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Quick Hit – Borderlands

Third time’s a charm. I refused to play through this one on my own, and started it twice with other co-op partners, until my current roommate and I finally plowed through it in anticipation of the sequel, gleefully tittering all the way.

Image property of IGN

Platform: PS3*, Xbox 360, PC
Players: 1-2 (Online: 2-4)
Genre: FPS/RPG
ESRB: Mature (Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Mature Humor, Strong Language)

Borderlands took the world by storm by blending polished FPS mechanics with deep RPG skill trees and then tossing in more guns than you could imagine. Not only this, but it made a strong case for local co-op still being a thing.

The variant classes constitute multiple playthroughs, though the drive for higher levels and better guns is a good enough reason in itself to play again with the same character instead of switching classes. Each class is clearly defined and has a distinct style while still capable of being successful however the player deems fit.

The graphics style is a nice change of pace, as are the characters and crude humor seeping out of Pandora. Enemies range from “midget” to “badass”, keeping firefights gripping and intense. NPCs are similarly quirky, the hallmark of whom being Claptraps, small robots that aid in most aspects of the game and, if nothing more, are reliable for chuckle-worthy dialogue.

However, the story does little to further that effort. A wealth of sidequests that provide little context of their own can seem to drag as the player yearns for a goal. Even if they did have a relevant narrative, you’d never know as most conversing takes place on the quest screen inside billboards of text that most people don’t care to read before blazing off to wherever to hunt down an NPC’s prosthetic leg. This is a shame, because the main narrative really starts to push you once the ball gets rolling in the final areas.

The environments are equally drab. The greater portion of game takes place in arid desert areas. Once again, this is an aspect that gains some ground in the later moments of the game, and so it’s a shame that it didn’t permeate throughout.

Despite these flaws, tight mechanics and a trailblazing genre hybrid make Borderlands a must-play. Excuse me while I destroy the sequel. If you’re already playing it, drop your thoughts in the comments!

Bottom Line: 8.5/10

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Raging on Rage

Rage (video game)

Rage (video game) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Platform: PS3*/Xbox 360/PC/Mac
Genre: FPS
Players: 1-2 (Online: 2-6)
ESRB: Mature (Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language)

The current video game environment doesn’t have a lot of room for one-dimensional games, especially in the shooter genre. Call of Duty pretty much has that under wraps, and so most titles hitting the market try to offer something to mix up the formula, be that a new mechanic or infusion of an entirely different genre.

Rage…well…it tried.

Rage is a game without an identity. It attempts to implement a lot of different things that aren’t at all cohesive.

Here’s an open-world game, but you’re going to drive through most of it. And there are really very few places to explore. Let’s make a game based on quests, though the game is entirely linear. Here are some side-quests with no value. It’s everything we see in RPGs except for the RPG part. Your character doesn’t really level up or have skills.

So let’s talk specifics. Rage looks great. Occasionally things get smeary as they’re loading in front of you, but for the most part, this is one of the best looking games out there.

But as much work as went into making this world look crisp, players are going to miss most of it. The open areas are strictly for driving, with nothing to be gained from exploring. You’ll only get run over by an enemy.

So once you’ve finished driving through this bleak and empty world, it’s time to traverse one of about 10 enemy-inhabited areas, most of which you’ll visit twice with a change of environment directing your new path the second time. Completely linear.

The enemies can all shout a collection of the same lines in the same voices. “Everyone retreat”, even though he’s the only one left. Beyond this, they’re limited to a very small set of actions. You’ll have no trouble picking them off one-by-one in most situations, regardless of difficulty, especially considering the odd defibrillator that pops up when you die, giving the player a second chance at life.

Back in the vehicle to get back to one of two main hubs – Wellspring or Subway Town, where you’ll receive your next quest, which will frustratingly probably send you back where you came from. For a quick break, hit up the track for a few races.

