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
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
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!
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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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!
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
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
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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Weekend Bender, October 15-21

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?

A bit of a late entry this week, as I've had a whole lot on my plate aside from gaming, but here at last is this week's recap. Aside from the much-anticipated Arkham City, this week saw few big releases. Dig a little deeper though, and a few quality releases surface that should make any gamer happy, even those jaded Batman-hating few who aren't totally enthralled by Rocksteady's latest.

Arkham City

Without a doubt, Rocksteady's Batman Arkham City is this week's (if not this month's) most anticipated release, and for good reason. The prequel, Arkham Asylum, was an easy Game of the Year contender, and its sequel only ups the ante. Although technically an open world game in that Batman can wander freely around Arkham City, this game is still largely a linear experience, much in the vein of RAGE or Mafia II. Little side missions, such as hostage rescues or collectible grabs, can be taken on in the world, but they rarely last more than 30 seconds and then you'll be back in the action. This focus is a good thing, though, as the game's story features several incredible setpiece moments, complemented by some surprising twists and turns. If there was much more to the open world, chances are most players would ignore it anyway, as the story is just too compelling to walk away from.

In addition to being awesome, Arkham City is absurdly gorgeous
In addition to being awesome, Arkham City is absurdly gorgeous

Gameplay is largely the same as it was last time, with most of the few additions serving to complement the game's expanded world. Gliding and grappling have been expanded and empowered, allowing for longer, faster glides. The entire city can be crossed without touching the ground, a feat which is sure to satisfy when performed successfully. Inside of the actual levels, this is basically Arkham Asylum. That's not to undersell the game's magnificent flow, though. Combat is still superbly smooth, traversal is still easy and fun, and the gadgets are even more numerous, allowing for dozens of options for confronting enemies. The most satisfying part of the game by far remains the stealth gameplay and its accompanying fear mechanics, though. Gliding around a room picking off thugs one by one, listening to the panicked screams of your remaining prey, feels really empowering. Arkham City is not a perfect game, but you'd be hard-pressed to find any significant flaws with this stunning package. This is a game that can be played for dozens of hours if you really want to see it all, and each bit of content is so compelling I can't see myself stopping until I have.

Rocketbirds: Hardboiled Chicken

This week had a number of wild card releases. Arkham City was essentially guaranteed to be awesome, but the rest of the games on this list... well, they really could've gone either way. Luckily for PS3 owners, the PSN-exclusive Rocketbirds: Hardboiled Chicken went the way of fucking amazing. I guess a game about a brainwashed chicken taking down an evil penguin regime was pretty much destined to please me on a certain level, but Rocketbirds goes above and beyond what I'd expect from a game of this caliber. Originally a Flash-based browser game, Rocketbirds was given a high definition makeover for its PSN release, and man does it look great. Like a Saturday morning cartoon, but soaked in buckets of blood and filtered through a wryly humorous lens, this game moves and looks incredibly well.

As with many 2D games, the full beauty of the artwork doesn't come through in screenshots
As with many 2D games, the full beauty of the artwork doesn't come through in screenshots

Unfortunately, despite the wonderful concept, great artwork, and slick humor, Rocketbirds doesn't totally live up to its potential. The gameplay is a bit too easy, except in a few spots where the difficulty randomly spikes seemingly for no reason other than to make up for the lack of difficulty in other sections, and the fact that you can only shoot straight in front of you, and can't shoot while jumping, serves to make the game feel overly stiff and clunky. There's a great idea behind Rocketbird, and a lot of humor and stunning 2D animation go a long way towards realizing the potential of that absurd idea, but the gameplay could be just a little bit more flexible. Regardless of minor gameplay qualms, Rocketbirds still feels like a steal at twelve bucks. Fans of 2D action and silly, B-movie styled plotlines could do a lot worse than this bizarre download.

Dungeon Defenders

Goblins Must Perish
Goblins Must Perish

When I saw that Dungeon Defenders had been released on XBLA for fifteen bucks, I was skeptical to say the least. Wasn't this game just released on iOS and Android for like, 5 dollars a few months back? Having never played the handheld version, and having found the Quick Look from last week quite boring, I went into Dungeon Defenders expecting a wholly unsatisfying experience. And that's exactly what I got. Gameplay is generally too slowly paced to be fun, with attacks coming out slow and movement overly sluggish. Placing turrets to destroy oncoming waves of enemies while holding off the stragglers yourself is fun enough, but the gameplay is too slow to really offer any enjoyment, and the recently released Orcs Must Die does a much better job of balancing action and strategy with satisfying core mechanics.

Luckily, I found jumping into multiplayer to be redeeming, if only because it's far more fun to strategize with a friend than it is to try to cover the whole arena by yourself. It's still not exactly what I'd call great fun, and people looking to play with friends would do better with the next game on the list, but adding more people still drags the game up from boring slog to mildly amusing controlled chaos. Fans of the fairly new tower defense/action hybrid genre could do a lot better for the asking price, but for those bored with the rest of this week's releases and flush with like minded friends, Dungeon Defenders is kind of okay.

Ratchet and Clank: All 4 One

Ratchet and Clank: All 4 One is our last game of the week, and also the hardest to judge. Made with four player co-operative play in mind, All 4 One can also be tackled with one intrepid player accompanied by an AI partner. Ideally, this would allow the game to be fun for anywhere from one lonesome player to a whole couch-full of friends. In reality, it makes for a game that's kind of broken no matter how many players you bring in.

