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.

Halo 4 Review – Xbox 360

I’ve been playing FPS games ever since id Software released Wolfenstein 3D on the PC back in 1992, and despite the lack of a mouse and keyboard, the genre managed to make the leap to consoles a few years later with great titles like Medal of Honor on the PlayStation and of course, GoldenEye on the N64. But it would take the turn of a century for the genre to reach critical mass with the release of Halo: Combat Evolved in November of 2001. Merging compelling single-player gameplay with some of the first-ever console multiplayer ushered in a new era for console FPS games and online gaming.

Over the past decade the Halo franchise has released numerous sequels and spin-off titles such as Reach and the infamous Halo Wars RTS game, and with each new release something always seemed to be missing. The franchise was slowly withering away, as if the fixed pool of “good ideas” had been diluted past the point of no return. While franchises like Battlefield and Call of Duty were evolving game design and the rules of online gaming, Halo was stuck in the mire of its own legacy and perhaps the apathy of its creators. Usher in 343 Industries; apparently the fresh blood needed for the Halo transfusion that has resulted in the best Halo game since the first; perhaps even the best Halo game created to date.

The first hour of Halo 4’s incredible story sucked me in faster than all the best moments of all the past games combined, and no, it wasn’t because I was merely getting closure to the cliffhanger ending from Halo 3. Halo 4 masterfully blends its story into the very essence of its new gameplay mechanics as well as every pixel of its sweeping artistic level design. The sheer scope of the levels, the richness of textures, and the fluidity of animation is something that, quite frankly, I would only expect from a PC or whatever new console Microsoft has planned for us down the road. The fact that this game can even run on a 7-year old system boggles the mind – the fact that it does so at reasonably consistent framerates on even the grandiose of levels blows it.

Just as impressive as visuals, the score is worthy of an immediate soundtrack purchase, and the wildly diverse sound effects for weapons, creatures, ships, and landscapes are as uniquely original as they are exertly mixed in Dolgy Digital perfection. Voice acting is second to none for anyone with a spoken part, and I actually found myself enjoying the ongoing banter between the Chief and Cortana.

At the heart of the Halo franchise is the unique “love story” of Master Chief and his AI, Cortana, and Halo 4 expands on their virtual romance from the moment she summons Chief from his cryo chamber slumber to the highly emotional conclusion of this next chapter. Halo 4 blends the established with the new by keeping the Covenant as the significant and familiar enemy while simultaneously introducing us to the mysterious race known as the Forerunners. Not only does this provide for some wildly creative enemy designs, but expect to wield an arsenal of visually spectacular weaponry that seems to be built with some sort of tech from the Transformers universe.

Halo 4 turns the difficulty up to 11 in this fourth installment, so those who would normally tackle Heroic out of the box will find a more “legendary” experience waiting for them, while those who dare attempt Legendary (especially alone) will be in for the frustrating fight of their gaming life. The level of difficulty is not merely in the number of enemies the game throws at you or some arbitrary increase in their hit points but rather the dynamic evolution of tactics required to defeat these new enemy types. Some enemies rush and pounce on your like wolves while other will spawn drones that fly overhead and create energy shields. Other enemies can teleport from scope range to melee range in the blink of an eye, and when the game starts mixing and matching these enemy types your strategy has to remain as fluid as the combat itself. While the game is perfectly winnable playing alone, at least up to Heroic level, there is a reason 343 has made the game so easily accessible to online and even split-screen co-op – Halo 4 is an experience that is best shared with friends. The only downside to co-op is the fact there is no drop-in/out.

For as impressive as the Halo 4 story is, both in quality of writing and the stunning cutscenes, much of the epic history of Halo is told via hidden terminals. Eight such displays are hidden throughout the campaign mode and offer a great incentive for a second trip through each chapter. While I appreciate the attempt to have collectible secrets in the game, actually making the effort to find them on your first pass can be very distracting to the story and pace of the adventure, but you really do need to find and view this material, as it provides some of the best story moments of the game. It’s nothing that changes the outcome of the game, but the information on these secret terminals really adds to the backstory and your understanding of the Halo universe, and the production value is awesome.

Some changes were long overdue like your ability to sprint without the addition of some armor mod. Mods are now much more tactically beneficial like my favorite, the sentry drone that seeks out and destroys most of the smaller enemies. The hardlight shield is a lifesaver when you need to pop-up a temporary shield to repel the incoming blasts of a Promethean Knight before launching your own assault, and even the hologram decoy (perhaps a tribute to Holo-Duke) serves as a valid distraction while you flip a switch or search for more ammo. The cloaking device works well enough if you want to sneak past enemies without firing, and the jetpack will let you get through some of the more vertical areas with nimble ease.

The Halo 4 arsenal is bigger than ever with many of your favorite weapons as well as new Promethean gear that seems to assemble itself in your hands. Despite the odd multi-piece construction of these new weapons, they can all be traced back to more earthly designs like machine gun, shotgun, and sniper rifle, so it’s more of a change of form versus function. Enemies seem to have their own weakness when it comes to weapons, so finding the right gun for the job is essential for survival.

Beyond the campaign there is a big world of multiplayer waiting for Halo veterans including the new Spartan Ops, an episodic series of levels that seems to be proving more entertaining than even the campaign play. One thing is for certain – the opening cinematic for the first pack of missions rivals any cinematic I’ve seen to date on the Xbox 360. Spartan Ops delivers groups of missions and levels in weekly episodic drops; much like DLC…actually exactly like DLC, but the first season is FREE! Inside these bundles are missions that can either be arena-style survival missions or larger and more linear objective-based missions that, just like the campaign, can be tackled alone or cooperatively. The game does a fantastic job of scaling to the number of players and provides all sorts of fantastic combat moments in creative level designs. Those with a watchful eye may even pick out an Easter egg or two with some great Red vs. Blue references.

For those looking for a more traditional multiplayer experience look no further than War Games. In creating War Games, 343 Studios analyzed what everyone else was doing with multiplayer, borrowed the best parts and removed the rest. The end result is some of the best multiplayer the Halo franchise has seen since the creation of Xbox Live. Subtle mechanics have been put into place that not only balances the gameplay across players of all skill levels, but also adds new modes like the insanely popular Dominion.

With Dominion you have three bases on each map that are open to capture by either team. Once a base is captured it will undergo periodic upgrades of reinforcement the longer you maintain control, and the longer you control a base the more points get added to your team total. It’s a great game mode that challenges players to work strategically as a team, and presents that all-too-tempting third base that will inevitably have one team spread their forces just a bit too thin to try and capture them both, presenting the perfect opportunity for attack by the opposing team. All your existing modes are back, many tweaked and enhanced including the highly polished Forge mode and a feature-rich Theater mode that will have everyone creating their own Machinima projects.