The driving is okay, but not fantastic enough to warrant the slog that is working through the twenty-some races available – most of which are incredibly similar, extremely easy and boring to boot. The time investment simply isn’t worth it.

Sick of races and linear questing? Try some of the mini-games. The card game using cards you collect across the wasteland is pretty solid, but other than that, these aren’t worth playing either unless you’re really hurting for cash, which should never happen.

One game in particular, called Tombstones, is a game where the player simply bets and whatever happens happens. The game can’t be affected and there’s only one way to bet. It’s as if there was an intern sitting around the office with only a semester of programming experience and the developers said, “Uh, here. Do this and I guess we could put it in the game.” Quite frankly, even as an intern I’d be embarrassed for that to make it into a game.

This is a game without a real theme or driving idea. There isn’t even a plot moving the game forward. Your quests are all fetches and favors, and it isn’t until the briefing for the final mission that you get a sense that you’re accomplishing something, the repercussions of which you’ll never see because the game ends just as the war is starting.

Let me reiterate – this game looks great. But that’s about it. Otherwise, it’s a bunch of various things tossed together that don’t make a functioning collective whole.

Bottom Line: 5.5/10

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The WiiU won’t increase market share – a stop-gap at best

This morning, Nintendo unveiled a slew of details about the WiiU, officially due out November 18th. Here’s the important stuff:

There will be two versions available. The base $300 model comes with the system, a GamePad, and HDMI cable, sensor bar and all the other goodies you need to get started. It’ll have an 8GB HDD, and it’ll play Wii games. This means no standard WiiMotes, which are necessary for multiplayer, and must be Wii Motion Plus controllers.

The $350 model upgrades to a 32GB SDD and tosses in a charge cradle for the GamePad and a console stand. The bundle will also come with Nintendo Land, the big launch title featuring your Mii, and a subscription to Digital Deluxe Plus through 2014. Currently, all we know is that it will discount your digital downloads, which will be available for all games.

The WiiU is going to have processing power similar to the PS3 and Xbox 360, which means its getting a ton of third-party titles shipped over including Assassin’s Creed III, Batman: Arkham City Armored Edition, Black Ops II and Darksiders II among others.

Nintendo TVii is a new feature that will ship with all consoles and be free to use, giving users the ability to direct streaming services to the GamePad, even if someone else is using the main TV. This includes Hulu, Netflix and even your DVR.

There will also be a social network for WiiU users called MiiVerse, which will support real-time communication among other things and will be accessible through your PC or smartphone as well.

So where does that leave the skeptics?

Overall, we have to look at the fact that the WiiU is still just catching up to current-gen systems. What’s Nintendo’s plan when Sony and Microsoft roll out their next consoles in a year or two? Rumors currently have Sony utilizing 4K resolution for the next generation, and while those TVs are way too pricey now to be mainstream, it’ll be interesting to see what the next year or two brings.

Meanwhile, Microsoft is filing patents for projection-based gaming technology that may well take over your living room. Should either of these come to fruition, the WiiU will be right back where it started, and third-party developers will have to scale back their dreams if they want their titles to work on the WiiU.

Speaking of third-party devs, while it’s great that the WiiU is getting ports of solid titles at launch, there’s no guarantee they’ll do well. To start with, few other than the Nintendo faithful can pick up a WiiMote and go – it takes a little getting used to. While some titles will make unique use of the GamePad, there are bound to be some straight ports. Why would someone want to buy an entirely new console to play the games they can already get on the consoles they already have with controllers they already like?

Things like Arkham City: Armored Edition are also disheartening. Similar spin-off titles of AAA blockbusters, such as the Wii’s Modern Warfare: Reflex Edition, have proven watered-down and sub-par.

Additionally, we have very little information on how the WiiU’s online will work, which will significantly hamper many of these titles. Look at Mass Effect 3, a game with, what I consider, one of the best online multiplayer experiences to date. How well will this work on the WiiU? It’ll already be hurting since Wii players won’t have played the first two titles.

