Month: October 2010

Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare (PS3) Review 1

Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare (PS3) Review

Night of the Living Red Dead

The Marston homestead is under attack. Not by government agents or vengeful road agents, but by a plague that’s turning honest, God-fearin’ folk into mindless monsters hell bent on devouring the living. Set near the end of the original Red Dead Redemption story, Undead Nightmare is the first major single player downloadable content pack for the title — and a fine entry that delivers plenty of new experiences for its fans.

Undead Nightmare follows John Marston as he struggles to make his way across familiar American and Mexican haunts, now plagued by hordes of shambling zombies, and tries to find a cure for his infected wife and child. Many of Red Dead’s characters make a return in Undead Nightmare and, for those who completed the game, it’s a blast to see them in the context of a zombie apocalypse. Seth and Moses, Bonnie MacFarlane, West Dickens, Abraham Reyes and many others all pop up on Marston’s travels and react to the drastically changed world accordingly. New faces — victims and those holding up desperately against the plague — also appear and, as usual, are given the best possible treatment by Rockstar’s stable of gifted writers and voice actors. Expect to hear modern social commentary (like the plague being brought to America by “the Mexicans or Catholics or homosexuals”) written into mission briefings and plenty of interesting conversations from a colourful cast.

Setting out into the zombie-stricken West at first feels familiar, but quickly enough the game demonstrates that, in presentation and basic gunplay, it’s very different. More than just a slapped-on skin, the DLC adds eerie rolling fogs, ambient instrumentals and sound effects that nail the proper atmosphere required for an immersive horror story. Coupled with the general desertion of towns and the mournful rains that frequently wet the landscape, the solo experience is very much unsettling and far more successful in harrowing the player than the tongue-in-cheek dialogue would suggest. The addition of undead enemies (and the requirement of successfully head-shootting each enemy) changes the required combat approach drastically and in a manner that makes Undead Nightmare feel, in many ways, like a fresh take on Red Dead’s original mechanics. An array of new weapons accommodates this design decision well. The blunderbuss (a scattershot gun that uses zombie body parts as ammunition), “boom bait” (a zombie-attracting liquid with a dynamite core), a last-stand torch and other assortments of firepower add a welcomely ghoulish new arsenal that fits the DLC’s aesthetic and gameplay alike.

Unfortunately, the combat itself is often carried out in a fairly drab context. The two biggest additions to the gameplay are graveyard cleansing and survival missions. Both modes make up the bulk of the single-player experience and, although fun at first, become a fairly tedious exercise as the campaign progresses. This creates the niggling suspicion of developer time-padding in the back of their minds as players are forced to repeat the same exercises of torching coffins and assisting town resistances over and over again. While these tasks do make up the bulk of the experience, Undead Nightmare shines through when missions feature more varied scenarios. Times when the player is forced to defend a government train or explore a subterranean crypt emerge as the most thoughtfully produced segments. More of these highly original scenarios and less of the repetitive tasks would have been very welcome.

Luckily, sidequesting and dynamic events have been given much more thought. Aside from the zombies, Undead Nightmare also features a host of mythical creatures roaming the landscape. Marston can break several new horses to add to his stable — War, Famine, Pestilence, Death and zombie breeds — and there are new animals to hunt through the addition of undead coyotes, mountain lions, wolves and bears. Best of all is the inclusion of a tribe of sasquatches wandering the snowy hills of Tall Trees. Tracking, taking down and discovering the origins of the legendary monsters provides what are probably Undead Nightmare’s most memorable moments.

I Get By with a Little Help From My Fiends

Where most DLC packs are content to charge $10 or $15 for an extra couple of hours of single player (or, even worse, a handful of new multiplayer maps), Rockstar has given players an extremely substantial addition to work through both on their own and with their friends. Eight multiplayer zombie characters and two completely new multiplayer modes make Undead Nightmare more than worth its price of admission — and also help players to overlook some of the solo experience’s drawbacks.

Undead Overrun is tied to the tone of Undead Nightmare’s campaign and is a survival mode that, simply enough, asks the players to hold on for as long as possible against a sustained zombie assault. The undead horde comes at your position in increasingly vicious waves (announced by a gleefully pessimistic narrator who beautifully cops Vincent Price’s shtick) and the only objective is to kill them while retrieving supplies and new weapons from coffins that spawn at the beginning of each round. It’s a basic enough premise but offers a surprising amount of fun — and the chance to fully explore the best strategies for zombie-killing.

Undead Overrun has received the most attention but Land Grab, a non-zombified addition to Red Dead’s multiplayer, is worthwhile as well. It’s a simple concept — one player stakes a claim to a set piece of land on the map and others try to take it back through force — but it offers a new way to enjoy competition and even camaraderie through the establishment of a basic, focused goal that promises rich rewards for the winner(s).

The same problems that affected Red Dead Redemption’s multiplayer and single player are preserved here (occasionally clunky movement controls, long amounts of time travelling on horseback) but, once again, they’re minor enough that they shouldn’t bother most players. Undead Nightmare makes it easy to ignore these issues in the same manner as its predecessor: by providing a package that is rich with content and is decked out with stunning production value. A host of soundtrack additions, fresh writing and a wonderfully realized atmosphere come together to ensure that players will finish their time with the game without dwelling on the negatives.

Undead Nightmare brings far more to the table than most DLC packs, offering a substantial single player campaign (my file closed out at just over 6 hours and 61% completion — without factoring in multiplayer) and a great, campy twist on the formula that made Red Dead Redemption such a joy to play through. If you’re not afraid to deal with the same old control issues and some repetition during the story missions, Undead Nightmare is an easy recommendation.

Rock Band 3 (PS3) Review 1

Rock Band 3 (PS3) Review

Are You Ready To Rock?

In a market that some would say is already oversaturated with rhythm games, Harmonix returns with Rock Band 3, the latest iteration in the underdog series that goes head to head with their former creation, Guitar Hero. The two franchises have taken decidedly different paths this year, and the Harmonix venture, while the riskier of the two, ultimately proves to be bigger, bolder, more innovative, more accessible and, wait for it, more educational than any music game released to the market to date.

