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Machinima Busted For Fake Reviews

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Can’t say I’m surprised by this news… More on that later.

The Federal Trade Commission has settled charges with the YouTube channel Machinima, which was accused of posting fake paid for reviews endorsing the XBox One without revealing they had been paid.

Machinima must stop similar “deceptive” video review practices immediately and must reveal when they are getting paid for posting videos.

Two of Machinima’s “influencers” were paid as much as $45,000 between the two for endorsing XBox One in their videos; however, none of these “influencers” revealed they had been paid. It’s also said additional “influencers” were getting paid as much as a dollar per 1,000 views on YouTube. Machinima currently has over 12.6 million subscribers.

“When people see a product touted online, they have a right to know whether they’re looking at an authentic opinion or a paid marketing pitch,” Jessica Rich, Director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a released statement. “That’s true whether the endorsement appears in a video or any other media.”

The fault looks to be on the side of a marketing agency that works with Microsoft, as Microsoft received no blame for the incidents.

Regarding my thoughts on not being surprised by this news, I’ve experienced this first hand in more than one way. I can recall an incident with an animated movie studio who offered to send advance review copies: We posted a slightly negative review about their latest animated movie, and then never received any review copies. I also know of comic publisher/s paying people to write comic reviews and interviews, and also have long suspected certain sites write positive reviews in exchange for exclusives. Well, here at Cosmic Book News, I can guarantee you are getting an honest opinion — even if it costs us “freebies,” “exclusives,” press material and party invites – as we aren’t spinning anything in favor of anyone (and that’s why we take a hard stance on a variety of topics).

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Review: Grand Theft Auto 5

Great, But Not Perfect

A video game review of: Grand Theft Auto 5

By: Lawrence Napoli

 

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Let’s face facts. GTA5 is the frontrunner for 2013’s Game of the Year, and why not? First, it’s GTA, and its release means a cultural event far greater than the annual installment of CoD yielding plenty of media coverage showing kids craving ultra-violent entertainment, clueless parents acting shocked over “youthful corruption,” and plenty of knuckleheads out there acting out real world violence in the name of the game. Second, despite a number of excellent games in rotation right now like BioShock Infinite and The Last of Us, the hype for GTA5 has made many a gamer instantly set everything else aside to give this game its due. Third, we must recognize the sales, as in over $1 Billion dollars in three days, which cannot be ignored for any reason. Fourth, the game is, simply put, very good and very entertaining. Yes, GTA5 meets much of the hype by providing some of the most adult centric and intellectually stimulating content that Rockstar has delivered via this game series yet. No, this game will not make you a board member of Mensa, but the husky layers of social commentary regarding the state of the Western World are pretty thought provoking should the gamer take a brief hiatus from digital homicide and hooker beatings to read between the lines.

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Presentation: Exquisite

This is easily the prettiest looking installment of GTA to date. Colors are vibrant, nightscapes are sleek, vehicles are exquisite and character models (specifically facial animation) are super smooth. The world of Los Santos is more alive than it’s ever been. I’ve not seen more detail in such an extensive sandbox game that one could literally donate hours of gameplay to simply walking around and taking in the views. The only thing that doesn’t look incredibly awesome in this game is the NPC population, which is totally justifiable seeing how you will be pulling them out of their cars, running them over, busting a cap in their *ss and subjecting them to various other nefarious activities that giving them all the same level of detail as the three protagonists (Franklin, Michael and Trevor) would be counter-productive. The whole environment is beautiful whether you’re hanging out in the countryside, driving around the city, parachuting from planes or deep sea diving.

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Gameplay: Mixed Bag

Rockstar made a big deal about talking about how every control element of GTA5 would be a vast improvement over its much maligned predecessor. If such a thing existed, I certainly did not notice it. The fact of the matter is that the player’s avatar still moves like a tank while walking and running with virtually no lateral movement or ability to change course without throwing the camera angle for a loop. Snapping your character in and out of cover can be very frustrating if you aren’t ducking behind a flat surface. You’ll think you’ve pressed the button to get into cover, but the avatar does nothing because you aren’t close enough to an “appropriate” surface. I noticed a slight improvement in the targeting, but using the aim assist option can sometimes make your character target something your own eyes weren’t tracking at the time; true veterans will go to work without it. Driving also seems more forgiving as taking bumps from traffic and the environment at modest speeds will no longer send your vehicle into a somersault, but that does not apply to pushing super cars to their max speeds and trying to handle corners without a healthy application of the hand and regular brakes in tandem. Flying helicopters is much more user friendly, albeit an acquired skill to engage in smoother flights, but even errant waggles on the analog sticks will not send the vehicle careening into the closest skyscraper instantly. Flying planes is very fun (especially the fighter jet!), but landing them is a whole different story: practice makes perfect and take it VERY slow.

I loved and I mean LOVED the heist (or significant job) planning mechanic and mission based execution. Unfortunately, this isn’t used nearly as much as what the advertising for this game made it appear to be, and it pays out for your characters even less. The first moment for the player to experience this occurs fairly early in the game via the diamond heist, and it’s a bit of a red herring because it is extremely fun to set it up and execute, but the player will see this perfect balance of missions and rewards rarely before the story ends. I thought we were a crew of professionals taking scores like in Michael Mann’s Heat. Shouldn’t we be pulling more jobs than random BS chores from “strangers and freaks” that pay out precisely zilch?

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Functionality: Needs Patching

This is one of the biggest games, data-wise, that this counsel generation has been asked to digest, and as we enter only the second week of this game’s release, the gaming community is noticing a lot of issues. GTA5 is apparently making Xbox 360’s made prior to 2008 work too hard, forcing the game to crash fairly often. Players are noticing that vehicles stored in safe house garages and aircraft hangers will be erased spontaneously while progressing to story missions that instantly transport characters to a specific vehicle. I’ve personally run into several instances of the environment needing a few seconds to render back to normal fidelity upon exiting “skipped” taxi rides, which always makes me think the game is ready to crash before I get a chance to save my progress. Side missions seem to have an in-game shelf life as I’ve purposely put off doing some due to my increased interest in the story’s progression only to find side mission icons in the map to disappear permanently. That’s not to say all of the programming quirks are all bad. The very popular infinite money glitch involving sea exploration and swapping between two characters to reload money bags is a great way to acquire millions in the early game when money is fairly scarce.

I fully appreciate Rockstar’s desire to cram so much data into machines that almost need to over perform to get the job done, but giving them a complete pass on some of these significant issues is a mistake. I’m sure they will fix these issues in due time. My bet is a massive patch will come when we all download the GTA Online expansion next week.

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Story: Immersive journey with a lackluster ending

If anyone had any apprehension about splitting this GTA narrative into the trials and tribulations of three characters coming from completely different backgrounds, I will have you know that this presentation is fresh, gives the player a greater feeling of control, and made me feel like I was actually forming an in-game GTA crew on par with any other faction in the game. A one man army against a world of opposition can only work for so long, and seeing how GTA5 is trending towards slightly more realism than a series like Saints Row is concerned with, being successful at taking scores requires being a member of a capable crew. The story doesn’t hang around any one character for too long as each one is fully fleshed out as an individual, but their balance and interplay as a group allows the player empathize with them all on a different level. My personal favorite is Franklin, despite Michael’s experience and Trevor’s crazy shenanigans.

Unfortunately, the ending of such an involved journey that GTA5 delivers is anti-climactic at best. There is a direct element of player choice that will determine three very different outcomes to the narrative, but in my opinion, there’s really only one option and I’ll leave that to the reader. The final sequence of missions is varied, interesting and filled with action, but the story leaves you (figuratively AND literally) at the side of a cliff left wondering, “That’s it?” Other games this year have delivered much more drama, but no one has been able to knock the ending out of the park.

Conclusion: Must-buy for adults. Parents beware. Peaks and valleys, despite the beauty. Budgets for many games seem to be spiraling out of control as every developer and publisher is going for AAA, Game of the Year money without having the staff, facilities and vision to produce such a product. This doesn’t apply to Take-Two and Rockstar as they have created another gem of a video game, but considering the time and money that went into this game’s development, anything less than what GTA5 is, would not be acceptable. I say this without factoring in any aspect of the online segment of this game as it’s yet to be released. Running around with an actual crew of your own buddies, online in the world of GTA has been a dream for many gamers and what seems to await us all on October 1 experience. But we don’t know quite yet what will be involved beyond the availability of “hundreds” of missions and micro transactions paving the way.

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GTA5 really pushes the limit of the M-rating for video games as the excessive violence, pervasive nudity and relentless vulgarity are upstaged by the sheer adult content of the story and being able to understand why these characters are driven to the behavior they choose to engage in. Kids that are getting their mothers and grandmothers to buy this game for them should not be playing this because it’s much more involved than Call of Duty shooting. I say this because parents need to get smarter than their kids in regards to these kinds of games and because I don’t want these brats fouling up my online gameplay. Just kidding, but seriously, I don’t believe that video games turn kids into sociopaths, but immature people exposed to this kind of game without guidance might have their world outlook altered in unhealthy ways. Kids will find a way to play GTA5. It’s a fact. Parents need to be there for their kids to talk about it.

GTA5 is an excellent game that’s actually worthy of the $59.99 price point for a brand new copy, but by no means is it a “perfect” game. If I had to sum up its number one weakness (beyond the technical) it would be the restrictive controls and “feel” of the game, which is vintage Rockstar. Sure, the main characters are the furthest thing from trained ninjas, but I would have appreciated more precision to the overall control scheme. I also would have liked bank heists or high end robberies to be a larger presence throughout the game. I don’t think Rockstar would be concerned with stepping on the toes of a game like Payday 2, but as the player’s trio of protagonists attracts more heat, they aren’t exactly seeing the high reward for their high risk which results in fewer dollars to spend on stocks, property, vehicles and weapons to have even more fun with. Despite it all, GTA5 is just too much fun to pass on and the potential of GTA Online is as high as the sky, so my only recommendation to appropriate audiences is to pick this game up ASAP. Please, game responsibly.

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Review: SyFy’s Defiance

ERep SitRep

By John T.

 

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Defiance is a new sci-fi TV show on Syfy, and there is also Defiance the game by Trion (Makers of Rift and End of Nations).  One of the main selling points of this first ever TV/Gaming enterprise is that they will each impact each other in some way.  For instance, the game has ‘Episode Missions’ that will change with each episode of the show and will only be available before the airing of next week’s episode.  The show is impacted by the game by supposedly offering actual players a chance at making an appearance in the show.

I would first like to begin with a list of some of the bad and good features of the game.  Why start with bad you ask?  I feel that ending on a bad note will leave a sour taste in your mouth; also if there is anything in “the bad” list that is a definite deal breaker, you won’t need to waste your time reading any further.  If you can get over the game’s fair number of hiccups then all the good stuff is just bonus for you. I would also add that my review/critique is being written from the PC version of the game and the HD version of the show.  Your playing/viewing experience may differ.

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Bad:

The Chat in Game is totally worthless.  Yeah it’s great for talking to a group of people around you, but at the time of this article’s composition there is NO “whisper,” “group” or “clan” chat option that I or my clan has discovered.  In other words, you need a headset with a microphone and vent/team speak or some other service in order to organize anything in game.

There is no quick way to switch your LoadoutsYes the game offers you various options for different loadouts (initially called 1,2,3 and so on), but there is no quick way to change between them in PvE yet.  On PC you have to hit L-click a number-L again mean while anything can come up and hit you because hitting L brings up the loadout menu which blocks the whole screen.  Sure, you can set up a macro (If your keyboard/mouse allows it) but with so many key options a quick change would have been nice.

Too many cheap ways to die.  Often times in the game several enemies will spawn with weapons that explode and knock you down.  This a problem especially for newer players because if you don’t know the controls very well or if you stop dodging and get hit even once, you will pretty much be dead.  Death in Defiance isn’t too punishing, though there is a self-revive that’s on a timer (which I haven’t seen any kind of countdown for in game yet) or an extraction option which moves you back to a checkpoint and takes some of your money.  Now nothing keeps these checkpoints safe so it is possible for enemies to camp out, you spawn right on them and die again.

All Characters start in the same area with no difference between starting class/race.  At character creation you are offered the option to play either Human or Irathient, which I’m assuming is to fit with the main characters (Nolan and Irisa) being of those races.  The show and game both feature more than that (8 if you count humans and more if you count the other subsections like the 99’ers as a separate race), but you can’t actually play them in game.  You also have a choice of four origins (Veteran, Outlaw, Machinist, and Survivalist), but they have no meaning in the game aside from starting weapons and outfit.  This makes the game feel rushed.  Even when WoW first came out, each race had its own area with separate starting quests and a lack of diversity at the start of Defiance kills the replay value of the game, which leads to my next point:

There is little or no reason to start a second character.  Since neither race nor class actually matters and you can learn any perk and skill with every character, there is no reason for someone to have more than one character.  Everyone starts the same and can learn anything, plus you can respec for in game money.  I can only hope that new content will come quickly in the form of level cap increases or end game content, otherwise, there’s not much to do once you max out a character.

At this time, your inventory can’t be separated out and there is no in game banking/auction system.  The inventory system in this game is messy at best.  My character’s inventory is over 50 pieces so when it’s full, finding anything is a chore.  Trion has said inventory fixes are coming, but when you have so many other MMO’s out there to draw ideas from, it is just another aspect of the game that feels rushed.  The game also lacks a separate place to hold items you might want to hang onto without being in your character’s pack and no auction system means everything you get has to be broken down, sold to vendors or deleted.

Alright that concludes the list of things I dislike in Defiance.  Now, onto the things I am impressed with.

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Good:

No more mob stealing!  That’s right, by making everyone in PvE essentially on the same team; everyone in the area gets credit for the kill.  No more trolls or camping mobs keeping you from finishing your quests.  Are you going to a quest area that someone already started?  You get bumped up for what they finished and then can help them finish and you get full credit too!  Sure, you could sit back and let them do it alone but all that does is waste your time because two of you can get it done quicker.  Loot is also very randomized and each person gets some, so no loot stealing on rolls, this is possibly the best PvE loot and questing system I’ve experienced in an MMO.

The stores have special sales.  Looking for a new gun or a cheap ride?  Explore the city, find the vendors and check their sales.  Special rides can be bought for 500 scrip (Some are normally 10K+ each) or various weapons and mods that aren’t normally available.  One great reason for people to explore is to collect all the vehicles.  Sales change every hour so you don’t have to wait very long to see the next great deal.

ArkfallsThese come in two sizes: small and large.  These events encourage community gathering and lead to many rewards including exp, scrip and items with “Large Arkfalls” giving more, of course.  They are comparable to “world boss” in other games, however they don’t get claimed when someone attacks them and anyone around can join in and at least get something.  There’s no need to try and gather 40+ people as you can be sure that many ark hunters will gather for an Arkfall.

All weapons and vehicles can be leveled.  Each class of weapon and vehicle can be leveled which gives your character new bonuses (for example +reload, or +Speed for cars.)  Plus, each weapon can gain experience which will give it certain new bonus features which adds lots of possibilities for each player to feel like the weapon is more their own as it is very likely to have two assault rifles with the same skins and names, but could still be very different.

Promise of future content on a regular basis.  If everything goes as planned, this game will see updates almost weekly as new episodes of the show come out with possibly bigger updates on the horizon as hinted at by the plot of the show or as Trion/Syfy see fit.  If this works out (and it’s a big undertaking!), it could make Defiance a really tough game to get sick of because you won’t have to wait a year or more to see new content.  There are also the small changes that will be made to the show based on player actions within the game which could also be cool to see.

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Ok, that concludes my information about the game and those lists are by no means complete, simply the ones that stood out for me.  There are more aspects to dislike about the game (especially on Xbox) and more to like in general, but it was just meant to be a broad overview before going into the common aspects between the show and game.  Since we only have the first episode to go on so far, there isn’t much to draw from and some of the points discussed could end up changing later on so here goes.

Cars: Cars are a big feature in the game.  There are several different types and colors with a clear deal having been struck with Dodge (the Challenger is at present the only normal car type in game.) However, in the show the cars seem poorly done.  The CGI is poor and the view from the windows seemed in some spots to be done by a moving background rather than any actual driving.  It reminded me of a movie I’d recently watched: North by Northwest.  As a selling point, the cars let the show down.

The players actions are never mentioned or given any credit: In fact the only tie so far between the game and the show that I could see was a five second segment in which you see an item you helped Nolan acquire in the game.  He rewards you with a nice gun and disappears, taking the much nicer item (One character offered you 90,000 scip for it).  Had there been anything else like “I wonder how that Arkhunter is doing back in San Fan?” to tie the whole thing together I think that would’ve made it more complete and in my opinion this just boils down to either bad writing or a lack of communication between Syfy and Trion as they didn’t fully know what the other was doing on release.

Defiance, the place, is not even in the game so far: I understand that it is the same ‘World’ between the game and the show, but the game could’ve been called “Aliens destroyed Earth,” or something equally not associated with the show and it would’ve meant the same thing to me.  The fact is after watching the first episode and putting over forty hours into the game, they could be two completely different entities with no connection.  Sure, I enjoy them both, but I don’t feel any synergy yet.  I’m afraid that little five second long segments (with little or no vocal acknowledgement given to the game) will be the norm.  Yes, they said some players might be included in some episodes, but how could they be seen, a person wearing makeup named ‘Scribbles69‘ would break the show.

