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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Top Spin 4 (8.3/10)

To read the official full length review follow the link here: Top Spin 4

In it's finest form, tennis can be more a chess match than a slug-fest. When two equally impressive athletes compete in a duel of wills to see who can outwit whom it becomes a "thinking man's" game with strategy trumping strength. It's been two years since we last stepped onto center court, and 2K Sports has spent a lot of that time revamping their previous installment. They have done a wonderful job capturing the passion and skill of tennis, but it's not without its faults (sorry for the bad pun).

Top Spin 4 has been a lesson in ambivalence for me. I liked it, but couldn't overlook some of it's flaws. But the truth is Top Spin 4 is probably the best tennis game that's been made to date. It's fun to play, and pretty satisfying to blast winners and watch your opponent throw up his (or her) hands in frustration. Tennis fans who are also gamers don't need any convincing, but 2K has done an admirable job of making the fundamentals of the sport more accessible to the casual fan. It may even drive a few people to pick up a racquet and... dare I say it... go outside.  For those of us with bum shoulders (from playing too much bloody tennis apparently), this is a perfectly viable alternative.

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 = 8.3 / 10

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Fight Night Champion (9.1/10)

Before I get started reviewing the excellent Fight Night Champion, I have to tell you how this came about...

When I redesigned the blog I wanted a catchy, memorable name. Perhaps some play on 'Game Over', an obvious video game reference. Of course everyone and their frickin' uncle has a blog these days, and pretty much all the clever names have been used. I tried every variation of the 'Game Over' theme I could think of but they were all taken already. As you know, I ended up settling on Game Over... continue? but my quest got me thinking... is there a 'Game Over' website (my thinking being that at some point in the future I might want my own actual website)? So I googled it and came across

As I looked over the site I noticed that they were looking for contributing writers. On a whim I sent off a quick email linked with my blog with a note saying "Hey, this is my work." sort of thing. To be honest, I didn't expect a response... but I got one.

Stephen, the editor-in-chief of 'Game Over Online,' got back to me saying he liked my stuff and was willing to give me a shot! Would I be interested in writing for them? There was no pay, but they'd send the games for me to review. "Holy fargin' snit!!!" I thought to myself! Our conversation went something like this...

Me: So no pay, but you send me the games?

Him: Yes...

Me: What happens to the games when I'm done? Do I send them back?

Him: You get to keep them.

Me: So let me get this straight... you'll send me games I would have spent 60$ on anyway and I get to keep them after I review them?

Him: *A rather tired* Yes Simon...

Me: Then you are paying me!
followed by a loud "Woo-Hoo" and an ill-advised happy dance

Cool, huh? But what's even better is Stephen sent me a list of all the games coming out for like the next three months saying pick the ones you'd be interested in that aren't already accounted for. I was expecting to be told what games to play (giving the new guy the rubbish if you see what I mean), not given my choice! I didn't want to seem too greedy or anything, so I looked over the list and named a couple that no one else had dibs on. Fight Night Champion immediately leapt off the page. Ironically, I had already reserved it at GameStop with a gift card I got for Christmas.

And lo and behold, I was sent a copy of Fight Night Champion to review for 'Game Over Online.' You can read it below, or go here to read it on the site!

I'm now officially (in my mind at least) a (semi)professional game reviewer! I started the blog to waste time at work and get my two cents out there in the ether, I never really expected it to go anywhere. It was just for a laugh... but once I got going I realized how much I missed writing. I'd forgotten just how cathartic it can be. Just goes to show that you never really know what can happen if you just try sometimes... it's a funny ol' thing life, ain't it?

So special thanks to Stephen at 'Game Over Online' for giving me the opportunity. And a big 'Thank you!' as well to everyone who has helped me edit my work and given me criticism, both constructive and otherwise. It's been greatly appreciated.

Oh, and you know how I reserved Fight Night Champion? Well, since I got my copy a decidedly different way I went back to the GameStop to change it. Put that money on TopSpin 4. Guess what I'm reviewing next? Yup, TopSpin 4. Should be here tomorrow... guess I'll have to head back to GameStop and transfer it to something else!

To read the official full length review follow the link: Fight Night Champion.

The following is a true story...

I was known as "The Warrior" and woe betide anyone stupid enough to step into the ring with me. My record was 7-0, all wins coming via knockout. I'd just been sponsored, money was coming in, and I was moving up the ladder... life was good. Then I ran into Fritz Perkins.

Fritz cleaned my clock, knocked me out cold in the third... and do you know why? Because I foolishly went to a party from my sponsor a week before the fight. Apparently I had such a good time that I couldn't get my stamina back up in time for fight night. My punches had nothing on them and I looked like a zombie as I stumbled about the ring. All Fritzy had to do was wear me down then land that one sweet shot that left me reeling... and I had no one to blame but myself!