By yourself, this is a brainless, thrill-less slog through repetitive levels with a brain dead AI partner. With the full four players, it's complete chaos. The HUD is a mess, and the screen is obscured by near-constant explosions. It's almost impossible to tell what's going on in just about any given battle. Two players seems to be the sweet spot, a comfortable mixture of chaos and control, but even then the gameplay remains the least satisfying of any Ratchet games, including even the spinoff games for the PSP. Instead of the highly polished shooting and platforming that we've come to expect, Insomniac has delivered only the most rudimentary of each mechanic, simplifying both to the point of stagnation. The only thing that hasn't been simplified is the weapon wheel, which no longer freezes the action when it pops up, and which only appears in a tiny window above the head of the player who opened it. With multiple people, each with their weapon wheel open, simply choosing a gun to fire is disorienting, and obscures the view of the action. The game attempts to encourage some form of strategic thinking by granting bonuses when all players are using the same gun, but this inevitably leads to everyone using the same gun all the time. It gets boring fast. And that's not even taking into consideration how dull the weapons are this time around, with the grenade launcher being the clear choice for strongest gun.

Not pictured: ALL THE EXPLOSIONS IN THE WORLD
Not pictured: ALL THE EXPLOSIONS IN THE WORLD

With two players, All 4 One has its moments of quality. The writing is still funny, and the graphics are pretty great. But Ratchet was never meant to be a co-operative multiplayer game, and Insomniac's attempts at replicating Nintendo's successes with the New Super Mario Bros. franchise prove that beyond a shadow of a doubt.

EDIT: I forgot about Okabu for PSN! So, without further ado, here's

Okabu

Sky whale cloud creatures always reduce, reuse, and recycle
Sky whale cloud creatures always reduce, reuse, and recycle

Okabu has been a long time coming, but it finally releases this week. This environmentally friendly game casts players as crazy sky whale cloud... creatures, and encourages conservation through objectives such as recycling and cleaning. Sounds boring, right? Well, as games such as Mario Sunshine and Chibi Robo have proven, lending a helping hand to the virtual environment doesn't have to be boring. In this case, gorgeous graphics and slippery-yet-smooth controls contribute to an overall fun and relaxing vibe. Unfortunately, the game never rises above a relaxing diversion from this week's other chaotic releases, and playing by yourself quickly grows dull. Luckily, there is an option for two players to tackle the objectives together, and zooming around with a fellow sky whale cloud creature is, as usual, more entertaining than going it alone. The game does little to compensate for the addition of a second player, though, as objective typically only require one player to complete. Plus, only one player at a time can get a power up, meaning that one player is relegated to leader while the other naturally falls into the category of follower. This makes the game annoying to play with other gamers, but well-suited to play with less experienced players who may be intrigued by the pretty graphics and environmentally friendly messages. I, for example, had a great time breezing through the game with my girlfriend over a few lazy days. If you're looking for a relaxing experience to share with a less gaming-inclined friend or relative, Okabu fits the bill nicely.

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Weekend Bender, October 8-14

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 probably the most calm we'll get for the rest of the year, until December rolls around anyway. We've had fairly big releases on the PC and the DS this past week, but other than that it's just been a bunch of Kinect garbage rolling out on the 360. I'm going to be honest here: with the exception of Kinectimals Now With Bears, which my girlfriend's roommate bought for herself, I'm not even touching any of those Kinect releases. I mean seriously, a Micheal Phelps game and another shitty Wipeout game in the same week? Count me out. Limited budgets, limited Gamefly cues, etc. Maybe I'll get to them eventually, but for now just watch the hilarious Quick Looks if you want to see more of what these games are about. So while there have been some farily decent releases over the last week, I think most of us should just take solace in finding a little free time during this big holiday rush.

Might and Magic Heroes VI

This game has only been out since yesterday, and while I feel I've played enough to get a general sense of how everything works, I'm definitely going to invest a lot more time before committing to a full review. That said, what I've played so far was enjoyable enough to make me eager for another round. Now I don't know if these games have had a continuous, overarching storyline, but it certainly would explain a lot. See, I've never played one of these games before (much as I've wanted to,) so if any of the characters or situations presented in this game have carried over from previous iterations... well, it'd make a hell of a lot of sense, because I understand nothing that's happening here. The "story" as it were is just a bunch of amateurishly written gibberish being spouted off by poorly voiced characters. Luckily you can skip most of it and get right into the gameplay. No harm, no foul.

The art style is colorful and vibrant, even though it's not exactly the most detailed looking game around
The art style is colorful and vibrant, even though it's not exactly the most detailed looking game around

Heroes VI is a turn-based strategy game in which you move your armies around on an overworld map, collecting resources and establishing townships before engaging in grid-battles. This description might make it sound a little like Civ, but there's far less depth here than in Sid Meier's games (at least so far.) Establishing towns, collecting resources, and building up your armies can all be done with a click or two. The main focus here is on the battles, not the resource gathering before the battles. Units are situated on a grid, with enemies beginning on the opposite side of that grid. Your Hero unit, who is impervious to damage during battle, can cast buffs and debuffs on the battlefield, or attack an enemy directly. All of your other units, such as archers, soldiers, and healers, to name the few that I've seen so far, move about and attack normally. Some units, such as the healers, have special abilities that can be used to influence battle. And, halfway through the game's second campaign, that's about it. It's all pretty basic stuff, but it's executed smoothly enough to be fun. It helps that Heroes VI sports a vivid art style that makes the game look prettier than it really is, along with some really great creature design. This may not be the most Earth-shaking strategy release of late, but it's certainly solid enough to warrant checking out.

