Sparky's Update - MW3, WWE '13, and iPad goodness

"I don't rightly recall the first time I read Sparky's Update, or about the month or so surrounding it. Because that blog blew my mind, compadre." -Adam West, The Huffington Post, 1835-ish

Are you ready to have the insides of your mind licked? Your mental taste buds are about to taste the rainbow, because I'm finallygetting around to writing another Sparky's Update. This week, we're gonna shoot the shit about the divisive pros and cons of WWE 13, the solidly okay Modern Warfare 3, and I'm gonna introduce a new segmant, tentatively called the iPad Corner, wherein I discuss in quick broad strokes a good game or two I've been playing on my iPad. Ready? Break!

Like an Elbow Drop to Mah Man Parts

At first, second, third, and fourth glance, WWE '13 is simply treading water. If you're expecting fixes to the net code that dumps you out of online connections nine out of ten times, forget it - this is still the same net code used the last few years, with even more problems, if you can believe that. If you're hoping for a fix to the sometimes wonky hit detection and clipping, forget it. If you're expecting new animations, an extensive line of new CAW parts, or upgraded graphics, forget it. If you're hoping for new Legends to be added, rather than retooled versions of current wrestlers and wrestlers who've appeared in previous iterations of the WWE games, forget it - you've seen all these wrestlers rehashed several times over the last decade.

In short, if you've disliked the prior WWE games for any of the reasons above, you're not gonna be particularly fond of this one. It does absolutely nothing to fix any of the problems inherent to the series.

So why in the holy hell do I find myself liking the game?

I should despise it. The broken net code is the most glaring and painful problem for me, because I love downloading CAWs based on real wrestlers so I can have a fun, padded game for the Universe mode. They've made the bizarre, reprehensible decision to hide most of the CAWs behind the ludicrously priced season pass. You cannot download certain CAWs without it. When you consider that most of the folks behind the game probably aren't going to be around to release compatibility patches, it makes sense, but it's still a huge detriment to the game. So why oh why don't I care?

It's not really the Attitude stuff, either. Don't get me wrong, I love the idea of reliving wrestling's biggest matches and want to see variations of this for WCW and feuds from the WWE in the late eighties and early nineties. But the simple fact of the matter is that the Attitude stuff gets pretty old, thanks mostly to the fact that there's really only a focus on about six to eight wrestlers of the era, and you see those wrestlers recycled constantly. Even though they have the likes of Edge and Christian and Vader, you only get about one match per side wrestler, and most of those are relegated to a tacked-on "also ran" feature that doesn't use any of the voice work or design of the rest of the Attitude section.

What it is, then, is that this feels like the first WWE game in quite some time with heart. I've said it before - I'm a fan of the three-legged mongrels of the video game world, and this is one of those. It's crippled in so many ways by a lack of budget and uncertainty about THQ's future, but I can't help but love its ugly mug because of the fight and determination in its eyes. Yes, it's a yearly iteration of a series that has long needed a complete retooling, but there's a spirit here that sort of gets what we old school wrestling fans love about the "sport" and the games. Part of that is the nostalgia - reliving Undertaker throwing Mankind off the Hell in the Cell is a thrill, to be sure - but mostly I think it's in the way the game completely ignores the modern blandness of wrestling in favor of "the good ol' days." Truth be told, the game could have used even more of the spectacle, and hopefully with new hardware and new owners, the series will thrive and hopefully see the upgrades it so desperately needs.

So yeah, this is a wrestling game for wrestling fans. That's no real surprise.

The Sum of All Fears. Well, Fears, and Simple Delights

Modern Warfare 3 is more Modern Warfare.

I'm not going to try to sway you to play it, or not. There's a simple, delightful formula to these games, and while I doubt I'd pay the full price for a Call of Duty game until it sees a massive revamp, I have no problem whatsoever paying $30 for a big, dumb, fun action game. And that's what this is. I can't play the multiplayer, as usual. But for the spectacle of the single player and the fun of the bonus mode Spec Ops, I think the game is well worth the price of admission.

I'll throw out a couple of minor niggling complaints and some praise here. The levels don't really focus on the most promising aspect of MW2 - the war on American soil. Unfortunately, the levels are relatively bland game affairs - you'll raid a castle, storm through a sandy town, enter a bland mine. There's one spectacular level set in Paris, but that's about it. These levels are also fairly narrow in scope, to the point of feeling overly brief. It doesn't help matters much that at times the game bizarrely reminiscent of a corridor shooter.

In its favor, the game attempts to solve a common problem amongst us color blind folk by including a color blind option for the names in multiplayer. It's cool that they do this, and hopefully it's expanded in the future to include the ability to choose the colors you see for the names of teammates and enemies. That'd be a huge step towards evening the playing field for us.

The iPad Corner

For this section, I'm not going to try to bother focusing in on obscure or indie games. This will be a completely random section, filled with whatever games and apps I feel like talking about, so odds are, you will know a great many of the games I cover. But for those of you as new to i-products as I am, maybe some of this will be helpful and fun.

-Towers N' Trolls is my latest crack of choice. I love me some tower defense with RPG elements, particularly games like Bloons and this one. The gameplay is simple enough - you build towers, you stop the enemy horde. Enemies drop crystals at random that can either charge your special attacks when drained or be used in between levels to purchase upgrades for your towers and special attacks. It's those upgrades that turn the game from normal to super fun, as there are tons of upgrades to purchase, and they feel immediately effective and useful. For around a buck, it's a really fun game.

-Temple Run 2 is essentially more Temple Run, but there are some neat little tweaks to the formula, such as a mine cart section. I'm still dreadful at it, but they've made some nice little level tweaks and it actually seems easier to see corners and obstacles than in its predecessor. I have no idea if that's just in my mind or not, but there you have it. The fact that it's free is the icing on the cake. I don't usually like endless runners, but this one's sort of fun.

-Middle Manager of Justice feels like it could've used some more time in development. You essentially build up a base, hire a handful of heroes to fight crime, and upgrade your abilities along the way. That's a hell of a solid premise for a game. If they'd added some variations to the combat scenes, I think it might have been great. As it is, it can be frustratingly repetitive. I'd check it out if it's on sale, but keep in mind that the game gets dull pretty fast.

The Rest

-I suspect there are many people who are reading it or will read it, so I'll keep the spoilers to a minimum, but A Memory of Light is a pretty great end to the Wheel of Time series. I wouldn't have minded an epilogue, and there's a moment late in the novel that's frustratingly coy with the reader, but overall, it's a pleasant end to a series I've been reading for nearly twenty years. Crazy.

-Fringe also ended this week. I adored that show, despite its plot problems and case of the week format. The last two seasons really showed what the series could have been. I'll miss Anna Torv being on my TV (thanks to Marino for correcting me on the spelling of her name, which I'd thought was Tory for years), but I liked the conclusion and look forward to seeing what the talent in the show and behind the scenes will do in the future.

And that's about it for this week. Take care, guys and gals.

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Sparky's Update - Happy New Year!

"Sparky's Update? Did you say Sparky's Update? Cheese and crackers, that blog is like a big, endless bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch! It's amazing!" - The 'Noid in an interview with Men's Fitness, circa 1995.

I'm sitting here wrapped up in a blanket and sipping from a mug of tea hot enough to burn my throat. Ugh. Colds suck. I also haven't done a bit of "real" gaming all week, save for some brief Rock Band Blitz shenanigans and a brief hunting spree in ACIII. So instead, I thought I'd use this week's blog to highlight what I'm looking forward to most in the coming year. I'm also going to apologize up front for not taking the time to fix my award blog's editing problems. Blame it on laziness, but I still haven't bothered fixing up the headers properly. Truth be told, I probably won't, either.

My amazing brother gave me an iPad this year for Christmas, so I've been playing a lot on that this week. My crack of choice is mostly Bloons, with a bit of Simpsons: Tapped Out, Tiny Planes, and Worms Crazy Golf thrown in for good measure. Yeah, I double-dipped on Crazy Golf, but trust me, that game is good enough (and more importantly, cheap enough) that I don't really care. It actually plays a bit better on the iPad too, something that baffles me. Maybe it's just that I can pull the iPad closer nad see it better? I don't know. In any case, that machine is awesome. Sure, there aren't a whole lot of affordable "real" games on it, but there are countless, insanely cheap ways to help kill a few hours here and there. If any of you have any RPG or tower defense recommendations, I'd love to hear them. I'm not a fan of endless runners, but I'd be open to other suggestions as well so long as you provide an adequate description of the game and why I should try it.

Anyways, on with my...

Bodacious List of Groovy Stuff I'm Looking Forward to Most in 2013

New Systems

Of course this is the biggie on every serious gamer's mind. With the Wii U just about set to leave its "launch window" (winner of the Most Hated Ambiguous Term of Recent Years) and new systems from Sony and Microsoft sure to be announced sometime this year, the big 3 will be the obvious focus. But what will they be? That's the most delicious question of them all, boys and girls. Will Microsoft continue trying to eat away at the family-friendly market Nintendo has dominated? Will Sony continue to woo the regular gamer with exclusives?

And there's another question too, one that likely won't be answered in 2013 - how long will current consoles be supported? This leads to more questions, like how will DLC and XBL/PSN games be transferred over, if at all? This is going to be a year where Microsoft and Sony will have to walk carefully on eggshells. We know what we can expect roughly from the new consoles by examining current trends - both will continue to push graphics and memory updates. I'm willing to bet Microsoft will also introduce Kinect 2.0. But what about Sony? Will they take the lessons learned from Move and the Vita and focus in on creating a gaming console first and foremost, or will they push more and more gimmicks and features in their hardware? Obviously, both companies will continue to push the idea that the console can do everything a person would want in an entertainment center, so we'll also likely see limited exclusivity for browsers, video apps, and music.

None of that honestly really matters as much to me as the games. We're very likely to see something announced from most of the major companies. I'm willing to bet we'll see a preview of whatever game is going to be made from that stunning Square-Enix tech demo before 2013 ends, Watch Dogs certainly looks like a lock for next-gen consoles as well. But it's the unknown games that really get me excited, and not just for Microsoft and Sony. Which leads me to...