As a fan of the pugilistic arts I've played every Fight Night game that has come along. It has been two years since we last stepped into the ring, and a lot has changed. The new 'FSPC' system takes a bit of getting used to, but after some practice you'll be layin' fools out left and right with your left and right. The 'Champion' mode is fantastic, EA is really on to something here. Not only is the classic "hard-luck" boxing cliche still an enjoyable roller-coaster ride, but the top notch production values really draw you in making it more credible. Now, if only we could have some sort of hybrid between the 'Champion' and 'Legacy' modes so I could be the one to be in the middle of the drama. As it stands, Fight Night Champion is the best in the series to date for me, making the sweet science all the sweeter.

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 = 9.1 / 10 

P.S. Oh yeah, remember Fritzy? I challenged that punk to a rematch straight away. I made sure I trained hard and had a good nights sleep the week before the fight. And I beat... his... ASS! Knockout in the second. Hit im' so hard with a left hook he took five steps back before falling on his butt! Served the bugger right, messing up my undefeated record...

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood (8.7/10)

Let me start by saying this... I love the Assassin's Creed series. Ever since I first learned of the ongoing battle between the ancient order of the Assassins and the power hungry Templars I've been hooked. Playing as the ancestors of Desmond Miles, first Altair in the Holy Land during the Crusades and then Ezio Auditore in Renaissance Italy, was not only an intriguing take on alternate history, but also a blast to play! Sadly, with Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, I’m beginning to wonder if Ubisoft isn’t getting caught up in their own cleverness as the narrative becomes increasingly convoluted and nonsensical and the fun gameplay elements get lost amongst some interesting yet ultimately tiring mechanics. All the new bells and whistles are nice, but ultimately only serve to enhance the feeling that it’s just more of the same…

Let’s get the technical stuff out of the way early on here… Rome still looks amazing, although draw distances are still a bit of an issue, as is the odd 'quicksand' wall. Of course, it's massive, so that can be forgiven. Up close the characters still look a little odd, especially their eyes (a complaint I’ve had since the first game). During the cutscenes they all come across looking a little wax sculpture-esque. But once you get out into Rome and start battling the Borgia the rest of the animations look fantastic and fluid. The soundtrack is pretty good although it does get a bit repetitive. The voice-over work and sound effects are well done yet again, no complaints there.

Desmond's continuing story revolves around the group of modern day Assassins taking refuge in Monteriggioni (in his Ezio's former lair no less!) to continue Ezio's story, which is all about getting revenge on the Borgia family and reclaiming Rome from their nefarious clutches. Insurrection, rebellion, revolution! It starts with a bang (both literally and figuratively) but runs out of steam pretty early on.

My problem with these sorts of games is the fact that there is so much going on that you lose the thread. Side quests and optional mini-games are all over the place (more specifics later). This took me ages to finish because I ended up chipping away at the plot. I can’t remember the number of times I would sit down to play Brotherhood and say to myself, "Ohhhkkkay, now what were we doing again?" Don't get me wrong, the writing is clever... but the ending will have you rolling your eyes and wondering what the bloody hell just happened. I’m not sure how much further we can go down the rabbit hole here without popping up in China somewhere. I’m reminded of Desmond's response at the end of AC2, "What... the.... $%*&?" Pretty much sums it up for me...

The weirdness of the plot aside, I'm happy to report that the combat, the reason why I love these games so much, is still excellent. It definitely takes some practice, I've always felt this series has a high learning curve. But if you're patient you'll soon have Ezio dancing through a mob of guards, a veritable whirling dervish of steel... and then as the dust settles they are down and dying while he has nary a scratch! But I fear that much like the previous games you'll still end up just waiting to counter attack. While the accompanying animations are brilliant (and different for each weapon, so it's worth trying out your whole arsenal), this does make things a bit predictable.

Of course, this time around you have help in taking down your target. Recruiting assassins to fight the good fight alongside you is what Brotherhood is all about (kinda obvious really, considering the title...). Some viewpoints, where Ezio gets a look at the surrounding area from on high, are now home to garrisons of Borgia troops. By assassinating the captain and burning the tower to the ground you remove the negative Borgia influence on the area. As a result, the disgruntled locals with revolt. If you aid them, they will join your cause.

Once you have recruited some comrades, you can target an enemy and with a quick button press call them into action! They'll pounce down from rooftops or ride up on horseback, do the dirty work, and disappear into the shadows! They gain experience in battle which can then be used to upgrade their weapons and armor. You can even customize their uniforms (plain ol' Assassin's white is boring don’t you think?)!

