My Final Fantasy XIII-2 Review

Final Fantasy XIII-2 is, at its core, a much better game than its predecessor. Many of the issues that fans had with XIII have been addressed in some significant way here, from the linearity to the slow-burn pacing, and Square-Enix has even made a few subtle improvements to the already fantastic combat engine to boot. These improvements make the overall experience of playing through this Fantasy a much more pleasant and coherent one, but they also serve to make the areas in which the game stumbles that much more apparent. Still, this is the strongest entry the troubled franchise has seen in years, and if it's a sign of things to come, consider me officially excited about Final Fantasy again.

XIII-2 picks up several years after the end of XIII, so if you haven't played that game through to completion consider yourself warned. Personally, I grew bored with XIII long before finishing it, but having the rudimentary knowledge of the world and its terminologies proved invaluable. This is by all means a direct sequel, and it's important to have that knowledge base if you intend to play XIII-2. That said, story is by far the weakest of this game's pillars. Given all of the time you'll spend watching cutscenes, you'd think someone at Square-Enix would've taken the time to make sure that the story they told was, you know, coherent.

Instead, XIII-2 subjects you to seemingly endless waves of dime-store philosophizing about learning from your past to make for a better future. Coupled with the angst-ridden characters, it becomes clear exactly who this game is targeted at, and further clearer that I no longer contribute to said target. Furthermore, the concept of time travel is used as a deus ex machina device far too often to be believable. Every time the developers felt like changing the rules of the world, it's glazed over as being a "Paradox" and then forgotten. All in all, the plot becomes easy to ignore. The faux-philosophy sort of blends together into a largely forgettable haze, with the exception of several instances of schadenfreude-inducing melodrama that are so out of left field and so over-acted that they're just kind of hilarious.

Luckily, the great gameplay picks up where the plot slacks. This is odd for Final Fantasy, where the reverse is often true, but in the case of XIII-2 I actually wanted to keep playing because of the gameplay, not in spite of it. The Paradigm system from XIII makes a triumphant return here, with some subtle but strong additions. No longer must you sit through a stupid "Paradigm Change" animation every time you switch your party's roles during combat. This equates to a few seconds less that you have to sit and watch your party get pummeled while they decide to change their clothes. Additionally, the party leader's death no longer leads to a Game Over screen, meaning that the battles in general feel a bit more forgiving even as they now have the potential to demand even more tactical thought. Finally, leads Serah and Noel are the only two characters you'll have in your party, and they can change into any of the six Paradigms.

To make up for the lack of additional party members, you can now recruit monsters into what the game calls a Paradigm Pack, essentially a collection of tamed creatures who will fight by your side. You can only bring one into battle at any time, but two more wait in the wings and can be summoned at a moment's notice to replace your current selection. This opens up a vast number of possibilities for creating a party, as each monster represents a different Paradigm. Cait Siths, for example, make handy Medics, while Chocobos make for strong Commandos. Each monster also has a special Feral Link ability that can be activated in battle as long as the Feral Link meter has been given enough time to build. These Feral Link attacks prompt brief quick time events, and take the place of vehicle summons from XIII. As a way to keep you on your toes during battle, Feral Links do the job admirably.

Quick time events have also been shoehorned into boss battles, typically popping up at the end, and while they really don't add anything significant, they hardly detract from the experience. In fact, XIII-2's implementation of quick time events is kind of novel in a few ways, as there will be certain moments during battle where the game will ask you to press one of two different buttons, which will seamlessly lead into one of two different outcomes occurring in battle. In an early battle, you can press either X to attack physically or B to attack using magic. Lightning's actions in following will change accordingly. It's not really a big deal, but it's kind of a neat little touch.

Overall, battles in XIII-2 are thrilling and kinetic in a way that most RPGs can only dream of. The vastly flexible Paradigm system does an admirable job of providing players with numerous options during battle, and the Paradigm Pack adds to that flexibility. The monster capturing mechanic is deceptively addictive, too. Capturing a monster's crystal (and thus, their loyalty) is often dependent upon the rating you receive for the battle, with five-star performances being more likely to land you a new ally. It can be maddening to encounter a tough enemy numerous times but never obtain his crystal. At the same time, you'll keep on trying despite yourself.

Outside of battle, this is largely a traditional Final Fantasy experience. This is in stark contrast to XIII, which was essentially a series of funnels for the first thirty or so hours. Compared to its predecessor, XIII-2 looks like Skyrim. Which, sadly, it still isn't. This level of openness is basically the standard in most JRPG franchises, but at least Square-Enix has moved back up to the standard. You can roam around pretty freely to take on side quests, speak with NPCs, and fight optional bosses. There are even multiple "Paradox" endings (see?!) for those willing to take the game on a second time.

Jumping back in for another go isn't as daunting a prospect as it normally is in these games, however, as XIII-2 clocked in at a relatively short 30 hours for me. Your mileage may vary depending on how many sidequests and optional bosses you take on, but it still won't be a long RPG by any stretch of the imagination. That was fine with me, though, because it never felt like the game and its mechanics were overstaying their welcome.

As with most Square-Enix games, your time spent in their world will be incredibly easy on the eyes. I played XIII on the PS3, and by contrast the 360 version of XIII-2 is noticeably worse looking, especially with regards to the textures. Either the games have actually gotten worse looking as they've gone along, or there is a pretty significant graphical difference between the two platforms. That said, even the 360 version of the game remains gorgeous, with colorful environments, great looking character models, and exuberant particle effects shaming many other games on the platform. The soundtrack is a completely different issue, though. The grating music is almost always accompanied by generic lyrics about finding yourself and never giving up on hope, which are often shouted in screamo fashion. I cannot emphasize enough how jarring it is to hear this reprehensible soundtrack juxtaposed against such beautiful visuals.

Soundtrack and story aside, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is the strongest entry in the franchise in ages. It's beautiful to look at, but beyond that it is downright fun to play. The depth and breadth of strategic options available to you will have you looking forward to each brutal boss fight as the game makes its way towards the closing acts. If only we could do something about the game's penchant for empty philosophy and new-wave metal, the next Final Fantasy could be something truly special indeed.

3.5/5 Stars

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The Best Of The Rest Of 2011

Best Of The Rest 2011

This is the list for all the unsung heroes of 2011, so to speak. These are the games that I feel accomplished something great (or awful), even if they weren't quite worthy of inclusion in my top ten.

1. Deus Ex: Human Revolution

11th Best Game Of The Year: Deus Ex Human Revolution served as a great reminder of what games give up when they attempt to be streamlined rollercoaster experiences. The freeform nature of the game's world, which allowed for problems to be solved in numerous different ways, was a great counterbalance to the recent trend of funneling players down one path all the time. Although I loved the ability to tackle situations in any way I saw fit, the horrible boss battles held the game back. As a character specced entirely towards stealth, these forced confrontations proved incredibly frustrating.

2. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings

Best PC Exclusive Game Of 2011: The Witcher 2 presents a fascinating fantasy world, one that exceeds the stereotypes that so often bound games of this genre. Although the tutorial can best be described as selective (it teaches players how to perform certain actions, while leaving others up to the imagination,) get past this point and you're in for one of the best PC RPG experiences in years. It's not quite as flexible as some of the competition, but with stunning graphics, a wonderfully realized fiction, and some of the most interesting monster hunting mechanics I've ever seen in a game, The Witcher 2 demands dozens of hours of playtime.

3. Super Mario 3D Land

Best 3DS Exclusive Game Of 2011: Super Mario 3D Land didn't exactly face stiff competition in this category, but that doesn't make its achievements any less notable. This was the portable game to have this year, and with great graphics and superb level design Mario proved again that no matter how many times we've played his games, he can always deliver something new, unique, and fun.

