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PC Playstation Vita Reviews XBOX 360

Monaco: What’s Yours is Mine Review

I like to think that stealth games have been going through somewhat of a renaissance in the past few years. If anything, they’re getting smarter. The act of sleuthing through an environment has never been more accessible, brought about mostly by new and interesting ways to convey information in the world to the player. But there’s always a common thread with stealth games of today—their emphasis on action. Games like Dishonored or Mark of the Ninja obviously place a focus on stealth, but both games and plenty others also place emphasis on killing when things get hairy, and give you plenty of satisfying tools to do so.

 

Monaco: What’s Yours is Mine never wants you to murder. It’s a stealth game in which murder is possible, but it never pretends to be about moment-to-moment action. Rather, it focuses on a scarcely visited contrast to the “murder as you go” stealth genre. Monaco is about the heist. Get in, get the loot, get out–that is the constant beat by which Monaco operates.

The Lookout in Action

Monaco tells a classic heist story of four freshly escaped thieves, eager to get out of the country to early retirement. This proves to be a much more complicated affair, as what is originally a simple escape of the country branches out into a much messier affair. Throughout the story players will be sent on missions to rescue additional characters, each of whom has it’s own unique ability for sleuthing.

 

Monaco is played from a 2D top-down view, presenting environments in the form of building floor plans. Line of sight plays a large role in navigation, meaning that anything that your character cannot see is blocked from view. This leads to peeking through doorways, windows, and air vents to gather an understand of your surroundings. Monaco also uses sound to great effect, from subtle conversations between characters, to satisfying footsteps that help reveal guard locations when you can’t see them. Every playable character in Monaco presents its own unique ability, each of which make a certain aspect of stealthy navigation easier. The Lockpick, for example, can conquer a locked door in a fraction of the time of other characters, while the Pickpocket wields a faithful pet monkey that will automatically seek out coins.

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Everything in Monaco is done by pressing against objects. You want to unlock a door? Press against it. See a hackable terminal? Push away. It sounds so simple, because it is. It’s such a rudimentary concept that makes all the difference in practice. There are a multitude of tools introduced to the player over the course of the story to mix up the gameplay. Some early examples include the gun, which allows for a quick kill in a hairy situation, at the expense of noise. Smoke bombs are useful for making a hasty escape from multiple pursuers, and the EMP takes out all electronics in the vicinity, including alarms and security sensors. In earlier stages, you’ll only be supplied with one kind of item, often for the sake of teaching you how to use it. In later stages, you’ll be presented with plenty of choice, which provides plenty of opportunity for playing different ways.

 

Each floor of every stage randomly places coins throughout the area. These are mostly there to evoke a feeling of Pac-Man, but also serve to encourage exploration of stages. Every ten coins collected also scores extra supply of your item, be it a gun or EMP, though unfortunately that is the only way to acquire additional supplies. The game seems really bent on trying to make these coins matter–a feeling further brought about by the game’s alternate storyline. Apart from the first story told from the perspective of the Lockpick, there is a separate parallel story told from the perspective of the Pickpocket. This extended story does a good job of further fleshing out the overall narrative, which is good, because the normal storyline does not stand alone very well. Though with how necessary it is to experience the Pickpocket story, it’s a bummer that they place a sizable gate in front of players to access those missions. To unlock each Pickpocket mission, you must “Clean Out” (collect every coin) two other missions. Cleaning out missions is not always an easy task, especially when you just want to focus on the main objective. It feels like yet another way to make the coins feel important, but it just ends up the act experiencing the full story a hassle.

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And while Monaco works very well as a solo experience, you won’t see the best of what it has to offer until jumping into co-op. Co-op grants the ability to have multiple thieves at the same time, significantly increasing your effectiveness in the field. A great example is having someone play as the Lockpick to easily navigate through doors, someone as the Hacker to bring any security to its knees, someone as the Pickpocket to collect every coin along the way, and someone as the Cleaner to knock out any suspicious guards. This is an amount of power that would be plainly impossible playing alone. Levels also don’t scale in difficulty with the addition of players, so there’s never a disadvantage to playing co-op. When you can gather a few friends and effectively coordinate with each other, there’s nothing more satisfying than pulling off the perfect heist.

 

One of Monaco’s greatest strengths is its distinct visual style. But the style is not just there to be aesthetically pleasing, as it can also contribute directly to gameplay. AI guards have mannerisms that reveal their behavior, and the line-of-sight mechanic challenges the player to learn their surroundings without being able to see them.

 

Monaco: What’s Yours is Mine perfectly represents what sets stealth games apart from the pack. There’s not always a need for a game inherently about violence. You’re there to get the loot, and get out. And even though a round of Monaco isn’t one of constant moment-to-moment action, it find different and more interesting ways of delivering the same satisfying experience. Monaco achieves magic when a group of friends and I can ghost into a complex, dismantle every obstacle in our way, grab what we’re after, and make like we were never there. And while the unnecessary coin quota can hamper what is otherwise an enjoyable story, it doesn’t do much to make we want to play Monaco any less. Monaco is a simultaneous triumph in stealth, style, and game design, and one that should not be missed.

PG8_10

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Playstation Vita Reviews XBOX 360

Motocross Madness Review

To anyone who has kept up with Microsoft’s push to insert the ‘Xbox Avatar’ into games, the experiment has seldom led to anything more than mediocre kart racers and weird, often awful, indie games. There isn’t really a good reason that avatars haven’t been well-implemented into games thus far. Whether it’s been through budget limitations, general apathy for the product, or Microsoft’s crazy guidelines for how avatars must be presented in games, avatars have never been able to surround themselves in a game worth playing.

Motocross Madness is a game worth playing. ‘Surprising’ is the word that has kept resurfacing as I think about Motocross Madness. Given the low expectations I’ve had for games of its caliber thus far, it’s been refreshing to play what is not only a “good avatar game”, but a good game altogether. Above all else, Motocross Madness doesn’t try to be anything it isn’t.

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Events in Motocross Madness are broken down into four parts: normal competitive races, rival races, exploration stages, and trick sessions. The most interesting of those are the exploration stages, in which players are dropped into one of many open world terrains and given various objectives of collecting coins, doing tricks, etc. It provides a good change of pace from the other racing modes, as you’re not constrained to a time limit. Trick sessions place you the same open areas as the exploration mode as you fight against other NPC’s to see who can rack up the highest trick score in the time limit.

When you’re not on the track in Motocross Madness, you can use money earned from events to upgrade or buy new bikes, which then qualifies you to participate in higher class events. Problems arise when every new bike purchased starts out at the lowest “E” class, forcing you to repurchase all the upgrades you had on a your last bike. I found the entire prospect of buying new bikes rendered moot by the fact that the first default bike you get is more than capable to complete every event in the game. I completed every race event in 1st place with nothing but a fully upgraded stock bike.

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The moment-to-moment bike riding in Motocross Madness works fairly well, but definitely has issues. Drifting is very inconsistent, sometimes leading to a successful slide, and sometimes leading me to a complete stop. The game also tries to add an incentive to crash by giving you some XP depending how “gnarly” the crash is, but the action doesn’t stop during the crash. In this way, it’s not worth it to lose for first place position to get a few extra experience points crashing. Also, the avatar ragdoll animations are comically bad. When Motocross Madness’ driving is working though, it provides a thrilling sense of speed and a pretty enjoyable trick variation. As you gain experience and level up, you’ll gain access to new tiers of tricks to be performed in air: tricks that involve pressing in a direction while holding a corresponding face button. You’ll often have to think about which trick is necessary for the jump, as some tricks take longer than others to perform, but yield a higher boost bonus.

There are total of nine tracks in the game, spanning across three regions. The tracks themselves are surprisingly well designed and varied in terms of layout, and they look pretty great, but they do a poor job of articulating the correct path at times. Often I’d stumble off-track because there was no clear sign or terrain that indicated I was going the wrong way.

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Motocross Madness also sports a social network suite called Bike Club. Here you can see your friends’ best times on tracks, stats, medals, etc. You can also asynchronously race friends’ ghosts to beat their score, and or compete directly in real time. These features work well enough, but the entire section feels incredibly half-baked. It becomes pretty clear that Bike Club was an afterthought with its plainness and lack of creativity.

As a racing game, Motocross Madness is a well-made addition to the scarcely populated genre. It has a great variety in tracks and tricks, and provides some good, though fairly limited, replay value with the addition of Bike Club. It has a good share of quirks, no doubt, but they don’t take away too much from overall enjoyment. If past attempts at avatar-focused games have shown us anything, it is that it’s apparently tough to put out a good avatar game. Motocross Madness is easily the best argument for an avatar game to date, and also just a good ol’ racing arcade biker racer. 

PG7_10

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Mobile Playstation Vita Reviews

Ridiculous Fishing Review

When I think about endless runners on the App Store, I picture games in which I travel in one direction, avoiding obstacles and possibly picking up currency until I eventually meet my demise, and start over. That gameplay loop has always been enough for me. But Ridiculous Fishing is much more than an endless runner. It’s a welcome evolution that makes the genre feel fresh again.

A round of Ridiculous Fishing begins on your fisherman’s boat, as you tap the sea to cast your line underwater. As your line continues deeper, you’ll tilt the line to avoid fish. You continue this way until you collide with a fish, or reach your maximum line length. The fisherman then begins to retrieve the line as you now try to catch as many fish as possible on your way back up, making sure to avoid jellyfish. When you’ve finally returned to the surface, all of the fish you’ve caught along the way are flung high into the air, and you begin shooting them out of the sky, collecting their cash value as they explode. You know…normal fishing practices.

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When you’re not fishing, you can travel to the store to purchase upgrades. Upgrades range from longer fishing lines, new weapons to mix up your shooting strategies, items that give you multiple chances to collide with fish, or cosmetic clothing to pimp out your fisherman. There are plenty of upgrades to keep you busy through the game’s four fishing areas. While the first three areas have a bottom that can be reached, the final area is never-ending. This gives the player an outlet to mindlessly pursue a new “best depth” after you’ve completely upgraded yourself.

Progressing to new areas is achieved by catching and killing new species of fish. The fish themselves are satisfyingly varied, both visually and in behavior. For example, the piranha will go out of its way to swim towards your line. This is a curse when you’re trying to avoid fish, but can also be a blessing on your way up when you want as many fish as possible.