Another of these third-party titles that has been confirmed is Bayonetta 2 – a sequel to a combo-heavy button-masher from Ps3 and Xbox 360. This is an interesting move by Platinum Games, considering other hardcore third-party titles exclusive to Nintendo’s latest consoles haven’t done so well. MadWorld and Red Steel were generally well-received by critics, but didn’t sell nearly as well as even the most average Mario titles.

Nintendo TVii is a great idea, but not a make-or-break feature by any means. TV is universal enough that the whole room is usually content watching.

The memory available is paltry, especially considering the whole library is supposed to be downloadable. Not including any WiiMotes with launch bundles simply means that it’ll be tough to get newcomers to the Nintendo brand – they’ll only have to pay more.

Speaking of paying more, the low price-point of the original Wii was a big draw to the casual gamer. While $300 or more for the WiiU isn’t unreasonable for the hardware you’re getting, it’ll be a turnoff to casual gamers anyway as smartphones absorb more of that market share. Where the Wii had a defined audience that no one else was targeting, the WiiU looks as though it could appeal to a slim niche.

So good news for Wii owners looking for HD graphics – it’s going to get the job done. And they’ll get more of the Nintendo IP they love with a healthy dose of third-party tossed in – for now. But it’s not going to get people who currently own a PS3 or Xbox to make the switch – but has that ever been Nintendo’s goal? We’ll see if Nintendo can keep pace when the new consoles hit, and that goes without paying heed to new players on the scene including Valve’s console rumors and the Ouya.

Be sure to comment with your own thoughts and anything I missed!

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Lights, Camera, Party! struggles to break into a stalemate genre

From the inception of the Wiimote through the latest Kinect developments and even the in-between PlayStation Move, consoles have been plagued by shovelware – games designed to take advantage of a new and in many ways gimmicky feature. Red flags include low production value, poor or no voice acting, short development cycles, a collection of mini-games and release day price-points that cause you to raise an eyebrow. Little kids love them – they aren’t seeking any kind of artistic stimulation. While the game claims to target the party scene for any age group, it’ll never actually catch hold of the college crowd hanging out on a Saturday night. Mario Party remains the only franchise to ever overcome the party game stigma with Nintendo’s watchful eye separating it from the piles of shovelware.

Lights, Party, Camera from Frima Studio is looking to change that. Taking full advantage of the PlayStation Move controller, LCP is offering a set of games with a tad more polish that will hopefully gain it a following from those who can’t enjoy Mario Party.

Platform: PS3*
Players: 2-8
Genre: Party
ESRB: E10+ (Mild Fantasy Violence, Crude Humor)

In the face of a market that hasn’t fully embraced the Move controller, LCP gets off on the right foot by using a pass-and-play method instead of requiring each player to wield a Move controller. Not only does this facilitate up to eight players, but it also means that PS3 owners don’t have to invest in multiple controllers to make the party happen, opening up a wider audience. This is supplemented by the $30 price point – a tad higher than your average non-AAA collection of mini games, but still low enough to constitute a gamble.

This is where the accessibility ends. A party game is at its best when anyone can pick it up and play off the bat, and LCP isn’t always fitting this bill. Don’t even consider the hard difficulty for first-time players (and often even for veterans). Additionally, instructions for each game fly across the screen at breakneck speeds, sometimes not even covering the entire premise (there’s still one game involving dodging cream pies that I don’t quite grasp). This can be frustrating for newcomers who just want to play. While the Move functionality is very cool, it means more complex games as opposed to mashing a button as many party gamers are used to.

Keeping the Move controller tilted just right can feel impossible

Some games require a bit of finesse, or at least give the impression they do. The Move controller is extremely intuitive, and so it reflects that no person can really hold themselves completely still, especially with a controller in hand. This can make intricate tasks seems abysmally difficult, especially on a 3D plane, which is still a fresh way of playing for many people. It’s hard to deem this as inherently bad, since this is the direction that gaming seems to be headed, but for the time and place, it might be a little much.