Kinectimals Now With Bears

It's Kinectimals. Now you have a bear.

GOOD GOD IT'S GOING TO EAT YOU
GOOD GOD IT'S GOING TO EAT YOU

Okay, seriously, this game is really just an expansion pack for the original Kinectimals from what I can tell. In fact, I think it's available on the XBL marketplace for like ten bucks if you already own the original game. But who would want to play such a cuddly game like this when you could be blasting dudes in the face in Gears 3, right? Right?

Am I right?

......

...

Everybody gone...?

Aww! Look at that bear! AWWWW! LOOK HOW CUTE IT - Oh, ahem, didn't see you there. I was just admiring the... fur textures... and, uh... Okay, who am I kidding? I eat this cute and cuddly shit up. If this was just a game about petting fluffy little bear cubs all day, I'd shell out 60 bucks and never look back. But that's the problem with Kinectimals: You never get to spend as much time with your animal as you want to. There's always some kind of weird minigame or story scene that you have to go through before you can actually pet the bears, and frankly, these parts of the game are shit. And what's up with these bears acting exactly like dogs? I mean logically, they have cats already, so why not dogs next? You can't have your bear/dog cake and eat it too, Microsoft.

Mmm... bear/dog cake.

Dead Rising 2: Off The Record

Remember two paragraphs ago when I said that Kinectimals Now With Bears was more an expansion of the original's ideas than anything truly new? Well at least they added some goddamn bears to that one. I can't for the life of me justify paying Capcom's 40 dollar asking price for Dead Rising 2: Off The Record. Now I enjoyed Dead Rising 2, more than a lot of people I think, but I can still appreciate its flaws and how crucial a re-release like this could be in fixing them. Instead, we get a crudely stitched together retelling of the second game's story, a bizarre and totally unnecessary addition, while the boss battles remain borderline impossible and the difficultly curve is still about as smooth as a richter scale during an earthquake. Sure, they've added in the ability to set your own waypoints, which can be helpful, but it'd be nice if Capcom had taken the time out to fix some of the more fundamental flaws with the game. This is still Dead Rising, and thus it's still fun to beat zombies across the head with a chainsaw paddle, but I can't help feeling that Capcom has missed a great opportunity with this game.

Aliens Infestation

To those poor uneducated few who haven't seen the pedigree behind Aliens Infestation, it might seem at first glance a paltry licensed game to be skipped over like all the rest of them. Well look again, inerudite swine! This game comes from none other than WayForward, the company responsible for the orgasmic Contra 4 and Bloodrayne Betrayal, amongst other great 2D throwbacks. This time they're aping the Metroid formula, twisting it and adapting it to fit into the chilling world of Aliens. And wow, does it work. Exploring the dark, derelict world, slowly opening up new sections and new powers as you go along, feels just like a Metroid game if it had the balls to be this scary. That tension is created due to a very limited pool of lives. Whenever a marine dies, they're dead for good. WayForward attempts to give these characters some real emotional heft, even going so far as to rewrite every section of dialogue depending on which marine you're currently controlling. It sort of works, but most of the backstories are pretty generic. Mostly, you'll feel every death because that's one less life that you have. And when you're all out of lives, it's game over man. Your save file is erased and you have to start all over again.

The 2D sprites convey the creepy vibe of Aliens perfectly
The 2D sprites convey the creepy vibe of Aliens perfectly

The tension that this adds to every encounter, every unexplored room, is fantastic. I've never been so afraid playing a DS game in all my life; any enemy can be potentially deadly, any room could be hiding innumerable foes, and death is around every corner if you don't step lightly. Coupled with the great sense of progression that comes from attaining new items to explore new areas, this tension is enough to make the game feel truly unique even as it apes other franchises so blatantly. It might be weird to say this about a licensed product, but this is about as close as we've gotten to a true successor to Metroid Fusion on the GBA, and like that game, Aliens Infestation is damn good.

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Weekend Bender, October 1-7

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. And trust me, when I say every game, I mean EVERY game. 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?

These last few days have been...difficult. I've been raging all week, and I'm not just referring to id's new shoot 'em up. Rather, I'm talking about Dark Souls. That game is, for lack of a better word, fucked. Other than that, I've indeed been playing lots of RAGE, as well as a trio of mostly disappointing lesser-known games. Activision strikes out with its Marvel properties for a second week in a row and A Game of Thrones Genesis brings the series' all-encompassing reign of awesomeness to a dead halt, while Orcs Must Die does what it can to pick up the slack left by these two disappointing releases.

RAGE

Before you run out to buy RAGE, you should really sit down and study your expectations for the game. The gaming press and many of the game's detractors on the internet have painted a picture of RAGE that is more Fallout than Doom. "Like a marriage between Borderlands and Fallout" seems to be the consensus online. This comparison is, as such simplifications often are, not at all representative of the reality of what the game is. Yes, RAGE takes place on a post-apocalyptic Earth which is colloquially referred to as "The Wasteland," and yes driving features heavily in the game, but these surface similarities are the only connecting threads between id's latest and those other IPs. Rather, playing RAGE is far more akin to (big surprise here) something like Doom. This is a far more linear experience than it might initially appear. The open world is there for the exploring, yes, but it's pretty small (at least so far -- I don't claim to have beaten the game yet) and most of the buildings and caverns actually can't be entered until you get a quest telling you to head to that specific area.

