FEZ Is A Good Good Game

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon Review

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon is a standalone expansion to 2012’s tropical island survival romp, Far Cry 3. But beyond the name and a few core mechanics, Blood Dragon shares almost nothing else with its namesake. Instead of following a group of angsty, privileged white kids through hell and high water, this set of missions puts players in the role of Rex Power Colt. Rex spits the same kind of one-liners that you’d expect from Kurt Russell in Big Trouble in Little China, and the world around him is bathed in CRT scan lines, nuclear fallout, and explosions. Blood Dragon is just the kind of unexpected project that I want to see more of in gaming, but it could have been much more focused and impressive with more development time.

In an alternate 2007 that could only come from a B-film of the 1980s, cyber soldier Rex is sent to an unnamed island to stop his former commander and his army of cyborgs from launching a host of nuclear warheads on the United States. But really, who gives a damn? This is action flick schlock; full of awful dialogue, cheesy synth-rock, and absurd humor. The aesthetic, while ridiculous, is Blood Dragon’s greatest strength. Jamming out to a bumping beat in an underground base, mowing down dozens of cyborg enemies with RoboCop’s pistol while Rex’s partner Spider yells, “Fuck yeah!” works surprisingly well. You can’t take any of it seriously, or else you’ll see just how nonsensical it all really is.

That is sort of a double-edged sword though, as examining any individual design choice or joke too closely threatens to fold the entire facade. Why exactly does Rex throw a D20 to distract guards? Why did the female lead just try to make an acronym for the word “fuck”? Why is Rex seemingly confused about everything anyone ever tells him? And what about the titular Blood Dragons? Why in the world did the designers decide that laser shooting cyber-T-Rexes would really mesh with a 1980s action theme? I just don’t know. The sense of humor present in Blood Dragon feels half baked at its best, completely unfunny at its worst.

Despite the particulars of the story and characters not really gelling with the overall premise, Blood Dragon iterates on enough of the core Far Cry 3 mechanics to make the 6 hour experience interesting. Now instead of unleashing Bengal Tigers on unsuspecting pirates, you can lure Blood Dragons to enemy encampments to do the dirty work for you. Or you can waltz in the front door with a minigun and mow everything down in a hale of hot lead and explosions. Oh, but you’re not the explosive type? Well you can always use the fantastic stealth takedown system that Far Cry 3 so ingeniously introduced. Having this many ways to interact with encounters reinforces just how much variety the folks at Ubisoft Montreal packed into both the original game and Blood Dragon.

As long as you don’t question Blood Dragon’s schizoid sense of humor, you’ll find plenty to like in this homage to 1980s home VHS action. I just wish the developers had taken a few more months to revise and edit some of the questionable dialogue and humor. But I can’t complain too much when I consider the fact that this could have been a crappy multiplayer expansion that required the original game to run. More big developers and publishers should learn from the risks taken here, and improve with just a bit more time and consideration.

All image credits go to the respective Giantbomb community members who posted them to Giantbomb.com. 

Dishonored Review: Curing Regicide with Tyrannicide

It seems only fitting that the latter years of this console generation would foster a resurgence of the stealth genre. Bellyaching about the Call of Duty and Battlefield style of extremely strict gunplay has only increased in recent times, giving titles like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Mark of the Ninja, and Hitman: Absolution the chance to show that there is still plenty of interest in more open game design.

Dishonored is one of the more anticipated titles to ride this new wave of RPG, stealth hybrids, and it is by far one of the most ambitious. Arkane Studios has succeeded in crafting a great bunch of meticulously designed missions set in an intriguing setting that is equal parts steampunk and Victorian-era England.

They wisely focus on giving players incentive to fully explore the wildly original city of Dunwall using a trim selection of weapons, powers, and collectables. It is sad that some of the surrounding systems and the storyline aren’t nearly as supportive to this end, instead creating dissonance and dragging down what could have easily been a classic of this generation.

In Dishonored, players inhabit the silent royal protector Corvo Attano just after he returns from an important mission to find a cure to a rat plague that has nearly crippled Dunwall. Just as Corvo reports to the Empress, a group of mysterious assassins kill her and take her daughter Emily hostage. Corvo is conveniently blamed for the murder and sent to jail to await execution.

Corvo gets sprung out of the big house by a group of Loyalists soon after, and a plot of betrayal and the thirst for power becomes clear. The Loyalists enlist Corvo to become an assassin himself and eliminate the new government leaders that seized the empire in the absence of the rightful heir to the throne.

After setting up this initial conflict, the writers are in the perfect place to spin a great narrative as they play with themes involving the relationship between corruption and power, spirituality and superstition, and mercy and cruelty. Plenty of books and other readable texts expand on the culture of Dunwall, delving most often into whale oil harvesting, bourgeois extravagance, and religious superstition.

This builds Dunwall as a simultaneously artistic, yet scientifically crude place; its inhabitants well cultured, yet credulous people. The city itself is beautifully rendered, with bold, geometric architecture that shows it was built by a strong people. The sense of setting is amazing and sometimes a little overwhelming. The dozens and dozens of books are interesting, but delve into almost too much minutia.

Dishonored gets much more mileage out of its art style–full of exaggerated features, almost visible oil-paint brush marks, and a wide color palette–than any technical proficiency. In fact, much of the texture work on buildings and landscapes is flat and bland. At least on the Xbox 360 everything is kept at 30 fps even when a dozen guards, a pack of plague rats, and a few explosions are on screen at one time.