Hey Big N, Whatcha Got Cooking?

Animal Crossing: New Leaf looks like good ol' Animal Crossing fun, and we'll see Pikmin and that Monster Hunter 3 re-re-release. But it's what Nintendo is holding in the wings for E3 and their own version of fireside chats that intrigue me. Will we finally see a new F-Zero? Some new IPs? We're almost certainly due for a new Metroid game sometime in the next year or two, and I can't imagine the year will end without a new Mario game being announced to combat the new console releases.

But what about continued 3rd party support? Wii U versions of games are drying up fast, and soon, they'll almost be certain to be lagging behind in terms of performance, so Nintendo needs to make this their continued focus in the new year. They have maybe about eight months of relying on ports from current console games to shore up their 3rd party sales, which should nudge them to reveal long-term strategies this year in order to appease investors and gamers. Nintendo also now recognizes the need for a strong fanbase, so I suspect they'll come at this hard. But will 3rd party developers commit to creating Wii U exclusives? I don't know.

It's not just the Wii U that will need to make a killing this year. What about the little 3DS? What does Nintendo have planned for it? Will we see it become another haven for JRPGs (please say yes)?

The Games for Current Systems and PCs

Very likely, none of what I said above will matter much to me personally, since I won't be buying a new console anytime soon. I don't think I'd buy day one even if I was flush with money - tech issues from this generation taught me that lesson - which is probably a good thing, since there are so many good-looking games this year for current consoles. You can see a list of the games I'm most anticipating in the first half of 2013 in my List section, but here's a quick rundown on my three most anticipated games of 2013 for current consoles (and the PC).

-Ni Nu Kuni looks like a return to (RPG) form for Level-5. Having loved Rogue Galaxy and Dark Cloud, I was a touch upset when I spent my hard-earned cash on the stinker that was White Knight Chronicles. It was a mess, mechanically, and it lacked the love and charm of Level-5's better efforts. Ni Nu Kuni looks to fix all that, or so I hope. The game looks stunning visually, and after watching a lengthy Gamespot video on its early sections, I think the gameplay looks good too. It's the only game in 2013 I've preordered, and will likely stay that way.

-SimCity has me stoked. It looks accessible and colorful in all the right ways. EA will no doubt try to find a way to strangle pennies out of players, but for now, it looks terrific.

-I know practically nothing about Dead Island Riptide, but just the fact that it exists has me excited. If it's more Dead Island, I'll be perfectly content.

And that's really about it for this week. Have a great New Year, folks. What new games, movies, and books are you looking forward to in the new year?

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I Give Out Awards. Lots And Lots of Awards.

"When I think back to 2012, what I remember most is Sparky's Update. That, and stacks of Benjamins. No, really, stacks of guys named Benjamin. I did a lot of acid back then." -Darth Vader

"Sparky's Update? That blog still owes me ten bucks!" -An unreliable, lying hobo

"Cheddar. It's definitely my favorite. Wait. No. Maybe mozzarella? Hell, I don't know. Ask me again on Tuesday. What? Sparky's Update? Who the hell is that?" -Jack Bauer

Words to live by. Words that define the year that was.

What with the craziness of the holidays and my newfound mod-hood, it was pretty hard to find some time to come up with a coherent list and awards for the games I played in 2012. So naturally, I abandoned coherency, and have approached this with a childlike, gleeful abandonment of thought and preplanning. Have fun, keep away from the pointy edges, and whatever you do, do NOT read the following. You have been warned.

Those Weird 2011-2012 Games

These games get a special section unto themselves, as all of these are games I technically started and mostly played in 2011, but didn't finish until 2012. Since there would be some overlap in lists and awards (Saints Row 3 definitely would make the top two or three of my GOTY lists, in particular), these games get a shady back alley of this blog for their awards. I'm also not going to bother spending a lot of time yakking about these. So... yeah. Cool? Cool.

Best Create-a-Duder

WWE '12

When and if the servers ever work in THQ's wrasslin' franchise, you can download a stunning number of created wrestlers to fill up your roster, pretty much rendering the abysmal character selection a moot point in these games. With tag teams like Robocop and Weird Al, I couldn't help but love the CAW aspect of WWE '12.

If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It (At All) Award

Uncharted 3

Uncharted 3 pretty much takes its predecessor's idea of creating a cinematic third-person shooter and puzzler, and does precisely nothing with it, besides tell a pretty great little story in the Uncharted universe. Is it the next great evolution in the series? Nope. Is it still a great deal of fun? You betcha!

Best Sing-Along

Saints Row: The Third

You may call that parachute drop out of the chopper the best part of Saints Row: The Third. Well, I would too. But the second-best part? That stupid little moment with Pierce when you're both singing along to the same goofy 90's song. It's a terrific oddball moment in a game completely full of terrific oddball moments.

Best Game With a Guy Named Ezio In It

Assassins Creed: Revelations

I really liked Revelations. it told a quiet, mature story about Ezio and it wasn't afraid to try some experimentation with Desmond's story - which has traditionally been the worst part of the AC games. Mechanically, it wasn't much different from Brotherhood, and it did introduce a number of annoying elements and problems, but overall? I thought it was a pretty terrific game.

Worst Game With a Guy Named Ezio In It

Assassin's Creed II

Oh, don't get me wrong. ACII was terrific in its own right. But I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as I did AC:R. Still, ACII beats the overloving crap out of ACIII. We'll get to that stinkin' turd in a little bit. As stated by a gazillion other people, ACII did have one of the strongest stories in the AC games to date, rivaled only (maybe) by Brotherhood.

The Games I Actually Played This Year! Hooray!

Settle in. This shit is gonna get craaaaazy long. I like to award every game I've played each year with an award, be it good, bad, or weird. I've played a ton of games thoroughly this year, and as such, this awards ceremony is gonna be like the Oscars - overly bloated, full of eye-rolling douchebaggery, and loaded with crappy jokes that fall straight on their faces.

Sparky's Game of the Year

Borderlands 2

Much like last year, I wanted to get this award out of the way early for those who peeked in here just looking for my GOTY pick. Also, much like last year, the winner is head and shoulders above the rest of my Top Ten (which you can see when I've finalized it soon!). All Borderlands 2 had to do was bring more Borderlands to the table. And it did that - in spades. There's more charisma, more to see, more to do, more guns, more terrific character building options. The Badass rank system is my favorite new upgrade, and I'd love to see it inspire clones in other games. I even love the characters that the Internet loves to hate, like Handsome Jack and Tiny Tina. I've never had such a pleasant experience with a game's co-op either, as this game led to some new e-friendships and a whole lot of good times.

Good Intentions Gone Bad Award

War in the North

Unfortunately, when it comes to Lord of the Rings, there's a distinct lack of creativity since the release of the film trilogy, particularly when it comes to the games. Almost every single one cleaves to the time period and places featured in the novels. Although War in the North takes place in the fringe around the story of the Fellowship, it forsakes any opportunity to tell a great story of its own and relies on fanservice and the story of the trilogy to mold a weird, also-ran tale with no redeemable qualities. Mechanically, it's pretty okay - the action-RPG elements are neat, the hub system and quests offer up some variety, and graphically it has a pleasant style. But the story is just so bland and derivative that it's hard to recommend. Game companies, take note if you have access to the LOTR license - let's start making use of the Silmarillion for ideas on games in the LOTR universe that don't necessarily revolve around a ring.

Straight-Up Crappiest Game of the Year

Divinity II

There's a point early on in Divinity II when I thought it wasn't going to be so bad. There were lots of characters to interact with, a few fun quests, and a promising leveling system. And then the game decided to crap on all of that by introducing a mechanic where you shape-shift into a dragon. The game immediately, jarringly cuts out those interesting elements, getting rid of the towns and character interaction in favor of horribly designed new areas, incredibly bad aerial combat, piss-poor quest tracking, and a story so awful that the best part about the thing was seeing it end. There's one - ONE - nice story element in the etnirety of the game, and that doesn't come until the very last minute.

Stay away from this game at all costs.

Best Prequel

Crisis Core

It takes Crisis Core a while to hit its stride, but when it does, it's an admirable little RPG. While the dungeons and general environments are awful and don't let you experience exploration, the greatest joy of FFVII, it does a great job of fleshing out some characters and has a lot of charm in its own right. Zack is a great protagonist. The game is also noteworthy for having one of the best endings in a game I've played this year.

Best Worst Accents

Broken Sword: Sleeping Dragon

OK. So the accents aren't that bad. Sleeping Dragon was a pretty okay adventure game, mired down only by the conventions of the time. Keyboard-only controls are a nuisance, and the game requires a ton of item hunting in some pretty hard-to-see areas. That said, the story's decent and it's really hard not to like Nico and George, the two protagonists, as they continually bumble their way around.

Most Eye-Rolling Oversexualization of a Character, Obviously

Tomb Raider: Legend

The single most Herculean task of any game next year will be the recreation of Lara Croft into an adventurer, not a puzzle-solving pair of boobs with a British accent. Legend isn't a bad game - some of its mechanics are actually really decent, even today - but Lara's portrayal was straight-up awful at times, as it always tends to be. The voice actress, though, was really decent, doing the best with what was shit material. The insanely awful Arthurian-based plot was atrocious too. The game spends far more dialogue than is necessary explaining well-known facts about the Arthurian legend between characters that would know all this material already. This game didn't so much let exposition slip out as it did vomit it.

The "I'm Surprised I Didn't Like This Game More" Award

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

Let's get this straight - Lords of Shadow is a good game, made all the more surprising because it's a modern Castlevania game that doesn't suck. It looks terrific, the boss battles are big in scope, and the voicework is superb. But about halfway through it, I got a bit bored with the game. The melodramatic plot was a touch overbearing, and its conclusion was foreshadowed far too early. The gameplay, while decent and very mechanically sound, got a bit repettive. I don't know. I get why people really enjoyed this game, but it's just not one of my favorites this year.