As clever as it is though, it may make the game a touch too easy. You don't really have to do much more than get into position, then signal your mates to take care of the bad guys. Fortunately, Brotherhood has another trick up its sleeve. In what amounts to a menu driven mini-game, you can send your fledgling assassins out into the world to fight against the evil Templars. Some of these missions are actually historically accurate assassinations, while others are simple tasks like "Protect a banker" or "Beat up a Judge."

Each mission has a level of difficulty, one through five. As a result, each assassin has a corresponding percentage 'chance of success' depending on their skill level. If it's lower, you run the risk of your disciple dying in the effort. Thankfully you can send more than one out to do the deed and tip the odds in your favor. Once they are off they will be unavailable for the duration of that mission which correlates to an in-game clock. For example, you send three of your new boys (or girls) out to assassinate some Duke in France and they will be gone for nine minutes of game time. It's a fun set up and is surprisingly addictive. As soon as I saw one of my recruits was back I’d immediately look on the map for the nearest pigeon coop so I can send him off again.

An issue with Brotherhood I alluded to earlier is one I had with AC2; namely that there is simply too much to do! I love the idea of buying up properties and businesses in order to rejuvenate Rome from the negative influence of the Borgia but I feel it has almost been taken too far. There is a lot of stuff to purchase, and to do so you need funds. Every twenty minutes of game time a deposit will be made into your bank, the amount based on what you own. As you purchase property or historical locations, that amount goes up. Take the money, buy more property, repeat. It can be a vicious cycle and it ends up feeling more like a chore. I've found myself placing Ezio on a bench somewhere, then getting up and making a cup of tea and a sandwich just so I could keep the clock running and put more money in my pocket.

Unfortunately, this hits a wall about two thirds of the way through. Towards the end it seemed I had renovated not only all of Rome but seemingly half of Italy as well. But like clockwork more money was deposited. I had hundreds of thousands of florins nestled in my waist pouch but there was nothing left to spend the money on! I guess that's not such a bad thing, but I felt like the pacing of this was off...

Another problem for me deals with the synchronization. In the previous titles, you had to complete 'x' number of tasks to achieve complete sync. Now, 100% synchronization is only possible by completing side objectives as you complete the mission. But what if you screw up? I get what you are trying to do Ubisoft, make us play the missions over and over again. But in my opinion this backfires because by defining what you must do, you remove the originality inherent with what you can do. That has always been one of the hallmarks of the series for me, the freedom to take down a mark as I see fit. It's part of what makes it so fun!

Brotherhood also heralds one of the biggest additions to the Assassin’s Creed universe in the new multiplayer. Those of you who are regular readers know I don’t like playing with others much, but this sounds so badass I might have to dip my toes in that pool at some point! Stalking real people as they stalk me sounds like a good laugh if nothing else.

While I really enjoyed most of Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, I have to say that it still feels a little too familiar. Pretty much everything is intact in Ezio's universe from AC2. It seems like this is a direct sequel to that game alone rather than another installment in the series. The new additions to the gameplay are interesting, but ultimately don’t cover up the fact that it feels like Ubisoft is trying to cash in on the brand. Admittedly you don’t have to do all the optional bits. In fact, I’m really tempted to try and do a ‘speed run’ of Brotherhood, skipping all the superfluous stuff, just to see if I like it better…

I feel like I've been overly negative in this review but I have a real fear with Ubisoft and their plans to make Assassin’s Creed an annual release. As much as I hate to say it, Brotherhood really does feel like Assassin’s Creed 2.5 (I know there are plenty out there who disagree, and that’s just fine). That's just my opinion, but for me personally I just didn't have as much fun with Brotherhood as I did with the others. It’s not a bad game by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s time to move on from Ezio and Italy. I’m ready for the next chapter, and a return to the intrigue that made the first two games so compelling in the first place…


Score = 8.7 / 10

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Mass Effect (9.7/10)

I’ve been putting off reviewing Mass Effect for a while now. I couldn’t seem to find the proper words to express just how awesome this game is... I know I’ve talked before about how games need to be experienced, but for me Mass Effect epitomizes just what that means. Mass Effect is more than just a fantastic story and a great shooter/RPG… it has created an entire alternate universe and mythology for science fiction fans to lose ourselves in. It is, in my humble opinion, the best series available at the moment. And your journey starts here...

In the not too distant future mankind uncovers alien artifacts when we first land on Mars. The technology gleaned from these discoveries allows humanity to spread out into the solar system, where they make an even bigger discovery: a Mass Relay. These ginormous constructs allow FTL (faster than light) travel, literally sling-shoting a ship to another point in the galaxy where we find, much to our chagrin, that we aren’t alone after all. Mass Effect takes place a generation after this first contact is made. And this is where you come in, taking the role of Commander Shepard.

