NES Remix 1 and 2

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NES Remix 1 and 2

I always view the NES era of gaming through sugar-frosted spectacles, forever unable to uncover much fault in this special time when I started identifying myself as a gamer.  Sharing notebooks full of passwords on the bus, the two-month long wait for Nintendo Power in the mailbox, and saving every penny for a year in order to buy Kid Icarus, these are the memories of a wonderful childhood.  Honestly, how can anyone really not love Nintendo?

NES-Remix

If you have ever left a game on pause overnight so as not to lose progress, you know exactly where I’m coming from.  Both volumes of NES Remix were made for people like us, the kids who could beat Castlevania in one sitting or still remember the location of every power up in Bionic Commando.  If you can still navigate through the Lost Woods from memory or decimate Ridley without taking damage, you will certainly find something to enjoy in NES Remix.

Think of NES Remix as your Nintendo favorites perfectly packaged for generation ADD.  Each game is broken into familiar bite-sized chunks that must be completed quickly in order to succeed.  Finishing levels earns the gamer stars, and stars unlock more levels and different titles.  You can also earn stamps to place on messages you leave for members of the Wii community, which Nintendo seems to think is better than a point-based achievement or trophy system.  Personally I would prefer a traditional ranking system where I could match up and meet with new players, but Nintendo doesn’t want their own army of Xbox Live assholes, and I can’t exactly blame them for that.

NES-Remix

Between both volumes of the series, tons of old favorites make appearances. Only a few of the choices are questionable, especially the “what in the fuck were they thinking” inclusion of the obscure and extremely terrible Wario’s Woods.  I would rather play through Captain Novalin (the 8-bit train wreck about living with diabetes) than be subjected to one more minute of Wario or his hackneyed woods.

The remix part comes in with 60 plus special challenges that completely change the familiar levels and games around.  Playing Donkey Kong with Link (who can’t jump) or plowing through lights-out Excitebike are just two of the awesome tweaks that make this the mode worthy of the purchase.  Some of the challenges are downright brutal. For example, imagine playing Balloon Fight (aka C-List Joust) while the screen continually shrinks.  The remix levels are hands down the hardest to complete, and they will certainly test your 8-bit mettle.

NES-Remix

Besides the palpable ire you will feel for Wario’s Woods, this game will also make you loathe the primitive jumping mechanics in Ice Climbers.  I never played it in my youth, but had I, this would have been the first game that made me contemplate unnecessary controller abuse.  You can’t float your jumps at all, which makes for an excruciating platforming experience, especially by today’s standards.

NES-Remix

The only other major problem I had was with the lack of attention given to Punch Out.  Most of the Mario titles get 20 plus levels, but Punch Out only gets seven?  And the final level is literally just you watching Doc train Little Mac in the park?  Punch Out deserves so much more than some slapped together levels.  Soda Popinski, Bald Bull, and Super Macho Man don’t even make appearances. Piston Honda serves as the final challenge, which is like getting a beer half filled with head—it’s still tasty, but it feels so incomplete.

Rumors are swirling that SNES remix is next.  If this is any indication of the direction the big N is willing to take with their back catalogue, they can just go ahead and take my ten bucks.

 

 

 

 

 

Dark Souls 2

Dark Souls changed the way I play video games.  Every other modern game seems undemanding in comparison, and certainly not half as fulfilling.~Eric Hollis

Dark Souls 2

The original Dark Souls is one of my favorite titles of all time.  Truth be told, I hated it the first time I picked it up.  I couldn’t even defeat the first boss, and in a fit of geek rage I took the game back to the store, vowing to play something more enjoyable. This decision to give up so easily haunted my pixilated nightmares.  Six months later I attempted it again and I’ve never looked back, it’s slowly becoming one of my favorite games of all time.  The main reason: it’s so damn rewarding.  Sure, it’s tougher than leather, but also completely fair, impatience and bad timing are your greatest enemies, not the gigantic bosses who can (and will) demolish your health bar in one well-timed combination. Needless to say the sequel had a lot to live up to.

Dark Souls 2 - Gameplay

Thankfully From Software hasn’t made many changes to the original formula that still feels so close to perfection.  The game is a lot prettier graphically than the original, oceanfront hub Majula is certainly a more visually comforting place than Firelink Shrine, though both areas function exactly the same.  Bosses are consistently brutal and seem to appear a lot more frequently, and normal enemies can still take your souls after one ill-timed blocking attempt.  Prepare to die.  Often.

Dark Souls 2 - Gameplay

Dark Souls 2 also never holds your hand or provides more information than absolutely necessary.  I’ve had numerous friends restart entirely after finding out they were using items the wrong way or making character builds that just don’t succeed in combat.  I even completely respec’d my own character after I realized that a very strong shield was needed to get past a certain boss.  Granted, you can locate tons of information on the internet, but that takes away all of the gratification earned by figuring things out for yourself.  Playing this with a walkthrough will completely rob you of one of the most worthwhile and demanding gaming experiences out there.

Dark Souls 2 - Gameplay

One major tweak that might infuriate gamers is the new health bar reduction.  When you die, a small portion of your health bar is permanently removed.  The only way to restore it is with a very rare item called an effigy; these also essentially replace humanity from the first game.  This new twist on the formula made me a lot more cautious at first, but eventually I just learned to function with half a health bar at all times.

Dark Souls 2 - Gameplay

The other major change is the ability to fast travel from the very beginning of your quest.  The player didn’t gain this ability until roughly halfway through the original and it definitely changes the overall pacing of the game for the better.  I was never faced with conquering one boss to move forward, there were always at least three paths open to me I could utilize at any time.  This overcomes this sheer frustration I felt on the first title when I was stuck in Anor Londo for over a week trying to best Orenstein and Smough.  There are always multiple options in Dark Souls 2, which in a title this exhausting can never be a bad thing.

