All posts by Mark Smith

I've been an avid gamer since I stumbled upon ZORK running in my local Radio Shack in 1980. Ten years later I was working for Sierra Online. Since then I've owned nearly every game system and most of the games to go with them. Not sure if 40 years of gaming qualifies me to write reviews, but I do it anyway.

Storm Review – PlayStation 3

Storm is one of those indie games I would expect to play on the PC – and the game is available on PC/Steam for those who do – but for some reason the code that arrived for our review was for the PS3. No worries though, as there is no real difference between console and PC aside from some slightly improved graphics and textures on the PC version and possibly better control with the mouse. This environmental physics and weather based puzzle games is just as original, entertaining, and addictive on any of its available formats. I truly hope a Vita version is in the works, as this game would be perfect for that system.

Storm takes you through the various seasons with a singular goal – maneuver a rather large seed from one tree to its ultimate destination using nothing but weather. Along the way you can create other trees (checkpoints) in fertile patches of soil. The PS3 version can be played using the PS Move or the controller, both of which have their own issues, but either gets the job done. I ended up using the DualShock for the most part. Moving the cursor around with the analog stick is a bit sluggish and it’s easy to see how a mouse (or a PS Move) would offer faster and more direct input.

So, using wind to blow your seed, rain to float your seed or carry it downhill in a post-shower runoff, or lightning to zap your seed causing it to jump over gaps and obstacles, creates a lot of unique potential for puzzle creation and thoughtful gameplay. You aren’t always locked into one specific solution, but given the confines of the rules and the available elements for each level, your options are a bit limited. Weather also affects and changes your landscape. Lightning strikes can break away loose rocks creating openings or filling in pits with rubble. Lightning can also cause brush to catch fire, which can then be spread using wind to clear away dry obstacles. Water can flood over air vents creating bubbles that can capture and float your seed to new areas – you can even maneuver those bubbles with careful use of the wind.

There are 48 puzzles spread across the four seasons and despite a few post-puzzle hints there is very little instruction or clues provided and no real story – not that I was expecting one…it’s a seed after all. There are numerous ways to “screw up” a puzzle that, even restarting from a checkpoint can’t fix; some your fault and others resulting from a slightly flawed and overly exaggerated physics engine. As the levels get longer and more complicated simply warping your seed out of a dead-end pit won’t respawn other necessary pieces of the puzzle that have been moved or eliminated up to that point.

The visuals are quite pleasing; even soothing at times and I loved the way the storm clouds rolled in and the backgrounds darkened whenever you activated the appropriate weather effect. Textures are nicely detailed and there are seamlessly integrated effects and animations. Even the menus are nice. The music by Terence Lee is ethereal in quality creating this naturalistic ambience that is only shattered by the clap of thunder, the howling of wind, or the trickling of water.

Storm will really tax your problem-solving skills in a whole new way as you take control over the forces of nature to move a not-so-tiny seed across increasingly more complicated landscapes in four distinct seasons. It’s a great game for the whole family – even played together – and works just as well with the PS Move as a gamepad. Free Mode offers up a time trial experience adding some competition and replay, and the Spirit Mode adds collectibles to each level that you must collect before time runs out. Storm offers countless hours of Zen-like meditative gameplay and challenging puzzle-solving for those willing to master the elements. So go plant a tree…

Tomb Raider Review – PC

It’s rather poetic that the latest Tomb Raider game, simply titled “Tomb Raider”, is not only a reboot of the franchise but also an origin story for one of gaming’s most beloved and iconic heroines, Lara Croft. In many ways Game Chronicles “origin story” is uniquely tied to this game as Lara is singlehandedly responsible for the very website on which you are reading this review. Back in 1996, just as the Internet was making its way to the general public I started creating interactive HTML strategy guides and Tomb Raider was my first. Tomb Raider sequels followed and so did my guides, then I branched off into other game guides and then reviews, all leading up to today; where thirty-some strategy guides and 5000-plus game reviews later has evolved into my own little carved niche on the Internet and hopefully gaming history. Thanks Lara.

After a half-dozen installments in the Tomb Raider franchise the gameplay and even the novelty of a female heroine was starting to wear thin; even for this diehard fan. It was getting progressively harder to slog through cookie cutter sequels that had Lara doing pretty much the same thing, only in different places. Thankfully, rather than toss just another new adventure on the heap, Crystal Dynamics decided to reboot and slightly reinvent, not only the character, but also the core gameplay. Gone is the busty acrobat capable of killing a thousand men and endangered species while dashing and tumbling through exotic levels like an Olympic gymnast. This time we meet and play Lara Croft, the girl, on one of her first major adventures; a journey that will not only shape the character and morals of a relatively innocent young girl, but hopefully inspire and shape a new future of sequels that will flourish with as much success as her existing works.

Tomb Raider opens with a brief, yet informative, opening movie that ends with Lara being shipwrecked on a dangerous island, and ultimately being strung upside-down; a prisoner doomed to an uncertain fate. Thus begins the tutorial and your introduction to the new world of Tomb Raider. To be perfectly clear, the first 20-30 minutes of the game is by no means representative of what follows. The linear, on-rails, QTE sequence might make for a great E3 demo but it makes a lousy first impression. All I can say is “stick with it”, because it won’t be long before the game evolves into something much more next-gen and much more entertaining.

Tomb Raider is part Survivor, and part Lost, with Lara setting up various base camps that can be used to regroup and even “quick-travel” across the massive Yamatai Island. From there she will need to find food and supplies just to stay alive, but the more she explores this island, the more trouble, mystery, and danger rise to the surface. Standard adventure staples are in play from the beginning with loads of collectibles that will have completionists backtracking to previous section of the island in search of GPS markers, relics, documents, and sinister targets dangling from trees. These aren’t crucial to finishing the game but are paramount to your ultimate enjoyment of it.

