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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

"Assassin's Creed Rogue" & "Assassin's Creed Unity" Reviews

It's time once again for a dual review. This time I'm tackling the two new Assassin's Creed games which saw their debut on the same day, with Unity obviously overshadowing Rogue, but should that have been the case? Well, that's why I'm here, to give you my opinion. Let's get to it. 

Assassin's Creed Rogue

Ubisoft's final last generation Assassin's Creed game came out for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 with a PC date slated for next year. One would think that the previous generation limitations would hold this game back especially compared to it's next generation counterpart. While this may be true graphically, Rogue still provides an interesting story, fun gameplay and innovative changes that are equal to, if not better than Unity's. 

You play as an Irish assassin Shay Cormac who betrays the assassin's and becomes a Templar after they send him on a mission  that causes the unspeakable to happen (no spoilers here), in what I found to be one the most fun missions I've played in an Assassin's Creed game. 

Shay, upset by what happened, leaves the Assassin's and is later found by the Templars, Whom he sympathizes with and joins them on their quest for World Order. 

Both the past and present day stories take place after Black Flag. Shay's story takes place many years after Edward Kenyway's adventure, as Edward's son, Haytham (a familiar face) is now a grown man. Shay's story also proceeds the events of Assassin's Creed III and ends years after the events of Assassin's Creed III, tying directly into the beginning of Unity. Aside from Haytham, Adewale and Achilles both make a return appearance, with the former being older and the later being younger than we remember them. 

The present day portions take place directly after the events of Black Flag. You're still an employee of Abstergo Entertainment, helping them research memories so they can shine Templars in a better light and literally rewrite history. However, this time, instead of being instructed by a mysterious IT guy, you're instructed by your insulting mentor to help them fix the computers. Someone has released a virus into Abstergo's network, causing the whole system to crash and reboot, resulting in many computers crashing. This, of course, leads to more hacking minigames and chances to snoop at Abstergo's personal files. If you feel so inclined. 

Anyways, back to Shay... Rogue plays very similar to the other games in the Kenway Saga, you run, jump, climb, stab, hide, fall, sail, hunt, counterattack, and sync viewpoints. There are a few changes and additions however. For one thing, they took the detection compass from multiplayer and implemented it into Shay's Eagle Vision. When you're walking around you may start to hear whispers, indicating an assassin is nearby and stalking you. Once Eagle Vision is activated the compass will indicate the direction in which the assassin is hiding. They could be in hay bails, hiding behind walls, behind doors or even above waiting to jump on you. Shay's training and reflexes as a former Assassin prove useful as he is able to counterattack the assassin's sneak attacks. It's a really fun addition and constantly keeps you on your toes. 

Remember the forts from the Ezio trilogy? They're back. You can infiltrate Assassin hideouts and loot their treasures. It's very similar in fact. You take out the leader, climb a bit, and cut down the flag, replacing it with a British one in fact. 

Now I have some good news and some bad news. The bad news is that the naval combat and sailing is back. The good news is that it is much more painless now. The naval combat has been vastly improved, making taking down ships easier. It's also significantly easier to upgrade your ship. Upgrades not only require less materials but materials are also easier to comer by, making the frustration of waiting to start missions because your ship isn't strong enough, not as frequent. 

Overall, Assassin's Creed: Rouge is a solid farewell to last gen Assassin's Creed. It's a well done game with a surprisingly interesting story. It's only downfall is that, while Rogue does offer a fresh experience, it doesn't really bring anything new to the table. All of it's best aspects are borrowed from previous titles. That's not necessarily a bad thing though. Also, it's fair to say that the North Atlantic is a little more empty than the Caribbean, making travel sometimes bland. I have grown personally weary of the naval elements and seriously hope this is the last we see of them. 

My Rating: 8/10

Assassin's Creed Unity

Ubisoft's next-gen Assassin's Creed game that launched alongside Rogue was met with a lot of harsh criticism due to a plethora of launch bugs and glitches. However, I am going to opt out of using those as part of the basis for my review. I am doing this for two reasons. The first reason is because I hardly ran into any of these bugs or glitches during my PS4 playthrough, and any of the ones I did run into were not sufficient enough to warrant a bad review. Secondly, I do not feel it is fair to judge a core game that is otherwise passable by a few bugs that could be easily patched out. With all that being said, there are some non-glitch related things I did not enjoy about this game, but we'll get to that. 

In Unity, you play as Arno Dorian, a French-Austrian ladies man with a cocky attitude who takes up the blade after the death of a family member and becomes a reckless Assassin who takes matters into his own hands too much and... wait a minute. Haven't we been here before? Indeed we have. Arno's story is very similar to that of Ezio's. Of course it's not a complete copy-paste. Unity's story also offers childhood friend/love interest that plays a major role in the campaign. Either way, I did find Arno's story to be interesting, to me it felt more like a traditional Assassin's Creed story than the last few games. 

The modern day portions are a little bit different now, however. Abstergo Entertainment has now released the Animus to the public under the guise of a Virtual Reality Video Game Console, and they call it "Helix". Much like the previous games YOU are the modern day protagonist. You have purchased this Helix from Abstergo and are now giving it a whirl. You're greeted with a Story Selection screen in which only one option is playable at the moment. This, to me, was obviously Ubisoft's way of making it look like you're actually in a VR Console and each story is a different game. A lot of the options are previous actually existing games, while some appear to be Ubisoft's way of saying "here's a hint towards our next 5 games and/or DLC and standalone titles." Anyways, after you select the only available option you experience the final moments of a famous Templar from the medieval era (skewed to make the Templars look better of course, because this is Abstergo) when your Animus-- sorry, HELIX session is hacked into by assassins with fake names. Tell tell you that Abstergo is using you and then proceed to use you themselves. They want you to relive the memories of Arno and help them find the body of someone known as a "Sage" (a human reincarnation of Juno's husband if you've been paying attention to thew last few games). 

This is an interesting concept, it shows that Abstergo is slowly gaining more power, and the assassins are getting desperate. They're now reaching out to random consumers at home to help them with their cause. However, there's a few things that bother me. The first one is that the modern day portions are not playable. The second thing I take issue with is that it's never really clear in the previous two games if you're playing as yourself or a silent protagonist that works for Abstergo. If the former is true then this would cause some confusion. You're obviously not the same "you" that you were in Black Flag and Rogue, so this, in my mind, creates a paradox. Unless you assume your character in Black Flag and Rouge is a silent protagonist, then the modern day section of Unity makes a bit more sense. 

Anyways, in terms of gameplay, Unity is vastly different from the more recent games. For one thing, there's no sea travel. Also, the game takes place primarily in one big city, Paris. Also, they brought back the dual button holding for climbing on stuff like in the older games. Lately, just holding the shoulder button was enough, but in Unity they returned to holding the shoulder button and action button. This may sound inconvenient but the reason behind it actually pays off. The game now offers a free run DOWN mechanic. While holding the shoulder button to free run UP stuff, you can now hold the shoulder button and the cancel button to free run DOWN buildings and other such things. This feature comes in very handy when attempting to get down from high places since hay bails for a leap of faith are now scarce outside of right under viewpoints. When using free run down, Arno will automatically determine the best route to the ground and follow it. 