The focus on setting seems to have taken time away from the actual story and main characters of Dishonored. Small little tidbits of character work are sprinkled amidst a sparse, poorly acted script. This is particularly surprising considering how star studded this cast is: Brad Dourif, Susan Sarandon, Chloë Grace Moritz, and Lena Headey all lend their voices to the game. Perhaps it’s just that these actors didn’t have enough to work with, or perhaps they just didn’t fully invest in their characters; either way, most of the dialogue is delivered in a stiff, “I’m just reading a script here, guys,” sort of way.

This is further compounded by a lack of characterization in general. Exploring the Loyalists’ rooms gives plenty of insight to their quirks and some underlying vulnerabilities and vices, but its never connected into the main story. The Loyalists simply exist to dole out assassination targets to the player and move the story along. They don’t make themselves out as very likeable people, and ultimately their motivations aren’t known either. Why are they loyal to the dead Empress? What were her political ideals? What do they plan to do after reinstating Emily on the throne? Most of these questions are never answered, or kept vague for a late game twist that isn’t telegraphed in a reasonable way.

The developers also made a grave mistake when they decided to make Corvo a silent protagonist. Without any sort of personality, it is hard to connect to Emily or any of the other characters. The game tries to make you feel compassion and companionship for these people, but you have literally no reason to feel these things without a voice in the narrative. If you need reason to put the mute-hero trope out to pasture, look no further than Dishonored.

Even without a great cast or storyline, Dishonored manages to be one of the most satisfying gameplay experiences this year. As Corvo, I felt powerful even without using lethal means–though there are plenty of those. The toolset at your disposal isn’t very large, but each and every power, trap, and weapon can be used in multiple creative ways and in tandem to create amazing chain reactions.

You could take out a hallway of guards by carefully sneaking up behind each one and either knocking them out or slitting their throats, or you could stick a razor-wire mine at the end of hallway, lure one guard through it, slow down time and teleport behind the other two and tranquilize them both. Or perhaps just circumvent the entire area by possessing a rat and running past them all. And if all else fails, just throw a grenade around the corner while using the time-stop power and watch the bodies fly.

These are just simple examples of the variety of ways encounters can be managed. The different levels that you explore in Dishonored are never very large, but they are dense with pathways and secrets. The verticality of Dunwall is impressive, and easily traversed by the teleporting ability, Blink. Mastering that ability in particular is enough to make the game almost unfair. Enemies are not the brightest bunch on Normal difficulty, and effective Blink maneuvering outsmarts them nearly every time.

Still, it’s hard to deny the tactical joy that comes with outfoxing enemies by pure stealth and clever exploitation of the level design. Arkane really stacks the deck in the player’s favor, giving plenty of options at every point of the 6-10 hour story. Going in with reckless abandon, or just incredible Blink utilization, will definitely make your experience shorter and less impressive.

No, the way to play Dishonored is much more methodical. This is a game that begs you to turn off several of the user interface elements and waypoints and play on Hard. Feeling your way through the city, watching guards complete patrol paths before acting, and really planning out traps and attacks is the way to get the most out of the gameplay systems.

Oddly enough, Arkane created a morality system for the game that appears to limit the very openness of the gameplay. Killing creates “Chaos” around Dunwall; the more guards you kill, the more plague victims and reinforcements you’ll have to deal with. Other characters will also talk to you curtly and generally act rude towards you. The problem with this system is that it limits you to an even smaller amount of weapons and powers than you already have. If you want the good ending, you can probably get away with using lethal means every once in awhile, but don’t expect to be regularly setting up razor-wire traps.

This wouldn’t be an issue if there were more non-lethal options, but there are literally only three: tranquilizers, sleeper holds, and possession. Meanwhile, there are easily over half a dozen lethal choices. I didn’t feel held back by other games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution nearly as much as I did by Dishonored.

That was my unfortunate final impression when I finished the game. I felt restricted despite a wealth of options, unconnected to all the characters, and unimpressed with the narrative as a whole. Dunwall is an amazing set dressing, but without a great story to support it, Dishonored ends up feeling half baked in many ways. If you loved the Thief, Deus Ex, or stealth heavy games in general, then you’ll find something to like here. But you’ll have to deal with a host of caveats in order to find the core embedded within.

Dark Souls Review: Memento Mori

Talk to nearly anyone about a video game, and the ever-present question will come up: is it fun? For some, the answer may be a simple yes or no. Others may delve into details and the nerdery associated with such in-depth analysis (myself included). But how many times has someone told you that a game was painful? That for every moment of joy exists orders of magnitude more suffering?

Dark Souls is that game. Dropped into an unforgiving world with only steel and shield, the player soon realizes just how bleak a virtual world can be. Developer From Software has constructed some of the most harrowing, but austerely beautiful castles, caverns, and creatures ever to grace a video game. Conquering these obstacles results in some of the purest satisfaction that interactive entertainment offers, but doing so will take a toll on your patience.

As a chosen undead warrior, you are tasked with rekindling the flame of the Lordran realm by eliminating arch-demons and ringing the Bells of Awakening. Outside of an opening cutscene telling you all this, there is hardly any plot in Dark Souls, but there is plenty of atmosphere. Dialogue is delivered with a distinct creepiness by nearly every NPC, making the world feel unwelcoming. Music is eschewed for sounds of enemies breathing heavily around corners. You start to feel a sort of dread in every area of the game.