I have to admit that I tend to be skeptical of these high profile titles that I am “expected to like” simply because they are part of a pop-cultural phenomenon, and while it is true that there are Halo loyalists out there who will praise any game that releases with the Halo logo stamped on the cover, Halo 4 truly is a remarkable achievement, not only in its masterful storytelling in the exciting campaign mode, but the new and improved multiplayer and the spectacular addition of the episodic Spartan Ops. This is a fantastic reboot of an epic series and a worthy title to launch a new trilogy of Master Chief adventures.


The Walking Dead: Episode Five – No Time Left Review – PC

After seven months and 14 hours of gameplay it all comes down to this…my review for Episode Five of The Walking Dead. “No Time Left” is the final chapter in what will hopefully become the first of many seasons of this epic video game series and part of the Walking Dead sensation sweeping the land. It’s been a long road and quite the emotional roller coaster ride that we’ve taken with Lee on his journey from Atlanta to Savannah. We’ve made a few friends along the way and lost just as many it seems. No one is safe including our hero, who, at the end of the last episode, had just gotten bit by a walker.

I went into Episode Five with an overwhelming sense of dread. I knew there was little chance for my own personal survival, so my only real goal was to find my missing Clementine and make sure that she would be properly taken care of when it was time to shuffle off this mortal coil. But even knowing my eventual fate and seeing it all come to fruition, Telltale still managed to weave in a few surprises and some incredibly emotional moments that tied up loose ends going several episodes back. There are so many incredible surprises waiting I find it impossible to even discuss this chapter on even the most basic of levels without risking a potential spoiler. Suffice it to say, if you have been on the ride this long, you know what to expect…the unexpected – and Telltale delivers in spades.

Commenting on a more global and generic scale I will say that this episode is much shorter than and not nearly as interactive as the previous four. Your past decisions as far as who is coming with you into this final chapter seem pointless as more scripted events trim your group nearly as fast as Kenny wants to trim your arm. It quickly becomes apparent that Clementine’s next guardian might not be a matter of choice but merely a process of elimination. And while most questions are answered, several are left dangling before and after the post-credit teaser that will have you craving Season Two more than a walker craves his next warm body.

I did appreciate the nods to events and premises already established in the comics and the TV series, like smearing yourself with walker blood to fit in with the herd, and the possibility that severing a bitten limb might increase your chances of survival – a choice Lee must make very early in this episode. The puzzles are minimal this time around and easily solved, making them seem more like interactive diversions than gameplay. There are two arcade-style kill sequences, one with a gun standoff and one with a melee rampage into a herd, but even these have been toned down to make them nearly impossible to lose. Telltale is obviously all about the story by this point in the series, and they don’t want to take you out of the moment with obvious gamey gimmicks or a potential death and reload screen.

Am I satisfied with the ending to the first season of The Walking Dead? Yes. Am I happy? No. But there is no way this story could have had a happy ending coming off the events of episode four. This final chapter made me feel good about my past decisions and actions, and I checked out of this world with no regrets other than not being able to look after Clementine, but at least I have instilled some solid survival skills that will hopefully keep her safe in my absence, and if we are lucky, see her as the star of her own adventure in Season Two.


Call of Duty: Black Ops II Review – PC

This has been an unpredictable year for FPS games, especially when it comes to the yearly rivalry between EA and Activision. With no Battlefield game releasing this Fall it was up to the Medal of Honor franchise to compete with the Call of Duty behemoth – an impossible task you say…but keep in mind that this year’s Call of Duty is Black Ops II, created by Treyarch, which has had a troubled past with the franchise, at least when compared to the staggered release of Modern Warfare games by Infinity Ward. So basically, 2012 is the battle of the B-franchises.

Medal of Honor Warfighter knocked our collective socks off at E3 this year and even managed to snake the “Best FPS” award from Call of Duty and other nominees, but it wouldn’t be until four months later that the Frostbite hype and glamorous trailers were stripped away to reveal the game to be perhaps the ultimate disappointment of 2012. That left Activision and Treyarch to redeem the military FPS genre and judging from the limited amount of content being trickled out prior to release, we were skeptical at best.

Now, after several weeks of having played Call of Duty: Black Ops II, both the single-player campaign, the new and improved Zombies, and the drastically enhanced online game, I can safely say that this is the best Call of Duty game Treyarch has ever released, but there is still room for improvement, especially on the PC version.

The PC version of Black Op II requires a fairly hefty PC with 4GB of RAM, a GeForce 8800GT or better and 16 GB of hard drive space. If you go with the Steam version you’ll get separate executables for the Zombies and multiplayer. The level load times on the PC are 2-3 times longer than those found on the Xbox 360 but I guess the game is loading a lot more textures because the game looks incredible. While Treyarch can promise 60fps on a fixed system like the Xbox 360, there is just too much variety in PC hardware, and I had framerates that were all over the place on my system that was easily twice the recommended requirements, but for the most part it was fairly smooth.

The real concessions come into play during multiplayer. A quick look at the time of this writing shows 497,886 people playing on Xbox Live while only 4,789 people are playing on the PC. You do the math. Plus, for those who like to chat during their games, the Xbox makes it so easy to do that while the PC requires a bit of extra setup. You’re also not getting the other new features like Live Steaming and in-game Elite integration.

What really pisses me off however are the numerous scripting glitches in the game. At the end of the first mission I am supposed to be running toward a boat on the beach. I’m obviously faster than my buddy who is carrying an injured man, but if you reach the waypoint ahead of these two the game glitches out and the level won’t finish requiring you to start from the very beginning. Later into the game a similar error occurs when you, Hudson, and Woods are storming a mission. You are supposed to clear out a courtyard and snipe a few guys from a bell tower, but even after all the enemies are defeated your computer-controlled partners stay crouched behind cover and won’t advance to open the cellar door.

I tried restarting from the checkpoint a dozen times and doing things differently but it didn’t matter. They always stayed crouched in cover. I’m assuming that restarting the level “may” fix the glitch, but frankly I don’t have the time or the patience to replay this lengthy level over from the beginning, especially considering this glitch takes place nearly an hour into the mission, and I have no guarantee it won’t happen again. Suffice it to say, the PC version is in serious need of some patches.

Assuming you can get past the mission glitches and finish the campaign, you’ll find a relatively short adventure through a handful of missions than not only span the globe but two timelines, taking us on historical missions set in the 1980’s that lay the groundwork for the events that unfold in the present – or in this case, the future of 2025. To potentially expand the length of the narrative, Treyarch has added a branching storyline, so at several key decision points your choices will affect the ultimate outcome of the game. It’s certainly nothing major like entirely new missions, but it does provide a minor incentive to replay the game or at least check out the alternate endings on a Wiki or YouTube.

The main story is set around David Mason, a son in search of the truth about his father’s death. This quasi-revenge tale is juxtaposed against a similar quest for vengeance by our newest and perhaps most satisfying villain in the franchise to date; Raul Menendez. We experience his motivational loss in one of those 80’s flashback missions that triggers a lifetime plan of worldwide revenge, as he plants a computer virus in our automated defense network and takes over our very own robotic drone forces to wage war on the USA and China. Co-written by David S. Goyer (Dark Knight, Man of Steel), when it comes to story and plot, this is one of the best, even if it can be difficult to keep track of with all the time travel and globetrotting.