The world is now drowning in NPCs. Almost everywhere you go there are people to be found. The game takes place during the French Revolution so you get to experience people rioting in the streets; starting fires or carrying heads around on sticks. There's also a lot of crime, pickpockets and bullies you can put a stop to. Doing this so many times usually nets you with a decent chunk of cash, so it's worth your while. Sometimes this seemingly endlessness bounty of NPCs can be a bit overbearing as they easily get in your way when attempting an escape from guards, or certain areas can be so overstocked with random civilians it can cause them to stack on top of each other or cause the game so start lagging a bit. The game is also littered with side quests and collectibles. The map is now 3D, showing buildings in scale, which makes it easier to tell if the item you're trying to get is on the roof or the ground. If it's inside a building your guess is as good as mine as to how to get to it. Internal building layouts can get cluttered and confusing, especially when the seemingly only open window leads to a room with no stairs and the item is below you. Also, there's so much stuff that the map can be hard to read, and it doesn't help that they don't allow you to fully customize the icons that are displayed, instead opting-in for a virtually useless predetermined subcategory of icons. I just want to be able to see where the viewpoints and social clubs are, why is that so hard? Also, let it be know that if you don't plan on utilizing the Unity companion app on a smartphone or tablet, or the Initiates website, then about half of the chests scattered about are useless to you anyways.    

The combat is very similar to the Kenway Saga but it feels a little more clunky and more difficult to manage. Now, instead of obvious alerts when an enemy is about to hit you, their health bar flashes yellow for all of a split second, giving you a very limited window in which to counterattack. On top of that, enemies now have difficulty levels indicated by the number of diamonds above their health bar. The more there are, the harder they are to kill, especially if you difficulty level doesn't match theirs. That's right, if you look above your health bar you will see diamonds as well, indicating your level of preparedness for certain areas of Paris. You can increase this level by purchasing better armor and weapons as the game progress. You can now choose between a one handed, heavy or long weapon and a pistol or a rifle. Also, when purchasing new armor you can now customize each little piece, the hood, the shirt, the pants, the bracers and the boots. Each piece of armor has it's own rating which is critical in determining Arno's rating and how ready he is for certain missions. Each piece of armor also increases or decreases your stats in Health, Stealth, Ranged Attack and Melee Attack. Equipping a certain piece of armor may, for instance, lower your ranged attack but increase your health, and so on. Much like the previous games required ship upgrades before doing certain story missions, Unity encourages you to upgrade Armor before moving on. So they took out the naval combat but somehow managed to squeeze in its inconvenience factor. Here's the crazy part though, the armor can be upgraded which costs more money, but you can also hack an upgrade using Helix credits which you earn apparently randomly in the game over time, but also you can use real life money to purchase extra Helix credits if you're one of those micro-transaction addicts South Park recently made fun of. 

Abilities can now be purchased with Sync Points, special points earned from doing missions. The abilities fall under four categories:  Health, Stealth, Ranged Attack and Melee Attack. This is an interesting concept that ultimately fails for two reasons. The first being that a lot of the abilities that you can purchase, such as being able to sit on a bench to blend in, are now locked behind this new ability system. I guess the simple task of sitting can elude even the greatest of assassins without a visit to Ye Olde Vending Machine. The other reason this new gimmick fails is because it's impossible to unlock everything without playing co-op missions. So, those who usually shy away from online multiplayer are forced to play it if you want to unlock every ability. While I'm still on this, let me point out how ridiculous it is   that Eagle Vision is now limited and has to recharge. Also, your hidden blades are only used when you make sneaky kills, otherwise they're essentially non-existent. You can't even fight with them or select them as an active weapon. Pressing up on the D-Pad now gives way to using medicine to heal yourself, because they brought that back from the Ezio Trilogy. Which isn't a bad thing, auto-healing is just awful. The issue, is that everything is so damn expensive and money is scarce. My advice is to start renovating social clubs and doing side quests ASAP or you may find yourself going for broke most of the game. 

A welcome addition to the series are these rifts, or glitches in the animus. At certain points of your session Abstergo will attempt to hack in and the assassins open a glitch in the animus for you to jump through temporarily. These rifts always lead to an alternate Paris from a different time, such as the Medieval Renaissance or World War II. These make up for some of the game's best moments, which isn't saying much, I know, but it's worth playing for those alone. The other welcome addition to the series is the Open Assassination System. Now, when going to Assassinate a target, Arno will scout the area looking for entry points, vantage points, weaknesses and distractions he can use to get to and assassinate his target. It's much more player driven and gives you the ability to chose from one of many different ways to find your target and terminate them. I also like that Unity added more stealthy elements to the games. You can now crouch and hide behind cover, a feature almost as common in stealth games as pushing the Start button but somehow Ubisoft took 12 games to figure it out. There's also lock-picking, which would be more useful if you got better with practice and it wasn't linked to ability upgrades.

I did dabble a little bit in the online co-op, and by dabble I mean I tried it once because every other time the game refused to connect. From what I gathered, unless you're playing with friends with whom you are willing to communicate, the co-op is an organized assassination free for all. You are all given an objective, which would be simple on your own. However, what should be a quick and easy assassination turns into a stabbing ball of blood and confusion. For instance, I was making an attempt to approach the target stealthily, when one of my companions decided they were going to run in like Rambo and slice up anything that moves, causing every guard from here to Italy to come after us. Needless to say he was overwhelmed. Then the second idiot decided the best idea was to try and revive someone who was surrounded by guards, knowing damn well that they respawn eventually. Meanwhile, my third companion was content to sleep in a nearby hay bail the whole time. A mission that should have taken 10 minutes took a half hour and three respawns. Not very efficient.    

Overall, Assassin's Creed Unity is a mediocre addition to the series; that offers a bunch of welcome new additions with a bunch of unwelcome ones as well. Is it a bad game? I wouldn't call it that. Naughty Bear is a bad game, Brink is a bad game. I would call Unity more... unpolished, if you will. I would still recommend playing it but only if you're a fan of the series. Newcomers will be severely disappointed. It is worth at least one playthrough, because the game is fun, it just has some setbacks. That being said, I'd suggest Rogue more and tell you to wait on Unity until a few more patches and maybe a price drop. 

My Rating: 6/10           


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

"Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor" Review

Another review I'm a bit late to... but they say, better late than never, right? 

Anyways, shadow of Mordor is a game that's based in the same universe as the Lord of the Rings movies and in our experience games based on movies are usually not that great and vice versa. But is Shadow of Mordor an exception to the rule? Or is it just yet another crappy money-grabbing scheme? well, like usual, let's find out...

Shadow of Mordor, much like Murdered: Soul Suspect, is about a dead guy. Well, not technically. You see, you play as a ranger of Gondor named Talion who is played by none other than Troy Baker the Nicolas Cage of video games. Talion is forced to watch as his wife and child are brutally murdered by Sauron's right-hand man who is played by none other than Nolan North, the Samuel L Jackson of video games. Sauron's right-hand man, also known as the Black Hand, then tries to murder Talion but he is saved by a Elf-Wraith named Celebrimbor, who has no memory of his life. Celebrimbor possesses Talion, keeping him alive, and together, they set out on a journey across Mordor to exact revenge on the Black Hand while simultaneously uncovering the memories of Celebrimbor's past.