Best Traditional Level Designs

Sonic Generations

While one other game on this list surprised me more in its non-suckitude, no game on this list had so many bad predecessors as Sonic Generations. Not only did this game surpass the low bar of its predecessors, it did so with tons of charm and great gameplay. While I'll likely never beat the game due to visual problems with an end boss, I played and enjoyed the everlovin' hell out of this game. Even more surprising, the level designs both in 2D and 3D are really fantastic, blending the old with the new in a way that doesn't feel like it's trying to cash in on modern fads or create some gimmick for the hell of it. This really is a good game.

Best Crafting

Star Ocean: First Departure

Star Ocean: First Departure may have been a forgettable game, but its crafting and leveling systems were definitely not. Ambition is the name of the game here, with all sorts of skills that can be increased by spending points when a character levels up. Some of these give stat or combat bonuses, but most affect the crafting system. By learning a few different skills, the character can craft certain recipes. Since there are lots of skills, it becomes prudent to spread out specialities among the characters, both in terms of combat and crafting. But if characters overlap certain skills, they can perform group crafting, which creates even more powerful items. While not all of it is useful, it's a terrific basis for a system.

The Kitchen Sink Award

Kingdoms of Amalur

Among the bits of bad news this year in the gaming world, one of the saddest moments was the closing of 38 Studios after the release of Kingdoms of Amalur. An ambitious game, Amalur tried to reach for the stars, and while its mediocre story and characters ended up hurting the game, I'd say it succeeded - at least, mechanically and in scope. The combat in this game was seriously gratifying, blending a great skill-tree based leveling system with spot-on mechanics that felt oh-so-right. Throwing chakrams at baddies, preparing a spell, sneaking around... it was terrific. And the game's implementation and refinement of elements from other games may have been blatant, but it was superbly done. With the scope and fast travel of Skyrim and the skill trees and loot of Diablo 2, Amalur knew what mechanics could create addiction. This potential franchise deserved a better fate, and I hope someone picks up the IP or carries the torch spiritually.

The RPG Retrospective Game of the Year

Vagrant Story

When it came down to this award, I didn't have to think twice. No other classic RPG this year drove me forward as much as Vagrant Story. The plot and characters are superb in that way that classic Square PS1 RPGs tended to have. They felt fleshed out beyond the scope and needs of the game. Someone spent a lot of time designing these characters, this plot, this world (which is set in Ivalice - joy!). This kind of care just isn't as visible nowadays in JRPGs, and it's a damn shame. Though honestly, we can all do without the bug hair and assless chaps.

Most Annoying Character

Mew, from Tales of the Abyss

My dog went apeshit every time he heard the character Mew say anything in Tales of the Abyss. I agreed with him whole-heartedly. No character was as grating as this. I wanted to punt my 3DS every time it appeared.

Best Tower Defense Games

Orcs Must Die and Orcs Must Die 2

I'm cheating a bit here by listing these games together, but honestly, they deserve mentioning together. Orcs Must Die laid down a terrific basic formula - you set traps for the countless orcs and take control of a hapless buffoon armed with a machine-gun crossbow. Blending a basic 3rd-person action game with tower defense amounts to a stupid amount of fun. Orcs Must Die 2 expands upon that formula by making it easier to level up weapons and traps, introducing new types of enemies and ways to fight them, and multiplayer. If you decide to try them, there's no reason to go back to the original, but they're both great amounts of fun.

The Worst Experiment By An Otherwise Great Game Developer

Jurassic Park

Ugh. Jurassic Park was just dreadful. It told a side-story to the first Jurassic Park novel, but it missed out on practically everything that made that book (and movie) so appealing. Come to think of it, that pretty much defines the Jurassic Park franchise as a whole. Similar to the Walking Dead games, Jurassic Park is less of a game and more of a sequence of QTE's - except this isn't a series of events you really want to see played out. Every character is a dull caricature, every plot point is derivative, and at no point in the game did I feel at all invested into anything that was going on. It deserves props for being the experiment that led to the Walking Dead. But honestly, that's about all the praise I can give this one - and that's coming from a Telltale fan.

The "If My English Degree Could Pimp Slap Me, It Probably Would For Liking This Game" Award

Dante's Inferno

I honestly don't get it. I should hate Dante's Inferno. It bastardizes some of the greatest writing to date, throws out nudity and shock moments just to get attention, and it has some stupidly tiny writing. And given that I didn't like Castlevania: Lords of Shadow before it, I should have despised this game. And yet... I kinda enjoyed the heck out of it. Sure, it has some awful late-game padding. But overall, there's this devious sense of fun about Dante's Inferno, as though it were thrwoing a middle finger up to no one in particular, much like the Grand Theft Auto games of old. It doesn't hurt matters much that the combo and fighting mechanics are pretty darned good too.

Best Game I Should Have Played Years Ago

Metal Gear Solid 3

I always felt a certain sort of gamer's guilt for never having gotten around to playing MGS3. I have fond memories of playing its predecessor in college as a friend and I completely ignored the needs and wants of our girlfriends in favor of discovering the mysteries of that oil clean-up rig in MGS2. I have no real excuse for not having played the third in the series - I just never got around to it until this year.

You were right, world - this game is incredible. And the port to the 360 is remarkably decent. Oh sure, the graphics haven't been touched up for the modern era, but this is still an good looking game. The larger outdoors environments play better to the strengths of the series, and the clever boss battles are a delight (even if I had to wait out The End until his old-ass passed away peacefully). In a year when I bought tons of compilations, this one was definitely a highlight.

Neatest Base Building Mechanic

Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker

While the majority of Peace Walker was relatively forgettable, one aspect I loved was knocking out enemies and forcing them off into the sunset with balloon pickups. Having them also join your team, with varying degrees of skill in combat, research, cooking, and medicine was just awesome. I'd love to see this mechanic pop up again in another MGS game.

Best Bargain Purchase

Pendulo Game Pack (Runaway Trilogy, Yesterday, The Next Big Thing)

I'm really cheating here by listing five games as one, but you simply can't talk about one Pendulo game without mentioning the others. I bought this game pack for about $12 on Steam, and it's been one of the best purchases I've made this year. While the first Runaway game had a stinker of a story and an awful, boring protagonist, it had a lot of heart, some really neat visual aesthetics, and classic point-and-click gameplay. But the real highlight came from the next two games in the series - Runaway 2 & 3, together, make one of the best one-two punches of adventure games. The characters and story become genuinely great and the mechanics are improved by leaps and bounds, culminating in the best of the series in the third Runaway game. The Next Big Thing does a remarkable job of creating a wonderful, creative world inspired by the monster films of the 30's and 40's while creating colorful, unique dialogue for its great characters. It's the best individual game of the bunch, so if you're interested in dipping your toes in the Pendulo jacuzzi, start with this one. And Yesterday, the darkest game of the bunch, might be short, but it's definitely a fun game with a great premise.

The "I'm Getting Too Old For This Shit" Award

LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean

By this point, the LEGO games need to either shit or get off the pot mechanically. The core problems of the franchise, particularly its combat mechanics and adventuring elements, have never been so front and center as they are here. The levels look great, but I continually ran into problems with getting snagged in environmental objects or barricades. I'm also not fond of the frustratingly hard-to-see interactive objects. I've got LEGO LOTR in my to-play stack, but after that, I think I'm done with this series for a good long while.

Best Old School Feeling

Rainbow Moon

I don't know if it's because I'm craving old-school turn-based RPGs on consoles so badly or what, but I freakin' loved me some Rainbow Moon. The story and characters are completely forgettable, but oh my good gravy, the old-school turn based combat did some magic for my heart this year. I can't recommend this one to everyone, as it's very repetitive and grind-heavy. But at least consider it, especially if, like me, you hate the comatose nature of the turn-based RPG at the moment.

Best PC Only Game

Diablo 3

It's hard to look past Diablo 3's two biggest problems - the inherent greedy nature of the real-life AH/end-game and the idiotic removal of skill trees - but if you can, it's a pretty terrific game. It looks great, even on low settings, and the combat is well-balanced until the hardest difficulty. I'm sure post-patch they've fixed much of that, too, but I haven't played but maybe half an hour on the hardest difficulty and it was a nightmare. Regardless, fans of the action-RPG should definitely give this a go. Just realize that Blizzard is a very different company by now.

Best Mario 64 Clone

Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus

Sometimes, an old-school platformer is precisely what I need. This year, that void was filled nicely by Sly Cooper. It takes a lot of elements from Mario 64 and updates them for the PS2. Trust me, that's not a bad thing. The combat and jumping feel crisp and precise. The animated comic-book style cutscenes look great, even today. And while the characters are obviously meant for a younger crowd, there's a lot of charming moments. I'm also surprised that the game features such a strong motive for its protagonist - the murder of his family is pretty heavy stuff, but it's obviously not told brutally. This is a game your tweener could play and you could appreciate. Really, some neat stuff.

Best Buck and a Quarter Game

Worms Crazy Golf

I can't recommend that you pay much for Worms Crazy Golf, but if you like goofy little trifles, it's pretty great. By mixing in some optional objectives with the basic goal of parring each hole (or better), it becomes pretty addictive. Trying to get all objectives for each hole can range from mildly difficult to genuinely tough. Mix in the traditional Worms charm, and you've got a winner.

Best Sports Game

SSX

This year saw a great number of classic franchises get remade. SSX is a terrific example of how to update an older series - you keep the things that made the original games so much fun, update the graphics and streamline the systems, and above all else, you do not try to introduce hokey gimmicks. On that last part, SSX does, unfortunately, try to introduce some new gimmicky things like having to snowboard in darkness or firing off down a mountain while a natural disaster is occuring. But the core gameplay in the races and trick modes is just spot-on. SSX could also stand for a little less repetition in its runs, but beyond that, it's a pretty terrific combo-based sports game that nails the basics of what made the first few games so much fun.