Mixed in with the story chapters are the new Strike Force missions that try to put a fresh RTS spin on what should have remained an FPS game. While I appreciated the ambitious nature of these missions and the way they were presented, both in their limited availability and their possible repercussions in the story, the simple fact that these missions are clearly BROKE destroyed all potential enjoyment. Strike Force missions present you with a set of forces divided into three selectable units that can be controlled individually or grouped together. The premise is simple. Playing from a top-down tactical map of the level you pick your units and click on the map or enemy units to have your men and/or drones move and attack. At any time you can click on a single unit and take control of that person or drone and play the game in traditional FPS view.

This would be all fine and good (and even fun) if it worked, but your men will frequently ignore your orders and the D-pad is not entirely responsive for selecting your groups. Ultimately, I would just lump my entire force into one collective assault and rush each objective in linear fashion. I tried playing a few levels entirely from the tactical map and was met with repeat failure. I tried playing the game as a one-man wrecking crew and was met with a similar fate, which meant I often had to game the system. I only played the first few Strike Force missions on the PC, and while the mouse and keyboard seemed to offer a bit more reliable controls the AI was no more responsive than it was on the Xbox 360 and continued to ignore my orders to move and attack.

The good news is these Strike Force missions are completely optional and from what I could tell, made no substantial impact on the core campaign; at least not enough to endure the frustrating gameplay and non-responsive controls. Perhaps a future patch will address these issues, but for the sake of your own sanity, skip these sideline excursions for now.

Zombies are back and better than ever and in some ways might even surpass the solo campaign for sheer fun, especially given the fact that you can co-op this mode with up to four players in this Left4Dead-style survival horror game that blends the weapons of Call of Duty with plenty of undead targets. Tranzit is the big new mode that adds a minimal attempt at storytelling mixed with hilarious one-liners, hidden mission objectives, and countless Easter eggs. As always, you kill zombies to earn points that can be spent to unlock doors and purchase new weapons. You can also collect parts and assemble them into useful gadgets on workbenches. The levels are much larger this time around; so large in fact that there is an AI-driven bus you can ride to get to new areas of the map – just watch out for any zombies who tried to board the bus with you and make sure your entire team is onboard before you close the door.

In addition to Tranzit is the classic Survival mode that lets you pick individual maps from Tranzit and see how many waves of undead you and your friends can survive. Grief is the other mode, often referred to as “dick mode” where you have two teams of four players doing battle in a zombie-infested map only you can’t directly attack the other team – merely stun them with knife attacks or try to trap them with barricades so the zombies can do the dirty work for you. I enjoyed the backhanded tactics required to play this mode, and we all know there are plenty of “dicks” online, so this may be the new cult favorite variation for zombies.

My only quibbles with Zombies is that the game is nearly impossible if played alone, even if you just want to learn the levels, and there are definitely some serious detection hotspot issues that make it frustrating to pick up a part, repair a barricade, or even purchase a gun or open a door. I often found myself getting needlessly mauled by a zombie while simply trying to find the proper pixel-perfect spot to stand to activate the command prompt.

Of course the true staying power of any Call of Duty game is in its multiplayer and Black Ops II has taken some serious steps in changing the way we engage in online warfare. The new Create-a-Class divorces itself from the past method of merely picking weapons and perks and now uses the new “Pick 10” system, perhaps the most ingenious system since perks themselves. You get ten points to use for equipping your soldier. Every weapon, every attachment, and every perk costs a point, giving you unparalleled freedom in creating the perfect warrior. If you don’t like your current selection of perks then spend your points on extra attachments for your gun. Due to my short survival rate I rarely have need of a secondary weapon, so I spent those points on something else. If you are really daring you can spend all your points on personal perks and take just a pistol into the game and hope to get a kill so you can take that player’s weapon.

The Pick 10 system gives the multiplayer game a unique RPG-like flavor, as well as allowing an open-ended player/class creation system that can be finely tuned to match your personal play style. I was amazed at how balanced the gameplay has become, especially in light of all this new creative freedom. Potential imbalances work themselves out by using a Wildcard system that doubles the cost of perks chosen from within the same tier, and the unlock system provides nonstop incentive for continued experimentation and subtle tweaks to your Pick 10 classes.

Other multiplayer changes include the shift from Kill Streaks to Score Streaks, which not only encourages teamwork, but also rewards it. This means that any contribution – not just kills – you make toward your overall team objective is rewarded with some sort of score, making support classes just as important as infantrymen. It is no longer just all about the K/D ratio, but your overall contribution to the team.

In an attempt to improve online matchmaking as well as infiltrating the growing world of eSports, Black Ops II now has League Play. You start by playing in five preliminary rounds that will determine your skill and initial rank. Your league standing will then slowly adjust itself based on all your future matches, so basically the more you and everyone else plays, the more refined the matchmaking process becomes. Of course this only works if you are playing using the League Play option, and with more than a half-million players actively playing during any of my online sessions, it seemed that most are still just diving into the more traditional ranked match games. Hopefully League Play will take off.

As far as presentation, Call of Duty continues to show its age when compared to more modern games using newer engines, but that’s not to say the game doesn’t look great, and the fact that this non-stop Michael Bay popcorn flick manages to run at 60fps for most of the game astounds me. There are moments of visual splendor, shock, awe, and amazement, but there are also times when I cringed at a model or texture. The sound effects are quite literally “explosive” and the soundtrack rivals a Hollywood production with contributions from Academy Award winning composer Trent Reznor (theme), BAFTA nominee Jack Wall (score), and tracks from musical acts Avenged Sevenfold and an original collaboration by Skrillex and Alvin Risk. The voice acting is fantastic once you get past the salty language of Admiral Briggs and features talent such as Michael Rooker, Sam Worthington, Tony Todd, Nolan North, and James Burns just to name a few.

Call of Duty: Black Ops II is a great game; easily the best military shooter of 2012 with greatly improved modes like zombies and the new Pick 10 multiplayer. We’ll chalk the Strike Force missions up to a failed, yet ambitious experiment. The campaign mode has some great characters and a surprisingly deep narrative that circles back to events from four decades prior, and while there was some attempt at story branching, I did find the actual gameplay a bit linear. Interactive moments where I was expecting to participate were played out for me like a movie and other events that should have been a movie inexplicably required me to press a single button to proceed.

If you are a Call of Duty veteran then you are probably already playing Black Ops II by now, but if you are on the fence or perhaps waiting to spend some of that Christmas cash then by all means, check out Black Ops II, but you may want to stick with the console version; at least until they work out the bugs on the PC. The graphics are vastly superior when it comes to texture detail and subtle physics and animations, but you do sacrifice a consistent framerate. The PC also seems to only have a fraction of the people playing online, which will limit your player pool. This may change in the future but Xbox 360 has always been the preferred destination for online play and with the current state of the glitched campaign play, I’d pass on the PC version for now.


Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed Review – Xbox 360

If you enjoy racing games then you have to be loving the flood of titles coming out right now; everything from NASCAR, Forza Horizon, and NFS Most Wanted for the older gamers and charming kart titles like LittleBigPlanet Karting, F1 Race Stars, and Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed for the kids (or the kids at heart).

Imagine your favorite Sega characters and many of your favorite Sega games all coming together in a celebration of racing that not only serves as an epic trip down memory lane for veteran gamers, but a totally delightful racing title for anyone else who dares to pick up a controller. And when you toss in that “more than meets the eye” hook that will have your chosen ride morphing between a boat, car, and plane…well, expect the unexpected.

Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed delivers all the usual content including World Tour, Grand Prix, Time Attack, and Single Race modes that can be played with up to four players locally or up to ten players in any of the exciting online racing modes. As expected, the quest for unlockables is massive and you’ll need to tackle various race events to earn gold stars to unlock more races, new chapters, and new drivers. Each event can be played in one of three difficulties, so finishing on the easiest gets you a single star while finishing on hard gets you three.

Stars all get added to your total that will unlock new paths on your World Tour flowchart with branches that often end up unlocking a new driver or a new race mod. While it is possibly to unlock everything by playing only on Normal difficulty, playing on Hard will speed up the unlock process if you are up to the challenge. I was surprised and delighted that the game doesn’t force you to place in first to win. Normally a podium finish in the top three is all that is required to advance.

Events can range from standard races to drift challenges, opponent challenges, traffic attack, and boost races, but even more varied than the type of race are the locations in which you will find yourself racing. With tracks set in environments like Sonic, Panzer Dragoon, Jet Set Radio Future, Afterburner, Super Monkey Ball, Samba de Amigo, Skies of Arcadia, Golden Axe, Outrun, Nights, Shinobi, and many others, I can’t recall any other racing game to ever offer this much variety, nostalgia, and originality in track design.

Each course offers multiple routes and shortcuts, and these will often change on each of the laps, so don’t be surprised when you fly off the road and land in the water just as your car turns into a boat or a bridge crumbles away and you morph into a plane. While most of the racing takes place on roads, there is just the right amount of “transformed” racing taking place and even a few cool fly-through-hoops levels to mix things up. The only thing this game is missing is Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Your selection of racers is limited at first, but the roster can triple in size as you earn stars and unlock new drivers from Sega history. Even Wreck-it Ralph and Danica Patrick joins the crew in their own custom vehicles. Each driver comes with their own car and preset options for speed, acceleration, handling, boost, and All-Star mode. As you earn XP and rank your driver up through the five levels to reach All-Star status you will unlock new presets or mods that can be chosen prior to an event that will shift these variables around, so by installing the Handling mod you will gain better handling but lose top speed. This XP and mod system is a nice way to reward your driver loyalty, but at the same time inadvertently discourages experimenting with other characters and cars, as you really don’t want to use a rookie driver in the later events.

As is typical with kart racers, there is a bit of combat and strategy involved with the various power-ups but not nearly as much as in other games mostly due to the fact that pick-ups are much fewer in this game. You’ll often spend more time trying to line-up your path with the purple boost pads (or hoops in air and water) to shoot your car forward than worrying about picking up a random power-up like a blowfish to pop tires, a tornado to spin the target car around or a self-guided drone car that seeks out and fires an EMP at the car ahead. My favorite attack has to be launching a swarm of giant wasps at the lead car, which then forces everyone else to weave through them trying not to get stung. There are a few other types of pick-ups, but none are particularly memorable, especially when compared to the charming attacks found in games like Mario Kart or even the bubble-centric attacks of F1 Race Stars.

Despite a rather unimpressive first level Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed looks better and better with each new unlocked track, and this serves as a highly motivating factor to keep on playing just to see what new Sega franchise will get added and what kind of track and race it will be. The characters are cute, the menus and setup screens charming, and the animations (especially the morphing) are very cool. The framerate holds up admirable in split-screen racing. I thought there might have been a draw distance issue with the “rainbow road” track, as it seemed the track was drawing in only a few yards ahead of the car, but it does that in single player too, so it must be an intended effect. Sound effects and adrenalized music, often mixing in the theme of the game that inspired the track, along with all the various taunts and one-liners from the characters all complement the action perfectly.

Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed with all its nods and wink-wink moments to past franchises is definitely a game targeting diehard Sega fans, but even if this is your very first Sega game ever, and you have no idea who these characters are or where all these track inspirations are coming from, you can’t help but have a fantastic time ever second of every lap, playing alone or with friends in split-screen or online. And even though combat and power-ups might not play as strong a part as other competing kart games, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is easily one of the best arcade racers of 2012 and a game not to be missed.


Call of Duty: Black Ops II Review – Xbox 360

This has been an unpredictable year for FPS games, especially when it comes to the yearly rivalry between EA and Activision. With no Battlefield game releasing this Fall it was up to the Medal of Honor franchise to compete with the Call of Duty behemoth – an impossible task you say…but keep in mind that this year’s Call of Duty is Black Ops II, created by Treyarch, which has had a troubled past with the franchise, at least when compared to the staggered release of Modern Warfare games by Infinity Ward. So basically, 2012 is the battle of the B-franchises.

Medal of Honor Warfighter knocked our collective socks off at E3 this year and even managed to snake the “Best FPS” award from Call of Duty and other nominees, but it wouldn’t be until four months later that the Frostbite hype and glamorous trailers were stripped away to reveal the game to be perhaps the ultimate disappointment of 2012. That left Activision and Treyarch to redeem the military FPS genre and judging from the limited amount of content being trickled out prior to release, we were skeptical at best.

Now, after several weeks of having played Call of Duty: Black Ops II, both the single-player campaign, the new and improved Zombies, and the drastically enhanced online game, I can safely say that this is the best Call of Duty game Treyarch has ever released, but there is still room for improvement.

Up first is the campaign, a relatively short adventure through a handful of missions than not only span the globe but two timelines, taking us on historical missions set in the 1980’s that lay the groundwork for the events that unfold in the present – or in this case, the future of 2025. To potentially expand the length of the narrative, Treyarch has added a branching storyline, so at several key decision points your choices will affect the ultimate outcome of the game. It’s certainly nothing major like entirely new missions, but it does provide a minor incentive to replay the game or at least check out the alternate endings on a Wiki or YouTube.

The main story is set around David Mason, a son in search of the truth about his father’s death. This quasi-revenge tale is juxtaposed against a similar quest for vengeance by our newest and perhaps most satisfying villain in the franchise to date; Raul Menendez. We experience his motivational loss in one of those 80’s flashback missions that triggers a lifetime plan of worldwide revenge, as he plants a computer virus in our automated defense network and takes over our very own robotic drone forces to wage war on the USA and China. Co-written by David S. Goyer (Dark Knight, Man of Steel), when it comes to story and plot, this is one of the best, even if it can be difficult to keep track of with all the time travel and globetrotting.