In closing, I would have to say that so far both titles have met my expectations in that there seems to be almost no connection yet and if you had been thinking about buying the game (hoping for a big impact) I would hold off.  However, I find both at this point to be very enjoyable and I can really see potential for each to be really something great as long as they aren’t abandoned too early and Trion/Syfy both live up to some of what they’ve been saying.  We may have a while to wait as some predictions say the two won’t reach the peak of integration until at least the second season, so here’s hoping the show gets the numbers it needs to hold on at least that long.

End of Line.

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BioShock Infinite Video Game Review

Stand Tall for the People of America!

“The Good” of BioShock Infinite

By: Lawrence Napoli

Story:

Story is one of this game’s strongest elements because it gives repetitive shooting renewed context in every chapter which motivates the player to plow ahead.  As the protagonist Booker DeWitt, the player navigates the fictional city of Columbia: a floating city in the clouds that is the result of unparalleled technology not present in the real world’s recollection of the American industrial revolution circa 1912.  An ex-Pinkerton (or thug that breaks up organized labor), Booker is no stranger to violence, but he is coerced to go to Columbia himself to extract a girl known as Elizabeth because his employers hold some sort of debt over Booker which he cannot repay on his own.  Upon arriving at Columbia, the player is introduced to what seems like nothing short of magic although it is explained to be the result of otherworldly or rather, other-timely technology.  As Booker infiltrates the city, he is forced to deal with a multitude of armed opposition, a brewing civil war and a mechanical menace known as Songbird with only his trigger finger and Elizabeth herself to aid his quest.  She is somehow at the center of the entire conflict, but the facts are shrouded in deceit and few native Columbians are forthcoming.  Capitalism, communism, civil rights, racism, inequality, and the good old fashioned military-industrial-complex is touched upon during Booker’s journey so get used to the sensation of heavy handed metaphors at work throughout this game.

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“Heavy”

Mechanics:

VigorsBioShock’s most notable mechanic in the form of pairing weapons with superpowers formerly referred to as “plasmids” have returned in the form of “vigors” in Infinite.  These powers function in almost the exact same capacity as established in previous games by giving the player a means of altering tactics to an ever evolving threat level based on differing numbers and abilities of the opposition.  Every vigor has an alternate deployment by holding the left bumper button which engages more powerful versions that usually take the form of traps which the player can lay on any surface.  Some of these powers give the player mastery over fire, water and lightning while others produce defensive or distraction effects that can be more valuable especially on higher difficulty levels where conserving health is mandatory.  Vigors can also be combined to have compound effects when used in tandem.  They are all very fun to use and upgradeable at the various automaton stations littered throughout Columbia.

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Thus I present the vigor known as “Shock Jockey”

EquipmentInfinite is the first BioShock game to utilize an equipment-based combat enhancer that is more in lines with contemporary action RPGs.  The player can assign different clothing to four parts of the body to give bonuses to a variety of in game activity which never hamper the player in any way.  The effects can work together to make new methods of play (like melee) viable in a shooter like this.  If he or she wants to completely ignore them, but on higher difficulties, resources are scarce and the player must look for every advantage possible.  This serves no aesthetic purpose as the FPS format prevents the player from actually seeing the character or any possible costume alterations.  Clothing is well hidden in Columbia so it behooves the player to search every corner and look around every corner to reap the rewards of enhanced prowess.

Infusions– There are three vital stats to track in BioShock Infinite: health, shields, and salts.  Health is self-explanatory.  Shields are an ever-regenerating barrier that the player actually doesn’t begin the game with, but can absorb a variety of incoming damage from projectiles or melee based assault.  Salts equate to a magic or mana meter and this determines the frequency the player can deploy vigors.  The player can find infusion bottles while exploring Columbia which can upgrade any one of these vital stats, but what makes them unique is that the player can choose to upgrade any category whenever a bottle is discovered.  For instance, there is no such thing as health-only infusions.  It is the reason why the bottles are seen as constantly morphing between the colors that represent their respective stat: red for health, yellow for shields and blue for salts. 

Guns– Weapons are easily the most unremarkable combat element to BioShock Infinite, but there’s no way to achieve victory without them.  Machine guns, pistols, shotguns, rocket launchers, sniper rifles and grenade launchers represent the arsenal at the player’s disposal which can each be upgraded in the same way as vigors.  Should the player find an affinity for particular weapons there’s no punishment for holding on to them for the duration.  Unlike vigors, the player can only retain two guns at any point so making wise decisions in regards to weapon range will pay dividends.  Keeping two heavy damage weapons might seem cool, but are slow and you might need a higher rate of fire to keep up with quicker enemies.  I suggest experimentation to discover which guns work best for you, but beware that ammo vendors may not be available at every location in Columbia, so scavenging guns you have neglected to upgrade may be necessary.

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Consider the enhanced range of the sniper rifle.

Elizabeth– Once you rescue her, Elizabeth becomes yet another gameplay mechanic that adds yet another dimension to the shooting action.  There are a couple of things that the player can control in regards to the girl.  One is that the player can control her ability to open up “tears” in space time that bring in a multitude of set pieces that didn’t exist in the regular environment.  For instance, Booker may be walking down an alley and is instantly accosted by enemy snipers.  Elizabeth can be ordered to open a tear that produces a brick wall to be used as cover for Booker.  Whatever gets “torn in” is predetermined by the area the player is actually in so you can’t magically summon a tank to roll over enemy opposition whenever you want.  You can, however, tear in friendly gun turrets, weapons, health boxes and ledges to vertically explore the landscape. 

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Looks like a “tear” in progress.

The player will also run into several locked doors in Columbia which only Elizabeth can bypass, provided the player has the right number of lock-picks to gain entry.  The amount of picks varies from door to door and safe to safe, but the reward is usually a bunch of cash, new equipments and infusion bottles, so unlocking everything is the order of the day.  The other element of Elizabeth that is useful, but the player cannot control is her emergency support throughout the game.  Occasionally, she will find money and toss it to Booker, but only when the player acknowledges her via pressing the correct button.  She will also toss the player ammo, health or salts in the middle of combat if he or she is running dangerously low, but she will not do this (no pun intended) infinitely.  The rule of thumb is that you better be done killing soon after she tosses you support because your lifeline is shrinking.

Money– The currency of Columbia is the Silver Eagle and collecting these will ensure the player is outfitted with upgraded weapons, abilities and ammunition.  Money is also fairly scarce on any difficulty so the player shouldn’t expect to upgrade every gun into its ultimate evolution.  Resource management is the key, so frugal choices will add to the player’s longevity.  Every upgrade for guns and vigors is very costly and if you do not have 100 Silver Eagles to pay when you die on the “1999” (survivor) mode, the game kicks you to the main menu as a form of “perma death.”  Spend your money wisely.  

Death– Booker DeWitt will die plenty of times during BioShock Infinite, regardless of difficulty level.  I like how the game doesn’t exactly punish you for perishing in that every death involves losing some cash and revitalizing you with only a fraction of health while restoring health to enemies you failed to put down.  Multiple deaths can become problematic during boss fights because they absorb a ton of damage and ammo is finite.  Multiple deaths can be a virtual death sentence over the long haul on a “1999” run.  At 100 Eagles a pop, death ain’t cheap and seeing how you scavenge no more than 10 per corpse (if they have any at all), replenishing money to pay for death becomes less realistic.  Consider reloading checkpoints if this becomes an issue.

Music:

Few soundtracks for games are worth purchasing as a separate entity, but let me tell you, it is worth every penny for BioShock Infinite.  The highlights include an exceedingly emotive performance by Courtney Draper (the voice of Elizabeth throughout the game) who sings an adaptation of Will the Circle Be Unbroken that takes on so many parallels when keeping the story of the game in mind.  Another example of emotional, yet metaphoric music is Nico Vega’s song Beast which has been earmarked as the unofficial/official theme song of Infinite seeing how clips of the song have been attached to just about every trailer and commercial you have seen promoting this game.  My favorite examples of shear, musical, genius happen to be the turn of the century covers of several 80s pop hits such as God Only Knows and Girls Just Want to Have Fun.  Several of these tracks occur during standard gameplay and are worth taking a brief time out from digital homicide, to listen to the music of Columbia as it helps to immerse you into the environment that much more.

Gameplay:

Gameplay is what makes a game fun and regardless of the mechanics a game affords the player, the functionality of said mechanics and the fluidity of their execution determines good gameplay from the bad.  Overall movement in BioShock Infinite is fairly satisfying.  You can run, jump strafe and aim with relative ease but with a control scheme that may be a tad foreign to veterans of military FPS games. 

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There’s plenty of shooting involved.

For instance, just about every shooter (regardless of perspective, developer or license) have all assigned the left bumper to allow the player to aim down the sights of whatever weapon they have equipped for more precision.  This cannot be done in any BioShock game thanks to the existence of the vigor mechanic which takes exclusive control over both left bumpers on either controller for XBOX 360 or PS3.  You can, however, switch to “iron sights” by depressing the right analog stick (at least for the PS3) which I didn’t find cumbersome, but shooter veterans might consider such a control scheme as a deal breaker.     

The one dynamic movement element new to this franchise is the use of the skyline system that bridges the various buildings, airships and freight throughout all of Columbia.  It also provides the player with a quicker means of transportation as well as an effective form of evasion during drawn out assaults.  With the simple press of one button, Booker can use his “skyhook” to ride the rails to jump in and out of firefights quickly while picking of the enemy from a distance.  The only drawback is that you cannot use vigors while riding the rails seeing how your other arm is busy at the moment.  Navigating the skylines is actually quite easy from increasing/decreasing throttle, reversing direction, leaping off to safe spots and using the very valuable “skyline strike” that usually leads to instant kills for non-armored adversaries. 

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Riding the rails.

Vigors may or may not be easy to use, depending on the player.  You see, there is no way to aim as precisely with these as with guns so there may be a little trial and error involved.  Trust me when I say that you can completely wiff at point blank range (thank you Shock Jockey).  Their functions are also fairly different amongst them and although they all have a quick ability with a tap of the left bumper, every vigor unleashes greater power by holding the left bumper and then releasing.  Unfortunately, this leaves the player vulnerable should he or she forget that they can still shoot their weapon while charging their vigor. 

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The “Murder of Crows” vigor looks cool, but how useful is it really?

 

 

PART 2

Stand Tall for the Beast of America!

“The Bad” of BioShock Infinite

By: Lawrence Napoli

BioShock Infinite is not a perfect game.  It has its glitches and it has its character flaws, but believe me when I tell you that this really took some nitpicking on my part to highlight what was “wrong” with this game: 

1) Occasionally there will be objects in the environment that you can interact with or collect that are designated by an unmistakable shimmer.  Sometimes these objects cannot be collected despite crouching Booker right on top of it as if it weren’t there at all. 

2) I found that the upsurge in difficulty that occurs when dealing with a “Handyman” to be a bit unreasonable when compared to every other opposition in the game.  These guys absorb a TON of damage, are faster than you and can leap tall buildings in a single bound.  Of course, they also happen to attack you whenever skylines are present so don’t ignore them.

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I hate it when these guys show up!

3) The objective arrow is terrible!  Ugh, I hated using that thing because when I needed course alterations quickly, it either never engaged or the angle of my perspective was not low enough to the ground to actually see it.  If there was anything that the game series of Dead Space did well was their objective arrows.

4) There’s no ability to skip in game “dialogue” cut scenes.  Sometimes you just want to get to killing and although you may have completed the game once before, the game won’t deny you the opportunity to sit through the drama once again, whether you like it or not.

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I’m sorry sir.  Was this your rail?

5) No manually saving stinks and auto-saving to only one slot is worse.  Yes, I know the manual saves (at any point) during the previous BioShock games might have seemed like a broken option, but being irresponsible with it could lead to saves that resulted in instant deaths if they were poorly timed (like in the middle of a firefight).  Infinite’s solution to this problem substitutes a player-controlled safety net in favor of a glitchy AI safety net.

6) Replay value is low.  With the exception of upping the difficulty for those who may need baby steps when it comes to challenges, more than two runs isn’t particularly necessary.  For those who take their time exploring every inch of Columbia, perhaps only once is enough.  Trophy hunting is usually a solid motivator for multiple replays on games these days, but even average gamers will find that they will acquire most of Infinite’s achievements effortlessly.  Perhaps multiplayer would have helped this bad boy out?

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Is Elizabeth interesting enough to warrant another go?

7) Respawns are the bane of this game.  Sometimes revivals will get you right back in the action, not two steps from where you perished.  The only problem is that all the bad guys are still there and aiming at your defeated corpse which can lead to some frustrated profanity on the player’s part so consider reloading a checkpoint before wasting more time and Silver Eagles.  Respawning also has a significant glitch at the most inopportune point in the game: during the final moments of BioShock Infinite’s climactic battle.  This happened to me on my “1999” run as I eliminated the last enemy with an RPG only to be killed by a bullet of his own.  I revived, dropped through the floor, respawned and was frozen; unable to finish my objective (which amounted to taking 50 paces straight ahead) and ultimately finish the game.  I was ready to break many things and as of this article’s writing, there is still no patch for this problem.  Reloading the last checkpoint won’t work because it saves Booker’s “frozen” state as well.  If this happens to you, take a deep breath and reload the previous chapter point: yes, you’ll have to do it all over again, but it’s better than starting a brand new game from the very beginning. 

 

PART 3

To “1999” Mode and Beyond!

Survivor tips and the final word on BioShock Infinite

By: Lawrence Napoli

Although the tips that I will go over in this segment are meant for a “1999” run, they can easily be applied to any difficulty level.  With a little practice and comfort with the control scheme and timing/placement of vigors, anyone can conquer this beast.

1) If you pre-ordered this game, play all of the “Industrial Revolution” puzzle games at finkmanufacturing.com which gives the player some nice in-game bonuses.  Finishing all 59 of them may seem time consuming, but it gives the player a bit more context to the overall story as well as more free goodies towards the beginning of your adventure through Columbia. 

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More powerups make dealing with specialty enemies like this much easier.

2) Consider using only the carbine rifle and sniper rifle as your exclusive weapon load out.  Just about every weapon gets the job done, but no two does so more efficiently than these two.  It gives the player masterful medium and long distance range as well as being moderately common to find replacement ammunition amidst the ruination Booker leaves in his wake.  The sniper rifle is excellent with one hit (headshot) kills from range, so take advantage of cover because not every ambush will involve 20 angry Columbians charging right at you.  I completely understand switching to some other situational gun or anything else if you’re plain out of ammo, but upgrade-wise; stick with these guns.

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Pistol ammo is very common, but not particularly powerful.

3) Possession and the Devil’s Kiss vigors should be upgraded both times.  “1999” mode does mean enemies deal out more damage so conventional wisdom would dictate investing in more defensive minded or distracting powers.  WRONG!  In this case, a good defense is a great offense and instantly turning your assailants into allies levels out the playing field quickly while you duck for cover and regenerate shields.  Devil’s Kiss can deal massive damage (especially paired with the right equipment), but consider using traps as opposed to tosses.  The only other vigor you should spend 1 second thinking about is Charge.  Late game, this max upgraded vigor will make mincemeat out of the most difficult bosses and conserve minutes, bullets and money in the meanwhile.  Its only limitation is that it doesn’t have as much of an area of effect on mobs as Devil’s Kiss.

4) Infusion strategy: Salts FIRST, Shields SECOND, Health LAST!  Trust me on this one.  The first few chapters of the game are certainly tricky when your health meter is so low, but if you are using your powers more frequently (thanks to a greater salt meter), you are eliminating threats almost as quickly.  You shouldn’t even be thinking of absorbing ANY damage “1999” mode seeing how mishandling even one enemy can put you six feet under.  Later on, there will simply be too many bullets flying around to keep track of, but max your shields completely before putting a single infusion bottle into health because they regenerate.  Health does not.  

5) Use skyline to your advantage during all firefights.  Use the skyhook strike when possible.

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The skyhook is your friend.

6) Going for the “Scavenger Hunt” achievement isn’t as bad as it sounds.  You just can’t buy any ammo, health or lock picks from the “Dollar Bill” vendor, so if you are using your vigors wisely, this shouldn’t be much of a problem.  Remember to take your time exploring in between every fire fight and if need be, back track a bit to stock back up because the items you left behind will still be there.

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Avoid these during “scavenger hunt.”

7) If all that still doesn’t work (and you really like this game) consider buying the season pass.  Not only does this give you a discounted price for all the eventual DLC for this game, but it gives you a MASSIVE advantage during the standard game in ANY difficulty.  You are gifted with superior equipment immediately and you are gifted 5 infusion bottles to distribute as you see fit which brings you half way home to maxing out any stat you like in the first few minutes of the game. 

Conclusion:

Believe the hype, BioShock Infinite is a video game worth your time.  It’s got more than enough guns, action and bloody violence for FPS fanatics and it’s got enough story and drama for contextual enthusiasts.  As far as AAA titles go, this installment of BioShock is worthy of its pedigree as it is worthy of being considered for best Game of the Year before the summer has even begun.  And that’s the trick isn’t it?  Last year was supposed to be Mass Effect 3’s incredible culmination, but a pre-Spring release coupled with fan rage over the fumbled attempt at an ending saw this title go from favorite to fecal matter in months.  BioShock Infinite has one of the best endings I’ve seen in gaming so there’s no problem there, but people have short memories and there are some very heavy hitters coming this fall.  I’m convinced that a steady stream of DLC will keep this game relevant because it certainly has more than enough production value and overall quality to be compared to any.  So the only question remains if you’re willing to lay down for the Beast of America or stand up for the man next door?

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Would you kindly vote for BioShock Infinite for Game of the Year?  Otherwise, Songbird will be pissed!