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Finding new fish requires venturing further into the depths, for which you’ll need a longer fishing line. To get a longer fishing line, you’ll likely end up grinding a bit to earn cash. I never felt like I was gaining cash too slowly, though. In fact, I was often surprised how quickly I could upgrade myself after a few short sessions. It’s a solid gameplay loop that will instantly sink its hooks in you. Sessions never lasted more than two or three minutes (at least in my case) so it’s also easy to lose yourself in the game when you need to kill a little time during the day. The tilt controls are extremely sensitive, so you won’t look like a complete fool jerking your device left and right in public.

The only aspect of Ridiculous Fishing I begin to take issue with is its price of $2.99. You’ll mostly find endless runners on the App Store ranging from free to a dollar. Though Ridiculous Fishing easily outperforms most of the competition in originality and gameplay polish, three dollars is still a lot to ask for a distraction-centric iOS game. The best argument that I can make for its price is that Ridiculous Fishing contains absolutely no micro-transactions. No shortcuts to better equipment, no buying your way through the game. When you buy the game, you get everything it has to offer. This is a refreshing return to normalcy that you don’t see too much of nowadays.

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Ridiculous Fishing is very self-aware in how ridiculous it is. Even more, it embraces it. Apart from the absurdity of brutally shooting fish out of the air, you can also yield a few quick chuckles from the in-game Twitter-esc feed “BYRDR”. Here you’ll find characters interacting with each other, cracking jokes at each other in a few words, complimenting my new fishing line, etc. It’s a very small feature, but what makes me love it even more is that you can legitimately retweet these fake tweets on Twitter. It’s just so dumb, and I love it.

That sentiment could accurately describe my thoughts on Ridiculous Fishing as a whole. It has a certain amount of polish in its varied mechanics that few games on the App Store possess. The amount of love Vlambeer has put into crafting Ridiculous Fishing is quickly apparent. And what has resulted is an excellent mix of popular mobile game genres that will likely take place as your go-to pick-up-and-play game for a while. I know it will be mine.

PG9_10

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PC Playstation Vita Reviews

Super House of Dead Ninjas Review

Super House of Dead Ninjas does not mess around. The very same tightly-knit mechanics that make SHODN a ton of fun to play are the same ones that will make you lower your guard, lose a life, and curse yourself for your dumb mistake. It’s the constant sense of urgency brought on by the ever-depleting timer in the corner of the screen that will coax you into trying to brute force your way through stages in a rush. Beware, though. It is an instant death sentence. Death is essential to progressing through SHODN to help you learn specific enemy patterns and experiment with different weapons. Thanks to the game’s upgrade system, dying often means permanently acquiring new abilities, weapons, and upgrades that help you to improve your progress every time you play.

Think of Super House of Dead Ninjas as Spelunky, only if your spelunker moved with the speed and agility of Super Meat Boy and carried shurikens. That is all to say: it’s a very fast-paced roguelike. Though unlike many games of its type, SHODN allows you to begin your journey from any stage you’ve already completed. In a way this is great, because at some point there isn’t much value in repeating the first stage over and over. Every stage is randomly generated, to a point. While the stage won’t be the same every time you play it, you quickly begin to recognize tile sets that are simply placed in a different order.

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Possibly the greatest single element in SHODN is its upgrade system. Many roguelikes force the player to start each new session with nothing but knowledge, but SHODN’s upgrade system is designed to give you a new advantage nearly every time you die. New weapons, projectiles, and bomb types are unlocked by completing tasks that are usually easy to meet without trying. All of the upgrades are completely permanent, including health and time enhancements. In this way, no matter how much trouble I had along the way, I was at least going into a new session with a new advantage.

There are only four stages in Super House of Dead Ninjas, but don’t let that fool you. Each one will take many tries to complete. As for the final stage, that can only be accessed by completing the third stage on Hard mode. Considering Hard mode supplies you with one measly life, I’m not ashamed to say I’ll probably never be able to pull that off. In order to add some considerable replay value, MegaDev has included a level editor. The editor is simple enough to use, and includes Steam Workshop functionality, so you can download other players’ stages to your game.

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Super House of Dead Ninjas effectively draws the best elements from games like Super Meat Boy and Spelunky. Its fast-paced movement and tightly-wound combat excels in giving SHODN a feel all its own. It’s a roguelike that encourages you to keep trying by dangling each upgrade in front of you like a carrot on a stick. With its low barrier to entry, replay value-adding level editor, and superb upgrade system, it’s hard not to recommend Super House of Dead Ninjas to any roguelike fan. 

PG9_10

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PC Playstation 4 Reviews

BIT.TRIP Runner 2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien Review

BIT.TRIP Presents: Runner 2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien (Runner 2) is a balancing act between delight and frustration. It’s a game with a deceptively happy and cheerful style that merely masquerades its challenging, and often unforgiving gameplay; which in the last few years has almost become its own sub-genre with entries like Super Meat Boy, FTL, and Spelunky.

As opposed to the original BIT.TRIP Runner’s faithful 16-bit style, Runner 2 revamps its visual presentation resulting in a vibrant and colorful 3D look that is all its own. With the plethora of “indie games with an 8-bit style” that can take up your time nowadays, the style has nearly become over-saturated. With that in mind, it’s much appreciated that developer Gaijin Games tried something different with Runner 2’s presentation, and it has definitely paid off.

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Runner 2’s combination of music and gameplay is at the core of the game. The rhythm of the music played during each level is paramount to timing jumps, slides, and kicks. Actions such as collecting gold stacks or jumping over an enemy generate a sound when performed, which further contribute to the fantastic background tunes.

Runner 2 gives the impression of an incredibly simple game in its initial levels, starting out with rudimentary jumps and slides. After not too long though, you’ll find you’re using nearly every button on the controller. With each new ability comes a period of a lot of failing until you can master it. In later worlds the game becomes less about introducing new mechanics, and more about finding new ways to make you use the ones you have with more expertise.

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One of the greater improvements in Runner 2 as compared to its predecessor is the addition of mid-level checkpoints. A big complaint of the first game was how unforgiving it was at times; with one mistake sending you all the way back to the start of a stage. To appease this issue, Runner 2 has checkpoints in every stage that can be found about half way through. As a nod to the fans who enjoyed the challenge of the first Runner, checkpoints can easily be jumped over completely, and doing so grants a generous point bonus at the end of the stage. That definitely makes even the hardest of stages more bearable.

With each world comes a new character to unlock, each having its own stage to complete. While the characters’ designs share in the humor of the rest of the game, the changes are only cosmetic. The game play is completely the same, so it comes down to pure preference. Each world also has a few retro stages that can be found mid-stage. These stages launch you into a retro-style stage, complete with 160-bit visuals and sounds. After discovering these stages for the first time, they can be accessed from the world menu as you please.

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One of the only complaints I can muster up about Runner 2 is its sometimes wonky hit-boxes on enemies. There were many times I collided with an enemy when I felt like I shouldn’t. The poor range of collision is made more obvious when you’re required to combine sliding and jumping. It led to countless failures borne out of pure frustration.

Magic is achieved in BIT.TRIP Runner 2 when its excellent level design, tight controls, rhythm-based gameplay, and smile-inducing music cohesively meld into something you’ve never seen before. It integrates music directly into gameplay better than any game I’ve played before. While it abandons its retro inspiration from a visual sense, it’s done so for the better; especially in an era when seemingly countless retro-style games are being released each year. Runner 2 still asks for the precise control and brutality that most games of new simply don’t. Even when I was deep in the trenches of its most frustrating stages, Runner 2 never failed to put a smile on my face.

PG9_10

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PC Playstation Vita Reviews

A Valley Without Wind 2 Review

It’s always refreshing when someone tries to do an RPG in a different way. Doing something contrary to predictable RPG tropes like experience-based leveling and generic magic can be difficult at times, and often a risk. And if A Valley Without Wind 2 can be commended for anything, it’s unlike any other RPG you’ve played. And while its unique blend of RPG elements, platforming, and turn-based strategy has potential for greatness, no single tenant of the gameplay is executed well enough to carry the experience.

A Valley Without Wind 2 is a very odd game. Everything about it just screams ‘strange’. The art style is a weird mix of backgrounds and foregrounds that don’t often meld together well, and the platforming and level design are at times so bad it seems broken. But aside from it’s complete list of problems, I never really wanted to stop playing it.

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One of the game’s bigger selling points is its emphasis on combining the platforming combat style of its predecessor with a turn-based strategy meta-game added to the mix. The overworld map is divided into squares, each one being a stage you can enter to ‘purify’. Purifying regions consists of playing a short platforming stage that ends with you destroying a generator. Purifying more squares allows you to further explore the map. The goal is to destroy Demonaica’s citadels, and then kill Demonaica himself. You must command around your troops to different regions to gather scrap and food, and to recruit new survivors. Demonaica himself begins to roam the map eventually, and after that, most of the strategy part of the game consists of you avoiding him—as confronting him means certain death.

Leveling up is handled in an interesting way in A Valley Without Wind 2. Simply defeating enemies doesn’t yield experience, as there is no experience. The only way to level up is to find a Level Up Tower, and then defeat the boss in that tower. Leveling up gives you access to a new set of perks for your character, which range from attack bonuses to jump enhancements. After revealing enough land and leveling up to a certain point, you can travel back into Demonaica’s lair to gain the next tier of spells to be used in combat.

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The game encourages you to experiment with the different Mage classes provided in each tier, but after a bit of tinkering you’ll soon figure out which class is the most powerful and just stick with that. Stages don’t tend to vary much from each other—consisting of unchallenging platforming and combat. Though with how blatantly repetitive stages are, they don’t ever last too long, so they never become too monotonous. And because of how the leveling system works, there is no real motivation to defeat enemies. You could run directly forward jumping and shooting until you reach the end of the stage, with no skin of your back.

Arcen Games has provided the player with a Strategic Adviser to provide simple tutorials and push you in the right direction of what to do next. This is definitely helpful, but flawed. It becomes clear early in the game that you must find several abandoned Robotic Research Laboratories to gain new abilities, but you’re never told what they look like. You might be able to see a building in the distance that could be the factory, but you can’t hover your mouse over it to know for sure. This leads to spending a lot of turns and effort to reach a certain square just to find out it’s not the place you were looking for.

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The default control scheme for combat on a keyboard has you using WASD to aim spells. This works well enough for most spells, but it also limits the trajectory to eight directions. This can be troublesome at times, since enemies can come at you from any angle. In hopes of remedying this, Arcen has added the old mouse control scheme from the first game in a recent patch. This partially solves the directional issues, but it doesn’t change that the spells themselves are designed for eight directions, so the mouse control scheme doesn’t quite feel natural.

