Category Archives: Game Reviews

Dark Arcana: The Carnival HD Review – iOS

Dark Arcana: The Carnival HD is the latest in the long line of HOA games from G5 Entertainment, so if you have played any of the others then you likely know what to expect, great graphics, cool background music, and various puzzles that will have you scouring ever pixel on your iPad for various items concealed in the complex backgrounds.

Dark Arcana: The Carnival has a rather sinister theme about it. Personally, carnivals are creepy enough already but when you throw in this supernatural twist along with some truly diabolical graphics and uncomfortable settings, this was one of the few iPad games to have me squirming in my seat. You’ll play as a detective in search of a mother who mysteriously vanishes into a mirror when she takes her daughter to the carnival.

The game does a great job of creating unique locations and puzzles that are all themed after the carnival element as well as specific amusements you’d find on the boardwalk. Early on, you will gain the invaluable assistance of a monkey who can help you during your investigation.

As always, the puzzles include both finding objects in the background as well as assembling key items to solve more elaborate puzzles. The hidden objects aren’t terribly difficult to find, but if you are having trouble or just want to ease the eye strain you can play a card-matching game that will earn you the same objects you could have found otherwise. It’s very similar to the Mahjong game from Nightmares from the Deep that did the same thing. Another great feature borrowed from Nightmares is the inclusion of a map that outlines the carnival and places that need visiting, and limits random wandering and needless backtracking.

Dark Arcana: The Carnival HD looks amazing on the iPad with full retina support. The backgrounds were so incredibly detail I never had need to use the zoom function to find anything. The combination of colors and detail created a unique blend of magical enchantment and supernatural evil that was quite unique, and the eerie soundtrack and sinister sound effects always kept me on the edge of my seat.

These games are nothing without a good story and The Carnival has a great one that will keep you glued to your iPad until it’s over, and with three modes, Casual, Advanced, and Expert, you can tailor the game to your own experience level. Expect 4-5 hours of chilling gameplay, although once finished you likely won’t return anytime soon. Even so, Dark Arcana: The Carnival HD is one of the best HOA games I’ve played this year.


Epic Adventures: Cursed Onboard HD Review – iOS

Epic Adventures: Cursed Onboard is another HOA game that G5 Entertainment is using to bolster their library that is already bursting at the seams with these cookie-cutter knockoffs, and while some of these titles stand out as truly innovative and fun, sadly, this isn’t one of those times. If anything, this game felt more like another of their uninspired adventures, La Jangada; a lot of puzzles held together with a paper-thin plot and poor presentation.

You’ll play Melissa Alan; a detective trying to solve a mystery from the 1970’s involving a family that vanished on a cruise up the Amazon River. Things start off well enough with a suitably interesting story and setup for the adventure at hand, and even the first few visuals manage to suck you in, but once you get past that first puzzle the game starts sinking fast. This game was obviously developed overseas and suffers from numerous translation problems similar to those found in La Jangada. While these could have been avoided by using silhouettes or some visual hint, trying to understand exactly what you are looking for becomes this game’s greatest challenge and ultimate failure.

Once the story slips into the background you are left with 90% hidden-object puzzles, which only exasperates the translations issues. And when you combine that with the amount of puzzles that have you searching the same uninspired (and even ugly) backgrounds over and over for different items, you’ll find your finger sliding over to the hint button more often than you’d like. Even when the game tries to throw in some random non-hidden-object puzzles it fails miserably. Combination puzzles are merely tedious trial and error affairs and other puzzles that require special objects to complete will remove those items from your inventory after their initial use, but since many of these objects are required for multiple puzzles you’ll have to replay levels to reacquire the item.

With broken puzzles, poor graphics, and a story that slips into obscurity an hour into the game only to resurface for the anti-climactic ending, this is one adventure not worth taking. It lacks any of the key elements required by the HOA genre, and when the game is so boring and mediocre that you merely want to tap the hint button to get through it, only to be disappointed by the end… well, let’s just say that Epic Adventures: Cursed Onboard HD is far from epic and not much of an adventure. Save your money and buy just about anything else in the G5 library.


