2015 Top 10 Gaming Favorites

13 01 2016

2015 has been a phenomenal year for games; among the best in memory. Whittling down a top 10 list was no easy feat with so many heavy-hitting anticipated titles spanning acclaimed franchises, and also a few surprise hits along the way. Here they are, in order of release:

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Helldivers

Spread “managed democracy” across the galaxy in this squad based cooperative twin-stick shooter that teaches you which of your friends should never touch real firearms. Arrowhead studios released this gem early on in the year and by December its success and popularity was such that it saw a disc release and a port to Steam. Cross-play and cross-buy between the various Playstation platforms makes it even easier to put the “friend” in “friendly fire.”

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Evolve

Bringing an interesting, original dynamic to a cluttered FPS gamespace, Evolve pits 4 players against 1; a motley crew of veteran human hunters against a terrifyingly powerful monster. As an online multiplayer-only experience, Evolve is targeted towards seasoned gamers looking for something engaging and competive, but fresh and unique as well. The matches of Evolve are both tense and intense, with both sides of the conflict seeking to maximize their abilities and opportunities to overwhelm the enemy.

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Ori And The Blind Forest

I’ve gushed about this game in its own dedicated article but it bears repeating: Ori is one of the most gorgeous games of 2015, maybe even of all time. Its soul and charm are equally important to the essence of the experience as its tight and straightforward gameplay, but beware its unexpectedly challenging difficulty curve.

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Mortal Kombat X

Mortal Kombat has made one of the greatest franchise comebacks in recent memory, and its tenth major installation is the shining crown jewel. The cast is fleshed out with enduring fan-favorites alongside new and interesting kombatants as well as unexpected-yet-perfect guest characters such as Jason Vorhees and the goddamn Predator. As the best-looking and probably the best-playing entry in the series, there’s never been a better time to get your hands dirty and plunge back into the MK franchise’s trachea-ripping bloody good time.

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Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

The Witcher series has a long-standing reputation for being among the cut of the crop of open-world fantasy adventure games, and its third installment embodies the reasons for that reputation. A gritty, dark, sprawling frontier with expansive content and quest branches woven through a fully-realized breathing world full of intrigue, conflict, and terrors of the night. Top-notch production quality can be seen in every aspect of the game from its rich visuals to its compelling story, complex characters, and excellent dialogue.

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Splatoon

Nintendo’s wildly inventive take on the FPS genre made quite a splash with its debut. In Splatoon players are equipped with ink-shooting paint guns in intense 4v4 team battles where the point of the game is to spread your team’s color around the arena more than the opposition, de-emphasizing gunning down enemies and encouraging a focus on area control and interesting teamwork tactics. While it was hampered in its early days by a lack of standard online shooter features such as a party system, its post-launch support has been an impressive offering with new modes, maps, UX improvements, and weapons rolling in regularly in free updates.

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Batman: Arkham Knight

Rocksteady Studios makes a triumphant return to finish out the last game in the Arkham series. Arguably the best superhero game ever made, Arkham Knight allows you to assume the mantle of the bat to a more complete degree than ever before. Every aspect of the game is crafted expertly to make you growl to yourself “I’m Batman” and actually believe it.

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Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

The saga of Snake concludes in the final chapter of Metal Gear, set in a timeline in the continuity that bridges the gap between the entire franchise as the legendary Big Boss puts his skills to the test one more time to muster a force to combat a mysterious yet familiar enemy. The open world elements are executed in a compelling way and the core gameplay is deep and varied while still being accessible, favoring caution, cunning, and creativity but still leaving room for a shock-and-awe approach. Those unfamiliar with the legacy of the Metal Gear games may struggle to grasp certain narrative elements, but this is undoubtedly the best-playing Metal Gear to date, and rightfully so. So long Boss, and thanks for everything.

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Call of Duty: Black Ops III

The Call of Duty series has fallen into a bad rap in the recent past of becoming a yearly-released paint-by-numbers humdrum, derivative of trending industry tropes and even derivative of itself. Black Ops III brings the pedigree back onto the level of excellence that reminds us of why this series became the king of shooters in the first place, perhaps not so much in originality but certainly in execution. The online multiplayer is the most engaging and fun in the series since Modern Warfare 1 and 2, and the sheer amount of other content included in this game is phenomenal, such as co-op or single player campaign, split-screen online play, zombie mode, and a co-op or single player zombie campaign.

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Fallout 4

Among the most hotly anticipated titles of the year, Fallout 4 affirms beyond a doubt that Bethesda Studios are masters of the craft that they have become known for. An immense post-apocalyptic Boston that has a point of interest and intrigue strewn over nearly every square acre awaits wastelanders that venture out into the dangerous and broken Commonwealth. Offering potentially hundreds of hours of play, the sheer volume of things to do in the game is astounding, presenting choices and consequences to the player at a steady but digestible rate. While the latest entry strays very little from the formula of previous Fallout games, it expands upon and polishes the aspects of the game that made it a household name among gamers in the first place.