This mood mixes well with a running theme permeating Dark Souls: restriction. Using a precious health potion? Well don’t plan on moving out of the way of an incoming attack while you do so. Resting at one of the game’s sparse checkpoints? Have fun fighting through the enemies that just respawned. Summoning in another player online to help you through a tough boss fight? First you’ll have to deal with mercenary players known as “phantoms” who can invade your world to take your souls (experience points).

This Newtonian “equal and opposite” design can be immensely frustrating, but establishes a pace that just isn’t seen in many video games. You must slow down, observe what is around you, and take into consideration how your actions are going to both negatively and positively affect your character. It is very refreshing compared to the usual kill-everything-that-moves-right-now design that too many games follow.

The driving currency that you’ll chase is souls. Souls double as both money for buying much needed weapons, shields, and consumables and experience points to level up with. Leveling up is of paramount importance and always feels like it is pushing the scales back in your favor. After slogging through dozens of undead soldiers and massive bosses, plugging some points into your health, stamina, or any of the other stats gives a very slight advantage. Unfortunately, dying sends you back to the last bonfire checkpoint and you drop your souls where you perished. Die again without picking them up, and they’re gone forever.

Designs like this show how From Software is more than willing to slap the player around and make them uncertain. Another example: much of the game’s loot is stashed in wooden chests. Sounds simple enough, until some chests snap you into their jaws as you open them.

The developers also had a heyday with enemy and boss designs. The farther you get into this seemingly dulled world, the bigger and nastier enemies seem to get. A huge taurus monster swings a hammer with a tornado-wake of debris, smashing even the stoutest shield aside. Colossal dragons and demons are even worse, with one shot kill attacks that can only be dodged with skill and a bit of luck. This is one of Dark Souls’ greatest problems. I understand that hideous monsters are powerful, but getting killed over and over only to respawn twenty minutes back at the bonfire (read: checkpoint) is egregious.

Some of the frustration of dying is alleviated by the wonder imbued into the ruins and caverns of the land. At first, the grayish green hue of the world and simple castle walls don’t inspire much exploration, but Dark Souls really does has a surprisingly large color palette and architectural aesthetic: an otherworldly, blue crystal cave and a massive, winding library being examples of both. The sense of scale in the realm of Lordan is also amazing, with wide vistas showing the interconnected areas that lie ahead. Looking over an entire area that I’d already fought through from a high parapet was very satisfying.

Unfortunately, the journey to get to these high places is often not so satisfying. Again, death comes swiftly, and Dark Souls’ combat is going to polarize players. You’ll either get into the hard swinging, shield banging melee, or you’ll just hate having to block all the time. Me? I stand on the side that enjoys the methodical brutality of this game. Weapons swing out slower than in other action games, but they also hit harder. Get the right weapon in your hands and you’ll find that you are incredibly capable of taking out lesser and even some greater foes. An awkward looking dodge roll seems silly at first, but proves crucial in keeping your health bar intact.

All this is great until you encounter some of the more boneheaded designs that the developers came up with. Too often you’ll run into unblockable attacks, enemy grapple moves that drain far too much health, and some demons that can semi-permanently curse your health bar down to half. They all drag down Dark Souls with needless frustration, but he first two feel particularly cheap. I had several boss fights end within ten seconds because I got locked into a grapple that ripped all my health away instantly.

So can I recommend this insanity to people? I don’t know. I was hooked on the game for over 30 hours, but I often ended play sessions with cursing and yelling. Stress and satisfaction are intertwined into the very design of Dark Souls, and your triumph at conquering an area will probably be preceded and followed by plenty of cheap deaths. A rental may help you decide if you are ready for the task.

Borderlands 2 Review: World of Guncraft

The MMORPG genre has been in a slow state of decline for the past few years, but if the first Borderlands, Dead Island, and Torchlight are indicators, the designs behind it are still strong. Even though Borderlands’ blend of cel shaded graphics and slap-happy humor was odd back in 2009, the real time shooting blended well with stat heavy RPG elements. Gun lust tied it all together, even though the sheer novelty of the whole thing hid some serious pacing issues.

After three years of development, it is clear that Gearbox Softworks has addressed almost every problem fans and critics had with the first game for Borderlands 2. Sluggish first act? Gone. Static enemy routines? Axed. Without a doubt, Borderlands 2 does feel much more polished than its predecessor, but still relies on grinding and a cocksure tone far too often.

The fact that Gearbox secured the rights to the profane Duke Nukem franchise makes perfect sense after playing Borderlands 2. The wild and wooly world of Pandora is filled to the brim with some of the most idiotic and offensive characters ever created. The voice actors try their hardest, but one can only go so far with a script that slings out, “Bonerfarts”, and, “These powers are the tits!” with such reckless abandon.
Far too many quest-givers, companions, and even the main antagonist try too hard. Base humor is fine, but not when it is paraded out yelling, “CHECK OUT HOW EDGY THIS IS!” When Borderlands 2 gets out of its own way and sticks to pop culture parody and reference, the jokes play much better and the script is given some room to explore more somber storylines. I’ll be damned if I didn’t actually feel a little bit sad for some characters when the game reined in the cock jokes for rare serious moments.