Green Jelly HD Review – iOS

One of my favorite mobile puzzle games of all time is Cut the Rope, so when G5 sent me a review code for Green Jelly HD and promised that it was “a lot like that game” I was understandably excited. I promptly downloaded and started playing and it wouldn’t be for at least 60+ minutes later that I even looked up from my iPad. Green Jelly HD is so darn cute and so much fun that it truly is the impossible game to put down.

The premise is simple. You are a block of green jelly that looks like a sickly Sponge Bob minus the square pants. There are three pieces of candy on each screen that serve as your level score and also as a means to unlock new levels in the Chocolate and Waffles zone, but only the best puzzle gamers will ever reach the Waffle levels – the game is just that challenging. So using the touch screen you can drag from the Green Jelly dude and attach to various pegs around the level. This allows you to swing and even slingshot yourself to new heights. Some levels require you to make Angry Birds-style leaps of faith to arc over obstacles or pass through candies you can’t get otherwise then quickly attach yourself to a new peg before you fall off the bottom of the screen or land in a hazard. Collect the three candies (or as many as you can) then exit via the door in the candy house.

Hazards start off simple enough, but as you get further into the game the spiked balls increase in number and always seem to be in the path to your candy. But as wires and lasers get added to the list of dangers, your own bag of tricks increases with new ways to navigate the levels, but you are always going to need fast resources and a good eye for geometry and reactionary physics. The early levels ramp up nicely in difficulty but about the time you hit the Chocolate levels things start to get seriously difficult, and while you don’t need all three candies to advance, you’ll likely have to revisit some levels to add any missing candy to unlock the final levels in the game.

There are 60 levels in the core game with more levels coming in future expansions. With scaling difficulty and more than 10 types of objects to interact with, and 20 amusing achievements to strive for, Green Jelly HD is a game you won’t be putting away anytime soon. The graphics are charming and colorful with great elastic animations and the sound and music fits with the sugary sweet gameplay.

Green Jelly HD is by far one of the best surprises from G5 Entertainment this year. I normally expect another installment in their ongoing HOA games, so when they come up with something as original and delightful as this fantastic puzzler I can’t help but give this my wholehearted recommendation. Green Jelly HD is one sweet game!


Pilot Brothers HD Review – iOS

The Pilot Brothers have not only been around longer than Professor Layton, the Russian duo have had logged considerably more hours solving various mysterious and puzzles dating back to the 90’s. The characters were originally created for a cartoon series in the 80’s then made their way into Soviet gaming, but this is the first time American audiences get to experience the quirky pair of inept gumshoes.

Pilot Brothers is a rather short game made longer by some troublesome controls and frustrating gameplay. It seems an elephant has gone missing from the local zoo and you need to find it by investigating clues and interacting with people and possible suspects in 15 unique locations. While the missing elephant carries the overall story, each scene has its own mini-agenda, and once you exhaust all the clues and conversation in that area you advance to the next. Some of the scenes are very short, often only requiring 2-3 steps to complete, and assuming you can get past the broken interface, you can likely finish the entire game in 2-3 hours.

As is typical with most adventures, you’ll find plenty of puzzles that need to be solved, and while many of these are amusing and even logical at times, others seem to be so off-the-wall you’ll either need some radical thinking or a walkthrough to ever figure them out. Thankfully, G5 offers both a hint button and a video solution option, each with a cool down timer to prevent too much abuse, should you get terribly stuck on any one puzzle. The hint button is annoying in that is shows you all possible interactions on a given scene – even the ones you have already completed.

But even clever outside-the-box thinking won’t help you overcome the troublesome controls that mostly involve imprecise character selection, response, and position based on where you tap the screen. And with some interactions measured by mere pixels, the game can prove extremely frustrating when you think you are where you need to be but are off by just a fraction. This could have all been fixed with a pinch-zoom feature. Some puzzles also require the use of one character versus the other, but these choices have no logical reasons, so it is merely more trial and error to extend an already short game.

As far as presentation, the art style is, shall we say, unique. They are definitely going more for style than to showcase your iPad’s graphics capabilities, but the visuals do exude their own unique and quirky charm. The sound mix is horrible in that the music drowns out the dialogue, and with no mixing options you’ll be forced to turn the music off entirely if you want to hear Chief and Colleague speak.

I was really hoping to like Pilot Brothers, not just because it was a much-welcomed departure from the weekly installment of HOA games, but because it looked to provide an original graphics style and a cool buddy-cop element with a fun mystery to solve. Sadly, at the end of the day, the only mystery is why and how did this Cold War Soviet relic ever get released on the iPad.