Every gun has a time and place best suited to it
Every gun has a time and place best suited to it

Luckily, there are tons of side quests that will send you all over the world. It's easy, at least so far, to spend more time running errands for the game's numerous locals and running races across The Wasteland than completing the integral story missions. Unfortunately, mission objectives seem to boil down to simple fetch quests more often than not. The actual quests themselves are almost always intense, in the same way that the id classics often were; there are ugly monsters everywhere, and they're running right at you! If you stop to think about it for a second, it's actually kind of simple-minded. The enemy AI displays no great intelligence, and success typically requires no greater strategy than circle-strafing.

At this point it probably sounds like I'm pretty down on RAGE, but actually it's the opposite. Yes, the quests are formulaic, and yes the game is simple, but it's also intense, well-paced, and satisfying. Each of the game's guns sound and feel powerful, and every weapon in the game has a purpose. While there may be a limited number of guns compared to many modern shooters, every one feels like it was put into the game for a specific purpose, and the different ammo types that can be fitted into the weapons add just a hint of strategy to the chaos. A simple crafting system also adds some flair to the game. You can craft anything from bladed boomerangs to explosive RC cars to health packs to lock picks using the scrap you find around the world, and although crafting is simple, it's still exciting to MacGyver something together from a pile of random junk. None of these extraneous details manages to distract from the core of the game's action, though. The savagely intense shooting always takes precedence over the other elements. In this way, RAGE is strikingly similar to some of the best shooters of yesteryear; it's an oldschool game with a shiny veneer of newschool ideas, and it works surprisingly well.

Dark Souls

Sigh. SIGH. Dark Souls, you are a cruel mistress. Having never player its predecessor, Demons Souls, it was with great trepidation that I tiptoed into From Software's bleak world of near-constant death. I tiptoed back out about two hours later, having made virtually no progress and vowing to myself to never play the game again. Straight up, this thing is impenetrable. They use terms and slang that they never even attempt to explain, punishing you when you don't understand even after they don't bother to offer an explanation. When Final Fantasy XIII did this, it was crucified. The key difference between the two games is that Dark Souls gives you the space necessary to learn. It teases you onward with the promise that, if you were to put in the time and effort necessary to learn the game's complex mechanics own your own, with no coddling from the developers or strategy guides, you could actually succeed. So a few hours later I begrudgingly turned the game back on and gave it a second shot.

Dark Souls' world is an incredible one worth exploring. If this thing doesn't kill you 50 times first
Dark Souls' world is an incredible one worth exploring. If this thing doesn't kill you 50 times first

This is the complex draw of From's Souls games, or so I'm told. I don't want to play this game. It's really not fun. Not even slightly. It frustrates me, fills me with anger, disappointment, and confusion. But everywhere I turn, deep within the mire of hopelessness, there is a light, a potential for hope. If I dedicate enough time to this level, I think to myself, I can master it. I can overcome the odds, and make this section that's been giving me so much trouble my bitch. I just need to try a few more times.

It's sick, this weird draw that the game has. As I already stated, it's not really fun, but in a weird way it's kind of satisfying. There's a certain sense of adventure to not knowing anything about the world you inhabit, to figuring everything out from square one with no one there to take you by the hand and guide you in the right direction. Yes, you will die. But at a certain point, the death becomes a peripheral element of the game. If you're like me, the sense of adventure and discovery will be almost enough to overcome all of that frustration and confusion. Almost. I don't know if I will ever beat Dark Souls. I don't know if I'll even bother to try. But I do know that no other game in recent memory has offered such a breathless feeling of discovery (Bioshock was probably the last one to do it as well as this,) and in a certain strange way, that alone was worth delving into this bleak world.

Orcs Must Die

For a much lighter take on the fantasy world, I turned to Orks Must Die, a fun little fusion of tower defense and action games. I'm a big fan of tower defense, especially the more experimental takes on the genre, and like Double Fine's Trenched (err, Iron Brigade) this one offers a neat spin on the core tenets of the genre. You'll play as a soldier with crossbow and blade, and must set numerous traps to defend the pulsating, magical core of your base. Hordes of orcs are pounding at the doors, and as the title suggests, they all must die.

No Caption Provided

You can further this goal both directly, by attacking the orcs with blades, bows, and magic, or indirectly, by setting traps at key choke points around the level. Most of them are pretty basic, like spike traps that pop up from the ground or arrow walls that periodically fire projectiles across the room, but others are a bit less traditional. It's fun to experiment with the different traps and their effects, and the game's difficulty ramps up slowly enough to encourage experimentation while at the same time providing a solid challenge. It's essentially the opposite of Dark Souls; it's a lot of goofy, breezy fun, and easily worth a download.

Spiderman Edge of Time

Spiderman games have never really been consistant, so it was with no great surprise that I found the webhead's latest, Edge of Time, to be quite mediocre. Not Xmen Destiny mediocre, mind you, but not good enough to warrant picking up either. Developer Beenox proved with last year's Shattered Dimensions that they were capable of crafting a decent Spiderman game with some interesting mechanics, but here most of the interesting parts have been tossed out the window. This game focuses on Amazing Spiderman and Spiderman 2099, arguable the two least interesting iterations of the wall crawler, exclusively. The big gimmick here is that what Amazing Spiderman does in the past, Spiderman 2099 will feel somehow in the future. This mechanic could have been used to set up some crazy time puzzles, as games like Braid and The Misadventures of PB Winterbottom have proven that time manipulation can make for an intensely compelling gameplay mechanic when handled correctly. In the case of Edge of Time, the problem is not that the mechanic isn't handled well, as much as that it's not handled at all. The plot gimmicks do little to affect the gameplay in any meaningful way. The most significant event I witnessed to this end was Amazing Spiderman pulling a switch in the past to open up a door in the future. It's far from compelling stuff.

