Month: November 2010

ALIEN SWARM (PC) Review 1

ALIEN SWARM (PC) Review

“Houston we have a problem.”

Alien Swarm was first seen as a UT2004 mod, which has had a long and distinguished history of modifications, and great community. Valve took keen interest in this mod, and moved to hire the original dev team to work on the Left 4 Dead series. Let’s face it, Valve has a good eye for talent. Essentially, with this rendition, the team ported the original mod, into the Source Engine, and released it for. Hold your breath now. Free. As a result, we get an amazing co-op experience, with plenty of alien splattering fun.

This gem does everything (for the most part) right. The story itself is your typical space survival deal. Humans struggling to survive using conventional means against, you guessed it, aliens. Now yes, I know. The humans being mauled by alien creatures that happen to be coloured green thing, has been done a million times. Good thing the story itself isn’t all that important. The game itself is played using slightly slanted top-down view, which is great for this style of game, mainly due to you being able to see the carnage in its surreal beauty. Also, for those who prefer to get down and dirty, there are a few console commands that can be entered to turn the view into a first person fillet-fest.

“Say hello to my little friend!”

There are several classes for you to play as, each with its own characteristics. However, as a note, you will always need someone to play as the Tech class, as he provides the only tools necessary to progress through levels. The Officer class is your stereotypical buff machine, who gives out bonus to nearby teammates. This class gains access to a class specific shotgun called the Vindicator (and yea, it holds its name well), which just so happens to come standard with an incendiary grenade launcher. The Special Weapons class is the firepower of your team. When I say firepower, I mean firepower that would make Tony Montana blush. At higher levels, this class gains access to a minigun which is fairly efficient at spewing death. The Medic, like in any other game, is the unsung hero. As the name implies, this class heals people, which can be done overtime using healing beacons, or a medic gun (must…resist…Killing Floor…reference). And finally, the Tech, the annoyingly necessary classes in the game. This is one of the few dings against this game, mainly due to the aforementioned fact that you need one in your team. The level will literally not start unless you have one. This is due to the Tech’s hacking ability which is used to open doors, thus allowing you to progress.

“I get by with a little help from my friends.”

With all of this being said the game play results into a solid, creative, and fun co-op experience. The latter point however is also one of the game’s downsides. Single-player is nigh impossible due to the bots being well…bots. Therefore, having at least a partner is necessary, and even that is difficult. For best playing experience, four is both the max number and the recommended number of players. However, since the game is available on Steam, it happens to be everyone’s favourite price (free :3), you shouldn’t have any problem finding three other alien hunters to fight with you. All in all, the game shines up to be a great example of what a free co-op game could, and after this, should be. The only real dings against it are the near barren story, the reliance on a single class, and the ridiculously useless AI. However, the good clearly outshines the bad here.

Tropico 3: Gold Edition (PC) Review 1

Tropico 3: Gold Edition (PC) Review

The Tropico series has a pretty bizarre history. The first game of the series came out in 2001 and received critical acclaim for its fresh take on the city-building genre. In 2002, Tropico received an expansion called Paradise Island to fix some of the smaller issues with the game.

Released in 2003, the second Tropico title is where things get strange. Instead of building on what the first entry in the series did, publisher Gathering decided to go in a different direction and hired a new developer to create a pirate-themed city-building game. The concept was unique, but it was ultimately a step back from what the first game offered because it lacked some of the depth that was already put in place.

Flash-forward six years, add a brand new publisher and developer in Kalypso Media and Haemimont Games and you get Tropico 3, a game that is more like the direct sequel to the first Tropico than the swashbuckling detour the series took with the second one.

Tropico 3 plays a whole lot like other games within the city-building genre where you must achieve certain population goals, or export enough of a certain product by planning out and constructing a city with optimal buildings within it so you can complete whatever specific mission task has been set out for you.

However, that’s where the similarities between Tropico 3 and other city builders end. What makes this game so unique is the fact that the game tasks you as being the dictator of a banana republic during the Cold War era.

As such, on top of all of the normal tasks of just managing the city that you are constructing, the game has a very deep political layer to it that can involve outside factors affecting how you govern your little tropical paradise such as the threat of revolutionaries rising up to depose you, the constant threat of the USA and USSR invading your lands and even local businesses looking to offer you bribes so they can get a competitive advantage over other shops on the island.

You can also issue policy edicts to do things such as eliminating elections all-together, cutting into profits the island makes to be added to your personal Swiss bank account, or to even burn literature that speaks ill of the way you rule. These edicts do come with a penalty, however, so it is important to think about the repercussions of your actions before you decide to put one of them into play.

With so much to worry about, balancing everything perfectly is almost an impossible task. Thus, before a scenario begins you can select what kind of dictator you want to run the island that you will be tasked with. There are pre-made avatars such as Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, or you can even decide to make your own despot.

Selecting the right leader is important because, depending on whom you pick, your strategy will change drastically due to the fact that each different character comes with a set of four advantages and flaws that can affect what sort of standing you have with various political factions that are present on your island, what sort of relations you have with the USA and USSR, how smart you are with money, etc. In the case of the custom character, you personally pick the traits of the character.