избежание этой игре


A New Beginning – Final Cut Review – PC

Adventure games are back on the rise. Just look at The Walking Dead, which has already been nominated and even won several Game of the Year awards for 2012 from multiple outlets. And if you own a tablet like the iPad you already know the abundance of adventure titles on that platform, even if they are more of the hidden-object variety. A New Beginning hearkens back to the classic adventures of an almost-forgotten era, and while Daedalic Entertainment has tried to desperately recreate that point-and-click vibe, the end results is a clustered mess of poor presentation, moronic puzzles, and an overbearing eco-friendly story that was probably co-authored by Al Gore.

The setup and premise is brilliant. We start the game in the future just days before the end of world as an impending solar flare is about to render the planet uninhabitable. It seems a similar event forced everyone underground years before, but this one is going to decimate the planet. The only solution is to send a group of scientists back in time and try to stop mankind’s careless indifference toward out planet and our natural resources. It might just be the most socially and eco-friendly message in a game since Eco the Dolphin, but numerous gameplay and technical issues provide for way too many distractions to ever get immersed in the story.

First up is the 4:3 aspect ratio. Seriously? I haven’t played a game with black bars on the side since…well…I can’t remember. I expect such things on my iPad but not on my PC. The graphics themselves can be quite attractive at times, but the animation is stilted and awkward. There are a few interesting effects like multiple panels that slowly form a full page of graphic novel-style story, or black and white scenes with colored window overlays to highlight important elements, and some of the background art is exceptional.

The real distraction is the audio, which features the absolute worst voice acting I have ever heard in a video game including the “master of lock picking” line from the original Resident Evil. All the dialogue is recorded in very short sentences and phrases then stitched together in a way that feels like everyone is an emotionless android. I can’t express how painful it was to wander the cabin in the prologue clicking on various hot spots and listening to Bent drone on in his robotic ramblings. I was half-expecting the MST3000 robot silhouettes to appear in the lower corner.

But even if you were able to overlook the visual and audio shortcomings and focus on the gameplay, the puzzles in A New Beginning are so linear and so forced into the situations, and you will be backtracking all over the place to solve the most mundane of puzzles. I ultimately played the game in a window with an FAQ open right next to it just to get through this game for review purposes. There is nothing compelling about the story or the ridiculous puzzles to remotely make me want to play this game on my own, especially when the game can last upwards of 8-10 hours depending on your puzzle-solving skills. I finished the game in just under six hours using a walkthrough from start to finish.

A New Beginning is a dismal attempt at adventure gaming that might have found a home on the iPad, but with its horrible dialogue and poorly implemented puzzles, I doubt mobile gamers would be any less forgiving. You can get this game for $10 on Steam and see how adventure games should not be made, or you can drop $25 for The Walking Dead and see the future of the genre. Daedalic Entertainment has made some pretty good games in the past, but A New Beginning is not one of them and should be avoided at all costs.


Assassin’s Creed III Review – Xbox 360

As a lover of both stealth and action games, Assassin’s Creed is easily one of my favorite franchises out there, even if it did take me awhile to warm up to the whole sci-fi front end of the story with the Animus and diving into memories embedded in DNA. I suppose it’s a neat way to tie all the various games together into something much grander than they would have been had they been released as standalone titles. It also allows for nearly unlimited creative freedom, as we can travel just about anywhere at any point along the historic time line. Personally, I was hoping the next game was going to be set in London; perhaps working Jack the Ripper into Desmond’s ancestry, but Ubisoft is taking us quite literally to a New World in Assassin’s Creed III.

When I first learned that this new game was going to be set in 18th century America I had my doubts, but it only took a few hours of actually playing Assassin’s Creed III before I slipped into my old assassin ways. The story once again begins with Desmond and his crew seeking out a new base of operations in order to prevent the Templar from unleashing a devastating attack on the modern population using ancient technology. Once he starts DNA diving we get a brief opening level with an assassination in a giant theater before hopping a ship to America. Even the 30+ minutes on the ship offer up some great moments, both in sheer spectacle as well as a possible mutiny you’ll need to foil when are you below decks talking to the crew and playing challenging board games. Depending on your focus, it can be upwards of an hour or more before the clouds part and the title screen appears signaling your arrival at the New World.