Read More about BioShock Infinite Video Game Review

Spike TV 2012 VGA Fallout: The Good & The Bad

2012 Spike TV VGA Fallout

By: Lawrence Napoli

 

Jesus, Mary and Joseph, what did Spike TV do now? 

[[wysiwyg_imageupload:4553:]]Last year, my underlings at Cosmic Book News and I discussed several failings regarding the 2011 VGA’s and the kind of improvements that were needed to make this televised event simply better. This year, we prefaced December 7th with a 3 part podcast that raised several concerns regarding the games that were represented, the categories themselves and which games we thought should be recognized as the best.

After watching last night’s show I was left befuddled, in the middle of the arid wasteland, alone with my thoughts, completely convinced that I was living in another world in the year 2012 where I played video games that no one else apparently played and experienced things that no one else did. 

Then I had my moment of clarity and realized that once again, the Spike TV VGA award show reaffirmed its static role in the videogame industry as a dedicated marketing tool and nothing more. As such, the following truths reveal themselves to be self evident and unwavering:

1) The show is barely an awards show and merely a lengthy, cross promotional commercial.

2) The show does not provide an adequate venue for the industry professionals that make games.

3) The show is more interested in looking ahead than appreciating the present.

4) The winners determined have less to do with quality and more to do with economic power plays that fabricate trends and enhance already popular ones.

[[wysiwyg_imageupload:4557:]]The Host

Samuel L. Jackson’s return as the host of Spike TV’s VGA award show is most welcome in light of past curiosities such as Zach Levi and Doogie Howser, er . . . Neil Patrick Harris.  The man conveys equal parts confidence and eccentricity and this show needs his type of energy.  I enjoyed his frequent cursing (would have loved to actually hear it).  I enjoyed the fun a 64 year old man clearly demonstrated in being the temporary focal point for an industry he may or may not have genuine interest in.  Either way, he’s an excellent actor and an exceptional host.  Kudos, Samuel L!  The audio clips of your most iconic dialogue in films set the tone for a very entertaining evening and those in attendance were truly privileged.

The Musical Performances

There was a lot to talk about in regards to the music of the 2012 VGA’s.  It all starts with the orchestra that was featured multiple times (as well as that hot, blonde 1st violinist in the leather dress) that played a musical homage to all of the game of the year nominees.  They even had the girl who sang the vocals for the Dishonored theme, which was a neat add-on.  Then there was DJ Wolfgang Gartner who kept the tech, pop, beats pumping throughout the show which was very acceptable, but by no means exceptional.  I enjoyed Gustavo Santaolalla’s live performance presenting another introductory trailer for The Last of Us which is set to be released May 7th 2013.  I also got into Linkin Park’s performance of Castle of Glass, the theme for Medal of Honor: Warfighter.  I honestly don’t care if Linkin Park isn’t what they used to be as a band, but their performance was solid.  Finally, Tenacious D gave the show a nice bookend with their signature 80s rock sound.  I’ve never been the biggest Jack Black fan in the world, but he’s a decent showman.

[[wysiwyg_imageupload:4563:]]The Celebrities

Right off the bat we are all greeted by 3 cast members of The Walking Dead TV show: Steven Yeunn (Glenn), Norman Reedus (Daryl) and Danai Gurira (Michonne) make the presentation for the Best Shooter Category.  I didn’t care for Zach Levi and his weird haircut making some color commentary (and promoting his nerd website) with Alison Haislip.  Zach needs to stay away from this show.  Jessica Alba presenting the world premier of Dark Souls 2 was funny due to every male in attendance achieving simultaneous erections, but odd because it had no connection to her little intro story concerning her “love” of Super Mario Bros.  Marlon Wayans shows up to shamelessly promote his dumber than Scary Movie, scary movie who simply presents (Rasta) Snoop Dogg who talks about how much he loves Tekken Tag Tournament and then introduces Assassin’s Creed 3’s Tyranny of King Washington expansion.  Before Tenacious D got to playing music, they presented the first ever Game of the Decade recipient which I completely disagreed with, but we’ll get into that later.  Yet another curious celebrity cameo was Zoe Saldana (Star Trek Into Darkness) presenting Game of the Year (which I also disagreed with) who claimed it took some extra effort for her to be at the awards, but wouldn’t miss it for the world.  Overall, the celebrities seemed out of place and for the awkwardness to end, they’d be better off staying home in the future.

[[wysiwyg_imageupload:4556:]]The Good

The best thing I saw all night was the world premier of The Phantom Pain by Moby Dick Studios, a Swedish company that no one has apparently ever heard of before.  It featured a haunting trailer of a man attempting to escape a hospital that was besieged by murderous soldiers as well as some supernatural force which had many speculating as to what this game could be.  The internet has recently provided a possible explanation via conspiratorial links to Hideo Kojima and Konami in order to shroud what this game may really be: Metal Gear Solid 5

Possible link #1) Later in the show, cameras cut to Kojima’s table, making note of the 25th anniversary of the Metal Gear franchise.  Link #2) Moby Dick’s CEO is listed as Joakim Mogren“Joakim” is an anagram for “Kojima.”  Link #3) “Mogren” contains the word “ogre” as in Kojima’s secret “Project Ogre” which Kojima himself refutes having anything to do with Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes, further suggesting that Project Ogre is, in fact, Metal Gear Solid 5.  Link #4) The main character bears a striking resemblance to Solid/Old Snake or Naked Snake/Big Boss.  Link #5) Several on the internet suggest the man on fire shown in the hallway is Colonel Volgin from MGS3 and Psycho Mantis from MGS1 is seen briefly towards the end of the trailer.  Whatever the rumor and speculation concerning The Phantom Pain suggests, the trailer looked amazing, mysterious, suspenseful and everything gamers want to see in new projects.

Other show highlights involved the video skits that put Samuel L. Jackson’s likeness in various video game videos.  They were all quite funny featuring Sam’s affinity for the F-word, but my favorite was the digital composite of Sammy in The Walking Dead: The Game graphics.  I also enjoyed the overall flow and format of the show despite the fact they make precious few “award presentations.”  I also want to make note of the really cool commercial for the game Metro: Last Light which presented it in a very dramatic fashion, but almost zero game footage to prove it.

[[wysiwyg_imageupload:4558:]]The Bad

Here’s the short list:

1) Anything that continues to make South Park into a game, 2) Zach Levi’s hair, 3) the world premier of Castlevania Lords of Shadow 2 — Castlevania in the world of today? 4) Marlon Wayans, 5) too many Playstation All Stars commercials, 6) the “new” voice of Lara Croft making an appearance without much of an English accent despite her claiming to be very British, and 7) Ken Levine pushing the release of BioShock Infinite (which looks AMAZING!) further into 2013.

The Ugly

The results, ‘nuff said!  And now we roll up the sleeves:

Best Shooter: Borderlands 2?– I never agreed with this game being in this category in the first place.  If Borderlands 2 was subjected to Goldeneye’s award system, it would win the “Where’s the hit detection” award every time it is turned on.  Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed Borderlands 2 and it is worthy of winning Best Multiplayer, but come on!  Shooting needs more precision than that.

Character of the Year: Claptrap?– Ok so I guess this was a bit of a fan favorite and Claptrap is hysterical, but I bring this result up to make a further point regarding Borderlands 2 as a production.  What does it say about your game when none of your main characters get considered for this category and the annoying comic relief gets the victory representing all characters for the year of 2012?

Best Individual Sports Game: SSX?– Do we even need stupid categories like this?

Best PS3 and Xbox Games: Journey and Halo 4? – The biggest “no duh” moments of the evening and totally worth mentioning only in passing.

Best PC Game: XCOM: Enemy Unknown? – I’m pretty sure Guild Wars 2 is amazing and XCOM is just pretty fun.  I have no explanation for this.

Studio of the Year: TellTale Games?– No.

[[wysiwyg_imageupload:4559:]]Game of the Decade: Half-Life 2?Entertainment Weekly compiled a list of 10 games since 2002 which were deemed worthy of the title “Game of the Decade.”  Unfortunately we don’t exactly know what this means because it clearly doesn’t mean “the best.”  Such a title implies the best incorporation of all elements of a video game that creates a truly seminal work of art.  Wii Sports (2006) was on this list because it sold a hell of a lot of copies considering its simplicity both as individual software and with every Wii bundle that is currently collecting dust in your grandmother’s basement.  Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (2002) was considered because someone really fell in love with cell-shading Link (FYI, I didn’t).  World of Warcraft (2004) was considered because it is the biggest money making juggernaut (from a purely software perspective) of all time.  Shadow of the Colossus (2005) was on the list for its “alternative art” status.  BioShock (2007) was considered because of its twisted take on art design, its kick-ass gameplay and giving shooters more intelligence.  Batman: Arkham City (2011) was considered for being the best video game adaptation of all time.  Red Dead Redemption (2010) was here simply for being the best offering Rockstar could muster up.  Portal (2007) was here to fill out another “different type of game” slot.  Mass Effect 2 (2010) SHOULD have won because its combination of graphics, gameplay, narrative, characters and scale redefine what it means to be a videogame and is on the short-short list of best games ever. 

But, Half-Life 2 won because a lot of nerds out there sleep next to a blow up doll of Gordon Freeman.

[[wysiwyg_imageupload:4560:]]Game of the Year: The Walking Dead: The Game?– Thank you Robert Kirkman.; AMC and TellTale Games have relevance thanks to adapting your comic book. And make no mistake! 2012 is the year of TWD; good or bad, right or wrong and it is that shear fact alone that explains how this game took home the title of Game of the Year for 2012.  If you require an explanation, I refer you to my review of TWD’s final chapter and thoughts concerning the game overall right here.  Despite the insane ridicule suffered by Mass Effect 3, it is a superior game in EVERY respect.  Of course, I could say the exact same for Assassin’s Creed III and Dishonored (both of which I am enjoying very much right now).  The only Game of the Year contender I haven’t experienced is Journey, but simple games like that are lucky to have been made, let alone win for GOTY.  This was simply the wrong choice and I loved The Walking Dead: The Game.  But it is an extremely flawed game and to a large extent, doesn’t fully qualify as a game in the first place. 

So who were the losers of the 2012 VGA’s?

Assassin’s Creed III and Ubisoft got absolutely zero love from Spike TV this year. This is quite stunning considering the quality of the game and the dedication of the company, but I somehow feel this is backlash for producing annual titles for a series that I affectionately refer to as suffering “The Madden Effect.”  Madden comes out every year, they charge $60 bucks for it and how much of a “new game” are you really getting for your money? The Madden Effect has already taken a hold of Call of Duty. Apparently Assassin’s Creed needs to go into hibernation for a while to get back some respect.

[[wysiwyg_imageupload:4562:]]Who were the “winners” of the 2012 VGA’s?

The Walking Dead and TellTale Games are the obvious choices besides winning Game and Studio of the Year they also took home Best Adapted Game, Best Downloadable Game and Best Performance by a Human Female (Melissa Hutchinson as Clementine).  The real winner, however, is Robert Kirkman because his children’s children can easily afford to eat as well as he clearly does without concern for health risks because they are now (or will soon be) super rich thanks to The Walking Dead.  I’m happy for Kirkman because the success of the comic book is warranted.; however, I give one warning to heed in regards to selling his license out as shamelessly as the local hooker.  TWD: The Game is already showing a lesser polish to its product and the more hands that are stretched out, begging for a piece of TWD, the greater the chance for dilution pissing the brand away.  I realize Kirkman’s comic series is soon coming to a close, so I guess it’s cool to take whatever money he can grab now and run, but that doesn’t mean TWD will be truly dead.  If someone pays Kirkman more than enough money, you bet your ass he’d come up with more TWD stories.  The fans love TWD specifically because its tone is the polar opposite of the concept of “selling out.”  Please don’t break our hearts Robert.  It’s ok if you feel the need to kill off Carl.

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Video Game Review: The Walking Dead: No Time Left (Episode 5)

A Video Game Review of The Walking Dead: No Time Left

By: Lawrence Napoli

 

Chapter 5 of TellTale Games’ The Walking Dead is a proper, although not so very surprising, end to this adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s signature IP.  Originally, I was intrigued by the concept of an episodic game being presented over the course of time because A New Day showed so much dramatic promise, compelling characters and yet another zombie themed game I could get into.  As new chapters were released, new mechanics (like shooting) were integrated and I wondered how this game could grow on the player when the “game play” aspect was simply not consistent.  The execution of every chapter has left much to be desired and not just because the “timed release” aspect of this project seemed more like “whenever TellTale wanted.”  Lee Everett moves like a tank, even when he’s running.  Action is sparse.  Scene transitions frequently freeze up or glitch out.  Voices blink out of sync.  Oh, and lest I forget the whole “illusion of choice” phantom mechanic at work which merely presents the player with multiple ways to reach the SAME exact plot twists.  Say what you will about the Mass Effect series and its morality mechanic; at least it delivers variance in the journey and at the end of the game (we will pay no attention to the end of ME3 for the time being).

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It doesn’t matter how many you shoot in the head!

So here we are: you, me and a copy of this episodic game which may or may not be installed on your hard drive at this very instant.  But before you wipe your HDD in disgust or purchase it hastily let me tell you my feelings regarding the value TWD: The Game.  DO NOT pay more than $20 if you are thinking of making a purchase.  Season passes on Xbox Live and PSN had every episode in your hands for $19.99 while Steam featured sales for much less than even that.  When I heard that TellTale was releasing physical copies the game this upcoming December 11th and charging $29.99 for them, I was flabbergasted.  No one will ever convince me that TellTale’s offering equates to a 50% value of the average AAA game when they (as formulaic as they have become) deliver so much more than TWD such as multiplayer, larger environments, smoother mechanics, polished single player campaigns (for the most part), better graphics, better sound AND equivalent VO performances & enthralling stories.  All of these standard AAA elements may not be interesting to the player by themselves, but their collective presence provides entertainment options of which TWD has only one in comparison: drama.

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To be avoided at the $29.99 (or more) price point.

Drama is TellTale’s saving grace amidst what might seem like a scathing review thus far.  This software produces one of the best narrative stories I have ever experienced in the presentation of a video game.  Writers Sean Vanaman, Mark Darin and Mark Whitta outdid themselves in carving out a perfect niche of Krikman’s zombie apocalypse by maintaining perfect tonal synergy with the fiction fans of the comics and TV show are familiar with.  If the player enjoys audio/visual entertainment and does not have a heart of stone, this story will make you feel sympathy and suspense; hurt and happy.  The common man character type, which TWD as a franchise has made its very own, carries over in full effect for the game.  No one is spectacular which means everyone is relatable.  The fact that zombies are littered all over the place is merely a zesty garnish to give the plot some edge.  Every chapter of TWD brings A-game drama to the plate and as much as this is its biggest strength, it could also be its fatal flaw.  The determining factor will forever be if the player accepts the presentation of this drama as entertainment enough.  If the concept of “a really good drama without much action” turns the player off, then this game never gets turned on.

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Not exactly a high wire, but certainly high tension.

This brings me to Chapter 5: No Time Left in particular as confirming the determination (or stubbornness) of TellTale’s same-old/same-old approach to every chapter.  The one thing that jumped out as different for me was the implementation of dynamic camera angles as the player’s avatar navigated certain scenes.  Otherwise, No Time Left had the exact same quick time controls and wretched environmental navigation as always.  Combining these elements with one of the most obvious endings in the history of fiction leaves a bitter taste in the player’s mouth by the end.  It was during the final credit scroll that I realized that I barely needed to be present while playing this game as the choices I made throughout ultimately impacted nothing.  Characters that were meant to die were dispatched and those meant to live would do so.  I didn’t care so much about using a tazer or a sickle to take out a cannibal from a previous chapter.  I didn’t care about exploring one room over another, taking one tool instead of another, chastising one member of the group over another.  Why should choice matter when it doesn’t change the character, the journey or the outcome?

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Hopefully you don’t feel like doing this after playing.

TWD by TellTale Games is a lazy interactive drama that requires the most pedestrian of hand-eye coordination to complete.  To a very large extent I question TellTale’s need to present this story in the form of a game in the first place.  An animated feature would have been a much more satisfying experience because it would have deleted EVERY negative aspect of this production: the game play.  TellTale would be good to remember the effort made by the good folks at Quantic Dream who invented the term “interactive drama” with one of the most unique and successful games of all time: Heavy Rain.  The game play mechanics at work in both games are similar, but not the same.  The main reason it worked for Heavy Rain (without getting too much into it) was because the quick time controls were more organic to better reflect the action on the screen (of which there was plenty).   

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Drama yes; action no.

I can only recommend TWD by TellTale to the rabid followers of all things TWD.  The average gamer more interested in shooting digital people will get very little out of this entire series.   TellTale will release a second season to continue the story with the characters that survive.  It is only a matter of time.  However, if TellTale thinks it can pull the exact same gags on THIS gamer/reviewer then it has another thing coming.  It needs to improve on every programming element to this game short of graphics.  The action needs to pick up, transitions need to be polished and either mature the choice tree options or be done with them all together.  TellTale gets 1 chapter of season 2 to change my mind, otherwise it will get the worst press imaginable: no press.

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Review: Playstation All-Stars Battle Royale Beta (PS3)

Sony’s Latest Nintendo Rip Off

A video game preview of Playstation All-Stars Battle Royale

By: Lawrence Napoli

 

I am a Sony kind of guy despite this current generation’s dominance by the Nintendo Wii and its signature motion control.  Sony never really believed in motion control as its own Six Axis system at launch was a mechanic quickly scrapped by software developers because it was just plain bad.  Yet Sony could not take its eyes off Nintendo’s sales.  Thus, Sony went the shameless route and made an all but exact copy of the Wii’s nunchuck controller in the Playstation Move.  The Move may work better than Motion Control Plus, but there are 2 reasons why Sony’s copy/paste failed: 1) It was released way too late in the PS3’s life cycle and 2) It was not implemented extensively into Sony’s first part titles like God of War and Uncharted.  Decisions like this explain why the Sony brand has fallen behind both Nintendo and Microsoft and I can’t help but think that had a more dedicated and focused effort in R&D as well as in the board room would have disallowed any corporate strategy that only focused on low-jacking the competition. 