Dark Souls 2 - Gameplay

Dark Souls changed the way I play video games.  Every other modern game seems undemanding in comparison, and certainly not half as fulfilling.  When I walk up to an unopened treasure chest I always take a precautionary swing.  Always.  Even if I think there is no danger, I do it just in case the chest turns into a toothy monster ready to devour me down to the marrow.  I expect a trap around every corner because there usually is one.  It’s made me a shaky, paranoid mess and I’ve begged for and enjoyed every single second of it.

Dark Souls 2 - Gameplay

Dark Souls 2 is more addictive than pure heroin.  I’ve never done heroin, but I have a few friends that have.  I’m basing this statement on how quickly they were willing to sell me their game collections to obtain more heroin.

World of Tanks

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World of Tanks Xbox 360

I would have gotten more enjoyment out of World of Tanks if the learning curve was a little more gradual. Unfortunately, the game throws you into the fray with about as much wartime knowledge as Maxwell Klinger.  This is certain to minimally frustrate even the most seasoned gamer. ~Eric Hollis

There’s something about reviewing a free-to-play game that makes me feel extremely ungrateful.  I’d never complain about a free lunch, or a mercy hand job, so I certainly have no room to complain about a free game, right? Wrong. But at least World of Tanks doesn’t feel like either a free-to-play crapfestival or a micro transactional grind, both of which make it an extremely refreshing and pleasant change, especially on the 360.

World of Tanks - Xbox 360

If you love blowing up tanks with other tanks, you couldn’t ask for a better game.  While the content is a little dumbed down from the PC version, you still can choose between multiple vehicles from American, German, and British stables.  Upgrading said vehicles can become a chunky grind. Even if you are willing to throw down real cash for a new ride, you still have to play multiple matches with each vehicle to move to the next tier.  The higher-level beasts will take most players weeks to obtain, and that’s with a lot of dedication and perseverance.  One hundred plus hours of gametime that cost absolutely zero is nothing to scoff at, especially when you aren’t getting something that feels even close to a budget title.  Hell, I’ve played tons of sixty-dollar games that, by comparison, should be ashamed they charged at all.

World of Tanks - Xbox 360

The premise of World of Tanks is simple—it’s a third-person shooter that uses tanks instead of soldiers.  Players participate in large 15 on 15 battles that involve either capturing a base or annihilating the enemy team.  The seven included maps represent varied terrain. Fortunately this concept works very well. As far as control, besides a few tweak to the aiming, if you’ve ever played Battlefield, you’ve already learned everything about the actual controls you need to know.  There’s also a very brief tutorial that explains how to traverse the map.  Unfortunately, map use is about all that is explained, which led to my biggest frustrations with this title.

World of Tanks - Xbox 360

The biggest problem with the game is the sheer lack of critical information.  Nothing is ever explained in detail, with the exception of a few scant loading screens. Armed with only minimal quality instruction, I felt extremely over my head during almost every match.  Why do tanks disappear off the map at random?  Why do my shots immobilize enemy players as often as they do no damage whatsoever?  Why can I crush some objects like aluminum cans yet others stop me dead on my treads?  I would have gotten more enjoyment out of World of Tanks if the learning curve was a little more gradual. Unfortunately, the game throws you into the fray with about as much wartime knowledge as Maxwell Klinger.  This is certain to minimally frustrate even the most seasoned gamer.

World of Tanks - Xbox 360

My other issue is the rhythm of gameplay.  In World of Tanks you never respawn in the match; death is always permanent.  With that, hastiness in battle never proved to be an intelligent option.  (Trust me, I tried the old bum rush the enemy base play.)  This kind of mortality causes the player to think more fully about strategic methods, which is fine, but lasting death also means that even the most minor mistake will force you to stare at another player’s screen while waiting for the next match to start.  Thankfully, there is no penalty for quitting a match early, but an early exit hinders the chance to make friends and talk trash at length with other Tankers, two activities that are crucial not only to shooters but to online gaming in general.  Some of the matches also felt extremely unbalanced, but this was probably due to the fact that I was absolutely garbagedick at the game. Simply put, I never felt like I figured out how to play well enough to enjoy myself.

World of Tanks - Xbox 360

Unfortunately I couldn’t get into World of Tanks, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t at least give it a try.  If you really want to get into the vast community that WarGaming has created, my research tells me that the PC version is a lot more substantial and developed than the version I played on 360.

Reflections: Titanfall Beta

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I wasn’t sure what I would think about bots being mixed in with human players, but it really does increase the amount of action, downtime isn’t an issue because there’s always something to shoot at.  ~Eric Hollis

Titanfall Beta

Part Halo, part Mirror’s Edge, part Armored Core, this highly anticipated FPS amalgamation was released as a public beta this past weekend.  Does it live up to the immense hype?

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Here are my initial thoughts:

Not to start on a down note, but it would be really remarkable if the environments were at least partially destructible.  Sure, this would make the battle a lot harder for the soldiers, but it would also add a little more heft to the formidable power of the Titans.  Also, blowing up buildings with shoulder-mounted rockets is always an enjoyable time.

Titanfall_beta-gameplay-screenshot

Ejecting out of your Titan while it turns into a nuclear bomb and torches your opponent is absolutely thrilling.  You can actually sabotage Titans while in soldier mode which keeps the playing field a little more even.  My favorite moment over the 25 matches I participated in was ejecting out of my Titan, launching my would-be Titan-jacker into the air, and then shooting him in the face before I hit the ground.  I’ve never played a game where I could do that.

Titanfall_beta-gameplay-screenshot

The leveling progression is taken right out of Call of Duty, pre-made loadouts are available at first, but after a few matches customization options open up at a frequent pace.  There is also the introduction of “burn cards” which enable you to temporarily power up your character, these are one-use only items you earn based on match performance.

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Titanfall runs very smoothly, I didn’t notice any lag while playing, always a good sign, especially with an open beta.  I was playing on the One, not sure how it holds up on the 360 where most of the copies will be sold.

Titanfall_beta-gameplay-screenshot

I wasn’t sure what I would think about bots being mixed in with human players, but it really does increase the amount of action, downtime isn’t an issue because there’s always something to shoot at.  For people like me who are abysmal at shooters, this means I actually get a few charity kills every match.