At its core, the gameplay is much like all the previous games. You’ll start to stack up primary and secondary missions along with the random fetch-quests; the first from none other than Ben Franklin who has lost some pages from his Farmers’ Almanac. The game does a good job of propelling you through the main story-driven events while providing you with ample free time to check off these side objectives, and you are always free to exit the Animus and return to the present to catch up with Desmond.

Game mechanics are also still intact even if the world around you is much more vertically challenged this time around. There are no more instances of climbing for several minutes to the top of dizzying tower heights before swan diving into a haystack. Most buildings are only 2-3 stories when in town and your traipsing through the treetops is not much higher. The whole parkour element has been automated to the point where you merely need to keep the trigger held down and the stick pushed forward to have Conner navigate the levels with acrobatic ease.

Combat is also fluid, at least for melee and stealth kills. Ranged weapons are entirely another matter, and you will quickly learn that muzzle-loaders suck in battle, especially when you realize you can’t reload while running. Some of the earlier missions had me carrying a rifle and a pistol just so I could get off two quick shots before retreating to a safe reload distance. The good news is that it takes just as long for the enemy to reload, so if you can dodge their bullets you can easily kill them with a sword or knife during their reload animation, assuming they aren’t sniping from a rooftop.

I did notice the stealth element a bit lacking. Perhaps I was just used to all the disguises from the new Hitman game, but even blending into crowds didn’t seem to function as well as it has in past games, which can make some missions like stealth pursuit and eavesdropping more challenging than they needed to be.

Conner will find himself exploring the great outdoors much more than cities in this game, which offers plenty of opportunities for hunting, trapping, and other frontier activities, but without the integrated crafting element of a game like Far Cry 3 these hunting expeditions feel a bit contrived, almost as much as some of the QTE moments when you are attacked by random predators. Also lurking beneath the surface is a fairly important economic system that ties into Conner’s homestead; something you are continually working to improve upon, so you can bring new workers to your base of operations. These workers fuel the trade system which in turn allows Conner to upgrade his various weapons and armor.

And if there wasn’t enough to do on land, just wait until you climb aboard your own majestic sailing vessel and take the adventure to the high seas in a part of the game that could easily have been marketed as a standalone title. Not only are these missions gorgeous to watch, the gameplay mechanics of commanding a ship, piloting, attacking, and boarding other vessels will have you singing, “It’s a pirate’s life for me…” And again, there is a whole economy and ship upgrade system in place to keep you coming back for more.

Assassin’s Creed III does an amazing job of not only recreating a visually stunning 18th century frontier; it sets up incredibly rich characters and stories you care about. Following Conner through his adolescence only gives you deeper insight into that character as an adult. I was also surprised with the insightful use of historical figures and the way they were portrayed in the various events without all of the editorial cleansing of our public school history books. After the initial encounter with Ben Franklin I was expecting a bunch of Forest Gump style brushes with notoriety, but every encounter was integrated perfectly to fuel the Templar backstory and preserve our own understanding of history.

I was very excited to jump into the newly designed multiplayer, especially after Assassin’s Creed III snatched the Best Multiplayer award from expected favorites like Black Ops 2 and Halo 4 at this year’s E3 show. I’ve always loved the multiplayer aspect of Assassin’s Creed, even if it hasn’t had the largest or most loyal of followings, but Ubisoft is taking steps to increase that fan base with some cool new cooperative multiplayer. Wolf Pack puts your team on a timer and has you killing a set number of targets to add time to the clock and advance the level. As you get deeper into the tiered session the targets are more spread out and on higher alert, making each sequence that much more challenging.

But even if you prefer the more traditional multiplayer modes, you’ll be delighted that Ubisoft has created an entirely new front end with a fantastic story element that ties into the whole Abstergo/Templar storyline to create an immersive setting for some of the best and most suspenseful cat-and-mouse gameplay ever. I think our E3 awards got it right, as I will be playing Assassin’s Creed III creative multiplayer modes much longer than any other multiplayer game this year.