4. inFamous 2

Best PS3 Exclusive Game: Although there were many fantastic exclusives released on the PS3 this year, Infamous 2 was the one that made the most consistent improvement to its predecessor. The city was more fun to explore, the powers were better, and the enemies more interesting. Coupled with the snappy movement of the original, Infamous 2 was a ton of fun.

5. Gears of War 3

Best Xbox 360 Exclusive Game AND Best Competitive Multiplayer Of 2011: Gears 3 features a great campaign, but it's the Hoard mode and multiplayer that keep me consistently coming back. Addictive and strategic, Hoard is consistently entertaining with four other players. Then there are the competitive modes, which mercifully utilize dedicated servers this time around to make for a much smoother experience. Sure, the shotguns still seem overpowered, but the plethora of modes and maps as well as the constant flow of DLC make this one of the better online experiences this year.

6. Iron Brigade

Best Co-Op Multiplayer Of 2011: There's something about defending your base and collecting loot with a bunch of friends that will never get old. Plenty of games took advantage of this fact this year, but Trenched... er, Iron Brigade, was one of the best. Although Dungeon Defenders was my preferred tower defense game this year, I found myself enjoying Iron Brigade more when played with friends. The matchmaking is intuitive, and the possibilities for teamwork make some of the more difficult levels more manageable and more strategic.

7. El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron

Best Artwork of 2011: El Shaddai's unique, ever-changing style ensures its victory in this category even as games like Bastion and Rayman Origins wowed audiences with their gorgeous high definition sprite work. Nevermind the fact that this ultra abstract style actually made the game difficult to play at times. Looking at these incredibly realized worlds was its own reward. Even if the game itself wasn't that great, I don't think I'll ever forget El Shaddai. The pulsating worlds and vibrant colors are forever burned into my mind.

8. Bastion

Best Soundtrack Of 2011: Okay, so I know I've already declared my love for Bastion in my top ten list, but it bears repeating just how eclectic and wonderful its soundtrack is. The bizarre fusion of eastern and western musical stylings was enough to justify my purchase of the soundtrack, but it was the moving vocal pieces that really stayed with me. I still find myself humming "Build That Wall" from time to time.

9. Avadon: The Black Fortress

Best Obscure Steam Game Of 2011: We've all been there before. Steam is hosting a big sale with tons of bundles, and somewhere in the process we've ended up with a bunch of games that we've never actually heard of before. Such was the case when I purchased all of the Indie bundles during this year's Steam Holiday Sale. I had never heard of Avadon before, but just an hour after jumping into this Baldur's Gate-esque RPG, I was hooked. The way the game presented its scenarios through "choose your own adventure" styled text boxes was a clever way to circumvent the obvious budget restraints placed on the developers, and were super quaint to boot. The writing is often clever, and the characters are fairly well developed. Then there's the combat, which transitions seamlessly from real time exploration to turn based battle. It's a satisfying way to engage enemies. Finally, the world and story developed in Avadon are surprisingly deep. The choices the game gives you, while not quite on the level of something like Skyrim, are nonetheless numerous and game-changing.

10. LittleBigPlanet 2

Best Value Of 2011: Sure, Skyrim has a giant open world with hundreds of quests and items to find, but it was Littlebigplanet 2 that really kept me coming back. Partially due to its incredibly imaginative world, partially due to the infectiously fun co-op, and mostly due to the vast quantity of levels designed by its users, this game can literally last forever, if the users keep designing levels. Luckily, Media Molecule infused LBP2 with a level editor intuitive enough to allow for the creation of some truly great new levels. Almost a year from its release, it's amazing to see the progress that the community has made in terms of its design capabilities.

11. Dungeon Defenders

Best Grind Of 2011: Gamers love to raise their stats. It's an undeniable truth that games have manipulated for years, whether it's World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy. For my money, this year's best level grinder was Dungeon Defenders. Whether you're questing for new weapons, new pets, or just trying to level up enough to beat that next level, the strategic gameplay was always entertaining enough to warrant dumping just a few more hours into this wonderful co-op tower defense game. And hey, grinding's always better with a few friends, right?

12. Saints Row: The Third

Best Moment Of 2011: The entire game was the best moment of 2011. Between skydiving gunfights, zombie invasions, freefalling tank battles, and more moments too absurd to spoil, it's impossible to choose just one moment in this series of fantastic ones.

13. Renegade Ops

Craziest Action Of 2011: Other games may have had their share of unique setpiece moments, but the entirety of Renegade Ops played out as one giant setpiece. The action was so fast, so explosive, so visceral, that any attempts to put this game down were quickly thwarted. Throw in three other players and the action becomes so ludicrous it's almost impossible to tell what's actually happening. But in a very good way. Thanks to the great action, perfect controls, and light RPG mechanics, Renegade Ops ended up dominating my life for a few crazy days.

14. Catherine

Biggest Disappointment AND Ballsiest Game Of 2011: Let's get this straight right off the bat: There were plenty of worse games in 2011 than Catherine. The reason I was so disappointed was because of the massive potential that this title held and the pedigree of those who developed it. As far as games typically go to avoid the topic of sex, it was refreshing to see Catherine tackle it so forwardly, even going so far as to make it the central premise of the game. It is for this bravado that I congratulate Catherine and its developers; if more companies were willing to take risks like this, the industry would be a much better place. At the same time, however, the actual quality of the game was very disappointing. The block puzzles were highly frustrating thanks to unintuitive camera angles and levels that enjoyed stacking the odds so far against you it was almost criminal. Then there were the bar sections, which were fun in that they connected you more to the game's characters and the intriguing mystery at the game's heart, but also stifling because they never let you leave the bar. If there's one game I wanted to love in 2011, it was Catherine. Unfortunately, the game made that harder than I could bear.

15. Assassin's Creed: Revelations

The 2011 "Give It A Rest" Award: Look Ubisoft, I love Assassins Creed. The second entry in the franchise was one of my favorite open world games of all time, and Brotherhood introduced one of my favorite modern multiplayer modes. But it's time to give it a rest already. Revelations adds nothing of importance to the formula and teases a satisfying resolution that it frankly never delivers. At this point it feels like the Assassins Creed team is attempting to stretch the nonsensical story out as long as they can for the sake of making more money. It feels like there was a natural conclusion that the series should've reached after three or four games, but for the sake of getting cash the team dug themselves into a rut that they can never reasonably escape from. The plot at this point is mere gibberish. It doesn't help that the only significant addition to the formula, a weird tower defense minigame, actually detracts from the experience. Good thing it's optional.

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My Top Games of 2011 Part One: The Obligatory Top Ten

GOTY 2011

My ten favorite games of 2011

1. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Skyrim embodies almost everything I love about video games. Its vast open world encourages exploration and discovery, its rich RPG elements form a satisfying backbone to support the lengthy adventure, and there's always a new and interesting quest to discover. How Bethesda could've made a game so vast, yet so great, is beyond me, but I'm sure glad they did.

2. Bastion

I never expected this much out of Bastion and its handful of developers. Not only is this the best indie game I've ever played, it's also one of the most moving games I've ever had the pleasure of putting my hands on. Everything about Bastion - the beautiful artwork, the superb writing, the breathtaking soundtrack - blends seamlessly together to create a whole that can only be described as stunning.

3. Batman: Arkham City

Take one of 2009's best action games, add an open world, dozens of hours of side quests each backed by a cool story, and tons of memorable villains, and you have the recipe for the perfect brawler. The atmosphere in Arkham City is so menacing, so hopeless, that it made for a truly unique and thoroughly frightening experience. The fact that you have so many options for navigating and brawling through this urban wasteland is just the icing on the cake.

4. Saints Row: The Third

Saints Row: The Third knows that we play video games primarily for fun, and it delivers on that promise better than just about any game I can think of. Brash, loud, violent, and above all utterly ridiculous, Saints Row: The Third is easily deserving of a spot in my top ten.