At the very least, even the idiotic characters add to a sense of place in Pandora. A sort of blend of futuristic sci-fi, Old West martial law, and dude-bro humor, this world is eclectic to put it mildly. The variety of climate is really noteworthy, taking the player from glacial tundra to floating city in the sky without feeling dissonant or unbelievable. The amount of color afforded by the cel shaded graphics is also amazing considering this is an Unreal Engine 3 based game.

The story of Borderlands 2 starts with a poorly explained cutscene and a fair bit of exposition. After an alien vault was opened by four legendary Vault Hunters, Hyperion Corporation leader Handsome Jack swooped in with his legion of robots to take advantage of the new growth of Eridium, an alien mineral with mysterious powers. You play as a new Vault Hunter looking to strike it rich in the wilds of Pandora only to be nearly blown up by Jack, who harbors a deep hate for, well, pretty much everything. Jack is heinous in every sense of the word; too psychotic to be a humanized villain, and too snarky and long winded. He is bound to end up on some “Worst Character of the Year” lists.

But Borderlands isn’t trying to be some amazing piece of interactive fiction. From the first hour of the game, it is clear that your main focus will be killing all sorts of creatures, bandits, and freakshow oddities. This main goal is so well executed that I found myself tolerating the game’s most egregious personalities, particularly an explosive expert that happens to be a 12 year old who spouts a sort of gangster/instant messenger slang, because I was still having fun blasting dozens of foes. Enemies don’t just suicidally charge like in the first game. They dive out of the way, jump off platforms and railings, and seek cover when it is near.

Gearbox also succeeded in making every weapon feel punchy and unique. The assorted shotguns, pistols, rifles, and explosive ordinance all have raucous sound effects to match their lethality, yet none of the weapons are exactly the same. Modifiers like elemental effects, ricochet, and different ammunition types are just dandy for killing on their own, but become truly effective when used in concert with specific weapon makes and a blend of class based abilities.

The different weapon brands distinguish loot drops the most, as each has wildly contrasting effects. For example, a Tediore gun will act as a makeshift grenade when reloaded, whereas a Maliwan will always have an elemental effect such as fire, electricity, or corrosiveness. I found some of the brands to be less useful or too cumbersome to be bothered with, but it is conceivable that different players will find every one to his or her own liking.
The four starting character classes available are the same way. There is the stealthy Assassin, dual wielding Gunzerker, turret toting Commando, and otherworldly Siren. I picked the last, but even though her stun-lock ability seemed to be geared towards defensive play styles, the way the skill trees work allows much more flexibility. They also seem to be intended for co-op play, which works really well. The difficulty increases drastically even with just one other person playing, as more “Badass” enemy types show up.

At level 10, my Siren was a healing machine, capable of keeping co-op teammates and myself at full health relatively easily. The only caveat was range; there was no way I would last for long in any close quarters situations. Thankfully, Gearbox allows the player to reset skill trees, so at level 20 I opted for a more aggressive set of perks. It radically changed the way I approached every fight, allowing me to fight from all ranges with any weapon of my choice. I also decided to keep some healing powers that I had before as well.

Reinvention like this usually isn’t something that is facilitated in any RPG, since it can have balancing implications, but it works really well in Borderlands 2. But while Gearbox is more than happy to shun certain conventions of MMOs, the developer still clings to some of the worst. The eternal fetch-questing grows tiresome after the fourth or fifth time that you’re asked to go collect five Arachnid Spines or gather 15 Bandit Brains. The game tries to use humor to distract from the monotony, and occasionally manages to pull it off, but again, the facade is thin.

Inventory management is another problematic holdover in Borderlands 2. There is simply too much loot and too few vendors to sell it all at. At least you can mark gear as trash and sell it all with one click, but you have to be at a vendor or at your home base Sanctuary to do it. An option to sell items in the field–like in Torchlight–would’ve been much appreciated.

Borderlands 2 has a strong gameplay core, but surrounding elements that fail to fully capitalize on it. The hit or miss script alternatively exacerbates excruciating fetch-quests and manages to make the game’s sense of place and action gel. I suspect many gamers will either love that they are getting more Borderlands, or just be bored with the fact that they are getting more Borderlands. I fell somewhere in the middle, pleased with the great weapon designs and pop culture references, but scorned by some poor choices in dialogue and quest design.

Rock of Ages Review: Sticks and Stones

Not so long ago, if a development studio pitched a game that was a mix of Super Monkey Ball, 19 century history, a healthy dose of pop culture parody, and some fart jokes, it would probably be shut down. The fact that Ace Team, developer of Zeno Clash, got to make that vision a reality is stunning and encouraging. Rock of Ages is an artsy, sophomorically humored ride through 1800s Europe that clearly lacks some great design choices, but certainly manages to attain some chuckles and bewilderment in its style.

Eff!

Describing Rock of Ages is different to say the least. To start with, you play as Sisyphus’s rock. You know, the one that has to be pushed up the hill over and over? Well old Sisy’ has gotten tired of that and decides to break out of Hades. When he busts down the exit door with his trusty boulder, it reveals a portal, which—for really no reason at all—leads to throw downs between the Greek legend and various figures from European history. Each match has you steer your chunk of stone down a course that has been obstacle laden by your opponents—among whom are Napoleon Bonaparte, Charles III, and Vlad the Impaler—while they steer their own rock down an identical course. The end goal is to break down your enemy’s door and roll over the cowering fiend inside (accompanied by a girly shriek and wet squish when finished).