There is a surprisingly emotional component to Lara as we witness her kill her first deer, an emotional conflict that grows exponentially when she kills her first human. It’s a refreshing take on the devil-may-care violence in today’s games and even Lara’s previous adventures where she blasted her way through hundreds of men and endangered wildlife in search of treasure. Now, she’s fighting for her life and it’s kill or be killed, but there are visible signs of remorse and even hesitation.

An interesting and evolving skill tree underlies the core adventure and allows the player and Lara to rise to the increasing challenges and demands of the island as you dive deeper into the story. You’ll be earning XP for just about everything you do, and this can be spent on various skills that shape Lara into a mixture of Survivor, Hunter, and Brawler. You pick the path and the skills that determine how you ultimately play the game. This RPG-like progression along with the traditional adventure game item collection is cleverly and seamlessly integrated into the narrative and gameplay, so you are never taken out of the fiction.

With violence thrust upon her, Lara must quickly learn to master her combat skills, and the game provides many opportunities to do so, but you are always free to explore various methods and tactics. Sure, you can go in guns blazing, but you can also take the more stealthy approach, sneaking around and dispatching enemies one by one with a silent takedown or a ranged arrow attack. Bows have become an increasing popular and recurring theme in video games as of late, but none handle the weapon with as much expertise as Tomb Raider. Gun play and even hand-to-hand combat all enhance the experience and help mix things up, but they aren’t the focus of Tomb Raider; merely just another facet of survival.

Comparisons have been made to the Uncharted series of games on the PS3 and rightly so. At first and even second glance there are numerous similarities to Lara and Nathan’s games, in setting, style, and even gameplay to a certain degree, but Nathan is more of that macho super-hero adventurer whereas Lara is just a girl trying to stay alive; and that core underscore sets a serious tone for the entire game – a level of tension and desperation you just don’t get in Drake’s adventures. Much of this is driven home through the numerous and horrific ways in which Lara can (and probably will) die during the course of the game.

And much like Uncharted, Tomb Raider also comes with its own completely unnecessary and failed attempt at multiplayer. There are four modes, none of them particularly fun or engaging assuming you can find anyone even playing them. Rescue and Cry for Help are objective-based team games and Survivor merely pits two teams against one another. Free for All is your standard deathmatch mode; all of which are entirely out of place for the game and the franchise. If you must have multiplayer, at least keep it within the theme of the game and have players racing through dangerous landscapes toward a treasure – kind of like Survivor meets the Amazing Race.

Despite a shaky pre-credit title sequence and its failed attempt at multiplayer, Tomb Raider succeeds on just about every other level with stunning sound and music design, incredible voice acting, especially by the new Lara Croft, and easily the best graphics you’ll find on any PC game in 2013. On a high-end PC the graphics range from stunning to breathtaking with so much detail in the environments, smooth realistic animations, and outstanding motion and facial capture performances. Tomb Raider is one of those rare games that is nearly as much fun to watch being played as it is to play it yourself.

Tomb Raider has not only set the bar incredible high for itself, as it prepares to launch what is hopefully a string of successors as immersive, challenging, and fun as the first, but also sets the new standard by which all action-adventure games will be measured for this and the next generation. Congratulations to Crystal Dynamics for having the vision to try something new and actually succeeding in creating an evolutionary masterpiece that is easily one of our first nominees for 2013 Game of the Year.

Monaco: What’s Yours Is Mine Review – PC

As the PC continues to overtake consoles and dominate the world of gaming, one thing is clear; indie game developers are leading the charge and games like Monaco: What’s Yours Is Mine are the reason that consoles, as we know them, will be extinct within five years. And it’s not that games like Monaco can’t or don’t exist on consoles – this one managed to make it onto the Xbox 360 – but it is much easier to develop, market, release, and maintain your game in the PC world than it is on console, which is why the PC and Steam continue to offer the largest selection of games for the widest range of gamers.

But all editorial hyperbole aside, Monaco is one of the more addictive games I have played this year; a clever little indie heist game with graphics that fall somewhere between Atari 2600 and Commodore 64 in quality but gameplay that rivals anything you might pick up off the $60 shelf at your local game store. Monaco works great as a solo stealth adventure and even manages to provide an entertaining story, but the game – by design – clearly works best as a four-player cooperative endeavor. Steam even offers the game in a discounted four-pack so you can bring your friends along online, but honestly, the game works best as one of those very rare four-player couch co-op experiences.

Monaco plays out like your favorite heist movie; in fact movie aficionados will spot classic homages to their favorite films. You assemble your crack team of bandits, choosing from a roster of eight characters, each with their own specialty that will complement the team and determine the success of your next big boost. With characters like the Locksmith, the Lookout, the Pickpocket, the Cleaner, the Mole, the Hacker, the Gentleman, and the Redhead, variety is the spice of life when it comes to Monaco, and you’ll be playing this 30 missions over and over again because they never unfold the same way twice. Each challenge and puzzle can be approached in nearly infinite ways depending on the character or characters in your team and how you all work together combining your talents.

Clever game mechanics like line-of-sight make Monaco even more realistic than some modern day stealth games. Areas of the top-down map are only revealed when they are seen by the characters, so if you want to know what’s in that room you are going to have to open the door. Similarly, guards and security won’t be able to see you as long as you have something blocking their view. This all creates some very tension-filled, cat-and-mouse moments that can all turn quite chaotic when one or more of your team are spotted and alarms start going off, and you are running around into unexplored territory.