And then he smashed his skull against the ceiling because he was fighting in a goddamn office building
And then he smashed his skull against the ceiling because he was fighting in a goddamn office building

Even when not viewed through the distorting prism of missed potential, Edge of Time is less than stellar. The environments are positively stifling; Beenox has slowly moved this series from an expansive open-world thrill ride to a corridor crawler. It doesn't help that almost all of Spiderman 2099's levels take place within the exact same building. Wait, what? Let me repeat that: The entirety of Spiderman 2099's campaign consists of climbing up every floor of a building in sequence. We're talking about Spiderman, for shit's sake! He can climb up the outside of the damn thing in ten minutes!

Decisions such as that reek of either laziness or, far more likely, the constrictions of a one year development cycle. The game's overall lack of ambition, both in terms of the gameplay and the level design, can probably be blamed on the short dev cycle, and that's a real shame because I felt like Beenox was really on to something with Shattered DImensions. As is, the constrictive environments don't give Spiderman's moveset enough room to flex its muscles and the unambitious gameplay design isn't going to be winning any awards.

A Game of Thrones Genesis

While Edge of Time was content with resting on the laurels of the series' past successes, no one can accuse A Game of Thrones Genesis of such lack in ambition. The game aims to make the political backstabbing that characterized the books an integral part of gameplay, theoretically allowing players to win battles through a combination of subterfuge and savagery. I say theoretically because there is clearly a "right" way to win every level, and the experimentation that this concept encourages is quickly squandered by repetitive and unresponsive gameplay. Eventually, it starts to feel like you're just going through the motions necessary for victory. You pull some political backstabbary, then lead your forces onto the battlefield to pull some facestabbary. Rinse and repeat for pretty much the entire campaign.

It doesn't help that the individual elements that comprise the gameplay aren't compelling in the least. All of the political back-and-forth could've been a really neat game mechanic, but it becomes too repetitive too fast. There are obvious right and wrong answers to how you handle yourself politically, and if you go off the rails too much the game will often punish you with failure. Then there's the combat, which feels imprecise and lacking in impact. Combat, in this case, refers to soldiers sort of running at each other and flailing about ineptly until someone accidentally gets hit and actually dies. Sadly, neither the combat nor the political treachery reach the heights of the television show or the books. Fans have often imagined the events leading up to the start of the books, but this story is better left to the imagination.

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My Sort of Late Gears 3 Review

It's no secret that I held mixed opinions on Gears of War 2. It felt like the game took the whole "darker sequel" thing a little too far, injecting a somberness into characters and worlds that frankly didn't deserve to be taken so seriously. With Gears of War 3 Epic has finally hit that sweet spot between darkness and bro-ness that the first two missed, and tuned their gameplay and graphics engines to a T to boot. The resulting game is not only one of the Xbox 360's finest games, but one of this generation's most engaging shooters.

Gears 3 picks up several years after the ending of the last game. After Jacinto sank, humanity fled to the relative safety of the sea while the rest of the world was swallowed up by lambency. Now, what's left of the COG eke out a precarious life aboard a large boat, growing their own food and crafting their own weaponry. But when news arrives that Marcus' father, long assumed dead (although players always knew better,) may still be alive, it's time for another globe trotting adventure with the Gears.

Did anybody actually realize these two were dating?
Did anybody actually realize these two were dating?

Story has never been Gears' strong suit, so it's probably for the best that Gears 3 keeps its plot interludes minimal and brief. What wisp of a story there is works just fine to propel the narrative forward, and naturally incorporates several incredible setpiece battles, such as an underground Corpser fight and a desperate last stand against dozens of Locust troops. The game's initial focus on the Lambent as the main antagonists is quickly swept aside in favor of more Locust battles, but both parties feel like a real enough threat that neither seems like it was tacked on to the game. Functionally, it would have been nice to see a bit more of a difference between the two factions, as both tend to pop out unexpectedly and shoot at you until they die. A little more divergence in enemy AI behaviors could've gone a long way toward differentiating the enemies, but enough variety remains in the enemy types that it's hardly a big deal.

Several new allies are introduced as well, although the game does a poorer job of explaining who exactly these people are than should be expected. In fact, the game seems to assume that everyone has read all of the books and comics that have spun off of the Gears universe, as many of these characters seem to have originated there and it's not explained who they are or why Marcus and co. are suddenly friends with them. As I said earlier, story has never been Gears' big selling point, so this ambiguity is pretty much par for the course right now.

New weapons will slowly reveal themselves as the campaign wears on, and alongside the old guns they make for a large and intimidating arsenal. Theretro lancer sports a regular bayonet in place of the chainsaw, and by holding down the B button Marcus can charge into a group of enemies, impaling the first one he comes into contact with. Then there's the oneshot, a gun which, as the name implies, will take down just about any enemy in one shot after a lengthy charging period. There's also a new chain gun that requires a little bit of cooperation to use, as one player must hold the ammo box and be constantly mashing buttons to feed ammunition to the controlling player, who aims and fires the gun. These new additions to the arsenal fit right in with the old weapons, and make the Gears weapons some of the most diverse out there.

The retro lancer can impale enemies on its bayonet
The retro lancer can impale enemies on its bayonet

All of these guns are put to good use in multiplayer, which has seen a similar overhaul. The key change here is the addition of dedicated servers for the game. Basically, these new servers are all the difference between the broken and glitchy online gameplay of past games, and the silky smooth gunplay of Gears 3. Multiplayer can still be frustrating with so many one-shot kills available (the oneshot, lancer, retro lancer, mortar, and longshot can all take players out in one hit) but it feels far more balanced now than before, and there's no "host advantage" to speak of in any of the servers. Couple this with some fantastic map design and tons of levels and unlockables to attain, and Gears 3 is a game that can and will be played online for a long time to come.