Getting The Band Back Together

Almost everything about Rock Band 3 has been overhauled, and the presentation is no exception. The same basic pseudo-story applies; you’re part of a newly formed band out to make a name for themselves. However, where previous titles largely charted your progress through static graphics, such as presenting you with a new touring bus, Rock Band 3, from the get go, puts your self-created band everywhere in the game, with milestones highlighted by actual cut-scenes.

The graphics have gotten a noticeable facelift, an easy thing to do since Rock Band 2, released two years ago, was using a slightly tweaked Rock Band engine. Characters are more detailed and the interface has undergone some changes to make certain notifications—like solo or unison sections of a song—more subtle. But where the game really comes through is in the sound. Obviously the requirements for a music game are different from that of a shooter, but Harmonix clearly delivers on the quality of the master recordings here, satisfying all but the strictest audiophile with the richness of the sound. From a presentation standpoint, Rock Band 3 does its fans proud with better visuals the high aural standards music lovers expect. It also, for an older audience, sports one of the best song lists on any game out in the market, depending on your taste and love of 80s music.

Something For Everyone

Where Rock Band 3 is at its most bold however, is in the changes to the game. The core gameplay of hitting “gems” in time to music is still the same, but everything else has undergone a radical change of scope that attempts to make Rock Band 3 an all encompassing music game for all people. In many fundamentals ways, it succeeds, though not without some sacrifices that may puzzle or even alienate some ardent fans, depending on the reasons they played the game.

First, let’s look at the overall the interface. The game itself now benefits from an “Overshell,” which is essentially individual menus for every player so they can tinker with their own settings—or even drop and drop out of a song—without affecting others. The menu for song selection has also gotten a much needed upgrade with more detailed filters to search for songs by genre, decade, instrumentation, or even song duration. All of this makes the game much more party friendly. On the other side of things, the campaign mode that players grew accustomed over the last three years is completely revamped. A series of “road challenges” replaces the old tier system of selecting a hometown and assigns players the triple duty of collecting stars, fans and spades in order to advance the career of their band. In addition, every single game activity you perform contributes to this somehow, whether its playing in Quickplay at a party or playing online with friends, you accumulate fans that add to your overall career arc. One the one hand it makes every Rock Band related activity more meaningful, but some will be opposed to the blurring of lines between “playing for fun,” and “serious campaign” advancement. This is also where we see the biggest change to the player experience, with the complete elimination of head to head competitive play. While players can still play songs alone or together and compete with high scores on a leaderboard, actual competitive play in the form of Score Duels and Tug of War modes is gone. It’s definitely truer to the spirit of music, since musicians themselves don’t try to screw up the performance of another band member, but after three years of being able to have competitive, head to head multi-player some Rock Band veterans will definitely not be happy with this omission. The multi-player experience is now strictly co-operative band play, with no more “red robin,” picking of songs from each player in turn. Now every player can pick a song, though the host still has final say on when to start playing.

On the instrument side of things, there have been a lot of changes, but we’ll go over the “legacy” instruments first. Guitars have been tweaked with a slightly tighter window to the timing of hitting notes, and they’ve also gotten a new “tremolo” function for handling fast trills. Drummers also benefit from something similar for fills, but sadly, the promise of being able to use a second bass pedal is under utilized as new songs still don’t take it into account, only allowing a second pedal to be used as a high-hat pedal in drum fills and free-style play. Vocals get a bit of a change with a tweaked engine that—at least on the PS3—finally eliminates “shaky arrow” problem that has hounded singers for the last three years. Strangely, the ability to tweak microphone sensitivity has been removed, though it seems like the new engine is less tolerant of humming and rewards vocalists that actually sing their way through songs.

But the big change comes in the form of the new Pro Modes, including a keyboard. This is what will separate the casual, and even the hardcore gamer from the aspiring musician. Keyboards are the new instrument and Harmonix has a broad mix of good introductory songs for it, but going into Pro Mode will take work. If people didn’t want to learn to play the piano because it was too hard… well, it’s still going to be hard, it’s just gift-wrapped in popular songs, leaderboards and online play. The same applies to drums, although most hardcore Rock Band drummers will probably make the jump easily since they’ve already learned the fundamentals from three years of playing Rock Band and Rock Band 2. It’s the guitar that presents the most problems. At the time of this printing, the Mad Catz Fender Mustang will not be on sale for a month, and the real guitar won’t be available till next year, so Pro Mode won’t even be accessible for wanna-be rockers. On the other hand, even if the Pro Mode were available… this is learning how to play a real guitar. Hardcore Rock Band Expert level guitar players assuming that picking up a real guitar will be an effortless translation are in for a rude shock, and inevitable deflation of their ego.

Harmonix has put together one of the best, overall music games on the market right now, but it’s not without teething problems. Those expecting a simple upgrade of Rock Band 2 may be in for a potentially unpleasant shock if they are resistant to change. Hopeful musicians will find a new way to learn, but this will still require practice and dedication on their part in order to advance. Casual gamers however, will find little to criticize, and the numerous tweaks and improvements make this THE music game to own in 2010.

Super Meat Boy (XBOX 360) Review 1

Super Meat Boy (XBOX 360) Review

It is impossible to avoid swearing while playing Super Meat Boy. It doesn’t matter if you’re Ned Flanders, the game just doesn’t allow you to keep a clean mouth. The game is that maniacal sort of difficult that lets you know it’s not impossible to win, but at the same time making it unbelievably difficult to do so. If there is one thing you can call the game, it’s sadistic.

Super Meat Boy is a punishingly hard, independently developed platformer for the Xbox Live Arcade and PC. This description fits a lot of games these days; the indie scene has really adopted the genre. Make no mistake though; Super Meat Boy is the best of the breed.

Players take control of Meat Boy, a squishy protagonist who wants nothing more than to hold his beloved Bandage Girl. Unfortunately for him the evil Dr. Fetus has kidnapped her and hid her behind six worlds full of deadly traps and obstacle courses. Armed with nothing more than a springy jump and an indomitable will its Meat Boy’s job to rescue her.