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This looks good in theory, but haven’t we seen this before?

And here we are, once again, Sony copying one of Nintendo’s unique innovations in a 4 player simultaneous fighting game that features some of the most recognizable characters in games.  Of course, I’m referring to Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Sony’s clone job in Playstation All-Stars.  Without question, Smash Bros. has infused much needed vitality in the fighting genre over the years by incorporating a multi-player party environment that no other fighter has been able to reproduce.  Playstation All-Stars is, for all intents and purposes, a verbatim reiteration that swaps Mario for Metal Gear and Pikachu for Parappa.  No amount of classy yet cryptic commercials from Sony indicating 10/23/12 as some sort of “game-changing” date is going to convince me that the release of Playstation All-Stars should be noteworthy because an impressive ad campaign doesn’t change what the product is: a simple game that comes off as a quickie money-grab for the Sony brand at the tail end of it’s current system’s life.

Story and Setup

There’s no real story to speak of in All-Stars, but then fighting games never seem to make ANY effort to push the concept of “story.”  (*Note: this is a not so subtle hint to software developers to maybe try this in future projects)  All the player knows upon loading the Beta demo is that 6 Sony brand characters are selectable and it’s time to punch people in the face once the game starts.

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The roster lineup seems quite diverse.

The player gets to choose from Kratos, the God of War, the Twisted Metal psycho Sweet Tooth, a formerly skinny Fat Princess, the stealthy Sly Cooper, Killzone’s Colonel Radec and Parappa the Rappa who hasn’t made a relevant cameo in anything since PS1.  It’s nice to see some kind of visible scale between the selectable characters because it would just be ridiculous to see Parappa as large as Kratos, but I was somewhat surprised to see Sweet Tooth as the largest of them all (even bigger than Fat Princess).  Although there were only a couple of stages available in the Beta, every stage will be interactive and ever evolving, thus requiring the player to not only keep his or her eyes on the 3 other players looking to pulverize them, but also the very real dangers from the level itself that can also knock you for a loop.

Graphics

Sony will be the first to inform the gamer that the shear difference in graphic fidelity between All-Stars and Smash Bros. basically places these games on different planets all together.  It is true that the background stages and interactive elements look very crisp and bright, but the fact remains that being able to see the whole stage at the same time in addition to every other players’ characters requires a wide angle perspective that minimizes any appreciation for the character models themselves.  Sure, there’s no difficulty in telling the difference between characters (unless everyone chooses the SAME character), but the only time the player will be able to get a good look at the avatar they chose is in the opening seconds before the match begins.  Once the fighting starts the visual chaos of vibrant, fluorescent explosions dominate the screen.  This makes it quite easy for the player to completely lose track of the character they were controlling. 

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Stages and explosions are quite pretty.

Sound

The sound effects are pretty standard fare for a cartoonish style brawler so there really isn’t much to talk about with the exception of voice over work.  It does seem that Sony got the original VO actors to produce sound bites for their respective characters (which is great), but in game taunts between fighters are very minimal and often drowned out by the aforementioned “explosions” (which isn’t so great).  It remains to be seen if All-Stars will incorporate a fully functional single player story campaign to take full advantage of some of the most iconic voices in video game characters.  This would certainly be a great opportunity for the sound elements of this game to truly shine.

Gameplay

It’s always, always, ALWAYS about play and control and when it comes to the precision that most dedicated fighting genre players demand of tournament style 2D and 3D games; All-Stars will simply give those gamers headaches.  Combos are easily broken by other players butting in on a 1-on-1 situation but cannot be affected by the player that is being juggled.  Launching an attack after evading (hold block button plus directional) always seems to fail against rapid button mashing and the block button seems like an overall waste of time.

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Button mashing is the ONLY order of the day!

The main reason for the uselessness of the block button is the lack of auto orientation towards the opposition that all 2D fighters enjoy.  There will always be opposition on either side of the player in All-Stars, therefore blocking cannot be relied upon by holding directional control away from any threat.  So yes, holding the block button will nullify attacks from the front, but there’s a million things happening on the screen that can hit you from behind, break the block stance and serve the player up on a combo platter for anyone else to enjoy.  Staying mobile and mashing buttons is the best way to go in this game, regardless of the player’s choice in avatar.

Pulling off a special move or super combo is nothing like Street Fighter style directional swipes.  They are as easy as pressing one button.  Alterations in attacks can be achieved by holding directional control while hitting X, square, O, or triangle.  Just like in any other fighting game, attack range and effectiveness is limited to the move set for each character and it is in this one aspect of gameplay where All-Stars deserves some recognition.

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It either takes excessive skill or blind luck to consistently place first.

All the characters play with completely different styles.  Certainly, the player can select any character and button mash his or her way to success, but Kratos is meant to be played as a juggling combo specialist, Sweet Tooth is a slower tank using explosives to set up combos, Fat Princess is a different kind of tank that does better on the ground than jumping all around, Sly Cooper is all about stealth (his block button turns him invisible!), Radec is THE long range combatant and Parappa is only for the most skilled players wanting a challenge because his attacks have the shortest range and is pretty useless in general.

Final Judgment

I understand that this Beta was only a fraction of what the end game will involve, but it’s my understanding that expansions to this software will involve additional characters and having more options to do the same thing doesn’t seem too appealing.  Sony is relying on nostalgia to drive this game’s sales which also explains the effectiveness of its ad campaign that follows right in line with the very popular “Michael Ad.”  This game is not on the same level of greatness as its commercial and it would be downright highway robbery if Sony charges $59.99 for this frivolous attempt at originality. 

Playstation All-Stars is a game that appeals to a much younger crowd that doesn’t have the same desire for story, control and overall relevance.  It’s a pick-up-and-play experience that’s high on action, but low on sustainability (much like most of Nintendo’s Wii games today).  The most reliable strategy to win in this game is to build your combo meter to level 3, use it to accumulate multiple KO’s and then play it safe until the match ends.  It’s all very repetitive and bores me to tears.  Although 2012 hasn’t quite delivered the hype that preceded some of the most anticipated games for this year, there are still some big hopefuls on the horizon in Hitman: Absolution and Assassin’s Creed III.  Save you hard earned bucks for something like them and let Playstation All-Stars fade to black.

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Video Game Review: Faster Than Light

Faster Than Light

By: Kevin Faltisco

 

It seems that all of a sudden every other game out there wants to somehow work a “permadeath” function (when you die , your character is erased and you must make a new one) into their game. While this isn’t an entirely new concept for gaming it can be frustrating for some when used in ARPGs like Diablo, Borderlands, and Torchlight, however; it is optional in these games. Faster Than Light forces you to play with permadeath, and I would not want it any other way.

GAMEPLAY:
Faster Than Light can best be described as The Oregon Trail in space because there are so many similarities in overall gameplay. Where they differ is the added depth and attention to finer details that Faster Than Light has. The gameplay centers around the idea of you having very little to start with and a wide array of upgrade paths, and equipment to buy. You start out with only one ship, The Kestrel, in your hangar with several more that can be unlocked by completing achievements, which for once; are actual achievements and you will feel like you actually accomplished something when you get them, especially when playing on normal difficulty. With the galaxy being randomized every play through, nothing is guaranteed to be at the various shops you find (if you find them, more on that later).

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Welcome to your objective HUB

Throughout the game you will be looking at a sort of cross-section of your ship that depicts where all the rooms are, where your various systems and sub-systems are located, and where your crew members are located. Each new planet, nebula, sun, etc. you visit will usually have some sort of dialogue option for you to pick based on whatever is happening in there, and more often than not, there will be a chance for someone on your crew to die when there’s a battle with an enemy ship or some other cause of your ship taking damage. This is where the game really starts to get interesting, because if you want to have scrap for making purchases, or more crew members without having to hire them, you will need to take these risks. This is what will probably make or break this game for you. Oh yeah and you better hurry up and get out of the current sector you are in before the rebel fleet catches up with you.

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Your ship, your ship, your ship is on FIRE!

So what’s the verdict? The game is random above all else but I personally find that to be the best part about the game because you never know what you are about to get into, and you will have to make decisions based on what you have, not what you would ideally want. The only problem is the rebel fleet that is constantly chasing you, which is actually a nice touch because you won’t always find a shop before you have to leave the sector and then you don’t know whether you should spend scrap on system upgrades for your ship or save it in hopes of finding a shop with a good weapon, or ship augmentation. Should the rebel fleet actually catch up to you, get ready for an EXTREMELY difficult fight unless you have somehow been blessed with a massive arsenal of weapons and have multiple shield upgrades. But you don’t have any indication of how much ground the rebel fleet will cover when you make your next move and that too appears to be just random.  This is a relatively minor complaint as you will never have trouble getting to the sector’s exit before the fleet catches you however, you may miss a huge chunk of sector discovery in the process.

CONTROL:
There’s really not much to talk about here.  You click on things and they do stuff.  You choose which option you want in dialogues.  What I can say is they REALLY paid attention to detail. Since you have complete control over the doors on your ship, provided your door control sub-system isn’t destroyed, you can open doors from the airlocks to rooms that are on fire to put out the flames (once the oxygen levels in the room go to 0%) and you can also thwart invading parties with the same tactics provided you have blast doors. Blast doors can’t be opened by invaders and must be destroyed giving you more than enough time to snuff out all of the oxygen and watch them slowly die. Or you can teleport to their ship and take that over provided you haven’t destroyed the enemy’s teleporter first.

GRAPHICS:
Nothing to write home about, but this don’t take anything away from the game.  You can tell what is going on so I have no complaints.

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Not intended to win best graphics of the year

SOUND:
I play with all sounds and music off and just turn on Pandora internet radio 🙂 The sounds and music aren’t anything special but they really don’t need to be for a game like this.

LONGEVITY:
I bring this up because I really hope this game gets updates and/or DLC. It’s not that I feel the game doesn’t give you enough to do, it certainly does; it’s more the fact that there is so much more that can, and should, be done with this game. I would not think twice about paying for DLC that provided us with more upgrades, weapons, ships, difficulty levels, alien races, etc. Or even if they released something that allowed you to play through a similar experience from a different perspective like say… the rebels.

CONCLUSION:
If you don’t like games that are driven by randomness STAY AWAY FROM THIS GAME! But if you liked The Oregon Trail or if this rambling made the game sound interesting, you can pick this up for $9.99 on Steam. I know there are a lot of blockbuster titles out there now, but this game doesn’t demand anything close to the attention they do and is very light on the system requirements so you can always fire it up while you wait for people to join your Borderlands 2 or Torchlight 2 game.  Just sayin’…

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Video Game Review of The Walking Dead Episode 3: Long Road Ahead

The Devil Went Down To Georgia

A video game review of The Walking Dead Episode 3: ‘Long Road Ahead’

By: Lawrence Napoli 

 

Welcome back to The Walking Dead episodic video game series presented by TellTale Games.  If anyone ever had doubts as to whether this game properly reflected Robert Kirkman’s callously unforgiving world of the zombie apocalypse, Episode 3: Long Road Ahead pretty much puts the debate to rest.  But before I get too far along into the review, here’s a brief reminder of where I left the reader in regards to my opinion of this game so far. 

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Lee don’t like reminiscing!

I didn’t have many kind words for TellTale Games as a result of their botched strategy for and execution of the release of Episode 2.  I also didn’t care much for the small technical issue of the game simply not working once I finally downloaded it.  In the end, my experience with ‘Starved for Help’ was satisfying, but even I could not reconcile the absurd logistics involved in getting this game from the developer to the player.  It lead me to suggest that gamers stay away from this game entirely until all 5 episodes were complete, patched up, and ready to roll as seamlessly as possible.

My “recommendation” is officially upgraded to a “commandment” as a result of my time with this ‘Long Road Ahead.’  Allow me to explain.

Technical Issues?

I am happy to report that there were no problems in regards to the actual acquisition of the software.  TellTale thankfully had an update patch launch immediately upon booting the game.  This did not happen with the last episode and I presumed it had something to do with “full game” subscribers as opposed to those acquiring episodes individually.  I truly appreciate not having to delete every ounce of Walking Dead data to simply add new chapters.  That’s the good news.

The bad news is that Episode 3 is riddled with a plethora of glitchy nonsense that really breaks the game flow as well as diluting an otherwise exceptional piece of interactive drama.  Scene transitions constantly freeze up, character voices are out of sync with the animation, controller responsiveness is about as precise as playing horseshoes with hand grenades, the background soundtrack inexplicably drops out and the audio levels (in general) are incredibly cockeyed as sound f/x and music consistently drown out the dialogue. 

I may not be a programmer, but these all seem like non-issues had the development team put more time into polish and that my friends has been the bane of this entire series.  Of course, I don’t know TellTale’s limitations as a company, but we can all assume they are significant because they clearly aren’t Activision.  That being said, I will reiterate the importance of quality over punctuality.  I no longer care if TellTale “actually” releases a new episode every month like they originally promised.  As long as their product functions in the manner it was intended, I am very forgiving of delays.  I’m pretty sure Lee Everett isn’t supposed to fall through the floor after he walks through a door while transitioning from one scene to the next.  (Note: this happened twice during my play-through and requires backing out to the main menu each time in order to repair)

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There may be an invisible pit in your immediate future.

These issues have only gotten worse with each new chapter that has been released thus far.  Software patches are inevitable in this digital age of downloadable content and constantly evolving software, but Telltale appears to be leaning heavily on patches after the fact which sends one of two messages to the consumer: 1) we don’t care about it or 2) we didn’t really know about it.  Neither is acceptable.  Get it right the first time, TellTale!

Story

As I said before, the interactive drama is superb, but the player’s suspension of disbelief will be tested due to the technical issues.  If one is able to overlook this handicap, ‘Long Road Ahead’ features higher stakes and deeper emotional tolls on Lee Everett.  The concept of happiness gets a definitive curb stomp because the player’s losses (as experienced by Lee) clearly demonstrate that the best the world of TWD can give survivors is fleeting pleasure.  It certainly begs the question whether such an existence is even worth enduring as I found myself wondering why any of these characters would willingly struggle on.  The reason is because the survivors each have strong, personal relationships that are more than simple emotional support; they become the individual’s sole reason for living. 

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Worth dying for.

The theme that is predominantly explored throughout episode 3 is the effect of removing someone’s final lifeline and the inevitable self destruction that follows.  As a result, this episode is extremely depressing and “the group” as the player knows it will be forever changed.  Lee finally gets the opportunity to shine as the leader, but only as a result of the other alphas in the group becoming emotionally compromised.  If there’s one lesson you can take to the bank with TWD is that everyone is going to taste bitter loss at some point.  Since no one is immune, it made me instantly think of how traumatic Lee’s personal loss will eventually be.  Sure, we saw him react to his family’s confirmed death, but the player had no emotional investment in that situation because Lee was estranged from them.  For Lee, life is now all about protecting Clementine and the only test to his sanity would be if anything were to happen to her.  Something serious will happen to Clementine in episodes 4 or 5.  I guarantee it. 

As opposed to the last episode, there is no specific antagonist driving the group off the deep end other than the ever increasing stress of getting by; day by day amidst the ever present threat of zombies.  Therefore, the group’s worst enemy happens to be themselves when they give in to despair, desperation, anger and anxiety.  None of the social interactions seem out of place despite the extreme circumstances that set them up.  The dialogue is natural, reflective of each person’s distinct background and not muddled with too much jargon or exposition.  This is the core of what makes this game enjoyable so I recommend engaging in as many conversations as possible before triggering the next scene transition.

Gameplay

The player will be happy to know that there is finally an aim-and-shoot portion to this game.  Certainly, the entire cast has been using firearms to survive since the very first episode, but there hasn’t been an extended sequence requiring the player (as Lee) to engage their Call of Duty skills to advance in the story.  There is now, but in all fairness, isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.  Moving the reticule during this sequence is as laborious as walking and as precise as pitching with a basketball.  This leaves the player very susceptible to moving targets so much so that the game practically begs you to wait until the target is standing still before shooting.  Although the threat level is constantly increasing during this sequence, it isn’t very exhilarating because the player’s control over the action moves at the speed of mud.  I don’t understand the purpose of introducing this mechanic to the series at the halfway point unless it will be expanded upon heavily in the upcoming episodes. 

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Never too young to learn to survive.

The rest of the gameplay involves the same Resident Evil-esque static scene navigation complete with dialogue windows and quick time events that players have been introduced to in episode 1.  It is unfortunate that Lee’s actions are still limited to the context within each scene.  It would honestly make my day if I could hold down the X button to make Lee jog a little faster than his patented tortoise march during the scenes that require investigation and conversation.

The Problem is Choice

Every time the player loads this game, it reminds you how it is based on the decisions the individual makes throughout the story.  Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.  Fool me a third time; well that isn’t going to happen.  Yes, choice matters in that the game will not continue unless the player does something.  (Selecting the nothing option, or the […..] doesn’t work when zombies want to eat your face)  However, the choices I have made as Lee Everett have made zero impact on the gameplay and less than that on the story.