The heavy political coating that Tropico 3 has is the game’s defining and most interesting characteristic, however, it’s complexity is pretty difficult to wrap your head around when you’re first starting out even if you’re a veteran to the genre.

As far as content goes, there’s a 15-mission campaign mode that progressively ramps up in difficulty, a sandbox mode that has a bunch of pre-determined maps and just lets you build a city without any specific goal in mind and custom challenge missions that can be downloaded for free – you can also create and share your own scenarios.

Even better, the definitive version of the game, Tropico 3: Gold Edition comes with the expansion Absolute Power packaged in with the original. This expansion comes with new edicts, new dictators to play and 10 more campaign missions where the objectives are a whole lot wackier than in the original; i.e. dealing with a rift in time and space.

In terms of presentation, the game looks great, particularly when you zoom out to admire the island and take in the lush jungle foliage that surrounds your city. The sound has been constructed to be an important factor in the gameplay, with radio updates given to let you know what the people think of you and hints given to solve their unhappiness. Unfortunately, the music isn’t all that great. The same three or four songs are constantly recycled, and even though the songs’ Latino-flavoured melodies are pleasant when you first hear them, it can get tiring having to constantly hear them repeatedly.

Tropico 3’s deep political elements make for a fun and unique entry in the city-building genre. However, a fairly steep learning curve to grasp how to politically juggle everything effectively will try the patience of many players. If you can get past that initial barrier though, there’s a whole lot of tyrannical fun in the sun to be had here.

Gran Turismo 5 (PS3) Review 3

Gran Turismo 5 (PS3) Review

It’s Finally Here

Talk about Sony exclusives and a handful of titles always appear at the top of the list. The Gran Turismo series is one of them and after five years in development, numerous crushed hopes due delay announcements and painful teases ranging from a full on “prologue” game to announcements of 3D compatibility, it is finally, at long last here. And it is a great game. But not a game for everyone, and certainly not a perfect game.

A Lot Of Old, A Lot Of New

Gran Turismo 5 has always been about one thing; driving a variety of cars with a startling level of reality and accuracy. As such there’s no plot here to carry you through, except for perhaps the very loose, self-constructed narrative of your own rise in expertise from amateur “Sunday Cup” races to the big leagues of full on Rally and NASCAR races. This is a series that has always been one of the flagships on consoles for simulating the driving experience, and mostly, at least presentation-wise, the game delivers.

The graphics of the GT series are what have always distinguished it from console competitors, and some of the time, GT5 lives up to that reputation. The tracks themselves are still done with the gorgeous, clean (some would say sterile) look that is characteristic of a GT game. Old favourites such as the Nurburgring in Germany make a new, high-def return, while new tracks, such as Rome, add some beautiful new variety to the series. They are all lovingly crafted with that particular obsession to detail that is generally Japanese and especially Polyphony Digital-esque, and some of these new tracks also include night and day changes, and weather effects like rain and snow. All of this adds up to—at GT5’s best—some breathtaking driving experiences with sunset on the horizon and dirt being kicked up around your car, or rain drops hitting the windshield in cockpit view with uncanny realism. Where GT5 falters is in a lack of consistency. The mix of premium cars (essentially PS3 cars with all the HD bells and whistles graphically) and standard cars (PS2 era cars that have been ported over with slightly higher resolution) can make for a noticeable difference in visual quality during replays. The graphics engine also, surprisingly, struggles at times, varying between 60 and 50+ frames per second with some occasional small screen tearing. The shadows in the environments also stick out due to aliasing, something made even more noticeable by the anti-aliasing in the rest of the environment. At its best, GT5 is a phenomenal looking game, but it occasionally hiccups with quality and technical issues. Sound is still impeccable, with accurately recorded engine effects that vary wildly in distance and intensity depending on your chosen point of view while driving. There’s also a huge mix of music from rock to bossa nova to cater to a wide variety of musical tastes. Failing that, custom soundtracks have finally made it into the game so drivers can set up the perfect playlist for their Rally session. In the audio department, there’s very little to complain about.

Everything Including The Kitchen Sink

Gran Turismo 5 is a huge game. An intimidating one. It asks a lot of its players, though this call to go the distance isn’t mandatory. There’s an arcade mode for people that just want to hop in a car and mess around, but the real star of the show is GT Mode which includes A and B Spec modes, special events, a tuning shop, and the online features. All of this is wrapped up in the masterful driving physics that the series is known for, something that comes into its own when a driving wheel with proper force feedback is used, although even with a Dualshock controller, it’s easy to see the difference in handling from one vehicle to the next. A-Spec is the traditional, tiered mode where players compete in various races of escalating difficulty, while B-Spec is management/RPG style game where players guide a driver on his rise to racing stardom, issuing orders during the race. In each mode, players are limited to accessible cars not just by money on hand, but a new levelling system, where experience accrued in A-Spec, B-Spec or special events allows access to more exotic, powerful vehicles. Special Events themselves add a lot of variety to the mix with Kart racing, NASCAR and Rally modes, as well as access to the infamous Top Gear test track.