Part of what makes Super Meat Boy stand out is it’s almost parody-like level of self-awareness. Team Meat, creators of the game, revel in their role as indie developers and flaunt it at every turn. All of the cutscenes are done in the traditional Newgrounds/Adobe Flash style and soundtrack features more than a handful of low-budget chiptunes songs. None of this should be surprising though, considering its origins as a free flash game.

What takes this independent motif over the top is the inclusion of over a dozen unlockable characters from other punishingly hard indie platformers. As players progress they’ll unlock the likes of Tim from Jonothan Blow’s Braid, Commander Video from Gaijin Games’ Bit.Trip series, and Alien Hominid from the Newgrounds classic. The game also includes more obscure characters like The Kid from Michael “Kayin” O’Reilly’s I Wanna Be The Guy and Gish from Gish.

Each of the characters brings their trademark control style to the game, refreshing each of the levels in a new way without requiring a complete redesign of the game. It’s an ingenious way to add new playstyles and encourage experimentation for speedruns while adding a lot of flavor at the same time. These unlockables will surely introduce a lot of unaware players to some rather cool indie games. It’s like a crash course in indie-scene legends, all wrapped in a single game.

Beyond the allure of cameo appearances, the game does offer a lot of value in terms of content. With each of the six worlds featuring 20 levels, plus hidden warp zones and another 20 ‘Dark World’ levels for those who master the originals there is a lot to play in this game. Throw in the fact that, like the rebellious independents they are, Team Meat has a built-in patching system that will provide new free DLC without needing Microsoft’s approval and you have a seemingly never ending supply of content.

Where Super Meat Boy shines brightest though, is that despite all its quirkiness and indie appeal it delivers a sense of satisfaction to the player. While the game may slap you around like a bitch when playing, the difficulty is only there to facilitate that great exhale when you finally succeed. Above all else, Super Meat Boy understands challenge and reward; it’s difficult in all the right ways, and unlike a lot of modern video games feels like it’s worth beating.

This may be a drawback for those who like to be coddled by their games; there is no baby-mode here. Super Meat Boy is not for the faint of heart, casual gamers need not apply. You will not be able to enjoy this one if you lack some serious skills.

Super Meat Boy is without a doubt one of the best Xbox Live Arcade games made to date. It takes the player on an emotional journey without a narrative and does so with a wink and a smile. The game is a challenge to play, but never a chore and the satisfaction it provides is unlike any other. Super Meat Boy is a gamers’ game and that’s nice to see in a world that’s getting increasingly more casual.

Front Mission: Evolved (XBOX 360) Review 1

Front Mission: Evolved (XBOX 360) Review

In 1998, Monolith Productions released Shogo: Mobile Armor Division. Since then, I’ve been enamoured with Western developed, anime-inspired mech games. It’s a niche market having only a few worthwhile titles, yet it’s an interesting genre. In September, Double Helix Games and Square-Enix released Front Mission: Evolved. It’s a take on the long running series of the same name, but what could have been an evolution in the series feels more like a missed opportunity.

The story goes like this: You are Dylan Ramsey, an engineer working for Diable Avionics, a Wanzer development subsidiary of the U.S.N. army. He’s working on a sense and reaction enhancing device called the E.D.G.E. system, and a new artificial intelligence codenamed W.I.Z. It’s a peaceful life developing Wanzers of mass destruction until New York City is unexpectedly attacked and his father is “killed”, Dylan joints the U.S.N. army… for absolutely no reason.

Front Mission: Evolved utterly fails in character development. Poor dialogue and a confused impetus prevent players from really connecting with Dylan’s anime-inspired melodrama. His father is supposedly killed, and instead of – in the tradition of the Front Mission series – questioning the motivations behind the attack, Dylan sets out with Adela Seawell, a soldier he met by chance, and her commanding officer Russel Hamilton to get some sweet revenge.

That’s really what the game’s story boils down to. Dylan is simply angry at the mercenaries responsible for the death of his father. It’s a new age of space exploration and orbital conflict, but the political intrigue seen in the other games of the series – like the U.S.N. and O.C.U. conflict – are missing. You wonder why Double Helix thoroughly ignored these political conflicts. All that stands in their place are characters like Dylan. For a protagonist, Dylan has a static, straightforward view of the world. Players of the series will find little to no influence from previous conflicts that preceded the events of this game, nor will they feel the gravity of their actions.

It feels like Dylan is there but not actively participating in the events around him. He fights for revenge and little else. And it just so happens that his father is a renowned scientist and engineer whose reputation precedes Dylan. Everyone around him, even experienced soldiers like Adela and Russel, perceive him as some kind of Wanzer piloting wunderkind. For no reason. When his father is found alive, which comes as no surprise, he’s killed, again. Dylan reacts like any good hero and gets even angrier. Most protagonists in these kinds of games are motivated by something larger than themselves. Love, war, peace. Dylan has his petty revenge, but what about the game’s secondary characters?

Why do female characters like Adela require a fatal weakness? According to her profile on the official game site; Adela is an independent, strong-willed soldier whose focus is always on the mission. There’s a moment in the game where Adela becomes visibly jealous over Dylan’s technician. She’s thus stripped of her power, and her character is replaced by an uncharacteristically weak, feeble woman. Adela is a strong secondary character. She has attitude, but also a fatal weakness that makes her dependent upon Dylan to save her. Her use of a prototype of the E.D.G.E. system has affected her in such a way that she can be used like a puppet. Turning Adela into a maiden in distress feels like a misstep in a world where Wazner pilots are shown to be equal regardless of their sex.

For all of its faults, Front Mission: Evolved does do one thing right. Weapons. Front Mission: Evolved faithfully reproduces the feel of the series’ weapons. Melee is visceral, a well placed sniper round can destroy a limb and a missile barrage is deadly fun. Front Missions: Evolved supports a number of fight styles to the player. This variety mixes well into the multiplayer aspects of Front Mission: Evolved.

Getting the game on release let me into an interesting experience. I played Front Mission: Evolved before the metagame or community had a chance to develop. Even then, the game was still horribly broken. The parts and weapons you receive for customization are selected by your place in the game’s story. Most – if not all players – when I started had Wanzers far more powerful than mine. This weakness is a feeling that even translates into the single-player campaign. You never really feel like a powerful giant walking mech.