Shepard (who is completely customizable down to sex, appearance, combat specialization, and even his/her back story) is an elite soldier, one of humanity’s finest. Your assignment is aboard the SSV Normandy, a newly designed stealth ship and the pride of the new navy. However, when the Normandy is on her maiden voyage they receive a distress call from Eden Prime. A monumental discovery has been made: another artifact of the Protheans, similar to what was found on Mars. Now the site is under attack, someone is after the find...

Shepard is also under consideration for the Spectres (Special Tactics and Reconnaissance)… the elite security force for the Supreme Galactic Council. Basically, a Spectre is sort of a 007 agent meets Black Ops of the future, given free license to get the job done. And Shepard could be the first human into this illustrious fold, an unprecedented honor and symbolic of how far humanity has come in such a short time on the intergalactic stage. Naturally there is a conspiracy for Shepard to unravel, along with the bigger mystery surrounding the theft of the Prothean artifact. But as the story develops you'll learn of a far greater threat to not only humanity, but to all the citizens of the galaxy...

I can’t stress enough how good the writing is in Mass Effect, and not just the boatloads of dialogue. The overarching narrative is smartly conceived, born of an intergalactic history that you learn as you play. Some of it comes across in dialogue, but other times it’s downloaded into your ‘Codex’ which is essentially the Mass Effect version of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. After meeting a new species you can check the guide for more information. A lot of effort was put into this, and I think it’s brilliant.

There a lot of twists and turns to the plot. When you actually find out what’s going on it’s such a "Holy crap! Now, THAT was clever!" moment I nearly fell off the couch! Sci-fi nerds will eat it up! It’s some of the best story-telling I’ve ever been privy to, but on a much larger scale than we've seen before making it even more impressive.

Now, Mass Effect is a Bioware game… and this means a morality system! This time good versus evil has been nicknamed 'Paragon' versus 'Renegade.' Pretty much every conversation has some variation on that dynamic: you'll see a "nice" response, a "neutral" one, and the "jerk" one. There are several well written morally gray areas, and as with other Bioware titles, some of your responses can affect how the story plays out in dramatic ways. Some of these moments are heart-wrenching, as you are given to seemingly irreconcilable options to choose between. I couldn't wait to play the game a second time to see how those moments might have played out differently. 

I also like the fact that Shepard actually has a voice… as opposed to the mute protagonists that we’ve been forced to endure in previous Bioware titles. What’s clever is that rather than reading your response verbatim, you select what is basically a paraphrased response giving you the tone or flavor of what Shepard will actually say. It keeps the player paying attention rather than just glazing over the text...

When it comes to combat there are essentially three classes: soldier (good with guns, although the guns are fairly standard fare), tech (good with ordinance and the omnitool… basically, a futuristic wrist watch that can do all sorts of fun stuff), or a biotic (good with… well, let’s call em ‘Force’ powers for lack of a better descriptive). There are also various combinations of those three, like a tech-savvy soldier or my personal favorite, the pseudo- ‘warrior monk’ (combination of soldier and biotic). 

Joining you on your merry quest through the stars is a group of truly memorable characters that you might find yourself getting more than a little attached to… and that’s not just because you can boink some of them! As your progress through the story you can go about the Normandy and talk to each teammate. Each time you engage them in conversation they will have something new to say, providing snippets of background, or perhaps even asking for your help in solving some dispute from their past. I found the evolution of my cohorts addictive, routinely running through the whole ship, cornering each one just to see if they had anything new to say. Again, your responses play in heavily here, but I can’t think of very many games where such character development is also so well rounded.

Your supporting cast also have their own combat specializations as well. The trick comes in when you assemble your team. Like any RPG, you’ll want a well balanced party. Just make sure you have tech (or part tech) at all times to unlock doors… their only useful ability if you ask me.

Regardless of your class choice the combat is pretty standard third person cover based shooter. The controls when running and gunning are good but not great. However, if you want to use any of your special skills or command your teammates to do the same you can pull up a radial menu that pauses the action. You can then select your desired skill, un-pause and play it out. Fortunately, your ally AI does a pretty decent job on it’s own… micromanaging them isn’t too necessary in my opinion.

The RPG element in this shooter/RPG is a fairly well rounded upgrade system. Shepard and his/her team gain experience and level up as you might expect. When you attain a new level you spend skill points on certain characteristics unique to each class be it becoming more proficient with sniper rifles, increasing the radius of your 'Singularity' biotic power, or upgrading your skill at hacking doors with your omnitool.