5. inFamous 2

Everything about Infamous 2 was an improvement over its predecessor. The city was vibrant and gorgeous looking, the powers were more fun to toy around with, and the gangs of enemies more varied and interesting than ever before. Coupled with a great story (even if it does kind of jump the shark in the end,) Infamous 2 is a big improvement. But the real fun in this game comes simply from moving around, as Cole's movements and powers feel incredibly fluid and natural. It hasn't been this much fun to just run around in a game for a long time.

6. Rayman: Origins

Rayman Origins proves that the classic 2D platformer can still destroy other genres in terms of quality, even if it didn't exactly light up the sales charts. With pixel perfect controls and some of the most fluid animations and catchiest music around, Rayman Origins is a treat for the eyes, ears, and fingers.

7. Gears of War 3

I didn't like Gears 2 all that much, but this conclusion to the trilogy just feels like a better thought out product. The story is better, even succeeding in its few attempts to hit home some emotional resonance. The multiplayer is great fun and more balanced than it's ever been thanks to the inclusion of dedicated servers. But the real triumph of Gears 3 is its revamped Hoard mode, which supports up to five players online. There's nothing quite as intense as facing down those high level opponents with a team of dedicated players. It's absolutely fantastic.

8. Bulletstorm

Bulletstorm is the antithesis of the modern shooter. Placing a firm emphasis on combo chains and so-stupid-they're-clever dick jokes that wouldn't be out of place on a third grade playground, Bulletstorm certainly knows how to have fun. Couple the rock solid combo-based gameplay with a bright and gorgeous world, silky smooth controls, and a surprisingly good story, and you've got one of 2011's surprise hits.

9. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3

Really? I know. No, really, I know. I don't like Activision's business practices any more than you do, but the fact of the matter is that Infinity Ward and the army of studios at their disposal have crafted on hell of a shooter this year. The campaign alone is enough for me to recommend this one, thanks to its plethora of jaw dropping setpieces. But even after that's done with, the new cooperative Survival mode is enough to drain hours out of your life. It's fast, addictive, and fun.

10. Dead Space 2

Although I was a bit disappointed by Dead Space 2's reliance on action and jump scares over straight up horror, there's no denying that this is still one of the most polished third person action games on the block. The aiming and shooting controls are nothing short of perfect, and the graphics are stunning even almost a year later. This game had me on the edge of my seat more times than I dare to count, and I think that's worthy of placing it in the top ten.

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I'm Giving Away Steam Games!!!

2011 was a massive year for games, and most of us have had more than a few slip under our radar. Well Giantbombers, this holiday season I've received tons of games and other goodies from Steam's holiday shenanigans (as well as a few duplicate games from friends and Redditors gifting games on Steam,) and I'm going to pass the duplicates on to you. If you'd like a copy of any of the games listed below, all you have to do is leave your preferred game in the comments of this post. I'll choose one person at random on the night of December 28th and send a PM asking for your Steam ID, at which point I'll send the game to your account. Consider it my way of showing appreciation for the great community here at Giantbomb. Thanks, good luck, and see you all in the new year!

UPDATE: Wow, I never thought I'd get this many people commenting in here! Thanks for all the love in the posts, but I'm afraid the time has come to choose just one person to receive each game. If your name is by the game, you should have a PM in your inbox from me already. Enjoy the games everybody.

Oh and if for whatever reason someone can't accept their game, I'll choose another person at random. Everybody should receive their gifts by tonight. I have work in the afternoon but will send them when I get back. Now without further ado...

  • Deus Ex Human Revolution -
  • Caspized -
  • Bulletstorm -
  • Bastion -
  • Renegade Ops -
  • Blocks That Matter -
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My Arkham City and Aliens Infestation Reviews

Arkham City

There was a time when Batman games were viewed with contempt. Like most of the licensed drivel that publishers would pass for games, these experiences were often short, under developed, and untrue to the methods of the world's greatest detective. It is for precisely this reason that gamers were so skeptical when Rocksteady announced Batman Arkham Asylum. Of course that game released in 2009 to heavy critical acclaim and even received numerous Game of the Year nods. But was Arkham Asylum's popularity partially a result of the low expectations fans held for it? With Batman Arkham City, Warner Bros. Interactive and Rocksteady deliver a swift roundhouse kick to the doubters, proving that lightning can indeed strike twice.

From the very first moments of Arkham City I was on the edge of my seat. This is a game that wastes no time in establishing its conflict and fleshing it out with infamous villains. After a memorable tutorial level you'll be thrust into the city large tasked with tracking down Hugo Strange, the man behind the creation of Arkham City. The impoverished prison city, created from the ashes of the ghettos of Gotham, is now home to the world's most infamous criminals, and Batman will quickly be sidetracked in his search for answers by cameos from The Joker, Penguin, Two Face, Catwoman, and many others. The story weaves numerous threads into a compelling whole, taking what on their own would be fairly dull stories and lending them gravitas by integrating them into the larger plot.

Oh hey, didn't see you there

Of the villains, Catwoman plays the most significant role. The anti-hero is actually playable for those who order the game new (or buy used from Gamestop, as the retailer has cut a deal with Warner Bros. to include codes in its used copies,) and her story intersects with Batman's at several key moments. It's a fairly significant chunk of game to wall off behind an online pass, to such an extent that I find it hard to imagine the story without her. If I had to pick out one flaw in Arkham City, it'd be the awkward online integration. Catwoman requires a code and a constant internet connection to play. Worse still, every time I downloaded content in the background, the game would pause upon completion of the download and kick me out to the main menu, even if the downloads had nothing to do with this game. I can't tell you how distracting it is to be thoroughly immersed in the game one moment and kicked out to the menu the next, especially when I'm only downloading a small demo or something of the sort.

Awkward online integration aside, Arkham City runs smooth as silk. The controls remain largely the same as last time, although this time around Batman has access to a few new gadgets and must contend with a few new enemy types. The most significant upgrade seems but a minor one upon first glance; by double-tapping the A button during a grapple, you can make Batman speed up and maintain his momentum through his grapple, flying off the other end and soaring higher than before. Combined with a new dive move that's great for building momentum in the air, it's easy to soar across the entire city. Flying above the criminal scum below, you'll feel like a real superhero.

Combat has a similar flow to it. Although little in this regard has changed since the Dark Knight's last outing, chaining together combos by countering enemy attacks remains just as satisfying as it was before. There are even more options this time around thanks to numerous gadget upgrades. Freeze bombs can be tossed at the feet of a thug to freeze him temporarily in place, while quick-fire explosives can be thrown out to knock enemies to the ground. A new enemy type equipped with a riot shield will require quick dodges and precise attacks to take down, while another new enemy type armed with a knife forces you to hit a direction on the analog stick while dodging to effectively circumvent his blade. Combined with the Titan-infused brutes and taser-wielding baddies from Arkham Asylum, combat can feel quite busy. It's almost never overwhelming, though, and even when enemies start picking up guns and coming at you with knives, there's always a counter for every attack.

A battle through Penguin's new compound is one of the game's best moments

Of course, if you find yourself fighting a lot of enemies you may be missing the point of Arkham City entirely. The fisticuffs are great, sure, but the real thrill comes from taking enemies down stealthily. Creeping up behind enemies, luring them into traps using your gadgets, and swooping down from gargoyles high above their heads are all viable and satisfying ways to make you feel like the ultimate predator. Gargoyles are no longer the safe haven they were before, however. Certain enemies will use night vision to spot you on your perch if you don't stay still, and a tricky boss battle with Mr. Freeze ices over the perches, rendering them useless. In other rooms, enemies will lay mines in an attempt to fortify their position, forcing careful movement and astute observation.