The problems come in with how the game itself is organized. While there’s a wealth of content, it’s unlocked slowly, and this includes improvements to the game that players have been clamouring for, such as damage modelling and more aggressive driver AI are barricaded behind higher level requirements. For the impatient gamer, this means the opening hours of GT5 feel like no improvements other than graphics have been implemented. It’s a design decision that obviously tries to match itself to growing driving skill, but for players already familiar with the series, it feels limiting.  And then there are the vehicles themselves. Of the 1000+ vehicles available, only about 200 are “premium” cars, including high levels of detail, cockpit views and more accurate damage modelling. The remaining “standard” cars are carry overs from Gran Turismo 4 and don’t have the same amount of loving detail, an obvious necessity to keep the game from taking another year to release. It divides the game, inadvertently giving a sense of quantity over quality, and its likely that many players will cry foul over their favourite car not being amongst the “elite” 200 that were given premium status.

The multi-player side is, unfortunately, a work in progress at the time of this writing. The network itself is unstable, making it difficult to connect reliably to other players. But most disappointing of all is the archaic system in place. No match-making, and a tiny handful of inadequate “racing regulations” ensure that most races driven online will be a ridiculous mix of Honda Civics going up against Lamborghinis and Corvettes. These are all criticisms that are already acknowledged and being addressed in future patches, but right just now, GT5’s online presence has a good community sense going for it with its Lounges and friend connections, but suffers in the actual multi-player department.

Gran Turismo 5 is not a game for everyone, but for people that love simulations, love cars, or just want to tinker around with vehicles they could never possibly afford in real-life, it’s one of the best games of the year. For people that have criticized GT’s conventions in the past, those criticisms stubbornly remain in varying degrees. The online has the potential be a great experience, but not in its current form, though future patches have already been announced. However, the enormous amount of content, superb physics and clear love of automobiles should be enough to convince anyone with the remotest interest in cars that this is a game worth owning.

Call of Duty: Black Ops (Xbox 360) Review 10

Call of Duty: Black Ops (Xbox 360) Review

Every iteration of the Call of Duty series is designed from the ground up to be a best seller, and Call of Duty: Black Ops is no exception. With the most robust multiplayer experience put in to a shooter to date and a remarkable single player campaign it’s not surprising that Black Ops is this year’s must-have for most gamers.

Unlike most Call of Duty games the single player campaign for Black Ops takes a less straight-forward approach to storytelling. Part Tarantino, part Fincher, and part Nolan the narrative finds players in the role of Mason, a seriously messed up operative under interrogation to decode a string of numbers that could cause a global crisis.

Players relive Mason’s covert missions through a series of flashbacks that take place across some of American history’s most violent conflicts. Through the jungles of the Vietnam, to a Castro assassination attempt during the Bay of Pigs invasion Black Ops’ non-sequitor storyline shows a wider breadth of confrontations than other historically based shooters.

What makes all of it work so well though is that through the experience players really begin to adopt the persona of Mason as they experience his life as a soldier. This is aided greatly by Call of Duty’s signature interactive in-game cutscenes that put the player at the center of the action, no matter how explosive or intimate. It’s hard not to feel personally invested in Mason as a character because the game does such a good job of making sure at all times you experience everything he does.

Call of Duty: Black Ops (XBOX 360) Review 2All of this comes to a boiling point when, despite all we’ve seen through Mason’s eyes a plot twist makes us question everything about him and about our role as protagonist. While not on the same scale of Bioshock’s ‘Would You Kindly?’, it’s one of those rare moments exclusive to video games that carries added impact because of the player’s role in fulfilling the story.

Of course, players don’t come to Call of Duty for introspective philosophical quandaries. Like its predecessors, Call of Duty: Black Ops is as predictably spectacular as it is spectacularly predictable. Every level is infused with all the high-energy action players have come to expect from the series and doesn’t skip a tonal beat from Modern Warfare 2.As expected, Call of Duty: Black Ops is no slouch in the graphics department. From the lifelike character models to the remarkably detailed guns and immersive environments the game attempts photorealism and comes very close at times. There are moments where some things look a little too shiny or plastic, but apart from that the visuals are phenomenal.

Some of the natural effects in particular look especially good; Pools of blood listlessly floating and spreading from a sinking corpse, clouds of smoke rolling off an explosion, or even the way dust kicks up beneath a lowering helicopter. This attention to detail creates a much more immersive experience, which is what these sorts of games are all about.

Call of Duty: Black Ops (XBOX 360) Review 3Audio design is also incredibly well done with the soundtrack and the ambient noises blending incredibly well. There are a few moments where the game uses licensed tracks to highlight certain moments and it’s done to great effect. There’s something pleasantly self-aware about a segment where you tear through a Vietnamese village with unstoppable American force while The Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil plays as loudly as the missiles you launch.