Titanfall_beta-gameplay-screenshot

Surprisingly I didn’t feel completely out of my element like I normally do in first person shooters.  The gameplay seemed both balanced and accessible.  I’m sure this might change when the full game launches, but I didn’t have any moments where I wanted to quit due to frustration, something that happens to me in every single other online frag-fest.

Titanfall_beta-gameplay-screenshot

Titanfall’s beta was level capped to 14, which was a really good idea, because a lot of people would be in the high 50’s by this morning if it weren’t.  The first taste is always free, after that it’s sixty bucks in March.

Titanfall_beta-gameplay-screenshot

My biggest problem with the game?  The release date.  I had a blast playing it, but nothing in my mind can compete with the release of Dark Souls 2. Did you play Titanfall this weekend?  What did you think?  There’s plenty of time left to try it out, they aren’t talking the beta down until the 19th.

Killer Instinct

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All in all, Killer Instinct is pretty disappointing for a next-gen release, especially since the game is a glut of microtranscations.  If you want the full game, it’s a standard twenty bucks. You can also just buy the individual characters if you want, which would be really cool if there were more than seven to choose from. ~Eric Hollis

Killer Instinct

Gamers are an extremely nostalgic people.  Whether fans are still clamoring for a Final Fantasy 7 remake or wondering whether we’re ever going to get a great port of Q-bert, we hang on to a good thing forever, sometimes to the detriment of newer and more inventive properties.  The original Killer Instinct and its sequel fall firmly in this camp for me, as I spent many a beer-soaked college afternoon challenging friend after friend to just one more match on the SNES from the comfort of my miserable dorm room.  I often wondered why no one had attempted a modern take on the franchise.  Double Helix picked up the mantle from Rare here; I guess Rare, one of the most prolific developers of last two generations, decided they now want to make Kinect games that no one will ever play.  Thankfully, Double Helix stays extremely faithful to the original titles, even if there are some major missteps with the total package.

Killer Instinct - Xbox One

Killer Instinct on the One plays magnificently.  Everything you loved about KI—the combos, the breakers, the manuals, and special attacks—are all here.  Other than a few tweaks on the move-set, there is nothing added to the original formula, which is truly a blessing.  The remake took me instantly back to the Tate Center arcade (mad respect if you know where that is) where I played the KI cabinets religiously.   I’ve played over fifty matches against multiple opponents, and they were repeatedly a blast. Most of them were also very close, and for me that’s a huge part of the replay value of fighting games.  The battles are very fluid, extremely fast, and downright addictive.

Killer Instinct - Xbox One

Gameplay itself isn’t a problem. The problem is that the total package just feels like bare bones.  For starters, the inclusion of only eight total playable fighters (one of whom—the illusive Fulgore—isn’t even out yet) feels like an Endokuken to the face.  I’m no fighting game expert, but the last game I remember with less than eight playable characters was the original Mortal Kombat.  Twenty-two years later, I expect more girth in roster selection, especially when similar titles generally have a lot more fighters to choose from.  Characters like TJ Combo, Cinder, and Riptor, all of whom have appeared in at least one of the other installments, aren’t even represented at all.  You also only start with one playable stage (out of a measly six); the rest have to be purchased with in-game currency that you earn from completing battles.

Killer Instinct - Xbox One

All in all, Killer Instinct is pretty disappointing for a next-gen release, especially since the game is a glut of microtranscations.  If you want the full game, it’s a standard twenty bucks. You can also just buy the individual characters if you want, which would be really cool if there were more than seven to choose from.  If you want everything the game has to offer, which basically boils down to a couple of aesthetic character accessories and a playable version of the original KI, prepare to double-up on that Andrew Jackson.   The only thing I was interested in besides the core game was the original that, unlike everything else, isn’t available separately.  This fact, my friends, is worthy of ire right there. Unfortunately, this is the model I see more companies gravitating towards.   I understand that Microsoft wants to nickel and dime me while making me squat on a rabid porcupine, but the company should at least have the courtesy of letting me enjoy that while its happening if I so desire.

If you’re a fan of Killer Instinct and you have a One, you’ve probably already put this game through its paces, and maybe you know what I mean. While it’s fun to bust out to show off the only fighting game on your new system, the lack of variety and annoying microtransactions left me dissatisfied.  While many parts of quality of life have improved since I lived in my old dorm, especially access to free pornography, at least back in that abysmal dorm room we had a much better version of Killer Instinct.  Let’s hope that Double Helix and Ken Lobb have a true remake or sequel in the works and that the lack of polish here was strictly due to a rushed launch window.

Grand Theft Auto 5

Grand Theft Auto 5

This is the hardest review I’ve ever had to write.  Unabashed love for all things Rockstar produces aside, I just don’t want to type any of this right now.  I’m at roughly forty hours logged between story and multiplayer, and all I want to do is play more Grand Theft Auto 5.

Grand Theft Auto 5

To call this the most anticipated title of the year would be a gross understatement.  Rockstar is known for releasing some of the best games of the past two console generations; this entry takes the bar that they always set so high and throws it directly over the sun.  The game has been in development for five years, after you sit down with it you’ll understand that not a second of that time was wasted.  Every aspect of the franchise has been improved, each frame absolutely drips with the highest attention to detail we’ve ever seen in a video game.  All of the signature trappings GTA is known for are thankfully included: the radio stations, the commercials, the fake movies and television, epic stunt jumps, hidden items, random pedestrian banter, political / social commentary, and the shameless parody of American life.  Everything in the title is presented with an impeccable and unprecedented level of care to even the minutest detail, the game is a brilliant masterpiece that will be imitated but certainly never equaled.

Grand Theft Auto 5

Let’s start with the feature I wasn’t excited about at all: the three unique protagonists.  My first thought when this addition was touted was “So what?  That’s exactly like GTA4 with two other people.”  Shame on me for being a doubter, character switching practically makes the game for me.  The other playable characters function completely separately in the world, and rotating between them on the fly is absolutely encouraged.  Just finished skydiving with Franklin and stuck with a long drive back from Mount Chiliad?  Time to catch up with Michael, you might find him mid argument with his adulterous wife.  Tired of catering to Michael’s spoiled rotten children?  Switch over to Trevor who you’ll find passed out in his underwear straddling a balcony overlooking the city.  You can also swap seamlessly to your multiplayer character at any time, and throughout the many times transitioning I never found any of the characters in the same situation.