Takedowns have been improved since Arkham Asylum. You can still swoop down from a gargoyle on rope and leave unsuspecting thugs dangling upside down from your perch, which remains one of the most fun moves to pull off in the game. Other additions are equally rewarding, though. Double takedowns are now possible and help thin out the crowd quickly. Ledge takedowns have also been expanded upon, and they comprise some of the most visceral and brutal hits of the game. An average gamer won't utilize all of these numerous combat options much in one playthrough, encouraging experimentation in the game's combat rooms. Even if you don't use every gadget, every takedown, and every combo, it's important to know that they're available. The variety in combat and the freedom to choose your methods are what make Arkham City so much better than other action games.

The story missions, while fantastic, eventually must come to an end after around eight hours. Luckily, there are tons of side missions scattered around the city that comprise dozens of hours of gameplay. Some of them are your typical open world objectives, stopping muggings, finding hidden items and the like. Many others are far more complex, and center around a specific villain or two. These character-central side missions are some of the best around, and although many of them can be broken down into mere fetch quests, they are bolstered by the personalities of the villains around whom they revolve. Stopping Zsasz from murdering innocent civilians has a totally different feel from tracking downDeadshot and his victims, even if from a gameplay standpoint your methods will be quite similar. Including side missions like these is a great way to bolster the villain count of the game without making it feel too overcrowded, an issueArkham City deftly sidesteps.

The gradual degradation of Batman's suit looks great

Finally, if the game's cavalcade of side missions and collectibles still aren't enough to satisfy you (perfectly reasonable, given the quality of the gameplay,) challenge rooms make a triumphant return. Contrary to the open world freedom of the main quest, these challenge rooms task you with very specific objectives in a confined area, and require an almost surgical precision to pull off successfully. All of these rooms revolve around taking down enemies either silently or in hand to hand combat as efficiently as possible, and advanced levels demand intense memorization and numerous tries to achieve perfection. These instanced battles aren't why I come to Batman games, but they definitely have a strong following as evidenced by numerous YouTube videos and leaderboard scores. If you love challenge rooms, Arkham City has you covered, with even more being released as DLC at a steady pace.

AArkham City is one of those rare games that contains huge amounts of content and executes it all with nary a hitch. Rocksteady balances numerous villains and plot threads with all the skill and dexterity of a superhero, giving each character a time to shine in the spotlight before moving the plot on to the next. The engaging story is bolstered by some fantastic voice acting, which booms from the speakers in a suitably dramatic fashion, and the gameplay is every bit nimble enough to keep up with the demands of the plot. The real triumph of the game, though, is in its prioritization of player freedom, even in the relatively linear framework of some of its levels. There are numerous ways to approach every instance of combat, and it's this variety that allows Arkham City to remain entertaining no matter how long you play. With this game, Rocksteady has proven that their success with Arkham Asylum was no accident; they know Batman, and they know quality game design.

Aliens: Infestation

Aliens: Infestation would've flown right under my radar if it weren't for the pedigree of its developer, WayForward Technologies. When the guys behind the excellent Contra 4 and Bloodrayne Betrayal put out a new 2D game, I tend to pay attention. When said game takes its inspiration from classic Metroidvania games, I'm practically stumbling over myself to fork over my cash. Indeed, Aliens: Infestation has a fantastic concept, and capitalizes on it as much as possible. A sidescrolling Aliens game in the vein of Super Metroid seems all too obvious in retrospect, and it's about as cool as it sounds. The game makes a few minor stumbles in terms of fairness and consistency, but recovers quickly thanks to a mixture of solid gunplay, nail-biting tension, and pure old-school charm.

The opening moments of Aliens: Infestation are quiet and suspenseful. As your platoon of Marines lands on the seemingly abandoned USS Sulaco, there's a palpable tension in the air. It isn't long, however, until this tension dissolves and the occupying Xenomorphs reveal themselves. From here on out, the game ditches tension in favor of straight up gunplay. Although the shooting is generally solid, it's a small failure on the game's part that it doesn't go for more atmospheric scares as opposed to the more traditional combat that permeates the game. After discovering the Xenomorph infestation, the creatures spawn in practically every room, and the motion sensor makes their appearances more predictable than they should be.

Although the game leans heavily on its shooting, a methodical pace is demanded due to a severely limited pool of lives. In Aliens: Infestation, each Marine constitutes one life. You may only have four Marines, and thus four lives, in your pool at any given time, although a total of nineteen unique Marines are scattered across the numerous environments for when you need some backup. When all of your lives are depleted, the game forces you to start from the beginning. If you don't want to play significant portions of the game over again, it's best to maintain a slow and steady crawl through the levels. This more tactical approach serves to differentiate Infestation from its peers, giving it an identity all its own. The feeling of horror that overcomes you as you dash desperately towards the nearest save room with only a sliver of health remaining is entirely unique to this game, and is a lot of fun to boot.

Unfortunately, that limited pool of lives can come back to bite you in the ass when the game cheaply kills you. I've had enemies spawn in on top of me, basically condemning me to a helpless death, and I've been killed by cheap bosses a few times. One time I was even gunned down in the middle of a cutscene. Reloading your old save can alleviate these issues to an extent, but that's never any fun. Besides, there's a certain feeling of flying by the seat of your pants to rolling with the game's punches, and when it cheaply kills you, that feeling is diminished significantly.

Other than a few issues with cheap, glitchy deaths, I had a ton of fun exploring Infestation's numerous environments. They're lovingly rendered in the style of classic SNES games, and demand a decent amount of exploration to fully exploit. Secrets and upgrades are hidden everywhere, but so are the Xenomorphs. This mixture of encouraging exploration while demanding careful planning works well enough to keep the action feeling punchy, even when you have to backtrack through a lot of the rooms. And like any good Metroidvania game, it's the exploration that feels the most satisfying. There's just something about looking at a grid-based map and feeling the need to fill in every corner of it that pleases me to no end.

When Xenomorphs inevitably pop out of every corner, the gunplay satisfies as well. Although you'll start with the standard Marine Assault Rifle (and yes, they managed to nail the sound even on theDS's tinny speakers) you'll quickly upgrade to a shotgun, and again to still more powerful weapons. This constant progression is a staple of the genre, and Infestation nails it. Guns feel powerful, especially against humanoid enemies as the Xenomorphs take a fair share of punishment before falling. If they aren't enough, you'll also have access to a supply of grenades. Although your Marines toss grenades like they were in a shot putting competition, you'll eventually get used to it, and they're an instant kill against most enemies making them a great last-ditch weapon.

Aliens: Infestation places its sights on some pretty lofty targets and mostly hits its mark. Like the classic Metroidvania games, it's gorgeous to look at and fun to explore. Its chunky sprites and tinny music inspire as much nostalgia as horror, even as the game quickly ditches its tension-filled beginning moments for a more action-oriented approach. Exploring the large maps is a satisfying way to kill ten or so hours, and the fact that you can actually lose all of your Marines and be forced to start from the beginning is a neat hook that gives the game its own unique feel. In an increasingly crowded genre, Aliens: Infestation still manages to stand out as a great purchase.

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Weekend Bender, November 13-18

Hello, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the Weekend Bender! This is my new weekly blog, where I'll cover every game released over the last week in short, digestible blurbs. Don't like short? Don't like digesting? I'll include links to full reviews of each of the games I deem worthy under their description. So won't you join me, dear reader, as I watch my precious sanity trickle through my fingers like so much sand in an hourglass, furiously attempting to bash my head through every game, on every platform, every week?

This is probably the biggest week in terms of quality releases that we've seen in the season. Scratch that; with Rayman Origins, Saints Row The Third, Assassins Creed Revelations, and Halo Anniversary, not to mention some, er, lesser quality releases, this is probably the most packed release week all year. If somehow last week's releases of Skyrim and Modern Warfare 3 just weren't enough, you'll surely find something this week to warm your icy black hole of a heart.