At it's core, Shadow of Mordor is an action/stealth/sandbox game. You traverse the open fields of Mordor's decaying lands, climbing on buildings, assassinating Orcs and Uruk-Hai, and collecting experience points to level up your attributes. The game is clearly very heavily inspired by Assassin's Creed. Some might even call it a rip-off. I call it an improvement. There's much to be done in this game, outside of the main story, and the game is pretty laid-back in how it let's you go about doing them. Even the main story quests, of which their are at least 2 or 3 at any given moment, can be tackled in any order. Aside from main story quests, Shadow of Mordor is littered with collectibles and weapon themed side quests, for your sword, your bow and your dagger respectively. Completing these quests not only earns you experience points but upgrades to your weapons as well.

Speaking of weapons, let's talk about combat. The combat in Shadow of Mordor is ripped directly from the Batman Arkham games. When fighting hordes of enemies you have to keep an eye out for counterattack opportunities and watch for chances to perform a finishing move on downed enemies. After awhile, the game starts to throw shielded enemies and berserkers at you, forcing you to change your strategy by using stuns and ranged attacks, which, might I add, are fantastic. Your bow and arrow are a wraith power controlled by the elven wraith within you. Time slows down momentarily, allowing you to line up and successfully execute multiple headshots within seconds. Eventually you gain combat skills that make for some amazing and often grotesquely bad ass finishing moves.

Now, let's talk about the biggest and most interesting aspect of this game: The Nemesis System. Implemented into the game's core gameplay is a sort of RTS style ranking system among the Uruk's. Going into the game's main menu and selecting Sauron's Army will unveil a plethora of gruesome baddies for you to pick off one by one. You can select one, make them a target and then go hunting. It's like a buffet menu for sociopaths. The enemies are constantly changing in rank too, mostly dependent on your actions. For example, if you die, the enemy who killed you will suddenly go up in rank, and if they weren't already a captain, you know just a regular disposable follower, well they're a captain now. Your death actually causes damn near every enemy to go up in rank and new, unknown enemies to come take their place at the bottom of the ladder.

You may be wondering how that works and how dying doesn't just entitle you to a re-spawn. Well, here's the thing. Being possessed by a wraith means you cannot die, not permanently anyways. The enemies have caught onto this though. Anyone who kills you gets marked as a revenge target and if you attempt to confront them again, they will remember you and will verbally make that clear, saying something along the lines of "hey, didn't I already kill you? No matter, I just do it again. You clearly enjoyed it so much you're back for more." On that same note, not all enemies you kill stay dead either. There's a good chance that if you kill any of them in any way but decapitation that you didn't actually kill them, but rather, fatally wounded them from which they somehow healed and are now looking for revenge. I actually had an incident where I "killed" one using wraith arrows and he came back later with a bag on his head to complain about how I messed up his "pretty face".

Now, you may notice upon first glance that a lot of enemies in the army are just silhouettes. This can be fixed by gaining intel from other enemies, papers or corpses. You can use that intel to revel an enemy's identity and, depending on where you get the intel, their strengths and weaknesses as well. This is essential when going up against enemies of a higher rank, as the higher they are up the ladder, the less weaknesses they have, essentially making mano-a-mano combat the only route to take.

Shadow of Mordor is a game I fell in love with instantly, but the second half of the game is what really sucked me in. Eventually you are blessed with the ability to brand Orcs and Uruks and make them obey you, including captains and warchiefs. I won't say much beyond that as the best aspect of it is discovering the things you can do with it for yourself.

The only part where Shadow of Mordor doesn't shine for me is the story. Which is weird, because I'm a huge Lord of the Rings fan. But something about the way it's presented makes it feel a little bland. That's not to say it's bad or uninteresting, it could just use some tweaks. There are some parts where it really stands out, and they mostly involve Gollum and an Orc named Ratbag.  

Overall, Shadow of Mordor is an amazing game, which is rare for licensed movie themed games. I suggest any fan of Assassin's Creed or Batman Arkham pick this up, because it is both of those and so much more, and in a lot of ways, it's better.

My rating: 9/10


Monday, July 21, 2014

"Murdered: Soul Suspect" Review

Murdered: Soul Suspect is another game I was highly anticipating if for no other reason than it's original storyline. But is it a game worthy of investigating or does it deserve to be dragged to hell (much like that God-awful movie of the same name)? Well, like usual, let's find out... 

Murdered: Soul Suspect takes place in none other than Salem, Massachusetts, and for good reason. You play as a detective Ronan O'Connor who immediately gets killed and is tasked with solving his own murder as a ghost. Along the way he meets Joy Foster, one of the only humans who can see and talk to ghosts, and together they must solve the mystery of the Bell Killer while simultaneously looking for Joy's lost mother. 

On paper this sounds interesting, and would actually make a great movie. But in video game form it can be a hit or miss, depending on who you are. Murdered: Soul Suspect is in every way, shape and form, an investigation/mystery game. The core gameplay involves going from Point A to Point B, investigating a crime scene and then moving on once you've successfully solved the current mystery. It's like if you took the investigation parts of LA Noire and that's it and made a game out of them. Mix in some stealth, exploration and collectibles and you have a game. 

Outside of the game's core element there are sections where you must stealthily avoid demons who try to drag Ronan's soul down to hell. If you're spotted you must hide in ghostly apparitions until it's safe to come out and try again. To take the demons down you must sneak up on them and... well, I'm not entirely sure what you do to them exactly but whatever it is, it works. Outside of this, you're free to explore the city of Salem, possessing people, reading their minds and looking for collectibles. You'll also see other ghosts and ghostly walls and structures that the humans can't see mixing with the normal environment. A lot of it is meant to halt your progress until you gain abilities necessary to progress. Some of your fellow spirits are recently deceased and confused about their current state. You can choose to help them find peace by investigating their death but this involves more or less more of the same investigation gameplay. One of my favorite aspects is that you can possess a cat, yes a cat, and use it to reach high ledges. You can even make it meow. That's game of the year material right there. But seriously... 

Murdered: Soul Suspect, outside of having a pun for a title, has a interesting story. I actually found myself getting immersed in it. I'm a fan of a good ghost story and a nice murder mystery, of which this is both. You solve not only your own murder, but that of other recently departed denizens as well. Not to mention that every level has this age old artifacts and if you find all of them you are treated with a haunting tale that will send chills up your spine. The main story itself is an engaging tale with a few twists and an ending you may or may not expect. With only one human able to help him and the ever present danger to her by the Bell Killer, Ronan is tasked with more unfinished business than one dead person can handle. 

For the most part the characters are engaging but it doesn't say much when the dead are more interesting than the living. Joy appears to be the only interesting human character. Ronan, however, comes across often times as a dick who's just using Joy to meet his own needs. He's a hard character to like at first but will eventually grow on you. Most of the cops are dicks and some of the dead are even unsettling, purposely stalking the living because they're mad and causing demons to appear from their negative emotions. It's a regular grab bag of colorful characters, some likable and some not on both ends of dimensional planes. 

Murdered: Soul Suspect stands out in one more area, atmosphere. While it is not a horror game by any means it does provide a creepy and unsettling atmosphere in many ways, especially in the deformity of some of the dead. The town is misty, dark and too quiet. It certainly comes across as a place I'd rather avoid, much like Silent Hill. 

Overall, Murdered: Soul Suspect is far from perfect but it fun in it's own rights. If you're looking for a high speed action game with guns and violence, this is not the game for you. However, you're looking a slow-paced murder mystery with a haunting atmosphere, you've come to the right place.

