, but how does the closing chapter of Delta squad's fight against the Locust finally conclude?

The Gears narrative has always forced the player to take certain things for granted... like the fact that all the protagonists seem to be modeled after Ray Lewis, a weapon of mass destruction can be used for tactical strikes without killing everyone in the city, machine guns have chainsaws on them, and the evil Queen of the underground monsters looks and sounds like Judi Dench. What I'm saying is that if you can sit back, crack a beer and lose yourself in the mythology they've created, you'll be less likely to focus on the glaring plot holes that plague the story.

In Gears of War 3 the story delves even further into the weird. After some thought I've decided not to give any plot points at all not because I don't want to spoil anything, but rather because I don't want to waste a ton of time trying to explain it. Now, I'll readily admit I bought the books. They are excellent by the way, if you're a fan of the series you owe it to yourself to peruse them. Check them out, they are by Karen Traviss. The books go a long way to setting up the back-story, adding to the history and mythology Epic has created, and developing the characters. If you didn't read the books, a lot of these little details that expand the universe will be lost on you and you'll be wondering who on earth all these people are.

But from the beginning, even if you've played the first two games, there are new characters and moments that I never felt were properly explained. I played it through again with my friend when he was in town, and I can't remember the number of times he would ask a question about what was going on, and my sole response was "It's in the books...." There are a lot of moments that are clearly intended to surprise and shock (and to a certain extent they do) but it all felt a little too predictable, with a great deal that the writers are asking you to take as a matter of course irregardless of whether or not it's remotely believable. Again, maybe I'm biased because of the books, but there are a lot of questions that went unanswered. If this is, in fact, that last hurrah for the series, then I might feel the slightest bit let down in this regard. Still, I appreciate any series that has become popular enough to branch out to other media: if you read the books you'll get the full story. It's up to you.

But to be honest, the story really just serves as a vehicle for the gameplay, which is once again on the top of its game. The third person, cover-based shooting seems to polarize people: either you love it or you decidedly don't. I count myself firmly in the former camp. It's not just that the weapons are fun, but both the ally and enemy AI are improved greatly and it's got the best cover mechanic in gaming as far as I'm concerned. The fact is that it all flows together virtually seamlessly. 

Early on you'll notice new characters are now joining Delta on the battlefield. It's humanity's last stand and everyone is gearing up (sorry, couldn't resist). Anya has left the operations center and picked up a Lancer, as have some other friends. The problem with having four player co-op is the ally AI will sometimes get in your way... more often than it should. Having someone walk in your line of fire is always tedious. Don't get me wrong, your teammates are more than decent, but what's weird is they aren't always consistent. Allies will lay down fire and actively finish off downed enemies (something I always found amusing), but towards the end of the campaign it seemed like they just stopped trying. I like the fact that having four players fighting together at once means that they can heal you easier. However, the opposite is also true: you need to pay attention and make sure you heal them. And then there are those moments when they will do something inexplicable. Sometimes you'll be down, crawling towards them, slowly dying, and they'll run right past you. Other times, rather than taking cover like a sane person, they will just stand there, getting peppered and taking it.

Gears of War is known, perhaps more than anything else, for making a habit of giving gamers awesome weapons with which to wield destruction. From the iconic Lancer with it's chainsaw bayonet, to the Torque Bow (my favorite) with exploding arrows. Come on, the most famous, the Hammer of Dawn, shoots lasers from space! The new game introduces new options to the arsenal of Delta squad like the One Shot. This massive, super-heavy but incredibly powerful rifle will take out a Reaver with... that's right kids, one shot!  The Locust "Digger" sends out burrowing grenades that will pop up in your face and explode. There are also some old school additions, like a sawed-off shotgun and the Retro Lancer with blade bayonet which is perfect for charging. Hell, you can even pick up a massive cleaver and swing it around melee style if you like. With so many choices at your disposal, it's difficult to know what to choose! Oh, and new weapons mean new finishing moves. Nice!

The original Gears of War set a graphical standard at the time of it's release. It really showed what the new generation of consoles could do. Sure, it's a bit dated now, but this third installment looks absolutely fantastic. You can tell the good people at Epic have been hard at work-gorgeous environments, great lighting and particle effects, and cutscenes that are the best in the series by far.

One minor complaint might be that there are too many vehicle sections. Despite the Brumak bit at the end of Gears 2 (which I loved, by the way), I don't know that these parts fit well with these games. At least this time around you don't have to drive poorly controlled vehicles. They are "on-rails" as it were, so all you have to do just shoot stuff. Actually, I take that back. One addition to the vehicle sections that is welcome is the inclusion of mechs. These machines are called the Silverbacks... and they are suitably badass, as mechs should be. These moments serve as a nice break, but I always end up feeling like this kind of stuff is just filler, used to elongate the game.

The first Gears included finding collectible COG tags. Gears 2 added to this by having intel items that, when found, popped up text that further explained the backstory or adding flavor to the universe. I love hunting for this sort of stuff, and Gears 3 rewards those who like to check every nook and cranny. There is a lot to find, and some of them are fiendishly well hidden.

I've never been huge into online mulitplayer, but I have to say I enjoy Gears of War online. The differing mechanics and cover system make it just different enough, plus you have a whole slew of options. If you don't like playing against other people, grab a couple of buddies and play Horde mode (and the new antithesis, Beast mode, where you control the Locust against the COG). Plus, you can play the campaign all the way through with four player online co-op now.

So how does the third and presumably final installment of this franchise fall in relation to it's brethren? To be honest, I'm going to score them all the same. While the story was a little disjointed, I feel like the gameplay is better than ever. If nothing else, it speaks to the consistency that Epic has brought to the table. Sadly, the ride is over, and I'll admit I'm a little melancholy about it. But having said that, I know the Gears games will have a place on my shelf for the long haul. Marcus and the boys (and girls) from Delta aren't going anywhere. 


Score = 9.3 / 10