Grand Theft Auto 5

The world of Los Santos is so gorgeously detailed I found myself following random pedestrians on the street just to hear their side of hilarious cell phone conversations.  A couple of the radio commercials and conversations made me laugh so hard I paused mid-mission just to hear the end of them.  Other games have shown similar levels in depth of world, but none of them have made me feel like the city existed without me playing the game.  You’ll lose yourself in Los Santos for hours on end, even if the game was only single player it would take awhile to get bored with everything you can explore and interact with.  I’m still hearing songs and hilarious commercials on the radio I’ve never heard, seeing signs and references I didn’t notice, and coming up with new ways to stymie the police.  Honestly, I don’t even feel like I’ve scratched the surface, I’m sure there are thousands of details, jokes, and allusions I haven’t even noticed yet.

Grand Theft Auto 5

The online world is also an absolute treat that adds exponentially to the gameplay.  Unfortunately not all of the bugs have been worked out yet, I did get to play a lengthy session with a few buddies this past weekend and we all had an unadulterated blast.  I can’t wait to see how everything shakes out after all of the issues are fixed; the multiplayer is essentially a celebration of everything that makes the single player so incredible.  The day one bugs were displeasing, but only if you were completely bored with the single player game.

Grand Theft Auto 5

Rockstar didn’t invent the sandbox style game but they have proven multiple times over that they are undoubtedly the pioneers of the genre.  Grand Theft Auto 5 is a fitting goodbye to this generation of consoles, one that truly shows the untapped potential our hobby still has still yet to uncover.  I can’t recommend this game enough, but odds are you are already playing it.  Enjoy every second of the experience; it might be another five years before we get to see something this prodigious and wonderful.

Payday 2: The Heist

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As an avid player of first person shooters I believe the genre that unfortunately dominates gaming has grown mighty stale.  It would be challenging to muster up the enthusiasm for another cookie-cutter war-based storyline even if Activision programmed an unlockable Christina Hendricks sex tape into this fall’s Call of Duty: Every Single November.  Payday 2 intrigued the hell out of me however because its themes are mostly untapped in the realm of first person shooters, and honestly, who hasn’t dreamt about robbing a bank Point Break style?  Unfortunately what Overkill studios have given us is half a game here, which is a real shame because with a little more care this could have been an absolute masterpiece.

Payday 2

If you don’t plan on playing Payday 2 online with friends don’t even bother, the AI is so glaringly bad it’s a wonder that the title ever made it out of production.  Most of the missions inevitably involve your crew transporting some sort of cargo to an awaiting van, and your computer partners aren’t even able to accomplish the simple task of picking up an object and dropping it off in the correct location.  On a positive note the AI won’t completely muff up your perfectly planned stealth attempts on purpose, something I certainly can’t say for the majority of random players I encountered online.

Payday 2

The most enjoyable way to play Payday 2 is with three of your friends who actually use microphones.  When the missions are pulled off flawlessly you will feel extremely satiated as a player, but communication and precise planning are necessary, even on some of the easier and shorter selections.  One stupid mistake can cost you an entire run, and this will happen 99.9 percent of the time you even attempt, making robberies that don’t end up turning into the last act of Dog Day Afternoon both extremely rare and immensely rewarding.

Payday 2

There are only ten main missions, but the locations of goods, cameras, guards, and safes are always generated randomly.  This is the much-needed adrenaline shot of replay value that the game desperately needs, it would be far too easy to complete the levels if everything remained the same during every play through.  Picking missions can actually be a chore however, there’s no menu per say, just a map with jobs of varying difficulty appearing at random.  I understand what the developers were going for here, but after searching for a specific mission without success numerous times I was really longing for a traditional level selection system.

Payday 2

The character leveling is very addictive but also nothing original.  Four separate skill trees are selectable, and mixing and matching perks from each is encouraged, you’ll have plenty of flexibility by level 50, and that’s only the halfway point: Payday 2 is a long grind to 100.  Supposedly six DLC packs are on the way, this should alleviate the main ten missions growing stale even with the randomness factor figured in.

Despite its many egregious flaws I got tons of enjoyment out of Payday 2: The Heist when I was playing with a few of my buddies, alone however it was an absolute chore that frustrated me consistently.  If you have a steady crew you can recruit this is a must have game to scratch that criminal urge until Grand Theft Auto releases next month.

Star Trek

Star_Trek_Game

I am a die-hard unapologetic lover of all things Star Trek related.  The source material however has never led to great achievements in the realm of gaming where the Star Wars franchise seems to perpetually excel.  The last Trek game on current gen hardware was Star Trek: Legacy, an extremely glitchy and muddled mess; the only redeeming factor was including real voice acting from all 5 captains.  When I picked up the new game, I never imagined in a million light years that I would be desperately missing Legacy.

Star_Trek_Game

Let’s start with Star Trek’s most blatant problem: it’s a shoddily executed cover based shooter.  The pacing of the episodes certainly lends itself better to any other genre of gaming, and this repetitive slog had me wishing I were playing the RTS space battles of Legacy (or anything else) again.  I never thought I’d see Kirk and Spock trudging through generic levels like a poor man’s Marcus and Dom, much less interspersed with arduous platforming sections that make Damnation look like Tomb Raider in comparison.  The jumping mechanic is so poorly realized that I often got lost on the lengthy journey by not attempting leaps that seemed impossible to make at first glance.

Star_Trek_Game

The main characters are also completely interchangeable.  Besides Kirk brandishing a “Captain’s Phaser” and Spock wielding a “Vulcan Repeater” there is absolutely no difference between the playable trekkers sans aesthetics.  If you are going to give us a choice of two characters at least make them perform a little differently, especially since the relationship between Kirk and Spock is one of the driving plotlines of all of the films and the original series.