My Rating: 7/10             

"Watch_Dogs" Review

After much anticipation and being pushed back a couple times, Watch_Dogs FINALLY makes it's appearance on the gaming market. But does it live up to the hype, and were the delays truly worth it? Some say no, others say yes, and some even say "what the hell is Watch_Dogs?" But the real question here is what do I say? You didn't come here for other people's opinions and to be frank, I never have and never will care what other people think of video games. I'm an individual. So, without further delay... let's get to it... 

Watch_Dogs is an open world action/adventure game that shares similarities with Grand Theft Auto and one of Ubisoft's most popular series, Assassin's Creed. The core element and selling point of the game is hacking. Using his smartphone Aiden Pearce can hack anything electronically connected from traffic lights to generators to even underground steam pipes (don't ask me how that one works but it looks cool and makes a loud noise so we're gonna go with it). The hacking can be used to stop cops and gang members chasing you in vehicles, tap into citizen's bank accounts, or stealthily take down guards protecting a ctOS server.

While the hacking is essentially the core element of the game it is not alone what makes Watch_Dogs so fun. Which is a good thing seeing how the hacking mechanic can tend to get a bit over-saturated after awhile. I remember numerous occasions where I would hack a citizen's phone only to end up eavesdropping on the same conversation I've heard once or twice before already. It's understandable that some things will eventually repeat, but one of Watch_Dog's main selling points by Ubisoft was that every citizen would be unique and have a different occupation, income, and special fact about them. While this is true in theory, I see a lot of repeats, just on citizens with different names. But overall this is a nit picky observation and does not take away from the game's enjoyment.

One of the most fun elements of Watch_Dogs is vehicle chases. The cops in Watch_Dogs will chase after you when a citizen calls them because you stole their car or because they heard gunfire. Often times you weren't even the shooter, but Aiden is a wanted man and they'll come after him anyways. You can stop these phone calls before they have time to respond, but here is the fun in that? During these police chases you have numerous tools at your disposal to stop your pursuers, and the more upgrades you unlock, the better tools you can use. There's something satisfying about being in a high speed chase, dodging in and out of traffic and then driving over a manhole cover, hacking it as you go, and looking back to see a cop car go flying sideways into a wall or another car and cause a pileup. Destruction, be it taking down a gang, blowing up a gas station, destroying transformers, or desecrating cop cars, is so much fun and I dare say, even more so than the hacking element.

I heard a lot of players complain that the vehicles controlled like ass. Bouncing around like cartoons, spinning uncontrollably, and other such debauchery. But, in my personal opinion, this is a good thing. And I might be in a minority here but I feel like expecting 100% realistic car mechanics in a fantasy based video game is simply folly, and, if anything, would take away from the fun. In real life, jumping a raised bridge would blow your suspension upon landing, your tires would fall off and you'd probably be injured. This is an action game, therefore it should play as such. You don't go to a Fast & Furious movie expecting them to obey traffic laws. So don't play an open-world action game expect Gran Turmiso level realism.    

Much like Fast & Furious (speaking of the devil), all the entertainment value lies in the action and eye-candy and the story is unfortunately, sub-par. In Watch_Dogs you play as hacker vigilante Aiden Pearce who's mix-ups with the wrong people cost him the life of a loved one, for which he constantly blames himself. And instead of doing what any sane person would do and calling it quits before anyone else gets hurt, he continues his underground work with revenge on the mind. While he is overall a good person who seems hellbent on doing the right thing, often times his motives, methods and associates are all questionable. The story itself actually picks up halfway through the game but the main characters all remain so-so throughout. Aiden's main posse in particular never really grew on me. In fact, it was one of the villains, a gang leader named Iraq whom I took particular enjoyment from if for no other reason than his portrayal as a black gang leader was so over done and borderline racist that it made me laugh uncontrollably. The game's ending felt cliche and anti-climatic as well, and in fact does not end well if you mess up the quick time event. Overall, it was ok to say the least but I feel like Ubisoft put most of their effort into the gameplay, eye-candy and hacking and not enough into story and character development. Not to mention that some of the story missions include frustratingly difficult stealth sections, especially near the end. I understand Ubisoft's love of stealth, I'm a fan myself, but some things don't need to be THAT difficult.

Now, I want to take a minute to talk about the multiplayer as well. I don't normally do this but I had a chance to dabble in it a bit and I must say I was pretty impressed. I played a few game modes in a party with a few people and we had a blast. Free Roam can get frustration because you can never find anyone, but I rather enjoyed Watch_Dogs' take on Capture the Flag. In a game of 3v3 one player steals a data packet while their teammates try to protect them, meanwhile the opposing team must try to steal the data and hold onto it for as long as they can. I rather enjoyed it. Another fun aspect was the ctOS app on smartphones and tablets. You can use it to hack into a players game and send cops and helicopters after them, hacking street lights and whatnot in an attempt to stop them from reaching their goal before time runs out. This mingame was loads of fun on both ends. But the most creative aspect of multiplayer that I must commend Ubisoft for is the way they handle social interaction. At random intervals of the game a player may drop into your server and attempt to hack you and it is your job to find and stop them before they succeed. You and the player both look like regular citizens to each other, making this easier said than done. Whether you win or lose this little confrontation matters not, the game proceeds as normal afterwards. The transition is so seamless and well executed you wouldn't know it was another player if the game didn't tell you.

Overall, Watch_Dogs shines mainly in gameplay. There's so much to do in this alternate version of Chicago that you can get lost for hours on side quests before even starting the next story mission. From saving citizens to taking down convoys to having digital acid trips and fighting off aliens or bouncing around on huge flowers Watch_Dogs has something for everyone and is a game with high replay value. I simply cannot ask for more for $60. It may not have lived up to ALL the hype, but it certainly matched most of it, and that's good enough for me.

My Rating: 8/10      

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

"Outlast" and "Whistleblower" Review

It's very hard these days to come across a good horror game anymore. So many once terrifying franchises have slowly but surely started to transition into action shooters with the occasional jump scare. Long gone are the days of our youth where we would stay up late sneaking out of our bedroom to watch our mom's boyfriend play Resident Evil 2 even though it gave us nightmares... Or maybe that's just me. Anyways, you get the idea. I have longed for a good true survival horror game for a long time, so as you can imagine, Outlast peeked my interest. But the question is... is Outlast truly a horrifying experience worthy of the "most times some has changed underwear in 24 hours" award? or is it a overhyped snooze-fest loaded with cheap scares, gore and not much else? Well, let's find out.... 

I'm doing this review differently. I'm going to review both Outlast and it's DLC add-on story Whistleblower, separately. I feel they are both worthy of their own review. So, first, Outlast. The game is about a journalist, Miles, whom you play as and has a serious mental condition that causes him to purposely investigate dangerous stories, even at the risk of his own life. At least, that's what I assumed, because nobody in their right mind would even THINK of sticking around this blood-splattered hell-hole for more than 5 minutes. I would have left at the FIRST sign of blood. But Miles is a bloody journalist by God and those crazy folk will do ANYTHING for a story. Thus, the plot has been established. But it's not so cut and dry. The idea here is that some bad science voodoo is going down in this asylum and Mile's gets a mysterious email from the inside (we'll get to that later) informing him of the illegal and inhumane activities going on in there, and of course, being the reporter that he is Miles goes to investigate. Everything starts off harmless enough, slowly getting creepier by the minute, until a change encounter with a deformed and overpowered inmate sends him flying right into the hands of destiny. And thus the REAL fun begins. Mile's journey quickly goes from getting his story to getting the hell out. Armed with nothing but a video camera with night vision, and his athletic abilities, Miles is about to take a trip through hell that he'll never soon forget. 