What the game lacks in next-gen graphics it more than makes up for with its score; a jazzy little compilation of classic 50’s and 60’s themes created by Austin Wintory; the Grammy-nominated composer who did the music for Journey. The way he seamlessly integrates the music into the gameplay, both in theme and pacing is pure perfection, and really sets the tone for the evolving gameplay.

Don’t let the retro graphics fool you. Monaco: What’s Yours Is Mine features some of the simplest concepts in gaming, yet its devilishly clever execution and addictive gameplay with daily leaderboard challenges will keep you coming back for countless hours. Monaco is a fantastic game when played alone and easily one of the best co-op games you can currently play on your PC, and if your friends are cheap just invite them over because, much like a board game, Monaco is even better when shared in the same room.

Bad Bots Review – PC

I’ll avoid all the bad puns about Bad Bots being a “bad game” and get to the core of this sad little indie sidescroller. I love retro games and I love indie games. I’m old enough to remember games like Commander Keen, and I’ve spent countless hours playing those games, so when I first saw Bad Bots I had some reasonable expectations, sadly, none of which were met.

Bad Bots deals with Sam McRae, the last human survivor on a ship loaded with robots bent on human extermination – insert your own Dalek impersonation here – only these bad bots are coming at you will guns loaded, as you must traverse 170 deadly rooms and survive encounters with more than 2000 cyborgs and seven deadly bosses all programmed to kill you. Sam has eight weapons including an Axe, Rifle, Shotgun, Grenade Launcher, Pulsar Gun, and a few others, as you slog your way through the 3-4 hours campaign mode, or try to survive a full 60 seconds in the Challenge Mode.

Controls can be a bit of an issue. The mouse and keyboard control scheme is far from functional but the gamepad is just as bad. Movement and jumping are nearly impossible to pull off, at least precision jumping as is required in nearly every other screen, since jumping is assigned to flicking the left movement stick rather than a button press. Expect a lot of unwanted jumping and a lot of not-jumping-when-you-wanted thanks to this horrible control scheme – something that could have easily been avoided by at least letting me customize my controls.

Bad Bots seems more at home as a budget iOS app rather than a game I’d expect to play on my HDTV, even with support for Steam Big Picture and a gamepad. Sadly, the game is just too boring and repetitive to be that much fun after the first 10-15 minutes. Smashing robots with melee weapons or shooting them full of holes with guns only gets you so far. Level design is basically a series of linear screens with obvious indications of how to proceed until it’s time to backtrack, and then the lack of any type of map turns Bad Bots into some navigational maze puzzle.

The visuals seldom vary which means rooms and especially robots start to all look alike. There may be 2000 robots to kill but they all come from a half-dozen stock models. You’ll find greater challenge and variety in the various traps and environmental hazards that await as you navigate the endless rooms and corridors. Even worse is the lack of music, which at first I thought was a problem with the game, but now that I know there is no music, no rhythmic driving force to keep my pulse beating and my eyelids open, Sam was doomed to die often, as I lapsed in and out of consciousness playing this game. In a world where indie game design is home to some of the best soundtracks out there, having no music in your game is criminal.

There might be one or two dollars of mindless (or mind-numbing) fun to be had with Bad Bots if it ever goes on sale or comes to a mobile platform, but there are hundreds of indie games out there for $10 and all of them are better than Bad Bots. In possible retro charm is just lost in repetitive level design, repetitive robots, repetitive gameplay, and poor presentation values. Save your time and money for something more rewarding.

Anno Online Review – PC

Anno Online has been in open beta for some time now. Since Blue Byte and Ubisoft have let their game out into the wild, Anno has seen additional features, streamlined mechanics and technical fixes that have come to create a strong experience in its genre. It still has a sort of high barrier of entry into the meat of the game and the complexity can be a little overwhelming for people not familiar with Anno games but it remains a very entertaining and social game. Before I get too far into a proper review of the game, let’s revisit what Anno Online is with an excerpt from my preview of the game:

The basic structure of an Anno game is this: you’re given a small piece of land and a base of operations. Pioneers are willing to move in and start making a living provided some simple needs are met, such as shelter and food. Building a fishing stall connected to your warehouse via a dirt road finishes your first production chain. Once satisfied, your new denizens want more goods and services which require more complex production chains, which lead to more refined citizens who have more complicated needs and so on. All of this must be squeezed into what never seems like enough space to begin with: you are granted a limited area in which to build your residences and production chains with additional parts of your island to be discovered over time. Balancing production capability and city planning has always been the special pleasure than the Anno franchise has provided.

That’s the Anno formula in a 150-word nutshell. Anno Online seeks to bring this gameplay to an online, social arena that lets you visit and trade with neighboring island chains and newly introduced guilds. Anno has always been about maximizing efficiency, so choosing who trade with and what to give and what to get is another piece of the economic game. And this is a game about economies: there is no combat…at all. No NPC barbarians or corsairs, no PvP, no espionage. Some number of early testers who had played similar games left the scene pretty quickly for the lack of competitive action. This is a game that appeals to the cerebral bits of your cerebellum; your amygdala will have to apply elsewhere for a frenetic fix.

So what’s new? Aforementioned guilds are the biggest new feature to the game. Guilds allow players to self-organize into groups to streamline communication and collaboration. At the moment, guild functionality is extremely basic. You have a building, a guild tag by your name, and a chat channel for your guild to use. Guilds also begin rather small, permitted 5 members upon inception and a few 5 member upgrades available for purchase (using in-game resources or real money currency) up to a maximum of 25 members. The development team promises an expansion of guild features as they are developed and tested, so be on the lookout for more content based around these organizations.