Despite the great competitive multiplayer, my favorite Gears 3 experiences have been cooperative, not competitive. Epic has added in a new co-op mode called Beast, in which players take the role of Locust soldiers, and they've totally revamped Hordemode while they were at it. Between these two modes alone, I can see myself playing Gears 3 well into next year. Horde in particular is wickedly addictive, and I can't wait to get a great squad together to plow all the way from level 1 to level 50 in one sitting. There aren't many games that make me want to sit down and play for the five or six hours that are supposedly required to play through all of Horde in one sitting, but this is one of them.

The appeal of the new Horde is mostly due to the tower defense mechanics that Epic has layered over the shooting. Horde in the last Gears was a straight survival game; it was fun for a while, but ultimately shallow and lacking in strategy. In Gears 3, players have much more leeway in how they want to build their defenses. Multiple command posts exist on each level, each of which must be bought with currency earned through killing enemies. After purchasing a command post, it's possible to plant decoys, build turrets, and craft barbed wire fences around them. The more cash a player earns, the better equipment they can build, as each of the defenses can be upgraded multiple times. What began as a simple turret, which could be manned and fired by a player, can be upgraded to a sentient defense turret that fires on enemies on its own accord.

Berserkers, Corpsers, and many other enemy types make a triumphant return after their inexplicable absence in Gears 2
Berserkers, Corpsers, and many other enemy types make a triumphant return after their inexplicable absence in Gears 2

These upgrades have to be unlocked by leveling them up before they can be used, so the more a player helps out his team by building defenses, the better those defenses get. To me, there's nothing more satisfying than cooperating with four other players to build up a nigh-impenetrable base. It combines all of the strategic appeal of a tower defense game with the pixel perfect shooting of the competitive multiplayer. Even the strongest of bases will fall eventually though, as Horde's difficulty ramps up steadily and consistently. Every ten rounds is a boss round, during which the quintet of players will be challenged with a random wave of super-strong enemies, supplemented by waves of normal enemies. These rounds are always intense, nail-biting affairs. Berserkers,Brumaks, and Gunkers are just a few of the deadly possibilities during these thrilling waves, and any player who makes it out the other side alive is both lucky and skilled. Even after the boss waves, the coast isn't clear. Every tenth wave, the enemy forces will gain some sort of perk, such as increased damage or defense, making them even harder to kill. After a while, the game will start introducing different poisons that will damage the Gears in some way while they make their stand. Making it all the way to round 50 won't be easy, but it's a challenge that I readily accept, as Horde mode is by far the most addictive thing I've played this year.

Then there's the aforementioned Beast mode. While it's far from the narcotic addiction that is Horde, it's still a solid way to kill a few hours with some friends. Essentially, Beast is the reverse of Horde. The AI take on the role of the COG, and will set up defenses to keep players away. As a Locust soldier of their choosing, players must identify the best grub for the job and set out to murder all humans within the time limit. Tickers are good at one-shotting enemies, as their explosions have a wide radius, but of course the explosion will kill the Ticker as well. Non-explosive Tickers are great at deconstructing fortifications; their sharp claws can carve right through barbed wire. Eventually players will gain access to even more powerful Locust troops, with some of the bigger ones being absurdly entertaining to control. Playing as a Berserker is fun, but even that isn't the coolest of the different classes in Beast mode.

Gears of War 3 is such an absurdly expansive package it's hard to imagine anyone picking it up and not being satisfied with at least one part of this thrilling whole. The campaign is great, with friends or alone, and makes some tonal shifts that allow it to be more fun than the last two campaigns were. Then there's the multiplayer which, if past games are any indication, will see continued support throughout the next year. It's fun and has tons of variety, and for once in the Gears franchise, death comes (mostly) fairly. The real selling point for me and many other players, however, is the suite of co-op modes. Horde mode is simply thrilling, and Beast is too interesting to dislike. All things considered, there is something in this package that should be worth the sixty dollars to just about anyone. Epic has managed to not only polish their storied gameplay mechanics to a blinding shine, but has incorporated them in new and interesting ways that competitors will be ripping off years from now. It's about as close to perfect as a shooter can get.

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The Weekend Bender, September 24-30

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. And trust me, when I say every game, I mean EVERY game. 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?

At first glance it woud seem September is finally slowing down, and after the deluge of amazing games, I'd certainly be glad for the break. But that doesn't mean that there are any less quality releases this week; rather, you'll just have to look harder to find them. Seems like all of the publishers out there chose this week in particular to release all of their obscure titles, from XSEED's Solatorobo to NIS America's Atelier Totori. Activision even released Xmen Destiny this week, a game which I didn't even realize was coming out this year until the Gamefly envelope arrived in my mailbox. It may be an obscure week, but that doesn't make it any less of a hectic one for the world of game releases. So let's get started with...

Solatorobo: Red the Hunter

Solatorobo is a game about a talking pirate dog who flies around on a giant robot taking on quests from other talking animals, who all speak French. Been there, done that, right? Anthropomorphic French pirate dogs are so 2008. In all seriousness, Solatorobo is a wildly imaginative little game, and one that manages to buck the expectations created by its bizarre concept and appeal to a surprisingly wide audience. Sometimes these obscure Japanese games can be so dense or oddly off-putting that they limit themselves to a very niche audience, but this is a game with such smooth gameplay and such great characters that most anyone willing to look past the absurdist talking animal vibes will find themselves having a good time.