Most Surprisingly Playable Game

Jagged Alliance: Back In Action

Make absolutely no mistake about it - Jagged Alliance is not a terribly great game. It's not even as good as the game it's remaking - Jagged Alliance 2. But the fact that this game was released at all is incredible, and the fact that it's playble is double so. I can't say as I'm a fan of the real-time elements and the Stop-and-Plan gameplay shtick. I'd much rather have a traditional turn-based Jagged Alliance game. But it's certainly an interesting idea, and one that actually works. Up until this year, it had been nearly a decade since we've seen a genuinely playable and fun turn-based squad strategy game, but the days of endlessly playing Silent Storm and Jagged Alliance 2 are officiall over, as now we've seen that squad strategy games can make a huge dent in today's market if done right.

Biggest Timesink

Minecraft

Oh my floppy brown shoes, I have never, ever sunk this amount of time into a game before. But with my brother and his friends' encouragement, I sunk into the PC version of Minecraft this year and never looked back. Well, okay, originally I purchased it on the 360, but let's face it - that's a Minecraft demo in comparison. I'm still crap at figuring out how to build the more complex machinery of Minecraft, but when it comes to building castles, buildings, and little villages, I am thoroughly, undeniably hooked.

The Stop Your Bitching, It's Not That Bad Award

Mass Effect 3

Judging from the vitriol heaped upon Mass Effect 3, the vocal Internet populace and I had greatly differing experiences with mass Effect 3. Yes, the game's end choices were bad, and left little room for the ME universe to go anywhere. Yes, the endless fanservice of introducing characters from Shepherd's past at strangely convenient moments induced some eye-rolling. But overall, as a conclusion to Shepherd's story, this game was pretty great. It plays less like an RPG and more like a shooter, even more so than ME2, but I'm becoming okay with that. Old Bioware is dead, that much is true - but new Bioware can come up with a decent game, me thinks, if they can manage to blend this great gameplay with a better long-term plan for the evolution of their series. We'll see if that happens or not, but I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Best Action Game of the Year

Max Payne 3

The basics of Max Payne 3 aren't terribly endearing in and of themselves - to me, this is a generic third-person cover-based shooter. But surround that with a story about trying to crawl back up despite the countless beatings one man can take, and it becomes something infinitely greater. Now throw in a timely setting and a gritty world, and you've got the recipe for excellence in storytelling. I'm not a fan of the way Max Payne 3 craps all over its predecessor, but in its own right, this is a terrific story that leaves me hungry for more Max Payne in the future. And not in a cannibalistic way, either.

Best Racing Game of the Year

Forza Horizon

I never intended on buying Forza Horizon. It felt like a cheap way to turn Forza into an annual franchise and milk the shit out of some fans. But one Quick Look was enough to convince me I had to pick up this game - and you know what? I'm really glad I did. The open world area is pretty terrific, and while it relies on only a few key areas for most of its races, it immediately feels far more diverse and full of life than Forza 4. There are some severe shortcomings, mostly in the smaller car roster. Those same cars are nicked almost entirely from Forza 4, with DLC in Horizon mirroring cars that had already been released in the fourth game. That's just sleazy, but you won't need the DLC to enjoy the core game, which is far more approachable than Forza 4's clinical approach to racing. Personally, I prefer 4 just a touch more, but that's because I'm in this series more for cars.

Best Drink of Water at the End of One Long Drought

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

While Back in Action was merely playable and okay, Firaxis's remake of X-Com is fantastic on every conceivable level. It's approachable, but has that hardcore difficulty setting for those who want it. It controls wonderfully, even on consoles. It carefully adapts all the things that made the original great into a modern game, and it streamlines a lot of irritating components like inventory management. This game gives me hope that the squad based strategy genre will make a big comeback - or at least that we won't see such a huge drought in between quality games. For my money, this is the biggest revival since Fallout 3.

Best Game I'm Completely Awful At

Rock Band Blitz

No game so effortlessly kicks my ass in difficulty as Rock Band Blitz. The worst part is? I can't blame it on the game or my vision. It's actually really accessible. I just suck at it. Ahem. Moving on.

Best Adventure Game/Best Story/Best Child Character in ANY Video Game

Walking Dead

This was originally slated to be the best "downloadable only" game, but that's obviously changed with the release of the game on disc. The Walking Dead is without question one of the best advancements in storytelling in games. I'm not going to go on and on about this game, save that if you're on the fence about playing it due to its episodic nature or other negative elements you might have heard about, stop procastinating and play it.

Best Open-World Action Game

Sleeping Dogs

This wasn't a tough decision, in that it was the only open world game I played completely in 2012. Even so, it's a terrific game that does everything well without ever really doing anything supremely well (besides its upgrade system and its car combat, which rock).

Best Fighting Game

Dead or Alive 5

Again, not a tough decision because it's the only fighting game I've played all year besides King of Fighters XIII. Since I didn't care enough for King of Fighters XIII to warrant playing through more than its incredibly brief story, this wins by default. That said, Dead or Alive 5 deserves some kudos for trying to take that precarious step of updating a game with modern sensibilities while staying true to its old formula. Maybe there's too much of the latter and not enough of the former, but overall, it's a passably fun game.

Best Handheld Game

Super Mario 3D Land

This game is a fantastic mixture of nostalgia and modern enhancements. The levels, while inspired by classic Mario games, introduce some great new ideas and tricky moments, making this one of the best Mario experiences out there.

Biggest Disappointment

Assassin's Creed III

ACIII is a huge step backwards for the series as a whole. Mechanically, it feels on par with ACII, eschewing many of the updates and new systems introduced in Brotherhood and Revelations. Naytham is a great character, but the new protagonist, Connor, falls flat. So does the supporting cast, the story, the pointless item hunting, the ridiculously terrible quest marker, the atrociously difficult-to-read mini-map, the mess of a crafting system, and the uninspired quests. It's as though Ubisoft had about ten minutes for playtesting and decided to use that time instead on, I don't know, sipping cappucinos and chatting about other, better games.

And that's it! I noticed about three quarters of the way through writing this that the editing tools somehow stopped highlighting headers. I will jump back in tomorrow to see if I can't fix that, and make this easier to read. For now, though, I need to give my fingers a rest.

I hope you all have a very merry Christmas, and that the new year sees some awesome new games and devices.

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Sparky's Update - A Plea for Christmas

It's been a hell of a bad week, folks, and so I'm not going to open this with some goofy preamble. Between a personal loss and the horrors that Friday brought us, I'm instead going to make a plea to you. This year, for Christmas, use a little bit of your money to brighten a child's day. If your town is anything like mine, there are all sorts of opportunities to make a needy local child's Christmas all that much sweeter. For instance, my local bank and the county courthouse gather up the names of needy children across the county, and by use of an anonymous card with that child's information such as his or her wants and needs (clothes, toys, etc.). Those cards can be picked up by anyone in the giving mood, and a gift can be purchased for the child and then given to employees of either building to give to the anonymous child. It's a way for this community to bond a little tighter. Most communities will have something similar or toy drives like Toys for Tots. Please consider giving to such an organization or cause this year.

And now, on to the games.

Dead or Alive 5

I should feel sleazy for enjoying the Dead or Alive series as much as I do, but honestly, I don't. I have fond memories of playing Dead or Alive 3 in my college years, completely dominating any and all comers. I once went undefeated for 100+ rounds in a winner-stays-in tourney we held at my rental in my sophomore year. Mind you, my competition wasn't great, but still, saying I had a numb ass after that many rounds of DOA doesn't quite do it justice. And I don't think the blisters on my thumbs went down for a week.

I've always been entranced by the graphics of the game, particularly in its 3rd and 4th iterations. There was a stage - Brad's, if I'm not mistaken - that featured blossoms swirling around the multi-platformed area that holds the top spot for me in fighting game stages. It was unlike anything I'd ever seen and it was one of the high points graphically for the original Xbox. I was also a huge fan of the simplicity of the game's fighting systems - any of my friends could pick up the controllers, mash some buttons, and do some cool looking shit while I could spend my time mastering the nuances and harder combos. Hell, Dead or Alive 3 was the straw that broke the camel's back in a relationship. Best part was, it wasn't even the boobs she got angry about Long story and I'm still a little hazy on her side of things, but apparently me letting her win occasionally was somehow symbolic of our relationship and.... yeah. Moving on!

Dead or Alive 5 doesn't really have the potential to create new memories for me, and that's okay. It's not a huge improvement for the series. You'll recognize almost every character here, save for Rig and Mila, two surprisingly decent additions to the roster. The core mechanics are mostly untouched, save for some new tendencies towards bouncing opponents with new kinds of juggles. You'll still follow some old light-light-heavy power attacks with one last massive power attack/combo which will stun opponents (as well as make them very temporarily invincible). Even the costumes and the fighters mostly look untouched, though there are some nicely modest upgrades to the visuals which, thankfully, make the women look more adult and less childlike, which creeped the fuck out of me.

There are other modest upgrades as well. There's a new story mode, which focuses in on two main aspects - a new DOA tournament and some intrigue from DOATEC's rival MIST on an oil rig. Both stories are frankly awful, but the effort is appreciable. Team Ninja just needs to flesh out these characters more beyond their initial setups, as is the case with almost every single fighting game out there. Sadly, there are no individual endings in the game's Arcade mode, which left me more disappointed than I'd expected. I kinda miss me some CGI insanity, you know?

While the characters have received some visual upgrades, the stages seem pretty lackluster. They've added some new mechanics in the multi-tiered stages, adding some cliff moves and counters, but most of it feels like the developers are sort of twiddling their thumbs as the end of this generation approaches. The tweaks made to the tag fighting are pretty great, and some of the joint moves look absolutely fantastic. But most of the movesets have only seen minor tweaks, with each character receiving a new power move that can annihilate an enemy if it connects. The cost for this is a long charge-up period, rendering the moves mostly useless. But they do look good.

Unfortunately, as of the time of this writing, I've not been able to connect to a ranked or unranked match without getting disconnected. I'm playing on the PS3 as well, which has practically no users at any normal time playing. That's highly disappointing. Still, there are enough single player modes to keep me entertained, like Time Trial, Arcade, Tag Arcade, and the best of the bunch, Survival.