The one department in which A Valley Without Wind 2 absolutely kills it is in its soundtrack. Everything from the more ambient tones played during gameplay to the killer vocals strung in the main menu are a joy. You’ll definitely want to turn the gameplay volume down and crank the music volume up.

A Valley Without Wind 2 easily succeeds in being different. There are definitely cool ideas that could be implimented into RPG’s in the future, but ideas alone aren’t enough to carry the game. It’s a platformer with mediocre platforming, and a strategy game with poorly explained rules. But put both of them together and crank up the soundtrack, and you have a game just endearing and different enough to want to see to the end.

PG6_10

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PC Playstation Vita Reviews

Anitchamber Review

Antichamber knows you before you know it—and that’s assuming that you can ever really know Antichamber. It knows what you’re thinking—knows what you’re assuming about a game of it’s caliber. Alexander Bruce, the crazy mind behind this first-person puzzler, takes player’s assumptions about how traditional video game level design is done and turns them on their head. While at times the journey can feel aimless and confusing, letting go and trusting that the game is pushing you in the right direction is the only way to succeed. 

 

Broken down into a sentence, Antichamber is a first-person puzzle game in the vein of Portal. But that would be selling the game far too short. There is no clear objective in Antichamber, no obvious motivation. Pure wonder and curiosity dominate the senses in Antichamber. There is a sense of non-linearity in the way the game is presented. There is a of a hub world in which players can instantly access by pressing escape that displays the world map and all options for the game. Simply pointing to any location on the world map teleports you there in an instant, which makes it very easy to backtrack if you’ve lost your way.

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Yet that is one of the larger problems of Antichamber: the extensive freedom and abstract progression design can lead to aimless wonder throughout places you’ve already been to find some sort of sign that you’re on the right path. This isn’t aided much by the lack of explanation of the map itself. I was often confused by what one symbol meant against another, and for all I know I’m still wrong.

 

Antichamber does everything in its power to explain itself without explicitly telling you anything. Instead, the game is riddled with panels that reveal philosophical messages. Sometimes it’s obvious the message is meant to drop a hint to the puzzle at hand, and sometimes they’re a pat on the back after the puzzle is completed. Their inconsistency makes it hard to tell, which is surely by design.

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Puzzles in Antichamber are based around the idea of non-Euclidean geometry, or in other words, crazy-ass stuff happening with the world that you wouldn’t ever expect from a logical place. An early example is wondering down a hallway that doesn’t seem to be leading anywhere, until you turn around to find the place you had just been is now a different place entirely. Never in a game before the world change so quickly and seamlessly around you. But after not too long, you’ll encounter an item that lets you directly interact with the world, which then opens up the premise for the rest of the puzzles in the game.

 

It’s when you acquire this item when Antichamber really begins to shine. There will be many times that you discover the solution to a puzzle not out of the addition of a mechanic, but out of a greater knowledge of existing ones. My most magical moments in Antichamber were discovering a new way to use your limited tools, and using those new methods to access areas you thought you physically couldn’t. The game knows what you’re going to expect, and uses that against you in the best way possible.

 

And all of Antichamber’s uniqueness is brought together well by it’s distinct visual style. The color pallet includes a lot of simple white and ultra-saturated outlines and colors. It’s not easy to explain, but colors can play a large role in drawing your attention to an important area of a puzzle. It’s a simplistic art style that appropriately compliments the simplicity of the rest of the presentation.

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Completing Antichamber doesn’t crescendo into a gripping narrative, but rather a collective retrospective of the skills you’ve learned along the way, new and old. It’s a puzzle game that doesn’t shy away from making you get by with what you have, and subtly pushes you in the right direction, and still makes you feel like a genius. Its expertly designed puzzles, experience-based progression, and stellar visual style places Antichamber above the fold of any puzzle game I’ve seen in a long while, and one worth experiencing.

PG9_10

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Playstation Vita Reviews XBOX 360 Xbox 360 Reviews

Skulls of the Shogun Review

Note: Only the Xbox 360 version of the game was played in preparation for this review.

Rarely does a turn-based strategy game draw my attention. I often lack that extra psychological *thing* that it takes to plan turns ahead of time, rather than focusing only on what’s directly in front of me. But then a game like Skulls of the Shogun comes along, and presents its systems in a way that makes vanilla players—like me—can easily get the hang of it. But don’t let the game’s accessibility fool you, for–like any good strategy game—Skulls of the Shogun gradually builds on its gameplay in interesting ways to make a much deeper, and harder, intellectual challenge. It’s the kind of game I wouldn’t mind spectating a match of.

 

The first thing you’ll be hit with in Skulls of the Shogun is it’s look. It’s hand-drawn Asian cartoonish art style is a delight to look at, from it’s character art to the beautiful landscape art. The great art direction is complimented well by it’s salutes to the days of old, with it’s retro victory music and mockup CD cover loading screen.

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Skulls of the Shogun’s story doesn’t dare to take itself seriously, but still manages to be a great companion piece to it’s sometimes brutal gameplay. When General Akamoto is killed in battle just before claiming the title of ‘Shogun’, he is begrudgingly dragged into the Afterlife. You now must guide Akamoto in his slaughterfest through the Afterlife to take back his identity and seek revenge for his death. Now imagine that, but with a consistent barrage of clever dialogue and jokes that assures a great sense of lightheartedness, rather than unnecessary seriousness.

 

And while Skulls of the Shogun’s visual style and enjoyable story definitely contribute to it being a great package, both would be rendered rather moot if it wasn’t actually fun to play. And as someone who isn’t usually keen on the turn-based strategy genre, SotS’s emphasis on accessible mechanics is very much appreciated. The game is played from a 2D isometric view, with players commanding one General and a multitude of troops made up of several classes. Movement is based upon a unit’s circular radius it can travel, rather than a grid, which helps to make the game less predictable or formulaic. Infantry troops don’t have a large movement radius, but have more attack and defense, while Horsemen can move much farther, but lack the defense to take multiple blows. This is a good example of the game’s balance between units.

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A large aspect of what makes SotS’s combat a breath of fresh air in multiple ways is the importance of the stage environment itself. There is knockback when striking enemies, so a unit unfortunately planted on the edge of a cliff can be quickly disposed of, no matter the strength. Depending on the stage, there are rice pads that can be used to build up Rice–currency for purchasing more units–and Shrines used to summon those new units. The medic unit can only be acquired through specific shrines placed throughout stages, and anyone can take over that shrine to steal that medic from another, which can swiftly change the tide of a battle.

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New mechanics are always introduced at a gradual pace, which is important, because by later levels the game becomes quite deep. Playing effectively later on requires a complete grasp of everything around you, having to develop advanced strategies like deciding what shrines, troops, and medics are worth going after. But what was a constant problem was the lack of consistency between stages. At least for me, there was always a type of story mission that just ‘clicked’ and the type that I would struggle to complete for hours at a time.

 

One of the most valuable things Skulls of the Shogun has in it’s favor is it’s ability to provide the player with all of the information they need at any given time. It’s a feeling similar to last year’s Mark of the Ninja, which made stealth accessible in a way it hadn’t before with smart visual and UI design. SotS organizes it’s interface and menus in this same way to make a deep game accessible.

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While I was only able to spend time with the Xbox 360 version of Skulls of the Shogun, it is also available on Windows Phone and Microsoft Surface. But even more interesting is the cross-play functionality between Xbox and mobile versions of the game. Opposed to the normal real-time multiplayer to be expected, matches played between Xbox and mobile are played asynchronously. It’s definitely a cool feature, but I don’t really see myself actively checking in on my Xbox to see if it’s my turn to make a move.

 

I don’t often get into a turn-based strategy game—the last being XCOM: Enemy Unknown—because I don’t like feeling overwhelmed with too many options, constantly wondering if I should be doing something differently. But Skulls of the Shogun definitely helps to ease players into it’s eventually complicated systems. It’s visual presentation directly melds into the gameplay in ways that feel natural. It’s one of the freshest additions to the genre I’ve seen a while, if not a bit inconsistent with it’s difficulty at times. Not only is it an accessible strategy game, but it’s one that could stand up against some of the biggest in the genre.

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PC PC Reviews Playstation Vita Reviews Reviews

Ace of Spades Review

What a fantastic premise for a game Ace of Spades is. A class-based multiplayer FPS with the free-formed creation and destruction of Minecraft sounds like wonderful music to my ears. Several Minecraft mods have tried to replicate this idea, but Ace of Spades is the first one to become its own game and make it onto Steam. There’s no doubt this is the type of game bound to improve and evolve over time, but for now Ace of Spades is a flawed game doesn’t live up to its promises as well as it should.

Ace of Spades very blatantly and openly draws inspiration from Minecraft and Team Fortress 2. Two teams compete in various objective modes with a collection of classes that play very differently from each other; but its real twists are its cube-based visuals (very reminiscent of Minecraft) and its emphasis on constructing and destroying the map around you to your team’s advantage. Thanks to the game’s engine, any and every part of a given map in Ace of Spades can be destroyed. This completely changes the dynamics of how a simple game of Team Deathmatch is played. Whereas a towering wall would be an obstacle in other shooters, it’s a flanking opportunity in Ace of Spades.

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Currently there are four classes: Commando, Marksman, Miner, and Rocketeer. Each one possesses unique weapons, and different preset block formations you can place in the world. The Commando wields either a mini-gun or rocket launcher. The Marksman is the sniper in the family and also has mines The Rocketeer has a machine gun and jetpack. The Miner is more oriented for mining blocks, wielding dynamite and a gun that tunnels through anything. I found myself sticking to the Rocketeer or the Miner for the majority of my playtime. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the other classes, but they are much plainer. The gimmick of having a jetpack or a tunneling rifle makes those classes far more attractive. Each class definitely has its strengths and weaknesses, but Commando and Marksman classes seem less useful in modes like “Zombie!” and “Demolition”.

Given how goofy Ace of Spade’s aesthetics make the game seem, shooting seems kind of boring. The guns control well enough, but the same concept that makes Ace of Spades stand out among the rest don’t carry over to the weaponry, which consists mostly of run-of-the-mill machine guns and pistols. The one exception is the Miner, whose tunneling gun can lead to unexpected and impressive results when traversing a map. On the plus side, as with many multiplayer PC shooters nowadays, Ace of Spades is a game destined to grow with updates. Jagex has already added a new snow launcher across all classes, and will surely be adding plenty more in the coming months.