Mercifully the shipyard interface has seen some improvements and simplifications. Building ships and managing their various missions is essentially the second half of the game. Resources will be expended to produce ship parts and officers. Once you have a sufficient collection of parts to build a vessel out of, you’ll give the ship a job to do. Your ship can be an explorer searching out new islands to inhabit, a transporter to move building materials or finished products about your empire, even treasure hunters, a new addition to the job roster that sends ships out in search of resources and other goodies for your consumption.

So that’s what we’re looking at now, but what do we think about it? In a single line, we think highly of it, if you’re into this sort of thing, and you really have to be into this sort of thing. That second half of the game? Getting ships and islands and trade, that’s all locked behind the size of your city. As you produce goods and attract new types of citizens to your island home more gameplay features are unlocked, but the most engaging elements require at least a moderately sized city that will take the casual, once a day player at least a week to reach, especially if the Anno series is new to them. Many buildings and piles of resources can be purchased with rubies, the real money currency, but even a significant purchase still requires some time for everything to build and populate. Locking such an important part of the game behind a time requirement will put off many more potential players than it will make them want to open their wallets, but then Anno games never really strove for mass-market appeal. They have a niche and they know it very well.

As for the meat of the game, it remains as good as it was in May. The artistic elements are crisp and distinctive. The music is thematic, although a little repetitive. The addition of even two or three similar pieces of music would make for a nice change. The introduction of new elements and the progression of your economy is balanced and intuitive if a little drawn out compared to other similar games. I remain impressed by Blue Byte’s involvement in the community. They continue to run discussions and contests, they’ve opened a new spotlight feature on community team members and have applied to the fans to write guides for the game to be featured on the official forums. Devs and team members are in chat at all hours of the day gathering feedback and generally chattering with the players. Blue Byte’s care for their product is evident on all levels.

Anno Online is a great wind-down game. You’re not really headed anywhere, you’re not playing against anyone, you’re just making things happen and watching your economy unfold. It’s not a game that’s going to appeal to everyone and it isn’t even really going to try to. If you’ve got the stomach for the long game and you’ve always wanted to build a Zen garden that grows hemp and ships it off to trade for wine, this game is certainly worth a look.

Reviewed by Joshua Flack

Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara Review – PC

I didn’t get to go to the arcade a whole lot as a kid; there never seemed to be any good ones in the towns I lived in, but whenever the we went to a theme park or across country for a family vacation Dungeons and Dragons was always the one game I’d hoped to find. One of the last classic side-scroller beat-em-ups, Shadows Over Mystara was my rather late introduction to the Golden Age of the arcade, when “one more quarter” started giving way to home gaming and one more turn, one more mission, one more level. Dungeons and Dragons was a rock-solid, entertaining experience with friends or played alone and is again today with the multi-platform release of Dungeons and Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara.

Chronicles of Mystara is two games in a single package. The more polished, more widely distributed Shadows Over Mystara, originally released in arcades in 1996, is the flagship game of the pair supporting better graphics and gameplay, more characters and items and more choices, story, and a generally more complete experience. The other game of the pair is Tower of Doom, the first game of the Mystara campaign series released in 1993.

There are three things to look at when you play a game like this: the quality of the port, the wrapper Capcom has put around it, and the actual games. If you’re looking to purchase Chronicles of Mystara there is more than a good chance you’re already familiar with them and want a chance to play them again. For the inquisitive uninitiated, I’ll briefly tell you that they’re a great look back at arcade gaming as it was, especially if you can wrangle a few friends together, a USB hub and 4 controllers (sticks of you’ve got ‘em!), and a big screen TV, it’s a pleasant experience on its own but beat-em-up games have always been more fun while knocking elbows with your friends. Grab one of four or six classic fantasy classes, depending on the game, and stomp through a medieval world of mountains, sewers, underworlds and what have you smacking enemies with swords and maces, daggers and arrows, or lightning bolts and fireballs. There are some unique mechanical elements to beat-em-up games like inventory items, upgradeable weapons, spell books and artifacts with unique powers. The second game introduces a combo system for more tactical gameplay and engagement.

How well the game ported over to the modern world is a much more important question to ask. The answer for this one is “very well”. The animations and sounds are excellent, there is no visual jarring or tearing on the screen that you might see in lesser quality ports, and engine bugs are few; I only encountered one character stuck bug in about 8 hours of gameplay and it resolved itself after a few seconds. The port is stable and runs just like you’d want it to on a modern system. The only problem I had with the port was the default graphical filter. Retro ports these days love the smudge/soften filter and I cannot for the life of me figure out why. It makes the sprites look muddy and indistinct and it gave me a headache immediately. Do yourself a favor and toggle that off as soon as you boot up the game. Add emulated CRT scan lines to the picture if you really want to throw yourself back.

As with most games of this genre, a controller is ideal. The game is playable with a keyboard, but it’s especially difficult in Shadows Over Mystara with the introduction of combo attacks. The game begs to be used with a 360 controller and is ready to use without any set up; it even converts input prompts to 360 buttons once you boot it up. The controls are crisp and responsive with no input lag. All in all, for those of you who remember this game well you won’t be disappointed in its translation to your PC.

Like many other Capcom ports, there’s a shell around the port that give the player something to work toward more than just beating the monster at the end of the game. Achievements, new game modes, a spendable currency for unlocking art files and different rule sets you can customize your game with are all added to give a little longevity and variety to an admittedly simple game. It’s always present on the sides of the screen but it never intrudes on gameplay. It discretely delivers information about your progress through the different challenges that unlock new content.

Too many times our nostalgia goggles have us remember something more fondly than it truly deserves, but I don’t know if I feel that way with Chronicles of Mystara. It’s a solid if simple gameplay experience that’s expressed beautifully on today’s hardware and it’s been given new life with the content Capcom has added to the mix. Whether you’re just seeing the game for the first time or returning to the arcades you haven’t been to for almost 20 years, I think you’ll find this one worth playing.