Then there are the weapons and armor… you’ll find a lot of loot. An inordinate amount of time will be spent passing it around between your team mates. The problem is that you can only change the equipment of those in your party. Aboard the Normandy you'll have to search through the locker of each teammate one by one. Why this can't be done in a menu I don't know, but by the end of the game it was wearing on my nerves a bit.

From a graphical standpoint Mass Effect is pretty impressive. Both the environments and the animations look great (although Shepard looks like he's running in pudding for some reason). There are some glitches, but considering how massive the game is that can be overlooked. And yes, the NPC’s have the classic 'Bioware stare' during conversation making them seem a tad robotic. Personally, I really like the "grainy" effect that gives the visuals a sort of vintage sci-fi feel like in old movies. Of course, if that's not your thing you can always turn it off.

As for the sound, I think it’s fantastic. The voice work, by and large, sounds great. When you consider the sheer amount of dialogue in this game it’s impressive that all the performances are so good. But for me personally, I love the soundtrack… like to the point that I actually went online and bought the CD. That’s right, I purchased the CD of a video game...

As much as I love the Mass Effect universe, this first game is not without a few blemishes that slightly mar the overall experience. Sure, you can customize your Shepard however you want, but trying to create an accurate looking avatar is an exercise in futility. You’ll end up looking more alien than the aliens themselves. The elevator rides are frustratingly long. The hacking mini-game is annoying (at least on the console version). You’ll find yourself saving before every door in case you screw up. Planet hopping was a cool idea but just didn’t work well in practice. The Mako (your all-terrain vehicle) handles like a drunken mule with a propensity to bunny hop about the landscape. Still, these are minor complaints and the story and characters completely overshadow them.

While it may seem like hyperbole, the canon of Mass Effect has evolved in depth and complexity to the point that it rivals the most popular franchises like Star Wars or Star Trek. I imagine you are rolling your eyes at my blasphemy, but if you really take the time to plumb the depths of what Mass Effect has to offer I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. It's an outstanding testament to the efforts of the team at Bioware and stands as a beacon for what games can be as a medium for telling a story. This first chapter starts what has become one of the marquis series of this generation. Plus, if you play your cards right and you can end up having the highly touted, yet highly controversial "blue-alien lesbian sex" (if your Shepard is a woman). Such are the perks of saving the galaxy...


Score = 9.7 / 10

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (8.0/10)

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West was one of those titles I was intrigued by, but ultimately didn't have time to play. I was a fan of Ninja Theory's other work Heavenly Sword and love Andy Serkis with a passion, so I picked it up a while after release on the cheap. And I have to say, I'm glad I did because the story is fantastic... but the game itself has a couple of prominent flaws that hold it back.

Enslaved tells the story (apparently loosely based on a famous Chinese fable called Journey to the West... I've personally never read it, but hear it is fantastic) of a misfit with the rather apt moniker of Monkey (Andy Serkis). The tale starts as Monkey is fleeing a burning slave ship with a young woman named Trip (Lindsey Shaw, who is also very good in her role).

But after a bumpy landing, Monkey awakes to discover Trip has attached a slave headband to him. She enslaves him... see? Trip has set it so that he will feel a blast of pain at her command. Hopefully, this will keep him compliant. And if he gets any clever ideas (like snapping her neck for instance) the headband will unleash a lethal dose. If she dies, then so shall he (you can already see the basic gameplay coming into shape can't you?)

The end result is that they are stuck together; an unlikely duo. She promises that if Monkey can get her home, then she will release him. Problem is her home is three hundred miles across the wasted ruins of the Eastern seaboard crawling with evil robots... she can't do it alone. And while she abhors herself for what she had to do to poor Monkey, she had no choice. While I don't want to give too much away, the story develops about as you would expect (barring a brilliant ending that I didn't see coming). It's at times heartfelt and poignant, at times funny, and at times exciting.

It's funny, I'm not sure if it's the writing or the brilliant performances put in by the cast but I can't honestly remember the last time I was so absorbed with the story and characters in a game. I can tell you that the astonishing facial animations along with the brilliant voice work and motion capture of Andy Serkis, give these slightly cartoonish characters an unbelievable amount of personality. I can't honestly think of a game where raw emotion has been so well captured, it really is quite impressive. It's in the eyes... 

But it's the gameplay and design where Enslaved is really a bit of a head scratcher (please imagine a monkey scratching his head... thank you). There are some really cool elements at play here... but they don't go anywhere. Monkey has a staff that serves as his primary weapon. You have your standard light and heavy attacks that can be mixed up to form combos. These are perfectly satisfying, but don't evolve at all. The combat is essentially the same from beginning to end. I don't know if it's because I read about this problem in other reviews, but I couldn't seem to get that thought out of my head... it became more obvious the longer I played that I was simply spamming the same attacks over and over.