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Game modes consist mostly of oldies-but-goodies that you would expect, like Team Deathmatch, but there are a few standout modes that take great advantage of the game’s destructive nature. One of these is “Diamond Mine”: a race to dig into the earth in search of diamonds and then deliver them to a designated point. The other is “Demolition”: both teams have a large base that must be destroyed by any means necessary.

As a game heavily inspired by games like Minecraft, it’s a wonder that Ace of Spades doesn’t yet feature a level creator. I would be incredibly surprised if such a feature wasn’t already in the making, but it seems like an obvious day one feature. That’s not to say that the included maps aren’t good, though. Maps range from gigantic castles to dense forests. The immense scale found in the maps is impressive, and leaves me eager to see what the community could do if a level creator was available.

                                     PG6_10

Ace of Spades feels unfinished. I’m sure this is true, as this is the kind of game that evolves for the better over time. The mashing of Team Fortress 2 and Minecraft is a match made in heaven, but Ace of Spades doesn’t execute on either of its inspirations well enough to achieve greatness. There is definitely fun to be had with its unique game modes, but there are few redeeming qualities once the novelty fades. If you’re playing Ace of Spades six months after this writing, you’re probably playing a much better game, but for now, Ace of Spades is a fantastic idea wrapped in mediocrity.

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Playstation 3 PlayStation 3 Reviews

Rotastic Review

Rotastic is really easy to like at first. It’s a simple puzzle game with a unique gameplay hook and a charming—though at this point generic—cartoony art style. But it doesn’t take long to realize Rotastic is boring you to tears. The one single mechanic that makes the game unique among a myriad of other indie puzzle games with a cartoony art style ends up being its most damning problem.

 

Rotastic builds its entire foundation upon its unique, and only, mechanic. The game is played by swinging from a set number of hook points on a stage, making sure not fall out of the level. You can either swing or change your direction while swinging, and that’s it. Levels are organized into worlds, with 9-10 stages in each world. The average objective in a stage ranges from jewel-collecting to brick-breaking in a set amount of time, with the degree of your success judged upon how long it took you and how many lives you lost.

 

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Stages have a nice variation, but they definitely begin to repeat from world to world. While most stages are merely tweaks upon jewel-collecting or brick-breaking, there are duel stages that pit you against other AI opponents. In those cases you must strategically swing in a way that will cut other enemies’ ropes and make them fall to their death. But while Rotastic’s stages are fun and varied, it’s mostly rendered moot by the lack of evolution and polish in the game’s swinging mechanics. The stage might change around you, but it never becomes more interesting or fun to swing around. I played through the game constantly seeing opportunities for the gameplay to improve. The simple addition of upgrades could have completely changed the game. What if I could buy the ability to climb and retract my rope to fine-tune my swings? What if there was an ability that makes aiming and transitioning hook points easier? It seemed so obvious to include some sort of progression mechanic, or anything to mix up the monotony and difficulty of swinging, but there just isn’t.

 

In addition to campaign levels, you’ll find Combat Mode—which essentially lets you form custom games with AI opponents or local play. This is pretty much what you would expect—you can set a match to your liking in the settings, but it’s nothing exciting or interesting. And other than that, you can go check out the leaderboards, which in a week after the game’s release has only a little more than 200 entries on it.

 

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Rotastic features a nice visual style, focusing on medieval times with a cartoony twist. The game even tries to set up small back stories for the four characters you can choose from on their website, even though all of them play exactly the same in practice. And the music, while limited, gives off a light-hearted vibe that fits the overall style.

 

VERDICT:

You can taste the unfulfilled potential in Rotastic. While there is fun to be had, swinging feels unnecessarily difficult and takes far too long to get the hang of. But for the low price of $10, you could definitely do worse. Rotastic can still be plenty fun to play in small chunks, and really feels the type of game that would benefit from coming to Vita. It’s a very simple and charming puzzle game that could be so much better, but is still pretty good as is. If you’re into competitive games you can play with your family, then you should definitely give Rotastic a chance.

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Playstation 3 PlayStation 3 Reviews Playstation VIta Playstation Vita Reviews Reviews

Big Sky Infinity Review

Fast-paced “Bullet-Hell” shooters rarely provide incentive to keep playing after you’ve claimed the top of your respective friend’s leaderboard. The fundamental design of them suggests that you’re going to die, and you’re going to die a lot, but the only way to improve is to learn enemy patterns and try to make it further the next time around. And while Big Sky Infinity does mostly follow this template, it adds extensive RPG elements and a wide variety of game modes to make sure there’s probably something you haven’t tried yet at any given time.

Big Sky Infinity absolutely nails the single most important aspect of a fast-paced scrolling shooter—the gameplay. Its dual-stick shooting and consistently great framerate are crucial to the experience. The instant you start playing, you feel a great sense of control that a super smooth 60fps can allow.

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Big Sky Infinity doesn’t follow any story, and doesn’t have an end to it’s game modes. In reality, it shares more DNA with something like Dark Souls than anything. You’ll be briefed with a short tutorial on learn controls, but after that, the game just doesn’t do much to explain itself. This forces players to play a multitude of times before you know how different elements of the world play out—the random black holes, slow-motion acid trips, and perplexing bosses that you’ll surely die from more than once before you know how to hurt them. And like Dark Souls, death often comes with a new lesson—and frustration. But that’s why Big Sky Infinity’s upgrade system exists. In Classic mode, you’ll be building up Starbits after every run that you can use to upgrade a number of aspects of your ship—like shot radius, shields, reload time on heavy laser, ship speed, and many others. The way you can simply dump thousands of points into upgrades at regular intervals is strangely satisfying.

But while these upgrades are addicting to obtain, it can often be hard to see how your improvements are helping your session when the game is as opaque as it is. You feel like you just sorta have to trust the constant point-dumping is actually helping. Bosses will appear randomly during a session, each one requiring a different strategy to defeat. And once defeated you continue on your run, so you’ll often run into more than one in the same game. While each boss is challenging and varied, there are only four of them, so expect to be see the same one many times. I eventually became so accustomed to the way each boss behaved, they ceased to be a challenge.

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But probably the best argument for Big Sky Infinity is it’s asynchronous multiplayer mode found in the Vita version of the game, which is essentially a classic game of HORSE. First, one players sets the rules of the game, sets his score in that mode, sends a message to the opponent, who then plays that mode and tries to beat that score. If you don’t beat the score, you get an H. If you do beat it, the other guy gets an H. But you don’t only have to play for score—I can set the mode to be Pacifism, so you can’t shoot and can only dodge. Then I can also set it to be a game of distance, kills, Starbits, and more. Score notifications work very well, because they’re handled through the Vita’s messaging app. The message received will take you directly into the game, ready to play. And since the message is reading minimal amounts of data, you can receive and accept challenges over 3G. It’s an intelligent system that makes excellent use of the Vita’s strengths. But unfortunately, this mode is completely absent from the PS3 version of the game. In the place of it, is a four-player local multiplayer mode. This is fine, but doesn’t compare in quality to the HORSE mode.

VERDICT

Big Sky Infinity is a salute to the bullet-hell shooters of old that melds its seizure-inducing visuals and kick*ss soundtrack exceptionally well. Even better is its myriad of game modes, each one evoking a different skill. Upgradable skills found in Classic mode assure that you won’t max them out quickly, though they don’t always seem to help with all of the randomness. While buying the PS3 version gives you the Vita version for free, the multiplayer HORSE mode found in the Vita version is the most enjoyable part of the game, and led me to almost exclusively playing that version. For ten bucks, it’s kinda hard to go wrong with Big Sky Infinity. 

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Playstation 3 PlayStation 3 Reviews XBOX 360 Xbox 360 Reviews

Hitman Absolution Review

Hitman: Absolution is a very different kind of game from its predecessor Blood Money, a game that I fell in love with just a few months ago, despite its release in 2006. Blood Money heavily emphasized the idea of stalking your pray in plain sight, planning a kill by exploring the intricately detailed sandbox around you, and watching your carefully constructed series of “accidental” events unfold around you. If you don’t want these, though, it can be about finding the perfect vantage point to snipe your targets, or bust down the door guns a’blazin, or whatever the heck you wanted it to be about. Hitman was basically its own genre, until now. Absolution never recreates the same kind of freedom of choice found in Blood Money, but it does provide a handful of options for getting from A to B or taking down a target. Absolution very clearly places presentation and storytelling over gameplay, and manages to do both pretty well.

 

Hitman: Absolution follows Agent 47 on a contract to kill his former handler Diana Burnwood, after her betrayal of the Agency. As you might expect, things don’t go as planned and 47 finds himself on the run from the Agency to protect a girl named Victoria from further genetic experiments. It isn’t a very intriguing story compared to its predecessor, especially given how much more effort Absolution puts into it. I was often unsure of exactly why I was doing what I was doing, having to go over the briefing again to fill myself in. It’s difficult to comprehend Agent 47’s motivations for protecting Victoria under the request of Diana when 47 himself is a stone-cold killer who refuses to express emotion. Up until now he’s been nothing but a vessel for the player’s decisions, but Absolution tries to throw a moral compass into his hands which, unfortunately, falls a bit flat.

 

Absolution’s pacing and level structure could be easily equated to October’s Dishonored or Deus Ex: Human Revolution. The game gives you an objective–“Kill Duder McSomeGuy”–and plenty of tools and opportunities to achieve that goal. For the majority of Absolution, though, objectives are more like “Walk through this door” or “Walk through this door that requires a keycard”. That’s where Absolution begins to feel the most like the previously mentioned games in that I’m simply trying to get across the room, not killing a specific target in unique ways. There are multiple ways to get across that room; you could subdue a guard and take his disguise, creep around and avoid sight, or take out your Silverballers and lay waste to all those with a pulse. I definitely had moments of magic experimenting with these different play-styles, though the changes made to the disguise system make it less practical and harder to manage. Those with the same disguise as yours will rapidly begin to see through your ruse and blow your cover. The only way to counter this is to blend in, which quickly burns your Instinct meter. This would be a good balanced system, if regaining Instinct wasn’t so valuable and hard to do. When the fastest way to regain Instinct is playing like a mass murderer, it directly contradicts the use of Instinct to stay stealthy.

 

Despite that issue with Instinct, it’s overall a very smart addition to Hitman. Its primary use is the “Detective Vision-like” mode that highlights enemy positions and movement paths through walls. It will also highlight points of interest that drop subtle hints at the possible things you could do with something. For instance, a notice on a guard’s coffee cup may pop up telling you that “he really likes his coffee”, then perhaps you find upon some sleeping pills that you would be perfect knocking him out. Whereas previous iterations left discovery completely up to you, Absolutions nudges you in the right direction, but still leaves plenty of room to feel satisfied at cleverly executing a kill. That sense of self-pride is important to Hetmans’ fundamental gameplay loop, so it’s even more important that it’s done well here.