There’s no sense of scale. When you’re piloting a Wanzer you want to look and feel like a giant walking tank. Small enemies scurrying about the map; trucks and cars littering the streets; and buildings help build a world around you, but it’s never enough. When you step out of your Wanzer and onto the ground for on-foot segments, you really start to see how poor the scaling in Front Mission: Evolved is done. Granted, the on-foot segments provide variety in an otherwise straightforward game, but it lets you see more of the game’s flimsy design. Maybe the third-person perspective was a poor choice for this departure from the series.

Unlike Evolved the generally overlooked Front Mission: Gun Hazard  for the Super Famicom was an interesting departure in the series. It was developed by Square Enix – known then as Squaresoft – in 1998. Gun Hazard is a side scrolling version of Front Mission. It’s an amazing translation of a role playing game into a new genre. Unfortunately it is a Japan-only release. It’s simply too bad that Square Enix couldn’t put a similar amount of effort into this new venture.

Front Mission: Evolved was developed by Double Helix Games who brought us Silent Hill: Homecoming. I played Front Mission: Evolved without that pretence, but now after thinking about my experience with the game everything is starting to make sense. Square Enix passed off this game to a Western developer known for poor adaptations. Homecoming was lauded for its extreme mediocrity. It’s no surprise that Double Helix, again, would fail to live up to the expectations of a fan base who demands quality and faithful reproduction.

Front Mission: Evolved is a passable video game. The story is weak – Dylan and Adela getting my vote for the worst video game couple ever – the game play, however, is still faithful to the source material. Overall, Front Mission: Evolved feels like pretence for something much bigger and better, if they can get that sense of scale just right. Piloting a Wanzer is has more to do than being a giant walking tank, it’s being a giant walking mega tank that can destroy everything in its path.

Medal of Honor (XBOX 360) Review 1

Medal of Honor (XBOX 360) Review

Single Player

Video games have a tendency to glorify war.  No military conflict is ever won by a single man, yet there are countless games that depict real-world conflicts being solved by a single soldier. Medal of Honor doesn’t solve this problem, but it comes closer to realism than a majority of modern shooters.

It’s not hard to find an FPS title loosely inspired by a real-world conflict, but most games choose battles that have had at least a little time to settle. Medal of Honor puts players in control of a SpecOps group operating in Afghanistan against the Taliban. The narrative actively makes reference to events like September 11


and while the conflict has quieted some there are still people dying because of it daily.

This will be discomforting to some players, others might even call it morbid or distasteful. Interpretation is entirely up to the individual player but there is no denying that Medal of Honor, by sheer virtue of subject matter, is a much more emotional experience than the fictions other games put forward. It’s a lot to ask of some players, but those who can stomach the content will have a lot to think about war, death, and what it means to be a soldier.

Gameplay reflects this concept; players can’t charge through the battlefield and destroy everything in sight. Medal of Honor requires a slower, more methodical cover-to-cover pacing with players making every shot count. Because of this, kills feel more real and there’s a greater sense of accomplishment with each headshot.

The game struggles to carry that feeling though. There are spectacle moments in the campaign where the player will have to call in an airstrike or mortar fire, but this amounts to looking at predetermined area and pulling a trigger. It doesn’t feel special or like it matters because there is no risk or challenge in doing so. Here there is no satisfaction, just one-button progression.

Medal of Honor routinely does this though, to the point where it becomes a problem. Control is taken away from the player too frequently in an age of immersion. Every cutscene takes camera control away from the player; you have to look at what they want you, which seems bizarre in a post Half-Life world. Through this lack of player control, the game constantly wants to give the player the best possible experience but it’s often a case of good intentions and a huge sacrifice to immersion.

Too frequently players will be jostled out of the experience by things like fixed cameras. Invisible walls, invincible cutscene-relevant enemies, and obviously rendered surprise destructions all add to the frequent reminder that you’re just playing a video game. Despite being founded on a really immersive combat system, the rest of the game tries just as hard to undo everything it set up.

There are a few shining moments in the narrative though, where you can really feel there’s really something special about the game. There are moments where you’re not sure if everything is going to be okay, and moments where you really feel the wall against your back. The cutscenes do a good job of showing the horrors of war from a distanced view, but the structure of the levels themselves let the player feel the fear of being surrounded by people trying to kill you.

Medal of Honor’s campaign had so much potential and you can see glimpses of what it could have achieved. Ultimately though, it’s a slightly better than average experience at best. If it’s remembered for anything, the use of real-world objectives and references will live in infamy far beyond memory of the actual game itself.


Developed by an entirely different team than the single player component of the game, Medal of Honor’s multiplayer can feel like a disjointed experience at times. The fluidity of movement found in the single player is not present in the multi; removing player’s ability to slide in to cover and go prone makes the game feel dramatically different, and that’s just the movement.

Unlike the single player where combat is frequently about slowly pushing forward from cover to cover, the best strategy in multiplayer is to sit back and pop enemies off from a distance. Almost every shot is lethal, so all it takes is one bullet to drop an enemy. Some might call it realistic, others might call it camping.

Of the three available classes, Sniper is the only one worth getting good at. Most of the levels are designed with long stretches of empty space which might as well be minefields for players who like their action up close and personal. There are a few routes for the SpecOps and Rifleman classes to take where they aren’t as out in the open, but these corridors get so routinely bombarded with mortar fire it’s just as dangerous.

The game features very few maps and even fewer game modes, so players should get used to repetition and there are no options in the class skill trees, making things incredibly linear. Medal of Honor doesn’t offer a deep player experience for the multiplayer at all with no room for customization and thus little personal investment in your ascension of the ranks.

Those who love sniper duels will have a blast with the Medal of Honor multiplayer, but pretty much everyone else will find it frustrating. It’s a more realistic approach to modern combat, but it just proves there’s a reason we accept so much fantasy in our war games; it’s just more fun that way.

As it stands, Medal of Honor’s multiplayer feels like a stifled, half-finished project. When compared to other multiplayer experiences, it just feels too basic and doesn’t have the depth to keep players satisfied for long. EA has announced some free DLC for those who purchased the game new, which will help keep the experience fresh, but it will take a lot more than a single map pack to float the game for long.