Mixed in with the story chapters are the new Strike Force missions that try to put a fresh RTS spin on what should have remained an FPS game. While I appreciated the ambitious nature of these missions and the way they were presented, both in their limited availability and their possible repercussions in the story, the simple fact that these missions are clearly BROKE destroyed all potential enjoyment. Strike Force missions present you with a set of forces divided into three selectable units that can be controlled individually or grouped together. The premise is simple. Playing from a top-down tactical map of the level you pick your units and click on the map or enemy units to have your men and/or drones move and attack. At any time you can click on a single unit and take control of that person or drone and play the game in traditional FPS view.

This would be all fine and good (and even fun) if it worked, but your men will frequently ignore your orders and the D-pad is not entirely responsive for selecting your groups. Ultimately, I would just lump my entire force into one collective assault and rush each objective in linear fashion. I tried playing a few levels entirely from the tactical map and was met with repeat failure. I tried playing the game as a one-man wrecking crew and was met with a similar fate, which meant I often had to game the system. In one rescue mission I learned that my target would always be in the last structure searched, so I would leave the house closest to the extraction point for last. Even then, after rescuing the girl and her promise of “I’m right behind you”, I dash for the VTOL and she heads out the other door into the waiting arms of five heavily armed enemies – her full health bar depleted before I can even respond. Ultimately, I had to take control of her and run her to the extraction point myself since the AI and pathing is clearly broken.

The good news is these Strike Force missions are completely optional and from what I could tell, made no substantial impact on the core campaign; at least not enough to endure the frustrating gameplay and non-responsive controls. Perhaps a future patch will address these issues, but for the sake of your own sanity, skip these sideline excursions for now.

Zombies are back and better than ever and in some ways might even surpass the solo campaign for sheer fun, especially given the fact that you can co-op this mode with up to four players in this Left4Dead-style survival horror game that blends the weapons of Call of Duty with plenty of undead targets. Tranzit is the big new mode that adds a minimal attempt at storytelling mixed with hilarious one-liners, hidden mission objectives, and countless Easter eggs. As always, you kill zombies to earn points that can be spent to unlock doors and purchase new weapons. You can also collect parts and assemble them into useful gadgets on workbenches. The levels are much larger this time around; so large in fact that there is an AI-driven bus you can ride to get to new areas of the map – just watch out for any zombies who tried to board the bus with you and make sure your entire team is onboard before you close the door.

In addition to Tranzit is the classic Survival mode that lets you pick individual maps from Tranzit and see how many waves of undead you and your friends can survive. Grief is the other mode, often referred to as “dick mode” where you have two teams of four players doing battle in a zombie-infested map only you can’t directly attack the other team – merely stun them with knife attacks or try to trap them with barricades so the zombies can do the dirty work for you. I enjoyed the backhanded tactics required to play this mode, and we all know there are plenty of “dicks” online, so this may be the new cult favorite variation for zombies.

My only quibbles with Zombies is that the game is nearly impossible if played alone, even if you just want to learn the levels, and there are definitely some serious detection hotspot issues that make it frustrating to pick up a part, repair a barricade, or even purchase a gun or open a door. I often found myself getting needlessly mauled by a zombie while simply trying to find the proper pixel-perfect spot to stand to activate the command prompt.

Of course the true staying power of any Call of Duty game is in its multiplayer and Black Ops II has taken some serious steps in changing the way we engage in online warfare. The new Create-a-Class divorces itself from the past method of merely picking weapons and perks and now uses the new “Pick 10” system, perhaps the most ingenious system since perks themselves. You get ten points to use for equipping your soldier. Every weapon, every attachment, and every perk costs a point, giving you unparalleled freedom in creating the perfect warrior. If you don’t like your current selection of perks then spend your points on extra attachments for your gun. Due to my short survival rate I rarely have need of a secondary weapon, so I spent those points on something else. If you are really daring you can spend all your points on personal perks and take just a pistol into the game and hope to get a kill so you can take that player’s weapon.

The Pick 10 system gives the multiplayer game a unique RPG-like flavor, as well as allowing an open-ended player/class creation system that can be finely tuned to match your personal play style. I was amazed at how balanced the gameplay has become, especially in light of all this new creative freedom. Potential imbalances work themselves out by using a Wildcard system that doubles the cost of perks chosen from within the same tier, and the unlock system provides nonstop incentive for continued experimentation and subtle tweaks to your Pick 10 classes.

Other multiplayer changes include the shift from Kill Streaks to Score Streaks, which not only encourages teamwork, but also rewards it. This means that any contribution – not just kills – you make toward your overall team objective is rewarded with some sort of score, making support classes just as important as infantrymen. It is no longer just all about the K/D ratio, but your overall contribution to the team.

In an attempt to improve online matchmaking as well as infiltrating the growing world of eSports, Black Ops II now has League Play. You start by playing in five preliminary rounds that will determine your skill and initial rank. Your league standing will then slowly adjust itself based on all your future matches, so basically the more you and everyone else plays, the more refined the matchmaking process becomes. Of course this only works if you are playing using the League Play option, and with more than a half-million players actively playing during any of my online sessions, it seemed that most are still just diving into the more traditional ranked match games. Hopefully League Play will take off.

You also have menu options for Call of Duty Elite, support for CODcasting, allowing you to create your own eSports play-by-play commentaries, and the ability to live stream your League Play on YouTube without any additional hardware. And this all integrates back into Elite so you can track your favorite players using their custom player card to reference stats for Black Ops II and other Elite-supported Call of Duty games. This truly is the ultimate evolution of multiplayer for the Call of Duty franchise. What’s next…fantasy leagues?

As far as presentation, Call of Duty continues to show its age when compared to more modern games using newer engines, but that’s not to say the game doesn’t look great, and the fact that this non-stop Michael Bay popcorn flick manages to run at 60fps astounds me. There are moments of visual splendor, shock, awe, and amazement but there are also times when I cringed at a model or texture. The sound effects are quite literally “explosive” and the soundtrack rivals a Hollywood production with contributions from Academy Award winning composer Trent Reznor (theme), BAFTA nominee Jack Wall (score), and tracks from musical acts Avenged Sevenfold and an original collaboration by Skrillex and Alvin Risk. The voice acting is fantastic once you get past the salty language of Admiral Briggs and features talent such as Michael Rooker, Sam Worthington, Tony Todd, Nolan North, and James Burns just to name a few.

Call of Duty: Black Ops II is a great game; easily the best military shooter of 2012 with greatly improved modes like zombies and the new Pick 10 multiplayer. We’ll chalk the Strike Force missions up to a failed, yet ambitious experiment. The campaign mode has some great characters and a surprisingly deep narrative that circles back to events from four decades prior, and while there was some attempt at story branching, I did find the actual gameplay a bit linear. Interactive moments where I was expecting to participate were played out for me like a movie and other events that should have been a movie inexplicably required me to press a single button to proceed.

If you are a Call of Duty veteran then you are probably already playing Black Ops II by now, but if you are on the fence or perhaps waiting to spend some of that Christmas cash then by all means, check out Black Ops II. The campaign is an 8-hour blockbuster movie that might actually play out better on the big screen than a video game, but it’s the new and improved Zombies and the extremely addictive multiplayer – not to mention a new year of DLC maps – that will keep you playing Black Ops II until next November.