Review: Ori And The Blind Forest

21 03 2015

Of the various announcements and upcoming games shown at E3 2014, through the onslaught of sequels and reboots there was a small unassuming flower blossoming amidst the giants. Developed by Moon Studios under Microsoft Games Studios, Ori And The Blind Forest soon became one of the talking points of the show with its captivating graphic style. However any seasoned gamer could tell you that looks aren’t everything and that both style and substance are indispensable with regards to quality games. Is Ori And The Blind Forest a prize bloom or lost amongst the weeds?

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Within the vast forest of Nibel, a small mysterious creature named Ori comes into the world. Happened upon by chance by the benevolent Naru, Ori is taken in and lives a simple but happy life in Naru’s company. However, within the workings of the great forest, all is not well. The land’s beauty begins to fade and shrivel away, and Ori is compelled by a strange and ancient presence to venture deep within the hidden corners of the forest to restore its splendor and save everything that he knows before its brilliance disappears. As Ori leaves the comfort of his old home behind, the shadow of the fearsome and enigmatic Kuro looms over the trees; one who would see the light extinguished forever.

Ori And The Blind Forest is a 2D platformer game with exploration in the style of “metroidvania” games in which the player must traverse a variety of challenging landscapes and as they uncover new abilities and movement options new areas and hidden secrets become accessible. There is also an RPG-esque leveling system that allows players to augment Ori’s combat abilities, exploration methods, and endurance with experience that accumulates from defeating foes or finding hidden boosts tucked away within the different areas. Ori’s adventure is concise and focused without feeling restrictive or railroad-y, taking about 10 hours to complete.

Of all of the things that would draw a player into the experience, the stunning visuals are the main hook. Absolutely magnificent and wondrous to behold, Ori And The Blind Forest may be the most gorgeous game I have ever beheld. Every single moment of the game radiates an incredible sense of beauty and magic; each environment is painted lavishly to have character and visual punch in every aspect. In an era of modern games with heavy emphasis on hyper-realism and graphic fidelity, the painterly look and fantastically rendered world fills a space that was dearly lacking. It is difficult to put to words how unbelievably beautiful the scenery is, so here, have a look for yourself:

Adding to the brilliance of the experience is the wonderful sound design. The majestic and haunting score hits all the right notes at the right moments and is as much a part of the soul of the game as the exquisite visuals. The sound effects of all the different facets of the environments and characters fits perfectly and makes it as much a treat for the ears as for the eyes.

Aesthetics notwithstanding, Ori is a winner in the gameplay department as well. While there’s little that hasn’t been done before in similar platformer-exploration games, Ori And The Blind Forest delivers solidly on its conventions and melds all of its mechanics elegantly. Ori handles well; his movement is natural and responsive making the platforming element of gameplay–which is the core of the experience–a solid foundation demanding just the right amount of planning, reflexes, dexterity, and timing to feel difficult enough to provide a sense of exhilaration and accomplishment but surmountable enough to keep the game’s pace flowing and provide the simple pleasure and sensation of continuous movement. The sense of progression as the player acquires new abilities feels just right, introducing new methods of movement at regular intervals that allow Ori access to previously unreachable areas and offer new approaches to navigating previous sections. Each addition lets you view retreaded segments in a fresh perspective, as dangerous areas become trivial to speed through and enemies become tools for moving around in clever ways. Puzzle elements comprise another large part of Ori’s adventure and are done well, encouraging thoughtfulness and use of Ori’s capabilities in unorthodox ways without being too obtuse. The game is undeniably challenging but rarely punishing due to Ori’s Soul Link ability which allows the player to save the game at virtually any time, allowing instant retries to particularly tricky sections of traversal or combat; there’s no “game over.” During my playthrough I accumulated nearly 230 deaths but never once did I feel like I skipped a beat.

On top of everything else, Ori And The Blind Forest also has a fantastic story woven throughout the game. A simple but powerful, moving narrative of love and sacrifice underlies Ori’s adventure that will strum at your heartstrings as it unfolds through the gorgeous sights and sounds. The plot is mostly storybook affair, but rather than reducing to a simple struggle between light and darkness Ori’s tale rides on some meaningful themes and at times is deeply touching.

There is very little to complain about as far as stumbling points, but at a few times throughout the game the difficulty suddenly seems to jump dramatically and will demand of you one-perfect-run for a lengthy gauntlet of hazards. If there was one feature I would have wished for, it would have been a way to teleport to waypoints across the fairly vast world instead of having to navigate all the way through the areas again to retread for previously inaccessible pickups. There are a few imperfections on the technical side, but they occur so infrequently that they are forgivable. There is very occasional slowdown on the Xbox One version of the game during intense action with lots of particle effects, but almost never in a way that affects the flow of the gameplay or jolts you into fumbling a precise series of maneuvers.