The story mode offers next-to-nothing and doesn’t even justify the time that may have gone into it. As many players as desired can participate to build a house for the Funzini family as they partake in a game show, Lights, Camera, Party! The characters sit in a couple different places that have no bearing on the festivities and then segue to strictly single-player mini games, many of which you’ll play multiple times, as there aren’t really that many. Whichever player wins the round gets a portion of the house built in their character’s fashion. The whole process takes about half an hour. With no script and paltry humor, time would have been better spent elsewhere.

Of course, it’s a party game, and so we’re much more interested in the party modes. LCP offers three, all of which balance a little bit of luck with a little bit of skill, meaning any player can win –  a smart move to give experts confidence and newcomers the drive to become a dark horse. The mini games remain one player at a time, which eliminates some competition, but also helps to eliminate stratification of guests and the party host who has already played the game a thousand times.

Overall, LCP rises above the shovelware stigma, but is still trying to bust into a generally monopolized genre. Without popular IP, it’s a lost cause on gamers who don’t make a habit of browsing the PlayStation Store, and this is only kind of a bad thing.

Bottom Line: 6.5/10

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Papo & Yo and complicated relationships

If you haven’t heard, Papo & Yo is the story of a boy, Quico, and his large rhino-like friend, Monster. Monster likes to eat poisonous frogs that make him catch fire and become hostile to Quico. Quico is searching for the Shaman to cure Monster’s sickness. But this is merely scratching the surface.

Platform: PS3*
Genre: Puzzle/Platformer
Players: 1
ESRB: E10+ (Fantasy Violence)

Games create an avenue for stories that no other medium can create – a belief I’ve touted before. And these stories can come in many shapes of sizes – fiction and nonfiction, both tall tales and the eerily realistic. Papo & Yo provided an avenue for one developer to share the story of many living in abusive relationships. An extended metaphor for his own relationship with his alcoholic father, Papo & Yo knocks an emotional home run over the proverbial fence and further contradicts arguments that video games should not be taken more than lightly.

However, games also possess an ability to drag down a story like few other mediums can. Experts in the industry have long cited the inherent conflict between advancing a story and continuing to play a game. A challenge in the environment may be necessary from a gameplay standpoint, but it can be a severe hindrance to the narrative being told, and so it becomes a balancing act to keep the story moving while providing a reason to bother holding a controller at the same time.

Papo & Yo sometimes makes the player feel like a second grader trying to read Shakespeare in this way – what good is the story if we can’t advance?

The game is very short, and therefore doesn’t allow time to really develop a tool in the way that gamers who’ve played Portal establish the portal gun. This detracts from many of the “A-ha!” moments that Portal garnered – everything can be solved with the gun and tools in front of us; we just have to figure out how.

This lack of an established tool means that the solution to a puzzle is sometimes extremely unclear. To combat this, most puzzles are less “puzzles” and more “flip every switch you can”. In at least one case, however, Minority foregoes that formula, which results in a completely counter-intuitive solution with absolutely no indication of how to actually do it. When most paths or moving platforms are at least marked with chalk, this one came from nowhere. Even in the old days of video games without tutorials or hint boxes, the days that purists long after, we at least could say “Hey, that painting’s crooked. I’m going to straighten it and – oh I get it now!”

Poor design can make the best of us want to rage out

Any player can bite the bullet and find a walkthrough, but the fact of the matter is that this reflects a developer that was blind to the player and the careful balance required to keep a player interested in both that challenge and the story. And unfortunately, the short length of the game magnifies this singular moment.

Also awkward from a gameplay perspective are the numerous nooks, niches and crannies that exist in the environment. Small alleys and empty overhangs beg to be explored, but appear to offer little in the way of reward, and we’re left wondering why even bother?