Borderlands: Game of the Year Edition (PS3) Review 1

Borderlands: Game of the Year Edition (PS3) Review

The Sleeper Hit Returns

Gearbox might be rightfully accused of some dubiousness over calling this collection a “Game of the Year” edition; it was given the title by only one website, and that was RPGland for being the Xbox 360 RPG of the year. But that doesn’t detract from the fact that this game, one infamously pronounced by Michael Pachter as “being sent out to die” in late 2009, did manage to surprise everyone by providing a solid, addictive, co-operative gameplay experience that managed to stand out from the crowd. And now it’s back in a new, collected edition, for people that might have missed the hoopla the first time around.

Pandora Awaits

While the story in Borderlands clearly plays second fiddle to the shooting, it frames the actions of the player. In this case, an arid, parched planet called Pandora has been largely abandoned by the corporations that colonized it in times past, finding little to exploit. What few colonists remain have made a life on the harsh world, and spread legends of a mysterious Vault filled some sort of fabulous treasure. You and up to three other friends choose from four unique characters that shoot their way across the Pandora wasteland in search of this fabled Vault.

The graphics, particularly for a shooter, are uniquely presented. Eschewing the traditional “realistic” rendering most games strive for, Borderlands uses a more comic-book, cel-shaded style that gives the desolate, off-world adventure a look strongly reminiscent of famed French artist Jean Giraud, better known as Moebius. It’s a brighter, more colorful look for an FPS that successfully dodges the “brown and grey palette overdose” issue most games in the genre suffer from.

The audio also manages to make a distinct name for itself, evoking the ambience of the American old west, with guitar twangs in the music, and characters that all speak as if they’ve stepped out of a Western pulp novel. Southern drawl is in heavy—and comedic—effect here, with a collection of enemies and NPCs that give you the distinct impression that Pandora is more accurately labelled “Planet Hick” although its all done with tongue firmly in cheek. The sound effects do a good job of conveying the explosions and gunfire, though the vehicles sound a bit like they’re running off two beanie propellers and some rubber bands. All in all, however, sound and visuals come together to create a unique presentation experience.

It’s Always Better With Friends

This is Diablo with guns. It’s an action RPG crammed into an FPS, but it has all the traditional levelling—and loot mongering—that has become a staple of the Diablo franchise. And like Diablo, it’s not a solitary experience. While Borderlands can be played as a single-player game, the heart and soul of the title is the co-operative multi-player that can be done locally with split-screen, or with up to three other online friends.

The basic experience is the same regardless of the way you play it; take missions, roam the large world, kill things, collect money, experience points and better weapons to upgrade your character. It’s bolstered by some very tight, responsive controls and weapons in which stats are everything, lending a meaningful context to the RPG elements. The game however, is not a casual experience, as there’s no difficulty setting, with Borderlands taking the rather Oblivion-esque approach of scaling the encounters to the number of players present, and their current weapons and level. This guarantees that adventures outside the newbie zone of Fyrestone will usually be tense affairs where victory is far from certain.

Like its obvious Diablo influence, Borderlands manages the delicate trick of balancing both “mindless action” in this case, the hectic shooting of things, with well conceived RPG mechanics. Characters get skills that can affect them both personally and benefit the entire the team, from better gun skills to team boosts that reduce cool down periods on special actions. It’s the weapons however, that are the real star of the show, procedurally generated to guarantee that aside from “named weapons” that bosses drop, no two players, even in the same class with the same skill-set, will ever have identical loot. For the loot-mongering mindset, this sets up an addictive cycle of constantly killing enemies and exploring the area for weapon crates to compare the latest acquisitions with the existing arsenal. It’s fiendish and it works.

The real star of the show however, is the multi-player experience. All games are fun with friends, but in Borderlands, the balance of classes and how they interact with each other means effective fighting and teamwork yields huge results. Whether you’re playing in local split-screen or online, the experience of Borderlands is geared to ensure that everyone has a good experience with little downtime, even allowing for friendly duels for the more PvP inclined.

As far as what’s new in this Game of the Year edition, the only differences are that the game comes with a redeemable code for all existing DLC on your online store, and a new map folded into the case showing the various locales. There’s no new content here, it’s the same game and DLC that’s already available for purchase, but the purchase value is significant in that regard. Each add-on is worth $10, so the combined package offers excellent value for those that still haven’t picked up the title.

In the end, Borderlands: Game of the Year edition is highly recommended for those that have yet to play the 2009 game. It surprised many last year by providing a solid, engaging, frenetic co-op experience. It may have been overshadowed by the higher profile titles of 2009, and that’s likely to happen again this year, but when you take issues of brand recognition away, what you’re left with is a big chunk of quality content that will keep you and your friends happily shooting away from quite some time. If you like playing shooters with your friends, and enjoy meaningful character advancement, this is definitely a game to own.

Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock (PS3) Review 1

Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock (PS3) Review

Somewhere between Freebird and the YouTube video of the 8-year-old kid playing Dragon Force, someone decided that Guitar Hero should be about buttons instead of music, and that’s never been more evident than in Warriors of Rock. The series that began as a casual reason to gather with friends over a couple of beers has become a blister-inducing monstrosity, and while it’s still fun, it’s a vindictive shadow of its former self.

Before you start spewing accusations, yes, I do know how to play Guitar Hero. I play primarily on Expert and I’ve mastered the art of alternate strumming. The problem is that – beyond the title and the plastic guitar – this isn’t the Guitar Hero I remember. Once you strip away all of the trimmings, there’s too much relentlessly impossible Megadeth and not enough casual appeal for the layman.

Getting into the details, Warriors of Rock is the sixth core installment in the Guitar Hero franchise and very little has changed since the beginning. Notes still fall towards the bottom of the screen and you still press buttons in time with the music. There are no real gameplay innovations beyond a few tweaked multiplayer modes, and even those utilize the same mechanics camouflaged with new metrics for success.

To find something different, you have to look at the 110-song set list – most of which is immediately available in Quick Play – and the surface presentation. Warriors of Rock boasts a revamped Quest Mode with two boss battles and narration from Gene Simmons.