While most people getting Call of Duty: Black Ops this holiday will be doing so for the multiplayer, it’s clear that the single player campaign is no tacked-on experience. Treyarch has put more love and care in to the experience and Black Ops’ campaign not only outdoes the last Call of Duty game but from a narrative stance, it outdoes every Call of Duty game.

Multiplayer
Call of Duty: Black Ops (XBOX 360) Review 5
Call of Duty: Black Ops has some big shoes to fill. With Modern Warfare 2 owning the online multiplayer community in every sense of the word its successor has a lot to live up to.

Everything players expected is in the box. The custom class system, perks and killstreaks, and lots of unlockables have all made their way over from the last game. Black Ops carries so much of the previous game over that on first play, you might not notice a whole lot different. It’s in the small additions though that make this year’s Call of Duty worth playing.

In addition to traditional experience points the game now lets players earn in-game cash that can be used to buy their new equipment. With almost everything unlocked from the get-go, this brand new unlocking system eschews the barriers that were previously only broken through extensive play making the game far more accessible to newcomers.

Call of Duty: Black Ops (XBOX 360) Review 6The new wager matches are easily the highlight of the experience for those looking for a break from the usual deathmatch, or objective based modes. Through these players get to enjoy some new community-requested gametypes like One in the Chamber where players only have a single bullet, or Gun Game where players need to rack kills on a variety of weapons. Tension increases because players also have to put their in-game cash on the line to win big or lose it all, which just like real gambling can create an incredibly addictive feedback loop.

Zombies are back from their appearance in World at War but with a sadly stifled map set. Though one of the levels (unlocked by beating the campaign) includes some pretty hilarious characters, with only 2 traditional maps to play with the mode feels bare. It’s more than likely that more maps will be available shortly for purchase, but it would have been nice to see more included on the disc.

Call of Duty: Black Ops (XBOX 360) Review 4
Call of Duty: Black Ops (XBOX 360) Review 8

For those who enjoy their Call of Duty without gimmicks, all the expected modes are still there and things are as balanced as ever. The game still constantly rewards players with experience points at every step, but that’s part of the fun. Black Ops captured everything right about Modern Warfare 2 and enhanced it, if only a little to make an overall superior experience.

There are enough maps to keep a majority of players satisfied and most are generally well balanced. There are far fewer large open maps to reduce camping and sniping and some maps like Nuketown and Firing Range really capitalize on that closeness. With 14 maps in total there’s enough content that things won’t feel stale for a long while to come, and with the breadth of new gametypes it’s easy to shake things up when they do.
Call of Duty: Black Ops (XBOX 360) Review 7
Call of Duty: Black Ops may not revolutionize the online multiplayer space the way it’s predecessor did, but the game is a logical evolution that’s superior in many ways. Between the improved upgrade system and the addition of wager matches, players can feel confident in shelving their lovingly worn-out Modern Warfare 2 discs and replacing them with Black Ops. This will be the multiplayer game the online community clings to, at least until next year.

Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood (PS3) Review 1

Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood (PS3) Review

Nothing Is True, Except Maybe Sequels

Ubisoft has a unique opportunity with the Assassin’s Creed franchise, a malleable property that can go almost anywhere. And it’s an opportunity they’re taking advantage of, first by switching characters entirely from one game to the next, and then introducing an “expansion” to 2009’s Assassin’s Creed 2 with Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood that takes a bold chance with a slower paced, 3rd person platform style game by adding multi-player onto it. The most surprising thing is that Brotherhood succeeds, though not perfectly.

All Roads Lead To Rome

Brotherhood is a straight follow-up to Assassin’s Creed 2, with the story picking up literally moments after the end of the previous game. There’s a quick video recap for players that are completely new to the series, but obviously this spoils the discovery and drama of the first two games. Ezio Auditore is once again the historical hero, while Desmond Miles, in the present day, struggles to uncover the secrets of his ancestors in a conspiracy that involves Templars and other elements that predate humanity itself. As the story gets underway, what was a narrative trembling on the rails in AC2 goes completely off—on fire—by the end of Brotherhood. People looking for shocking cliff-hangers are sure to be satisfied, though people looking for some narrative sense are likely to be underwhelmed. Ezio himself has also lost some of his luster as there’s no dramatic arc that transforms him as there was in the previous game. The Piece of Eden is stolen—again—and the rest of the game is spent recovering it. There’s little room for character development.

In the presentation department, Brotherhood still uses the same engine from AC2, not a surprise considering the game was released just a year after. It still handles large environments beautifully, with detailed characters and animation, but the ambition of creating Renaissance Rome—the venue for the majority of the game—taxes the engine. Screen tearing is a regular occurrence, frame rates are variable, and textures occasionally take time to load in appropriate levels of detail. It’s still a gorgeous looking game, with brilliant art direction, just let down by some minor technical flaws that take off some of the shine. The audio side is nearly identical to the previous game, with music tracks being the new addition while sound effects and voice actors are largely taken from the previous game. Brotherhood isn’t quite the revelation of AC2 in graphics and sound, but the art direction manages to make up for it.