Outlast is, in every sense of the word, a TRUE survival horror game. There's no weapons. Only stealth, speed, agility and smarts. Most of the inmates in the asylum are way too big and powerful for you to take on anyways. Deformed and angry from experimentation, they're out for blood. During the game you go from one objective to the next, never knowing where the next threat may be lurking or what surprise is around the next corner. Your only friend in these dark corridors is your night vision camera and even that isn't promised. The camera runs on batteries which quickly drain and you have to find more laying around. If you happen to run out of batteries, you can't see more than a few feet in front of you and that's no preferable. Since you cannot fight, you must rely on stealth and speed to survive. Many areas involve multi-stage objectives such as flipping a few switches or turning some valves, all while avoiding the big angry inmate roaming the halls, looking for you. If you happen to get spotted, your only hope is to run like hell and hope they don't catch you, close doors behind you to slow them down, and hide in lockers or under beds and pray they don't find you.

Outlast, to me, was certainly a refreshing step in the right direction for survival horror. While it does have some jump scares they are not overdone or cheaply used. Outlast mainly scares players by messing with their heads. It builds up tension by leaving you in the dark (quite literally) about what's coming next. Every corner you turn, every noise you hear, every inmate you encounter could be a potential threat. Then, when the tension is built up, when something finally does happen the player reaction is vastly enhanced. Whereas if they just littered the games with random jump scares it would eventually get dull. But no, Red Barrels was smart. They built the game in such a way that it leaves you guessing and nervous and on edge for awhile and then BAM! It strikes when you least expect it. There where even times I had to take a break because my anxiety would flare up and I'd start having panic attacks. 

This is what separates Outlast from other so-called survival horror games. The horror, the fear, the tension, it's all real. The atmosphere is well done, the gore is disturbing and unnerving and the inmates are creepy and unsettling. Especially the inmates known as the "variants" who are the baddest of the bunch. Which include, but are not limited to, a big muscle bound lummox who can rip your head off with his bare hands, a crazy doctor with a mutilation obsession and a pair of naked twins with machetes who stalk their prey calmly, slowly and quietly. 

Outlast is the survival horror experience I've been waiting for. While some of the core elements can get repetitive and the game can get frustrating at times, overall it was a refreshing experience for someone like me who loves survival horror and games that scare you in genuine, horrific ways. 

My Rating: 9/10

Now, on to Whistleblower... 

The events of Whistleblower overall take place before, during and after the events of the core game. It revolves around Waylon Park, an engineer who signed a 2-week contract with Murkoff to help perform maintenance on the Morphogenic Engine. But Waylon becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the unethical experiments taking place at Mount Massive Asylum and thus sends out the email that Miles receives in the core game, leading him to the asylum. But Waylon is discovered and admitted to the asylum as punishment... and it is not long after this that all hell breaks loose and Miles shows up to witness the aftermath.

Compared to the core game, Whistleblower is significantly shorter but the the creepiness of the inmates and the intensity of the gore and overall morbid tone gets turned up a few notches. But this doesn't necessarily make it better. Part of what made Outlast so amazing was the tone it set, and the fact that you had to sneak around in fear of being discovered in a never ending, heart-pounding game of cat & mouse. Whereas, while Whisletblower does have a few of these sections, it's overall tone is more action oriented. I'm assuming because it's right around the time the shit hits the fan and all the inmates rare running loose. But that doesn't explain why it's STILL like that later in (at one point the game fast forwards 12 hours and there's still a linear chase scene like something out of an action movie). Overall, not much can be said about Whistleblower as it's still part of Outlast but it's worth noting that while the core elements are the same, the tone is slightly different. And let it be known that The Groom is one of the creepiest villains in gaming.          

My Rating: 8/10                          

Thursday, June 5, 2014

"Thief" Review

I hadn't played the original Thief games on the PC but I had heard good things, and since I needed more PS4 games to play, I turned my attention towards Thief. I'm a huge fan of stealth games and one where you can jump across rooftops looting guards and then taking them down sounded like a fun, first-person Assassin's Creed. But is this gritty reboot one that will steal the hearts of fans? Or is it a failed mission that will leave you hanging in the gallows? 

Let's find out...

Thief, at it's core, is mainly about a supposed "master" Thief named Garrett who will steal anything that isn't nailed down. One night he's out on a mission with his friend and then some stuff happens and... well that's about all I can remember. Thief does not have a very interesting or compelling story, if anything it's very confusing and jumpy at times. The gist is that some bad stuff happens and some very rich people are involved with some cult and get their hands on a powerful shard that is supposed to control people and instead makes them crazy and Garrett just happens to get mixed up in all of it by doing what he does best: stealing.

Even the game is confused by itself. I won't spoil anything but right around chapter 3 it almost completely changes genres, and while this added a bit of excitement to an otherwise dull experience for me, some more frail-hearted players will probably not enjoy it so much.  

The shoddy voice acting and wooden characters do nothing to help the lack of interest in the narrative whatsoever. The main character shows a lack of emotion as if he's simply nothing more than a robot programmed to steal things and that's about it. 

Story and characters aside though, the gameplay is where Thief is redeemable. While it's nothing to get super excited over, the gameplay was fun enough that it kept me going until I finished it. Especially during the second half of the game where things get more action oriented. But even before that, just roaming the streets, stealing stuff and confusing guards was fun. One of my favorite things to do was douse a fire using a water arrow and then knock them out as they go to relight it. It can also be fun and satisfying to watch an arrow you shot from far away penetrate a guard's jaw line as the camera zooms in Skyrim style. 

The gameplay is pretty fun but the melee combat leaves much to be desired. I understand this is a stealth game but there are some areas where getting caught basically means certain death if you don't run and hide or find a way to kill all the guards chasing you. The guards are so insanely overpowered that fighting them is futile, especially when you're outnumbered. This is especially the case in later chapters when enemies get an insane strength boost. I feel sorry for anyone attempting to do an entire playthough without killing anyone or getting caught. Especially on the highest difficulty. I'd rather rub the skin off my hand with a cheese grater and stick it in a bowl of alcohol and Epson salt.

I don't have much to say about this game therefore this will be a short review. To be honest, it was fun for what it was and the gameplay was enjoyable, if a bit frustrating at times but the sub-par story and crappy acting hold it back and make it less enjoyable. However, Thief is okay in it's own right, and while not a horrible game, it's certainly no Dishonored, which is a much better game in this genre. Thief is at least worth a rental and one playthrough I'd say.

Overall, my rating: 6/10    


Saturday, May 17, 2014

"inFAMOUS: Second Son" Review

Warning: This Review will contain spoilers for inFAMOUS 1 and 2

Back in 2009, Sucker Punch introduced us to a new franchise on the PlayStation 3. The game was called inFAMOUS and it was innovative for it's time. An open world game where you get electricity powers and can choose to use them for good or evil. It was awesome and it quickly gained popularity. It's now been five years since the release of the first game and the third installment in the franchise is here, with new powers, a new city and a new cast of characters, how well does this newcomer hold up to it's predecessors? Let's find out. 

inFAMOUS: Second Son follows the story of Delsin Rowe, a fun-loving delinquent who's older brother is a cop. The two of them, being of Native American heritage, live on a settlement outside of Seattle. For the most part, their life is peaceful aside from brotherly feuds. Until one day, a chance encounter with a runaway conduit changes everything. Delsin comes face to face with Augustine, a conduit hating tyrant who will use any means necessary to get what she wants, including leaving Delsin's entire village in painful disarray. Now, armed with smoke powers and a thirst for vengeance, Delsin travels with Reggie to Seattle to seek out Augustine and get her to right her wrongs.