The other thing is the platforming. Monkey lives up to his name, climbing acrobatically all over pretty much everything. It looks amazing (the animations look great the first few times but quickly become repetitive)... but it's actually surprisingly easy. If Monkey can jump from one place to the next, he will do so, but if he can't then he won't... so you won't end up leaping to your death like you do in other games (Assassin's Creed for example). At first this might not seem like such a bad thing, but by removing any inherent difficulty that comes from the decidedly risky endeavor of climbing around simian-style, the truth is it actually makes things a little boring as all you are doing is watching the same animations ad nauseum. For such an agile chap, it's surprising where he can't go if you see what I mean...

Then there is Trip. Monkey must protect her, that's part of the deal. You only play as Monkey, but can control Trip from a menu of preset actions. You can tell her to wait or create a diversion, things like that. If she does get cornered she will release an EMP blast to stun the bad bots, but it takes a while to recharge so you have to be on your toes. On the whole though she seems to stay out of the way pretty well.

One of the bigger complaints for me is the camera. It's sort of a pseudo-360 degree camera that the player controls some of the time... but it only seems to work properly half the time. There seem to be a lot of invisible barriers that interfere with the camera as you are panning around. This causes rapid zooms or worse, leaving you staring right into a wall. It can make combat frustrating. Other times the camera will randomly change to a different perspective when you enter a new area. If you had Monkey running in a certain direction the change in angle means he'll suddenly take a right turn into a brick wall. It's not a game breaker, it's just annoying. 

While the facial animations are some of the very best I've seen, the rest of the game is a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to graphics. Some of the environments are stunningly vibrant and rich. But upon closer inspection some parts are almost last-gen quality. It's a weird dichotomy. But with the market over-saturated with post apocalyptic wastelands colored in browns and grays it's nice to see some color at the end of the world.

Then there are the orbs... oh, those orbs! Trip can upgrade Monkey's staff or shield if he collects red orbs from fallen foes or finds them on their travels. And that ain't hard because they are everywhere... I enjoy running around each level and checking every nook and cranny (I do that anyway) but this is a bit ridiculous. It feels more like a chore...

I really enjoyed Enslaved, but felt that as good as it was it could have been better. Bashing the snot out of the mechanical menace is pretty fun, but it does get fairly stale. Taking the combat mechanics from God of War or even Heavenly Sword would have given the player more options to keep the action fresh. The camera can be a pain in the butt. The platforming looks cool, but offers no real challenge. I would have loved to be more free in that respect, I think Assassin's Creed climbing mechanics with this story would have been awesome. But all in all, I think it's worth checking out simply for the 'Steam-punk version of The Matrix' story and the wonderful performances put in by Andy Serkis and Lindsey Shaw.


Score = 8.0 / 10

Monday, March 7, 2011

Little Big Planet 2 (9.6/10)

See people? This is how you do a sequel. Little Big Planet 2 epitomizes the term in every sense of the word. It took everything that worked in the first title, fixed the stuff that need fixing, and added a whole bunch of mechanics and clever ideas to make it new and refreshing. Everything from racing mini-games to 2-D side scrolling shooters have joined the classic platforming of the original, giving your Sackperson much more variety in his/her/its antics. Plus, with the ability to import your Sackperson from the first game, you won't miss a beat!

The story is slightly more involved this time around as the Negativitron, a giant evil vacuum cleaner, is wreaking havoc by sucking all of the imagination and creativity out of Craftworld. Joining with Larry Da Vinci and Avalon Centrifuge, you help to create an 'Alliance' to fight back! It's a much more cohesive narrative, and consequently makes the 'Story' mode much more enjoyable (although, the final confrontation with the nefarious hoover is a pain in the butt...). It's a good laugh and each unique land you visit in Craftworld is wonderfully detailed and cleverly designed. Once again there are goodies hidden all over the place ensuring that you'll need to play it through multiple times with some friends to get them all.

The fun (yet occasionally frustrating) platforming that is the core of LBP's gameplay returns in spades. The realistic physics engine once again means you need to be paying attention as you run, jump, and swing around each level. The 'not quite 3-D' depth to the 2-D side scrolling is back, giving a layered effect to level design. If you played the first game then this is all old hat to you, but this time Media Molecule have mixed things up with some new toys thrown in to keep it fresh. The most notable of these are the 'Grappling Hook' and the 'Grabinator.'