The Brotherhood Wants You

It’s not inaccurate to say that Brotherhood is really Assassin’s Creed 2: Part 2. Basic gameplay remains unchanged, a combination of platforming/traversal and combat that relies on parries and counter-attacks rather than sustained, complex combos. The controls are also identical, which may be a good or bad thing depending on whether you found the semi-automation of previous titles liberating or restrictive. You’ll still take missions, clamber around a city, tailing or assassinating targets, with a wealth of side-missions to “renovate” Rome. One nice improvement is that there is even more variety in the story-based missions, with the addition of “full synchronization” an optional goal in every mission for doing things like taking no damage, not being seen and various other requirements, designed to add finesse to your playstyle. While you can play through the game without doing this, it unlocks cheats for later use, and of course, there are trophies/achievements for going all out. The two major new additions are a fight for faction control, in the form of igniting towers controlled by the Borgias, villainous family of the game, and recruiting new assassin’s to join your ranks. When the Borgias control an area, shops can’t be used, and tunnel system (for warping from one area to another) is also locked out. Killing the commanding officer of an area and then setting the Borgia tower on fire frees the area, allowing you to open shops, tunnels and bring in more income for yourself. It’s entirely unnecessary to do this but if you don’t, you severely limit your options for buying more healing items or repairing your armor.

Recruiting new assassins is also an interesting twist, but again, it’s largely unnecessary. By wandering Rome, Ezio encounters citizens being oppressed by Borgia forces. Helping them automatically recruits them into the Brotherhood where they can be sent on missions around Europe for experience points, money and even special loot items. XP translates into better weapons and armor for them which is helpful if you do use them to assist you in missions. One thing to note is that perma-death is in effect for these recruits, so if you send them on a mission that’s too high level, or simply ignore them while fighting a huge mob, they can and will die, leaving you with an empty slot requiring a new recruit to train up. It’s a fairly comprehensive system, but unfortunately plays little meaningful role the main game. You can complete missions just fine without them—outside of story missions that require their use—they merely make things a little more convenient in the long run.

The big news however, is the much previewed multi-player. There are various modes, the basic being “Wanted” with other modes such as Alliance and Manhunt, but the basic premise is the same. You are assigned a player to kill, and someone else is assigned to kill you. It’s a unique mechanic that works out beautifully for tense, clever games of cat and mouse, that, like poker, involve a mix of luck, skill and psychology. There’s a sense of satisfaction in fooling a human predator into thinking you’re an anonymous NPC, and there’s a classic “thrill of the hunt” sensation when you drop from a roof-top onto an unsuspecting target. Like most multi-player games, there’s a COD-like levelling system with perks, and hopefully this fresh take on multi-player games will be enough to lure some FPS gamers from the safety of their preferred genre.

In the end, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood has some tweaks, but is essentially the same game as before. The graphics engine is starting to struggle somewhat, but the gameplay has been tweaked to add a little more variety, and the multi-player aspect actually manages to bring something exciting and new to the table. There may not be enough change here for everyone, but what changes are present make the game feel sufficiently different enough that it’s a safe purchase for fans.

Penny Arcade Volume Six: The Halls Below Review

Penny Arcade Volume Six: The Halls Below Review

It’s been roughly two years since the last collection of strips from Penny Arcade, the webcomic created by Jerry Holkins and Mike Karhulik, which has become the centre of the modern nerd culture. Now under the Del Rey label, Penny Arcade’s sixth volume, The Halls Below, collects all of the strips from the year 2005 – an eternity ago in video game and tech years – as well as some fascinating extra commentary and material.

Video games inform much of Penny Arcade’s material, so it’s worth looking back at the year in gaming that was 2005. The Sony PlayStation Portable arrived in the first half of the year, Microsoft’s Xbox 360 in the second, and the Nintendo DS was just gaining some real momentum with new marquee titles like Kirby’s Canvas Curse. The last one provided one of the year’s most colourful strips, “What the eff,” as Gabe rides the rainbow with Kirby as a bewildered Tycho looks on. Meanwhile Gabe sits outside an empty Gamestop for the PSP launch across from a rather mean-spirited Cinnabon merchant, Tycho discovers he is Number 51 in a pre-order queue of only 50 new Xboxes.

The most interesting offerings from the year, though, have little to do directly with les jeux d’année. In the holiday season’s storyline “An Unbelievably Merch Christmas,” the Merch character wreaks gory horror upon the populace until kids buy enough of his merchandise to sate his perverted thirst. Holkins expresses his frankly negative opinion on the arc’s premise and one-note punch-lines in his commentary. Equally controversial is the five-part “Ripped from Today’s Headlines,” wherein Tycho accidentally kills his wife (based on Holkins’ real-life wife Brenna) and then tries to make lot of money from it by suing whoever he can blame the idea on.

The most important development is probably the introduction of Tycho’s smart-mouthed, hardcore gamer niece Annarchy, a character that has attracted much positive and negative feedback from Penny Arcade readers. “She reinterprets all the characters we have in the comic, altering the dynamics around them, putting everyone on their best behaviour,” says Holkins of her first appearance. “In a comic like ours, one that doesn’t really trade on linear time or character progression, that’s a pretty impressive feat.”