Second Son borrows heavily from inFAMOUS 2 in terms of controls, gameplay, feel, AI interaction, and karma side quests, while also adding it's own unique twist and variety of extra gameplay elements. It also takes the elements introduced in the second game and improves upon them. For example, in Second Son you can completely eliminate enemy control of the district by completing all side quests, finding all blast shards, and then making a prank call to summon them to your location and take them all down with ease. It adds variety and replayability to the game, making for satisfying post-game content as well.

Another element introduced in inFAMOUS 2 and expanded upon in Second Son is having more than one power. While inFAMOUS 2 only gave you one extra power (fire or ice) depending on which karmic path you took, Second Son gives you a grand total of 4 powers and I won't spoil what the last two are, but smoke and neon were advertised and I must say, the neon power is amazing. Especially after it can be upgraded to have endless run, you can hold the circle button and run non-stop through the city like The Flash making travel between side quests much less of a chore. transitioning between powers is as simple as finding a source in the city and holding down the touch pad to drain from it. This way you can easily switch powers even during mid battle to heal yourself and unleash a flurry of differing attacks to keep your enemies on their toes.

While we're on the subject, let's talk upgrades. Second Son has by far the most painless upgrade system of all three games. While the previous games required you to earn experience points by defeating enemies and doing stunts, in Second Son you use blast shards to upgrade powers and the blast shards themselves are extremely easy to find. All of them show up on your map and are attached to these flying drones that you have to shoot down, or, once you destroy a DUP HQ at lest five blast shards will come flying out of it for your draining pleasure. There's also just enough blast shards in the game to fully upgrade every power, so it's very possible to fully upgrade your current power, then stock up on blast shards and when you get the next power you can immediately upgrade it.

Another thing Second Son does right is implementing the Dualshock 4's nifty features. For example, one of the many side quests in the game is spraying the sides of buildings with stencil art, or graffiti if you will. During this process you hold the controller sideways and shake it up like a spray can, then hold R2 and use the sixaxis motion controls to spray the wall. Other implementations include phone calls being heard through the dualshock 4's built-in speaker, swiping on the touch pad to open doors and the controller's light bar changing color and density to match your karma level. While some cynical people may consider these features to be gimmicks and poor justifications for features Sony implemented that they might consider unnecessary, I personally found them to be fun and impressive and felt like they added to the experience.

I held off on this review until after the game's major patch mainly because I wanted to talk a bit about photo mode. Photo Mode, which was added to the game via patch a few weeks after release, is essentially a freeze frame tool that lets you pause the action and then take a lovely screenshot using a multitude of tweaks such as changing the distance, adjusting the angle and even adding filters Instagram style. It's certainly one of the better additions to a game I've seen via patch.

One of the other cool features of Second Son involving content push via internet is a weekly series of side quests called Paper Trail. It revolves around you chasing down a mysterious Origami conduit between murder sites while finding clues. The most interesting part of this however, is the online connectivity it involves. If you link your PSN account with you can take a closer look at some of the clues you find as well as take quizzes and learn more about conduits and you can earn karma points that transfer into the game.

Now, I can't talk much about Second Son's story without spoiling anything, but I will say it was very enjoyable and I liked both the good and evil ending. The characters that you run into however seem kind of stereotypical for the specific roles they play in the game. All the good guys (that's assuming you're playing with good karma) are delinquents, misfits and outcasts who were bullied or wronged in life in some way and now they have powers with which to exact their revenge. It's almost as if Sucker Punch wants you to be evil, of course the name of the game "inFAMOUS" kind of gives that away. But player-driven choices are an element in games I'm particularly found of, especially when they give you reason to go back and play it again. However, unlike it's predecessors, Second Son's karmic system seems less on a scale of good vs evil and more like nice guy vs a-hole.

There are few things about Second Son that bother me, but they're there nonetheless. While the story is amazing and I found myself caring about the characters and what happens, especially during the second half of the game, I couldn't help but feel it was surprisingly short. I mean, the game is jam packed full of content but if one was to play from start to finish doing only story missions, it would take a few hours at most. Of course, the game makes up for this by making it difficult to succeed without upgrading powers first and by locking you out of specific story missions until you destroy the nearest DUP HQ. So, in a way, they force longer gameplay time. The other thing that bothered me is that if the good ending of inFAMOUS 2 is considered canonical, how are there still conduits? If I recall correctly, Cole's sacrifice was supposed to eliminate all conduits and effectively put a stop to this ridiculous war. Maybe there's something I'm missing.

Anyways, overall an amazing game, arguably the best PS4 exclusive right now with a few minor hiccups.

My rating: 8/10      

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Benefits of Gaming: Science Doesn’t Lie

For decades people have used the media as a scapegoat when it comes to finding reasons for misbehavior in teenagers and children. While it is true that some games (such as Grand Theft Auto V) exist solely for entertainment purposes and are extremely violent in content and nature, these types of games are not meant for people under seventeen anyways and most of the blame lies with the parents for blatantly ignoring the video game rating system (games rated M for mature should never be purchased for anyone under seventeen years of age). Yet, due to ignorance, misinformation and misconceptions, the video games themselves are unnecessarily demonized. The truth however is that, while not all video games necessarily fall under this category, many video games—including some of the more violent ones—can be and are beneficial in many differing ways.

One of the most popular genres of video games is the First Person Shooter (FPS). FPS games, as the name implies, present the player with a camera angle from the perception of the character they are controlling, thus creating a more realistic scenario. The player has more limited visibility compared to that of third-person games where the camera floats behind the character the player is controlling and they can see more around them. This requires the player’s cognitive reflexes to be utilized more often. FPS games require a more heightened level of alertness due to the limited field of vision. Players must be able to focus on their surroundings so as not to become an easy target for enemies that may be lurking nearby. The player can only really see what is in front of them and therefore has to use their peripheral to pay attention to events happening in other areas of the game. This leads to a higher spatial resolution in visual processing, a more accurate attention allocation and enhanced mental rotation abilities. Due to games like this, gamers are able to utilize their neural resources more efficiently, which basically means that their brains don’t have to work as hard at problem solving as those of non-gamers.

When it comes to video games, there’s no shortage of puzzles. It’s actually very commonplace in today’s video games for developers to place some kind of brain teasing dilemma in the player’s path. Even action oriented games such as God of War contain sections that require the player to overcome some form of mind bending obstacle using a complex mixture of levels, movable blocks, falling platforms, rotating blades, balance beams and more. While sometimes the puzzles can be as simple as a sliding puzzle or memory matching, often times they are more complex and require high levels of logic and/or math. Some games were designed specifically for cognitive reasons; as Daphne Bavelier and Richard J. Davidson note in their article Games to do you good:
Because gaming is clearly here to stay, some scientists are asking how to channel people’s love of screen time towards positive effects on the brain and behaviour [sic] by designing video games specifically intended to train particular aspects of behavior and brain function. One game, for example, aims to treat depression by introducing cognitive behavioural [sic] therapy while users fight off negative thoughts in a fantasy world. (Daphne Bavelier and Richard J. Davidson 425).
Many games will present the player with difficult puzzles during intense situations (such as with a time limit or while being shot at). This forces the player to use quick puzzle solving skills under pressure and can be very beneficial for when faced with equally tasking obstacles in real life situations. There are also many games where the core gameplay is mainly focused around puzzle solving. A lot of the “point and click” Nancy Drew type adventure games usual have a plot revolving around a crime or murder mystery that challenges plays with both puzzles and problem solving skills.