Star_Trek_Game

Star Trek was always about helping your fellow man (or alien); the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one, ect.  Apparently, the many all need to be repeatedly shot point blank in the face because other then a few random tricorder readings that’s basically all you accomplish.  Sure, you are encouraged to set phasers to stun and then knock out your enemies, but when you can just dispatch them safely from behind cover with zero penalty then what is exactly the point besides painfully shoehorning some of the familiar trappings of the series?

Star_Trek_Game

Fortunately the current cast members perform all the voice acting, unfortunately this is actually a negative because the actors seem like they could care less about the actual acting.  To say that Zoe Saldana’s performance was laborious could be misconstrued as a complement.  Pine and Quinto are barely above average, and (big surprise) Simon Pegg is the only one who seems to even care about being there at all.  How often do you get an entire original cast to perform in a video game?  Like everything else on display the voice acting is truly a squandered and sloppy opportunity.

Star_Trek_Game

The Gorn play the generic bad guys here, you’ll remember them as the lizard like creatures Kirk rolled a boulder onto at Vasquez Rocks, the same location featured in numerous other Hollywood productions like Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey and Paul.  If you can’t tell how bored I was with the game please refer to my previous sentence where I write about a famous rock formation instead of explaining in more detail how disappointing the experience actually was.

Unfortunately for fans it seems the Star Trek franchise is still waiting patiently to get the Batman: Arkham Asylum treatment.  I’m confident that a developer who truly understands Star Trek could make an excellent game that is both exciting to play and faithful to the canon.  Currently what we are left with is this stinking pile of half assed ideas that are executed with the grace of a wet fart in a windowless room.  I tried, but even my extreme fandom couldn’t find a way to reprogram the simulator to make the game bearable.  Kobiashi Maru indeed.

Runner 2: Legend of Rhythm Alien

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Platform games will probably always be my favorite genre of gaming.  This is certainly due to cutting my proverbial teeth during the heyday of the NES, the era where every other title had some sort of influence from the brothers Mario and their army of copycats.  Before I picked up Runner 2: Legend of Rhythm Alien I had never played a Bit.Trip title before, and I was only familiar with the main character Commander Video from his cameo appearance in Super Meat Boy, arguably one of the greatest games of the past decade.  Now I’m certainly going back to explore the titles I missed, because Runner 2 is unfiltered platforming bliss.

runner2

Runner 2 might as well be a checklist of how to do everything correctly in a video game.  The gameplay is extremely accessible and enjoyable, coupled with eye pleasing, unique graphics and an amazing soundtrack.  Difficulty in the game gradually scales but is unbelievably fair; you start off with a simple selection of moves and then slowly learn all of the combinations required to be successful.  There’s also some great humor (the hardest thing to pull off in gaming) and some phenomenal references mixed in to the package that I wouldn’t dare spoil here.  Gaijin Games even added hidden retro levels (unlocked by finding golden cartridges) that are extremely challenging and pay homage to those glorious days of the NES and Sega Master System.

runner2

Originality comes with how your character interacts with the soundtrack.  Every jump, slide, dodge, block, and kick corresponds with an intended beat or noise that complements the music.  You can miss these beats with little consequence besides failing a scoring opportunity (thankfully you don’t get a grinding Guitar Hero-esque interruption noise) but the soundtrack simply swells with a crescendo of awesomeness when you hit them on time.  In most modern games (especially first person shooters) I almost never experience what Billy Hoyle and Sidney Dean remarkably refer to as “the zone,” where the entirety of the room ceases to matter and you aren’t even thinking about what buttons you are pushing while conquering every single obstacle on pure muscle memory.  Playing flawlessly causes everything to click into place and you achieve an almost Zen like experience.  Runner 2 just has a magically fluid feel I’ve rarely seen replicated anywhere else, especially in other titles that also employ auto running and rhythm based play.

runner2

I did get frustrated often while playing, but it was the type of frustration that made me want to persevere to perfect the level, not the type that makes you want to place your controller under a rusty jackhammer.  When you make a mistake it’s never the game, it’s simply your lack of skill.  It’s certainly not as difficult as the aforementioned Super Meat Boy, but it still takes impeccable timing and precision to get through some of the harder sections, exactly what you should want in a quality platformer.

If you like platformers, pick this up immediately.  For fifteen bucks on the marketplace it’s an absolute steal, especially when there are sixty-dollar titles (Aliens: Colonial Marines for example) that won’t give you a fraction of the enjoyment contained here.  I realize that it’s barely March, but this is unquestionably the best title I’ve played this year.

Dead Space 3

Dead-Space-3When I first saw the promotional materials for Dead Space 3 I was extremely worried.  The first game was such a sleeper gem that new copies still sell for sixty dollars online, the second took the “survival horror in space” formula established in the first and ramped up the creepiness factor, essentially turning it into the series I always imagined Resident Evil was destined to become. (Unfortunately Resident Evil became Resident Evil 6, the series no one wanted it to become) I knew they would eventually make a third game but why is it taking place in a snow-filled environment similar to Lost Planet and not in a creaky spaceship infested by necromorphs?  The environment and brilliant use of sound design is what made the previous titles so exceptional in the first place!  Wait, it’s also going to include a co-op campaign in a game series that has literally made me jump out of my seat on multiple occasions because it is intended to be played in the dark by yourself?  Won’t these changes ruin this beloved franchise?

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Fortunately no.  There are a few issues with the game, but none of them stem from changing the setting or pacing of the series.  This is definitely a more action-oriented title however, whereas in previous games I was always struggling with ammo and health management, that was never a worry this time around.  You don’t even actually get to the ice planet Tau Volantis until roughly 9 hours into the game, so there’s still plenty of tight corridor and zero gravity outer space action to sink your plasma cutter into.  The graphics and especially the lighting are still stunningly gorgeous, and the sound design exudes the same ambient dread that you would expect from the series.