Beyond this, there really is a fantastic story being told here. I’m skeptical of the blatant nature with which the developer approached the extended metaphor, and in my opinion may have done well to keep the entire thing under wraps until the player reached the twilight of the experience. Regardless, it’s an emotional keepsake that, for the small time investment, gamers would be remiss to pass up.

For being in development so long, the game is not well polished. Players will pass through several aesthetic features of the environment, Monster may reach through walls to grab you and one spot in particular has a severe sound discrepancy that caused me to think my headphones were going dead. No, that awful static was just the game. Things like this make me wonder what we were waiting for.

Overall, Papo & Yo does good things, but poor design really cramps its style.

Bottom Line: 7/10

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Sly 2 proves to be one-dimensional

If you frequent my blog, you saw that I was a huge fan of the first Sly Cooper. The HD collection has been my first delve into the series, and it started off on the right foot. However, Sly 2 did not continue the trend.

Platform: PS2/PS3*
Genre: Platforming/Adventure
Players: 1
ESRB: Everyone (Cartoon Violence)

Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus introduced us to the free-spirited, flirty, thief-but-really-a-good-guy Sly Cooper. A simple game with simple characters aimed at a younger audience, the game proved fun for all ages with very clean gameplay that managed to stay fresh over it’s relatively short play time.

Enter Band of Thieves. Everything the first one did well, Sly 2 managed to build on, but not in a good way.

Each “episode” of Sly 2 is split into a few parts. The first is Sly taking recon pictures so Bentley can come up with a plan. The next set or two of missions allows the player to utilize not only Sly, but his buddies Bentley and Murray as they prepare for the inevitable big heist. A fun idea. Then there’s the heist itself, also putting all three characters to use.

Good luck doing this with Bentley or Murray. Credit – IGN

To be blunt, Bentley and Murray are awful. I’m not sure anyone wants to use them. The only abilities the two share with Sly are running and jumping, while climbing on ropes and traversing buildings and such are mostly left by the wayside. This is intended to be offset by Bentley’s knockout darts and Murray’s ability to carry things. However, Sly Cooper is, at heart, a stealth game. This makes Murray’s taste for picking things up and throwing them at various enemies the opposite of what I would like to do, and meanwhile, Bentley’s darts are tedious compared to hopping on a building and scurrying past everyone.

Additionally, most missions with these two revolve around either hacking a computer with Bentley in the form of a small, dual-stick shooter mini-game, or prying something open with Murray’s brute strength. Not a lot of variety here, and with what seemed to be a much longer campaign than the first Sly, the formula gets old fast.

Even Sly himself can’t keep things interesting, however. We quickly realize how one-dimensional every character in this game is. Sly, an early prototype of Nathan Drake’s witty banter, is predictable at every turn. Bentley, a dried-up Otacon, practically faints every time he has to move. And Murray, the oafish brute, is still afraid of the dark. Even Carmelita Fox, the inspector on Sly’s tail (pun intended) is a straight-shooting cop with a secret desire for the bad boy she’s after. Nothing we haven’t seen before. These stereotyped character models and crime-movie-spoof charades only get the game so far.

The new health bar system as opposed to the original one-and-done combat seems cool at first until you realize it eliminates any need for stealth in most cases, save Bentley who is so underpowered that you’re forced to suffer the tranquilizer darts. The entire strategy is sidelined save for when required of you from a mission.

Behind all this, Band of Thieves does manage a few well-earned chuckles between otherwise boring gameplay over a fiendishly long campaign, and the core, tight platforming we loved in the original Sly still exists when the raccoon gets a chance to stretch his legs. The hi-def remake did good things for the title, and trophy hunters should know that simply beating the game will almost surely net you a platinum for the display case. We get a little growth from the gang in the last few minutes, but this doesn’t make up for the lack-luster game leading up to it. The supporting cast really drops the ball, undermining an otherwise commendable performance.

Bottom Line: 6.5/10

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