Assassins Creed Revelations

The hookblade is the most significant addition

Assassins Creed Revelations is probably the most widely anticipated release of the last week, but also the most predictable. If you've played Brotherhood, picture that, but with bombs and a shitty tower defense game tacked on for no apparent reason. Okay, so maybe that's a little harsh. Revelations does add the Hookblade as well; this nifty addition to Ezio's wrist blades opens up an entirely new set of moves for navigating the environment. Jumps can be extended a little farther, enemies can be vaulted over, and ziplines can be crossed with the help of the Hookblade. Its introduction early in the game helps Ezio maintain momentum in just about any situation, and makes the movement feel just a tiny bit better than in any game past.

And that's what Revelations is all about: incremental improvement. Nothing here is in any way significantly better than it was in the past, but better it is, if only by a little. The graphics, for example, are more gorgeous than ever, with the environments maintaining their gorgeous style and the faces no longer resembling grotesque meat puppets. The presentation of the story is also better than before, with the numerous characters and worlds all melding seamlessly together and paced in just the right way. That said, this is still the same Assassins Creed we've been playing since 2, and it's starting to get a bit stale. All of the workings of the world are just as expected; they're good, but starting to feel a bit well-worn. It doesn't help that the game forces you into the aforementioned tower defense minigame if you want to keep your hard-earned territory. Ezio sits and watches passively as groups of enemies that he'd be entirely capable of fighting waltz into his base and start wrecking shop, choosing to command troops from afar instead of jump into the fray himself. Maybe his old bones just can't take combat like they used to, but it seems out of character.

Rayman Origins

This game oozes manic charm from every pore

Ubisoft's other release this week fares a lot better. It's fair to say that Rayman Origins wasn't on my radar until it started earning nigh-perfect reviews left and right. I went out Friday morning and picked a copy up for myself, and I've been enraptured ever since.

A love letter to classic 2D platforming, Rayman Origins eschews many of the superfluous features the industry has tacked onto its games lately. There's no social integration, there are no leaderboards for the game's numerous levels, and no setpiece moments that drop jaws while simultaneously taking all control away from the player. This is straight up classic gaming wearing a stunningly gorgeous high definition disguise.

Although there are really only a few functions that Rayman can perform (running, jumping, hovering, etc) the game makes such clever use of them that the moveset never feels restrictive. Level design is intelligent, quaint, funny, and at times damn challenging. Rayman's movement is pixel perfect; almost every time I died, I knew that it was my fault as opposed to the fault of the controls. And best yet, it can be played with friends cooperatively, adding a whole new sense of chaos to the proceedings. When four people are running around a gorgeously designed level slapping each other silly, it can be hard to want much more.

Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary

Whoa, a slightly prettier version of a campaign we all played ten years ago! Let's run out and buy it again!

I'm not the biggest fan of this game's existence. If I want Halo, I'll go play it on my Xbox or my PC. I will not, however, go to the store and pony up forty bucks to get yet another version of the classic game. Some people will, though, and they'll end up with what amounts to a pretty damn solid game. The graphics in this updated port are by no means gorgeous, or even good. They're not even close to Halo 3 or Halo Reach, but still a vast improvement over the original set of textures. It's easy to forget how much graphics have changed in the decade since Halo's release, and if nothing else the Anniversary Edition will remind you of this vast leap. Online play is also included, which was understandably absent in the original Xbox version. If you're really dying to play these maps online, however, you can simply download a map pack for Halo Reach that contains them all. That fact makes this package seem like even more of a ripoff than it already did, since you're essentially paying forty dollars for the single player portion of a game that was released ten years ago. Again, that game is still a pretty good one, though. It goes to show how much games have been streamlined, because level design can occasionally get pretty darn confusing, but otherwise Halo holds up pretty well. I'd just rather play it in its original form than pay for a merely competent looking update.

Saints Row The Third

They had me at "giant wobbly dildo." Which is perhaps a bit telling.

Each Saints Row game has been exponentially nuttier than its predecessor, and The Third continues this tradition with aplomb. Whether you're piloting a hover jet, smacking dudes up with a giant dildo, or having a firefight while freefalling 35,000 feet, this game is absolutely, positively batshit crazy. And it's all the more amazing for it. Whether you're playing a side mission, working through the story missions, or just wandering around in the large city of Steelport, chances are shit is popping off all around you. This game was seemingly designed to perpetuate mayhem at every turn, whether it's in the floaty car physics, the exaggerated ragdoll, or the fact that you can get in a giant fighter jet that shoots lasers at any one of your numerous bases. The possibilities for fun are only limited by your imagination. Read more about why I loved Saints Row The Third in my review.

Need For Speed The Run

Linear or not, this is still kinda cool

I actually enjoyed the demo of this game that EA released on Xbox Live a few weeks back, so I was a little surprised when the final product didn't quite live up to my newly inflated expectations. I didn't dislike it quite as much as Jeff seemed to, but I can still appreciate where he's coming from. This game is linear, even in comparison to other racing games, which is pretty impressive given that the entire genre revolves around driving down a preset line. Diverting from that path in The Run in search of shortcuts can lead to disastrous results, as your car will most likely be picked up and set back on course a few seconds behind its initial position. Only the shortcuts that are clearly marked by the developers are allowed to be taken. And don't even get me started on the collisions. Some objects your car can plow right through, while others stop it dead in its tracks, and it can be really difficult to tell which obstacles fall into which category. Some objects, like telephone poles, fall in the middle of that venn diagram, with some yielding to the force of your car with others crumpling it. Still, despite these issues, I had fun with The Run's short campaign. There were a few intense moments, such as the avalanche that has been featured heavily in the trailers, and the cars generally controlled well enough to deliver a constant feeling of adrenaline. It may be linear, but The Run knows how to execute a satisfying setpiece, and that counts for something.

Jurassic Park

Dr. Harding longs to one day be a real boy

As a child, I was enraptured by Jurassic Park's lifelike dinosaurs and the breathless sense of fear and adventure that permeated every second of their screen time. Perhaps it was this nostalgia that informed my unfortunate decision to purchase this dreadful game on Steam when it released. Telltale may be taking flak for the now-infamous Jeep incident, but the stilted animations, lousy controls, and cheesy dialogue of this game deserve no less attention. I had hoped that the Heavy Rain influenced mechanics would pay off in a heavier investment in the characters and world. In that game, the control scheme worked because of its consistency and because of the impactful nature of those button presses; one screw-up, and your character could be dead for the rest of the game. Jurassic Park lacks this gravitas, and replaces it with cheese so rancid you could smell it miles away. I appreciate the company trying to get outside its comfort zone with something a little more serious, but it's obvious that they have little experience writing serious dialogue, as the entire script is filled with groan-inducing lines. These lines are recited by characters who couldn't look more wooden if they were made of the stuff, dead-eyed automatons that lack any of the convincing nuance of Heavy Rain's cast. Thanks to issues like these I wouldn't have cared if any of them were offed anyway, but the game imparts no such consequence to slow players. Instead, failed button presses simply send players back to a checkpoint. A final nail in the game's coffin, those controls have no consistency to them and feel completely unnecessary to the type of game Telltale was trying to make. It's like they played Heavy Rain, wished they had come up with it themselves, and made some half-assed ripoff with dinosaurs to hurt their bruised egos. Quantic Dream's game was a stunning example of how to do a modern adventure game with a real sense of consequence; Telltale seems to have imparted all the wrong lessons from that game, resulting in a product that feels cheap, derivative, and above all, boring.

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Weekend Bender, November 5-12

Hello, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the Weekend Bender! This is my new weekly blog, where I'll cover every game released over the last week in short, digestible blurbs. Don't like short? Don't like digesting? I'll include links to full reviews of each of the games I deem worthy under their description. So won't you join me, dear reader, as I watch my precious sanity trickle through my fingers like so much sand in an hourglass, furiously attempting to bash my head through every game, on every platform, every week?

This week is one of the most peaceful yet, with most publishers avoiding the massive Modern Warfare 3 and Skyrim like the plague. Both games are huge, and I've been absorbed in them all week long. So without further ado, let's get to the main course.