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One phenomenal addition is the ability to craft your own weapons from salvageable parts found in the environment.  Any weapon you find can be deconstructed into pieces that can be used to craft other and ostensibly better armaments.  Want a flamethrower / plasma cutter combo?  No problem.  Or how about my favorite creation thus far: a shotgun / line gun amalgamation that also stuns necromorphs with electricity?  You could literally spend dozens of hours perfecting your ultimate weapon hybrid, and it’s always fun to test them out against puke spewing necromorphs.

Dead-Space-3

The major issue I had with the game is one I didn’t anticipate: the writing.  The game starts off strong but during the midpoint I almost started cringing at some of the dialogue and directions the characters are taken in.  Without entering into spoiler territory, essentially Ellie, the girl who you risked your ass (and sanity) to save in Dead Space 2 has moved on to another mate who is basically the equivalent of the douchey blonde villain in so many eighties movies. (And unfortunately not voiced by James Spader or William Zabka)  When the story turned into Tau Volantis 90210 I mentally checked out, and while I don’t remember the narratives in the previous two titles being anything special, I also don’t remember them being absolutely grating either.  Sure, when you can lop off the head of a space marine with an electrified rotating ripper blade it’s easy to forget the story, but like so many Hollywood movies I’ll never understand why the writing is the hardest thing to nail.

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The co-op play however is thankfully awesome.  While it does wring much of the suspense out of the game it’s still immense fun ravaging aliens with a buddy, sharing blueprints of uniquely crafted weaponry, and saving each other’s asses from obligatory surprise attacks.  There are also optional missions that can only be tackled in co-op, giving the game some excellent replay value.  Co-op play is also of the drop in, drop out variety, so you can recruit a partner at any time to help you tackle some of the game’s tougher challenges.  You can also play through the story in Classic mode (similar to Dead Space 1 with only original weapons and no crafting) or Pure Survival mode, where everything, even health packs and ammo, must be painstakingly assembled.  These variations will provide a much-needed challenge when compared to the regular campaign, especially when conquered with a partner.

Overall Dead Space 3 doesn’t disappoint.  It does sacrifice sheer horror for guns blazing action, but the addition of weapon building and co-op actually helps move the series forward instead of treading some of the same roads.  The environment is definitely more John Carpenter’s The Thing than Ridley Scott’s Alien, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing at all.  Annoying issues with the narrative aside, the game is completely worth the purchase if you are a fan of the series or a well-crafted third person adventure.

Transformers: Fall of Cybertron

Transformers-Fall-of-Cybertron

High Moon studios returns with a follow-up to their well received take on the Transformers franchise, the 2010 sleeper hit War for Cybertron.  All of the resources on Cybertron are now practically tapped out, and Optimus Prime (fortunately still voiced by Peter Cullen) rallies his Autobots to escape the planet and find a new home in Shia LeBouf’s backyard.  Megatron is of course not very supportive of this decision and attempts to defeat the Autobots by preventing their exodus.  High Moon doesn’t stray very far from the formula that made the first game successful, and aside from one major omission the game delivers everything you would normally expect from a quality sequel.

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The weapons system has been revamped from the previous game; each gun is now upgradable with multiple attachments that are purchased with credits earned in the campaign.  You can also acquire “perks” that carry over through multiple campaign playthroughs, these make the game much more manageable on the harder difficulties.  This addition is a very pleasant improvement on the first title, adding an RPG element to an already exceedingly polished experience.

Transformers-Fall-of-Cybertron

Fan service is also prevalent here; many more characters are featured this time around, including the Dinobots, the Combaticons, Metroplex, and the Insecticons.  I actually felt like I had been sucked into an eighties toy commercial every time a new character appeared.  Hardcore Transformer fans should really find a lot to enjoy here, before I played the game I couldn’t distinguish Swindle from Onslaught, so fans of the source material will really enjoy all of the love taken with the character choices.

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The glaring omission is the absence of online co-op play that was so well received in the first game.  In War for Cybertron you had the option of three different Autobots or Decepticons per level to tackle each mission with, and your online friends (preferably) or the extremely competent AI would fill the other two slots.  This gave each mission the sense you were part of a team, something that is integral to the Transformers franchise by nature.  This time the legend takes a grander scope but the co-op element was unfortunately left on the cutting room floor.  This doesn’t necessarily hurt the game overall, but it is something I sorely missed because I had grown accustomed to it.

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If you decide to try the game based solely on the narrative you won’t be disappointed.  I’m not even a huge Transformers fan and I enjoyed playing through the campaign multiple times, the set pieces are much bigger this time around, the annoying boss battles from the first game are thankfully expunged, and the game maintains a truly epic feeling throughout.   The final level might be one of the best campaign levels I’ve ever played in any game, it switches between both warring factions and individual characters multiple times, putting you right in the center of the final battle of Cybertron.  I know too much of a good thing can sometimes lead to overkill, but I left the experience feeling that if every level would have taken cues from the final one the game could have really been something truly special.  I’m not saying the overall gameplay or story is lackluster in any way; it’s just the final level is really that damn quality.

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Thankfully the horde mode inspired escalation is still included, as well as an excellent multiplayer component that is actually better (although much easier) than the previous game.  The first time I jumped into an online game one of the other participants hilariously greeted me with a throaty rendition of “You’ve Got The Touch”, the seminal cheese ball anthem featured in the eighties movie and also over the end credits in this game.  Options for customizing your online Transformer are also much more substantial, you can really create some truly unique characters.

If you are a Transformers fan this one is the proverbial no-brainer, comparing the sub-par movie game adaptations you’ve probably slogged through to the overachieving fanboy love that High Moon injects into their adaptations isn’t even fair.  Fans of third person action will also find a highly engaging title that doesn’t skimp on the action and couples a well-crafted yarn with thoroughly enjoyable gameplay.

Skylanders: Giants

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Whoever came up with the concept for Skylanders is a marketing genius.  The recipe is so pitch perfect it’s hard to believe it took this long for someone to execute:  Take the elemental centered and “gotta buy them all” appeal of Pokemon, mix it with the addictive RPG leveling and character progression that almost every game utilizes today, and then pair it up with a plethora of collectable figures that you can transport both between and across consoles.  The results are a franchise that has already grossed upwards of 500 million dollars between two releases with zero signs of slowing down.  But is the game any good or just a flagrant cash grab aimed specifically at children?