Believe it or not, video games can bring out our emotional side. Many games these days are well written and could very well be mistaken for an interactive movie at times. A lot of naysayers will attempt to sully this concept by insisting that showing emotion towards, or caring for a bunch of zeroes and ones is folly. However, this is far from the case. Video game developers hire writers with movie-script level writing expertise to ensure their games have stories that are deep, intriguing, complex and engaging, with characters that are memorable, interesting, easily to get emotionally attached to and feel almost real, not like they’re just some robot in a fantasy world. On this same note, a lot of developers have included in their games, a feature that leaves much of the story in the player’s hands. In certain games players are faced with situations where they must make a choice, and most of the time this is not an easy choice to make. They are often choices that are morally difficult and have extreme consequences one way or the other. While it’s highly unlikely that the player will ever be faced with a situation where they have to choose whether or not to let their close friend sacrifice themselves to save a whole species, these simulated experiences can help prepare players for difficult decision making situations when faced with them in real life by giving them experience with difficult decision making.

While it’s true that video games are almost always based entirely in fantasy, a lot of them use historically accurate people, places, and events within the fantasy. There’s a dash of non-fiction mixed in with the fiction. Take Assassin’s Creed for example. The main plot of the franchise is that you’re a man named Desmond Miles who has been kidnapped by this company named Abstergo. They force you into this machine known as the Animus which is basically an extremely advanced virtual reality machine that lets you relive the memories of your ancestors as if you were actually there. All of Desmond’s ancestors are assassins, a group of skilled and stealthy hit men whose sole purpose is to defeat the Templars and protect the freedoms of the innocent civilians. During the franchise you travel to varying time periods such as renascence Italy or colonial America and you meet famous historic figures such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Blackbeard, King Richard III and Cesare Borgia. In one of the games you take part in the Boston Tea Party and the Battle of Bunker Hill. Other games have also had their fair share of historically accurate events. Medal of Honor, much like the movie Saving Private Ryan opens with the boats approaching the beach during the invasion of Normandy on June 6th, 1944. Many of the Call of Duty games take place during World War II. This is not to say that gamers should gain all of their knowledge from video games, they are after all fiction. However, players can take away certain aspects of the history and education presented in these games and may even find that they learned something.

On November 19th, 2006 Nintendo released the Wii. It was an interesting concept for its time. Mainly because it was the first system to really push motion controls. A lot of people wanted nothing to do with it. The main purpose of video games is to help people unwind and no one was looking forward to coming home from a long day of work or school and flailing their arms about like an air traffic control man covered in spiders. Well, regardless of all the initial hate and skepticism, the Wii actually was very successful, and thus began a new era of exercise games and motion control peripherals. Nintendo started pushing out games like WiiFit and Sports Resort to help encourage kids to stand up and move around while playing video games in order to get exercise. Even games as simple as Zelda were better played while standing as the player had to swing their arm around to swing Link’s sword. Years down the road PlayStation introduced the PlayStation Move controller. It was essentially a much improved Wiimote with more accurate 1:1 tracking technology and 3D realistic movement. As another stab at Nintendo, PlayStation also released their own sports game and started making the Move compatible with other games such as High Velocity Bowling. Games like Just Dance soon followed and now PlayStation and Nintendo fans alike were getting off their rears and being active (at least, some of us were). Xbox soon followed suit and tried to one-up both competitors by releasing a motion control device without a controller. Thus, the Kinect was born. Nothing more than a simple multi-lens camera, the Kinect allowed players to control games with nothing more than movements and voice commands. Players would also be able to control their entire Xbox 360 and pretend they’re in Minority Report. Much like the other two, Kinect also received sports games, party games, and games and applications meant for exercise. “There is some evidence that people who regularly play active video games can improve different components of their fitness, particularly cardiovascular fitness.” (Mark, Rachel, and Ryan E. Rhodes 2). The stereotype that video games make kids fat and lazy can be safely squashed. There are plenty of ways to play video games and stay active, it’s all a matter of taking initiative.

There will never be a shortage of people quick to place the blame on inanimate objects every time something bad happens. The likes of FOX News and certain religious organizations will always find ways to take something good and attempt to make it look bad instead of focusing on the real issues. When a child acts out, or a student commits a school setting, TV, movies and video games are not the first things people should look at, rather they should be looking at factors such as mental health, upbringing, and environment. While it’s true that children are impressionable, at certain ages they should not have access to these things anyways. Twelve year old children should not be playing Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto. There are ratings and guidelines for a reason. A parent would not take their pre-teen to an R rated movie and therefore should not buy them an M rated game. The problem is not the video games themselves, as we’ve seen here they are more beneficial than anything, the problem is ignorance and lack of caring. Parents either don’t know what the ratings mean or do but don’t care because video games make a good babysitter for them. Video games are technology, and it’s amazing to see how far we have come since the days of Pong and Pac-Man. Rather than fearing the unknown, we should be embracing the progression of society and the things we are capable of creating. Many people, some young, some old, make a living off creating, playing, drawing, selling, marketing, and even talking about the wide array of entertainment known as video games. Sure, it’s not for everyone, but the people with a lack of interest in it should at the very least be supportive of those whom enjoy it and not pass harsh judgment for reasons that are clearly based on falsified information.     

Works Cited
Bavelier, Daphne, and Richard J. Davidson. "Brain Training: Games To Do You Good." Nature 494.7438 (2013): 425-426. Academic Search Premier. Web. 6 May 2014.  
Mark, Rachel, and Ryan E. Rhodes. "Active Video Games: A Good Way To Exercise?." Wellspring 20.4 (2009): 1-4. Academic Search Premier. Web. 6 May 2014.    

My Ex-SPHERO-ence with Sphero 2.0 (And Ellipsis 7)

Recently I had the pleasure of testing out Orbotix Sphero 2.0, a somewhat self-aware robotic orb that responds to commands given via an application downloaded to Android or iOS devices. I was able to test out this device using the the Verizon Ellipsis 7 Tablet. The Tablet itself, I feel is also worth mentioning, but as this article is mainly about Sphero, I will save that for post script. 

The device itself is pretty self explanatory. A semi-lightweight ball with a weighted motor inside and the ability to light up different colors. The device comes with a charging station, a quick start guide, and two ramps with which to perform jumps once you ca get Sphero up to high speeds. The orb is also built to withstand impact on hard surfaces. I was very pleased with the design and stability of the device. It was clearly built to withstand abuse. 

Setting up the device is simple enough. After downloading the main app for Sphero (there are a lot of different apps for Sphero, each one being a different game, but not all are by Orbotix) you simply activate bluetooth on your device and wake up Sphero by double tapping him, then Sphero and the device communicate with each other, and if done right, you should see your Sphero's name pop up on the device screen (mine was SPHERO-BOB). 