Typically each match takes three hits to win, and in between rounds you get to use a simple tower defense mechanic to slow down your competitor. You earn money from knocking over buildings, and your options of how to spend it range from catapults to bombs, and more outlandish choices such as stampeding cows and elephants. Cash also can be used for different rock power ups such as fire to increase your destructive potential, and protective metal bands to keep your rock from fracturing. Fracturing and falling off the track are due to enemy defense placement and lessen your door-smashing prowess, so keeping your boulder safe until the door is vital.

The weird, surreal quality of the story set up permeates everything in Rock of Ages: from the visuals to the voice acting, Ace Team has injected a great amount of cynical irony to make, shall we say, a unique personality here. In less soft terms, this game is freaking nuts. The cut scenes involve energetically animated, Photoshop cutouts of your opponents, all voiced with little grunts and hums. Your boulder itself has a strained face carved into it that gets more and more disgusting as you take damage. The artistic quality is silly, and technically it looks pretty good for an Arcade title.

History told through pop culture reference

The failing of Rock of Ages lies not in the art or humor, but entirely in its design, which is unsound most of the time. As mentioned, matches end after three hits, and I mean only three hits. While it may be theoretically possible to beat a level in less than that, I never managed to do it even with power ups and a great run down the track. This means that every match is really similar and the track layouts and humor can’t compensate for it. Even some intermittent boss battles, visually impressive as they may be, bow to the three hit rule and fail to create any healthy challenge. Instead, a difficulty spike in the regular matches comes abruptly, leading to multiple trial and error restarts that are only avoidable by precise placement of defenses, not skillful control. The enemy AI manages to maneuver hairpin turns, and snake through most defenses with ease, rarely fracturing or falling. Meanwhile you’ll get stuck in a gauntlet of hellacious stampedes, barrages, and blockades that are perfectly placed. I found myself cheesing and exploiting certain defenses and items to win since any sort of skill of control didn’t matter.

Complementing the uneven story mode are two multiplayer options. At least, there were two options at some point in time. As of this writing, Rock of Ages’ online multiplayer is completely dead on the Xbox 360. I’ve tried quick match, I’ve tried custom matchmaking, and I’ve tried hosting my own match; no one is playing. There is split screen, which has the potential to be great depending on who you recruit to play. You also get to pick different rock faces and historical figures when you play locally, which is a nice detail.

One wrong placement and the match is over

One wrong placement and the match is over

I’m all for some unorthodox games being released, but when design gets shunted for ridiculousness—and trust me, it gets deranged here—I can’t help but feel some more serious direction was needed. Rock of Ages is fun for a week or so until you finish the story mode, but with nobody to play against on Xbox Live it is a hard sell. There is a basic fun quality to Rock of Ages, but many structural issues chip away at that core, exposing some cracks that humor and silliness can’t fill. It may not last you long, but it will entertain you just enough to get your 10 dollars worth.

Assassins Creed Brotherhood Review: Less Polish, More Desmond

 

 

 

If there is one thing Ubisoft can’t be described as, it’s slow. By using several different studios and hundreds of developers, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood was blasted out in 12 months. This short schedule surprised me considering the two-year gap between the first and second games and, to be honest, I didn’t really think a quick release would do the game any favors. I liked that Ubisoft Montreal took two years to polish and refine Assassin’s Creed II, and the change to flamboyant, colorful Renaissance Italy was a fantastic choice compared to the washed out, gray tenements of the first title’s Middle Eastern setting. Despite my worries about the game’s development cycle, AC: Brotherhood continues both Ezio and Desmond’s stories literally right after the last game. This continuation is made more exciting by a few key additions to the combat, but the level design, control, and mission parameters lack the same polish that made its predecessor so great.

The triumphant return of Ezio and Desmond is easily the best part of Brotherhood. The story’s first act commences directly after Ezio’s conversation with the otherworldly Minerva. He plans to take a break from the assassin gig to get some T&A, but unfortunately the Borgias cut Ezio’s lady-killing act short. This Templar family of evildoers has come for the Pieces of Eden that Ezio repossessed. Despite his efforts to repel Cesare Borgia—Rodrigo’s son—the Auditore family’s fortress is destroyed and our garish assassin master must relocate Rome to end the templar rule. He plans to do this by liberating the city from the complete rule and intense corruption that has been inflicted. Meanwhile, Desmond is a real, playable character—at least more than he was before—and you can leave the animus at any time to play as him. Truth be told, there still isn’t much to do whenever you voluntarily play as Desmond; most of the important revelations in his story happen during the course of the main missions. The Truth puzzles make their sophomore appearances in Brotherhood as well, and while you could conceivably solve them on your own, you’ll probably have to use an FAQ for some of the harder puzzles. Even if you do have to cheat, it is worth it to get some more glimpses into Subject 16’s crazy, labyrinthine mind. Fans of the series will love the new conspiracy theories that seem to exist just to fuel conversations and forum threads, and the cliff hanger ending is unexpected and nothing short of astounding.

Even with Desmond as more direct participant, this is still very much Ezio’s show. You’ll spend much of the game doing mostly what you did in Assassin’s Creed II: pursuing and assassinating smaller targets in order to pursue and assassinate larger targets. If you played the last game, you’ve done most of what is here before but there is one large new addition that is both a good and bad thing: Borgia towers. In order to gain support from the Roman citizens, you must take down these towers that are surrounded by guards and a captain. Devising ways to stealthily kill the captain is really fun and often very challenging. Once you kill the head honcho, the tower is open to burn down which will relieve the denizens around it and allow you to purchase shops. This functions the same as Monteriggioni did in the last game, with revenue slowly growing over time as you accrue more property. The only problem is that the massive Roman landscape feels less personal than Monteriggioni did. I never felt as if any of my renovated blacksmiths, brothels, or art trades were anything more than a cog in a money machine.