Skylanders-Giants

Actually it isn’t half bad.  I spent the majority of this past Saturday playing this with my nephew Jacob (he’s 8) and really enjoyed myself.  The game is akin to many dungeon crawlers like Diablo and Baldur’s Gate except it takes place in the uber-colorful and child friendly world of Skylands.   The interface is very simple and easy to understand; almost anybody could pick it up and play with little instruction.  Character leveling is extremely balanced and it has the familiar “just one more level” appeal as you constantly unlock better powers and upgrades for each of your individual Skylanders.   Jacob spent the better part of our lengthy session saving up hard fought treasure for a battle-axe made entirely out of bees for his favorite giant Swarm, and his joy upon finally earning the weapon was completely palpable.

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Each Skylander represents one of eight different “elements” like fire, wind, technology, or undead.  The levels are divided with multiple gates and hidden areas that can only be accessed by certain elements, meaning in order to fully unlock everything the game has to offer you must own at least one character from every element.  If you are defeated, the only way to continue the level is by swapping out figures on the fly, making the game near impossible with only the starter set, but very manageable with a stable of Skylanders figures at your disposal.  (Defeated characters can be used again on the next level but not before)  The aforementioned starter set only comes with three characters, the game disc, and the necessary Portal of Power; so more characters must be purchased (Hey Mom!) in order to fully experience and enjoy what the game has to offer.  Some Skylanders are also much rarer than others (especially some of the newer Giants) making collecting these things highly addictive.  Again, sheer marketing brilliance.

Skylanders-Giants

Skylanders: Giants is also compatible with all of the toys released for the original game, and the level cap is increased from 10 to 15 for all of your previously purchased characters.  There are also new Series 2 versions of the original Skylanders that have more effective powers and different poses than their original counterparts, a very wise move by the developers to keep fans of the original excited about the sequel.   I’d be absolutely shocked if a third game wasn’t released this holiday season, right now the game has legs, something that Activision is notorious for exploiting on a yearly basis with all of their other major franchises.

Skylanders-Giants

It is also interesting to mention that the first game was titled Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure, featuring popular gaming icon Spyro the Dragon who has appeared in almost twenty other titles.  Spyro never speaks in either game however, and doesn’t give you any sort of advantage over any of the other characters.  It almost seems like the developers were hedging their bets to get the game off the ground with a mascot familiar to the intended demographic.

If you are looking to enjoy some gaming with one of the younger people in your life you could a lot worse than Skylanders: Giants.   The title is certainly geared towards children but contains many of the familiar trappings of an addictive video adventure; I certainly didn’t grow bored playing it as I have with many other games.  Just plan to shell out a lot more than the initial seventy-dollar investment if you want to see everything in the game or actually get through it successfully at all.

The Walking Dead: Episodes 1-5

The Walking Dead

I’ve never been a big fan of Telltale Games.  While I certainly enjoyed their official Back to the Future sequel, I never felt the need to actually finish it.  I only made it through about ten minutes of Jurassic Park before I decided I just couldn’t get into their point and click adventure titles.  (I had a similar experience with Escape From Monkey Island, which is a LucasArts,so it’s probably my aversion to the genre, not the quality of the games themselves).  I’d made peace with this realization.

The Walking Dead

Then, something unexpected happened.  I started to hear people proclaiming The Walking Dead as not only a phenomenal title, but to some credible sources (and also Spike TV) it’s been named a contender for . . .  (trumpet fanfare) Game of the Year.  A point and click adventure title beating out such powerhouses as Far Cry 3, Borderlands 2, Mass Effect 3, and Dishonored?  Could it really be that good?

The Walking Dead

Yes it could.  For one thing, it’s very difficult to bring genuine emotional resonance into the world of a video game, but The Walking Dead succeeds at doing just that.  I’ll bypass all spoilers but provide a little exposition to explain how. From the outset of the story, you are partnered with an eight-year-old girl named Clementine.  How you decide to protect her is entirely up to you, but I promise you will have an immense emotional attachment to her before the final episode one credits roll. Clementine provides but one example of the care and consideration taken with all the characters; none of them feel generic or written simply to serve as plot devices.  Each other character you encounter has unique motivations besides survival—some you will love, and some you will loathe, but they all feel like real people and not typical video game characters.  Choosing who lives or dies is never an easy task, and there are always looming ramifications for each difficult decision you make.  You’ll feel empathy for the characters far more than you might in a typical game, a true testament to the amazing storytelling and attention to detail that absolutely gushes from the well-polished narrative.

The Walking Dead

Lee Everett, the main protagonist, is one of the most developed characters I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing. His journey is not some obligatory quest to bash some zombie skulls with a wrench.  Lee casts a real shadow on the player; I genuinely cared about him.  If there is an award given for voice acting, David Fennoy deserves to win it hands down, as he delivers each line of dialogue perfectly.

The Walking Dead

Finally, as a former native of Georgia, each of the locations represented was recreated perfectly, from the opening scene on Interstate 85 to the eventual journey to River Street in Savannah, I actually felt like I was back home in the peach state.

The Walking Dead

Much like previous Telltale Games, you use a four tied conversation tree that corresponds with each direction of your control pad.  Unlike previous titles, however, in The Walking Dead all of your choices are timed (and some you only have mere seconds to make).  There is absolutely zero backtracking to see different options or outcomes.  This gives each of the choices a weight that just didn’t exist in similar point and click adventure games; once you make a decision, you are stuck with it unless you restart the entire chapter.  On top of that, your choices directly affect how other characters react to you and behave in the narrative overall.  This minor tweak to the familiar formula makes all of the difference; it turns what some might describe as an interactive movie into one of the best titles I’ve played in a long time.  This is a game you are going to enjoy multiple times just so you can see the outcome of different choices.

Even if you’ve never enjoyed a point and click adventure before, I’m certain this will be the exception.