Penny Arcade’s change in publishers hasn’t been all positive. Artist Krahulik’s strips are mostly vibrant, but some look a little oversaturated. The fluorescent greens in some strips, usually surrounding Gabe’s omnipotent World of Warcraft character, bleed past the borders and blur the text slightly. Some pages are filled in with blown up panels from strips that appear elsewhere in the book, feeling like cheap filler. The strips’ titles are presented in a bubbly font that, while distinctive, is a little harder to read. The Mr. Period and Twisp and Catsby strips get different fonts, but I’m not really sure why. The volume as a whole is a little flimsier than in the past, despite the comparable page count.

Christopher Perkins, Dungeons & Dragons Creative Manager, writes the foreword, regaling some of his favourite dungeon master moments. The back of the book contains some of Holkins and Krahulik’s favourite material from The Elemenstor Saga, a wiki of sorts that PA fans have contributed to, building the over-the-top fantasy world that only occasionally appears in the strip proper.

It’s more Penny Arcade. It’s more Holkins commentary on strips, picking at his and Karhulik’s creative processes five years after the fact. Despite covering only a year of strips and a small but noticeable dip in print quality, The Halls Below is a must-own for nerds of all stripes.

Holmes Incorporated Issue 1 Review 2

Holmes Incorporated Issue 1 Review

Holmes Incorporated is a fascinating beast. Created by celebrated comic book guy Ty Templeton, and running at a hefty 52 pages, this first issue is the culmination of work from the Toronto Cartoonists Workshop. The graduates of Templeton’s Comic Book Bootcamp were given four months to write, draw, ink and letter stories and Holmes Inc. is the final result. For many of the contributors, this is the first bit of cartooning that has ever appeared in print. While a little rough around the edges and clearly the work of students rather than grizzled professionals, the work in Issue #1 is impressive in its breadth and promises greater things in the future of those involved.

Holmes Incorporated is a spy agency formed from the descendants of Inspector Sherlock Holmes, originally created by Arthur Conan Doyle but now free for others to experiment with due to open license. The elderly Edgar Holmes, a secret grandson of Sherlock, is the sharp-minded and wheelchair-borne Professor X equivalent for this team of blood-bound detectives. The rest of the cast includes Edgar’s son Sherlock the Second, his son Edgar the Second, requisite smart babe Elizabeth Watson, and a ninja-girl type curiously named Sherlock the Third, or Trey.

Holmes Inc.’s first issue includes eight stories, plus a biographical sketch written in the voice of Trey Holmes, drawn and written by TCW graduates. Templeton’s guiding hand is clearly seen throughout the stories with all of the characters remaining mostly consistent through all of the plots, but it’s clear that everyone involved was allowed to let their personal creative juices flow.

In the first episode, “Welcome to Holmes Incorporated,” 18-year-old distant relative or Arthur “Artie” Holmes infiltrates the agency during a public tour of the Sherlock Holmes Museum. It sets up the characters well enough for the rest of the volume, and adds Artie to the team as the young upstart kid with the smart mouth. Christopher Yao’s art is some of the best in the issue, especially the profile of everyone at the end, where Edgar the First accepts an ecstatic Artie into the agency to the clear dismay of everyone else.

In “Night Clubbing,” Trey investigates the murder of an MMA fighter while navigating the advances of some dude named Ryan. Kathleen Gallagher’s writing is mostly excellent, and Eden Bachelor’s art is solid, although the pencil shading harkens a bit too much to university journals.

In “Peril in Paris,” Elizabeth and Artie try to solve one of the original Sherlock’s unsolved cases. Mike Marano contributes the wordiest story of the collection, but uses it to good effect, navigating the investigations of both the present and past Holmes troupes. Next, “Flight Plan” takes a Saturday morning cartoon approach, drawn by Gibson Quarter and inked by Templeton himself. Rob Pincombe’s writing keeps the momentum going with his script, forgoing excessive exposition for some satisfying action.

“Spring Loaded” is one of the weaker efforts, although nods have to be given to Maddy Beaupre for tackling the “don’t do drugs, kids” angle that many a comic reader in his or her late 20s will remember with chagrin. “The Bobby Bomber” gives Edgar I the spotlight as he follows the path of a car bomber, while “The Fingerless Prince” impresses with its approach to themes like self-sacrifice and loyalty in a scant seven pages.

“The International Incident” rounds off the stories with a simple two-page comedy piece, written and drawn entirely by one student, Pierce Desrochers O’Sullivan. It’s a nice end piece to the collection, although it depends on some as-yet-implausible digital trickery on the part of Artie.

Though Holmes Inc.’s first issue is a collaboration of many people’s talents, it’s clear that they all came from the same place – in its strengths as well as its weaknesses. While the perspective, geometry and panel arrangement are consistently impressive, be prepared for a few awkward poses and googly-eyed individuals throughout. It might befit the descendant clan of Inspector Holmes, but the characters’ exposition of their clue analysis usually goes on a bit too long than it should. Thanks to K.T. Smith, who lettered most of the collection, everything is at least easy to read and alternative fonts are restrained but effective when used.