So yeah, Dead or Alive 5 is pretty much what you'd expect from a sequel post-Mortal Kombat. If Team Ninja could develop its story and characters more, we'd have seen something great with this game. As it stands, it's a pretty good update but nothing spectacular.

Super Mario 3D Land

If a game developer wants the blueprints on how to create a melding of classic elements with modern gameplay, they should study the everloving hell out of SM3DL. God, that's an awful acronym. SM3L? Oh, hell with it. I can't use the 3D on my 3DS - my eyes don't perceive the 3D at all and it just gives me a migraine - so that functionality is right out the window. But screw the 3D crap anyways, because this game doesn't need it.

Controlling Mario is incredibly precise, once you get used to targeting your landings using the position of shadows as opposed to sight. Mario's moves all feel spectacularly spot-on and right, ranging from the butt bump to the way the squirrel suit lets you float gently down. The levels are a clever mixture of knowing nods towards classic Mario games combined with modern - and new - platforming elements. They're brief, too, and lend the game the thrill os speed-running, as in Super Mario Bros. 1 & 3.

Look, you've all likely read all this gushing about Sup. Mar. 3DL (nope, that doesn't work either) before, so I'll just add this - I get that the Giant Bomb crew wants something new from Mario Bros. games, but so long as a quality title like this comes along every couple of years, the Big N will always have a fan in me.

How to Properly Play Assassin's Creed III

1. Don't.

2. Considering that most of you will probably ignore step 1, please refer to the following steps.

3. Hire an unwitting friend who is very, very patient and good with games in general.

4. Chain unwitting friend to something very, very heavy.

5. Force unwitting friend to play through the first five sequences in Assassin's Creed III.

6. Take unwitting friend out for a night on the town. He or she will desperately need it.

7. Once unwitting friend has drank enough alcohol to forget the horrible, godawful experience that was the first few sequences of Ass Creed III, return unwitting friend to his or her domicile of choice, preferably with a gorgeous member of the opposite sex to help drown out the memories. PLEASE NOTE - if said friend has not consumed enough alcohol, he or she may spend several hours huddled in the corner of the shower, sobbing with pain and shaking from the experience. ALWAYS provide your friend with enough booze to annihilate his or her mind when he or she has played Assassin's Creed III.

8. Return home.

9. If you're really resigned to doing this, proceed with the game from sequence six onward.

YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

The Rest

-I played through a big chunk of Dear Esther, but I must've not saved it properly, because I can't get back to the point I was at without restarting the game. It's terrific so far, so this isn't exactly a deal breaker. It's a stunning gamevella. That's my new term for games that play more like a novella. What? Oh, hush up.

-Not much to report in terms of reading lately. I've been burning through some mediocre thrillers in an attempt to get back into the genre. Eh. I think I might be rereading some of Tom Clancy's older novels next. We'll see.

-Expect the first of a two-part series of end of the year shenanigans starting next week. I've still got games I'd like to play and add to my potential GOTY list, so I'm holding off on that until the last possible minute. But I feel like I can safely deliver my thoughts and awards for a great many games next week. So... yeah. Another End of the Year blog from another user that you couldn't care less about! Joygasms!

-Note to self - never quote Jim Carrey movies in public again. XOXO. Also, buy milk.

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Sparky's Update - Sleeping Dogs

"I've read a lot of blogs. Sparky's Update is lyrical honey. Oh, hey, toss me a roll of toilet paper, would you?" -Ernest Hemingway, circa 3012.

I really devoted myself to playing only one game this week. Judging from the title of this blog, you've probably guessed I played Legend of the Mystical Ninja. Well, you're wrong, you foolish, foolish person, you. Sleeping Dogs is yet another good open-world game in a generation of consoles that has seen many awesome entries in the genre. But is it as good as the likes of, say, Red Dead Redemption or Saints Row: The Third? Well, not quite.

Dogs does a lot of things well. The car combat in particular is superb - if you want to smash into another car, all you have to do is point yourself in the right direction and press X. I can't tell you how much more fun this makes things like street races - if the competition's sneaking up on you, let 'em up next to your car, and then bash them into oncoming traffic. It makes the cops in the game practically pointless, which not-so-hilariously echoes real life, doesn't it? Anyways...

There's also an RPG-like upgrade system that's pretty nifty too. Missions and side quests award you three types of experience - cop, triad, and/or face. Leveling up in these allows you to select a new, usually useful, ability. You can also find statues scattered around Hong Kong which can be returned to a kung fu master to learn new attacks, which are practically essential for the hand-to-hand combat sequences in the late game. As if that weren't enough, you can also find shrines scattered around that award bonuses to health when you've found enough. Collectibles with real rewards are a treat, and it makes exploring Hong Kong a lot of fun.

There's also a stunning amount of quests and activities to do within the city, not to mention things to purchase. Side quests are scattered all over the map, and range from beating down cheating racers' cars to chasing down deadbeats for a triad collections man. There are also all manner of races scattered throughout the city, most of which are surprisingly fun. I bought some DLC for the game when it was recently on sale. Some of the DLC has added numerous little side missions, which are fun but pretty inconsequential. The best of the bunch are definitely the on-rails shooting galleries, where you're a passenger in a car trying to take down as many vehicles chasing you as possible.

Scattered throughout the city are also shops and vendors of various types. You can collect clothes, cars, and furniture for your various apartments. The clothing looks outstanding, with a great variety of serious and goofy outfits. The furniture is somewhat hard to find and frankly didn't do much for me, but I love that the option is there. More games like this need random, awesome ways to spend your hard-earned in-game currency. One particularly cool idea is that you can buy food or massages for temporary benefits, such as increased damage or health regeneration.

All of these ideas are great. They make for a pretty good game, one I really do recommend you play, but there are some shortcomings that leave plenty of room for improvement in a sequel. Some activities are bare bones at best. This is particularly true of dating. Throughout the game, you meet various women you can go on a date with. It's a fine idea in theory, but in execution, it's pretty awful. Each date ends with a cutscene that makes it seem as though the developers had more plans for the women, but then in a cutaway scene, Wei (the lead) convinces the girls to hook up with him in brief, jarringly bad sentences. It's very clear that multiple dates were planned, but ultimately cut out. While the rewards for these dates are great - you get mini-map locations for collectibles and the like - it's a waste of the talent involved, which includes Lucy Liu and Emma Stone.

That lackluster petering out of the dating goes for some of the late-game story as well, particularly the conclusion. Two big story elements are done entirely in cutscenes, which doesn't give the villains in question enough time to shine. It reeks of a missed opportunity to add two very important missions, which is a damned shame. The game is plenty long, but I'd sacrifice those dating missions for a more explosive conclusion. And while the character interactions that are here are pretty great, none of the side characters and antagonists are given enough time to shine. You meet most of the villians only once or twice in cutscenes, so the eventual payoff against them feels limp.

This last thought isn't so much a complaint against the game as it is this console generation in particular, but the beginning of the game, in the Night Market, looks a damn sight better than the rest of the game. The Night Market feels alive and vibrant, packed with people and vendors all shouting and vying for your attention. The rest of the game world feels lackluster in comparison. If future games in this series can manage to make the entirety of ther cities feel as alive as the Night Market did, they'll have created something really phenomenal.

And that perfectly sums up Sleeping Dogs in general - it's a good game with a lot of neat elements just on the cusp of greatness. With enough TLC in a sequel, I imagine it'll be as revered as GTA and Saints Row.

The Rest

-I burned through the first season of Once Upon A Time like a madman this week. While there are some repetitive, eye-rolling moments with Snow Whtie and Charming, most of the stories told are fun. For someone with as much love of folk and fairy tales as me, this show is a joy.

-If Phantom Pain is indeed MGS 5, I hope it's a launch game for the next generation of consoles. What better game to demonstrate the hardware potential of future consoles than a Metal Gear game?

That's about it for this week. Hugs and kizzez, you salty dogs.

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Sparky's Update - Last Thoughts on XCOM: Enemy Unknown

"It's not the size of your blog, it's how you use it!" -The Hamburglar

After finally escaping the clutches of my post-Thanksgiving food coma, I'm back and ready to write. This week's blog is gonna be just a short, sweet whispered little nothing in your ear. I've mostly been finishing up XCOM and Walking Dead, but I'll also briefly touch upon Rock Band Blitz and the adventure game Jack Keane. Let's jump into it.

Aliens, Ahoy-hoy!

Most of my game time this week has been slavishly devoted to XCOM. I detailed some thoughts last week on the positives of the game as well as my admiration for the basic changes made to the classic formula. My thoughts on those haven't changed much; I think it's a brilliant game and a testament to the fact that we should see more modern revivals that adhere loosely to the original gameplay.

I beat the game this afternoon, clocking in about 177 game days played. I changed the difficulty a few times, starting off in medium, switching to easy for a few missions with the chrysallids, and then switching back to medium again in the later stages of the game. I restarted it once, as there's a point where a giant alien spaceship appears and can be murder if you're not prepared - as I wasn't. The turn-based tactical gameplay is refreshing, and far outshines this year's other big turn-based strategy revival in Jagged Alliance. XCOM puts that game to shame, but it's great that both even exist.

There are some problems with XCOM, but they're not at all deal breakers. The difficulty, as referenced above, can be wildly uneven. Although I was crushing it tactically, the HQ portions can be head-scratchingly random in its difficulty. Even with a strong strategy in place with lots of satellites and Interceptors in play, I still lost a grand total of five nations. Combat can also be a bit polar. Early missions strike a good balance of weak enemies with weak soldiers, but new enemy types are introduced rapidly, and by the point chrysallids are thrown into the mix, I saw quite a few members of my B-Team dying. By the end of the game, though, the difficulty became something of a joke. With mind-blocking helmets and/or Titan armor, my squad was mowing down the enemies in the last mission with almost ridiculous ease. I really should have bumped it up to Hard on that last mission, but oh well.

There are also a lot of little graphical problems that could have used a little polish. Bullets seem to sometimes fly backwards out of guns. There is clipping galore. Most of the text is insanely tiny and impossible for me to read. More armor variations and models would go a long way towards making the soldiers feel unique. The enemy variations, while sticking close to the original's types, seem awfully generic.