No Caption Provided

The core of Solatorobo's gameplay revolves around mech combat. On the back of his faithful mech Dahak, Red the Hunter will battle enemies using a simple throwing/juggling mechanic. By getting behind an enemy, you can toss them up into the air, bounce them off the ground, and knock them up into the air again. It's sort of like juggling an enemy in God of War or Devil May Cry, although far less technical than those games. By destroying enemies on the battlefield, you'll gain new upgrades for Dahak, which you can slot into his Tetris-like inventory system. There are also plenty of side quests and puzzles to solve outside of the main quest, which itself is deceptively long. The side quests rarely devolve into typical RPG fetch quests (although many of those are certainly present, too,) rather often veering off into more interesting directions instead.

Solatorobo is a great game so far, and one that I would recommend to most RPG fans still rocking their DS. That doesn't come without caveats, though. The story starts getting a little ridiculous towards the end, even for my tastes. Keep in mind that this story begins with a French sky pirate dog riding around on his giant robot, so "a little ridiculous" in this case means totally fucking bonkers. Also, although the game sports a beautiful art style, I didn't enjoy how the game attempts to blend 2D with 3D. The DS just doesn't seem powerful enough to handle the transitions smoothly, and the juxtaposition of hand drawn 2D artwork against jagged 3D models was something that I struggled to get used to for the first few hours. Despite these complaints, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend Solatorobo. It's fun, unique, and surprising, and that alone warrants a purchase in my book.

Xmen Destiny

It's no wonder Activision didn't put any trailers out for this game; if I was involved with Xmen Destiny in any way, I'd want to keep it hush-hush too. This steaming pile of crap dropped Tuesday to little fanfare and even less critical acclaim. I don't pretend to have finished every game in this blog by the time I put my impressions up, but usually I've at least played a solid 5 or 6 hours. With this game, I got sick of the monotonous dungeon crawling and pathetic attempts to rip off Mass Effect's conversations in about half an hour, gave it another hour or so to see if it would become any less boring, and sent it straight back to Gamefly when it didn't. Straight up, this is a horrible game. The combat is repetitive, and mostly plays out like an arena-combat-based side mission in a normal game. X number of enemies walk through the door, you kill X number of enemies by mashing on the X/Square button, then you walk through the next door and repeat the process until the level's done. The fact that there are arena missions on the side, which play out almost exactly like a normal level, is just kind of insulting. The story can't redeem the game either. All the characters and situations are so bland it's mind-boggling. After my traumatizing hour and a half with the game I was wishing for the human/mutant war I was supposedly trying to prevent just so all of these tools could get wiped off the Earth.

The new Xmen created by Silicon Knights for the game look like characters you'd see walking around in Playstation Home
The new Xmen created by Silicon Knights for the game look like characters you'd see walking around in Playstation Home

Okay, so maybe it's not fair to judge a game based on the first hour and a half, but when those first hours are so intolerable, that's typically a bad sign. Silicon Knights have proven themselves in the past to be creative and passionate developers, and I hate to see them on a downward spiral like this. Hell, even Activision usually craps out better licensed fare than this, with their recent Spider Man games actually being pretty tolerable. Even Singularity, which suffered from a similar lack of publicity from Activision, turned out to be pretty great (seriously, if you haven't checked that game out, go do it. It's like 10 bucks by now.) I guess what I'm trying to say is that standards have risen lately, even for no-name bargain bin games, and the fact that Xmen Destiny fails to meet even the lowest of standards for this generation's games is kind of sad.

Atelier Totori: The Adventurer of Arland

I've paid virtually no attention to NIS's library of obscure JRPGs since the new generation of consoles came around (with the exception of the Disgaea games,) but I was actually a big fan of their games on the PS2. In the spirit of nostalgia I decided to check out Atelier Totori, since I remember the Atelier games on the PS2 quite fondly. Turns out they haven't changed too terribly much, at least from what I remember of the older games. You're still an alchemist, and the game still uses a thin wisp of a story to provoke you into improving your alchemy skills. You'll travel the world in search of new techniques and items to fuse with one another. It's a really mellow RPG, one that lacks any sense of urgency whatsoever, and as a result it feels pretty inessential. There's certainly a lot of depth to the systems in place, as is so often the case in NIS and Gust games, but again typically for the series, the goofy dialogue takes precedence over engaging gameplay or intriguing story. The Adventurer of Arland is far from a bad game; the item crafting can be amusing for a while and the world, while not up to snuff with most modern games, is still pretty to look at. It's just that the whole thing feels so inessential. Next to a game like Solatorobo, which is never afraid to take risks, this game seems a bit too content with going with what has worked in the past.

GUST is slowly starting to learn how to make games that don't look like they were conceptualized curing the SNES era. The cel shading exhibited here is actually kind of pretty
GUST is slowly starting to learn how to make games that don't look like they were conceptualized curing the SNES era. The cel shading exhibited here is actually kind of pretty

The Binding of Isaac

I don't like dying in video games. I hate it. It's the crutch that's kept me from checking out any rougelikes in the past, and it's the biggest hurdle I'm going to have to cross in keeping this blog up, what with Dark Souls coming out next week. So it was with a lot of trepidation that I started up The Binding of Isaac. Turns out, that reluctance was mostly unwarranted, as while you will die in The Binding of Isaac, the core gameplay is fun enough to warrant repeated playthroughs. My favorite thing about the game is the art style, which mimics that of the similarly brilliant Super Meat Boy. The art is pretty in a cartoonish sort of way, and the animation is very fluid. Overall, it's just a very pretty looking game, even though most of the time the screen will be drenched in splotches of blood and poo. I'm not exactly the biggest fan of excrement and bodily fluid jokes in video games, but after a while I learned to overlook it in favor of the gorgeous animations and fun but tough gameplay.