 

All of these welcome additions and improvements to the Hitman formula are met with a bittersweet taste in the mouth. They only work well when applied to the classic sandbox levels you’d expect from Hitman, which are few and far between in Absolution. When my only objective is a linear run to a door, the need to use Instinct is reduced. Even when the game finally does provide a proper sandbox with which to experiment, it’s much smaller than those found in Blood Money. Absolution’s scoring system doesn’t help, either. There is a constant number in the right corner at the screen at any given point, rewarding or taking away points according to your play style. There are also a myriad of challenges to complete during a stage that greatly increase your final score, though trying to do all of them in one playthrough is impossible. All of this is in pursuit of a bigger final score, which is then added to the national and friends average. There is a very specific problem with the way the game scores players: It subtracts points. Losing a ton of points when I decide to shoot a random guard in the head directly contradicts the idea of playing the way you want. It’s one thing to grant bonus points when you perform difficult stealth tasks, but to take away points because I’m not the perfect assassin feels cheap, and sucks the joy one gets from tagging six dudes with Point Shooting and watching the rapid gore unfold.

 

The other half of Absolution’s package is Contracts mode, a surprisingly deep way to add some replay value. Contracts mode is essentially the custom challenge mode we’ve always invented in Hitman, now properly implemented. Creating a contract means entering any stage from the story and marking three targets for execution. Then you play out the situation whichever way you want, taking out the targets. The game will then analyze the different stipulations you performed like “Only Kill Targets”, “Hide All Bodies”, or “Kill this guy with this specific gun and disguise”. You can then name your contract, challenge friends to beat your score, and then send it off into the world for all the community to play. Though my previous problems with the game’s level structure bleeds over into Contracts, every stage is linear and small with very few exceptions, meaning you’re going to see a ton contracts on those few open levels and less on others. Regardless, Contracts is a very cool concept done pretty well here.

 

Hitman: Absolution is not an example of why I love Hitman, because it’s a very different kind of game. Nearly all of its improvements feel like IO Interactive still had Blood Money on the brain, when in reality they don’t work nearly as well when a stage is as linear. Still, Absolution left me jaw-dropped at its visuals and attention to detail–which are well-represented by the countless lines of incidental dialogue between the AI. Games like Deus Ex could learn plenty of things from the way Absolution handles its movement, cover, and shooting. Though it’s definitely not the Hitman sequel that I would have preferred, none can doubt how well put-together a game it is in the end and for that I salute thee, Agent 47.

Hitman: Absolution gets an 8/10

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Playstation VIta Playstation Vita Reviews

Assassin’s Creed Liberation Review

Assassin’s Creed 3: Liberation tries so hard to look, feel, and play like its big brother console game, Assassin’s Creed 3. It tries so hard, in fact, that it’s very often to its detriment. Liberation succeeds in establishing its own setting apart from the cities of Boston and New York in AC3, and sets up some interesting themes in its main character and the culture surrounding New Orleans. Liberation unfortunately fumbles on almost every technical front. Problems range from constant frame rate drops to unresponsive controls. Liberation lacks very crucial layers of polish that proper AC titles have always had, yet still inherits the same movement woes of said console games, making them even more frustrating to deal with.

 

Liberation has been marketed as the ‘Assassin’s Creed experience on the Vita’, and somewhat of a companion to Assassin’s Creed 3 on consoles. For the most part, this is true. Due to the Vita’s Dualshock-like control layout, it’s actually possible to pull off AC’s complicated control scheme. Any AC veteran will feel immediately at home when you first gain control of Aveline. This helps, because Liberation does not bother to explain a lot of its fundamental control systems, a similar fumble as in AC3.

 

Liberation pulls away from the northern colonial cities of Boston and New York found in AC3 and introduces you to the South; specifically New Orleans. Even though this iteration isn’t developed by the usual AC ‘A-Team’, Liberation does an impeccable job at making New Orleans feel like its own city. Going from the booming economy of New York to the more rural desperation-filled city of Spanish-occupied New Orleans instantly gives off a very different vibe.

 

There is a surprisingly clever premise attached to Liberation, both in the character you play and the justification for being in control of an Animus. According to the game, you’ve purchased an official Abstergo Animus console that allows you to relive the life of different people throughout history. Your console contains the life of Aveline de Grandpre, a female Assassin who is of French and African descent. After her mother mysteriously disappeared when she was a girl, Aveline was brought up by her father and step mother and was eventually introduced to master Agate, who then trained her to be an Assassin. Aveline fights in opposition to slavery, which was a pivotal part of the economy in the Southern colonies. Much like a masked superhero, Aveline hides her Assassin life from her family, a seemingly proper lady to them. It’s a fantastic premise at heart, though unfortunately there is very little meaningful payoff for the potential this premise holds.

 

If you’ve played an AC game before, you’ll feel right at home controlling Aveline on the Vita. Liberation features the same control enhancements found in AC3 and adds a new “one-button sprinting” mechanic that significantly improves the parkour system. Holding down ‘R’ will now put you in a full sprint that will assume you want to stay high, and will try to prevent you from touching the ground. Holding down both ‘R’ and ‘X’ will then assume that you want to take more drastic jumps. This helps to limit accidental jumps that lead to cheap deaths.

 

Likely the most unique and ultimately unrealized trick up Liberation’s sleeve is its three-persona system. As Aveline, you can freely swap between your assassin, slave, and lady guises that each provides its own advantages. Assassin robes grant access to all tools and weapons, but also come with automatic notoriety. Slave garments are easy to blend into crowds with, at the expense of most of your tools. The lady dress allows you to charm men into helping you past hostile guards, though at the same time is dreadfully slow and you’ll be without almost all tools. As seems to be a pattern in Liberation, the persona system has definite potential, but greatly lacks in execution. Missions don’t give players the options of deciding what persona they want to go in with, but rather confine you to very specific moments when each disguise is required. If my current disguise has no credence to which one I’ll actually be using during a mission, then why have the option there at all? There is basically no advantage to using anything other than the assassin guise outside of missions, which makes the entire system very perplexing.

 

The combat in Liberation is also mirrored from AC3. Combat in AC has finally found a nice balance between defensive and offensive options. Both options are now completely viable; counter-attacking and being aggressive can get the job done. There are a couple of enemy types that require more than a simple counter or swing of the sword, so a bit more attention is required, but the quality of the combat is often squandered by Liberation’s frequent bugs. The game will often not respond when buttons are pressed, specifically during combat and stealth assassinations, which will certainly ruin your day.

 

That is by far Liberations biggest and most detrimental fumble: that it’s just so darn unpolished and buggy. In theory it’s all there; the controls, the movement, the premise, the combat. However, it all feels so forced that it becomes quite apparent how little attention was spent to making sure the game ran well. The frame-rate sucks, the controls are inconsistent, and bugs are abundant. Not to mention the game’s oddly low audio quality, which for some reason resembles that of a $3 pair of headphones.

 

One of my largest complaints with AC3 is its abundance of busy-work activities that are functional, but don’t give players much incentive to do them. Liberation detracts from this issue by having little-to-nothing to do when the story is finished, creating yet another issue. The story will keep you busy for a while, especially if you’re like me running from 8-10 hours. Just don’t expect to stay long after that. There are very brief side missions centered on freeing slaves, but these are quite repetitive and frankly, they are not fun. If you’re a collectible guy, you’ll probably squeeze out a few more hours searching for useless treasures and feathers.

 

Assassin’s Creed 3: Liberation holds very strong concepts in a very sloppily thrown-together package. The strong story premise alone initially had me hooked, but it desperately hangs on the fragile hooks of its premise until the entire adventure decrescendos into a dry and meaningless ending. It lacks polish in every sense of the word, often feeling broken in combat while having a consistently poor frame rate-all along the way. If you can look past Liberation’s technical fumbles, there is enjoyment to be had. In fact, I think AC veterans can find plenty to enjoy when you look deep. If you’re looking for yet another excuse to jump from buildings and stab people in the neck, then Liberation does that; but if you’re looking for a great game on the Vita, go buy LittleBigPlanet.

 

Assassin’s Creed 3 Liberation gets a 6/10.

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Playstation 3 PlayStation 3 Reviews Playstation VIta Playstation Vita Reviews XBOX 360 Xbox 360 Reviews

Retro City Rampage Review

The word “retro” is thrown around a lot in this generation. By definition, Retro is typically an aged or outdated style, fashion, mode, etc. Anything from more than 15-20 years is typically considered “retro”. Sometimes ideas challenge that definition and present the question: Can a modern game with modern ideas and innovation be classified as “retro”?
Retro City Rampage is one of those games that stands up to the challenge. Does it succeed or does it fall flat like the sprites it emulates?

(Game Modes)
Retro City Rampage features a long and robust campaign mode that continuously hammers your memories with references from the 80s and 90s. Some of these references are hilarious while others are primarily designed to make you reminisce of not just video games, but pop-culture as well. I can’t count how many times I caught myself thinking about the times I first played the games that Retro City Rampage was copying.

In addition to those modes, Retro City Rampage also provides “rampage” side missions. I haven’t gone on one of these types of missions since they were last used in the Grand Theft Auto series: Vice City. Essentially, they are score chasers, which I have never been heavily into with any game. RCR, on the other hand, successfully captures what I liked with the GTA rampages. These challenges are the perfect excuse to bring your 8-bit chaos fantasies to fruition.

(Gameplay)

When you start up the game, the very first “retro” reference that you are shown is the presentation of the game. You play in a top down, over-head view similar to the original Grand Theft Auto. Occasionally the game will give you a different camera view similar to the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game (which is also referenced multiple times). Retro City Rampage constantly introduces new game play elements into the fray that can make the player confused. Having a brief tutorial would have been nice, considering the game tosses you into the frenzy and expects you to know what you are doing. This aspect could potentially put some gamers off of the game and that would be a shame.

Much like GTA, RCR has a wanted level system displayed by a meter where the color green means you are safe and the cops don’t care if you exist. However that meter will quickly climb as it seems that every little mistake you make (like bumping into another car when a cop is near) pushes you further towards the red, essentially meaning you are screwed. Luckily, there is a way to get rid of the wanted level. Scattered about the map (usually in alleys) are items called: “Stealth Coins” which, once you collect one, makes the police mysteriously blind to your actions for a limited time allowing you to make your escape.