Modern Warfare 3

Multiplayer still largely feels the same despite some changes

As evidenced by my 5-Star review, I quite enjoyed Modern Warfare 3 while it lasted. The campaign was short in length as is typical of a CoD game, but what it lacks in duration it makes up for in variety and spectacle, both of which are in strong supply here. It may not be the most revolutionary CoD campaign, but it was certainly the one I had the most fun playing due in no small part to the enormous number of setpiece events. Seriously, I was picking my jaw up off the floor after just about every level, and I'd gladly go replay them all again because of that. The scripting, a fatal blow to Battlefield 3's campaign, also works wonderfully here. It's obvious that Activision had tons of people focus testing this thing before it ever got to our hands, because the scripted events are timed just about perfectly and, for me at least, all went off without a hitch. It doesn't hurt that the story provides what little closure such a slapdash plot could ever hope to achieve, with an ending that is at once bombastic and satisfying.Co-op and multiplayer are basically the expected fare, but that doesn't make them bad. Spec Ops has returned, and it's still pretty entertaining with a buddy. The real highlight of that mode for me was the Survival mode though, which plays a lot like Horde but with that unique CoD twist. It's a lot of fun. Competitive multiplayer for better and worse remains basically the same, although the addition of some new modes and some changes to the killstreak system serve to keep things interesting enough. All in all, if you've ever enjoyed any aspect of a Call of Duty game, you should find something to dig into in Modern Warfare 3. It's far from the most creative game on the market, but mechanically it's near unmatched.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

I often find myself just staring at the beautiful scenery

I'm not afraid to admit that I harbored low expectations for Skyrim. The last Elder Scrolls game, Oblivion, did little to capture my attention thanks to obtrusive UI, boring and redundant dungeon design, lousy melee combat, and an auto-leveling system for the enemies that failed to deliver a strong sense of progress. Still, I trudged out to the midnight release of Skyrim, mostly for the free hot dogs they were offering at Gamestop, and came home with a copy of the game. Immediately I knew things were different. Aside from looking far, far better than Oblivion did, the UI immediately jumped out as having been hugely improved. It flows much more naturally into the game's world now, and the act of looking to the stars to improve your skills is pretty neat looking, even the twentieth time it happens. Combat is also markedly improved, with each swing now feeling more powerful than they did before. It's sort of like swinging melee weapons in Condemned. Dungeons have seen similar improvement. They now have the great variety that they lacked before, encouraging me to delve into each one instead of skipping over potential loot out of boredom. This is helped by the AI's difficulty level, which no longer automatically adapts to the player's level. This gives a great sense of progress to the world; it's really satisfying to get your ass handed to you by some magical creature, only to return later and slay it quickly.

Basically, every problem I could've had with Oblivion has been fixed in Skyrim, leaving the stunning open world and fantastic array of quests to speak for themselves. And speak they do. This is one of the most expansive, interesting, liberating, and overall satisfying games I've played all year.

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My Modern Warfare 3 Review (PC)

Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3 is a game mired in controversy, its reputation tainted by questionable business ethics and internet flame wars. Look past the lawsuits, corporate mud slinging, and accusations of stagnation from a restless fanbase, however, and you'll see that Modern Warfare 3 is possibly the strongest of the Call of Duty games and a great shooter in its own right. Is it as shockingly innovative as the original Modern Warfare was in 2007? Absolutely not, but with mechanics this refined and gameplay this well balanced, it hardly needs to be.

It's not as pretty as Battlefield, but the sheer chaos is stil impressive

As with past entries, action in Modern Warfare 3 is split into three segments; there's a traditional campaign, the competitive multiplayer, and the cooperative Spec Ops mode. It's predictable stuff to be sure, but it's comfortingly familiar in the same way as a late night junk food run, and the sheer amount of content contained within these modes is hard to deny.

The campaign is the mode that's seen the least change. That's not to say that it's lacking in any way, however, as this is one of the most intense and memorable campaigns I've played all year. Whether you're shooting terrorists in zero-g or battling your way through a blinding sandstorm, you'll be surprised by just how much mileage Infinity Ward (and the numerous other studios involved with the project) wring out of the tried and true Call of Duty gameplay. Variety and spectacle are key here, and this big budget shooter delivers on both in ways that its competitors can only dream of.

If story closure is what you're looking for, this latest entry delivers on that front as well. I've never found the stories in Call of Duty games to be particularly meaningful or even coherent, but I recognize that there's a significant fanbase out there waiting with bated breath to see what happens toSoap and Price. Although pre-release footage didn't focus much on these series stalwarts, rest assured they're the focal point of this globe-spanning story. I still found certain plot points a little hard to contextualize, but the story as a whole felt much better thought out than that of Modern Warfare 2, which didn't so much have plot holes as it had gaping craters. When all was said and done, a nice sense of closure fell over the Modern Warfare series. I wouldn't be surprised if we continued to see games brandishing the Modern Warfare name, but these characters and stories have been told to their fullest extent here. In a year where seemingly every game is setting itself up for a sequel, it's nice to not feel blueballed by an ending for once.

The stakes are higher than ever, and the campaign does a good job selling it

Immediately upon finishing the campaign, you'll be thrust into the game's cooperative Spec Ops missions. Many of these are in the same vein as the missions from Modern Warfare 2, in which two players are given an objective and ranked on how efficiently they can complete it. They're fun, but lack the "just one more round" mentality of Treyarch's Zombies mode. Luckily, the new Survival mode is there to scratch that itch. This is a fairly basicHorde-styled mode in which several players must band together to survive as many enemy onslaughts as possible. While it lacks the depth found in Gears of War 3's tower defense mechanics, it's still satisfying to rack up cash with every kill. This cash can be used to purchase new weapons, grenades, perks, and even killstreaks which can be used against the enemies. Survival matches Zombies in terms of pure addictive power; it's the reason this review hasn't gone up earlier, in fact.

Then there's the competitive multiplayer. A ton of new maps and modes have been added and killstreaks have been tweaked a bit, but as far as significant changes go that's about it. As has been the norm for a few years now, new content is continuously opening up to you as you play in the form of new levels, perks, weapons, and attachments. The carrot on a stick approach is certainly the standard now, but it still works well enough. What doesn't work are the archaic spawn points, which are completely predictable and easily abused, and which often spawn you right where you last died to meet an instant death.

I didn't notice as many mounted gun segments as Jeff did in his review, but there are still a lot

Multiplayer gameplay still feels more fair and balanced than in any of the recent Call of Duty games, though, thanks to the previously mentioned killstreak changes. Now there are multiple types of streaks, each with different functions. The Assault package plays exactly as you'd expect; you wrack up four kills, you call in theUAV, etc. The Support package places the emphasis on helping out your teammates and completing objectives, with capturing flags, planting and defusing bombs, and the like gaining you a killstreak. These points also carry over after death, making the Support package the way to go for those who are new to the game or those who can never seem to stay alive long enough to call in that chopper. Unfortunately, the rewards for the Support package are a little less rewarding, with ballistic vests for your whole team and a SAM turret being a few of the rare highlights. Finally, there's the Specialist package, which doesn't give out any killstreaks at all. Instead, it awards players a new perk for each kill after their fourth. It's a risky proposition to play as the Specialist, and as a result the game locks it away until you reach a decent enough level.

Although leveling up is still a big deal, it's no longer the only carrot being dangled on the end of that stick. Now guns level up separately from your core level, and doing so is the only way to get new sights, camo and the like for your gun. It doesn't make as huge a difference to the core experience as you might think, though, and I really didn't notice the gun leveling up until a few matches in. Like me, you'll probably be focused too much on the action to even notice all the different meters going up.