Sadly, the promised “epic” Quest never materializes, as the story is nothing but substance-free drivel. You play through songs in order to harness the power of rock before a final battle against the beast. Guitar Hero III basically did the same thing, and that game pulled it off without the bland voiceover.

The Quest Mode is divided into eight tiers, each one corresponding to a different Warrior of Rock. Each warrior has a unique (and helpful) power designed to give you a strategic gameplay advantage. For example, one character will double your Star Power output while another allows you to maintain a streak through one or two missed notes.

The powers are gimmicky, but they’re all independently useful and legitimately amusing. Tearing through an entire song with Star Power and an unbreakable string of notes is surprisingly satisfying, although it kind of feels like cheating and it does create a skewed single player campaign. Quest Mode never tracks your high score, as the developers have eschewed the usual five-star rating system in favor of an achievement-based system in which there are 40 Power Stars in each song.

Quick Play offers a more conventional Guitar Hero experience. There are hundreds of challenge stars there, too, but you’ll at least get a high score to put up on the leader boards. Meanwhile, you can also hop online to play co-op with strangers or go head-to-head in a series of who-can-hit-the-most-notes competitions.

Be warned, however, that poor online functionality reduces the game’s appeal from a multiplayer perspective. It’s tough to make a connection in the barren online lobbies, and you’re better off trying to scrounge a few friends together than you are jumping into a queue. The local co-op works fine and is probably more enjoyable.

There are plenty of other features – you can record your own songs, create your own characters, and keep up with the latest Guitar Hero news – but there’s nothing that’s noteworthy enough to talk about. Everything is highly intuitive and user-friendly and inoffensively unremarkable.

That’s what makes Warriors of Rock so unusual. Most of the new ideas aren’t necessarily bad. They’re just pointless. The Jam Session is a glorified version of something you would see in Windows Media Player and the competitive multiplayer just isn’t as much fun as co-op.

It’s all indicative of a game that doesn’t have an identity. As previously mentioned, Warriors of Rock is unreasonably difficult, and while that remains true, the game isn’t unfairly cruel. You can earn Power Stars with any instrument on any setting and you can change the difficulty of any song with no serious repercussions.

For this, I give Neversoft credit. Warriors of Rock is highly accessible with five different difficulty levels and some excellent on-disc tutorials. Outside of a few achievements/trophies, nearly all of the extra content (venues, guitars, outfits, etc.) can be easily unlocked if you’re willing to put in the necessary playtime.

The problem is that the accessibility becomes a crutch for some extremely shoddy design. The difficulty curve is relative to nothing – some songs in tier three are more challenging than songs in tier seven – and the final showdown is almost unforgivable. I had to switch to Medium in order to have a chance and the constant adjustments create an aggravatingly disjointed gameplay mess. Deliberately or not, Warriors of Rock makes you feel bad for being anything less than a phenomenon.

There are simply way too many songs with hand-cramping solos (Fury of the Storm) and offbeat rhythms (Been Caught Stealing) that feel as if they’ve been included solely to trip you up. Even worse, the music frequently doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the distribution of notes, as the developers opt for three notes whenever one would be appropriate.

Despite all of the complaints, it would be disingenuous to burden Warriors of Rock with a truly crippling score. The mechanics that made Guitar Hero so much fun once upon a time are still as engaging as ever, and if you’ve got a copy, Warriors of Rock will provide many hours of entertainment.

Unfortunately, the game doesn’t bring anything relevant to the table. The new features represent a random yard sale of useless stuff and when you’re playing through a guitar port of the piano intro to Bohemian Rhapsody, it’s tough to dismiss the notion that Warriors of Rock just isn’t as good as Rock Band.

Kirby’s Epic Yarn (Wii) Review 1

Kirby’s Epic Yarn (Wii) Review

Kirby’s Epic Yarn demonstrates that kid-friendly need not be a curse word in gaming circles. Nintendo’s latest offering is one of the fluffiest, most adorable games ever created, but the cartoon façade is built upon a fantastic gameplay and design foundation that more than makes up for everything the game lacks in bullets and explosions.

For the uninitiated, the visual gimmick in Kirby’s Epic Yarn is that everything – from the stitch platforms to Kirby himself – is made entirely out of yarn, fabric, and various other supplies lifted from the kindergarten arts and crafts cupboard. As you’d expect, the corresponding narrative gives the developers a license to be cute.

The evil sorcerer Yin-Yarn has left his native Patch Land and has set his sights on Kirby’s Dream Land. Recognizing Kirby as a threat, Yin-Yarn uses a magic sock portal to send Kirby to the fractured Patch Land, where he joins forces with the blue Prince Fluff to help stop Yin-Yarn and restore order to the realm.

The tale – or the yarn, if you will – is presented like a children’s storybook, as an unseen narrator reads the script with the same tone of voice that parents reserve for bedtime stories with children. It’s all quite safe and politically correct and there’s an overriding message about the importance of friendship.

Unlike a typical Pixar movie, the humor here is not for all ages, and some people may find the relentless cuddliness to be a little disarming. Kirby’s Epic Yarn is written for children with childish sensibilities, and there’s genuine innocence pouring out from every stitch of the design.

That’s not meant to be a criticism. Despite the unapologetically cute construction, Kirby exudes a nearly irresistible charisma that transcends youth and cynicism. The game puts you in touch with the inner child that you thought you’d forgotten, inviting you to indulge latent sentiments deemed inappropriate in adult interactions.

Getting into the details, Kirby’s Epic Yarn is essentially an NES-era platformer in which go right until you can’t go right anymore. You can jump, dash (you transform into a car), and use yarn to lasso various enemies and objects, and that’s pretty much it. By the time you’ve finished the first stage, you’ll have everything figured out.

The game manages to remain interesting thanks to some superlatively creative level design, as Kirby’s Epic Yarn benefits from a seemingly inexhaustible supply of good ideas. Every stage presents unique yarn-based obstacles and you’ll want to keep playing simply to see what kinds of wonders await.

That’s especially true given the nearly seamless integration of gameplay and style (pun not intended). You can unravel enemies, swing from buttons, pull on loose threads to shrink the landscape, and undo zippers to reveal concealed areas, and it’s delightful to discover the new ways for background elements to intrude on the interactive plane.