If there was ever a decisive piece of evidence for the games-as-art argument, it is this one. Beautiful in both visuals and play, it can be confused for nothing else but a work of art, and a superb one at that. Every aspect comes together to form a truly amazing game that you never knew you needed until it is in your hands. For the modest asking price of $20, Ori And The Blind Forest is an experience that simply cannot be missed.





Review: Evolve

16 02 2015

From the studio that spawned the Left 4 Dead games comes a new unique breed of FPS shooter aiming to establish itself as a new order in the game kingdom of team-based competitive game where either side is evenly matched, but couldn’t be more different. Will this genetic anomaly be a chapter or a footnote in the xenobiology books?

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The tale of Evolve’s world is played out in deadly confrontations across various sites of the lush but savage planet of Shear, where a few outposts of humanity have emerged to attempt to colonize and tame the new frontier in hopes of establishing a new home for our species. However, the planet is teeming with hostile wildlife and “megafauna” including giant alien super-predators that stalk the crags, swamps, and forests. A crack team of hunters from all corners of the galaxy is dispatched as a countermeasure to combat the threat of these monsters in a bid for control and survival in the unforgiving wilds of Shear.

Evolve is a multiplayer-focused asymmetrical online FPS game. One team of 4 players assume the roles of the hunters, comprised of different roles and specialties that must work together as a cohesive unit against the 5th player, who controls one of the massively powerful monsters in a scenario-based match played in a vast level strewn with vegetation, bizarre wildlife, and monolithic remnants of colonist construction projects. At the onset of each game, the monster is a underdeveloped juvenile, and must evade the team of hunters as it feasts upon prey animals and grows ever-stronger, eventually reaching its full strength and becoming a force of nature that can devastate its enemies within seconds. The hunters and the monster must outmaneuver each other amidst the rocky caverns and vegetation of the expansive maps in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse where the tables can turn at any moment and the line between predator and prey is thin and blurred.

The hunter characters are divided into 4 different classes: Medic, Trapper, Support, and Assault. Each specializes in a different method of combating the monster and has a specific role to fulfill towards their team’s success. Medics dispense healing and keep the team on their feet, and have several other useful tools like tranquilizer guns to sedate the monster and slow its movement. Trappers are integral to containing the monster and prevent it from fleeing a losing battle with their various tracking equipment and harpoon guns. Support is a flexible class that brings an assortment of useful tools to the table, ranging from group cloaking devices, calling in orbital bombardments, to shielding units that can protect teammates from harm. Finally, the Assault class is the front-line fighter that devotes itself solely to dealing heavy damage to the monster to bring it down with excessive firepower. Within the 4 roles, there are 3 different characters per class that each go about their job in a different way and offer some variety to the playstyles and strengths of the class.

Players can choose from 3 different hulking monsters when playing the opposition, each with a different style of play and methodology. The brutish Goliath is an unstoppable juggernaut that relies on its tremendous strength and unwavering toughness to pound the hunters to a pulp, whether it engulfs them with a stream of clinging flame, tears boulders from the ground to fling like a catapult, or simply throws the destructive weight of its bulk crashing into its enemies. The sinister Kraken prefers to fight from afar, bombarding its foes with blasts and bolts of bio-electricity as it hovers aloft like an angry thunder-god, drifting across battlefields with the malicious presence of a boiling storm cloud. Lastly the slippery Wraith rewards stealth and subterfuge as it slithers through the terrain, with its strange warping abilities to use misdirection and its evasiveness to lure hunters into deadly ambushes at the hands of its reaper-like rending talons. Playing as the monster is certainly the most unique and fresh aspect of Evolve, and there’s something primal and satisfying about controlling one of these dread monstrosities that speaks to the soul’s hunger for destruction; the bestial id within that lurks in the darkness of the heart of the player, straining against its cage.

Playing Evolve is a tight and engaging experience that is focused and expertly crafted. The 15 to 20 minute matches are tense and well-paced where lulls in activity foster a sense of dread and the sudden explosion of violence from a run-in with the monster provides a hot, frantic rush of adrenaline. Playing as the monster manages to provide both a sense of progression and a driving immediacy and the solitude of being pitted against 4 other players but still on level playing ground makes you feel both vulnerable and addictively powerful at the same time. There is a slight learning curve to get acclimated to the various tricks and trades of both the monster and hunters that is satisfying to climb and has a sweet-spot balance of depth and intuitive aspects and the diversity of the ability interactions as well as the composition of the various maps presents lots of opportunities for counter-play and outwitting the enemy. The glory of victory is distinctly different whether singlehandedly overpowering your foes as the monster or conquering your quarry with teamwork and synergy as the hunters.