NASCAR The Game: Inside Line Review – Xbox 360

NASCAR has almost turned in to a year round sport. They have races almost every weekend, a passionate (i.e. inebriated) fan base, and enough drivers fighting that they consistently end up on ESPN SportsCenter highlights.

NASCAR has a long and bumpy history in the videogame world. There were games tied to specific drivers, official NASCAR arcade games, a few licensed “simulation” style games, arcade “carnage” style games, and arcade kart racing. Most recently EA had NASCAR 09 (their last edition) and Polyphony Digital’s Gran Turismo 5 included NASCAR in their excellent game on the PS3. But despite the realism of Turismo, it was only a few cars and tracks, not the full schedule. The only real competition for anyone comes on the PC with ultra-realistic iRacing, but you need to drop significant cash for a PC and graphics card to get the most out of it.

Eutechnyx came along in 2011 and dropped a surprise on everyone when they released a fully licensed NASCAR 2011 The Game. There wasn’t much advance buzz about the game… and it pretty much landed with a resounding thud. It was… okay. People were hungry for an updated NASCAR game with excellent graphics and authentic tracks, and Eutechnyx provided those things. But there just wasn’t much to do in NASCAR 2011. The list of things lacking in NASCAR 2011 was quite long. Many people tried it but most who were serious about racing jumped over to iRacing on PC or kept playing the much more robust NASCAR 09 on consoles. Let’s face it, there are tons of user created cars on the internet and if you have Photoshop you can make your own updates.

I stuck with Gran Turismo 5. It provides the all-around racing experience with just about every class of car and type of track available around the world… and it’s fun, especially with my trusty old Logitech steering wheel. So with predominantly mediocre reviews, Eutechnyx had their work cut out for them in 2012.

With the first introduction from Carl Edwards you get a little idea what is in store. Eutechnyx updated the graphics for NASCAR Inside Line to be on par with Gran Turismo. Even the sound has been updated with crowd noise and FOX’s Mike Joy and Darrell Waltrip in the broadcast booth. Don’t worry, if you don’t like DW’s “boggity boggity” you can turn it off.
The actual driving itself is as easy or difficult as you want it to be. When you start the game you are asked to drive a few laps and the game recommends help settings for your driving style. Everything from braking to anti-wheel lockup measures can be tweaked to your liking. In easy mode you will quickly be winning races even when you start at the back of the field. For the most realistic experience the Normal and Hard settings really push the bounds of my patience. But winning a race is its own reward complete with “burnout mode”.

The normal Xbox 360 controller works fairly well for NASCAR Inside Line but the subtle touch needed to keep the car in line really begs for a wheel controller. There are many deals available this time of year for Logitech and other great wheels for under $100 which I highly recommend.

The crash dynamics have improved but not in a way many gamers would want. Eutechnyx now has a much more advanced damage system where impacts and velocity have a more direct effect on parts of the car. The tire smoke is a bit more realistic and scuffs on the paint are spot on, but you won’t see any flying parts or tires rolling down the infield. Every racer tries the infamous turnaround head-on collision to take the entire field out. But NASCAR Inside Line puts an immediate stop to the shenanigans by bringing out the caution as soon as you start going to wrong direction. You can do it in practice but don’t expect much. The cars act like a solid one piece mass so there are no particle explosion graphics or much of anything. Even running an opponent into the wall yields little excitement. There’s usually some smoke and a few sparks along with the requisite panel damage but the parts never fly even if someone gets airborne. It’s sad but NASCAR Inside Line still has the underlying problem from 2011. Aside from the strategy of passing people, it’s just not much fun. Those looking for crashes will still have to play Burnout Paradise.

There are over 40 of NASCARS’s top drivers and teams in the game including Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Danica Patrick. There are also 23 officially licensed tracks. Despite a fairly immersive career mode, this is only Spring Cup racing. So moving up in the ranks is really just moving up in the standings since you already got your Sprint Cup ride. It would have been great to see people start in carts, dirt track midgets, outlaw and other local legend type racing. Moving up to the truck or Nationwide series to be finally recruited for Sprint Cup would have been a great career option. But not in NASCAR Inside Line.

When you start in Career Mode you have the bare minimum car. As you begin to win races and accumulate money, you can upgrade your car engine, transmission, brakes and other parts. You can also purchase packages that improve durability, fuel efficiency and other areas. Along the way you will pick up sponsors and awards. Big sponsors mean big money. Sponsors in NASCAR Inside Line include many of the ones in real life NASCAR including Home Depot, Goodyear, M&M’s, U.S. Army, Target, McDonalds, Bass Pro Shops, KLOVE Radio, Wheaties, Best Buy and many others.

NASCAR Inside Line includes realistic race weekends with practice, qualifying and races. Invitational events offer unique challenges with Eliminator, Gauntlet, Thunder Lap and Driver Duel. You can tinker a little bit in the garage with your setups to get every last hundredth of a second of speed out of your ride.

Customization is an area I enjoy the most in games. Custom teams in FIFA Soccer and custom clan tags in Call of Duty can really add something unique to a game. It personalizes it for you. EA’s NASCAR 09 utilized Photoshop files for users to make their own custom paint and decals. There are thousands of .PSD files still available on the internet for people to use – everything from corporate cars to your favorite sports teams. But that requires the developer to have a server dedicated for hosting. The problem with that is they eventually turn the server off like 2K Sports just did for College Hoops. So then you are kinda hosed – especially if the developer dropped the license and doesn’t make a game to upgrade. Eutechnyx went a little different route, instead trying to put the major tools of Photoshop directly in the game. It’s similar to what you use in Call of Duty games for your clan emblem.

NASCAR Inside Line has significant functions for your creativity to be expressed. You can make your own text, decals, and color combinations on just about everything. Text is limited to a few specific font styles, but other items can be created if you work with shapes and layers. Surprisingly they didn’t include individual text characters as decal shapes so when I tried to make a Green Bay Packers “G” logo it took way too long with way too many layers. It can be done; it just takes a long time. A significant number of sponsor logos are included but you won’t find alcohol or tobacco products and there are quite a few sponsors missing. It’s free advertising for them so it’s a mystery why anyone would not want to be included. I suppose some wanted to be paid for their logo use. Regardless, making custom cars can be really fun and creative. All it takes is a little time.

Xbox Live online racing has also been improved with up to 16 players competing. It can be a lot of fun, but as usual, your level of enjoyment is going to depend on the other players. Inevitably there is a dork in the group who wants to crash people so short races end up being mostly run under caution. Unfortunately my time online was marred with multiple lag and graphical bugs. The main problem I ran into was other drivers going up and down the track at whiplash speed without spinning out or any real consequence. Then there was an odd “Fringe” moment when all the cars merged into one long stretch limo style combination (see our screencaps). Despite the occasional graphic hiccup, if you know your fellow racers and you all want to race, online can be fun, but beware the noob.