Add everything together, and Kirby’s Epic Yarn is the best kind of pure platformer. It’s uncomplicated and accessible, with an aesthetic that will win over casual observers and a plethora of collectible secrets to sate more experienced fans. Much of the joy comes from exploring the environments looking for hidden nooks and crannies, and there’s a surprising amount of variety to the gameplay.

To be more specific, since Kirby is now nothing more than a piece of string, his outline can be reconfigured into multiple gameplay-altering guises. At various points you’ll become a UFO, a dolphin, a dune buggy, a tank, and a fire truck, amongst other possibilities. The changing controls are always intuitive and add a welcome dimension to the left-to-right platforming.

If it seems like the praise is overly effusive, well…there just really isn’t much to criticize. Some may find Kirby’s Epic Yarn to be too easy, primarily because it’s virtually impossible to die. However, a forgiving game is not necessarily the same thing as an easy game, and any complaints about the lack of a difficulty curve are severely overstated. The platforming scales appropriately as you progress through seven worlds and making it through a level completely unscathed is seldom a guarantee. You won’t accidentally defeat Yin-Yarn.

Kirby is essentially a video game without a fail clause, and it’s appropriate given the younger target audience. Since you’re not likely to be forced to quit, you’re able to play for as long or as little as you’d like, and it makes the welcoming charms that much more seductive.

The game is also not without tougher challenges for those willing to seek them out. Each level houses two pieces of furniture that can be used to decorate apartments in a complex owned by Don Wooly. The furniture itself is more or less irrelevant – your apartment is little more than a digital dollhouse – but finding the proper accessories will persuade 5 tenants to move in and challenge you to a series of straightforward race-against-the-clock mini-games like ‘Hide and seek’ and ‘Collect the Beads.’

The bonus games provide some substantial value for more practiced players. Completing all of the side-missions and unlocking all of the extras easily pushes the disc past the 10-hour mark, and at no point is it ever stale or stagnant.

In the unlikely event that you do get bored, you can have a friend take control of Prince Fluff for some jump-in/jump-out cooperative action. The levels are exactly the same whether you’re playing alone or with a friend, so the addition of a second puffball just makes everything significantly sillier. You can grab the other player and generally cause harmless (and entertaining) mischief within the regular confines of the game.

If you’re the type to purchase Call of Duty on day one, you may be convinced that you’ll never like a game as saccharine as Kirby’s Epic Yarn, but I’d strongly advise anyone reconsider. It’s a must buy for anyone with kids in the house, and even the unencumbered will find plenty to love in the colorful vistas and engrossing gameplay. Kirby’s Epic Yarn is a triumph, and you don’t need to be a child to get lost in the adventure.

Costume Quest (PS3) Review 1

Costume Quest (PS3) Review

After two critically adored yet commercially dubious AAA releases, Double Fine is kicking off a new development chapter with the release of Costume Quest, a lower risk (and lower budget) downloadable RPG about one particularly harrowing Halloween. The new approach would seem to be for the better, as the game may be the studio’s most internally coherent project to date.

Costume Quest opens as fraternal twins Wren and Reynold are preparing to embark on their annual trick-or-treating adventure. You can choose to play as either sibling knowing full well that whichever one you do not choose will immediately be kidnapped and serve as the game’s McGuffin.

The plot, serviceable as it is, goes something like this: Cadaverous Big Bones, the ruler of Repugia, has instructed his minions to gather up all of the Halloween candy in town to feed his insatiable appetite for sweets. Your sibling – inconveniently dressed as a piece of candy corn – is the crown jewel of the evening, and even though brothers and sisters are completely icky and gross, you have to rescue yours to avoid getting grounded.

The solitary operation eventually becomes a group endeavor when Lucy and Everett join your party, although the characters are little more than warm bodies with regards to gameplay. The game is called Costume Quest, so everything – from your abilities to your character stats – is determined by your costume.

To elaborate, Costume Quest inhabits the imaginative childhood belief that Saturday morning cartoons can somehow become reality. Whenever you enter a battle, your costumes become real as your characters transform into giant robots, knights, ninjas, unicorns, and more as you prepare to do battle with the monsters of Repugia.

The resulting blend of fantasy, youth, and nostalgia is populated with rosy-cheeked and rambunctiously adorable children, and the colorful kid-friendly aesthetic is difficult to resist. Bolstering the appeal is a darkly comedic undercurrent that adults will appreciate and Double Fine fans will love, and the unique combination of cute and morbid ultimately sets Costume Quest apart.

The actual RPG mechanics, on the other hand, are disappointingly conventional. You wander around a world map talking to NPCs, completing side quests, and battling monsters during rigid turn-based encounters, and there’s nothing even remotely innovative about the gameplay.

In fact, Costume Quest is so streamlined that it’s hardly recognizable as an RPG. There are no items, no real character classes, and virtually nothing in the way of character customization. Each costume boasts only one basic attack and one special attack that charges up over the course of a couple of turns.

Choice is restricted to your costume selection – which can’t be changed during battle – and Battle Stamps, which are collectible accessories that bestow your character with additional abilities. Counterattacks, regeneration, and stun attacks are certainly useful, but you can only equip one stamp per character, so your options are still extremely limited.

Fortunately, the gameplay is surprisingly well balanced given the lack of complexity. Every battle is independent – there’s no persistent damage – and any enemy is capable of inflicting a lethal amount of punishment. Most encounters are pure wars of attrition, and while the game isn’t difficult, the fights are fair and the fast-paced quick-time action is dynamic enough to be engaging.

The simple gameplay may even be to Costume Quest’s advantage. Double Fine excels with humor, character, and presentation, so the straightforward controls make it easier to soak in the sugary goodness that oozes out of every frame.

Turning to some of the other aspects of the game, most of your non-combat time will be spent trick-or-treating. There are three main in-game areas – a suburban neighborhood, a shopping mall, and an autumn carnival – and the gate to the next won’t open until every house is cleared of candy. You’ll consequently have to go door to door demanding saccharine handouts from kindly grown-ups and (occasionally) from malicious grubbins lying in wait with an ambush.