Visually and aurally, the game also shines. The verdant groves and twisting canyons of Shear are as captivating as they are dangerous, with strange alien growths and otherworldly vegetation and mineral formations that crack and shatter against the hide of a rampaging creature or a roaring torrent of high-tech gunfire. The hunters all have personality and simple but pleasing designs, but the monsters are where the game really flexes its visuals. Tooth and nail, spur and scale, the creature cast is fearsome and awesome to behold as they skulk, pounce, and eviscerate with their jagged teeth, undulating tentacles, and tree-snapping tails in tow. The games’ minimal HUD and visual language are concise and unintrusive, never dulling the feast for the eyes but conveying just the important pieces of information. The hunters’ banter, the report of the futuristic weapons, and the gurgling hisses of the creatures all meld together as a visceral treat for the ears.

For all of Evolve’s strong points, there are a few points of contention. Most notably the content seems sparse especially for players just getting their hands wet. Upon initially launching the game, only 1 hunter of each class and 1 monster is available for use and the others must be unlocked by fulfilling various requirements for the characters/creatures preceding the next. While this is probably meant to be a device to get new players well-versed in basic concepts and core aspects of gameplay using the more straightforward characters, it forces players to “grind” and have several repeated runs with the starter selection in order to unlock options to experiment with. Secondly there is already a bevy of additional content for purchase and the aggressive DLC focus is a bit troubling; there is already nearly $87 worth of add-ons available for purchase within the first week of the game’s launch. Granted most of these extras are cosmetic, but with 2 new monsters and 6 new hunters supposedly on the way, with the currently announced pricing there is forseeably $75 worth of gameplay-relevant content alone in the future. Such a high asking price for add-ons is somewhat unprecedented even in this current generation in which DLC has been embraced as commonplace, and there has already been considerable backlash regarding this game’s content release schedule.

Despite a few concerns, Evolve has a great many strengths that send it towards the upper end of the food chain. While it may not be the perfect organism, it represents an interesting mutation of a oft-retreaded genre and a fascinating new experience that stands on its own feet (tentacles?) amidst a fiercely competitive wilderness of FPS games as an evolutionary success. In a land of devour-or-be-devoured, Evolve emerges as a top predator in my bestiary.





2014 Top 10 Gaming Favorites

7 01 2015

2014 was a pretty fantastic year for games, and as we are just over the horizon of 2015, it’s time to reflect back on the highlights of the recent past. Of the games I got around to play, these are my top 10 of 2014 in no particular order:

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Mario Kart 8

It’s a law of nature that a new Nintendo console brings a new Mario Kart game. Following suit to its predecessors, Mario Kart 8 brings the familiar easy-access racing gameplay with a colorful cast of characters and a fantastic collection of courses, both old and new, along with brilliant HD visuals. There was a merciful de-emphasis on the wacky powerful items in this entry of the series in favor of more focused racing gameplay and utilization of the courses and obstacles to get the edge on your competition. If there’s one sour note it’s that the battle mode is dreadfully uninspired where the battlegrounds are comprised of smaller loops of the normal courses than interesting free-roaming arenas. Other than that, Mario Kart 8 is a hit and a solid addition to the Wii U’s swelling ranks.

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Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor

Players take up the sword, bow, and dagger of Talion, a Ranger of The Black Gate in an era of Middle-Earth where Gondor occupied the outskirts of Mordor, filling the transition between the events of The Hobbit and The Fellowship Of The Ring. The gameplay is a mix of the Batman Arkham games and Assassin’s Creed in which players have multiple approaches to various situations, and any way you decide to engage your enemies is satisfying to execute. The real compelling hook of the game is the “Nemesis System” in which the various Orcs and Uruks remember their prior encounters with you and progress through their own ranks and society based on the outcomes of their meetings with you, maybe even turning to your side and becoming a powerful Warchief. Will you break down the walls of Mordor, or poison it from within?

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Alien: Isolation

It seems like a curse that the Aliens franchise can’t seem to get a decent game based on it. Depending on how you think about it, The Creative Assembly’s new vision and direction for the franchise in Alien: Isolation either breaks or circumvents this curse by theming their game after the first Alien movie rather than it’s successor, in the form of a survival-horror game where the player must defeat the eponymous beast with fast-thinking, cunning, and stealth rather than with blazing guns. Players assume the role of Ellen Ripley’s daughter Amanda Ripley as she relives her mother’s nightmarish escape from a gigantic space station, bridging the fictional gap between the first and second movies. Stark and terrifying, Isolation brings a new approach to the beloved franchise, harkening back to its roots in the first movie as a high-adrenaline horror experience.