You can also play with 2 people locally via split screen. The screen is split horizontally for you and a friend to swap some paint. This is one of the few racing games I’ve seen where the graphics worked well in split screen mode. Most games have limited distance visibility due to screen redraw times. NASCAR Inside Line can provide significant multiplayer fun especially if you have a big screen.

Another area of NASCAR Inside Line is Highlights. These are scenarios from the 2011 and 2012 seasons where you can earn points by reliving or rewriting moments from previous seasons. Some of them are pretty basic where you pass someone on the final lap. Others involve drafting until the last second to slingshot to a win. The scenarios are fun for any fan – especially if you want to correct an injustice when your favorite driver got beat. Soon there will be 2013 Highlights available as a DLC from most of the races this season (Bristol, Kansas and Dover are not included I assume due to licensing issues).

The audio has also improved over last year. Menu music has a good mix of tunes from Transparent, Uncle Kracker, Staind, The Sheepdogs, Black Stone Cherry and others. While you are driving you get assistance from spotter Ty Norris and crew chief Ray Evernham. As I said before Mike Joy and Darrell Waltrip are in the broadcast booth. The cars of course sound like every race I’ve ever seen along with cheers from the crowd when I passed another driver.

NASCAR Inside Line has 50 achievements available for 1,000 gamer points. Many of the ‘achievements’ are little more than playing the game. Purchasing an upgrade or taking a picture in Photo Mode are rewarded, but so is Finishing a race with the fastest lap 100 times. There are 6 secret achievements but you’ll have to get creative and spend a lot of time online. The “Polish Victory Lap” achievement by driving a victory lap in the opposite direction around the track is a real obscure one.

Unfortunately, graphical glitches and lack of other racing series really make NASCAR Inside Line feel like half a game. There is just so much more Eutehnyx could have done. What they did include is done well and if you are a NASCAR fan, your choices are extremely limited and this game is about the least expensive way to put you in the Sprint Cup. But if you just like racing in general, there are other great options from ultra-realistic F1 2012 to arcade style classics like Burnout Paradise and F1 Race Stars Kart racing. Many of my NASCAR loving friends are sticking with Gran Turismo or EA’s NASCAR 09 which can both be found in the discount bin at your local game store.

Eutechnyx did provide a good update from their NASCAR 2011 game, but unfortunately NASCAR Inside Line is still carrying some baggage that needs work. NASCAR fans will still enjoy racing with their favorite driver and getting a little taste of the NASCAR experience. The graphics and sound of NASCAR are there and if you have a wheel controller and surround sound with a subwoofer, you will spend hours making creating your car and driving till your heart’s content.


Spy Hunter Review – PlayStation Vita

When I heard that Spy Hunter was coming to the PS Vita I immediately had images of the original top-down video game from my high school arcade days.  “Perhaps they will even let me play vertically”, I secretly wished.  Alas, the Spy Hunter I got is pretty far removed from the one I grew up with and has much more in common with the reimagined games that Midway produced back in 2001 and 2002 for the PS2 and original Xbox.

Spy Hunter puts you behind the wheel of the G-6155 Interceptor, the ultimate James Bond gadget car able to break speed records while unleashing all sorts of devastating firepower such as machine guns, missiles, flamethrowers, shotguns, mines and more.   The arsenal is diverse and once you acquire additional weapons beyond the starting four you can pick and choose and assign up to four weapons to the Vita face buttons between levels.   This control scheme works incredibly well and allows you to mix and match your weapons instantly without having to stumble through some awkward menu interface.

Driving controls work well enough with the analog stick providing smooth steering while the bumpers handle your gas and brakes.  A double-tap on the gas activates a momentary turbo boost useful to catch an enemy or escape a pursuer.   You’ll also need to monitor the “health” of your card.  Powered by six energy cores, these cores will regenerate when not taking damage, but if a core should take full damage it will explode and no longer regenerate.  Think of it as a six-part health bar where each part has an individual recharging shield.

One of the cool moments from the original 80’s game was driving into the back of the truck to resupply your car, and Spy Hunter continues that tradition by having a truck available at certain parts of the mission allowing you to reconfigure your weapons based on changing mission parameters.   While inside the truck you also have access to some new gadgets like a weapons turret to defend the truck and a satellite view allowing you to order airstrikes and fire mortar rounds to clear the road ahead.  This is one of the few times where the touchscreen comes into play, and it works really well.

Sadly, the presentation for Spy Hunter is as dated as the license.  The opening movie is laughably bad and the menus and interface screens are totally boring; even primitive.   There is no voice work in the missions and only static drawings for the characters.  Once in the game things get slightly better with car graphics that look good and lots of explosions and effects, but the environments lack the detail and polish that the Vita is capable of delivering.   This honestly looks like a PSP game that was ported over at the last minute.   Sound effects are a droning mix of engine noise interspersed with weapons’ fire and frequent explosions, all set to the non-stop repetitious “Peter Gunn Theme”, or some sort of remix.

Admittedly, the Vita is starving for titles, but that doesn’t mean that we should have to settle for mediocrity such as this.  Spy Hunter would have been an okay game as a $10 online store purchase, but $30 is a bit extreme for a game that can be finished in 4-5 hours, especially when you will have seen all of what this game has to offer in the first hour.




Zone of the Enders: HD Collection Review – Xbox 360

It seems like 3D and HD remakes are here to stay, but when those remakes are as great as the Zone of the Enders – HD Collection that might not be such a bad thing. I still have very vivid memories of playing Zone of the Enders when it came out on the PS2 back in 2001. Before this title my only mech/robot games were of the clunky MechWarrior variety, so slipping into the cockpit of Jehuty; the powerful Orbital Frame that could fly, hover, and unleash unheard of carnage was quite an exhilarating experience.

 Now, eleven years later Konami brings back both the original and The 2nd Runner sequel in a stunning combo HD collection with completely remastered graphics, a new opening cutscene worthy of its own anime DVD release, and just to sweeten the deal, they throw in a demo for Metal Gear Rising Revengeance. Zone of the Enders proves it is a timeless classic by being just as original and engaging a game as it was over a decade ago and begs the question, “Why don’t they make these kinds of games anymore?” If this is your first time playing either of these games you are in for a real treat, and if you are a returning veteran of the franchise, prepare to relive your fondest memories in glorious HD.

Perhaps the biggest attraction of the game was the basic plot that puts a helpless boy, Leo, inside an incredibly powerful combat robot where he engages and slowly develops a dynamic relationship with the A.I. of the Orbital Frame. It’s a symbiotic relationship not unlike the movie Iron Giant. The gameplay was (and still is) fairly basic. You fly around maps and descend into various mission zones of the city trying to eliminate enemy forces while minimizing civilian damage. Other puzzle-like objectives have you seeking out various data cores or passwords to unlock and access new areas for more missions. The combat is fast and furious, almost of a Dynasty Warriors nature, with basics moves that can be enhanced with various modifiers and power-ups. The seamless blend of ranged combat mixed with melee attacks has yet to be matched in any combat game since.