Look! It's poop! Get it?? Oh man that's so funny
Look! It's poop! Get it?? Oh man that's so funny

The big comparisons being made before the game's release were with The Legend of Zelda and Smash TV, and while those points of comparison may be tired by now, they're also apt. The game isn't quite as puzzle-laden as Zelda, favoring breezy find-the-key puzzles over full on mind-benders as featured in many of the later Zelda games, but the overall style still reeks of the pointy-eared hero's influence. You could certainly take inspiration from worse games, though, and overall the gameplay styles blend seamlessly together. It's just too bad that you can't play the game on a gamepad, because I'd feel much more comfortable playing this on an Xbox 360 controller than on a keyboard. As is, using the W/S/D/A keys to move and the arrow keys to shoot feels a little awkward. It's not the end of the world, but especially when the difficultly starts ramping up it feels like the controls could do with being a bit more precise. This is a rougelike, after all, and death is permanent. Although the stakes are high, and I was frustrated more than once during my playthroughs, this is still a worthwhile game, especially for five bucks.

Resident Evil: Code: Veronica X

All the kids used to make fun of Jill because her daddy was a piece of military ordinance
All the kids used to make fun of Jill because her daddy was a piece of military ordinance

I've only recently jumped on the Resident Evil bandwagon. I was one of many converted by the buttery smooth shooting of Resident Evil 4, and despite the lack of any real scares I adored RE5 as well. With this re-release of Code: Veronica X, I figured now was as good a time as any to experience the roots or one of my favorite modern franchises. As it turns out, roots remain buried for a reason. Unfortunately, this game just doesn't stand the test of time. The CG cutscenes that permeate the game, which I'm sure were scary as hell back in the day, are now just cheesy and oddly blocky looking. The scares are often predictable. The sound is oddly crisp, while the rest of the game seems dated. And then there's the gameplay. Oh god, the gameplay. I've heard stories of classic RE's legendary tank controls, but never experienced them first hand. The way that Jill is controlled by rotating the analogue stick around to aim her before pressing forward to move is, well, let's call it... interesting. Or flawed. Or totally broken. This is not the way that games were meant to control, and while the lack of any precise control can certainly make situations more intense, it's not a genuine tension. It's more of an "oh my god this game is horribly broken and it's causing me to die over and over" kind of tension. Code: Veronica X may have pushed the envelope back in the day, but it's best to let those halcyon memories remain just that: memories. Trying to play this after going through RE4 and 5, it became clear that time has not been kind to this survival horror franchise.

Rochard

Ooh, puzzling
Ooh, puzzling

Like a box hurdling through zero-g and smashing into a space pirate's face, Rochard came out of nowhere and was quite the surprise. This 2D Shadow Complex meets Portal puzzler was released earlier this week on the PSN and is easily worth the ten bucks for a download. Basically, as Rochard, it's up to you to navigate a 2.5D space station very much in the vein of Dead Space, searching for an alien artifact which has caused much commotion amongst the ship's denizens. You'll have to use a gravity gun to manipulate objects in a series of physics-based puzzles in order to get to new areas of the ship and solve the mystery of what, exactly, this artifact is. Along the way, Rochard will gain new powers, such as the ability to lower gravity, allowing for higher jumps and longer throws. Space pirates (tie-in with Solatorobo? We can only hope) soon board the ship and start causing all kinds of chaos, and Rochard eventually receives a gun with which to dispatch them. Before that, though, he'll have to rely on physics to murder his enemies. Tossing a crate through zero g only to have it land right on the head of an enemy remains satisfying every time. The only problem here is that the shooting is much less satisfying than the puzzling, and while it's possible in many scenarios to kill enemies through alternate, physics-based means, shooting them in the face is often the fastest and easiest way to dispatch of foes. There's also a lot of combat in the game, which is odd because the puzzling is the real star here. If the amount of puzzling vs shooting had been more properly balanced, and the story a little less cliched, developer Recoil Games could've had something really special on their hands. As is, Rochard is still a fun and often challenging little download, and one that's a great value at ten bucks.

Worms Ultimate Mayhem

There are enough Worms games on XBLA and PSN at this point that I feel like everyone should know exactly what they're getting themselves into when they buy one of these things. My expectations for what, exactly, Ultimate Mayhem would be were thoroughly shaken when I donwloaded the demo. Unlike most games in the series, which take place on a 2D plane, this game is actually 3D. It's still the same basic premise of eliminating the enemy worms without getting killed yourself, utilizing the same turn-based structure, but this time there's a whole new dimension to work with. As you might expect, this 3D adaption doesn't work nearly as well as the 2D entries in the series. There's a certain simplicity inherent to the 2D Worms games, an accessibility that makes them fun for anyone and a depth that keeps them entertaining for hours to come. This game technically still has the depth, with tons of weapons and unlockables encouraging numerous playthroughs, but the elegant simplicity is lost with the transition to the third dimension. This is more of a clusterfuck than a strategic game of cat and mouse, and while it's not exactly bad, it's not that great either. If you still care about Worms, you could do worse. Then again, if you still care about Worms, you already have several better alternatives installed on your hard drive.

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