Reviewed by Joshua Flack

The Last of Us Review – PlayStation 3

After a few weeks of completely immersing myself in Naughty Dog’s masterpiece, The Last of Us, I have come to the conclusion that this is without a doubt one of the most memorable games I have (or likely ever will play).  I was so caught up in this game, and even now, a few days after decompressing from the experience so I could write a rational review, I still have memories and images from my adventure that are just as vivid and real as anything that has happened in my real life – perhaps more so.

But that should come as no surprise to anyone who has played any of the Uncharted games.  Naughty Dog has already proven themselves to be master storytellers, and The Last of Us is more interactive storytelling than videogame…for the most part.   This 20-hour emotional rollercoaster ride fell prey to gaming tropes on several occasions and even repeated some to the point of making a self-referential joke on the matter, but it was rare that I was ever taken out of the experience for more than a brief moment.

The Last of Us is a post-apocalyptic survival horror adventure set 20 years in the future, but the story begins in present day as we are introduced to Joel and his daughter, Sarah who share a refreshingly strong bond.  It’s Joel’s birthday and also the first day of the pandemic that is causing random people to insanely attack others as witnessed when Joel and Sarah must flee their home with his brother Tom in one of the most emotional opening preludes in videogame history.   It’s no spoiler that Sarah is senselessly shot and killed as they try to escape the city, which sets up the emotional theme for what is about to come 15 years later when Joel is asked to escort Ellie, a 14-year old girl who may hold the cure to the infection, to a group of survivalists known as the Fireflies who can develop a vaccine.

The Last of Us is surprisingly not as heavy on cutscenes as you might imagine given the strong focus on story.  Much of the narrative is seamlessly delivered in various notes and journals lying around the meticulously detailed levels as well as some fantastic dialogue and banter between Joel, Ellie, and the other cast of characters that come in and out of their lives.  Joel and Ellie’s journey seems simple and short at first; simply get across town to the capitol building, but when things go terribly wrong our misfit duo must trek across the country to seek refuge and resolution.

The heart and core of the game resides solely on the relationship of Joel and Ellie; a relationship far more advanced in gameplay and maturity than Lee and Clementine in The Walking Dead game.   What struck me most was seeing how Ellie, a girl who has known no life other than after the apocalypse acted and interacted with Joel, a grizzled bitter man who, for the first half of the game resents Ellie as the embodiment of his own personal loss, but then who comes to love her as his own adoptive daughter.  The level of emotion is off the scale and spills from the screen straight into the player’s heart in a way that movies could only hope to achieve.  The fact that you are controlling these characters and participating in their adventure makes the whole thing that much more personal.

The performance capture really sells the experience with Joel and Ellie being played to perfection by Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson.  Troy’s character looks and sounds much like Noah Wyle who plays Tom Mason on TNT’s Falling Skies, while Ellie has been compared to Ellen Page.  While there is a minor facial resemblance I think the comparison is coming more from her mature banter and frequent droppings of F-bombs and other salty language.  It was remarkable to see such detailed facial resemblances in other secondary characters such as Brandon Scott, who plays Henry.

The Last of Us isn’t all story, and you will be required to actually play the game from time to time and that is when some of the best and most intense stealth-survival-horror elements are brought out.   Enemies in the game range from human soldiers, mercenaries, and dangerous survivalists to the infected who come in a few flavors.   Clickers are the most terrifying, blind as a bat and also just as sensitive to noise, which means you can use your flashlight to spot them, but killing them requires several bullets (which usually attract more) or a quick shiv to the head.  If a Clicker gets close enough to grapple you it almost always means certain death, which is why it is always best to distract them with a bottle or brick and sneak past them.

Clickers are the middle stage result of the infection.  You’ll also have stage one creatures who act more like zombies on meth, and stage three bloaters who move slow but can lob spore bombs at you from across the room.  Things get really crazy when they start mixing up the enemy types.   While Clickers can’t see your flashlight, stage one zombies can and will rush and attack and depending on how quietly you kill them will determine if any Clickers join the party.  The Last of Us treats each encounter almost like a puzzle, giving you the ability to use Joel’s super-sensitive hearing to locate any creatures making a noise and paint their ghostly silhouette on the screen, even behind walls.  And if you should die (and you will) you can simply “restart the encounter” since the game wisely checkpoints before each new area.

The Last of Us not only encourages stealthy gameplay, it practically demands it by limiting your ammo and resources, which in turn forces you to play like a survivor, meticulous searching each new room, opening drawers, cabinets, and searching anything with a triangle icon.  There is a clever crafting system in play that never overwhelms the pacing of the game.  If anything, it adds tremendously to the experience as you are constantly creating bombs, med kits, and makeshift weapons.   You also collect parts and pliers that allow you to upgrade your weapons whenever you can find a workbench; things like increasing ammo capacity or adding a scope to a rifle, or enabling a faster reload.

There are numerous weapons and they all seemed perfectly balanced.  I may have favored the shotgun due to its awesome stopping power, but most of my weapon choices were almost always based on which gun had the most ammo at the time.  You even get a bow and arrow about halfway through the game because, as we all know; ever since the Hunger Games you can’t have any form of entertainment that doesn’t have a bow in it.  Seriously, the bow works well, more so after you upgrade its range and draw time, and while I have never played a Cabala hunting game in my life I really loved the winter deer hunting with Ellie.  It’s also the only way to silently kill at ranged targets.