As far as presentation, the Xbox 360 looks fantastic with incredible details and textures, stunning lifelike animation from the sneakiest crouched walk to the fastest of parkour leaps across roof and treetops. All animations flow seamlessly together and respond quickly with controller input creating a very satisfying combat experience. Draw distance can be limited at times and there is a bit of pop-up. Obviously, the jaw-dropping DirectX 11 PC version of the game outclasses the console graphics, but if you don’t have a high-end PC rig then the Xbox 360 looks and plays great.

Composer, Lorne Balfe has creating a soundtrack that is as sweepingly grand and majestic as the visuals, with moments of suspense, action, drama, and adventure that all cue perfectly to the onscreen events. This flawless score blends with realistic sound effects, both manmade and natural environmental noises, and the script and professionally voiced dialogue is a real treat and helps to keep you interested in the story.

While I had my fair share of minor glitches and issues with Assassin’s Creed III on the Xbox 360, none of them were game-breaking, and most were dwarfed by the sheer spectacle of presentation and the epic nature of this historic romp through colonial history. While I’m sure liberties were taking with a few people, places, and events, I certainly had more fun exploring this time in America’s past than any of my high school history classes, and the Season Pass will keep that entertainment flowing well into 2013.

And best of all, thanks to a brilliantly designed and narrated opening recap of all the past games courtesy of John de Lancie, newcomers can dive into Assassin’s Creed III without having ever played another game…but I seriously recommend the entire franchise to anyone who enjoys stealth-action-adventure. It just doesn’t get any better than this.


Call of Duty: Black Ops II Review – Wii U

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 enhanced online gameplay, I can safely say that this is the best Call of Duty game Treyarch has ever released, especially on a Nintendo platform. In fact, let’s get the Wii U specifics out of the way first then you can read the rest of the review, which is pretty much what I had to say about the Xbox 360 version.

On the surface, Black Ops 2 on the Wii is virtually identical to the Xbox 360 version in content and features. Technically speaking, the audio isn’t quite as nice as the 360 but the graphics are much nicer with sharper detail and possibly even better textures. There is absolutely no screen tearing on the Wii U – something I can’t say about the 360 version. Sadly, the framerate cannot match the 60fps you’ll get on the Xbox but it never really seemed to dip below 30fps, which is more than acceptable. You’ll also notice a hit on the framerate when playing splitscreen, but interesting enough, no performance hit when merely mirroring the display to the GamePad in campaign play.

Your biggest obstacle will ultimately be the controller, and even then, that will only be a problem if you are coming off another console/gamepad. You’ll likely want to use the new Wii U Pro controller which of course, Nintendo has seen fit to awkwardly design with the right stick above the buttons, and of course use their own labeling scheme and reposition all the commands that any Call of Duty veteran has already committed to muscle memory. Thankfully, you can go into the options and change to classic controls, which will put all the commands in their familiar place as long as you can “tune out” the letter/icon prompts. And also, due to the reversed button/stick position you really have to reach for the X (err…I mean Y button) to reload. I kept hitting top X button which swapped weapons when I really only wanted to reload.

While the GamePad offers functional controls and some cool touchscreen features in multiplayer like activating Score Streaks or changing up your class without pausing the game, I just found the device too bulky and heavy for any prolonged sessions. You can use the secondary screen for you mini-map as well for two player-games without having to split the screen, although somebody will have to settle for the smaller screen, or you can just split the large screen as normal. You can also move the game from your TV to the GamePad for some private gaming if you want, but given the 3-hour battery life, this probably isn’t an option. And for those rooted in their old Wii controls, you are free to use the Wii remote and nunchuk, or even your old classic controller.

With so many ways to play your only real challenge will be finding somebody to play with. While the multiplayer if just as functional, fun, and robust as the other consoles and even the PC, you won’t find a whole lot of people playing, or at least non as many. In most of my online sessions active players were usually less than 5,000 whereas you can find upwards of half a million playing on Xbox Live any time of night or day. Hopefully, the Wii U online community will grow, as more systems and copies of the game saturate the market on and after the holidays. While the Wii U isn’t my first or even second choice for playing Black Ops 2, those firmly entrenched in Nintendo’s camp will certainly find the best Call of Duty experience ever created for a Nintendo console.

Now on to the game review itself…

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 there was no responsive means for choosing my three 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.

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 look just a tad better on the Wii U than it does on the Xbox 360, even if at half the FPS, amazes me. There are moments of visual splendor, shock, awe, and amazement but there are also times when I cringed at shadow locked into the background.