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Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft

Blizzard’s venture into casual games shows that they can work their magic in any medium. Simple and easy-to-play but with compelling depth and challenge, Hearthstone is a resounding success in bringing the traditional card-game format to a digital platform in a unique but familiar way. Addiction-prone individuals beware.

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Titanfall

No, I’m not just plugging my studio’s own game. Titanfall stands up against fierce competition as a next-gen entry into the FPS genre and ushers in a new era of the “mobility shooter” with its dynamic movement and frenetic pace. It preserves the best parts of traditional shooter gameplay while integrating new concepts in an intuitive way to present a fresh but intuitive experience that is unlike any other. Whether you’re bounding through alleyways and across rooftops as a fleet-footed Pilot or smothering foes with relentless volleys of heavy weaponry as a massive armored Titan, Titanfall is always a great time.

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Shovel Knight

A quaint but masterfully-done throwback to the days of 8/16 bit platformers, Shovel Knight overflows with personality and excellent design. Playing through Shovel Knight is like rediscovering your old favorite NES game that you forgot had even existed.

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Hyrule Warriors

Tecmo’s melding of the Zelda universe with the gameplay of Dynasty Warriors stirred up some skepticism, but once it’s in your hands it is undoubtedly an experience worth having. Something like the “Avengers” movie of the Zelda franchise, it draws from characters and worlds from across the history of the series and puts them all in your control as you wipe out enemies by the hundred. It hits the right chords of fond nostalgia while at the same time presenting exciting re-inventions of classic characters and villains. Fairly mindless, but unquestionably fun.

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Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and 3DS

The new generation of Smash Bros. has arrived on Nintendo’s consoles and it was well worth the wait. Like a medley of the best aspects of games past, I feel that this new entry in the series has found the sweet spot between highly-competitive and casual play, with the presentation to back it all up. A fantastic cast of characters including honored guests like Mega Man and Pac-Man battle it out in the first true-HD entry in the series, and it plays as smooth and beautifully as it looks. There are many new subtle aspects and features which are uninstrusive and subtle but make available to the player a rich selection of options and customization that make it the most ambitious Smash game to date. With its new inclusions and solid construction, the new Smash Bros. is just about everything I had hoped for.

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Bayonetta 2

This is the best pure-action game I have ever played. And I’ve played a hell of a lot so that’s a pretty high mark. Bayonetta 2 is exactly the sequel that you wanted if you enjoyed the first entry in the series, which handles just like you would expect and introduces just enough new things to keep you rolling forward, obliterating legion after legion of angels and demons. Bayonetta 2 is a “pure-action game;” it doesn’t quite have the scope and majesty of something like God of War, or the creative puzzle-solving and sense of wonder of something like Shadow of The Colossus; there’s little else to do but fight. But you’ll be kicking major ass almost every step of the way from the corners of Inferno to Paradiso, having a hell of a time and looking damn good while doing it. Another gold (pure-platinum?) star for Platinum Games.

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Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN-

The Guilty Gear series has had long-running status as a revered property amongst fighting game fans, but went without a proper true sequel for a long time, even since the days of Playstation 2. Guilty Gear Xrd heralds the arrival of a new era for the game, with a completely overhauled 3D engine built from the ground up but retaining the lightning-fast action and deep system and character mechanics that the series is known for. Although the cast is sparse in this first showing, there will undoubtedly be updates and revisions that bring back old favorites as well as flashy newcomers. A beautiful rebirth for a legendary franchise. Let’s rock.





Review: Tales of Game’s Studios Presents Chef Boyardee’s Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden, Chapter 1 of the Hoopz Barkley SaGa

13 04 2013

The year is 2053. Charles Barkley is one of the last remaining legendary ballers living in the post-cyberpocalyptic ruins of Neo New York after the events of “The Great B-Ball Purge” in which the game of basketball was universally banned and its players were hunted down and driven to extinction. Why? The Chaos Dunk, a jam with so much ballin’ power that when performed snuffed out a 100 billion lives…
When the B-Ball Removal Department comes knocking, Charles must escape into the dangerous city and uncover the plot of the terrorist organization B.L.O.O.D.M.O.S.E.S. and clear his name, and maybe even redeem the game of basketball forever…

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Oh, and I forgot to mention: in the universe of the game the events of the 1996 movie Space Jam are canon.

Are you downloading this game yet?

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Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden is an independently produced PC game made in a parodical style of a SNES-era JRPG (the J stands for something else in this game though). The work is one of both tribute and ridicule as it emulates, deconstructs, and satirizes an entire genre of games. While the overall purpose is mostly an exercise in humor, the game itself is no joke. Although there is a slight pervasive clunkyness that one might expect of a home-brewed indie game it is a solidly constructed game that holds up well to the standards of that which it invokes in its imitation. The production values are low but polished, with many borrowed sprites and art assets ripped from other games but the jumbled visuals overall contribute to the humorous tone.