For example, video games that feature an item collection mechanic and some form of inventory do so to give the player different options in dealing with obstacles.  This is not the case in TWD.  The player that is incredibly thorough in searching every nook and cranny for energy bars, batteries or other useful supplies has no different result in the outcome of the story from the player that skips as much conversation and investigation as possible.  The same people will be happy or mad with you, the same people that are targeted for termination will die and scripted “failures” cannot be avoided even if the player takes precautions.  No choice that is made ever really matters because it all ends the same way.

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Young dummy and old bum. But would it matter if they were 2 other people?

I came to this harsh realization when one of my favorite characters died in episode 3 and there was nothing that I could do about it.  There was no “perfect decision tree” I could produce that would yield the result that I WANTED and this fact completely defeated the purpose of making choices at all.  The player could theoretically complete this game blindfolded and if such a statement could ever be made about a “video game” then the creators need to seriously reevaluate the entire project. 

It is in this realization that TellTale’s Walking Dead game is exposed as a much simpler experience than the source material it is licensed from.  The Walking Dead comic book and TV show are fundamentally rooted in the concept of choice.  A choice made by individuals, a choice made by groups and every circumstance that expands or limits options is the lynchpin for every ounce of drama in this franchise.  Choice is the very reason why people love TWD because life is choice.  This game merely features the illusion of choice by giving the player 30 different ways to walk out the same door, to kill the same person, to go to the same motel and so on and so forth. 

Lee has no health bar so it doesn’t matter if he eats, gets wounded or gets left out in the cold.  He’ll be good to go in the next scene or episode without fail.  The same goes for every other character (that isn’t targeted for termination) and I have a big time problem with that because my only reward for “being a good Lee Everett” is hearing some additional blather about that individual that will give me no benefit for having learned it at any future point in the game.  The only punishment I get for “being a bad Lee Everett” is some additional glares and growls minus the blather.  If the player was given an option to help one character before why is that choice longer available in the future?  The reason is because the amount of programming, media production and integration would result in a game approaching the size of Mass Effect and TellTale does not have the capacity for such a production.

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Does Commander Shepard need to come in and show you how it’s done?

Choice without reward is pointless and it really shows in episode 3.  I am content with having played it through once (and only once) for learning the plot.  Beyond that, I do not consider this game series to be anything more than a dressed up motion-comic which was perhaps TellTale’s game all along.  This game is like taking a pass/fail class at college.  It doesn’t matter if you go to class, do the reading or actually learn something.  As long as you pass the test, you’re golden.  In all fairness, the journey as depicted through TellTale’s narrative is still a compelling one, but with each additional episode, I further wonder why I need to be playing this story when I could just as easily be reading it.

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The Walking Dead Episode 2 Starved for Help: Video Game Review

When the Dead Walk, It’s the Living You Should Fear

A Video Game Review for The Walking Dead Game: Episode 2 ‘Starved for Help’

By: Lawrence Napoli 

 

As much as I enjoyed episode 1 of this digital game series, there is no question that the second installment dials up the creepy, grotesque and confrontation elements of people surviving the zombie apocalypse by a factor of 10.  “Amazing,” is the one word I’d use to describe Starved for Help, but I am beginning to notice some unfortunate commonalities this game shares with others that claim “your choice really matters.”  More like, “the illusion of your choice might matter” which is proven by the player’s inability to alter the outcome of major plot points as a result of choosing a different path. 

[[wysiwyg_imageupload:2086:]]Before I get into the goodies of episode 2, I must share with you all more complaints over the unprofessional manner in which TellTale Games is distributing this current project of theirs.  For those not in the know, the first episode of this game was released back on April 24th with the promise of new episodes to be released monthly.  When it took just over two months for episode 2’s premier (it was released yesterday) the internet was set ablaze via gamer anger and resentment over a basic expectation that saw zero follow through from the developer.  Fast forwarding to yesterday, after much anticipation and frustration, episode 2 was finally available to be downloaded off the Playstation Network.  I downloaded the file, installed it and loaded up one of my saves to continue my adventure with Lee Everett.  But then the game stopped the loading process and exited out to the PS3’s main menu as if I had quite the game, ALL BY ITSELF.  I’ve owned the PS3 since day 1 of its release and this is behavior I’ve never witnessed out of the machine despite having suffered through the infamous PSN (hack-induced) outage in addition to the YLOD (Yellow Light Of Death) on my original ‘fatty’ 60 gig system.  

Perplexed, I figured to reattempt the download and reinstall the software because that’s everyone’s go-to trouble shooting technique for all technology.  No luck.  After my third attempt I would easily describe my negatively charged energy as (to quote Vincent Vega) “a racecar in the red!”  So I jumped on the phone (who uses those anymore?) to contact customer service for PSN [1-800-345-SONY] and I sought to track down some answers.  I don’t know if I was just extremely lucky, or if Sony simply knows how to properly employ their customer service phone lines, but 2 out of the 2 times I had to speak with a human representative, I got American sounding people for which communication was seamless.  Their first suggestion was to go under the system settings option in the PS3 menu to disable the connection to the media servers which may have corrupted the file during download.  That didn’t work.  They then suggested deleting the entire game from the hard drive and re-downloading all relevant game files (that would be the demo, episode 1 and episode 2).  Bingo!  So for any of you out there still struggling with this game, the answer is purging and don’t worry, your save files will not be affected. 

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I don’t remember the Bates Motel having this many technical difficulties.

The point of this lengthy intro is to communicate how TellTale has mismanaged this game thus far, despite having produced a gem of a game.  The problem was definitely on their end because when I purged and restored, the network prompted me to download an update patch which did not happen for the episode 2 file by itself.  Perhaps it is a problem for everyone having purchased the season pass for $19.99, but if I have to repeat this procedure for every future episode, I will be extremely disappointed.  I’m thinking that this is the first IP developed by TellTale that consumers have been completely ravenous over so perhaps they are not used to this level of demand.  This leads to management acting more like nervous fools pressuring programmers for faster results yielding a less than ideal product.  This speculation has not been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt, but simply getting this game into the hands of gamers has been shaky at best. 

Story

As for the game, it certainly does not waste any time throwing the player back into “the sh*t.”  After a brief cut scene reviewing the player’s key decisions from episode 1, Lee Everett’s gotta get his hands dirty immediately and often for the duration of Starved for Help.  Although the first episode eluded to the perceived danger of other survivors, this is the prevalent issue for the entirety of episode 2.  Finally, the player is getting knee deep into the unique harshness of Robert Kirkman’s zombie apocalypse and the new rules are as follows: 1) zombies are a constant threat, but never the immediate one, 2) bites don’t turn people and 3) developing trust requires more than just trading favors.  Knowing this, I was very hesitant about all of the new characters I was introduced to despite their well mannered demeanors and helpful attitudes.  My Lee Everett already has plenty of issues with people he already knows that are somewhat gunning for him within the group.  Additional wildcards will only complicate things.  Some of these concerns were justified while others were misplaced.  Trust is in short supply at this point in the story, but desperation (particularly the need for edible food) tends to force people’s hands.  

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This doesn’t look threatening in any way, shape or form.

Characters inside the player’s initial group have a little more exposition as well as bonding or conflicting moments with Lee which does much to raise the stakes for any danger the player runs into, of which there will be plenty.  I like that there’s a lot more action involved in this episode whether its combat or running from trouble, but the overall pace of this episode remains as methodical as the first, so don’t expect a drastic change.  The one change that seemed undeniable was the darker tone combined with the proximity of the children in Lee’s group to the increased level of horror.  

Gameplay and Functionality

There are no new challenges to the required coordination for gameplay in episode 2, but there are certainly new difficulties navigating this chapter that wasn’t nearly as much of an issue for episode 1.  Starved for Help is very glitchy or laggy which has Lee getting stuck on corners, taking indirect paths to speak with people and investigate environments as well as having several awkward delays between transition scenes.  As a result, this gives the episode a very choppy feel which does the player no favors considering snap reflexes are much more important to survive this time around.  Again, what the player is called to do (whether it’s button-mashing, targeting or movement) is not difficult in and of itself.  However, if the game lags, the player has lost precious tenths of a second that will determine the difference between victory and defeat.  This is an issue that may lead to some impromptu deaths, but is less of a deal-breaker and more of a growing concern for less than precise programming.  

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The real danger is that my feet are actually glued to these stairs.

I find it very interesting how this game continues to feature an inventory indication on the screen with no player ability to interact with that inventory as he or she sees fit.  Yes, some items are necessary to trigger the next scene, but not everything Lee’s possession accomplishes this.  What would make for more dynamic gameplay is for the player to be allowed to use different items in the inventory for situations that may not seem like it would be useful so as to present more options for reaching the goal.  For instance: [and this example doesn’t happen in the game, so no spoiler alert necessary] if Lee is held at gunpoint in a small, enclosed room and he only has a piece of rope and a pencil in his inventory, using one or the other combined with a convenient environmental distraction could set him free, or get him killed.  This game seems to be too reliant on whatever props are immediately available in the current scene to win, which dilutes any perceived importance the player may place on investigating every corner and examining every item leading up to designated “moments of truth.” 

Conclusion

Episode 2 Starved for Help is an excellent follow up to A New Day.  Unfortunately, with all the problematic logistics behind the production and distribution of this game, I am forced to debate whether the wait was actually worth it.  Don’t get me wrong.  The story is engrossing, the characters have depth and the ability to choose (illusion or otherwise) is still a compelling gameplay mechanic, but there’s an awful lot of time in between the release dates of these episodes.  I feel the impact of the story is being lessened by its fragmented presentation.  This interactive drama is just too good to be consumed piecemeal that I am now recommending interested gamers to save their money until every episode is available to play. 

And I do highly recommend everyone to (eventually) give this game a play through as these very unique, Kirkman-esque social commentaries really make me think.  Upon digesting everything I witnessed at the end of Starved for Help, it made me consider the concept of desperation in general.  Is it something human beings simply cop-out to so as to act on raw emotion or is it a natural and justifiable survival instinct?  The evolution of mankind suggests taking steps away from “the animal” to find new, innovative and previously unconsidered methods of problem solving; independent of the situation while pragmatic necessity rarely leaves people the time to weigh their options and consider alternatives.  

This is the allure of well written zombie fiction as it is not as immediate or decisive as war or natural disasters, but as an equally dangerous peril that needs to be circumvented in order to survive.  The manner in which an individual circumvents reveals a strength (or lack of) character which remains to be seen if such a thing matters when civilization ends.  This is what makes Robert Kirkman’s pristine exploration of humanity in The Walking Dead a journey into the proverbial heart of darkness not because evil, death and depravity are at the center, but because we are fearful for not being certain that we won’t succumb to them when put to the test.  Lee Everett certainly gets put to the test in Starved for Help.  What will you make him do?

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Video Game Review of Pokemon Conquest

Pokémon with a Purpose

A Video Game review of Pokémon Conquest

By: Lawrence Napoli

 

            I am not a mobile gamer.  The only handheld system I ever owned was the original Gameboy and I only had a couple of games for it a million years ago.  When I get my game on, I like a nice big screen, a comfy seat and either the room to myself or an attentive audience to soak in the experience.  I used to be a rabid fan of RPGs, particularly JRPGs (Japanese Role Playing Games) because of their focus on turn based strategy, party building mechanics and exploration.  [Side note #1: Final Fantasy VIII was the game that made me walk away from the franchise forever]  However, doing a little thrifty shopping at your local big box retailer can occasionally offer deals that might alter one’s preferences.

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Are you ready to beat some ass with Mewtwo?  Good luck finding him.

I recently picked up a Pokémon White DSI bundle on clearance for $70 (that’s the game, a white DSI and a case) and I must say, the game was very entertaining considering the fact that every expansion to the original Red and Blue hasn’t exactly reflected the exponential evolutionary rate of the gaming industry during the past 10 years.  Pokémon White got me back into the franchise a bit, but there’s still no purpose to the never ending capturing of critters and battles with random people who jump out of tall grass only to tell you some random soliloquy after you’ve beaten their ass.  If only they could take the Pokémon franchise into a game production that had a reasonable story, dynamic game format and an actual purpose while retaining the patented collectability and cast of characters.  To this I say to you all: Look no further than Pokémon Conquest!

Setup

            Pokémon Conquest is an isometric, turn based strategy RPG developed by Tecmo Koei that was published and distributed by Nintendo for the DS (which can also be played on the DSI and 3DS).  The game puts the player in the role of a generic male or female general in the fictional world of Nobunaga’s Ambition.  What’s unique about this game is that instead of recruiting and allocating resources to amass armies, the player is rounding up Pokémon to do the actual fighting on the field of battle.  Different scenarios within Pokémon Conquest have various map sizes and difficulties, but the name of the game is still making parties of Pokémon strong enough to invade enemy castles, defend said castles and continue your campaign until you own the field.  This game is the perfect lovechild between Ogre Battle for the SNES and Lords of the Realm II for the PC.  If you like castle conquest games and Pokémon, or either as individuals, this is a must-own game for you. 

[[wysiwyg_imageupload:2069:]][[wysiwyg_imageupload:2070:]]<——– Can you see the resemblance?

Left = Conquest

Right = Ogre Battle

                 

 

  

Story

            Like all Pokémon games, there really isn’t much of a plot at work here.  There’s no rhyme or reason to all the warring factions in the Ransei Region, but they all seem to have the same motive for defeating everyone else: peace.  [Side note #2: peace obtained by obliterating everyone else is not really peace and is perhaps the most common plot device used in video game history] Very little is revealed about the player’s main character other than he or she develops a special bond with an Evee at childhood which eventually becomes the player’s marquee starting Pokémon and perhaps most balanced unit in the game.  Through the course of various campaigns, the player will be introduced to other signature warlords who each have their preferences to the type of armies they feature (much like gym leaders in standard Pokémon games), but the big bad of this game is Nobunaga himself who wants to destroy the region in addition to the unnamed Legendary Pokémon that supposedly created said region in the first place. 

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This is the manner in which most of the “story” plays out.

Basics

            The overall structure of this game involves a turn based series of activities from army assembly, training, castle maintenance and strategic attack that all involve the deployment of the player’s trainers/warlords that happen to be at their disposal.  Each turn represents the passing of 1 month’s time.  In order to do anything, the player must assign someone to do it and each personality can only do one activity per turn/month.  The number of personalities a player has recruited is directly proportional to the amount of activities a player can complete in one turn.  Each personality can be sent to the training grounds to fight or capture wild Pokémon, purchase items at the local shop, use gold at the local bank to upgrade locations within a particular kingdom (yielding better items at the shop and better Pokémon on the field), mine for gold or go to the local grocery to feed Pokémon that have a low energy rating (the higher a Pokémon’s energy, the more effective they are on the field).  For these activities to be completed successfully, the player can assign more than one personality to work as a team (highly recommended for recruiting/training/invading), but beware, only 6 personalities can occupy each castle under the player’s control so there are limits as to how many Pokémon can fight at once, mine for gold, etc.  (And no, you cannot send multiple armies of fully filled squads against single enemy locations – there will never be more than 12 Pokémon on the field at once) 

Pokémon and Warlords

            Pokémon aren’t exactly “captured” with Poke Balls in this game.  Trainers/warlords “link” with them in the same manner they would fight them on the field, but instead of destroying them, they befriend them.  Thankfully, multiple Pokémon can be attached to single personalities which allows for some level of adaptability, but Pokémon cannot be swapped in and out of active battles and only active Pokémon gain experience.  The player must reassign the Pokémon each trainer will feature prior to any engagement if a change is desired, so if you’re wondering what happened to that wild Charmander you just captured, it’s not gone, you just have to assign it under the “Information” option at the castle icon.  From that menu, the player can view each warlord’s type preference in addition to the stats of each Pokémon in their possession.  This is vital in seeking ideal Pokémon for the player’s warlords as there are seemingly infinite individuals to recruit each having a so called “perfect link.”

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Not every link is “perfect.”

            Pokémon also do not “level” they way they have in standard games as their strength and evolution is tracked by the “link percentage” each has achieved with their respective warlord.  The higher the link percentage, the stronger the Pokémon and when certain percentages are reached, the Pokémon will evolve.  Most trainers the player recruits will not have ideal Pokémon on them already so the maximum link percentage is usually capped at around 30-50%.  This means if a warlord has a Charmeleon with a link capped at 42% and it evolves to the next form at 50%, there’s no way that warlord will see Charizard.  Warlords that find their “perfect links” can achieve 100% synergy with that Pokémon and will eventually see their ultimate forms, that is, for Pokémon that don’t require items to evolve (yeah that annoying mechanic carried over from the standard games as well).  I’ve put at least 25 hours into this game and have only discovered a few perfect links.      

            So how come the Pokémon do all the work?  Well, the warlords themselves can contribute by using their unique special ability for their respective Pokémon once per battle.  These effects range from healing individuals/groups, higher accuracy, greater damage, increased movement range, curing status ailments and so on and so forth.  I really like this element of the battles because it not only makes the type of Pokémon that is battling important, it also makes whoever is controlling them actually relevant.  

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You see? Warlords can contribute once in a while.

Gameplay and Battles

             Pokémon Conquest is not a game that requires any degree of dexterity as real time is simply not a factor.  The game is testing your mind and knowledge of Pokémon to form a strategy to achieve victory, given certain limitations.  As such, most of the “play” involves navigating through several menus out of battle while managing the field in battle by commanding where Pokémon move and who to attack.  In fact, the only modest challenge to this game is the timing mini-game that prompts every time the player attempts to link with a new Pokémon.  Only young children and people with zero hand-eye coordination should fear this.

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Get used to this screen.  You’ll be making plenty of party alterations.