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 already have a Wii U or are still waiting to get your hands on a system then make sure to add Black Ops II to your wishlist of launch library titles. 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.


Dishonored – Dunwall City Trials Review – Xbox 360

Dunwall is such a fantastic setting. With its rich backstory and incredible design, the plague-ridden, pseudo-Steampunk city is easily the star of Dishonored. The game’s first piece of DLC, Dunwall City Trials, should have focused more on its namesake. Instead, it emphasizes the “trial” aspect. It is a set of challenges far removed from the campaign. Though some diehards will enjoy the extra mileage, many will be put off by the complete lack of any tie-in to the rest of Dishonored. Furthermore, Dunwall City Trials is an uneven experience that fails to add anything meaningful to the experience.

In spite of the title, Dunwall is strangely absent from Dishonored’s first piece of DLC. All of the trials take place within The Void, the murky dream-like world of the Outsider. Assumedly, players are in Corvo’s shoes once again. The complete lack of context renders this meaningless. There is no story here and no larger goal in sight. Players can unlock pieces of artwork and a few extra achievements. Aside from some leaderboard rankings, that’s about it.

At first glance, Dunwall City Trials seems promising. It contains 10 new stand-alone challenges, and many have unlockable expert difficulties. They are divided into four categories: stealth, combat, puzzle and speed. Starting with the stealth trials impressed me. The levels are like miniature versions of Dishonored. Players have to find a set of clues to discover who to assassinate. The target changes each time, along with the locations of the clues.

Had all ten of the challenges been stealth-based, they may have grown old quickly, but at least they would have been consistent. The other three types of trials grow old quickly. The combat ones are particularly grating. Dishonored was designed to be more about stealth, and this definitely comes through. One of the combat challenges has players shooting explosive barrels as they are dropped from a train. It feels completely out of place, more like Raving Rabbids than Dishonored. The controls definitely fall short here. They are far too sloppy to offer accurate shooting.

The two puzzle challenges are novel in concept. In one, players stop time as soon as they enter a room. They then have to kill a set number of people before time resumes. Doing well earns points and moves players to the next challenge. The other puzzle trial features inactive enemies strewn about. Players have to find ways to kill all the enemies with no more than three seconds between each kill. The glaring flaw in both of these puzzle trials is the procedural nature here. Immediately after completing one stage, players move to the next. There are bonus stages, but they do little to alter the formula. Rather than forcing players into a set of challenges, these should have had their own sub menus with a level select feature. As they are now, they get stale very quickly.

Speed challenges comprise the final three trials. These are a little more entertaining. They involve either racing through a level, racing to random checkpoints in one level, or racing and performing drop assassinations. Though all work fairly well, they’re completed very quickly. The only remaining incentive to revisit any of the trials is to improve one’s score.

Playing through Dunwall City Trials reminded me of the various challenge modes in the Timesplitters games. The main difference is Timesplitters’ modes were packed with variety and had boatloads of unlocks. Dunwall City Trials is an insubstantial add-on. It offers a modicum of entertainment, but none of the intrigue found in the campaign.


Far Cry 3 Review – Xbox 360

The original Far Cry game shattered all sorts of barriers when it came to graphically lush, huge, open-world sandbox shooters when it debuted on the PC in 2004. The following year Ubisoft attempted to release a heavily modified version of the game on the Xbox, and to their credit, the game was remarkable, but admittedly fell short due to hardware limitations. Well, we don’t have to wait a year to find that history does indeed repeat itself.

Far Cry 3 is out now for both the Xbox 360 and the PC. I’ve played them both extensively even though I got the proverbial short straw and ended up reviewing the console version. That’s not to say the 360 is inferior to the PC in any “major” way, but more accurately lacks the polish of the PC game. Let’s face it; the Xbox 360 is seven years old now – good luck trying to get the PC game to run on a system built in 2005. And the only real reason I even mention the 360 shortcomings is because of just how damn amazing the PC version is (top 3 best looking games of 2012), and if you own a capable PC then you owe it to yourself as a gamer and to the artistic wizards at Ubisoft to experience this game in all its DirectX 11 tropical glory.