Another issue that proved to be annoying was the lack of detail on the in-game map. The map places little color filled circles on places of interest on your map, but this is a little frustrating when you are cruising around or trying to find a specific shop. If you don’t remember the general location of that store, you could be forced to wander the streets until you stumble on it. I had this issue after I completed a mission that required you to wear a propeller hat. I couldn’t remember where the hat shop was, so I had no choice but to wander the streets.

When you decide to take a break from all the 8-bit violence, there is an in-game arcade that has several games waiting for you to play outside of RCR’s many mini-games. Of these arcade games, a plump, meaty, and for lack of a better word, “drippy” character makes an appearance in a game with Virtual Boy graphics. (You can draw your own conclusions from those hints)


(Sound & Visuals)

Compared to modern day titles, Retro City Rampage may not be something that spectacular, but it wouldn’t be fair to compare this game to anything other than a game from the generation that it mimics. Both the sound effects/music and visuals of RCR successfully recreate the presentation of the best games of yesteryear. The sound effects are the same that you would expect from the 8-bit era of gaming, just slightly enhanced to maintain the authenticity and to make sure that the game won’t drive you crazy from the bleeps and bloops.

One of the things that makes this game stand out is that it gives you the option to adjust graphic filters. You can apply an old time (80s’ish) TV that surrounds the screen with all of the glorious knobs that you had to turn to change the channel (unless you had one of those ugly slider cable boxes). You can select graphic filters that make the game look like it’s being played on the Gameboy’s green and black dot matrix LCD screen or you can set it up to display as classic VGA. There are a crap-ton of options that allow you to customize the game’s graphics to suit your nostalgic needs.

(Trophies)

Retro City Rampage has a total of 14 trophies and of those, you have your typical “Do this just because it’s possible” trophies: “Feeling Groggy” requires you to “get ‘sick’ off of milk.’” Not all of the trophies are that easy. You also have your collectables which consist of loot bags, pay phones and invisible walls. (I know, it sounds weird, but it works with the aesthetic.) There is a trophy called “Death Cam, No death” that requires you to complete a mission called “Death Cam VHS” without dying. The name of this mission may be stirring up some thoughts in your head right now and if you are wondering, “Death Cam VHS” is similar to the arcade classic “Smash TV”.

(Conclusion & Thoughts)

Retro City Rampage is Brian Provinciano’s open love letter to a long gone generation in our gaming history. With all of the content and constant references to the 80s and 90s, you can tell that Brian’s heart and mind belong to video games. Retro City Rampage proves that a modern game can be “retro” when it’s being developed with the creator’s love for a long gone generation as the constant focus. When you purchase Retro City Rampage from the PlayStation Network, you’ll see that Retro City Rampage is a part of the “cross-buy” program. So you get both the PlayStation 3 version AND the PlayStation Vita version all for the low price of $14.99.

 

SCORE:
9.0 out of 10
Very close to absolute perfection

PROS
The ultimate 8-bit nostalgic game available for home consoles
A ton of content and customization options
2 games for the price of one through the cross-buy program
Epic in-game arcade games

CONS
The controls can be a bit confusing at times. A brief tutorial to introduce new game play elements would have been nice
It can be difficult to find some of the shops without a map with a little more detail

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Playstation 3 PlayStation 3 Reviews XBOX 360 Xbox 360 Reviews

Assassin’s Creed 3 Review

After five Assassin’s Creed games over the past five years, it’s surprising how little has changed in retrospect. The original AC was very methodical and repetitive, but it introduced a new kind third-person movement system and impressive tech. AC2 revamped the formula and addressed most of its glaring issues, making it one of the best games of 2009. AC took a coastal ride when it turned into a yearly franchise, churning out Brotherhood and Revelations. Both games were completely competent, and incrementally moved the series forward, but not enough to satisfy the bar set by the franchise. Assassin’s Creed 3 seems like the one that could finally break the cycle, with its three-year development period and exciting new setting in revolutionary-era America.

 

In many ways, Assassin’s Creed 3 is the Saving Grace we’ve been waiting for. Its Colonial setting is a breath of fresh air, the combat has finally hit a satisfying balance, and it has trimmed the fat from past AC games and only brought back systems that work; that is, for the most part. Assassin’s Creed 3 will not convert those who have never enjoyed the series. It still features the same one-button free-running system (though slightly improved), counter-heavy combat, and generic side missions. The thing is, for AC fans, it becomes easy to pick apart where Assassin’s Creed 3 triumphs and fumbles, and why it’s not the best entry in the series.

 

Assassin’s Creed 3 picks up quite literally where Revelations left off, wasting no time in quickly setting Desmond up with an Animus and throwing him into the 18th century in search of a “key” left by the first civilization. After a lengthy four-hour introduction, you’re thrown into the shoes of Connor, a half-British Indian pulled into the Assassin Brotherhood through unconventional means.

 

While Ezio’s motivations were very clearly wrought with revenge and leadership, Connor is much more of a blank slate, always wanting to do the honest and honorable thing. His youth and naivety result in a lot of Connor acting as an errand boy for nearly every revolutionary character. This feels like more of an excuse to include Connor in historical events more than anything. While experiencing these historical events first-hand that we’ve only read about in the past could be really interesting, it’s executed poorly in AC3. It really seems like Ubisoft became too concerned with making sure Connor was inserted into every mission, often causing them to forget to make those missions fun from a gameplay standpoint. Probably the largest offender of this issue is the Paul Revere mission, where you are quite literally taxiing Revere around on his historic ride to warn the militia of the coming British invasion at Lexington and Concord. The overall lunacy of the event aside, it’s a boring mission with no redeeming qualities. I found myself feeling this way about many missions, especially those heavy on the historic fiction. This makes the majority of AC3’s story a letdown.

 

I’ve always been way more interested in the paramount conflict between the Templars and Assassins and the different ways Ubisoft has inserted them into history thus far. There has always been a historical backdrop to AC’s worlds, but it always came down to Assassins versus Templars. AC3 is a lot less of Assassins versus Templars, and much more American versus British. This makes sense, given the setting, but it also makes for an overall less interesting tale. As the series moves even farther forward in history, it becomes even more obvious where the truth has been stretched, showing its historical inconsistencies. There are certainly high points in the story of AC3, one of the best being an excellent naval mission during the Battle of the Chesapeake.

 

The basis of Assassin’s Creed 3 gameplay is relatively unchanged, though there have been some important tweaks to free-running and combat. Gone is the difference between “jogging” and “sprinting”–now there is only one mode of running, having to only hold down R1 (RB) to run and climb. Holding down Circle or X while running makes the game assume that you want to stay on ground level, making you vault over small obstacles instead of climbing them. But if you’re normally running, the game will only ever let you jump if there is a safe handhold or platform on the other side–this eliminates the worry of Connor randomly choosing to jump to his death instead of the adjacent building. But the shining light in AC3’s movement enhancements is the addition of tree traversal. Connor can effortlessly leap and crawl across the trees of the Frontier; very useful when stalking animals or Redcoats. What you would think would be a clunky mess ends up being a fluid breeze and a blast to do. Sadly, not every facet of Assassin’s Creed’s classic clunkiness has been redeemed in AC3. You will still hop when you don’t want to, have a frustrating time trying to hop off of that ledge, and immediately exit the hiding place you meant to stay inside of. It’s a large improvement, but still not ideal.

 

The combat of Assassin’s Creed 3 feels like Ubisoft has finally hit a nice balance between the different iterations “stabbing dudes” has seen throughout the years. Pretty much every tool and weapon you’re going to have access to is given to you almost immediately, following suit with the past few games. Ubisoft has definitely trimmed the fat in the inventory, ridding you of weapons that had little practicality in past iterations–the poison blade and lethal bombs included. In place of these tools of old are tools of new, like the Rope Dart–you can literally throw this baby into a Redcoat’s neck and hang him by a tree. The combat takes a step backward when you go to the weapon selection screen. AC3’s weapon selection screen is sluggish at best, taking up the entire screen and often taking three seconds to load. Given how often I was switching weapons, this became a surprisingly large problem. The combo and counter-driven combat has once again been revamped yet feels familiar. Chaining instant kills together has been toned down a bit, adding some necessary challenge to the laughably easy killing of Brotherhood and Revelations. The choice of offensive and defensive fighting feels more possible than ever. You can still wait around for enemies to attack you and counter, but some attacks can’t just be countered. If you don’t follow up with an offensive attack quickly enough, heavy enemies will overpower you unless you disarm them and then pick up their weapon. Assassin’s Creed continues to impress with its incredibly brutal killing animations, with a special shout-out to the tomahawk. The addition of the tomahawk made that my go-to weapon. I literally never felt the need to purchase a sword.

 

The sprawling cities of Assassin’s Creed have always been about climbing unbelievably high Cathedrals. Ubisoft has always done a stellar job at making them feel like their own unique places. Rome from AC: Brotherhood did this better than any. Unfortunately, some of this has been lost with the locales in AC3. You’ll be spending the majority of your time in Boston and New York. By virtue of the game taking place in the time it does, the cities are naturally flatter than any we’ve seen before. Sure, you can climb church steeples and the occasional watchtower to get a bird’s-eye-view, but even the highest of highest New York points don’t come close to the vertical scale of Constantinople or Rome. It’s a reality of the time period and the relative infancy of these cities, not the lack of trying. A possible remedy to this problem could have been found in creating cool new incentives in its mid-height traversal. Perhaps Ubisoft’s crack at a solution was throwing in traditional fast travel that can be accessed at any time, but it ends up being much more of a shortcut than a solution.

 

Assassin’s Creed 3 gives you an immense amount of busy work for those who want to get away from throat-slicing for a short minute. Some of the side activities such as naval missions or hunting are surprisingly fun and well-executed; while some are just mindless side-missions or try emulate a SimCity game. This isn’t the first time these kinds of activities have been around in an AC game, but this time around I felt absolutely no incentive to do any of them. Money is virtually useless in AC3 because I never felt the need to buy anything. I could always find plenty of ammo or items by looting dead bodies, so general stores were never used. This also crippled any incentive to hunt in the Frontier, unless you’re determined to complete every hunting challenge. I never felt like I lacked any tool or weapon that could make me any more effective than I already was. Like I said before, I never even used a sword. Sure, those Liberation missions and Homestead upkeep are there for those who need to find an excuse to keep playing the game.