            The battles in Pokémon Conquest are without question, the most fun and dynamic expression of this fictional experience to date.  The animations are very approrpiate for the kind of attacks we’re used to seeing in the standard games.  Each Pokémon have various movement ranges to simulate the burden of bulk.  Heavy tanks will move only a few spots at a time while light flyers can move across the whole field in a turn or two.  It’s not just the movement, but the placement of your units that is step 1 in achieving victory.  Sure, it might sound good fielding a squad of light flyers that pelt your opposition from a distance, but their damage output per turn is much lower than tanks and if one gets close enough, it can wipe out your whole party.

            I also enjoy all of the different fields of battle because the environment can have a huge impact on the outcome of a confrontation.  Larger fields that have lots of obstacles will favor some Pokémon while smaller ones will favor others.  It doesn’t end there.  Some fields are more than static as some parts can be interacted with to discover items while hitting switches can set traps for enemy Pokémon (or your own if you don’t learn the field) that could allow a party of weaker Pokémon to defeat a stronger one.  Some fields also change the landscape around you periodically which forces the player to change strategy on the fly.

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The blue designates the movement range of your Evee on crack.

Still, simply having stronger Pokémon will always be a winning strategy in every confrontation but knowing how they attack must also be taken into consideration.  Pokémon attacks have various ranges and patterns so it’s not as simple as running up to the closest enemy and punching it in the face.  Some can hit multiple targets while others can strike only one.  Some attacks result in the enemy being moved while others actually move yours. 

“Duh, Winning” Strategies

            It might seem like a lot has to be thought about while playing this game, but believe me, it all becomes second nature with a little trial and error.  Control, however, is an element of this game that favors the player over the AI.  You can save at any point during this game whether it is in between turns while managing castles or during actual battles.  But be warned, this could act like a double-edged sword as saving in the middle of a battle could have you committed to a fight you really can’t win and there’s only 1 save slot.  As a result, I never suggest saving during battles while saving like a madman on the management screen.

            In order to raise an army of epic Pokémon warriors, the player needs to recruit unaffiliated trainers/warlords.  There’s no negotiation or bribery involved in this game.  To get their services, the player must defeat these trainers in battle in convincing fashion, using as little turns as possible to KO their Pokémon.  This isn’t too difficult at the beginning of the main game as the player’s Evee is much more powerful than the common trainers you encounter early on.  The type of trainers and the Pokémon they use is randomly generated turn by turn (or they may not appear at all) so consider saving before ending a turn if you keep encountering weak or redundant Pokémon/trainers so as to reload and perhaps get something better when you end the turn once again.

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Pikachu is neither weak, nor redundant.

            Do your Pokémon a favor and give them items because the AI will use them against you.  Yes, even common potions are expensive seeing how items can only be used by the Pokémon that equip them prior too battle and most of them evaporate when they are used once, but if you have no warlords that have healing abilities you might be up the creek without a paddle.  Always consider healing items as a safety net for your Pokémon, but don’t be compelled to use them every battle because Pokémon don’t actually “die” (it is a kid friendly franchise, after all).  They just get KO’d and will be revived to full health after every battle, regardless of the outcome.  Unless you have a team of Pokémon mining gold every turn (and you can auto-delegate your trainers/warlords to do so every turn if you wish) you aren’t going to be earning a ton of gold as a result of battles and the really good items like rare equipment could suck your coffers dry in one shot.  Knowing what to buy and how much to buy is a strategy in and of itself.

            Recruit dragon type Pokémon at the beginning of every campaign!  This may be outside of the player’s control because region and randomness determine the trainers that are available to be recruited, but if dragons appear, you must get them.  Even the weakest dragon types like Dratini and Axew use the “dragon rage” attack that always does 40 points of damage to any Pokémon it hits, regardless of type.  Most Pokémon don’t have 40 health points in the first year’s worth of turns so this amounts to a one hit kill despite its occasional inaccuracy.  It also happens to be a ranged attack that melts anything two spots directly in front of the dragon so you could wipe out two enemies, with one shot, from one Pokémon, in one turn.  Watch out though.  To recruit or link with these dragons early on is risky as the Pokémon you currently have probably don’t have durability or exceptional damage dealing on their side.

            Use alpha strikes!  (I.E. everyone attacking the same enemy on the same turn) It is the single most important strategy I can recommend to the player for victory in battles.  Early on in any campaign, few Pokémon are strong enough to KO enemies with one hit, so concentrating your team’s attacks on one target eliminates threats methodically, but effectively.  It also counters the AI’s rampant use of healing items/abilities, especially in more difficult campaigns.  Even if you have a numbers advantage in a battle, sending two Pokémon to deal with one enemy might not be enough while the enemy heals the party on its next turn, thus negating whatever progress you just made.

Conclusion

            This is a very fun game for fans of turn based RPGs.  However, even fans of Pokémon might be turned off by the time commitment to complete not just the main story, but all the unique campaigns that unlock after.  This could mean total hours spent playing this game well over 50, give or take 10 based on the player’s skill.  Still, it’s a nice experience even for those with limited attention spans because of the “save any time” option so theoretically one could pick it up and play anywhere for any amount of time.  This game was a huge surprise for me and I never would have considered it had I not gotten back into handheld gaming.  Well done Tecmo Koei!  You have proven that great games that aren’t “Pokémon” can be made using Pokémon.  Now let’s see if a brave developer exists that could produce an MMO based on this franchise because it seems like a “perfect link” to me and Nintendo sure doesn’t have the intestinal fortitude to be risky with its single most important IP next to Mario.

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The New Doctor Who Eternity Clock Video Game Is Terrible (PS3)

[[wysiwyg_imageupload:1777:]]Boy was I excited to play the new Doctor Who video game, Eternity Clock, for the PS3.

However, within about five minutes of playing I found all I wanted to do was hit the snooze button!

The game is a disaster.

It’s a 2D side scrolling game that sees the player play as the Doctor and River Song. In all fairness I only played about 15 minutes, but had to turn it off after seeing how frustrating and basically dumb the game was. So maybe you can play as other characters, but I wasn’t about to waste anymore time try to sneak past guards or wait for alarms to go off — when all you had to do was walk around them. Ditto for walkways – as this is 2D – the player can’t simply follow the walkway and walk “around,” you have to jump up on a pipe and climb like a monkey. And you have to jump and crawl and do more climbing in all these other places. Has the Doctor – Matt Smith – ever been a physical actor?

And then there is a part where you have to move a crate of gold and crash it through the floor. You need to use the lifts and such — instead of just pushing the crate through a couple doorways.

Don’t ask me about the Mind Puzzle, no idea what was going on there as the image – which I think was a building – was all the same color. I just moved everything a few times and it “magically” unlocked.

As the game is 2D it felt more like an Atari game. Really, to call it a Nintendo game would have been an insult to that classic system.

One good thing is the music, which is the same from the series. However, no way does that justify paying 20 bucks. If anything, 99 cents on the App store or a free web game is more like it.

Buy The Walking Dead Video game instead. Now that game is cool!

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Video Game Review of The Walking Dead game [Episode 1]

When the Dead Can’t Stop Walking

A Video Game Review of The Walking Dead [Episode 1 “A New Day”]

By: Lawrence Napoli

 

[[wysiwyg_imageupload:1756:]]I am drawn to anything that involves zombies.  Zombie stories entice such an adrenaline rush because of the intense amount of thought it provokes within me considering that such a fantastic scenario is merely one fictional circumstance away from becoming reality.  How would I respond?  How would I cope?  How would the rest of the world?  How would you?  When the world literally goes to hell most people probably wouldn’t don some makeshift superhero costume and become impromptu vigilantes to wipe out the zombie threat from the streets.  Most people would track down as much family as possible, find the safest place available to hunker down in and wait it out, until waiting just wasn’t safe anymore.  The realism, drama and raw emotion that is extracted from plain people surviving the end of the world has a universal appeal to humanity because (to a much lesser, dramatic and danger-filled extent) we are all surviving the challenge of life every day when we wake up.  This explains why Robert Kirkman and The Walking Dead franchise continues to reach new outlets for its brand and finding plenty of success (and dollar bills) in every iteration.  I won’t extrapolate on the intrigue of the comic book or the intensity of the TV series, but suffice it to say, the video game world of The Walking Dead carries over everything that makes it work from its previous manifestations while keeping the experience fresh even for the most dedicated veterans of the franchise.

 

Gameplay

 

The Walking Dead videogame is an interactive drama that was developed and published by Telltale Games.  This is the company that was also responsible for creating Back to the Future: The Game, Jurassic Park: The Game and Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse (the game).  All of these games are presented in episodic fashion and employ a very similar visual interface in addition to game play mechanics.  This is exactly the type of game that anyone can pick up and play because it doesn’t require pinpoint reflexes nor does it demand rigorous repetition to master.  If you can navigate an analog stick, you too can complete this game with relative ease (as is reflected in its trophy/achievement list – all of which are accomplished by completing each chapter).  The interface involves a third person, cel-shaded, fixed camera that harkens back to Resident Evils 1, 2 and 3.  The challenge to progressing in the story is investigating each scene for objects you can interact with in the environment or by speaking to other characters to reveal that vital piece of information that unlocks options for surviving the zombie apocalypse.  Anyone who is a veteran of Myst and is a fan of Mass Effect 2’s (not 3’s) dialogue system will find The Walking Dead very comfortable. 

If poking around static environments and flirting with digital people is not what you consider to be “entertaining” in a game, then rest assured, there is a significant element of combat in the game because zombies just aren’t going to let you walk away from them.  The first episode of The Walking Dead requires the player’s avatar to dispatch several zombies in quite brutal fashion at point blank range, and doing so requires a very easy to maneuver targeting reticule combined with quick-time button mashing challenges to fend off the various undead opposition.  The gameplay is not nearly as challenging as Heavy Rain, but it is still active enough to not bore the player.

This game’s main source of fun is generated from simply participating in this expanded fiction set within the world of The Walking Dead.  As such, talking is a large part of progressing in the story.  The dialogue sequences blend seamlessly with the cut and action scenes which does much to aid in the suspension of disbelief.  Choosing a speaking option, however, is not always as easy as leisurely pressing a button.  Some contextual conversations have very brief windows for the player to make a decision before the option to respond in any way passes all together.  Likewise, there will be similar decisions the player must make in emergency situations that can determine life and death for you or any other survivors you pick up along your journey.  If the player is actively engaged in the story, making the decisions you really want with little to no time is a breeze.  Also, the relationships you build with certain characters are not without consequence as key characters will remember how the player handled previous confrontations or details mentioned in prior conversations that may help or harm the player at a later point in the story.

 

Story

The story of The Walking Dead videogame is set the day of the zombie outbreak in the state of Georgia.  The player assumes the role of Lee Everett, a black man in his 30s-40s that begins his zombie survival journey under less than optimum circumstances.  What’s interesting to note in this “Choose your own adventure” style of video game story is that the player doesn’t know any back story about Lee until conversation windows later on during the game present these options for the kind of information Lee is willing to divulge.  Some players may be put off by this because they won’t know “the right response to give,” but that’s exactly the point.  Not knowing the details beforehand requires the player to mold the type of Lee, he or she wants him to be so if you want him to be a Rick-style knight in shining armor or a Shane-style psycho, the options are in your dialogue choices.  Heck, there’s even a neutral option to give no response in just about every scenario.  Overall, the story begins as very prototypical in presenting desperate people attempting to survive dire circumstances, but what has set The Walking Dead apart from other zombie franchises is its focus on character and relationships and that theme clearly carries over to the video game as Lee is not only the type of character I want to see survive and flourish, I believe he is a character that could easily matriculate over to the comic books or even AMC’s TV series.  One of the best parts of the story is the “ending” the player gets to see at the end of each episode which teases the player as to the scenarios that await him or her in the next episode.  Having played Lee in three distinct ways, I have found various different reveals at the end of episode 1 in terms of different sources of conflict, enemies within the group and who my most loyal friends may turn out to be.  The story looks to play out in several different ways, all of which are very compelling, and I’ve only completed 1/5 of the game.

 

Presentation

I know a lot of people who are instantly turned off by cel-shaded graphics in video games.  I will never claim to be the biggest fan of it either; however, I will note that this rather cartoonish style doesn’t take any of the gravity away from The Walking Dead game.  As a less demanding graphical style, cel-shading allows for more programming power to be put into proficient gameplay, dialogue options and environment interactions.  Besides, who’s really interested in sitting through hours of load screens?

The game asks the player in the beginning whether he or she wishes to play with or without hints which basically highlights items in the environment that can be interacted with as well as suggesting whom to speak to and where to go next.  Turning the help option off does present a greater challenge, but it may involve too much time investigating each and every scene for the player to acquire that which is necessary to progress. 

The voice over acting is superb.  Distinct sounds tied with naturally written conversation plays very well in establishing a serious and dramatic tone to this game.  Cel-shaded graphics don’t allow for the most revealing facial expressions, but combined with this VO talent, every character that the player is introduced to becomes one that he or she genuinely cares about. 

 

Conclusion

The Walking Dead fans have no excuse for not already owning this game for the PC or PS3.  It is not available for Xbox 360 yet (there’s a first) probably because Telltale is still working on a conversion code to allow the game to use Kinect control.  The story is great because I get to play a role in building a significant survivor in this zombie apocalypse.  The only bad part about this game is that I have to wait an additional month for the next part of the game to be playable and by the end of episode 1, believe me; you too will be demanding an expedient continuation.  Non-fans of the franchise or zombie stories in general may not find too much fun here because it doesn’t present enough generalized video-gaming enjoyment to be worthwhile otherwise.  Despite its cel-shaded look, this is not a game for kids as the gore factor is high, adult situations are plenty and characters can’t seem to hold back from dropping F-bombs left and right.  At $19.99 for the entire 5 episode package on the PSN network, I cannot recommend a better bang for your video gaming buck than The Walking Dead.

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Video Game Review: Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City

Is This Game Garbage?

A video game review Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City

By: Lawrence Napoli

 

 

[[wysiwyg_imageupload:1051:]]A little while ago, my crew of gaming and pop culture experts came together in a podcast to discuss the best video games of 2011, and how 2012’s lineup was apparently going to blow its predecessor away.  Well, you know what they say in regards to “the best laid plans of mice and men,” right?  Ninja Gaiden 3, the next chapter in a very popular series of ninja-action games has fallen flat on its face for having a completely irrelevant story and virtually no challenge.  Mass Effect 3 has sold an insane amount of copies, but this has led to a larger pool of passionate fans polishing their axes and pitchforks to lay siege to the offices of BioWare for concluding an epic fiction with one of the most controversially disappointing endings of all time.  This brings us to Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City or ORC, and I must remind the reader how this game was just about the hottest destination at this past year’s New York Comic Con.  The demo was brief, the booth was small and the line was long, but the game was fun; it was set in the Resident Evil universe and it featured the 4 player co-op slaughter of zombies. 

Fast forward to today, and the “full” game has not exactly hit the ball out of the park with critics and consumers.  What went wrong with this game?  What has been going wrong with 2012?  Have our expectations of worth in games swelled to such galactic proportions that “good” or “ok” games should all be mercilessly curb-stomped, and the studios that created them sent directly to bankruptcy hell?  I’m one of the worst people to play devil’s advocate in regards to the overburdening “higher standard,” as I frequently demand it in my film reviews, and specifically refer to Hollywood’s ever degrading standards as the sole reason why video games will one day replace movies as the dominant media entertainment art form.  People crave entertainment, and with limited resources, normal people cannot indulge in everything — which is why I write.  I provide the service of suggestion as passionately as I can in hopes of describing something that resonates with the reader not to make up his or her mind, but to highlight the good and the bad in everything.  That being said, ORC has no shortage of both.

Story

ORC is a game that attempts to recapture the lightning in the bottle that was Capcom’s first 3 entries in the series for the PSX that revolved around the Raccoon City incident which introduced the world to a man-made zombie apocalypse.  Resident Evil’s 1, 2 and 3 all involved gruesome tales of survival, betrayal, conspiracy and horror that spawned a rabid fan base, a series of novels and a somewhat successful film saga.  As convoluted as many of the plot points have been in every game, it remains an ever intriguing story driven forward by an incredibly diverse cast of interesting characters that sets men and women of action against the corporate/new world order agents of chaos.  ORC has absolutely none of these story elements at work for itself.

ORC is a really expensive “what if” production inspired by Resident Evil, but is in no way connected to the gaming fiction’s canon.  The events of ORC explore the Raccoon City incident of the late 1990s from the perspective of the antagonists: one of Umbrella’s highly trained team of spec-ops mercenaries charged with eliminating all incriminating evidence of the corporation’s involvement with the murder of an entire city’s populace.  I must admit that this starting point had all kinds of potential, but this lackluster tale of “fetch this,” “dodge that,” “kill this,” and “destroy that,” couldn’t have been delivered by a blander cast of characters.  Sure, the spec-ops team all look cool in their black combat suits and night vision masks, but there is no variance to any of them beyond what you see.  These mercs could be robots, and it wouldn’t make one bit of difference to the player.  Heck, they could even be really smart zombies.  Point is, there’s a whole lot of blah, blah, blah in ORC that any attempt at a story is met with immediate annoyance on the part of the player because nothing is really at stake, none of the characters really care, and it seems fitting because the only interesting thing going on the entire time is killing zombies.  You would think people in a fictional zombie apocalypse would be more emotionally vested in actually surviving. 