Actually, that last bit, the generic enemies, touches on my biggest issue with XCOM, and that's the limited scope of what Firaxis has dreamed up here. That's not even an issue at all, since this is essentially a remake of the original XCOM. However, if they do up a sequel (and I desperately hope they do), I'd like to see them get a little more creative with weapons, armor, and enemies. Let's see some new types, something from the minds of Firaxis's intelligent men and women.

When all is said and done, though, this was a fantastic game and one I will revisit sometime in the future.

The Walking Dead (Spoiler Free!)

Much has been said already about The Walking Dead's excellent story and cast. I agree with all of that. But what I most particularly love about The Walking Dead is how it made the adventure genre relevant again. Most of the puzzles in the series make sense - you always have a clear direction and the tools are appropriate for the job. By adding a timed conversation tree with choices that influence how people react and talk to you, it adds a ton of depth as well as a tense nervousness to the gameplay and story.

I found myself in the last three chapters eschewing my typical "play it friendly with everyone" approach and going with my gut instinct in the conversation trees. The game became supremely satisfying. While I stuck to trying to be the good guy, occasionally letting my (or Lee's) temper shine through was quite a bit of fun and added to the tension of the game. If you play this, try not to reload every time you choose an unfavorable dialogue choice. The best way to play this game is to just go with what you feel at that moment.

Whether Telltale chooses to go ahead with the second season of this or its announced King's Quest series first, I think we're all in for another treat. I can't wait for either.

The Rest

-Jack Keane has to be the most unremarkable adventure game I've ever played. The graphics look good, I suppose. But the gameplay, characters, and story are all extremely dull. It takes its cues from Monkey Island, but instead of trying to be charming or fun, the game insists upon yanking yawns from its audience. I cannot recommend this one to anyone.

-I'm awful at video games. That's a known fact. But I've never come across a game I've felt so hopelessly awful at like Rock Band Blitz. I'm at a full sixth of the points of the person next in my friends' list - and that's playing on my best song. Still, that doesn't mean it's a bad game. Just one I'm bad at.

-I also finished up with the third and final season of Hung this week. It's an okay show that loses its direction after its second season. I think the show had higher aspirations at the start, but someone, somewhere along the way left and he or she was the only one who knew where the show was going. It's too bad. Thomas Jane is immensely likable, and there's a good premise here. But overall, I wouldn't really bother with it. It's a bit of cotton candy television that ultimately just doesn't leave anyone satisfied, unlike the protagonist.

And with that, I guess that's it for this week. Anyone get some great deals on Black Friday? I'm going to start laying out some ideas for my end of the year blog sooner or later. While I'm still playing a great many games and won't be laying down my Best of... list for some time, I think I'll start pulling together some award ideas specific to the games I think deserving this year. I don't know that I'll be doing an award for every game I played (frankly, I just don't think War in the North or Tomb Raider Legend, for example, are particularly worthy of any award, good or bad), but I reckon most will get something. We'll see.

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Sparky's Update - Forza Horizon, XCOM, and John Dies At The End

"Folks, I shit you not. Sparky's Update is like crack-laced Kool-Aid. I can't get enough of it!" -Thomas Jefferson, circa 1695.

If you want a quick synopsis of this week's updatery, here it is - play Forza Horizon and XCOM. Also? You absolutely must read John Dies At The End. That's a moral imperative, almost a law passed down from me unto you, my loyal subjects guinea pigs lab monkeys readers. All three are delightful. I'm also gonna touch briefly on my final thoughts on Yesterday, which was delightful but terribly short.

The Game I Swore I Wouldn't Buy

I didn't intend on buying Forza Horizon. When I heard that they were doing an installment of Forza so soon after Forza 4, I was mildly irritated at the thought of one of my favorite franchises becoming a watered-down yearly installment. I also had a bit of Forza fatigue, mostly from a long stretch of time when I'd hammer out five to six races a night in order to eventually get that All Gold achievo (a task I still haven't accomplished). Months later, and I'd almost all but forgotten about the title when the GB crew reviewed it and released that Quick Look. And then, damn it, I had the Forza jitters all over again and wanted to get my hands on it. So when it came up for sale in a nice B2G1 free sale, I snapped it up.

Let me start by repeating this analogy I used earlier this week - Forza Horizon is the Randy Quaid to Forza 4's Dennis Quaid. Both are excellent actors in their own right, but they're vastly different personalities. Horizon is fun, slightly quirky (though a very sterile quirky, as I'll explain in a second), and while not quite as prestigious as its brother, is definitely an awards-bound title. Forza 4 is the clinical, more dry brother - while not as fun, its depth and professionalism are astounding. Sadly, however, neither Forza ever actually says, "Shitter was full!" That's sort of disappointing.

Horizon eschews the serious quality of Forza 4, and instead goes for a flashier, warmer feel of an arcadey racer. That's not to say that it controls entirely like an arcade racer though - with the assists off, the game mechanics will kick you in the teeth if you're not prepared. But there's definitely been some slight tinkering to make the game feel a little less like a sim and more like a video game. Whereas Forza 3 and 4 helped me feel a bit of that old adrenaline and love of driving, Forza Horizon feels just a touch more cartoonish without actually turning it buffoonish. The controls are a little more forgiving with the assists off. Powerslides and drifting are a breeze, and going off-road no longer is quite so deadly to your finish, especially in AWD cars.

The presentation too is warmer. Some of the racers are given personalities, though they aren't particularly fleshed out or all that important. It's still a great step forward to making the races less robotic, and it's something I'd love to see expanded upon. The festival atmosphere is kind of tame by design, but it allows for some great new additions to the formula, such as the street races. Those are my favorite part of the game - you're set up with multiple other cars, and race across the countryside with only checkpoints and your mini-map to guide you. No fenced in areas, no tracks, and lighter restrictions on cars makes Sparky a very happy boy.

There are some negatives to be found, however. Most notable is the glaringly sparse (compared to Forza 4, anyways) car list. There are dozens of cars included, but considering that almost all are ripped straight from Forza 4 with very few new additions, this is sort of a downer for any car enthusiast and should be noted if you're trying to decide between the two. The DLC is also kind of despicable. Again, instead of introducing new cars, most are taken straight from Forza 4. Essentially, you'd be paying twice for content you already own, and that's not at all cool.

There's also this strangely pervasive feeling that Forza Horizon has been designed by committee. Despite being way less clinical than Forza 4, I get the feeling that the developers were given very strict guidelines about what could be considered for the game. Take the music, for example. There's a few good songs in there, especially from the Black Keys and the game's mellow vibe station. But it all feels sort of sterile and safe. You won't hear any hard rock. There aren't any offensive lyrics to be found. The most "dangerous" part of the game is its inclusion of the street races and Skrillex. And it's not that I want the game to be dangerous or edgy, but for a game that features such a crazy festival atmosphere and supposedly gripping street races, I want to listen to something a little more pulse-pounding, a little crazier, a little more alive. Correct me if I'm wrong here, but I don't even think there are any songs older than 2008 in the mix. Give me some Ghetto Bird. Give me some Metallica. Give me some Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, some Rolling Stones, something with a little more vigor. As it stands, the soundtrack is pleasant, but it feels ripped straight from SSX, a game where the mellower music definitely fits better.

And that same feeling tends to crop up throughout the rest of the game. The few racing personalities are given a few by-the-numbers lines with which to trash talk you before races, but there's no fire in them. They're not given enough time or energy to feel like much of a rival, and they're certainly not allowed to say anything that might offend the mothers of the teenagers who play this game. There's also a female guide of sorts whom you interact with briefly in a couple of cutscenes. It's implied she's slightly interested in the player character, but this goes nowhere after the second cutscene. She guides you along with a bunch of generic "go get 'em, Tiger!" phrases, but it leaves me wondering, why bother having those two cutscenes in the first place? It reeks of a rushed production, but it leaves me hopeful that if there are future installments of the Horizon sub-franchise, they will continue to make the world around the races a little more vibrant.

Do I necessarily want a full-fledged story in my racing games? It couldn't hurt, but I guess what I'm after more is personality to the AI. Make the periphery interesting, or expand upon it and don't just let it trail off. I hope Forza Horizon 2 does this - and expands on the game's stellar basics a bit more.

XCOM Marks The Spot

Hey, you try coming up with an X-pun that hasn't been used already.

I'm only about two days into XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and I'm already head-over-heels in love with it. The fine folks at Firaxis are the Zen masters of melding accessibility and easy controls with variable levels of brutality. Errr... difficulty. Right. Much like with Civ V, and to a lesser extent, the Pirates! remake, they've eliminated a bunch of needless stuff that cluttered up the basic gameplay without sacrificing the deep and addictive elements.

Ammo counts and action points are out the window. This might seem off-putting to long-term X-Com fans, but it's really for the best. Each character is essentially given two turns, one to move and one to shoot. This varies a little depending on what class you play as and how you choose to advance in each character's skill tree. Snipers, for example, will need to stay put if they want to fire off a shot (unless they take a perk that allows them to move with a penalty to aim for their shot). Alternately, a character can choose to Overwatch, the basics of which should be familiar to those who have played older strategy games. Your character basically goes into an alert status, and will fire on the first enemy he or she sees.

The cover system is smart and intuitive. You can take fire from four angles, essentially, and your cover can account for one or two of those angles. That's not a guarantee you won't take damage - you will get shot in this game many, many times - but you're a damn fool if you're ending a turn outside of cover. Most cover can be shredded, too - logs will burst into flames, walls and windows will be demolished, and that parked car you've been hiding behind can blow up and take you with it. The cover becomes a part of the tense nature of the gameplay.

Speaking of tense, if you aren't already aware, this game is tough. I've been switching between easy and medium pretty freely, mostly thanks to those chrystallis bastards. They will bend you over a countertop, rip off your drawers, and increase the hole in your backside by a fair country mile. If you're sane, you'll keep a few saves in rotation - one for the beginning of each mission, one for each time you head back to HQ for debriefing and cocktails, and generally mid-mission. Any less than that, and you're begging for failed missions and squadrons of dead soldiers. Which you'll still have, incidentally. But that difficulty also comes with a terrifically rewarding sensation, especially when you've completed a mission and not lost anyone.