The general gameplay closely ascribes to the genre of game that it pokes fun at. Players control Barkley as he assembles a team of allies to assist him in his journey, traveling about the ruins of the post-cyberpocalypse in an overhead view, interacting with the denizens of Neo New York. When you engage an enemy in battle, the game switches to a classic side-view menu-based mode where Barkley and co. must utilize their various baller skills, zaubers, and verboten jams to defeat opponents while using helpful items like insulin and tobacco to keep them free of harmful status effects like diabetes, glaucoma, and aspergers. All of the characters’ main attacks consist of a small minigame that involves careful timing or rapid button presses to maximize the effect. This battle system is fairly well done and does what it needs to.

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Ridiculous premise aside, the comedic nature of the game is a bizarre party mix of forced basketball references, ’90s throwbacks, gamer pop-culture satire, and general absurdity. There is a self-aware authorial presence in the humor that persists throughout every element of gameplay, from the villains that appear to the simple nomenclature of the things in the world of the game. Although they live in comic circumstances, the characters take themselves and their situation very seriously which highlights the tongue-in-cheek nature of the game. You should make a point of talking to the random NPCs roaming about the overhead maps for some choice bits of dialogue.

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Overall Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden is a worthwhile play for the simple hilarity of its existence but also as a study in solid indie-game execution. Taking about 6 hours to complete, it is great for lulz but also manages to evoke a fond nostalgia for a cherished but fading era of games. There is a certain charm and appeal to the game that will resonate with many gamers, and it has broken free from obscurity and spawned a legion of mashup memes inspired by the game and its Space Jam roots.

The Tales of Games team has even had a recent and successful Kickstarter for a follow up title, so sometime in late 2013 or 2014 be on the lookout for “The Magical Realms of Tír na nÓg: Escape from Necron 7 – Revenge of Cuchulainn: The Official Game of the Movie – Chapter 2 of the Hoopz Barkley SaGa” if you crave more slams in your jams.

http://www.talesofgames.com/related_game/barkley-shut-up-jam-gaiden/





Review: DmC: Devil May Cry

7 04 2013

Ever since the debut of Dante the Demon Hunter on the Playstation 2, the Devil May Cry series became the new standard for what an action game ought to be. Although the series is still fairly young, it has produced more grand slams than strike outs and has gathered a strong following due to the consistent quality and polish of the games, and DMC became one of Capcom’s most successful and hot properties. When the announcement of the latest game bearing the DMC name went live, sporting both word of a new studio at the helm and a much punkier, “emo” look for a younger Dante, there was a backlash of revulsion and doubt. Series fans had their doubts in such a drastic change both in the aesthetics and development for this newly minted image for Devil May Cry, and doubly so since it appeared to be a reboot bearing no numbering or subtitle; an implied end of the “devil we know.” Can the new developer Ninja Theory uphold the pedigree of the series, or will this experiment be a sin against it?

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DmC’s plot takes place at the earliest point yet in the timeline of the Devil May Cry series, preceding DMC3. In DmC, players take control of the youngest iteration of Dante yet and delve a little deeper into the origin story of the Sons of Sparda. Dante’s character is a little rougher around the edges with a “fuck you” attitude, but still exudes the swagger and smarmy charm that we’ve come to expect; more crass than cool and a joker without being (too) juvenile. The overall tone of the game is much ruder and raunchier with a more grungy, urban beat.

Visually the game is quite captivating and this is where it makes the best use of its stylistic divergence. Throughout Dante’s quest he will be repeatedly thrown into the world of “Limbo,” which is a twisted alternate reality dimension where the landscape itself springs to life as a malevolent entity intent on killing Dante any way it can. You’ll be treated to some awesome spectacles as the environment lurches and folds back onto itself like a huge stone serpent, or inverts gravity to change the layout of the level. It’s a world with no rules except the ones that are stacked against you.

The developer Ninja Theory cut their teeth on the PS3 exclusive Heavenly Sword, and their experience carries over into this highly combat-centric game. The general flow of combat will feel familiar to series veterans, chaining together combinations of sword slashes, aerial juggles, and endless streams of bullets to tear apart wave upon wave of demonic spawn. The new addition is a modification of the controls that closely mimics that of Heavenly Sword, in which the L2 and R2 buttons can be held down to modify attacks, instantly morphing Dante’s signature Rebellion sword into “angel arms” or “devil arms” to expand his moveset and adapt to different situations. Additionally, Dante is able to utilize the Ophion chain to snare enemies and either pull himself towards the target or yank the victim towards him, enabling him to execute some very extensive and creative combos. Unfortunately the interesting angel/devil arms system sometimes becomes cumbersome when it is forced upon the player. The various enemies that arbitrarily force the player to use certain weapons eventually end up being obnoxious rather than interesting, and when some of them show up at the same time in a battle, it sometimes begins to feel like a to-do list. Several enemies swing closer to a “bitch” than a “challenge” to fight, when your options for dealing with them feel constrained. The problem could have been mitigated if those enemies made the other attacks less effective rather than completely ineffectual. The most fun to be had is experimenting with crazy attack strings to devastate your opponents and the foes that inhibit that don’t much contribute to the fun.