The 'Grappling Hook' works pretty much as you would expect... you can shoot a line at an object and grapple onto it. But what's clever is that you can control the length of the line, allowing you to change the arc of your swing and therefore the angle of your flight. It takes a bit of practice, you must once again be aware of the realistic physics at work here.

The 'Grabinator' allows you to pick up objects (and other Sackpeople) you normally wouldn't be strong enough to lift and toss them around the place. This comes into play in all sorts of interesting ways like activating switches high up on walls and becomes integral in the pseudo-boss fights at the end of each world. 

There is also a new emphasis put on 'drivable' vehicles. These are things like piloting a bee in a 2-D side scrolling shooter reminiscent of an overly cute version of R-Type or racing a caterpillar the size of a school bus (relatively speaking) up the side of a tree in a top down racing simulator that reminded me somewhat oddly of Spy Hunter. Oh, and I mustn't forget the souped-up rabbits and hamsters on meth that you can control in more traditional platforming levels.

Then there are the Sackbots. I love these little guys/girls/things. Basically they are pre-programmed NPC's that follow a set of commands. Sometimes this is simply following your Sackperson around a level, but other times they have more active roles. I don't want to spoil any of the clever uses Media Molecule has come up with for them, so I won't say anymore other than I can't wait to see what the community makes of them as they create their own levels.

The end result of all these additions allows a whole new perspective on level design. There are so many options that, in the story mode at least, some of it feels under-utilized. It's almost like the classic platforming took a back seat to all the new bells and whistles. Still, all these new choices mean that the LBP community has a whole slew of fun new alternatives to experiment with when they create their own levels.

While I only dabbled in the level creator of LBP 2 (too much to do, too little time...), I have to say that at first glance it seems more user friendly. Media Molecule have obviously gone to great lengths to make it even more accessible... but that said, I still get the impression that it will take a rather large time commitment to really get good with these. While I lack the artistic flair (and patience) to create anything remotely interesting, I'm happily looking forward to what the community at large comes up with this time around. While it hasn't been out for very long, some of the stuff that has been created already is mind-boggling. The future is bright, especially once people have more time to play with the new controls. Plus, there is a much more accessible filter, so you can sort through the crap (and let's be real, there is a fair amount of crap out there...) and get to the good stuff!

I'll mention quickly that the graphics in LBP 2 haven't changed much since the original... if anything the levels the designers at Media Molecule have created are even more colorful and epileptic-fit inducing. To be honest, it can almost be too distracting if you see what I mean...

In what some have labeled a controversial move, LBP 2 actually gives voices to some of the characters. Rather than the nonsensical (yet adorable) gibberish spouted by the NPC's in the first game, main story characters have dialogue in what can loosely be called 'cutscenes.' For the most part they work, and I enjoyed the addition... but that said Stephen Fry still steals the show once again. Oh, and the soundtrack is much better this time around.

In the end, Little Big Planet 2 may be the rarest of things... a successful sequel that not only improves upon the original but also expands on it without sacrificing its soul. While it's probably a bit redundant to say if you liked the first, you'll love the second (duh!) I think what this entire series has to offer to both the casual and more hardcore gamers out there simply can't be understated. Giving the public the tools to allow us to give birth to our own brainchilds remains a stroke of genius. So again, thank you to Media Molecule for their efforts, and a big thank you to all those out there in the ether who are taking the time to make levels for the rest of us to enjoy!


Score = 9.6 / 10

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

BulletStorm (8.4/10)

I've been looking forward to  BulletStorm since I first saw it in Game Informer last year. I'm a huge fan of Epic and their Gears of War series and had heard good things about People Can Fly, the main developers. But just like everything with a Star Wars logo on it that has come out in the last, oh... fifteen years, I think my expectations were just too high. It's got a great gimmick and can be a blast to play, but I found myself curiously disappointed...

BulletStorm revolves around Grayson Hunt, a badass (former) soldier, and his team of space pirate mercenaries. The game starts with Grayson, drunk as usual, coming out of a warp right next to the ship of his nemesis and former boss, General Sarrano. This unexpected turn of events causes Grayson to completely lose his nut and he decides to go out in a blaze of glory... by flying straight through the command ship. After a brief flashback explaining his disdain for their former commander (let's just say they have good reason to be pissed... and pissing off elite operatives is never a wise choice), the team crash lands on the rather intriguing planet of Stygia. It's a beautiful paradise resort planet... but something has gone horribly wrong.

Somehow surviving the impact Grayson teams up with Ishi Sato, one of his former brothers in arms. Ishi didn't fair too well in the crash and has been hastily patched up into a sort of hybrid cyborg construct (and is severely annoyed with Grayson for his ill conceived attack). They learn that Sarrano's ship crash landed as well, and that the bastard is still alive! They reluctantly team up to pursue... and promptly run into the local denizens who, it turns out, are not in a particularly welcoming mood...