Game Play

As yet another 3rd person, cover based shooter, ORC does nothing exceptionally well or anything egregiously wrong in regards to its controls.  Shooting guns is really fun as there is a noticeable difference in firing pistols vs. rifles vs. shotguns vs. SMG’s.  Effective range for each weapon type is vital to progressing through the game especially at higher difficulty levels, so don’t expect to be pulling off many headshots from a mile away with a shotty.  Aiming, however, is not quite as satisfying.  Once the player tightens in for precision, shifting the crosshairs tends to get a tad blocky which might be the result of lag, but more likely inadequate frame rate.  Tossing grenades is a bit of a disappointment because there is no indication of a throwing arc to gauge where the explosives will actually land.  Aiming and then throwing results in a general landing zone, but doesn’t take low ceilings or obstructions into account, and often results in grenade tosses that bounce back in your face.  Melee attacks have been significantly downgraded in terms of speed and power that I witnessed in the demo at Comic Con.  Still, learning the proper timing of CQC chaining into brutal kills is quite fun, but requires trial and error because there is no ability to lock on to targets, so “aiming” your knife attacks works in tandem with the movement analog stick.

General navigation is not crisp.  Sure, this is the first Resident Evil to solve the inability to shoot while moving conundrum, but that doesn’t mean movement amounts to a victory here.  Sprinting is fairly responsive, but changing course mid-sprint requires an all out stop, redirect and re-sprint in a safer direction.  The volume of threats on the screen will require a healthy amount of awkward “stops” and “turns” because staying in cover won’t save you.  Speaking of the cover system, the only way you can do this is by depressing directional control to literally move your character into various objects.  I would be a fan of any action title doing something with button execution that didn’t involve one button being responsible for every single animation, but ORC’s scheme is NOT the answer.  Going into and out of cover requires the precision of pressing a button.  Sometimes there is a slight delay in one’s character actually going into cover which may result in death, but the same can be said of a button-cover control scheme if the response time isn’t instant.  Moving in between cover is actually quite smooth, but not recommended during firefights because a defensive combat roll doesn’t exist in ORC.  Your character practically stands up straight when leaving cover which, once again, rings the zombie dinner bell serving up some tasty morsels of Umbrella spec-ops.

Action

Action is the one and only name of the game in ORC, and it’s a good thing too because the constant need to shoot things and run away is one of the few good things going for this game.  The scale of zombie opposition is nowhere near the intimidating sea of undead one can witness in Dead Rising 2, but the utter frantic chaos that ensues more than makes up for it.  Most of the environments that the player navigates through are tight interiors which generate a decent amount of tension during shooting sprees.  This is only amplified at higher difficulty levels where friendly fire can inadvertently put down teammates in a matter of a couple stray shots. 

Unfortunately, one of the primary mechanics to this game actually detracts from the overall action: always having a full squad of teammates and the terrible AI that controls them.  This criticism is null and void if the player has three additional friends to fill every spot where discussing tactics and directing movement lead to the professional dispatching of undead opposition.  AI teammates, however, constantly block doorways, run directly into your line of fire, walk blindly into traps, infrequently use their special abilities and have no means of reviving the player if he or she goes down.  Yuck!  How on Earth could this AI be worse than Resident Evil 5 where the player could give an AI Sheva the most powerful firearm in his or her collection, and she would proceed to do nothing but knife zombies?   

Multiplayer

As I wrote before, maximum entertainment value gets squeezed from ORC IF (and only if) you play either the extremely short campaign or various online competitive formats with friends.  If the reader has played an online competitive shooter before, the formats of death match, capture and return to base and survival modes will all be familiar with the exception of one: heroes.  Hero mode involves every player to select one of the iconic personalities from Resident Evil’s 1-3 and control them in a death match type competition with one important wrinkle.  Heroes (good or bad) absorb a TON of damage, so much so that 5 grenade launcher rounds followed by 2 minutes of uninterrupted melee attacks cannot put a hero down permanently.  Fan boys of the series may find the current selection of heroes to be bittersweet as “the master of death,” HUNK is available, but neither Wesker nor Chris Redfield are to be found.  Perhaps more characters and formats will be available via DLC.

There’s plenty of stat tracking for the player’s performance in campaign and online modes, but not in the way most people are used to in CoD shooters.  Kill/death ratios include every kill during competitive formats, which means that if someone on your team is terrible at killing human competition, he or she can still be useful killing zombies littered about every level while contributing to the team’s score which ultimately determines the winner.  But the NPC (non-playable-character) fun doesn’t end there.  BOWs (bio-organic-weapons) like tyrants and hunters make their way to the battlefield, and taking these bad boys down will yield as many points as killing human competition.  I like that getting owned by the same douche-bag in death match is something that the player has more control over by going to a less populated section of the map to focus on zombie kills.

Aesthetics

ORC is the proverbial mixed bag when it comes to graphics.  Character models are extremely well detailed for Umbrella spec-ops, US Special forces and some BOW’s.  The same cannot be said of the level design.  The one exception to that criticism is the underground research facility, but otherwise, all of the hallways are dark, most of the open areas are bland, and the memorable locations (like the Raccoon City Police Department) simply do not generate wonder at any level.  I liked the damage effects on zombies.  If you take a shotgun to a zombie’s arm, head or leg at close range, BOOM!  It’s gone and the appearance of ripped off flesh remains.  Unfortunately, the overall look of the zombies themselves had a distinct copy/paste appeal to them.  Comparing the level of detail between Resident Evil 5’s majini to ORC’s zombies is like comparing the mastery of the English language between Shakespeare and George W. Bush.  

Final Thoughts

I cannot help but think that ORC is more of a well produced demo/beta rather than a full and complete video game worthy of the $59.99 price point ($69.99 for those of us lucky to get the extremely rare “Special Edition”).  The scope, game play and overall look of this video game are far too limiting which is quite ironic seeing how this series stood out from the crowd for being an expansive fiction.  It’s like developing a game about US counterinsurgency efforts in the Middle East while focusing only on the compound raid that ended Bin Laden.  Cool idea, but awfully brief and not very immersive.  It is important to note to the reader that this project wasn’t 100% Capcom.  Yes, Capcom published the game, but Slant Six Games developed it in Canada, and their only history of game development is with SOCOM games for the PSP and PS3 and none were considered to be massive successes or monumental fails.  Their games walk the fine line between good and mediocrity so much so that even I, an ardent fan of every Resident Evil game cannot give ORC a glowing endorsement. 

This is not an instant buy for most consumers because it simply is not refined enough to be worthy of having “Resident Evil” written on its cover art.  However, I cannot describe this game as garbage.  If the reader/player enjoys the action-packed slaughter of zombies everywhere and in multiple formats, ORC is at least worth a rental.  I continue to have a blast with this game because I have several real friends who jump into my squad in order to own zombies together.  If you find yourself with similar means, I would seriously recommend purchasing this.  If what you want out of this game is story, relevance or an intriguing take on the Resident Evil mythos — do yourself a favor and pass.  I would even go so far as to recommend forgetting this game ever existed if the reader/player doesn’t have any actual friends to play with, because matchmaking (even for campaign mode) often results in drop outs, leaving the player with an extremely handicapped team of AI that makes this game a chore. 

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It’s Hero Up Time! A Look At The Marvel Super Hero Squad MMO

Squaddies Assemble!

By: Chris “DOC” Bushley

 

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For those of us who grew up reading comics, it gave us a passion that few hobbies could ever rival. One that followed us from awkward teenage years through adulthood, and now we get the chance to see our beloved hobby take on a whole new meaning in the eyes of our children. What better way to bond with them than to sit and read about the very same heroes we cherished as children ourselves. My four year old daughter and I love hanging out and reading Marvel’s Wizard Of Oz series, and especially, DC’s Tiny Titans. And now we have discovered, I know this has been around for awhile but she’s only four, another way to enjoy our shared interests — Marvel’s Super Hero Squad Online! 

A scaled down MMO, S.H.S.O., is a great way to have your children interact with not only the characters they read about, but other fans as well. A free and safe environment, the game lets you take control of your favorite heroes and have them traverse four different locales to find coins, tickets and character balloons that will help “level up” your characters. You can also go on missions to defeat villains and earn experience points, battle players in Pokemon style card games, go shopping for other heroes and swag, decorate your very own headquarters from paint to furniture and even visit the arcade to play exclusive mini games! All in all, it’s a great time! 

You can become a Jr. S.H.I.E.L.D. member for a monthly fee, there are varying degrees and benefits, or just play for free! Whichever way you do it, it’s guaranteed fun! 

My new “Squaddies Assemble” article, will let you know when updates occur to the game. Since there have been so many this month, I will put them in random numerical order:

1.  Released for Valentine’s Day, you can now get Daredevil and Elektra card games for around two hundred gold each!

2.  Villain’s Fury booster packs were available for a limited time for free using the code: VillainsFury!

3.  Just in time for his horrible sequel, Ghost Rider is now available for purchase! He will set you back 1,200 gold but he is AWESOME!

4.  The new classic Daredevil, in original red and yellow costume, is now available for only 350 gold!

5.  Not to be outshone by his more heroic nemesis, the Bullseye mission is now available for purchase for a mere 200 gold coins!

6.  February is definitely “street” themed, and who is more street than — The Punisher! 600 gold will get you cartoon Frank Castle, aw yeah!

7.  Sale of the century! Classic Daredevil, Scarlet Witch, Mr. Fantastic, Valkyrie and, everyone’s favorite, Nova are all on sale for 300 gold!

8.  Now your Squaddies have a voice of their own! Helmed by most of the voice talents from The Super Hero Squad Show, all your characters can now talk!

(Update! Just yesterday S.H.S.O. gave us two brand new updates for Leap Day! Luke Cage is now available for purchase for 300 gold [the cheapest regular priced character ever!] and a new Kingpin mission is available for 200 gold! I told you anything can happen on Leap Day!)

With some very big months ahead for Marvel, I think they have some movies coming out or something, there is just no telling what updates will occur for this fantastic game. But rest assured, the “DOC” and “Lil’ Thunder” will be here to keep you informed of everything! So stop reading this, call your little super heroes together and head on over to HeroUp.com for some great family fun!

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Shepard Commander: Alert! This is the Mass Effect 3 demo review

Shepard Commander: Alert!

These Are My Impressions of the Mass Effect 3 Demo

 

[[wysiwyg_imageupload:750:]]I’ve had just about a week with BioWare’s first taste of the overall goodness that is the Mass Effect 3 demo and after even this short period of time, I must say that I am hooked.  I was modestly amused with the single player demo in that I was able to detect the noticeable difference in the combat flow, an improved AI and the new character animations Shepard engages in beyond running to waist high cover and throwing single elbows for melee strikes.  Then came the multiplayer component that released on February 17th and the fun factor went up a hundred fold.  When this concept was first presented by BioWare it was met with a wide array of skepticism, disinterest and in some instances, outright rage for what was perceived by fans and critics as the company cow-towing to formulaic game development.  Mass Effect is and always shall be an enveloping, dramatic, and action-driven role playing adventure that feels like you are controlling the characters of a cinematic, sci-fi saga.  “It doesn’t need multiplayer!” said the antagonists.  “Why must every game try to be like CoD just to make crazy profit?” queried the doubters.  “How much will this take away from the single player campaign?” asked the fans.  Although we don’t know how well the final product will ultimately play, this demo delivers a good amount of answers to the naysayers while simultaneously raising new concerns in even the most devoted fan boys such as myself. 

 

“The Good” about single player:

1) I played through the two chapters with every class using both male and female Shepards and they each played differently enough to necessitate different strategies in surviving and advancing.

2) The dialogue/discussion sequences look better than ever so long as BioWare keeps the “I should go’s” and excessive “Shepard” references to a minimum.  I expect a much greater degree of drama during these sections as the entire universe is under siege, but I wonder how well the tension can be eased when I presume moments of levity will be very scarce.

3) The combat plays like Mass Effect 2, but it is much faster, or rather, it can be much faster.  The amount of damage your Shepard-build can absorb will determine how direct you can be in firefights.  Rushing into and out of cover is a vast improvement and the addition of combat rolling in all four directions adds a welcome and dynamic means of averting disaster on the battlefield.

4) The game just looks so beautiful.  Every area of detail from environments to enemies to weapon effects and cut scenes has been upgraded.  The lighting effects from both “natural” and “unnatural” sources are particularly satisfying.

5) The AI has sharper teeth!  I’m not just talking about the inclusion of heavier ordinance such as the Atlas mechs.  It’s the support units that will give you headaches.  Enemy troopers will drop smoke bombs obscuring vision and disallowing biotic “lock-on” attacks, while others setup portable turrets at key choke points – while still others try to flank you and your party.  The fact that the AI is no longer stupid has me concerned for my “insane” difficulty play through.

 

“The Bad” about single player:

1) Shepard still rotates on his x-axis with the proficiency of a tank.  With the increased emphasis on close-quarter-combat, the ability to turn slightly (but swiftly) to face up the opposition has never been more necessary.  Too bad the player still can’t do this.  It gives me nightmarish flashbacks to the frustrating lateral movement of Resident Evil 5.

2) I’m not sold on grenades.  For the classes that have “grenade” abilities, they require skill points to unlock and upgrade just like any other biotic/tech/combat skills.  The problem is you need to find ammo dumps or enemy drops to replenish your supply.  Explosives can be very useful for crowd control situations, but I can’t help but think that maxing out self-renewing skills would be more reliable.

3) Shepard’s squad is still dumb.  One would think if the enemy AI got an infusion of grey matter that the player’s squad mates would at least get a taste, right?  Wrong.  I still had to direct Garrus and Liara to focus on the biggest threats on the field AND force them to use their very useful abilities to do so effectively.  I understand there’s a reason they call him/her “Commander” Shepard, but his team ought to be experienced enough to use proximity mines on groups of enemies without being ordered to do so.

4) Sticking to cover sometimes leads to sticky situations.  Going into cover all but triggers the enemy AI to advance and flank quickly, but getting out of cover to counter a flanking move is not nearly as responsive.  If perhaps movement was dictated strictly by the left analog stick independently from the camera angle (like Uncharted’s 1, 2 and 3) this wouldn’t be a problem at all.

5) Choice of combat class is a player-controlled handicap system.  When you account for a more dangerous AI and unreliable teammates, how the player dominates the field as Shepard is the name of the game.  Although some new skills have been added to every class they aren’t enough to make every class as viable as they were in ME2.  The three most important combat abilities in Mass Effect 3 are distraction, evasion and protection; thus the ranking of each class from weakest to strongest is as follows: Vanguard, Adept, Soldier, Engineer, Infiltrator, and Sentinel. 

 

“The Good” about multiplayer:

1) The ability to play as non-humans is an absolute thrill!  Having Drell, Asari, Turians, Quarians, Krogans, and Salarians in your party for past Mass Effect games does not compare to actually being a Drell, Asari, Turian, Quarian, Krogan or Salarian.  Each species have different pools of skills to dump points into as well as having unique movement/melee animations that will more than likely have veteran players avoiding human characters like the plague.

2) The co-op “survival” mode is challenging and unpredictable.  Players that are used to ME2 controls will have no problems picking up on all the subtle differences of every species, but regardless of individual skill, teamwork is the only thing that will see a safe extraction even on the lowest difficulty and the reward for clearing stages is a massive experience and credit bonus.  With experience bonuses given to every action like revivals, headshots, biotic kills, etc., this game rewards the player for contributing to the team.  Although kills can still be “stolen” by teammates, a point system is in place to give a proportional reward to each player depending on how much damage was dealt before the final blow.  It is quite refreshing to finally encounter a multiplayer mode that encourages non-douche-bag game play.

3) The baseball card pack unlocking system is surprisingly satisfying.  I mentioned that the player earns credits in addition to experience for clearing stages.  Experience allows the character’s abilities to grow in strength and versatility, but items must be purchased, but not in the manner in which gamers have become accustomed.  The player purchases starter, recruit and veteran “packs” with their credits which contain a random selection of items like new weapons, weapon modifications, ammo/armor boosts, health/revival packs and new characters to play as.  Some players may dislike the fact that luck plays a large role in them getting what they want, but they can take solace in two facts: 1- useless duplicates are fairly rare and 2- you have as good a chance at getting something awesome on your first pack as your 20th provided you always purchase veteran packs at 20K a piece.

4)  Experience that is earned within each combat class does not need to be re-earned to build new character unlocks within the same category.  On our preview podcast for Mass Effect 3, our associate Kevin brought up a valid concern for multiplayer being that the level cap is only 20 and therefore putting a glaring limitation on the player’s motivation to keep on playing.  My counter to that statement was that there were 6 classes, times 20 levels of advancement, times 4 species per class to build which yields 480 levels to be gained.  That is a very daunting number to achieve and thankfully not necessary.  When you get to level 20 in the soldier class as a human (only humans are available at the start) and you unlock the much coveted Krogan soldier, you do not begin from scratch if you want to use that character.  You do get all the experience points a level 20 would have to distribute as you see fit which is an excellent benefit seeing how max level non-humans are vital in completing the higher difficulties of multiplayer.

5) Modification and specialization is a huge strength.  Character uniforms will be able to alter colors, highlights and patterns to make every player’s team of specialists look unique.  Every gun has 2 modification slots to give the player enhanced stability, damage output, increased rate of fire and larger clip sizes.  Regardless of class, any character can bring any 2 guns into combat they have unlocked thus far (although I recommend picking 1 as your favorite in order to enjoy an increased power recharge bonus). 

 

“The Bad” about multiplayer:

1) Match making is broken and needs to be fixed ASAP!  If the player has three other friends to make a full squad with, you’ll have no problems making private matches and knocking out multiple rounds of play quickly.  Selecting “quick match” as a solo player is laughable in terms of “quickness.”  The majority of the time had me jumping into a lobby with only one other player and it would take forever to fill in the other 2 public slots – if at all.  Players can jump in and out of matches at will, but host migration is a wretched collection of load screens which can result in outright disconnection.  The amount of real time wasted in waiting for proper matches to be formed can become very frustrating.