The Ophion chain is also heavily utilized in navigation and platforming, which is mostly how your time is spent when not in combat. Using the chain to fling Dante around the environment doesn’t quite give the sensation of freedom and exploration; it mostly ends up boiling down to a sequence of button presses that must be made to get from point A to point B, but it does encourage a sharp eye to look for hidden areas where Dante can find hidden items. At its best it emulates the sensation of movement of the PS2 era Prince of Persia games as Dante catapults and bounds about the twisting cityscape of Limbo, but at its worst it can be a miserable crapshoot on gauging distances with poor perspective and visually confusing ques that can be a quick way to drain your health bar for no reason at all (you are penalized whenever you fall from one of these acrobatic sequences). Spotty targeting, camera issues, and the propensity for platforms and ledges in the level design makes for repeated eye-rolling missteps during both the combat and platforming sections of the game.

Devil Arms are still intact for a fair amount of variety, but none sport the originality or gimmicky appeal of previous offerings, but are fairly effective and still satisfying to use. A nice addition is the ability to reassign your unlock points to the various moves available in the devil arms in case you change your mind later or acquire a weapon that really suits you. A large variety of launcher and air-launcher moves coupled with the Ophion chain means that Dante tends to spend a lot of time juggling opponents in the air, and finding creative combinations of moves with the various weapons to create intricate and lengthy air combos is when the game is at its best.

DmC manages to retain the soul of the series throughout, but there are some things that series veterans will find off-putting. In particular the “new” (old?) Vergil will throw off perceptions previously held about this character and will clash with the image that he has held up until this point. There are various winks and nods thrown in to dedicated fans, primarily in trophy/achievement names or in passing by some of Dante’s numerous quips and one-liners. The notorious difficulty of series is maintained, particularly on Nephilim difficulty which is where old hands should go to get the authentic “Devil May Cry” experience.

In the end DmC is somewhat of a misfit, but it has legs to stand on its own. It won’t please every series fan, and it is unlikely to win many new ones, but is still a solid contender that does more things right than wrong. I would recommend DmC to dedicated fans of Devil May Cry that want to see a fresh take on the series as Dante settles in to his demon hunting legs.





Review: Tomb Raider

27 03 2013

Although it may damage my “gamer cred,” admittedly, I have not been acquainted with Lara Croft prior to this title. After my first outing with Ms. Croft, I’m now an official fan, but at the same time our understanding of who Lara Croft is may have changed forever.

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The story begins as you might expect for standard adventure fare: an expedition crew goes in search of a mythic land in the heart of the Dragon’s Triangle and a brutal storm shipwrecks Lara and company on an unknown island. The difference is, this isn’t the same Lara Croft that people imagine when they hear the name. This is Lara before she knew she was Lara; this Lara is shivering, scared, and bleeding. Lara must sharpen her resolve and master the wilderness, outsmart her foes, and unravel the mystery of the island because the only other option is to die trying.

Tomb Raider is not only a story of survival, but also of growth and becoming. Contrary to the game’s tagline, Lara shows us that survivors aren’t born, they’re made; forged in the heat of the beating midday sun and doused in the night’s chilling rain. Through an unrelenting gauntlet of life-and-death gunfights, endless climbs up jagged cliffs, and bone-cracking falls (loooots of falls), players will watch Lara go from a sobbing mess of featherweight shark-bait to the one that says “Bad Mother Fucker” on it. Her appearance becomes rugged with scrapes, bruises and grime, her aim becomes steady and true, she’ll begin to retort to enemies’ threats, and she eventually unleashes some raw execution moves that would almost make even Kratos flinch.  Lara’s growth arc goes from blood, sweat and tears to just blood and sweat as she takes ownership of her situation and responsibility for her own life and the lives of her crewmates. When one is brushed with death so many times, they can’t help but change their colors.

But despite all the hardening up, at its core the narrative is about the softer, human side of Lara. Lara starts off the game vulnerable, fragile and afraid, and at the end of the game she is still all of those things but she’s found her courage and will to carry on. The plot does a great job maintaining a sympathetic image of Lara throughout the story primarily through the cast of supporting characters, the doomed exploration crew of the Endurance, that Lara must both protect and rely on. These elements serve as a deconstruction of the gun-slinging action heroine front that Lara has always been cast as, and reminds us that behind that nocked flaming arrow and underneath all that dirt and mud, there’s a person there.