There were only a few moments where stereotypical game clichés broke my suspension of disbelief.   After the fourth time of shuttling a non-swimming Ellie across the water on some convenient nearby wooden pallet even the designers started poking fun at themselves with clever dialogue.  Perhaps the worst offense was the transparent AI awareness of the enemies on the NPC’s.  Ellie, or anyone else in my party for that matter, could easily run right up in plain sight of enemies and they wouldn’t spot them.  And while I did appreciate the companion AI that proved effective in combat, I wish they wouldn’t fire that first shot while I’m halfway snuck across a Clicker-filled room.

Perhaps my biggest complaint with The Last of Us is the ending; not so much in the way it played out because, frankly, it played out just the way I expected and wanted, but in that I had no real choice in the outcome.   I saw where it was all leading about two hours before the end – the whole “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” mantra, but I was more than prepared to make the “selfish” choice as I was sure Joel would have done if this were a movie out of my control.  As it turned out, it was a movie out of my control, because when that point of decision was reached, I only had one option.   If you haven’t played the game then you have no idea what I’m rambling about and if you have, you know exactly what I’m talking about.   I’m just saying; don’t setup a choice then deny me the chance to make it.

I enjoyed the seriousness of The Last of Us; the fact that Joel was a stone cold killer when he had to be as witnessed in several kills I could only call “executions”; even when they might not have been necessary, but it just drove home the kill-or-be-killed atmosphere of the game.  I also enjoyed the fatherly instruction that Joel gave to Ellie on basic survival skills; some that pays off in the Winter chapter of the game where you actually get to play as Ellie.

I found the multiplayer component in The Last of Us as much of a tacked on, unnecessary feature as I did in Uncharted.   That’s not to say the deathmatch and team deathmatch scenarios aren’t well executed; but after the emotional ride of the story I would be more inclined to replay the New Game + than play an online shooter set in the same universe.  Even so, I did find the reward system of earning supplies and building up your own camp of survivors intriguing, and all of the community based unlocks such as weapons, perks, and outfits kept me playing longer than I expected.   Plus, if you want to Platinum trophy this game you will have to play online.

There is no denying this is one of the PS3’s finest games, both for the system and this generation.   It’s sad there were some aliasing issues, mostly in the cities with flat edge constructs, and also that the game didn’t run in 1080p.  Even so, the visuals are breathtaking at times and you learn to look past the flaws.  The sound mix supports everything from stereo to Dolby Digital and DTS HD.  I had major issues with the PCM 7.1 mix in that characters would either initiate or continue conversations when I wasn’t around and you couldn’t hear the dialogue.  I ended up turning on subtitles and then it got even weirder reading all of these conversations that had no audio.   I suppose it’s realistic and a good reason to stick with my party, but in a game that mandates you search every nook and cranny, either force the AI to keep up with me or save the pertinent conversations for when I’m actually there to hear them.

I haven’t been moved by a videogame this much since The Walking Dead, and while both games feature a bleak post-apocalyptic theme and a surrogate father-daughter relationship, The Last of Us takes the concept to a whole new level of interactive entertainment.    You don’t just play as Joel…you become Joel, even to the point where, when you do assume control over Ellie, it feels a bit strange.   At its core, The Last of Us is about the bond that forms between Joel and Ellie – it is the story of love, loyalty, and redemption, and a game that no one with a PS3 should even consider skipping.

Sniper Elite V2 Review – Wii U

Just over a year after its release on PC and all the other consoles of the time, Sniper Elite V2 makes its way to the Wii U. When I first heard that one of my favorite stealth-tactical shooters of 2012 was coming to Nintendo’s new system I had some pretty cool images pop into my head about how it would play…being able to hold the tablet controller up and use an augmented reality scope that would zoom into the scenery being depicted on my big screen…but alas; that vision and pretty much all hope for this game was shattered mere moments after launching this lackluster port.

For those who already played the original and were tempted to try this…DON’T, and for those who haven’t played Sniper Elite V2 and were considering…please play it on any system other than this. The Wii U version of Sniper Elite V2 has had pretty much everything cut except the price. Gone are the DLC missions including your ability to assassinate Hitler and gone is the online multiplayer. What you have left is a 5-8 hour linear campaign mode and a three-map survival mode called Kill Tally. Such limited content would be acceptable for a budget-priced game, but this is being marketed as a full-price AAA title.

For those willing to wait for the inevitable price drop and who don’t have access to any other system to play this game the Wii U version isn’t all bad. In lieu of a virtual scope, your second screen is home to a top-down map view of the area that shows your location, your destination, and any enemies in-between. You also have touch/tap access to your inventory, which is a bit nicer than cycling through items with the D-pad. I would have preferred to play using the Wii U Pro controller but the game insists you use the tablet; at least Sniper Elite V2 offers remote play so you can continue the mission when you get bounced off the big TV.

I love stealth and I love sniping, whether it’s in a dedicated game like this or even taking on a sniper role in a class-based online shooter. Billed as an “advanced sniper simulation”, Rebellion attempts to make good on that promise with “realistic bullet physics” that take into account bullet drop over distance, wind shear, and cover penetration. The higher the difficulty setting, the more these elements factor into your gameplay, and when combined with the removal of several key visual indicators, Sniper Elite V2 does a good job of making you feel like a real sniper with each squeeze of the trigger.

On normal (or Marksman) difficulty you will be given a red diamond indicator that will automatically factor in the effects of gravity and wind, but when playing on Sniper Elite, this diamond is removed, forcing you to factor in your own on-the-fly adjustments using the tick marks on the scope. Obviously, if you play a few missions on Marksman you will slowly learn how to instinctively compensate for drop and wind, but trying to jump right into Sniper Elite mode could prove frustratingly difficult.