Fortunately, destroying the Borgia towers does allow you to recruit assassins for Ezio’s cause. They can be sent on missions across Europe and Asia to gain experience and add to the assassin treasury, and while I ended up not caring about the money, sending my young greenhorns to cut their teeth on a Russian assassination plot sent my imagination whirling. After your recruits have some experience and an upgraded arsenal, calling upon them is both comical and useful. Once you whistle for them, they’ll often pop out of the nearest haystack to quickly eliminate the selected target. It is amusing from start to finish and alleviates some pressure you might have during a mission. Killing enemies by yourself is also made easier by execution combos, which allow you to dispatch enemies even faster than before. You start a combo by countering one enemy and then taking the momentum from that first kill through to other enemies. Essentially, it is a one hit kill combo that may sound over powered, but it makes sense because Ezio is a master assassin with several hundred kills under his belt. Another fun repurposing is the Romulus Lairs, which are just refined versions of the Assassin Tombs from AC II. Running through all of these catacombs heavily reminded me of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and a significant bonus is given for completing them all.

Unfortunately, these slick additions and refinements fail to compensate for several key issues. Brotherhood has more instant fail missions than the first and second games combined. If you are detected just once—and Borgia guards often manage to scream bloody murder just before you shank them, alerting all their friends to your presence—many missions kick you right back to the last checkpoint, loading screen included. This punitive design wouldn’t be unbearable if the game also didn’t have some weak platforming to compound it. Ezio just doesn’t control quite as well, and many indoor sections feel like they weren’t play tested. I often couldn’t see where to jump next which meant a lot of blind jumps. And even when I could see the next jump, Ezio sometimes would opt for a face plant six stories down. I got the feeling that certain areas were designed by another studio and weren’t revised before the game went gold. Assassin’s Creed II was such a comprehensively refined experience that it really sticks out when Brotherhood doesn’t meet the same established quality. It isn’t a deal breaker by any means, but it makes me wonder what six months more development could’ve done for this game.

I don’t want to sound completely down on the game because Brotherhood is not a failure. Hell, just continuing the storyline is a great reason to pick this game up. If you are a fan of the series you’ll be sucked back into the canon immediately, just be warned that actually playing the game can be tedious and it doesn’t exude polish like Assassins Creed II. What I really hope is that the next game—which is slated for a release sometime between late 2011 and early 2012—gets enough development time to match the series’ high polish mark. After playing Brotherhood though, color me worried for the future.

Note: I did play some multiplayer, and I’m happy to say that it is pretty fun. The customization helps out the basic multiplayer modes, which are quite exciting on their own. I still view this series as a single player one, but there is a lot worth seeing in this game’s competitive mode.

Bayonetta Review: Aiming for the Stars

It would be foolish to bring up character action games without praising Viewtiful Joe and Devil May Cry director Hideki Kamiya; without him, I’m not sure the genre would’ve flowered as much as it has for the past two cycles of consoles. The Japanese developer once again fills the director’s seat for Bayonetta, a sort of cross between his past two combo based fighters. Stylistic to a fault, Bayonetta fires off cheesy one-liners, absurd break dancing combos, and massive boss encounters with amusing and consistent abandon, while everything else in the game is drawn out to the point of boredom, confusion, and frustration. For a game that tries so hard to be lightning fast and quirky, there is too much excess and imbalance to amount to anything particularly great.

As far as weird games go, this is one of the weirdest. Bayonetta is the titular witch whose clan of magic users use hair as both bodysuits–not as weird as you might think–and as shape shifting weapons. Higher combos and quicktime event “Climaxes” use more of her hair (and magic meter), revealing some skin–it is as shameful as you think– and tearing apart opponents easily. Witches don’t like Heaven, so Bayonetta must fight a smorgasbord of quite monstrous angels that have descended on Earth to start a resurrection of God.

There is more narrative depth than this, but even after 10 hours of play, I couldn’t tell you many details or make much sense of it all. Instead, what stand out are the boss fights, which borderline on colossal, and decidedly Japanese flair to everything. A J-pop only soundtrack, plenty of anime tropes, and lots of sexual humor often painfully weave into what has to be one of the strangest and dissonant games to come out this generation. Bayonetta herself is ludicrously sexualized, eliciting audible groans from the depths of my being every time a lingering butt shot or joke about her breasts assaulted my mind.

Kimiya wrote the story himself, and his attempts aren’t commendable but often boring or convoluted. The anime influence that works well to make the game absurd comes back to haunt it when it actually wants to tell some semblance of a story. Frequent, lengthy cutscenes are the only time that any exposition or dialogue takes place, sometimes in full motion and sometimes in strange frame-by-frame film reel footage. A Danny DeVito clone makes up most of the early companionship and suddenly vanishes–or maybe I didn’t care enough to pay attention to his exit in the story–leaving only an angsty, pseudo-love interest and possible love child to fill the void. Multi-minute scenes with these weak characters drag on and on, revealing only tiny tidbits of story twists that amount to nothing but melodrama and poor humor. Sound good already? It only gets worse as the game drags on through its final fourth, content to marry short action sequences–admittedly the best in the entire game–with vapid cutscenes and fake endings.