These guys are gonna be a little late for work

A few new modes round out the multiplayer nicely, with Kill Confirmed being my favorite. This mode plays similarly to Team Deathmatch with the goal being to score as many kills as possible for your team. The only difference is that this time players drop a dog tag after dying that must be collected for the kill to count towards your team. It's also possible to collect dog tags of downed teammates before an enemy can grab it, thus denying them the points and scoring yourself some in the process. This opens up some great strategies. If a teammate dies, you can leave his dog tag untouched in hopes of baiting out an unsuspecting enemy trying to play hero. Alternately, if you get in the seat of a chopper gunner, you might be able to mow down a lot of enemies but you won't be there to collect their dog tags when they go down.

It might be cool to hate on Modern Warfare 3 right now, but that hatred is misguided. Yes, Activision engages in some shady business practices. Yes, this game is a bit of a Frankenstein creation, a whole cobbled together by a myriad of studios. This in no way detracts from the consistently exceptional quality of every bit of content in the game. The single player campaign is one of the most thrilling I've played in a long time, and serves to remind that when it comes to rollercoaster-styled games, nobody can touch Activision's internal studios. The Spec Ops modes, especially the new Survival mode, are a blast to play with friends. Finally, the multiplayer, while dated, still has legs, and anyone who's enjoyed this style of game in the past should get at least a marginal level of satisfaction out of spending a few hours online. When coupled together, these elements make for a hell of a package. If hating on Call of Duty is cool, I don't want to be cool. I want one of the year's best shooters, and Activision's army of studios have delivered.

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The Weekend Bender, October 22-November 4

Hello, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the Weekend Bender! This is my new weekly blog, where I'll cover every game released over the last week in short, digestible blurbs. Don't like short? Don't like digesting? I'll include links to full reviews of each of the games I deem worthy under their description. So won't you join me, dear reader, as I watch my precious sanity trickle through my fingers like so much sand in an hourglass, furiously attempting to bash my head through every game, on every platform, every week?

Wow, the last few weeks have been crazy. Other than a few brief intervals, I was without an internet connection over the last week and a half or so, but that just meant more time to dump into the cavalcade of games that have been pouring out as of late. The lack of internet severely hampered my ability to enjoy Battlefield 3, with only half of a match under my belt, but from what I've heard the game has gotten off to a rough start anyway, so maybe it's for the best. I've also enjoyed playing through the latest incarnation of one of my personal favorite franchises, Uncharted 3. It's not everything I was expecting, but still manages to be great in most respects. Those mammoth releases dwarf the somewhat smaller Lord of the Rings: War in the North and Goldeneye 007 Reloaded, which are nonetheless solid experiences. Even Sonic manages to get in on the fun, with Generations marking the best Sonic release in a long time. Basically, if you're looking to pick up a game this week, you're safe with just about any of them. Well, except for that NCIS game.

Battlefield 3

As mentioned above, I'm not especially qualified to comment on the multiplayer portion of Battlefield 3, which is the portion that 99% of you are probably interested in. I played in the beta, but so did the rest of us, and from what I've heard, the final game's balanced multiplayer is far from the mess that was the beta.

It's no understatement to say that this is one of the most gorgeous games ever released. On PC, anyway. Without the HD texture packs, console versions are sort of hideous

The campaign, however, does everything it can to remind us that it's living in Modern Warfare's shadow. With next week's release of Modern Warfare 3, I had the strange feeling of pre-deja vu playing through Battlefield. I'm worried that the experiences will be so similar, some of the steam will be taken away from MW3's campaign because Battlefield's is basically the same. They even use the same story hook as Black Ops, with the story being told through flashbacks of a character who is being interrogated by nebulous forces in the present. Battlefield doesn't do the story nearly as well as Black Ops though, and as a result ends up feeling throwaway compared to last year's story of mind control and presedential assassinations. It all feels a bit hypocritical on EA's part, to bash CoD so thoroughly before releasing a product that so staunchly tries to imitate it.

Despite wearing its influences proudly on its sleeve, Battefield still entertained me. Its take on modern warfare felt ever so slightly more realistic and atmospheric than Activision's annual shooter, thanks largely in part to the fantastic sound design. It's common knowledge by now that Battlefield has superb weapon sounds. What really took me by surprise was the amazing soundtrack. Grinding electronic music builds at just the right pace, giving the proceedings a sense of gravitas that they don't always deserve. Mixed as its quality could be, I still enjoyed Battlefield 3's campaign well enough, and look forward to having more fun in the multiplayer.

Uncharted 3

This is the game I have been anticipating for two years. This is the game I have placed all of my faith in since its announcement. I've avoided most of the trailers, developer diaries, and previews in fear of spoiling any miniscule portion of this sure-to-be masterpiece for myself. This is the game I knew I would be setting atop my Best of 2011 list, come Game of the Year time.

Turns out I was wrong.

Yes, Uncharted 3 is an amazing game. Some might even go as far as to say it is a modern masterpiece. Thing is, Naughty Dog has already released their opus, and its name was Uncharted 2. For everything that Uncharted 2 did with such effortless perfection, Uncharted 3 feels just one step off. The pacing is stilted and back-heavy. While Nathan Drake's second adventure spread its stunning setpiece moments evenly thorughout the game, Uncharted 3 makes players wait almost two hours to get to anything more than basic fisticuffs and puzzle solving. Additionally, there are way more puzzles in the beginning of the game than in the middle and most of the end, giving the game the feeling of Professor Layton light for the first major exploration section. Then there's the checkpointing, which always insists on bringing me back to life after I've already failed the stealth sections, dooming me to a frustrating hour of being blown apart by dozens of overpowered enemies before somehow ekeing out a success.

Uncharted 3, on the other hand, is gorgeous all the time for everyone.

It could be argued that I'm just nitpicking the game, and I guess that's true. None of these complaints are incredibly substantial, but in the face of Uncharted 2, for which I was genuinely at a loss when trying to muster any complaints, it's a small disappointment. Luckily, the game's quality does ramp up quickly enough, and by the end I was thoroughly engrossed as I usually am when playing an Uncharted game. The story hits on some pretty personal notes, and it's truly engaging stuff.

Then there's the multiplayer, of which both cooperative and competetive variants are offered. Again, my internet has been down so it's been tough to get into many matches. I have, however, played a few competitive matches (I mostly chose to play Uncharted 3 over Battlefield 3 in the brief time when my connection was back) and had a great time with them. Uncharted 3 introduces streak rewards similar to those in Modern Warfare, but they feel far more balanced here. The shooting and climbing translates well from the single player to multiplayer, just as it did last time, and map design is typically even better than it was before. The multiplayer seems to be the one area that Uncharted 3 has undeniably improved over Uncharted 2.

Lord of the Rings: War in the North

Thar be dragons! Sorry, had to

Snowblind studios has been away from the game for a long time. They developed that crappy Eragon game which accompanied the crappy movie, but before that they were well-known as the go-to studio for a quality console dungeon crawl. They developed Champions of Norrath and Justic League Heroes, amongst a few other fantastic games, for the PS2, and War in the North represents a return to form for the studio. It's not quite of the same lofty quality of those other games, as it lacks the awesome character creator that most of their games featured, but War in the North is no slouch either. Playing on PC with two friends, I had a great time lopping off Orc limbs and slaying Cave Trolls. The three different characters generally complement each other well, and the combat is visceral and bloody in a wink and a nudge towards Bioware's bloodstained Dragon Age franchise.The game's biggest downfall is its lack of variety. Most encounters play out in the form of arena battles, where players will move into a walled-off section, enemies will pour out, and players will attack them until they're all dead, hitting a button to move on to the next area. It feels dated in its design, but the combat itself is still fun to play with a few friends.