It's also a game that tests your intelligence in a very chess-like fashion. You're either smart enough to try to anticipate the enemy's moves, or you're left floundering for air while berserkers smash your front lines to bits. I cannot recommend it enough. It's everything I love about Firaxis games.

The Rest

-If you take nothing else away from this blog, read John Dies At The End. It's a horror comedy, essentially three novellas tied into an overarching plot. It can be brutal and gory while being intensely funny at the same time. It's both black comedy and nearly slapstick at points. That comedy does a great job of highlighting the few serious turns in the novel. There's this sort of frenetic, slightly dark energy to the whole thing that I adore. It's not flowery. It doesn't recycle some overused cliched villain. It's truly the most original horror novel I've read in quite some time. I cannot wait to read its sequel.

-I also finished Yesterday. It's a quality idea for an adventure game, highlighted by some dark occult themes, but it comes to a conclusion fast. It also lacks the charm of the characters from The Next Big Thing. On the whole, if you can get it for dirt cheap along with the rest of the Pendulo games, I encourage it. It definitely has its heart in the right place.

I think that's it for this week. Have a happy Thanksgiving, dear devotee of the Sparkster.

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Sparky's Update - The Great and Terrible Max Payne 3

Grab a can of compressed air, quick-like. You feel that heat coming from your computer? That's not from you watching eighty-seven porno videos while designing some 3D image of Pauly Shore putting boots to asses in your dream sequel to In the Army (tentatively called In the Army: Even Armier). Nope. That's the power of this blog, honey dumplin', and it's about to make your shit 'splode!

OK, probably not. This blog, however, will very likely ruffle a few feathers. Although truth be told, I think the three of you still reading my blogs won't probably give two farts. In any case, I'm devoting this blog entirely to Max Payne 3, a game both lovable and jarring. I started this off as a review, but I thought it might serve better as a blog. If you want my review thoughts, here it is - play this game. It's actually pretty great, and if you don't mind a bit of repetition in its stop-and-pop gameplay, it's a meaty, sweaty brick to the forehead, in all the delightful ways a brick to the forehead can be. The story is terrific, simply one of the best of the year, if not this generation of consoles (which puts it highly ranked in terms of stories told in vdeo games, period).

But upon completion of the game, I didn't find myself in a good place. You see, much like the terrific music theme of Max Payne 3 (and you really should check out the music from this game - it's striking and filling in a way that video game music rarely is outside of Bear McCreary's work), there are some jarring notes when you expect something different. These notes aren't awful, but they do strike a bit of a despondent chord in me. That seems like a bit of an oxymoron. I plan on rambling for a bit, so bear with me, but I hope to explain.

A Bad Man in a Bad Land

At one point, roughly halfway through the game, Max Payne is finding his way through a maze of narrow streets in Sao Paulo. He's a bit lost, and follows a young guide to a street party. Things go south (in Max Payne 3, things always go south), and soon Max is own his own again. Left at that, it would have been an unremarkable scene, fleshing out the world a bit more but not really accomplishing much beyond setting a scene. But Max makes several comments throughout the party and afterwards in his rough inner monologue that change the face of the scene entirely - as well as adding a very, very tough backdrop to the entire game. I'm going to paraphrase here, and likely badly, as I can't find the exact quote online, but here goes:

"...they danced like this for the amusement of the rich American tourists who could take pictures from their armored buses..."

And later...

"Who could blame them for not liking me? I was just another middle-class American gun for hire, and they had nothing."

The theme isn't a new one. We've seen the American fish-out-of-water story in many games. But I don't think a game has found a way to quite get so personal with it as Max Payne 3 did, and you know what? I'm sort of grateful they addressed this so bluntly through Max. Throughout the game, one of the things Max deals with constantly is a sense of guilt about the poor fortunes of others - not that he's necessarily taken anything away from them, but that he's succeeded even as miserable as his life may be where others are living in hovels and shanties, simply because he's American and has had more of an opportunity.

The writer and actor have nailed something here. It's not a new thought, or even particularly well-spoken. But in its blunt ugliness, Max Payne speaks for what I've felt in the past. How the fuck can I have so much when so many have so little? And how do I deal with that? Max isn't an altruist. He's not a bad guy by any means, but he's no saint. He wants to get paid, get drunk, and be left the hell alone.

But in a very real-world sense, he's exemplifying the kinds of thoughts anyone American with half a heart has thought at some point or another, that guilt over the state of the world past a few lucky countries' borders. My small one-bedroom apartment would put many places to shame the world over. I bitch about not being able to find work and yet have my every need tended to thanks to the hard work, sweat, and blood of countless other people. I play video games. I watch TV. I dick around on the Internet. I have an extraordinarily good life, and thousands of miles away, whole groups of people are starving and making do with practically nothing.

It's one thing to say that if I were there and able to, I'd try to help out where I could, but would that be a lie? I'd mostly be like Max, shuffling through the people I met, trying to keep my head down and feeling angry about their situation compared to mine and those I'm with regularly. Roughly thirty miles from where I sit now, billionaires fly in and out regularly in the summers to their dude ranch for weekend getaways. Fifteen miles less than that, millionaire ranchers get duded up in two-hundred dollar jeans and belt buckles the size of Texas for reality TV show camera crews. Half a mile from me is an overgrown trailer park, so full of broken bottles, scrap metal, and junk that you cannot walk through it except on the street.

It's a bizarre, disjointed world we live in. To the people that will never read this, the people who will starve and never know what it's like to not live in poverty, I get why you might hate us. I do. I'm sorry. We burn through what we have, always hungry for more and giving one day a year to be appreciative of what we have, just before trampling each other to death for a few bucks off some movies and toys. I wish I could say for certain that if I could, I'd put my hand out and help you up.

That's what Max Payne evoked in me. That's how deep this game got to me. But...

On the Other Hand

I wish I could have been there for Rockstar's research trips into Sao Paulo. It would be easy for me here to rage at them for being a flush, money-hungry company spouting hypocrisy without having done a thing to help them down there. But how do I know that they didn't? How do I know that they didn't hire some people down there, temporary or permanent? How do I know that one night, they didn't get together and have a few drinks with the locals, commiserating and trying to lift some spirits if only just for a while?

I don't.

But I'll tell you this much. If they didn't, if they somehow managed to be the assholes Max Payne so deliciously described, then I've got no words. All I can do is hope that they did. Maybe somewhere in Sao Paulo, there's a new business opening up thanks to the executives at Rockstar Games. But the horrible, crass part of me, the part that's seen and suffered first-hand from the unending greed of others, knows that in all likelihood, those same executives are buying third or fourth homes somewhere while there are men and women everywhere scraping the bottom of the barrel.

And One Other Thing

Let's bring things to a close with one last thought, and move it back towards a more technically jarring aspect of the story versus the gameplay. How bizarre is it to have such a reflective, introverted story, and yet have the bizarrely cartoonish and outlandish number of bodies hitting the floor? I think Max Payne 3 would have been a supremely effective game if it had a bit of self control, but then again, that wouldn't quite be a Max Payne game, would it? And maybe that's just it. Maybe I'm looking for more than what this game was. What I want out of games, out of their stories and their potential, it might not be what the world wants out of them. Funny enough, I think I'm perfectly okay with that.

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Sparky's Update - Boy, Did I Kill A Lot of Orcs and Zombies.

Why, hellllllooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!

This is your captain speaking! Please, ignore your seatbelts, grab a drink from the waiter and/or waitress nearest you, and feel free to use the sick bags as needed. This... is Sparky's Update, and odds are, it's gonna get you higher than that oxygen mask!

This week, ladies and gents, I slayed beasties. Lots of them. Specifically, I killed a ton of orcs in the stellar Orcs Must Die 2 and staved off the zombie hordes in Dead Rising 2. I also continued to shoot many, many robots, Hyperion personnel, and primal beasts ferovores bonerfarts bullymongs. I can only praise Borderlands 2 so much before it gets tiresome, and that time came... ohhhh... a few minutes after it was delivered to my house, so I'll spare you the specifics on that one and just say that I've hit level 50, killed Donkey Mong, and had quite a bit of fun in co-op.

Short update this week, then!

Awash in a Sea of Orcs

For those not in the know, the Orcs Must Die! series is basically tower defense combined with light 3rd person shooter elements. You take control of a war mage, who must protect a gateway from hordes of oncoming orcs by setting up traps, defenders, and barricades. It's a very simple formula, one you've seen before. The first game was charming, with a moron of a male protagonist that stole the show. In that game, you could earn a limited number of skulls per level based on your performance and how much currency you spent on defenses. By ignoring defenses, you could take on the orcs yourself, but without weakening them first, they would easily overrun you.

Its sequel, which was on sale on Steam for around $10, doesn't make any grand sweeping changes to the formula, but what's here makes it far and away a better game. You can now earn unlimited numbers of skulls from levels, giving you more of a reason to repeat them and invest further into traps and defenders you might not have otherwise cared about. It implements some nice optional modes as well, such as taking on classic levels from the first game and a survival mode. The difficulty is ramped up just enough to make the game challenging (I'm playing through it first on easy to get a good idea of the layout, since I'm awful at tower defense games), but it's still a very accessible game.

Co-op is also new to the series, but I haven't tinkered with it yet. Basically, the game reintroduces the protagonist from the first game as well as another hero. When taking on the game alone, you get a bit of banter between the two characters at the beginning of each level, but only ever see one of them. It can be a bit off-putting, but it's a minor quibble. Man, I love that word. Say it with me now - quibble. Delightful.

A big part of the charm comes from the game's sense of humor. The same idiot protagonist is still pretty darned funny, coming across as though Lenny and Bruce Campbell had a war mage baby together. The orcs themselves have some great lines too, and there's enough variety that they don't repeat themselves to the point of tedium. You will, obviously, hear some repeated dialogue, but it's a game based on repetition and incremental improvement, so that's to be expected.