Once connected, the fun begins. From this point you are given the options of free play or leveling up. Free play lets you just freely drive Sphero around, holding the tablet sideways and using a plethora of touch controls. There's a directional pad that controls much like a joystick, a direction calibrator for when Sphero doesn't want to move in the right direction, a speed control, boost, and different tricks Sphero can do, such as dance, jump, and strobe.

In level up mode, you take Sphero through different missions to earn points and ultimately, level him up. These points can be redeemed for new tricks, increased speed, abilities, etc. that can be carried over to free play mode. The missions vary in type and difficult and consist of things like driving Sphero around at a certain speed for one minute, purposely running Sphero into things so he can get a feel for his environment, and searching for imaginary drop points so Sphero can pick up supplies. Some of these games were surprisingly difficult while others were overly simplistic. More often than not, however, there was a fair balance and nothing was so extreme one way or the other that it diluted any fun I had with the device. 

Overall I was pretty happy with my Sphero experience. The setup was easy and the controls were easy to learn, however a bit clunky at times. Often times Sphero would not go the direction I wanted him to, even after re-calibration. My nephew discovered that you can change the controls from touch to tilt. Meaning you can use the Tablet's built-in gyroscope to control Sphero simply by tilting the tablet in the corresponding direction. I found this to actually be easier than using the touch screen.

In conclusion, I had fun with Sphero. It's a nice little device, with a few minor hiccups, that you can spend hours driving around and playing mini-games. I will definitely be picking one of these up in the future. Perhaps I will even purchase two so I can have head-to-head battles with my friends. Oh yeah, it does that too.

p.s. The Ellipsis 7 tablet is one of the best I have ever used. It is fast and sleek. The picture quality is amazing, and the 4G speed was flawless and worked everywhere. The only downside was that the tablet had a designated section of memory reserved for apps, and that space was not sufficient. However, a firmware update added the option to move so much of the data from certain apps to the tablet space, thus freeing up storage space in the app section. Overall, amazing little tablet. It's petite size and lightweight stature makes it optimal for travel and storage without degrading the HD quality of  video programming. This is a great tablet for those on a budget.                


Wednesday, April 30, 2014

PlayStation Announced a Bunch of Indies Today, And Here They All Are

Skulls of the Shogun
Jamestown Plus
Starwhal: Just the Tip
Ironclad Tactics
Escape Goat 2
Axiom Verge

I will keep the list updated as more games are announced.

"South Park: The Stick of Truth" Review

As a long time fan of South Park, I was super excited when The Stick of Truth was announced. Here we are now, after three years of delays and THQ shutting down and the game has finally released; but was it worth the wait? 

The short answer is "absolutely!" The long answer is this review. 

South Park: The Stick of Truth is a turn-based RPG with open world exploration, character customization, and some hints of QTE (Quick Time Events). The story revolves around the New Kid (that's you) moving to South Park with his parents, in the hopes that this "quiet little mountain town" will bring them some peace. Ha! Not likely. It doesn't take long for Cartman to catch wind of the New Kid's arrival and send Butters to fetch him so that he may recruit him to his side of the imaginary war all the neighborhood kids are taking part in. The children all don their fantasy costumes from the Black Friday Trilogy and fight each other over control of the Stick of Truth (which is, of course, just a stick). It sounds simple enough, but from there things get complicated. The story becomes a convoluted mess, the likes of which only South Park can pull off, involving aliens, Taco Bell, the government and the power of farts.

Stick of Truth's gameplay is akin to that of more classic open-world RPG. You play as the "new kid" whom you customize in the tradition of games like Skyrim and Dragon Age, and who is lovingly dubbed "Douchebag" regardless of what name you give him. Once you have met with the grand wizard, chosen you character class (being Fighter, Mage, Thief or Jew) and been given a name, you finally set off for adventure!

 During the game you spend a major portion of time wandering around the town of South Park, communicating with the locals, completing side quests, making friends on what appears to be a Facebook knockoff, and engaging in battle with random NPCs.

During your travels you will see enemies ranging from other kids, to Mongolians to even aborted Nazi Zombie fetuses. Battles are engaged when either you or the enemy attacks. Attacking enemies on the field gives a slight advantage in the beginning of battle. From there the battles play out in a traditional turn-based manner. The player controls the New Kid and their current companion and chooses from a variety of options such as Attack, Abilities, Magic, Summon and Items. What separates this game from most traditional RPGs, however is that once an action is selected, a button prompt must be successfully executed during the battle animation to ensure maximum damage. If the player fails to hit the button at the right moment, then they do less damage, sometimes the lessened damage is so annoyingly insignificant that you might as well have not even attacked to begin with. Outside of regular attacks, there are special moves each character has that consume PP (power points). These attacks usually consist of buffs, de-buffs or area attacks. Of course, most of this is fueled by the children's imaginations so certain attacks are improvised. For example, Cartman is a wizard, but his elemental attacks are by no means magical. Fire is produced by farting on a lighter and electricity is triggered by the anti-cursing V-Chip that was installed in him. You can also summon certain characters you have earned by completing side quests, but they can only be used once a day and cannot be used in boss battles. A particularly annoying setback that is given no explanation or justification. It just is what it is.  

Douchebag's power attacks are entirely dependent on what class you chose for him in the beginning of the game. However, Douchebag possesses a special ability no one else does. The ability to control his farts. This is where magic comes in. In honor of South Park's never dying cesspool of juvenile comedy, all magic attacks are some varying form of flatulence, the most powerful of which is tastelessly, yet hilariously named "Nagasaki". The only complaint I have about the battle system, aside from the unneeded timed button presses, is that you can only have one companion at a time. This means your battles are always limited to two people on your team and anywhere from 1-10 people on the enemy team. this adds an unnecessary extra difficulty to the game and can often make perfecting strategy a bit tedious. This is especially the case in boss battles.

The menu screen in Stick of Truth is worth a review of it's own. No stone was left un-turned here. When you open the menu you're first greeted by a Facebook-esque social networking site and status updates from everyone you've made friends with in town. This itself is worth hours of time wasted just reading funny status updates from everyone in town. The menu is also where players can upgrade Doucebag's abilities, learn new skills and equip new weapons and armor.  

South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone had a huge hand in making the game and it shows. Everything fans love about the show is alive and well in the game. In fact, the game is so much like the show there were times during cut scenes that I forgot I was even playing a game. If it wasn't for the uncensored cursing and excessive nudity, and of course the parts that actually look like a video game, you'd hardly be able to tell the difference. Being a video game, Stick of Truth gets away with a lot more than the show ever could, while still staying true to it's roots. The game itself appears to be canon and more or less a direct sequel to the Black Friday Trilogy. There's numerous references and continuities from past episodes of the show to support this theory. This is arguably one of the best games based off a licensed franchise to date (with the exception of maybe the Batman Arkham games). All the delays were clearly worth it because the game is polished, fun, enjoyable and well executed. A near perfect experience with some minor hiccups. While the main story may be relatively short, players can get lost for hours exploring South Park and the surrounding area (I won't spoil anything but I particularly enjoyed the Canada section for nostalgic reasons), and I highly suggest doing so because the only way to truly experience all the game has to offer and to meet every character there is to meet, you must frequently venture away from the main road and take the beaten path. Even with 10+ hours of gameplay I STILL haven't met every character and done everything there is to do. I'm looking forward to a second playthrough.

My Rating: 9/10