Breathing and heart rate also factors into each shot. When you sight down the scope your pulse will start thumping and you can exhale with the right shoulder button to reduce that rate even further, steady the scope, and get a bit more zoom on the target. Crouching or going prone will also steady your scope. Usually a BPM in the low 60’s is good for a reliable shot, but if you have just sprinted down a street or have gotten shot your pulse will be racing, and it takes a while to calm down enough to make your next shot.

Unlike most WWII games where you run around killing hundreds of men with machine guns and grenades, Sniper Elite V2 is a more methodical game that requires careful observation of each new area in the level. You will want to scan ahead with binoculars that oddly have much more magnification than your sniper scope. You can “tag” enemies, making it easier to keep tabs on them when you put the binoculars away, but being able to see them, even through walls, was a bit too “Ghost Recon” for me. Still, with such an aggressive AI engine, I’ll take all the help I can get.

Enemy AI is my biggest beef with Sniper Elite V2. The enemy has almost god-like powers of observation and awareness, able to spot you from several city blocks away, and able to triangulate your exact sniper perch after a single shot. If you are playing on Sniper Elite difficulty the enemies will aggressively storm your location, entering buildings, and try to flank your position. They do this on Marksman as well, but are not nearly as aggressive and you also have the added ability of being able to see a ghost image of your last detected position, so you know where the enemy “thinks” you are, allowing for some nice ambush opportunities.

Speaking of ambushes, some of the most fun you’ll have in Sniper Elite V2 is prepping all sorts of fun and elaborate traps. Once you find a good sniper perch you’ll want to protect your “six” with tripwire and landmines. There are even some levels where you must hold out against several waves of enemies, so prepping your “bunker” is especially important. You can also distract (or rather attract) enemies by tossing a rock from your endless supply. This tactic can be used to either get guards to move away from a door or lure them closer to an explosive fuel tank. One of my best earliest kills in the game was in the tutorial level where I tossed a rock at a truck and four guys went to check out the noise, and I shot the gas tank. BOOM! Four kills with one bullet.

Enemy AI also takes into account sound, so you need to be creeping for most of the game. Normal movement and especially sprinting anywhere near enemies is a dead giveaway. Some levels feature ambient noises like bombs exploding or one level with annoying PA announcements coming over a speaker. You can use these sounds to mask your movement as well as perfectly-timed sniper shots. Guards have patrol routes and you will either need to pick-up and stash dead bodies so they aren’t detected, or you can booby trap them, since they will always investigate a fallen comrade. And for those who want the bullet physics of Sniper Elite mode without the insane AI, there is a Custom difficulty mode that lets you tweak these variables separately.

While the game favors sniping most of the time you will often be forced into situations where you must use your secondary weapons like your standard issue Thompson machine gun or an MP40 you can lift off a dead soldier. You also start with a silenced pistol, great for stealth kills if you can get close enough for a headshot, and if you can get really close you can do physical takedowns like a neck-snap or a throat punch. Aiming is a bit unreliable, and at times I felt like I was playing one of the older GTA games. But with proper use of traps, grenades, and frequently relocating your sniper perch within the levels, you can avoid a lot, if not most of the secondary weapon encounters.

Last year the graphics ranged in quality depending on the system with the PC looking the best, followed by Xbox 360 and then PS3. The Wii U comes somewhere between the 360 and PS3, but what the game lacks in next-gen shine is more than made up for in overall style and vision with great level design that looks authentically devastated by war. Soldiers are nicely detailed and animated and the vehicles, especially the tanks, are very impressive. There is a bit of fogging to mask the limited draw distance and textures are often flat and get muddled when looking through a scope or binoculars. There is also some annoying pop-up.

Of course the real showstopper is the X-Ray Kill Cam that turns every squeeze of the trigger into an endorphin rush. Depending on the angle of your shot and the point of impact, nearly every scoped shot is rewarded with a slow-motion bullet-camera that starts with the bullet leaving your gun, travelling hundreds of yards to its target, then shattering bones and exploding organs as it travels through the body and exits as a crumpled piece of lead. Hearts, lungs, livers, and testicles are all fair game along with copious amounts of blood and bone fragments. Eight hours with Sniper Elite V2 and you’ll be ready to graduate med school…or at least apply to med school.

The audio is also pretty good with some nice military themes for the menus, but once you get into the game it’s all business. The ambient sounds of war have never been more realistic and you can eavesdrop on the Germans, who speak real German, plus you have to monitor the sounds of your own footsteps while listening for those of the patrolling enemy. Even better, when you empty your lungs and the game goes into slow-motion, all the sounds realistically slow and slur and when you fire your sniper rifle you get this powerful sound followed by a great Doppler-whooshing-Matrix-sound that travels with the bullet until the sickening crunch of bones and moist squishy noises of organs being liquefied. Tense music does kick in during combat that is supposed to increase the drama, but I found it a bit distracting and sort of a spoiler since it always fades away when the last enemy dies.

There are ten missions spread across some fairly realistic locations that all start to look alike after a while. They try to mix things up best they can but once you’ve climbed through the rubble of a dozen bomb-shattered buildings they all start to blur together. There is a nice mix of night and day missions along with outdoor and interior locations like a cavernous V2 rocket factory or a flak cannon outpost built into a massive castle. The levels are quite literally “littered” with detail giving you plenty of places and objects to take cover behind. While there is an illusion of exploration, the levels are in fact, quite linear, and any side-trips into empty buildings or down a random side alley is usually for the purpose of finding one of the 100 gold bars or 37 wine bottles scattered about the game; although, sometimes if you look hard enough you can often find a stealthier approach to your target or perhaps a sweet sniper perch.

Each level can take anywhere from 30-60 minutes to finish unless you are out to find all the collectibles; then you can spend up to 90 minutes per level. Personally, I found that looking for the gold and wine bottles detracted from the immersion and mindset of the game, so I didn’t go out of my way on my first pass to find them. You can come back later and select any mission for replay to find missing items or try a different skill level.