 

Playing on the PS3, the game often suffered a choppy frame rate and the occasional glaring bug. What’s odd about the frame rate is that it’s almost constantly below 30, but the nature of the game never makes it an issue while playing it. It’s much more of a constant annoyance. Never has any other AC game assumed that you’re a veteran player more than AC3, as it often does a very poor job of explaining many of its systems. Many things blatantly leave out tutorials totally. I can’t imagine jumping into this as a new player, as I would probably be lost for many hours.

 

I’m not going to try to convince you that I played a ton of the multiplayer in AC3, because it’s never been my thing. I’ve always appreciated how well they have implemented multiplayer into such a solitary game, but I have never been consumed by it. I never touched it in Revelations, so it was quite overwhelming to dive directly into it in AC3. The first thing I noticed is that it is way deeper than you would expect. So much so, that the game launches a custom multiplayer dashboard when launched. There are many more skills, abilities, characters, and game modes to choose from this time around. Like the single player game, I found many of the aspects of the multiplayer poorly explained–leaving me lost when playing the more untraditional game modes. That’s not to say there isn’t fun to be had when you figure it out. Necessary tweaks are made to the gameplay in multiplayer, like moving the camera out a bit and keeping a constant aiming reticule on the screen. Though AC3’s multiplayer still didn’t pull me, it’s quite apparent that it is the best version of it thus far, and fans will be pleased.

 

Assassin’s Creed 3 had all of my attention, which is why it was all the more painful to come to the conclusion that it isn’t the best in the series. It takes more strides backwards than forward with its squandered story potential and middling city design. The combat and multiplayer have never been better, and AC faithfuls will be satisfied by what they get, but AC3 fails to hit the same high points found in past iterations. I never felt any incentive to do much more than the story missions. That along with the addition of fast travel directly limited the amount of time I spent in the game altogether. At least Americans finally get the chance to let loose on their secret hatred of British folk, *wink* *wink*.

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Playstation 3 PlayStation 3 Reviews XBOX 360 Xbox 360 Reviews

The Walking Dead Episode 4 Review

It’s been a very long, painful journey for Lee (AKA myself), Clementine, and Kenny thus far. Kenny is still in an angry shock over the abrupt loss of his family just two days prior. Our group has a few new members–Omid and Christa–who seem to be fitting in well, even if Christa can be pretty demanding and hard to deal with at times. We’ve arrived in Savannah in hopes of finding a boat to get us out of this miserable place–somewhere safer.

With the array of different possibilities there are between mine and your story in The Walking Dead at this point, it’s hard to articulate my enjoyment of the episode to everybody, because things could be very different for you. Unlike past episodes, I decided not to play through this episode twice–I just don’t want to go through painful moments again.

To put my adventure thus far briefly; Carly was my girl, I helped kill Larry when he had his heart attack, I skewered one of the St. Clair brothers, Clementine and I are as tight as can be, I left Lilly to die when she murdered Carly, and I shot Duck for Kenny. I’m not proud of those decisions, and many others, but my irrational and in-the-moment actions blinded my reason. When the going got tough, I made decisions that seemed right at the time, but not always what was right in the long-term.

Around Every Corner is a departure from the pattern of this series thus far. Where Long Road Ahead spent a majority of its time delving deep into its existing characters–and slapping you in the face by killing off almost all of them–Around Every Corner feels much more like Episode 1 in many respects. Rather than introducing tense and deadly situations at every turn, a lot of time was spent providing context to Savannah and the new characters found in it. Some, if not most, of the new characters introduced in this episode feel shamelessly tacked on and unnecessary, and feel like they’re there purely for the sake of telling another sad back-story for no real reason.

Even though Around Every Corner doesn’t kick you in the tear ducts every time you take a breath, it still does an impeccable job of setting up the final chapter for Lee and Clementine. I say that because the game makes very clear all of the variation in who can still be with you up to this point–whether it’s because they’re dead or for other reasons.

I feel like a broken record at this point having to acknowledge The Walking Dead’s blaring technical issues running on PS3. As can be said subsequently for every episode, Around Every Corner features the most obvious and most intrusive bugs yet. Every episode has had freezing in between scenes, but Episode 4 has had the worst freezes yet. Apart from the normal freezing and frame rate problems, the post-episode display showing your decisions compared to the rest of the community was completely blank–it literally said “Choice 1” and “Choice 1 Decision” in place of the actual statistic or title. A patch has since been released, so hopefully these issues have been resolved.

Around Every Corner is not the season’s greatest stand-alone episode (that honor still belongs to Long Road Ahead) but it does a fantastic job setting up a finale with complicated situations that are sure to be worthy of a title like No Time Left. Around Every Corner puts context and setting before action, which is necessary for thoroughly building the city of Savannah in its current state. Don’t get me wrong, the action, tense situations, and reflex-summoning decisions you expect are definitely here, but are not the strongest we’ve seen in the past and are few-and-far-between. Around Every Corner is a solid two-hour long emotional ride. There’s only so much I can say without spoiling anything, but I will say there was more than one moment in this episode worthy of light tears. If you’ve invested as much as I have in this story so far, whether it is emotionally or physically, there’s no reason not to enjoy this episode; especially after the gut-wrenching ending that is sure to make for an excellent finale to this amazing series.

 

The Walking Dead Episode 4: Around Every Corner gets an 8/10

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Playstation 3 PlayStation 3 Reviews

Tokyo Jungle Review

Tokyo Jungle sets out to do a very specific thing, and does it very well. It’s very much a Japanese game, and doesn’t care who knows it. Unlike some recent Japanese games that try to cater to every Western audience in its design, Tokyo Jungle embraces its insane premise and capitalizes on it with great controls and tight combat that makes for a one-of-a-kind experience; managing to be a ton of fun, at least for a while.

I suppose the closest thing to which one can compare Tokyo Jungle is a Roguelike, meaning that you’ll be attempting to survive in the post-apocalyptic Tokyo as long as possible until you die, where you then repeat the process with a new carrot dangling in front of your head to keep you going. That’s the draw of Tokyo Jungle and other games like it: ever subsequent playthrough has its own contained adventure, with its own story, crazy moments, and lessons—especially lessons.

As is appropriate in the animal kingdom, you’ll start at the bottom of the food in chain in Tokyo Jungle. With the Pomeranian as your first animal, you’ll learn the essential rules of Tokyo Jungle, and how the world turns around you. You have a life, hunger, and stamina gauge. As a carnivore, killing and eating other animals frequently is paramount to keeping your hunger down. On the other hand you can be an herbivore, like a deer, who relies on randomly generated plants around the world for food, and must frequently run away predators, leaving you practically defenseless. Your animal can only live for 15 years, so marking your territory, finding a mate, and having children to continue your journey is necessary. Transitioning generations comes with a few perks, like inheriting beneficial stats from your parents and having siblings that act as additional lives if you die.

Apart from your initial goal of staying alive, you also have a myriad of objectives to complete. Objectives are organized into three-part chunks, and the next set is introduced as the years go by. You might be asked to intake a certain amount of calories (gained by consuming animals or plants), make your way to a certain part of Tokyo, or transition generations before 20 years have passed. The objectives differ from animal to animal, though they don’t differentiate enough to stay interesting the 11th time through. This inevitable monotony is accelerated by the fact that you’re spawned into the same exact spot ever time, no matter what. But what never gets old is unlocking a new animal to play with, which is good, because there are a TON of them to unlock ranging from defenseless rabbits to almighty dinosaurs.

Because unlocking the next animal became the only thing I was interested in after a while, I found myself purposely killing myself after I unlocked it. There just isn’t enough incentive to attempt to live for 60 years; bar from getting a trophy or climbing the Leaderboards.

A majority of animals play more or less the same, though there are some obvious variations like speed or how quickly you burn calories. As you climb up the food chain, you’ll begin to feel much more comfortable challenging larger and more numerous animals, especially underground where things can get fierce quickly.

Apart from the prominent Survival mode I’ve touched on thus far, there is also a story mode to sift through, though it is more like a collection of smaller scale missions that focus on specific objectives. Each one contains a small self-contained story of an animal. These missions aren’t bad, but more boring than anything. It’s also kind of odd that these missions teach fundamental mechanics of the game even though the only way to unlock these missions is through playing several hours of Survival. Needless to say the meat and potatoes of Tokyo Jungle lies in the Survival mode, while the story is meant as a simple distraction.

Tokyo Jungle doesn’t set out to please any certain audience, and holds true to the old Japanese ideal of making weird games that haven’t been done before. Though the base gameplay is simple, it executes on its few mechanics very well and provides a Rouguelike gameplay loop that makes you still want to fight for that next animal even after your 15th run. It feels really good to be excited about a Japanese game nowadays, and Tokyo Jungle is definitely worth checking if you’re the least bit curious.

Tokyo Jungle gets a 7/10

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Reviews

Rayman Jungle Run Review

Mobile adaptions of popular games on other platforms are incredibly hard to do well on iOS. In the case of Rayman: Jungle Run, it’s trying to capture the magic that made Rayman: Origins so wonderful last year, only on a smaller screen. That’s almost an impossible task, since Origins is a very precise–mechanic driven platformer. Attempting to merely emulate analog sticks and virtual buttons on a touch screen is an incredibly steep uphill battle, but Rayman: Jungle Run recognizes that. It makes the necessary adjustments to create a wonderfully polished and satisfying platformer that delivers on the fantastic art style of Origins and captures its own identity in the App Store.

 

Rayman: Jungle Run is a 2D platformer, but not in the traditional sense. It strikes a weirdly cohesive balance between an endless runner and a platformer. Rayman automatically runs forward, while jumping is left to you with a touch of the screen. Further tapping while approaching a wall will execute a wall jump and touching while in the air will glide you to safety. It’s a very simple control scheme that makes all the difference.

 


There are four worlds consisting of ten levels each–nine standard stages and one “Land of the Dead” stage. With each new world comes access to a new ability. At first you’ll be casually jumping through rudimentary stages, but eventually the addition of gliding, wall-running, and punching makes Rayman a much more engaging experience that requires all of your focus.

Each stage has a total of 100 possible Lums to collect. Collecting all of them earns you a “Tooth of the Dead”, which will unlock the Land of the Dead bonus stage when five are obtained in each world. These bonus levels are excruciatingly difficult, requiring the utmost perfection in your jumps and punches. But it’s Rayman’s impeccable execution on its mechanics and art style that make it an App Store gem. Every world looks incredibly different from the last, yet familiar in a great way. Vivid colors and detailed character and environment animations will further your visual pleasure as you traverse the 40 included stages. Even when you’re having a miserable time trying to perfectly complete a stage, you’ll never get bored of looking at it. It is a shame, though, that the game doesn’t feature any of the other three characters featured in Rayman: Origins.