 The 2nd Runner sequel introduces a new pilot for Jehuty and expands the universe to multiple planets with unique environments, a new cast of characters, new enemies, and much more challenging combat that makes greater and more effective use of the 3D environments. The characters are just as strongly written as the engaging and somewhat sanctimonious story; a trademark of Hideo Kojima’s portfolio of games. It’s also worth noting that this version of The 2nd Runner is the “special edition” version and offers bonus missions, orbital frames, and other perks not previously available in the orignal domestic release.

While the games were mighty impressive when they first released nothing could really prepare me for the HD remastering of these two titles. The anime cutscenes are DVD-worthy – a huge improvement over the dark and muddy animations on the original, and the in-game graphics have all received significant updates in resolution and texture detail that make these games competitive with any next-gen title sitting on the same shelf. The fact that you are getting two great titles for $40 is just icing on the cake; not to mention, this is the first time the games have been available on a non-Sony console, so Xbox 360 gamers can experience the magic.

 When played back to back it is easy to see that The 2nd Runner is clearly the superior game in every way. In fact, if you sneak over and start playing the sequel before you finish the original you may never return. There is a lot of directionless questing and level-grinding in the first game, and the combat and endless respawning of enemies made for a repetitious experience, but Konami learned from that game and The 2nd Runner is a completely satisfying and unique experience unlike anything released since. The HD remake not only enhances the graphics but also boosts the framerate, which greatly enhances the flow and feel of the already-insane combat.

Konami has done a masterful job of cleaning up these games and making them next-gen worthy; at least as far as presentation is concerned. When it comes to gameplay, Zone of the Enders was already ahead of its time and in my opinion has still yet to be matched by any other game in a similar genre. If you are a fan of intense combat, giant robots, and flamboyant special effects then don’t miss out on Zone of the Enders – HD Collection. It’s the best bang for your buck this holiday season.


















F1 Race Stars Review – Xbox 360

Now that Nintendo has finally joined the HD age with their new Wii U system it’s only a matter of time before we get an HD version of Mario Kart, but until then, and for everyone who doesn’t have a Wii U, Codemasters takes a refreshing break from their more serious racers to deliver one of the finest family-friendly, and party-centric racing games of this generation.

F1 Race Stars combines bobble-head versions of real-world F1 profession drivers with an imaginative assortment of fantasy tracks from around the world, then throws in an exciting mix of car and combat power-ups to create some of the best non-serious racing moments I’ve had behind the virtual wheel this year. After games like NFS Most Wanted, Forza Horizon, and F1 2012, games like F1 Race Stars are a relaxing break and a great reason to have the family gather around the Xbox or invite your friends over for some fast and furious four-player split-screen racing.

 F1 Race Stars offers 90 events, or rather 30 events in three classes (1000cc, 2000cc, 3000cc), and events can include anywhere from one to five individual races that score you based on your finishing position and all add up to that final podium total. You can play the career mode or just start up a quick game of casual racing or party play action, but the real treat is being able to work on your own private career while having up to three of your friends playing in split-screen.

The F1 licensing is a nice marketing gimmick but I find it unlikely that any true F1 fan will be seeking this out unless they have kids, and for casual or non-F1 fans, the license seems like a waste. Of the large stable of real-world drivers, I only recognized about three names. I guess Codemasters already owns the license, so it’s not a big deal to use it, and who knows…this may just be the gateway “drug” to get pre-teens interested in their dad’s copy of F1 2012. I have to admit, it is rather amusing to see the various bobble-head avatars of these racing pros in all their delightful animations prior to the green light and especially their podium antics.

Once the race starts things get real crazy real fast with everyone jockeying for position then trying to keep the lead while the rest of pack tries to take you out. Much like Mario Kart, it’s not always to your advantage to take an early lead since that makes you a prime target for the mostly forward-firing weapons found in the game. There are no blue tortoise shells or mushrooms in F1 Race Stars. It’s all about bubbles…red bubbles, yellow bubbles, and blue bubbles. Red bubbles are self-guiding and seek out and snare an opponent while blue bubbles get dropped like mines waiting for somebody to drive into them, and yellow bubbles fire forward or back and ricochet of the walls until they hit somebody or fade away.

 There are some other fun power-ups like putting a safety car in front of another racer preventing them from passing, or triggering a rain storm that drenches the track where only you have wet tires equipped, or even singling out one racer and putting a storm cloud over their car. You can stock up on turbo boosts, turn into a rocket to take the lead, or even warp to a front position. Special KERS sections on the track allow you to build up boost on the turns then gain a moment of turbo when you hit the tarmac. Your car will also take damage that will reduce your top speed and force you to seek out any of several pit lanes on each circuit for a quick drive-through repair.

The one thing I really appreciated about F1 Race Stars, especially when playing my solo career, is that the same computer racers won’t always be placing high up in the standings unlike other games where only one or two computer racers were your only real threat. This means that you don’t always have to have a podium finish to win an overall event. In games like Mario Kart, even one third-place finish could ruin your chance for the gold trophy, but in F1 Race Stars I’ve stood at the top of the podium with a 5th or even 6th place finish in my race history.

And with such crazy and unpredictable A.I. and so many changing and evolving race dynamics, you really never know who is going to win. You can be in first place one second and find yourself in 12th place the next. The game seems to fortune those at the back of the pack and provides power-ups that will move them to the front, but once you are in the lead the paranoia of keeping it takes over immediately, as everyone on the track is gunning for you. Thankfully, you can shoot bubbles forward to eliminate blue bubble traps on the track or fire blue or yellow bubbles behind you to act as decoys for incoming attacks that are indicated by a red tracking dot below your car.

 Tracks are fast, fun, and incredibly challenging with multiple paths, shortcuts, secrets, some of which change in real-time during the race. One track has this series of S-turns, but if you time it right bombers will fly over and blast a linear shortcut through the terrain giving you a substantial lead. There are insane high banked curves, loops, and even one track that puts you on a roller coaster. As with most games, it’s all about learning the tracks and the best way to get around them in a variety of circumstances. If car combat is heavy in the shortcut you may be better off taking the longer but safer section of track, as undamaged cars are always faster than sparking, smoking ones with wobbly wheels.

F1 Race Stars is releasing amongst a heated battle of kid-friendly racing competition this holiday season with the PS3 exclusive, LittleBigPlanet Kart Racing and Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed fighting for your dollar. Having played all three I can safely say that F1 Race Stars is likely to have the most mass appeal. Despite being a Sony exclusive, LBP is more about creation than racing, and Sonic is going after licensed character appeal like Wreck-It Ralph, and a unique style of racing that blends air, sea, and land. F1 Race Stars is all about pure kart racing in a style that we all know and love – especially if you are a fan of Mario Kart, and while the F1 license probably won’t enhance the appeal of this game, it certainly doesn’t hurt it. I highly recommend this game for anyone with a family or a regular group of friends who like to gather for some social gaming goodness.