2)   Connectivity of every player to multiplayer matches seems temperamental at best.  Another common sight in the matchmaking lobby is every player selecting the “ready” button with the exception of one.  At first I thought this was simply the result of some tool that is AFK or fooling around with his or her load-out for an unreasonable amount of time.  As this became a common theme I began to believe that it was the result of shoddy connections.  The game will randomly kick the player out of active games at a rate that is not problematic save for this fact: any progress the player has made is instantly nullified as the only way to save progress is by going all the way or having your whole party get wiped out within proper game menus. 

3) The X button is far too glitchy.  On the PS3, the X button is the all encompassing environment interaction key that is necessary to depress in order to go into and out of cover, revive teammates, execute combat rolls and engage/disarm devices that need to be hacked within the match.  Getting the X button to do what you actually want in crowds of enemies is terrible.  Reviving a teammate that is right next to waist-high cover is almost impossible.  Hacking devices that are next to walls requires spamming X because the game didn’t register the first 10 times you pressed it.  This shouldn’t be a problem for PC gamers by remapping actions to different keys, but counsel controllers have severe button limitations.

4) End game multiplayer motivation seems lacking.  It’s true that earning a combined 120 levels divided by 6 combat classes will take a healthy amount of time to accomplish.  Skilled players will have no problems doing this in casual plays sessions in less than 2 weeks.  The reward for multiplayer is advancement.  The reward for advancement is building a strong squad of specialists for Shepard to deploy in some manner during the single player campaign.  Where does that leave the player after that?  The answer lies in clearing stages at higher difficulty levels.  Silver challenges require 4 squad mates at level 10 at least to have a reasonable chance to win and gold challenges require everyone at max level, complimentary classes and players on top of their individual games to have a snowball’s chance in hell.  As of now, there doesn’t appear to be a point to subjecting yourself to that brutality other than pride and without a trophy or achievement to showcase the accomplishment, I don’t see many players being interested in participating at those higher difficulties.

5) Nobody seems interested in using headsets for this multiplayer mode.  Especially on higher difficulties, communication is vital in clearing these maps as there is no “radar” to exploit and unless the squad battles like a tight-knit Spartan phalanx, knowing precisely where downed teammates are located is pretty important info.  The two maps available for this demo are not particularly large so keeping tabs on your squad mates is less of an issue, but if maps get larger, players need to take advantage of this free communication option.  Also, if someone on your team is annoying, an option for muting them NEEDS to be included.  It exists in virtually every other multiplayer game.

 

So that’s the bottom line on the Mass Effect 3 demo.  Unfortunately, none of the progress that is achieved in the multiplayer portion will carry over to the full game, but that’s no reason to ignore this very fun demo.  It gives the player a risk free opportunity to experiment with class development within a virtual environment that is far less forgiving than previous installments.  The potential for EA and BioWare to reap massive profit on this piece of fictional entertainment has all been laid in the groundwork of ever intriguing replay options.  Although no demo is flawless, hopefully BioWare can make some patch alterations to iron out the minor yet noticeable wrinkles in an otherwise silky smooth video game experience.

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Review: Modern Warfare 3: A Critical Perspective On FPS’s In General

FPS’s Suck and These are the Reasons Why

A Video Game Review of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3

By: Lawrence Napoli

 

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How do I hate thee, FPS (First Person Shooter)?  Let me count the ways:  One, for the ignorant masses you attract like moths to the flame.  Two, for your lack of innovation.  Three, for the shameless way you “reward” twitch reflexes.  Four, for your inability to inspire team tactics.  Five, for the curious ways you make online matches.  Six, for the fact your single player campaign is merely a dressed up tutorial.  Seven, because everyone wants to be just like you.  And eight, because no other genre reaffirms negative stereotypes in regards to video games and gamers in particular.

Now before I start getting angry e-mails from clans and pro leagues, let me say that Modern Warfare 3 is an excellent video game, capable of inspiring a great deal of fun.  This isn’t political flip-flopping on my part (despite this article being about “curb-stomping the FPS genre”).  It is a statement of fact because I have found the Modern Warfare series to be uniquely satisfying; so much so, that a non-FPS aficionado like myself has gotten around to platinum-ing Modern Warfare 2 and am VERY CLOSE to doing the same with MW3.  Unfortunately, the thrill is already wearing thin, despite only owning this game for a month.  In this regard, MW3 definitely feels like a one night stand rather than a more fulfilling and hour consuming relationship.  Let’s face facts folks, gaming is not a cheap hobby to get into and it doesn’t look like we’ll ever see things getting better for the consumer, what with SOPA and the potential death of the used games market on the horizon (thank you Xbox 720).  Most games that I purchase are due to an interest in the title that is independent of its overall popularity.  I must admit that I bought MW3 (and MW2 before it) because EVERYONE was playing it, it was on sale for $40 and I am a shameless trophy whor. . . er. . . hunter.  Having played through what will likely be the best selling game of all time in MW3, I can see why it wasn’t on anyone’s short list for game of the year in 2011. 

MW3 appeals to the ignorant masses the same way Nintendo Wii appeals to non-gamers.  It’s a numbers game and the video game industry is interested in one thing and one thing only: MONEY!  Unlike the Wii, the FPS genre doesn’t attempt to shake down grandma and grandpa to buy into something for themselves that they’ll lose interest in a matter of weeks.  In fact, all FPS’s have a history of appealing to hard core, serious gamers that have had enough of an interest in counter-culture to reap countless hours of pleasure by engaging in virtual, ballistic homicide.  For a time, the FPS defined the very notion of counter-culture, but today, with this country’s ever growing comfort with violent imagery and the frequent video footage of US troops doing their duty in whatever foreign country happens to be the flavor of the week, everything about MW3 is as conventional as video games can deliver.  I don’t have a particular problem with this kind of shift to the mainstream so long as it doesn’t affect the quality of the product and unfortunately it has – cue MW3’s multiplayer mode and the knuckleheads that populate it.  Online competitive and cooperative modes to MW3 represent the majority of time that any player will spend on MW3, and if it’s one thing that can be assured about playing online, you will have to deal with people who don’t know how to play, show no willingness to learn, will cry like little girls every time they die and may get so frustrated that they’ll sabotage their own team just for kicks.  This is what happens when an overabundance of 10 year old boys con their relatives into buying them M-rated games like MW3 and that ruins a gaming experience.  It’s not like Activision can plead ignorance in reference to this point because this game’s major commercial partnership to promote its release was with Mountain Dew.  How many pre-teens drink that legalized crack cocaine like water? 

The lack of innovation in the FPS has been one of this genre’s calling cards recently, but it is especially true with MW3.  My day job is in retail. and I cannot tell you how many complaints I’ve heard from customers about this game specifically being “an expansion pack to MW2.”  It is a valid argument to make: interfaces are the same, game play is the same, game modes are the same.  The game is just newer with some more diverse environments and tries to trick you into believing they are interactive environments when they are merely fancy commencements to the beginnings of stages.  There are some improvements to make note of like the inclusion of survival mode (which is really a remix of zombie mode from Black Ops) and new kill streak bonuses like “becoming a juggernaut,” one of the iconic staples for this franchise.  Unfortunately, there have been a couple of issues regarding the level of “invincibility” the player is afforded once he or she dons the tactical armor suit.  First it’s too weak, then it’s too strong and each time there were patches to “fix” it.  I do not understand why such a minor alteration to game play wasn’t planned, programmed and play tested prior to release, but then Call of Duty desires to become the Madden of FPS’s: a new title every year that requires minimal effort while yielding maximum profit. 

MW3 “rewards” twitch reflexes more so than any other FPS in history to my recollection.  “Well no duh!” says the FPS fan, “that’s what shooters do.”  I fully understand that the player’s ability to identify a threat on the screen, aim at said target and dispatch with extreme prejudice is what separates the bad from the good from the great from the pros.  This is what is considered to have excellent twitch reflexes.  My major criticism of this fact is that MW3 does not require prolonged marksmanship in order to take down targets (unlike the higher difficulties of campaign mode), making the initial “twitch” of snapping to a target much more than half the battle.  It may be less realistic, but games incorporate a shield/armor/protection system to impose a prolonged marksmanship standard in order to counter common exploits in multiplayer competitive formats like: camping out respawn points, differences in individual ping rates and server/user lag.  Challenging the player with not just making your first shot count, but the ten that follow it allows those targeted to at least have a fighting chance to counter.  MW3 clearly values the realism of the preemptive strike over anything else which is great for the virtual training of real world soldiers, but not a very effective form of entertainment.  

Despite this dedication to “realism,” MW3 doesn’t reward the individual that employs team tactics and actually inspires players to run around like loose cannons to advance in level more quickly so as to unlock a more powerful arsenal.  It’s all about accumulating that kill count and no one likes their kills to be “stolen” by one’s teammates firing on the same target as you.  What better way to assure an individual’s performance by running off on your own?  The only problem with that is that those considered to be “great” players and 100% of pro’s ALWAYS use team tactics, thus making the rogue trooper a glutton for 2, 3 (or more) on one’s – which always results in death.  How about bonuses for combo kills when the whole squad empties rounds into a single target?  This frustration is only amplified in survival mode when the name of the game is SURVIVAL, which means that being in close proximity to your 1 squad-mate if he or she gets downed is necessary to revive them quickly.  Squatting at opposite ends of the map is a strategy for imbeciles yet is a common occurrence in this game mode.

Match making in MW3’s multiplayer modes is somewhat of a mystery to me.  It may be a little old school of me to say this, but I miss the old days of lobbies that waited to be filled.  These lobbies would be a little more descriptive of the type of match you were going to join as well as the other players that were going to play, and if you didn’t like the layout, you weren’t committed to that match.  MW3 (and just about every other FPS out there) has evolved past this archaic method in favor of blind server match ups which really speeds up the process of going from match to match with minimal down time (server permitting, of course).  Unfortunately, the player has no control over the matches he or she is getting into which means there is a chance (more like a certainty) that you could wind up in a game with nothing but pre-pubescence or a high level clan that takes pride in noob hunting – neither of which is very enjoyable which could be corrected with a more comprehensive and structured match making system that takes player choice into consideration.  Match making in Survival or Spec Ops is outright broken.  One in ten player match ups results in a pairing that is productive for me.  The rest of the time, the other player is AFK, a stupid child or a knucklehead that begins the match by knifing me in the back only to revive me and then knife me once again.

There once was a time (not so long ago) when FPS’s were singular experiences.  Where you turned something on and a challenge was beset before an individual and it was only the virtual environment itself that stood between the player and the goal.  The dawn of the multiplayer experience has brought the ever adapting challenge of human competition, and many regard this type of game as the true mark of accomplishment and advancement because software behaves in defined patterns, and all the player has to do is “learn the trick” to beat the computer.  Unfortunately for the FPS, this has led to an unbalanced shift in attention to online formats which has sacrificed the quality of single player modes with the exception of the BioShock franchise (an FPS still dedicated to story, character and drama above all else – none of which you get by running around trying to shoot people in the head, akin to death match).   MW3 is no exception despite the fact that its single player campaign produces an infinitely practical and somewhat plausible series of fictional events.  It is important to note how the FPS format leaves character identification, relation and development at a severe disadvantage to the player because the player never sees what his or her character looks like.  MW3 is so shameless about the player assuming the role of “some guy” that the player jumps to and from multiple faceless names on various fronts during the global conflict it depicts.  This kind of disconnection between character and player takes the concept of story and relegates it to second class citizenship.  Thus, the single player campaign degenerates into little more than a prolonged tutorial that gets the player acclimated with the basics of control and nothing more.

As the Modern Warfare franchise happens to be the gold standard of the FPS genre, every other game out there so desperately attempts to emulate (if not outright copy) elements of its game play and graphics so as to duplicate equally impressive sales numbers.  The one benefit to this has become somewhat of a standardization of button layouts: left shoulder buttons aim, right shoulder buttons fire, analog sticks navigate and so on and so forth.  Even if one is unfamiliar to FPS controls, learning it once will give you the skills and comfort to slide into any future FPS game.  The bad part about being the coolest kid on campus is that copycats like you so much that stark deviations from the formula are looked upon as undesirable, thus feeding back into the whole “lack of innovation” problem I mentioned earlier.  Other FPS’s distinguish themselves in subtle differences such as the inclusion of vehicles, larger maps, different terrain, but the lynch pins of these games don’t really change.  The player is a member of some kind of army, the standard array of realistic shotguns, side arms, assault and sniper rifles are available, the bad guys are Russians, Nazis or terrorists, movement is rarely more dynamic than running, health regenerates if you can find cover and head shots are inconsistently reliable against AI and human opposition.  Does all of this sound familiar to you?  It should, you’ve only been there and done that a hundred times. 

Finally, I must make note of the negative connotation that is attracted to the gaming community as a result of the shear presence of FPS’s and Modern Warfare in general.  True gamers know there is a difference between themselves and the knuckleheads that pop in a disk every once in a while.  The true gamer is interested in playing many if not all game types, thus exposing the individual to more than the concept of “shoot the bad guy in the face to win.”  Coincidentally, these individuals tend to have been exposed to better education and life experiences to develop the intelligence and intrigue to be interested in gaming variety in the first place.  These factors also trend against this kind of individual being a racist, bigot, sexist or general malcontent, i.e. the “knuckleheads” I specifically refer to that make all gamers look bad.  You know them as the jerks that cross the line of simple trash talk into the realm of verbal abuse in online gaming.  Guess what kind of game the knuckleheads all but exclusively play?  FPS’s and every iteration of Call of Duty

Obviously, these cretins do not compose the majority of gamers, but the rest of society has specific phenomena to create their own generalizations about the connection between human behavior and video games.  How many trucks carrying copies of MW3 were hijacked in France last year?  What FPS game was credited with inspiring Columbine?  What kind of war game does the military use in training?  These kinds of stories hit the main stream media like an uppercut from Ali and the opinionated fallout is impossible to curtail.  To suggest that FPS’s (or video games in general) were the direct cause of these events would be irresponsible, but to suggest they have absolutely nothing to do with the equation would be dumb.  MW3 and FPS’s in and of themselves are not the problem and I do applaud their efforts in addressing the toxic online environment by being more vigilant in the banning of abusive users, but until problematic players become better people, the stigma will remain.  This last point I make about FPS’s is less of a criticism and more of an observation, but it doesn’t make the situation “suck” any less and ought to be discussed because awareness can hopefully inspire enlightenment.

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Video Game Review: Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure (PS3)

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Around Christmas time I took my two little dudes to the local Target to get some ideas what they wanted to put on their Christmas lists. As we made our way past the toys to the video game section, there stood this intriguing looking display. There were these figures that you could place on some kind of pad, which were then instantly usable in the game.

Now, how cool is that?!

Suffice to say my kids were hooked, and Santa was hitting up his elves to make Skylanders: Spyro Adventure for seventy bucks.

Might sound like a lot of money, but it comes with the game, three of the Skylander figures, and the Portal upon which the figs are placed. Actually, you could have scored this around Black Friday for $50.00 or so. I think the Wii version can still be found for that as well.

I’m not a “gamer,” so Spyro is new to me, but the game is made up of a world filled with all kinds of different animal and monster based characters: Dragons, Trolls, Sharks, Undead things, etc. Each of the Skylanders can be leveled up, and with that acquire new powers. In addition to discovering treasure chests filled with new add-ons, there are many missions and side quests to keep you busy for sometime. There are even Skylander packs that you can purchase at the store that come with more adventures and power-ups as well.

Regarding the game, it’s is one heck of a fun time! And it’s easy to play to boot! My almost 4 year old has no trouble at all; likewise, my 7 year old finds it entertaining just the same. And with dear old Dad onboard, we’ll take Kaos and his evil minions down in no time!

The game is simple to play, there is no need for jumping so the youngsters won’t have trouble coordinating the buttons. Speaking of, the attack system is super easy, as you just need to press a button or two. As the story and your character progresses you are offered more advanced attacks, but again, it’s just so darn easy. And if your character loses its life, you just need to replace it with another Skylander. It’s so simple and genius at the same time, I can’t believe no one thought of this before.

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The Portal is connected wirelessly to the PS3 via a USB chip. It’s really neat and resembles a castle tower. You press a button, it lights up, and you place a couple Skylanders on top. The screen then shows an animated feature announcing that your Skylander has arrived! I’m assuming there is some chip or code embedded in each of the Skylander figures that the portal reads. Another great feature is that the Skylander figures retain the information from the game, so if you take a figure to a friend’s house, it’s at the same level.

I do have a few issues with the game, but only things that can make this even the better. For one, it would have been nice if the Portal came with an option to plug in! The portal seems to run out of batteries pretty quickly. Then again, when you play it 24-7… Anyway, my next nitpick would be the ability to skip the dialogue. One of my sons started a new game and saved over the old, so everything has to be repeated. That means listening to all the characters talking and giving directions all over again. At times you can skip certain animations, but having the ability to bypass the dialogue would be great! Especially for the parents out there accompanying their youngsters on the journey! Finally, it would have been great to have more than two playable characters at the same time. 

The game animation is superb, resembling a Saturday morning cartoon. The worlds and lands of the Skylanders are very detailed, the sound effects and voices of the characters are spot on. The game is a sure hit as every store in my area is sold out of the 32 figures and adventure packs. 

I can’t recommend this game enough. 

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