 

Taking on a different approach to the pick-up-and-play platformer, Jungle Run doesn’t impose players with time expectations. You can check out your time at the end of a stage if you want, but the only metric that matters in the end is your Lums count. That is until you venture over to the Leaderboards, where time is the only discerning metric.

 

There was a chance that Jungle Run could’ve been a mere shadow of its big brother Origins, but instead Ubisoft recognized the need for a proper mobile adaption, and reworked the controls in a way that works perfectly. There were times that the game chugged while running on my iPhone 4, but these problems were few and far between. From its cohesive visual style, great controls, and pick-up-and-play nature, Rayman: Jungle Run easily deserves your $2.99.

 

Rayman: Jungle Run gets a 4/5

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Playstation VIta Playstation Vita Reviews

LittleBigPlanet Vita Review

LittleBigPlanet Vita is a completely zero-compromise LittleBigPlanet game. It refuses to sacrifice any of what makes LBP so great with its transformation to the Vita, and feels completely natural on the system. While LBPV doesn’t revolutionize the core formula of LBP, it does have the best story mode in both level design and hilarious characters, while also implementing touch in a way that works remarkably well. It’s amazing that Double 11 has simultaneously created the best LBP game while also making the best thing on the Vita yet.

 

The most surprising thing about LBPV is how naturally it translates to the Vita. Its simple and familiar controls quickly become second nature. Anything that you want in an LBP game is here; gadgets, tools, visual fidelity, creation tool, and even 4-player multiplayer are there in full force. If you’ve never been into LittleBigPlanet before, LBPV isn’t going to sway you. There’s no doubt that it is the strongest game in the series, but it is more LittleBigPlanet and not much else.

 

In typical LBP fashion, the story consists of a new fantasy world, now Carnivalia, in danger of destruction by a fearful force, played by The Puppeteer this time around. From there you can expect to travel from world to world, each one varying from each other visually and aesthetically, and also encountering wacky characters. Although LBPV’s story is uninspired and predictable, it’s the most well done story mode yet. Each world’s level feels more cohesive than ever before, and each character encountered is well-voiced and entertaining. LBPV also puts a much larger emphasis on cutscenes than before, including more legitimate voice acting rather than gibberish with speech bubbles.

 

LBPV has the best use of the front and back touch screen on the Vita yet. You can interact with objects directly in the world, like holding down a block and letting go to act as a springboard or extruding platforms to run across. These simple implementations inevitably become more complex, but it never becomes intrusive or annoying because the game never requires twitch-accuracy. You can always take it slow and take your hand off of the screen. It’s also a nice touch that back touch blocks and front touch blocks are different colors and have specific features that make them easy to point out. But LBPV’s touch features venture far beyond platforming implementations.

 

Apart from the core LittleBigPlanet story levels; Double 11 has included an extra pack of standalone games that have nothing to do with LBP, called the Arcade. Each game takes advantage of one of LBPV’s biggest new features, the Memorizer, which now allows you to create a level in which the player can save progress to return to later. Not only are the games are very simple and serve as an entertaining distraction; they also serve as inspiration for what people could do in the creative mode.

 

A lot of LBPV’s creative mode is unchanged, though there are a few important new features like the Memorizer. The addition of touch significantly changes the flow of creating. Shapes can be reshaped and moved with two fingers. If you drag a finger while forming landscape, it really helps you to make small details. For those who are very much used to the classic creation controls, you can still use two sticks instead. There are also a slew of new in-depth tutorials to delve into, all voiced by the wonderful Stephen Fry, of course. Seriously though, the tutorials can get insane, which makes me all the more amazed at the things that the community has already made, and what it will eventually come up with. For every LBP game to date, the community has found ways to surpass the creativity of the included levels. If this is to stay true with LBPV, I can’t wait to see what the community will come up with, because we have big shoes to fill.

 

The game also adds multiplayer into the mix, unlike its PSP cousin from years past. Using the on board microphone and keyboard on the Vita makes it much easier to communicate with people you’re playing, especially when playing with headphones. It also seems (as early as it is) that server fidelity is much better than in the past LBP games. It can sometimes get confusing when figuring out who should activate a touch-compatible object when any of the four players have the ability to. I only ever had a few hitches, and when I did it had more to do with my proximity to the wireless adapter in my house. Assuming you have a good internet connection, multiplayer on LBPV is a ton of fun.

 

The soundtrack in LBP games have always been fantastic, and LBPV is no exception. This time around the soundtrack focuses much more on ambient tunes that do a fantastic job of establishing atmosphere. Not to mention that you can create music using a simple sequencer while making a level, which has already led to some really cool tunes in some community levels I’ve seen thus far.

 

While we have yet to see the true potential of the community in LPBV, I’m extremely excited to see what in the world people are going to think up. Being that it’s on the Vita, coming back to the game every once in a while to see what’s new in the Community section is easier and more convenient than ever. For those without a 3G Vita (like myself) have the opportunity to download any community level for offline use, which is easily one of the smartest things they could’ve done.

 

Who would’ve thought that more LittleBigPlanet on a more convenient system was all that was required to make the best LBP yet? With how poorly LBPV could’ve turned out being attached to a different developer and the potential of sacrifices on the Vita, it’s all that more amazing that they pulled it off. It’s not going change the mind of anyone who’s never enjoyed the floaty platforming of Sackboy, but will completely satisfy the fans. Pick it up, because it’s the best the best thing on Vita to date.

LittleBigPlanet PS Vita gets a 5/5

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Playstation 3 PlayStation 3 Reviews XBOX 360 Xbox 360 Reviews

Rock Band Blitz Review

After the downfall of rhythm games in 2010, thousands of people were left with unused plastic instruments taking up space in their homes. There was never anything legitimately wrong with rhythm games, but oversaturation combined with the absence of innovation drove them into the ground. In the last few years Harmonix has rebounded off of their rhythm game past with their huge Kinect success, Dance Central, seemingly leaving Rock Band behind. Rock Band Blitz is about the smartest thing Harmonix could have done to subtly return to their former love while also adding new gameplay twists that completely change the way you think about Rock Band. And if you’re not into the new gameplay style, think of it as a fifteen dollar song pack for Rock Band 3.

 

Imagine the note highway you’re used to in Rock Band. Now imagine a track for all five instruments, drums, bass guitar, electric guitar, lyrics, and piano, all laid next to each other. Now imagine that each track only holds two notes a time, rather than five. And finally, imagine burning every plastic instrument you own and picking up a controller instead. This is how one plays Rock Band Blitz, and yes, burning the plastic instruments is necessary.

 

The inherent gameplay of Rock Band Blitz is incredibly smart, forcing you to strategically decide which track you’re hitting notes on at any given time. It’s impossible to not miss notes, so paying attention to which tracks currently have the most notes or which track is closest to the next multiplier is infinitely important. Blitz introduces a new score multiplier system, the foundation of what makes Blitz strategic. At the beginning of a song, you can get any instrument up to 3x. After 30-45 seconds have passed, you reach a checkpoint, which raises the score multiplier level cap by three. If you were able to get three instruments to 3x, but a few were stuck at 2x when you reach the checkpoint, the level cap is only raised to that level, making 2x the new minimum rather than 3x. It might sound super complicated, but is very simple and intuitive in practice.

 

Throwing even more depth into a relatively simple genre, there a load of different power-ups that you can purchase with coins earned from playing songs. You can equip a maximum of three different power-ups at a time, each one pertaining to a different aspect of the gameplay. Bandmate, one of my personal favorites, plays a track automatically for a limited amount of time when activated. Power-ups like Bandmate consume Star Power, or whatever they’re calling it nowadays, but others are more passive, like Super Drums, which just makes drum notes worth more points. If you’re low on coins, you must consolidate on which power-ups to purchase, and possibly just roll without a third one for a while until your funds are back up. In my experience, I’ve never been below 4000 coins, so there’s no need to worry too much about it.

 

One of the best things about Blitz is its ability to import every song you already owned of the Music Store or in Rock Band 3. Apart from the 25+ songs the game already comes with, importing previously purchased songs adds even more initial value to the package. You can also purchase any song already featured in the Music Store, which will surely make a few dollars disappear out of your wallet. Songs are also added weekly to the store, so expect to come back to Blitz periodically to see what’s new.

 

Where Rock Band Blitz really starts to bum me out is in its official Facebook app, Rock Band World, which has been designed to be a companion to the game. A lot of the features of the app are actually pretty interesting. After linking your XBL or PSN account, you can begin to join in on community goals, requiring such conditions as playing Linkin Park songs for double points, for example. The app also serves as a great way to buy music for the game. The problem comes with the starting of Score Wars. Score Wars are kind of an Autolog-like way of challenging friends to the highest score in a specific song. The game will randomly present the opportunity to challenge a friend, or random player, to score war on a pre-selected song, but completely restricts you from choosing the “when, who, and what”. It is possible to choose all criteria through Rock Band World, but the given player must be your Facebook friend for it to work. I don’t know about you guys, but my Facebook friends list and my PSN friends list are two very different lists. I don’t game with the same people I virtually socialize with, and that alone renders Score Wars, the most attractive aspect of replayability, completely handicapped. The simple addition of starting custom Score Wars through the game would completely fix this problem, and subsequently nullify any reason for me to use Rock Band World.

 

Because Rock Band Blitz uses a special algorithm for converting previous Rock Band songs into Blitz, I found that some songs worked much better as a Blitz song than others. From experimentation buying songs from the store and trying them out, I noticed that some checkpoints were placed oddly, and songs with few instrument sections left me unable to upgrade a certain track enough before the checkpoint. On the other hand, the hand-selected tracks that come packaged with the game are all excellent fits, as you would expect.

 

If score chasing isn’t your thing, then Rock Band Blitz probably won’t keep you around for long after your initial kicks. But what it will do is make it much easier to return to once in a while, by virtue of plastic instruments not being a factor and the constant addition of new songs. Its pick-up-and-play nature makes it very easy to play a song or two at a time.

 

Rock Band Blitz is truly the smartest thing Harmonix could have done with the Rock Band series. It innovates on the genre in interesting ways, adds instant value to Rock Band faithful, and completely does away with the genre’s biggest barrier to entry—plastic instruments. It’s a shame its social integration is partially ruined by it being forced on those who want to experience the best part of the game, but it doesn’t taint the game. Is it the second coming of rhythm games? No, but it is the most intelligently crafted one in years, and definitely one worth checking out.