And then there’s the easy characterization of the team as a fledgling X-Men equivalent (they’ve even got their own stealth jet), but this is something that would likely take several more issues to flesh out the characters’ back stories, so I won’t begrudge them too harshly.

When you consider the nature of Holmes Incorporated, the end product cannot help but impress. In a very short time the Toronto Cartoonists Workshop graduates have turned Templeton’s character sketches into more than a half-dozen stories worth reading, and introduced readers to more than twice that in names that are worth looking out for in the near future.

Dance Central (XBOX 360) Review 1

Dance Central (XBOX 360) Review

Of all the games that highlight Kinect’s step away from the traditional hardcore gamer, Dance Central is the most obvious among them. Gamers have enjoyed dance games before but Harmonix’ invention, with its lack of dance-mat peripherals and full-body motion requirement is by far the most involved dance experience ever put forth by a video game.

Despite the dance genre not being entirely new, Dance Central does something remarkable; almost all the songs on the disc are recognizable tracks. No more hyper J-pop or obscure techno-synth-house-remixes, all of the tracks are popular hip-hop, dance, or pop songs that have actually received radio play. It may not sound like much, but in terms of accessibility it’s a lot easier to imagine yourself dancing to Lady Gaga or Rihanna than a Japanese pop star you’ve never heard of.

Once a song is selected players stand in front of the screen and are presented with a series of dance moves played out by an on-screen avatar. The goal is to mirror the dance exactly as it’s performed, using your entire body to follow the steps.

This is where the remarkable motion-tracking technology of Kinect comes in to play. With a great deal of accuracy the system can tell if you’re in the right position, doing the right motions and generally if you’re following along correctly. The game highlights any out of place limbs on the dancing character in red so you know where you’re messing up and can improve.

Through the entire experience players can also see a small window showing how the sensor sees you, almost providing a perfect mirror as you play. This is extremely helpful in providing players with a sense of how they’re being perceived and does a better job of conveying their actual motion than if their movements had been interpreted and superimposed on an in-game model. Because of this players get a real sense of how they’re moving in real space and there are fewer opportunities for players to get lost and not know how or why they’re messing up.

Despite its family-friendly nature, Dance Central is not for everyone. It takes some really big cojones or a physiological lack thereof to enjoy the game properly. A majority of the dance moves are rather feminine and can leave some guys feeling a bit awkward shaking their booty to. That’s not to say there aren’t songs for the guys; a few tracks are appropriately masculine but they are few and far between. The dance floor has always belonged to the ladies, and digital dance floors are no different.

As a party game, Dance Central is fantastic. It’s really easy for anyone to just jump in and enjoy the experience with little explanation. There’s no designated party mode, but the interface is incredibly easy to use making the hassle of switching songs a lot easier for the uninitiated. Busting a move with friends is a lot of fun, particularly the freestyle sections that let players go crazy and watch it sped-up and looped as an interlude.

Because the technology doesn’t look for more than one player it’s easy to have multiple people dance alongside you without causing the software to lose tracking. Even with a group of people moving around the player the game very rarely loses its target and avoids disrupting the game experience, which is incredibly important in a party environment.

While the game excels in the party environment, the single player experience is a little lacking. With only a few unlockables outside harder difficulties and no career mode to complete solo play can feel a bit pointless, though it really does come down to the individual playing. If you’re the type of person who will happily dance alone in their room Dance Central will remain fun without spectators, but if you need an audience the Kinect sensor is a poor replacement.

There is a workout mode, but it does little more than offer a timer and calorie counter for those curious why they’re sweating so much. It’s a nice addition for those who care, but despite the mild workout you’ll get by playing for extended periods, there are other games better suited for burning off belly fat.

As a competitive game, Dance Central does offer same-space dance battles but that boils down to little more than a score comparison after sequential play. Where the game does offer some real competition is in the leaderboard which compares your highest score per song to your friends’. This creates a bizarre sort of play-by-mail dance competition with each party perfecting their scores all alone for bragging rights.

Apart from scores the game doesn’t offer much else in the way of sharing. Despite the very entertaining freestyle videos the game takes, there’s no way to upload them to the internet or retrieve them from the hard drive. It’s hard to tell who’s to blame for this, since only Microsoft published titles have the ability but it would have been great to share videos with friends and see some hilarious dance moves online.

Not surprisingly, Dance Central shines brightest in the same ways actual dancing does. It’s great in parties and girls love it, but alone by yourself it can be an awkward experience. The music is key to the experience, and the DJs at Harmonix brought a setlist worth grooving to.

Dance Central captures the fun and style that comes with letting loose. It may not turn every wallflower in to a dance hall diva, but with an inviting interface and simple mechanics it does it’s best to get even the most timid the courage to try.

As for the game teaching you real-world dance skills it has yet to prove itself as a bonafide teacher of all things groovy. One thing is for certain though, like the real dance floor those who go at it with their all rarely look foolish while doing so.