So, if you are still with me I’ll assume you are “stuck” playing the 360 version. Never fear; you get a few nice features that the PC people don’t including a much easier co-op and multiplayer experience, and some cool social features with people on your friends list. And frankly, if you haven’t seen the PC version running on a high-end system you won’t even know what you are missing.

Far Cry 3 is hugely ambitious, both in the size of its explorable world and the blurring of at least a half-dozen genres. Throw GTA, Just Cause, Tomb Raider, Hitman, Splinter Cell, Assassin’s Creed, Cabala’s Dangerous Hunts, Red Dead Redemption, and Skyrim (yes…Skyrim) into the blender, and enjoy the tasty smoothie that is Far Cry 3. You’ll pilot all sorts of land, sea, and even air vehicles as you explore the Rook archipelago. You’ll explore lost tombs in search of ancient relics, you’ll relieve fallen Japanese soldiers of their lost letters home, you’ll hunt everything from rabid dogs, pigs, boars, and goats to tigers, bears, and sharks, just to name a few of the soon-to-be-endangered species that will offer up their hides to fuel Far Cry 3’s mighty crafting system – a system second only to Skyrim. You’ll harvest all sorts of colorful plant life and mix and match these herbs to create all variety of injectable buffs. And this is just the filler material. We haven’t even gotten to why you are on this island.

You play Jason, one of a group of rich friends on a whirlwind vacation, when a fateful skydiving jump lands you all on islands inhabited by pirates and slavers. When you wake up, the girls are missing and you find yourself in a cage with your brother being taunted by the villain in charge – Vaas. One of the more satisfactory elements about this game is that you aren’t playing some badass dude or one-man killing machine, but actually some spoiled little punk who has to learn to not only kill but survive, especially when your military-trained brother eats a bullet ten minutes into the tutorial. This triggers an exciting chase through the jungle that ends with you falling from a Temple of Doom-style rope bridge and waking up days later under the care of Dennis Rogers.

Dennis is the leader of his own tribal village and the key to Jason following his destiny that will take him down the Path of the Warrior and restore peace to these trouble isles. Dennis not only serves as the hub for many of your earlier quests, he is a wealth of information that will slowly trickle into your encyclopedic handbook you can reference from the pause menu. He will teach you to hunt and forage and guide you through the three skill trees that allow you to enhance Jason’s abilities; skills that are brilliantly represented by a mystical tattoo that slowly creeps down your left arm. Later, he will introduce you to Citra, and that is when your real training begins.

At its core, Far Cry 3 is a survivalist game. When you start off you can only carry one gun, a few syringes, and limited cash. You’ll need to start hunting, skinning, and crafting to build bigger holsters, loot sacks, and wallets, not to mention quivers for your arrows and larger med kits that can hold more syringes. It’s a diabolical balancing act that rewards both casual hunting (moments of opportunity) as well as sending you off on a dedicated quest when you realize you can’t carry any more cash. When you have acquired the right amount of components a crafting prompt will indicate you can create a new item, but other times necessity demands you actively seek out a species, so if you want a wallet that holds $6,000 you are going to have to kill and skin yourself two sharks or if you want a quiver for your arrows you’ll need to carve up a goat. Crafted items all have multiple tiers, so the larger the capacity the more number of rare animals are required. You’ll need to go on very specific hunting missions to acquire the best in each category. And then you have all the herbal concoctions from simple healing to giving you enhanced hunting instincts, holding your breath longer under water, and even making you temporarily flameproof.

The amount of activities available is overwhelming to say the least, and you can play this game for hours without ever advancing the story. The first thing you need to do is start deactivating these jammers on the top of 18 radio towers spread across the island. Doing so triggers an Assassin’s Creed-style spinning camera that highlights some cool landmarks in that sector and lights up a new grid on your map. Each deactivated tower also means more free weapons at the various shops and vending machines. I found it a bit refreshing that I was able to live almost entirely “off the land” using the stores mostly for buying and equipping various attachments to my weapons. I spent most of my cash on the numerous treasure maps that will reveal all the loot and special items in this collectibles paradise; items like SD cards, war letters, and relics.