I think the "story" in BulletStorm is supposed to be fairly tongue-in-cheek, providing an excuse for the awesome gunplay mechanic and 'Skill Shot' leveling system. Sure, the banter of Grayson and his teammates is amusingly awful (I'm pretty sure I learned a couple of new swear words... and how to use the old ones to form entirely new sentences!), but then that's part of the shtick! It doesn't take itself seriously so you certainly shouldn't. Still, it takes some clever, if obvious, twists that made me laugh.

Soon after leaving the wreckage Grayson finds a 'Leash'... but not just any leash! An illegal personal modification, this energy leash only allows him to grab enemies or parts of the environment (like, say, exploding barrels) and fling them willy-nilly all over the battlefield. Grabbing an enemy and pulling him towards you only to kick him in the face then blast him with a machine gun as he goes flying back is suitably satisfying. But more importantly, the leash has a sort of pseudo-A.I. which keeps track of Grayson's exploits. Points are given out for especially disgusting or clever kills. Those points are then spent purchasing new weapons and ammo or upgrading the current loadout.

And this is where the game gets fun (and the reason it has been so widely anticipated). There are over 100 different 'Skill Shots' ranging from the simple 'Headshot' (shoot the bad guy in the face) to 'Vertigo' (kicking the bad guy off of a cliff) to 'Afterburner' (killing the bad guy who is on fire). But that's the easy stuff... shoot the bad guy in the crotch, then finish them off with a kick to the head is called 'Mercy' and earns you more points. There are environmental kills ('Pricker' involves impaling some poor sod on a cactus) and weapon specific 'Skill Shots' as well. As you play through the game and unlock newer and more intriguing weaponry (the Flail Gun rules, I had endless fun with that...), you'll be licking your lips in anticipation as you ponder the mere possibilities.

I love the pseudo-arcady style this scoring system brings to BulletStorm. But it actually becomes challenging... as you challenge yourself to attempt crazier kills to earn more points. You are limited only by your imagination... have fun with it, that's the point! Sure, you can get by spamming the same basic attacks but where is the fun in that? I found myself constantly looking around the immediate area to see what I could impale my foes upon, and what would explode if I could toss someone over there...

That said, I was never completely sold on the controls. They work pretty well, but don't seem to do exactly what I expect all the time. Noooooo... I wanted to grab that guy with the leash then kick him into his friends after I had wrapped a grenade around his balls... not chuck him into that nearby cactus. I guess it's too much to expect the A.I. to know what you meant to do, but still. Oh, and hit detection seems a bit wonky. The threat indicator isn't particularly reliable either... I'm getting whacked but I can't tell from where!

Some of the levels seem cleverly designed first until you realize they are really just corridors with lots of invisible walls to bang your head against. I was surprised by this linearity, usually you really didn't have many options to flank your opponents. Seems like this game would have been ideal for that.

I'm a bit disappointed with BulletStorm from a graphical standpoint. Don't get me wrong, it looks pretty good, but I was expecting more since Epic (the makers of Gears of War) was involved. The lip-syncing and cutscene close ups weren't particularly impressive. There's a lot going on at every given moment, and the environments look nice, but I couldn't escape the feeling that it could have looked better, more polished... but maybe that's just me.

What really shocked me though was I ran into a couple of HUGE glitches. At one point, one of my NPC  teammates stood in the middle of the only pathway through an area and wouldn't bloody move. I had to reload from the previous checkpoint. It didn't set me too far back, but was still a "Huh, what the hell..." moment. The other was a reload issue during the one major boss fight in the game. Like an idiot, I managed to die. But when I reloaded to do it again it was like the environment around the boss didn't load. There was the boss (okay), and the background (good so far) but nothing to stand on. Reloading the checkpoint did nothing. In the end, I had to restart the entire chapter... this was severely annoying.  There was also a fair amount of lag even in the single player campaign (in the Xbox 360 version anyway). This sort of stuff should never find its way into the final build of a game...

But ultimately, BulletStorm is fun... a lot of fun. I guess at the end of the day that is what's most important. Doling out the pain has rarely been as laugh-out-loud enjoyable (for all us sadists that is...). I didn't try the multiplayer, but I imagine it would be a riot with friends. As frustrated as I got at some points, and as disappointed (that's mildly disappointed) as I was with the overall product, I can't seem to get it out of my mind. I doubt it will be long before I'm back on Stygia with Grayson and Ishi finding new and interesting ways to thoroughly ruin the day of anyone stupid enough to cross our paths.


Score = 8.4 / 10