The story weakness isn’t really surprising; this genre is known more for punching than forming great narratives. The combination based fighting is extensive and responsive and it feels really good to slice, shoot, claw, and break dance enemies to death. As you fight, your magic meter fills, letting you use “torture attacks,” such as throwing an enemy into a mini-guillotine or iron maiden for an experience boost and instant kill. Once you get farther into the game, using several weapon combinations and attack strings in tandem makes fighting very dynamic and wild. Sadly, a number of poorly matched encounters left me dying sometimes upwards of 10-15 times because I had little health and no healing items available. Some enemy types tend to ignore attacks and score cheap shots almost every time, and I swear I fought some bosses at least four times. One begins to feel like enemies are just being thrown out with little to no care or concern, turning a great combat system stale around the fifth or sixth hour of play.

I’ll leave you with one of Bayonetta’s most temper testing flaws: Chapter ending bonuses. You’re rated for each fight you win, culminating in an award that gives you more experience to spend on new moves and powerful items. Naturally, dying and using continues degrades your final score, but so does using healing items. That’s right, you’re punished for looking out for your well being in Bayonetta. Since I used too many health items, the majority of my ending bonuses were the “Stone Award”, giving me no experience despite the fact that I could nail most every combo I attempted. Flawless dodging and fair bit of cutscene skipping are the only options for a smooth ride with Bayonetta.

If nothing else, Bayonetta is perhaps the most confident game I’ve possibly ever played. About five hours of filler and plenty of imbalanced encounters, drawn out cutscenes, and shameful hyper-sexualization keep this game from being a must-have for those who haven’t visited and revisited Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden Black. Even at a reduced price, be wary of the issues surrounding this one.

Trials HD Review: Popping a Wheelie on the Live Arcade

Throughout my life, the little exposure I’ve had to motorcycles of any sort is the X-games and a bike that my dad owned for several months. I vaguely remember playing several mediocre PS2 era motocross games, but nothing has ever stuck in my mind as particularly noteworthy. It is to Red Lynx’s credit that they have developed a motorcycle game that has lit a competitive fire in myself. Trials HD is a simple, yet devious physics puzzle that just so happens to be conveyed through dirt bikes, but isn’t so much for fans of professional motor sports. Instead, this game is more for people who enjoy conquering stiff challenges, perfecting time trials, or just blasting off some sweet jumps.

Trials is a unique “racing” game because it doesn’t focus on racing against others; in fact, there are no opponents or competitors other than you. You are simply tasked with making your way along the two dimensional plane to cross a finish line. Controlling your bike is simple since you can only control the gas, breaks, and weight shifts of your biker, and the 2D plane keeps your biker upright regardless of slope or bump. This simplicity couples with the virtual gravity and friction and creates a lot of depth to the game play. This dynamic physics engine makes every run slightly different and rewards those who learn how to follow its rules efficiently; smoothly entering slopes and quickly snapping your rider backwards then forwards on the lip of the jump will allow you to rocket through the air and can even throw you onto alternate paths. t

Some levels are designed to mix it up with dynamic track materials such as wood or tires, which can break, bend, or spin. These materials, and hell, even the regular tracks, require practice and a good feel for the game; in most tracks a split-second decision of whether to lean forward or back stands between you and victory. Nuance, in movement and speed control, often is the key to success, not blasting on the gas pedal. At first, you’ll likely choose the latter technique, but the excellent checkpoint system keeps punishment to a minimum. Checkpoint markers are abundant and allow for players of all skills to enjoy the game without (too much) undue stress. The levels start off slowly and acclimate you to the vast intricacies of the physics engine. But once you blast through the first 30 or so easy levels, the difficulty spikes and starts to put you through actual trials. These later levels really showcase the great addictive nature of this game. The feeling of accomplishment from conquering a 75 degree sloped jump and landing perfectly is paramount. Even if it takes you 50 restarts it is worth it. I come back to beaten tracks just to feel get that good feeling of running a track as smoothly as possible.

But what good is straining your patience for no actual reward, you ask? This is where the medals (bronze, silver, gold, and platinum) come in. Beat a level within a certain time with less than a certain number of restarts and you’ll be rewarded with one of the medals. This carrot on a stick method of keeping you playing long enough to achieve the next mark is amazingly well crafted. Excluding the hardest “Extreme” level courses, the requirements for the gold medals never feel too out of reach as long as you keep plugging away at it.

Oh but you don’t care for medals, you say? The slick friends leader board will keep you playing to beat your friends’ scores. This is the best integration of a leader board I’ve ever seen in any game. When you highlight a level to play, it automatically shows your friends’ scores and who is the best at that level. Then, when you actually start to play the level, a meter at the top shows your position relative to your friends. I cannot accurately say how many hours I’ve spent beating not just every score my friends made, but also going for gold medals, but I’m sure it is over 40 at least. It is so damn addictive to see yourself at the top of every level, and gives what is otherwise a solo experience a nice social aspect.