Give this game a shot. Seriously. I'm not doing it great justice here, but if you can, at least try a demo. I know tower defense is a genre that some feel has been played out, but there's enough good humor and great gameplay here for me to highly recommend it.

I've Covered (Zombie) Wars, You Know

My adventures with Dead Rising 2: Off the Record have continued this week. I must say, the checkpoint system in the story mode does the game wonders, but I'll admit a certain degree of frustration with the seemingly blatant broken parts of the game. Take the wardrobe, for example. You can only exchange your outfit for DLC, Frank's original outfits, or your previous outfit. There's no space for holding items beyond that, meaning you'll have to waste a lot of time tracking down your favorite clothing articles again.

That said, the entire game was worth the $10 purchase solely for one reason - the sandbox mode. It's not polished - as a matter of fact, it's hilariously fastened together with duct tape and prayers. But wow, it's spectacularly fun. Basically, it drops you onto the rooftop of the mall area, gets rid of the story missions and the timer, and turns survivors into tough little mini-bosses, complete with weapons and large amounts of health. The psychos also respawn, though that's less pleasant. The best part of all? Scattered throughout the world are challenges, during which you can net a bronze, silver, or gold medal for your efforts. These include everything from "Kill X number of zombies in a set amount of time" to... welll... variations on that theme. OK, so the challenges aren't all that creative. But they do a lot to emphasize the best part of Dead Rising, and that's slaughtering zombies by the dozens with weird, wacky weapons.

If you didn't like vanilla Dead Rising 2 or its predecessor, this won't change your mind. It's still broken. The game design is sometimes stupid. But look past those flaws, or look at it as a zombie-killin' marathon, and it's a fantastic little gem.

The Rest

-If you haven't, watch The League. It's a great show. For those who might avoid it because it's about fantasy football, don't. Fantasy football is just a means to an end, and that end is to deliver a smart, funny show about a handful of guys (and a wife) and their shit-talking friendship. For a great one-two punch, combine it with Archer and/or It's Always Sunny.

-Fringe is really ramping things up, though it continues to be completely unhinged when it comes to plot continuity. It's a good show, but it's one that could have used a great deal more foresight, much like every other Bad Robot show out there. I can't help but wonder what this series might have been if it were novels instead of a TV series. Oh well. The stunning Anna Tory is straight up one of my favorite TV actresses of all time, and Joshua Jackson and John Noble are terrific too. I'm sorry to see the series on its way out, but this season has been pretty great.

And that's it! Have a great week, people.

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Sparky's Update - PS+ Madness, World of Keflings, Yesterday

This is where Sparky's Update lives! Get you some!

Welcome back, one and all, to my inane weekly blog about what I'm playing, watching, and reading. This week's biggest news for me is that I'm now a PS+ subscriber thanks to a very generous friend. I've taken advantage of their free monthly games as well as bought a couple of cheapo PS+ deals, so we'll be covering those briefly. I've also finally delved into World of Keflings, a game I bought a while back when it was on sale, and I'll be talking about Pendulo's terrific adventure games Yesterday and The Next Big Thing.

Whew. That's a lot. I'll try to keep things relatively brief. Oh, and by the way, happy early Halloween!

Plus-Sized Plus One

Mento is probably shaking his head over my bad punnery. Can't blame him. That guy's punnery is pure genius, by the way.

Anyways, early on in the week, I received a bunch of free codes for PS+ monthly subs from a friend and promptly activated them. My first order of business was downloading some free themes - my old one was rough on the eyes and I wanted a spiffier front end for my PS3. Why am I justifying this? You don't care and neither do I. Games were next. Here, I kind of went nuts. Pacman CE DX FBI CIA edition is something I've always wanted to play but never got around to. King of Fighters XIII intrigued me, mostly because I hadn't played a King of Fighters game since the late 90's and I was genuinely curious how the hell it held up so many years later. I also decided to double dip and purchase the Off the Record version of Dead Rising 2. I'd played the vanilla version and greatly enjoyed it, so I figured I'd give this one a shot too. There are other games in my queue or that I've downloaded, but I'll have to save those for next week, as I haven't gotten to them quite yet.

Let's start with the lone "bad" game in the bunch, King of Fighters XIII. Now, friend of the pimp Arbitrary Water says I'm nuts for not liking KOFXIII, but frankly, I believe he's secretly a mutated, highly evolved shower curtain and therefore cannot be trusted. And it's not that KOFXIII is broken - not at all. But I can't connect to its multiplayer functions for more than a minute or two at a time, either because of my shoddy Internet or something to do with the game's matchmaking. I can't determine which, but I suspect it has more to do with my end of things, so I won't hold the game accountable. Instead, I'm left playing the single player portion, which is decidedly underwhelming and half-assed. The story mode is comosed of several generic, bland still anime screen wtih some text. I hesitate to call that text a "story," because that would insult the word story. A woman seeks out a childhood friend who is working with the bad guys and demons in order to rewrite.... oh, screw it. He ends up corrupted, she saves him with the power of love, world is safe, yadda yadda yadda. The story elements (not counting the fighting) take up all of about a minute if you're a good reader. There's an arcade mode, but no individual or team endings, leaving me very, very glad I didn't purchase this one.

I'm not going to get that in-depth with Pac-Man CE DX. Too much has been said about its myriad of wonders already. It's a great game, one I'm admittedly terrible at. But I feel like I could get better with time. And no matter how bad I am, I'm still having fun with it. Pretty cool stuff. Makes me want to track down that other DX old school game that I can never remember the name of. They did a QL of it too.... Galaga DX, maybe? Hmmm.

Oh, right, Double Dragon Neon is in there too. It's Double Dragon, just with better animation and some nice bonus features. I'm not a huge fan of Double Dragon to begin with, and this one doesn't make a believer out of me. The combat feels too wooden and quarter-grabby, just as it did back in the day. But I get the appeal, and if you're a fan of Double Dragon, it's worth checking out.

Dead Rising 2: OTR is pretty rad. Other than the initial first fifteen minutes, it's essentially Dead Rising 2 with Frank West spouting snark instead of Chuck Greene. You don't have to worry about the kid, thankfully, but you'll still be tracking down Zombrex, taking on hordes of zombies, and the same crazies. I haven't gotten very much into it yet, but I'm digging it. Frank and Chuck are both great characters, and I have no preference either way. But this seems like a cleaner, smarter version of DR2, especially with the much-needed checkpoints. More on this one later.

A World of Resource Management

At its core, A World of Keflings is essentialy a resource management game. Through your avatar, you pick up keflings and send them to work picking up and delivering resources so you can build more things. It's a simple concept, polished to a high sheen, and given a little bit of patented Microsoft "play it safe" family-friendly silliness. This was a game very much designed by a committee of people trying very hard to create a perfectly acceptable, inoffensive game. In that regard, they've succeeded.

Nothing about World of Keflings really stands out, and yet, it all comes together to form a mellow, pleasant experience that will no doubt be completely forgotten in four or five years. That's not an insult, it's just fact. World of Keflings is designed to appeal to a broad range of people, from kids old enough to follow simple building instructions to adults likely with families to play along too. The dialogue's cute, but never tries to be particularly clever. The same goes for the gameplay - it plays like a very basic RTS without combat, essentially.

Is it worth it? I'd say so, sure, especially if it's on sale. It's a nice little diversion. Nothing more, nothing less.

Yesterday, I Played The Next Big Thing

One of the highlights of the year for me has been the Steam Pendulo pack, which I purchased in one of their big sales. It's a treasure trove of old-school LucasArts-styled adventure gaming with modern graphics. Not all the games have been great - namely, the first Runaway is a real stinker - but the rest of the games have made the pack definitely worth it.

Two of their best games are The Next Big Thing and Yesterday, their most recent releases (as far as I know). They both stick to the Pendulo/classic adventure game mold. You talk to people, find items, combine items, and solve a few puzzles now and again. The Next Big Thing is more focused in on advancing its story than adventuring, making for tighter game with less actual gameplay. The story itself is really delightful. Set in a world where monsters are very real and co-exist side by side with humans in their day to day lives (mostly as actors for a movie studio executive), it gives off a colorful, modern take on the 30's and 40's monster films I adore so much, and spins those basic ideas into its own charming, unique world. The writers spent quite a bit of time on creating unique dialogue for the world, and the actors go to it with aplomb. It's one of the better fictional game worlds out there, and the saddest part is, most gamers will never experience it. Sure, the gameplay might feel a little outdated to the FPS crowd, but if you've got any interest in games that focus on story, it's well worth a look. I unfortunately couldn't finish it due to a late game puzzle that required better vision than what I have, but I cannot recommend this game more...

...except, of course, when I'm talking about the next Pendulo adventure game, Yesterday. Yesterday tends to focus in more on the traditional adventure gameplay, but its story is still superb. It's hard to say which is the better game, Yesterday or The Next Big Thing, but like the last two Runaway games, I don't believe that's a choice gamers should make until they've played both. Yesterday is the darkest Pendulo game to date, focusing on the occult and a serial killer. If that makes it sound like the old Gabriel Knight games, you're not terribly far off the mark. But unlike the Gabriel Knight games, Yesterday creates its own lore and villains, making for a much more creatively satisfying game overall.

Seriously, if you get the chance, pick up the Pendulo pack and either ignore or forgive the first Runaway game. These game makers are definitely underappreciated, and I hope they go on to bigger things in the future.

Tidbits

-I finally finshed up on Bored to Death. It's a darned shame this show had such a brief run, but at least it didn't overstay its welcome. The three protagonists (Jason Schwartzman, Zach Galifanakis, and Ted Danson) have terrific chemistry together, and the guest stars such as Oliver Platt are fantastic. It's a comedic take on old detective stories, and is well worth checking out if you get a chance. Just go in knowing that it'll leave you with an unsatisfying conclusion.

-I played about an hour's worth of Wizorb. Great little Breakout game, but not really worth a whole segment here. Check it out if you want a quick diversion that won't tax you, your computer, or your wallet.

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