Meanwhile, side quests like hide and seek, bobbing for apples, and card collecting add to a laundry list of entertaining Halloween-themed activities, while costumes with built-in features help you explore otherwise inaccessible areas. The robot costume, for instance, utilizes roller skates to coast at high speeds, while the spaceman costume comes with a beam sword that illuminates dark places. All of the toys put you in the mindset of a child with boundless imaginative potential, and it’s fun to relive the October holiday with innocence instead of cynicism.

Costume Quest is indeed so immersive that it can feel significantly shorter than it actually is. The game takes place over the course of a single Halloween evening, and the breezy plot leaves a relatively light impression. That said, collecting all of the costumes and completing all of the side quests will consume between seven and eight ours of playtime, and that’s perfectly acceptable for a $15 download.

Unfortunately, Costume Quest is missing a few features that are noteworthy in their absence. For one thing, there’s no voice acting, and that’s a bit of a letdown given the importance of the comedy. The writing is still solid as long as you’ve got your reading glasses, even if the situation is somewhat less than ideal.

The lack of a manual save function is a more troubling concern. The game auto saves at predetermined plot points, but that’s little consolation when you have to redo some grinding in order to get back to where you were.

Finally, Costume Quest doesn’t provide you with any maps. The levels are small enough to make it a forgivable omission, but coasting through suburbia looking for the one house you missed can be a little aggravating when you have nothing tangible to guide you.

Despite those problems, Costume Quest nonetheless feels like a step forward for Double Fine. The game showcases all of the things that the studio does well and the inoffensive gameplay is never onerously distracting. Like a bite-sized piece of candy, Costume Quest is a sweet, fleeting concoction guaranteed to put a smile on your face, and sometimes its OK to indulge in a few empty calories.


Disciples III: Renaissance (PC) Review

The tactical turn based strategy genre has been a staple since the early days of PC gaming. The reigning king of the genre has been Heroes of Might and Magic, but Disciples has been a solid addition to the genre since 1999 when Disciples: Sacred Lands was released for the PC.  Now it is more than ten years later and Disciples III: Renaissance is poised to take on the PC market throne and succeeds in some levels but fails in many key places, preventing it from achieving true greatness.

Disciples III presents the user with three playable races, The Empire, a human faction that is comprised of noble knights, rangers mages etc.; the Elven Alliance, made up of forest dwelling elves; and finally the Legion of the Damned, comprised of demons and creatures from hell. Each faction has a campaign that will take you several hours to complete and a story arc that slowly pieces together as the game progresses.  The voice work is not what you would expect from a fantasy tale and because of this it has a camp feel that was not intended.  The poor voice acting and some bad writing make the overall story a lack luster experience.

With that out of the way, the visual style of the game is nothing short of beautiful.  The creatures and the world are crafted with a dark fantasy aesthetic which really breathes new life into the genre. The game feels adult in nature. This is not to say it is risqué in any way but the creators clearly are aware of their market. Anyone above the age of twenty will feel little shame in showing this to their peers. The lush environments, new 3D landscape, and rich fantasy world lures the player into exploring every nook and cranny. The ability to change the world as you explore is also a great addition, with your factions influence spreading as power nodes are collected.  This brings resources under your faction’s control (as is seen in many of these types of games) but it will reshape the landscape allowing forests to sprout where there was only blackened earth before. The attention to detail is truly mesmerizing.

The maps as with many of these types of games are covered with pathways and new items to uncover. This combined with a fluid camera make the exploration aspect of the game easy and fun to do. Not only will this help you uncover new things to aid in your quest but will allow you to see just what creatures may lurk awaiting to assault you. These new elements and a clean easy to work control scheme make this title a vision of what these games could be in the future.

The hero and the army they command are the life blood of the game. The hero is the unit you direct around the map. Players can control three of these units at a time.  These units are unique for the fact that what you do to them is persistent throughout the course of the campaign. The choices on gear, stats or skills will stick with you throughout that faction. There is also the fact that how you attack will determine how the hero upgrades and levels up. The game also has a skill tree and it is great fun to level up and plan how you want your hero to be. It adds a lot of depth to the game play and makes it fun to keep upgrading the hero.

Sadly leveling up the army is less exciting. There are limited ways in which units can be upgraded leaving this aspect of the game lacking in comparison to the hero advancement.  As the player progresses though battles they earn experience and the experience will automatically level up and give boosts to skills etc. The way to really enhance units is to build support structures at your capital city. In keeping with the breathtaking visual style, your city has a unique look for each faction and as you build and expand the buildings the city landscape expands and enriches the look of the city.

A few factors limit the systems of the game, with the restriction of one upgrade path per unit per scenario you feel that some units are neglected and not fully explored. This is a minor gripe but it is present and must be noted. Most upgrade paths strike a good balance, but there are some choices that are little more than eye candy, so once you know what works and what does not the game can move much smoother, but there will be some trial and error.

Taking the units that you worked on and helped strengthen in battle is an exhilarating experience, indeed. The new large hex-based maps are a welcome change for the series and with damage boosting spots randomly located on the battlefield the tactical choices expands considerably. You move each unit for the amount of movement points they have per turn. You can choose whether they attack, heal, move, etc. but every action will take movement points so you must ensure not to put them in the line of fire with no points left to attack. Much like any game with a turn based battle system, you must ensure to plan your moves carefully, since one wrong move or an overzealous attack could mean the difference between victory and defeat.

This all being said, some players may find the battles to tedious to tackle and the ability to preview what units you will be attacking means you will rarely be surprised. Couple this previewing with the ability to auto resolve a battle means you can eliminate these conflicts from your game experience if you so want to. Although this will mean you will be missing one of the most interesting aspects of Disciples III. The hard-earned victory based on strategic contemplation and decisive action.

Disciples III is a great throw-back experience. Some smart design choices throughout the game mean this title will be one that you can sink into for hours upon hours. Yet with the extensive gameplay time required and a dismal story, Disciples III may be a title reserved for hard-core strategy fans only. If you are in need of a strategy fix and want something with brilliant visuals, Disciples III will scratch that itch, just don’t expect revolution when it comes to gameplay.

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