Some side attractions to the game are skill games and a level editor. The skill games are essentially mini-games such as pulling a bomb with your bike until it explodes, flying through flaming hoops, and breaking as many bones as possible while bailing out. They are interesting diversions that are not necessarily the deepest part of the game, but they are fun to check out from time to time. Unfortunately, the level editor is a poorly executed waste of potential. The editor itself allows for great designs, but there is no way to share your creations with anyone outside of your friends list. Imagine if Little Big Planet had done this! It is disappointing to say the least, because I know some amazing levels have to exist out there, but most people will never play them. If a sequel ever comes out, it has to fix this issue.

Regardless of the missed level sharing potential, Trials HD is definitely a model of how to make excellent use of virtual physics, leader boards, and motorcycles in video games. For 1200 Microsoft points, and 400 each for the two add on level packs you get one of the most amazing Xbox Live Arcade experiences available. It rewards nuance and control, while also being accessible to less devoted players. Even if you don’t care for motorcycles at all you’ll probably find something to like in this game. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some more medals to earn…

Darksiders Review: Change of Template

Vigil Games is probably a little ashamed at how blatantly similar most of Darksiders’s design is to The Legend of Zelda and God of War. And you know what? They should be. That isn’t to say the studio’s debut title is bad, because instead of adhering too closely to the formulas of its benefactors, they avoid problems that have been in Nintendo’s series for too long. Darksiders proves that it is worth your time by polishing and tweaking key components that it borrows from other games and then adding enough new content to make them its own.

Darksiders must be commended for not wasting any time with tedious tutorials, something that Link’s adventures seem to get worse at with time. The story kicks off with a bang, introducing players to the basics quickly. From there, a dozen hours of story are stuffed with a fast travel system, five dungeons, and few chances—or reasons really—to explore. There are some collectibles and hidden items for the obsessive, but you’ll mostly follow a fairly straight hub and spoke path from each story beat to the next, with some interesting on rails sections breaking up combat and dungeon busting. This is a trim game in both design and narrative, with only one late-game item hunt that clearly exists just to fatten what could’ve been almost entirely lean.

The specifics of the story get a little more detailed, but boiled down to its core, Darksiders is an apocalyptic tale in which humanity is all but eradicated. A war between Hell, Heaven, and humanity was foretold to begin when humans were strong enough to defend themselves, but something went wrong and the war started early, killing all life on Earth. Normally, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse would come down from the ether to mediate, but only War is called and quickly blamed for instigating the bloodbath. Players control War as he sets out to kill every angel, demon, and creature in between that had a hand in framing him, accompanied by a minion of The Council, the bosses of the Horsemen.

War himself is a thick, brutal figure, decked out in more spikes and skulls than a Rammstein concert. All the demons, weapons, and dungeon designs follow the same aesthetic, which definitely makes Darksiders instantly recognizable, if a little too Todd McFarlane’s Spawn at times. Still, there are tons of little details and great animations for everything. Dusty remains wisp across cracked city streets where the last zombified humans lurk, heat rises in an arid desert, and War’s attire shows a great amount of fidelity.

The bulky art style translates nicely into motion. War has a zippy dodge move and every swing of the Chaoseater, your thick-as-a-tree trunk sword, feels like it is really messing enemies up. Rigid responsiveness is the key difference here from say, God of War, which is a little more sinuous and loose. War packs plenty of combat moves and melee weapons to use, and what is available can be used on the fly. This leads to some natural variety where you might start a combo with a thrust of the Chaoseater, switch to a wide scythe swing, and end with a quick-time-event finisher.

War also wields plenty of special items ala Zelda’s hookshot, boomerang, and bow (in this case, a gun). Several need to be used in tandem to solve puzzles, and combat gains some more depth when these items are thrown into the fray. There is even a horse—War is a horseman after all—that can be summoned in wide-open spaces, making regular foot travel seem slow and plodding, and adding new combat options as well.

Dungeons don’t always shine quite like the combat does, with some easy environmental puzzles that get a tad stale by the end. This is where Darksiders should have distanced itself from Nintendo’s bag of tricks. A few too many puzzles just don’t give a sense of accomplishment because they don’t take much thought or skill to solve. Sometimes, solutions are too quickly telegraphed: see that red rock over there? You better blow it up with a bomb plant. See that crystal block in front of that door? Hit it with your tremor gauntlets. Rinse, and repeat.

Even worse are when any gear switches are involved, which should have been a simple affair but instead grows tiresome as you watch War do the same overly long animation to turn them time and time again. Let me make it clear that not all the puzzles are like this, but enough stick out to make it an issue.

When the dungeons do work, they really satisfy that same adventure itch that some of the best 3D Zelda titles did in the past. You’ll do the typical block moving, boomerang throwing, and hookshot swinging that you’d expect from this type of game, as well as some unexpected elements such as using portals to get from one place to another, and changing the flow of time to maneuver past dangers and timed doors. Darksiders feels really fresh and fun when these newer concepts take over and stray from the same old staples.

The voice acting in Darksiders augments these moments, and really sells the story. Mark Hamill does a fantastic job as the Council’s henchman, with biting remarks and a clear disdain for War. The Horseman himself isn’t particularly personable and spits out more than a few groaners, but what do you expect from a guy who looks like he just rolled around in iron shards and human skeletons? It still sounds appropriate considering his position.

Darksiders does end up feeling thin towards its final act, and I sometimes found myself enjoying the narrative and combat more than the dungeons. Still, I’m glad Vigil took chances by changing the combat, introducing new item functionality, and telling a dark, modern story, even if sticking so close to the Zelda formula often drags those changes down from potential greatness.