Midway Arcade Origins

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Nostalgia can be extremely arresting.  Can a gamer ever return to the feeling experienced when first taking out the Death Star in Star Wars, smashing multiple baddies with a single rock in Dig-Dug, or playing a flawless board of Ms. Pac Man?

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Gamer nostalgia is also conjured by environments and contexts.  I’m sure most middle aged gamers have swapped stories from their youth about visiting the local arcade (remember those?) to plunk some quarters in their favorite machines. In those golden years, we played for nothing but score and bragging rights, and we were fascinated by graphics that were so remarkable that they couldn’t yet be reproduced on our home systems or personal computers.  I used to beg my father to take me to the PX on base (military brat, represent) so that I could play one of my retro favorites—the cartoonish cop chase game A.P.B.  It was my fond memory of this 1987 relic that led me toward Midway Arcade Origins. I do not regret the purchase.  At the same time, some of the classic titles within this trove of 30+ games simply don’t reignite the longing to play arcade games that I fondly remember from my childhood.

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The first problem with the compilation is that some of the classic control schemes just don’t translate to modern joypads.  720 is a prime example. In my youth, I would eagerly line my quarters on top of the black-and white-checkered plastic control panel assembly, but without the circle-locked joystick on the arcade cabinet, the game is almost unplayable.  Too much die, not enough skate.  The same unfortunately applies to A.P.B., a game that is dysfunctional sans its steering wheel and pedals.  Granted, you can still get some enjoyment out of the titles, but they just aren’t the same without the respective racing wheels and other cabinet specific peripherals.

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Unfortunately, there is also a lot of useless filler in the compilation.  The less you remember about Pit-Fighter, Xenophobe, and arguably the worst sequel of all time, Spy Hunter 2, the better.   In light of these weak choices, I found myself wondering why Paperboy, NARC, and Roadblasters were left out.  All three were extremely popular Midway titles from my youth, and all three could have easily made the compilation exponentially better, especially since Paperboy is no longer available on Xbox Live Arcade.

midway arcade origins

Thankfully I was able to get a lot of enjoyment out a few of the included offerings.  Joust and Joust 2 hold up extremely well, as do Satan’s Hollow, Robotron 2084, Spy Hunter, Rampage, and both Gauntlet games (just don’t shoot the food!). Two titles I’d never played before, Wizard of Wor and Bubbles, ended up being my favorites.  Smash TV and its sequel Total Carnage also play well with a modern controller, and they still serve as a reminder that most of these games were simply designed to get one more quarter out of the pocket of your Kangaroos.  This is certainly a staunch contrast from the “save anywhere, unlimited lives” mentality that permeates game design today.

Leaderboards are also included so you can still appreciate how badly you perform compared to other hardcore retro gamers.  Further, multiplayer is offered on any title that traditionally supported it.   While the limitations of portable console gaming and the omission of certain titles does make the compilation feel a bit incomplete, the game isn’t a bad purchase if you are looking to scratch that retro itch. Just don’t expect most of the games to play like they did when you were waiting in line behind that skeevy dude in the Iron Maiden t-shirt to get one more crack at Sinistar.

Hitman: Absolution

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After an unheard of six-year console hiatus, Agent 47 triumphantly returns in Hitman: Absolution.  This title is certain to please fans of the Hitman series.  Actually, any fan of a thoughtfully composed stealth action game should definitely enjoy what the  designers at IO Interactive offer here.  The familiar mechanics of the series remain polished and fluid, the classic kills are plentiful, and the level design is top notch.

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This adventure is set five years after Blood Money, the only Hitman game offered on current gen consoles, until now.  In the world of the game, your handler and best bud Diana has sold you down the proverbial river.  After you assault her in the shower with your trademark Silverballers, she reveals a bit of information that sends the tightly scripted narrative flowing through multiple varying locations.   One thing you will notice right off the bat is how gorgeous the crowd scenes look. I paused the game multiple times in the Chinatown level to marvel at how many different NPC’s were milling about the marketplace.   The abundance of careful detail gives all of the levels an extremely realistic feel.

Hitman-Absolution

One of the signature features of the Hitman franchise is freedom of player choice. There are always multiple ways to dispatch your targets, ranging from the extremely silent and stealthy to downright straightforward and brutal.  You truly have the option to go completely guns blazing, more so than you might in other entry in the series. Yet, this approach is not without consequence, as it increases the difficulty exponentially.   The silent and creative approach is often the ideal method (especially if you are going for a high score) and is certainly the way the game was intended to be experienced.

Hitman-Absolution

 

For instance, the game welcomes the player to arrange creative ways to pull off the hits. The first level alone features at least ten different ways to take down the target, and each kill method is coupled to a challenge that will increase the score on repeat playthroughs.  Playing the levels multiple times is downright encouraged, especially if you want to best the scores of your friends. The incentive for the best score is heightened by constant displays of rankings, friendly reminders that you (or one of your friends) could have done a little better.  This certainly adds value to an already chunky package. With so many choices and encouragement to replay, the campaign took me roughly 18 hours to complete.

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Multiplayer (a first for the series) also feels very adaptable.  Campaign levels are opened up sandbox style; any NPC on the map can be chosen as a target and then sent to your respective friends list.  Gamers can place restrictions on the assassinations; you can compete with your friends to see who can complete the hits most efficiently based on the parameters dictated by another player.  This adds an even greater level of replay to the game, and it also welcomes the creative contributions of gamers.  Hundreds of thousands of player-made challenges have already been uploaded, giving play time a durability that previous entries in the series failed to achieve.

If you are a fan of the Hitman series then you likely picked this up on launch day and have already relished in brutally murdering your targets with well-timed sniper shots, convenient natural gas leak explosions, “accidental” chandelier mishaps, and of course Agent 47’s signature fiber wire.  Hitman  neophytes will enjoy this title as well, as it is a suitable springboard into the series.  In Hitman: Absolution, the series has never been more polished and the level design is impeccable. I certainly enjoyed the stealth mechanics of the game much more than in any other assassin title released this holiday season.  Hitman: Absolution is therefore highly recommended; it has certainly provided one of my favorite gaming experiences this year.