Kinect Joy Ride (XBOX 360) Review 1

Kinect Joy Ride (XBOX 360) Review

Kinect Joy Ride is one of the games shuttled out the door to demonstrate the potential for Kinect’s “Your body is the controller” gimmick, but it’s a game only in the most forgiving sense of the term. It would be more accurate to call it a tech demo that should have shipped for free, and anybody who demands anything from the gameplay will be both bored and disappointed.

Getting into the details, Joy Ride is a racing game with most of the usual trappings. There are multiple tracks, seven gameplay modes, and plenty of cars and trophies to unlock, although nothing is licensed and the graphics are only slightly better than Wii Sports, so don’t be fooled into thinking that the disc has depth.

Low production value aside, the game’s elephantine flaw is that the player can’t communicate with the road. Joy Ride keeps you moving forward at a constant speed in order to compensate for Kinect’s lack of buttons, and the result is a game that only offers the illusion of interactivity. You hold your hands in front of you to steer and you can lean back to charge up a boost, and that’s pretty much it.

Success is entirely a function of luck and the controls are so loose that steering – which is the one thing that a racing game has to do right – is virtually impossible. A slight hand twitch is as likely to send you careening into a wall as it is to take you around a bend, to the point that even straight-aways can be hazardous to navigate.

The issues become even clearer whenever you hit a jump. You’re encouraged to do barrel rolls and 360s whenever you go airborne, but the car automatically executes perfect landings and your movements have no relationship to the rotation of the vehicle. All you can do is flail your arms like an inebriated air traffic controller and hope that your car will maybe do a flip.

The notion of gameplay diversity is similarly superficial, since six of the seven gameplay modes – which run the gamut from drag races to skateboard-style half-pipe jaunts – feel functionally identical, and it makes the thin design even more transparent. The online play is laughable – I could never find an opponent – and the weapons added in the Battle Races make a random game even more random.

It’s telling that the only moderately interesting gameplay mechanic doesn’t have anything to do with driving. Trick mode asks you to hold a series of poses for the camera, and it actually works as intended. Unfortunately, there are only two such courses, so it’s not nearly enough to break up the on-rails monotony.

If it wasn’t abundantly clear already, Kinect Joy Ride is every kind of bad. It’s easily the worst of the Kinect-branded titles, and it doesn’t even have enough novelty value to interest casual players. Give it a pass, and find a good kart racer if you still need a cartoonish high-speed fix.

Kinectimals (XBOX 360) Review 1

Kinectimals (XBOX 360) Review

If you’ve seen any of the promotional material, you already know that Kinectimals is insidiously – even scarily – cute, like a modern-day version of Gremlins. Sadly, the actual game doesn’t have anywhere near that level of cunning. Kinectimals incessantly reminds you that you’re having fun, but if you take the time to play it you’ll realize that the claims are a little disingenuous.

Kinectimals is essentially Microsoft’s answer to Nintendogs. It’s a pet simulator that allows you to play mini-games with dangerously adorable big game kittens (read: baby tigers), and therein lays the entire basis of the game’s appeal.

Despite having a decent amount of stuff to do – there are a couple dozen areas to explore and hundreds of collectable knick-knacks – Kinectimals has some extremely shallow gameplay that quickly saps any interest in the title. Virtually all of the mini-games involve hitting targets with projectiles, and there’s just not enough diversity to break up the tedium.

The strange thing is that the developers seem to be aware of the problem, so they’re constantly trying to obscure the lack of depth. You’ll receive a new item every few minutes and your pet will always force the issue after ten seconds of downtime, like a puppy dropping a tennis ball at your feet.

The “play with me” feature is helpful because it saves you the trouble of navigating the messy inventory screens, but no tricks can cover up the fact that the gameplay never develops beyond repetition. You’ll visit an area, do some target practice, unlock a new mini-game, give your pet a bath, and then do it again. The many toys seldom expand on the throw-and-fetch theme, and every time you get something moderately interesting – like a Frisbee or a jump rope – you’ll immediately receive a functionally identical toy with different decorations.

Kinectimals admittedly isn’t awful – it’s at least functional, which is more than I can say for Kinect Joy Ride – even if the accuracy and responsiveness leaves a lot to be desired. The game is highly endearing in an “Aww…lookit the pwitty kitty!” kind of way and it scores relatively high marks for its implementation of the Kinect technology. The voice recognition absolutely shines, as phrases like “Lie down” or “Play dead” will reliably coax appropriate reactions out of the various animals.

I just don’t know whether or not that translates to a purchase. Kinectimals is obviously targeted at children and cuteness alone may be enough to occupy a nine year old. Unfortunately, anybody with even modest demands for challenging gameplay will become bored and see through the façade.

Kinectimals ultimately feels like an IP designed to sell toys rather than entertain – you can purchase items a real-world mall and then scan them into the game – so if you’re OK with Microsoft marketing directly to your children, I suppose you could do worse. It’s not so bad that you need to stay away, but I’d say you’re better off with Kirby’s Epic Yarn.



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