Sniper Elite V2 might not be quite the “simulation” it is hyped to be, but for a third-person, action-cover-shooter with heavy emphasis on sniping, it just doesn’t get any better than this. The tension of sneaking around, the delight of setting traps and the instant gratification every time you squeeze that trigger on a scoped shot is unlike anything I’ve experience since Agent 47 in the Hitman series. There is a definite learning curve to Sniper Elite’s more methodical approach to combat, but after so much running and gunning in every other shooter out there I found this to be a refreshing change of pace and totally rewarding experience that no shooter or sniping fan should miss. But if you are looking for the best and most complete Sniper Elite V2 experience I would recommend playing the game on any system other than the Wii U. Sadly, too much was sacrificed to get this game ported over to Nintendo’s console.


GRID 2 Review – PC

GRID 2 has been five years in the making, or more precisely, it has been five years since the original GRID was dominating my life on the Xbox 360. While the original game was famed for its rags-to-riches story mode, GRID 2 keeps things a bit more streamlined with a slick presentation and interface that is all about the racing. You once again play a rookie driver trying to not only prove yourself worthy in a sea of professional drivers, but also introduce a whole new racing league to the planet; a facet driven home with surprising flair thanks to between-season ESPN Sports Center updates.

The World Series Racing league (WSR) will have you traveling the globe racing in exciting cities like Chicago, Miami, Barcelona, Paris, and Hong Kong, or testing your skills on road tracks that wind along the California coast or treacherous mountain courses in China. Tracks as old as Indy and as new as Dubai are included in this outstanding track roster. My only minor complaint with the tracks is the way they are parceled out 3-4 at a time per season, and with a season lasting several hours and nearly a dozen races; you’ll be getting pretty bored with driving the same roads by the end of a season.

Each season is comprised of a variety of events that are sorted into featured races, promo ops, test drives, and special invites. As you progress through the season you’ll gain access to more and more cars; more than 40, spanning just as many years of automotive technology. Completing certain events will unlock other sections and races and you are free to race any unlocked challenges in any order you choose. The goal is to win (or at least place in the top 3) and earn the respect of the rival racers and rack up the fans; the metric used to judge your success and notoriety in the world of racing.

As with previous Codemasters racing games, the load screens and menus are loaded with stats and info that include miles driven, your favorite car, podium finishes, etc. My only minor issue with the menus are the car stats that are presented in these imprecise bar graphs that had me squinting at the screen counting pixels. Just give me raw numbers please. And as always, you get some outstanding techno and dubstep beats to get you pumped for the next race, but nothing can really prepare you for when you get behind the wheel and check out the new EGO engine Codemasters is using to power this game on the PC.

While I haven’t seen a lot of actual game footage for the upcoming Forza 5 on the Xbox One, I seriously cannot imagine it looking any (or much) better than GRID 2 on the PC running on a powerful PC. And if you are running Intel graphics they even have some elite visual options I couldn’t even try on my rig. Tracks and environments will take your breath away. The sheer level of texture detail, particle animation, shadows, and reflections is overwhelming. There is visible car damage and you can toggle settings to actually have damage impact your driving. You can even total your car if you aren’t careful, but you also have a limited use “rewind” feature that can mulligan you out of most fatal crashes. You have a few race views to choose from – sadly no cockpit/dash view, but I always prefer the hood camera anyway, as it offers the most realistic experience; especially if racing with a wheel.

Yes, GRID 2 supports racing wheels and I tried it with several I had lying around, some dedicated to PC like my Ferrari Challenge Wheel and of course my trusty Logitech Driving Force GT. GRID 2 seems designed more for arcade racing, so the wheel didn’t offer the ideal experience for me. I ultimately went with my Xbox 360 controller and found the driving to be a bit more responsive and fun. While the game is unmatched in graphics on the PC, it is clear it was designed with console gaming in mind when it comes to controls.

When you aren’t taking over the world in the career mode you can hang out in the garage tweaking your livery designs from thousands of possible paint and vinyl options, not to mention adding sponsors at the beginning of each season that will challenge you with specific goals for that season. And then you have the fantastic multiplayer; both the local split-screen racing as well as the insane online racing with awesome new modes all linked and managed with Codemasters’ RaceNet hub that allows you to access your racing profile from any web-enable device – even your mobile phone. Your online campaign is tracked separately from your local mode giving you two complete and unique experiences. Online racing is smooth with great matchmaking, lots of people playing, and a generally lag-free race experience.

Race modes include all the standard favorites; race, drift, time attack, checkpoint, but perhaps my favorite is the Touge; a special “overtake” mode you’ll get when you arrive in Asia that has you racing against a single opponent on a long and winding track. Your goal is to simply gain a five-second lead on your opponent, or, if you can’t manage that, at least cross the finish line first. It’s a best-of-three series where each driver gets their shot at starting in the lead. You also have other various Promo events and Vehicle Challenges that will earn you more fans and unlock new cars you can add to your garage.

GRID 2 quite literally gets better and better the more you play it. Track offerings are limited at first, but once you get into the game and start to open things up you won’t find a more challenging and addicting racing game for your PC – one that has just enough sim elements to keep you grinding through the fan-based progressions system, and enough insane arcade action so you never get bored with the grind. I was seeing or doing something relatively new throughout the entire career mode.

Whether it’s on console or PC – although PC clearly offers the best presentation and performance experience – GRID 2 is the first racing game of 2013 that I can totally recommend you play, and it just may get my nomination for best racer of the year, but we’ll have to see what the Need for Speed and Forza franchises have in store for us before I make that call. Until then…I’ll see you on RaceNet…