The gameplay itself feels like an amalgam of the best aspects cherry-picked from Uncharted and the recent Batman and Resident Evil games. It will draw many comparisons with Nathan Drake’s series of games but tonally is quite different; much grittier, edgier and severe, more hold-your-breath than breathtaking. The player’s time will be divided between navigating Lara through expansive wilderness and ruins, scavenging for junk to improve equipment, bloody dirty firefights and heart-stopping action sequences. While I felt that the various elements of gameplay had nothing that I hadn’t seen before, each aspect is superbly done with a great amount of polish.

The game is masterfully paced, instilling both a sense of breakneck immediacy and a wanderlust and intrigue that beckons the player to venture and explore. The flow of the advancement reminds me most of Batman: Arkham City in which acquiring new tools and equipment figure into the progression, opening new paths that were hidden or inaccessible before in a way that revisits old locales with a perspective refreshed by a new ability and never feels like backtracking. While the meat of the action is in the main story arc there are indeed, as the name would suggest, tombs to be raided. There is an immense amount of challenge and enjoyment for completionists in seeking all of the extras and collectibles, hidden high and low in dark crevices scattered around the sprawling map. I made my way through the singleplayer experience in about 14 hours with 86% completion.

The combat is streamlined and frantic. At its most basic level when a fight breaks out it plays like a cover shooter, and you’ll want to lunge for cover as soon as it starts because it only takes a few good shots to put you down even with an improved health upgrade. Lara automatically ducks behind obstacles while moving about freely rather than “snapping” to a cover position which works very well and is simple and uncumbersome. It’s a real godsend for that since you’ll find yourself flushed from cover frequently by enemies who have deadly accuracy with their grenade type weapons (it’s like Lara’s fighting a roster of MLB pro pitchers sometimes). Oftentimes enemies will try to outflank you and close to melee distance, where things get really nasty. Lara has precious little she can do except panicked dodges when enemies crowd her but eventually she learns deadly counterattacks to surprise enemies that close in expecting easy meat, hewing them savagely with her crude improvised weapons. The combat can be quite deadly even on normal difficulty, but the difficulty can be toggled at any time in the pause menu.

If there was one thing that could have been improved, I wish the survival aspect of the game had more emphasis and ambitiousness. While hunting, foraging, and scavenging are prevalent throughout the game, none of them is imbued with the sense of significance or import that I was expecting from a game with the word “survivor” in the tagline. For one, these activities are never a necessity. There is no starvation or thirst mechanic to speak of; these activities are completely elective and carrying them out simply rewards you with some extra experience used to improve Lara’s skills. Additionally, the scavenging and rummaging for materials in the game is very abstracted; doing so rewards you with “salvage” points which are used as a universal currency to improve weapons and tools. I would have preferred a more robust and thoughtful survival/crafting system but this barebones system still gets the job done and at least provides the incentive to do such activities. But for me the most jarring omission is the complete lack of first aid or healing that is an immensely significant trope within survival stories. Sure, there are some story missions where Lara has to retrieve medical supplies for herself or a wounded ally, but the application is completely offscreen and never comes up as a gameplay element. Instead the game opts for the common 5-second magically regenerating health harkening from such games as Call of Duty which for me removes a lot of the threat and danger that could have enhanced the tension. And, since there is no healing items, crafting parts, or sustenance to carry around, the game also completely lacks any kind of inventory management, although I suppose that’s not necessarily a bad thing seeing how many games manage to implement it poorly (*cough* Resident Evil *cough*). Tomb Raider seems to give survival gameplay a nod rather than a fair shake and Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater/Subsistence still features the best survival gameplay of any game I have tried to date.

There is also a multiplayer offering but it seems kind of like a tack-on. It features common deathmatch/team oriented modes with customizable loadouts and character selection. It is reminiscent of the multiplayer in the Uncharted games, in terms of both the general gameplay and the staying power. While the multiplayer isn’t really the main draw of the game it is nice that it’s available and certainly doesn’t detract from the game as a whole.

Overall, Tomb Raider is a triumph of a game with an engaging narrative, compelling gameplay, and gripping visuals, hitting all the right notes for a blockbuster action-adventure game while setting itself apart from the crowd as a unique entry and a cut above the rest. I recommend this game very highly to anyone even remotely curious on this reinvention of one of the golden oldies of action-adventure gaming. Whether this was meant to be a reboot or simply a prequel remains to be seen, but I look forward to my next outing with the new Lara Croft. I hope she’ll get another opportunity like this to show us who she is, not just what she can do, with a spotlight both on her exploits and her substance.