Goldeneye 007 Reloaded

The updated graphics still show some age

Speaking of dated in design, here we have a remake of a remake of a shooter that was originally released on the Nintendo 64 and later remade for the Wii. For Reloaded, the graphics have been sharpened up (again) and a few tweaks have been made to the gameplay, making it feel overall more like a Call of Duty game. Between this and Battlefield 3, I feel like I've played Modern Warfare 3 twice before it's even been released (officially and legally, that is.) That's not to say that it's bad, though. Far from great, but still not a bad shooter. The campaign hits the same recognizable beats as Goldeneye 64, but in an updated and more dramatic fashion. Craig's Bond takes front and center now, although the difference hardly matters once you're playing the game.Multiplayer also plays a big role, although I doubt anyone will be devoting any serious time to this with Battlefield 3, Modern Warfare 3, Gears of War 3, and Uncharted 3 all primed to dominate servers. Splitscreen is available, though, and I had a decent enough time reliving some classic memories with friends while my internet was down. Still, this is no Game of the Year contender, which is to say that at this time of year, it's one of the worse releases of the week. It's fun, but ultimately forgettable.

Sonic Generations

It's no surprise that Goldeneye 007 Reloaded didn't manage to capitalize on nostalgia quite as well as it could have. What is surprising is that SEGA's Sonic Team has managed just that with their latest Sonic release. After years of sometimes near-unplayable crap targeted at kids who don't know any better, years of SEGA promising that this time it'll be different, they've finally come close to recapturing the speed and urgency that made Sonic gun on the Genesis. Both the 2D and 3D levels in Generations are snappy and fun, despite a few graphical hitches. The graphics are bright and colorful as they should be, and Sonic and his friends have mercifully few speaking roles, with Classic Sonic being appropriately mute.

Wait, don't run! This 3D Sonic actually isn't terrible!

Unfortunately, as Sonic makes his way through newer and newer games in his history, the levels begin to suffer. It's an issue of the inspirational material just not being as good as it used to be, and it shows. Plus, the game clearly had some length issues after Sonic Team finished adding in all the content, as wihtout all the extraneous challenege missions they force you to run through this would be a very short game. Some of these challenges are perfectly fun, like a race between Classic Sonic and Metal Sonic, while others are borderline intolerable, like a treasure hunt with Knuckles. Still, the game as a whole is more entertaining than any Sonic product to be released recently, and if you still count yourself amongst the Blue Blur's fans, this should be enough to warrant a purchase. Heck, even those who have been burned by the little hedgehog in the past could do a lot worse than to revisit him in Generations.

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The Sequel Stigma - How Conformity Is Breaking The Industry

WUB WUBBA WUB WUBBB. WUBBA WUBBA WAAA.

Wobble bass. It's infiltrated practically every other video game trailer over the last 6 or so months, with Battlefield 3 and Goldeneye Reloaded just two of the most recent examples. Why is this the case? And more importantly, how does this one case serve as a microcosm for how the game industry at large works, and how is this mentality slowly killing our favorite hobby?

First things first, let's take a look at the game development process. At your typical studio, development begins with a spark, an idea from one of the development staff. The staff build on the idea, fleshing it out with new characters, worlds, powers, or story elements. Then they begin shipping it around to publishers. Typically, the build of the game that the team shows to the publishers is conceptually at least marginally different from the game that ends up coming out at the end of the dev cycle. The publisher, afraid that the developer's ideas might not gel with the massive audience necessary for a title to make back its budget, will closely scrutinize the product over the course of its development, recommending changes where they feel necessary. Of course, with the publisher's hands on the purse strings, these "recommendations" take on a somewhat sinister tone. Because games typically need to sell millions of copies in order to make significant profit, and because original games are by their very nature an uncertain proposition, both developers and publishers tend to gravitate towards sequelizing existing properties instead of creating new ones.

Modern Warfare changed it all. It wouldn't have had the opportunity if Activision hadn't insisted on so many sequels

The video game industry shies away from creativity and uses sequels as a crutch. Big surprise, right? It seems like every gaming site on the internet is flush with fans complaining about Activision's repeated flogging of the Call of Duty franchise, amongst many other beloved franchises. These complaints, however, are missing the real point. A sequel, from the developer's perspective, is a chance to iterate and improve on an existing formula, a chance to surprise players who have been trained to expect a certain experience with something completely out of left field. Think about it. Activision's warfare franchise is infamous for hewing close to the blueprint, but it's this very same franchise that is credited with changing first person shooters as we know them with the original Modern Warfare. Bioshock Infinite, another sequel in an established and successful franchise, is betting it all by changing the setting, characters, story, and themes established by its predecessors drastically. It's a strategy that has already benefitted Irrational and 2K massively, with Infinite currently at the head of the race for Game of the Year 2012. Hell, even Black Box and EA's storied Need For Speed franchise has shaken itself up on a regular basis in the name of keeping things interesting, with this year's The Run looking like a fantastic take on the series' hectic racing pedigree.

No, sequels aren't the kryptonite of this industry as many make them out to be. In fact, I believe that sequelizing a franchise is a good thing, provided there are improvements that can be made to the original. Take a look at the Metacritic scores for the Assassin's Creed franchise, for example. The first game flew by with an 81, but after Ubisoft made many critical improvements to the formula, the second game's scores raised to an average of 90. The second sequel, Brotherhood, fared similarly, with an average of 89.

The problem comes when a developer is pressured, either by its publisher or by the successes of other franchises, to change their games in a way that makes them too similar to existing products on the market. Take a look at the shooter genre today. Modern Warfare changed how it was done four years ago, and the ripples of that game are still drowning the genre today. By trying to "beat" Call of Duty, EA's Battlefield series has been suffering an identity crisis for the last few years. Both Bad Company 2 and Battlefield 3 feature heavily scripted, and largely awful, campaigns designed to drum up the same kind of fervor that Call of Duty has been inspiring for the last few years. Only problem is, Battlefield isn't Call of Duty, and by trying to be, the games have lost some of their identity. Flash back to June 2008. The first Bad Company game had already been in development for years, and EA and DICE were feeling little in the way of pressure from Activision's monolith. They released Bad Company that month, and the resulting single player campaign was easily the best in the history of Battlefield. Open, full of humor and life, and taking place largely in a sandbox environment, Bad Company embodied everything that was fantastic about the Battlefield franchise, minus the intense multiplayer competition, plus an entertaining story complete with AI Russians to shoot. By trying to chase the White Whale of Call of Duty's success, EA and DICE lost the identity of their game's campaign, and lost its quality in the process.

Quantum Theory crashed and burned in a desperate attempt at mirroring Gears of War's success

The Battlefield games are still high quality products despite the lackluster nature of the recent entry's campaigns, but even worse is when a game completely crashes and burns under the weight of its conformity. Take Quantum Theory, for example. This game was developed by Japanese developer Tecmo specifically for the purpose of challenging the success of the Gears of War franchise. Unique elements, such as the living tower in which the game took place or the female partner who used blades instead of guns, were downplayed to the point that they barely mattered, while elements that echoed Gears of War were emphasized heavily. The only problem was that those elements were awful, and without any original properties to buoy it, Quantum Theory quickly crashed and was forgotten.

This conformity is no longer confined to game design. As mentioned above, the marketing of many games are similar as well. When dubstep exploded on the scene, Uncharted 3 ran a trailer for its multiplayer suite featuring a song from the controversial genre. Uncharted 3 is popular, as is dubstep. Now every other trailer on the site is backed by a repetitive dance soundtrack. That's the mentality that has become so poisonous to this industry. We, as an industry, need to recognize that the popular path is not always the one that will bear the greatest fruits. If every game studio went with what was popular instead of forging out on their own to create unique and beautiful visions, there would be no Modern Warfare, no Bioshock, no Grand Theft Auto or Assassin's Creed or Mario or Gears of War. In fact, these daring franchises actually tend to be the most popular upon their release, with each of the franchises named above flowering into highly profitable franchises and inspiring a slew of imitators. The sooner game companies realize that daring decisions can lead to the greatest successes, the sooner this industry as a whole can begin to surprise all of us again.

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