Far Cry 3 not only gives you the freedom to go wherever and do whatever, it also gives you the freedom of how to play. The skills are cool but don’t really allow for customization of Jason since you always have enough skill points to purchase them all, so it’s not a matter of what to unlock but when. The real freedom lies within the person playing. You can Rambo through a level or you can stealth it like Sam Fisher; a tactic that will reward you with bonus XP in some missions like Outpost assaults. Nothing is more satisfying than using your camera to lock in the locations of all visible enemies then creep into a camp and start disabling alarms and slitting throats. You also get Hitman abilities of distraction by tossing an endless supply of rocks to lure guards away and concealing leftover corpses after a takedown move.

Unlike any game before it, Far Cry 3 really captures the feel of being a “hunter”, but sometimes the hunter can also become the prey. On multiple occasions I was stalking human or animal targets only to find myself being stalked by a tiger or worse. I was sneaking up on two slavers escorting two prisoners and just as I was about to attack and free them I heard a hiss, turned and was face to snout with a Komodo dragon, and you can’t really fire without alerting the slavers, so I am slashing away at this giant lizard with my knife when two more rush in. But thanks to a fully functional ecosystem, when I got up and sprinted away, the two slavers saw and followed and the dragons attacked and killed them. I love that about this game – you can use the world as a weapon. I was witness to several leopards clearing out an entire beach camp, and on another occasion there was a snake inside a hut. I tossed a rock through the window which prompted a guard to go inside and investigate and a moment later I heard a hiss, followed by a yell and a thud as his body hit the floor. Far Cry 3 is perhaps the most realistic and unpredictable game I’ve ever played.

My only real issue with the overall game design is that the core story is nothing more than a series of side missions of their own. I might know my girlfriend is at a certain location, but I don’t have a clock telling me to go there and free her. Normally, the story is what carries you through the game and you have to force yourself to do the side stuff, but in Far Cry 3 I almost always had to make a conscious effort to hit that mission that would advance the story, and even when I did lock in that waypoint on the map I would still try to grab a few collectibles along the way.

As hinted in my opening, the Xbox 360 just isn’t up to the task of doing this game the justice it truly deserves, but that doesn’t mean the game doesn’t look good. Just expect a lot more textures snapping into focus, foliage magically appearing a few yards ahead of you, and frequent framerate issues and screen tearing, especially when you take to the skies or start speeding down a road in a car or across the ocean in a boat or jet ski. Playing Far Cry 3 on the Xbox 360 is like being stranded on a tropical island after losing your prescription glasses. Playing on the PC is what it would be like if you found them.

The rest of the presentation if film-worthy from the incredibly professional voice cast to the perfectly place sound effects and environmental sounds of a living breathing jungle, to Brian Tyler’s score that blends suspense, action, and adventure with some cool tribal themes. One of my favorite audio treats in the game is whenever you get close to a hidden relic you start hearing this sinister tribal chanting like you’re about to be cursed.

Far Cry 3 supports both online co-op for 2-4 players and up to 14-person multiplayer, both of which are much more accessible on the 360 than the PC, but are sadly not nearly as fun as playing alone. The co-op campaign deals with four survivors from the S.S. Astrid, a black-market cruise ship who was abandoned by its captain leaving Leonard, Mikhail, Tisha, and Callum at the mercy of Vaas. These characters all have complementing skills but are much weaker than Jason in the solo game, so you end up relying on each other a lot more to revive fallen friends. You also have a cool Battle Cry that will temporarily “buff” your abilities. The only things about the co-op I didn’t like was that the missions are more linear and shooter driven, so you don’t get to do as much of the cool stealth or tactical attacks you would expect when you have up to three other players.

Competitive multiplayer doesn’t fare much better and just seems like a forced addition because it’s expected these days. The various modes deal with the two opposing forces on the island, the Rakyat and the pirates, and have cool ideas like XP and leveling, which in turn can trigger airdrops of burning oil or mind-alternating Psych Gas. As you win matches you unlock SD cards that can be decrypted for special signature weapons. It’s not that the modes aren’t original or fun, but the maps are poorly designed with questionable spawn points, and it is all too easy to get stuck on random objects in the level when you are trying to get somewhere fast.

Modes includes Domination where you capture and hold control points on the map, Team Deathmatch where you can actually reduce your enemy’s kill count by reviving your teammates, Transmission where you need to find and protect various broadcast transmitters for as long as possible to keep increasing your score, and finally, Firestorm. Firestorm is my favorite mode and has both teams trying to destroy the two enemy supply depots while protecting their own. You only have a short time to ignite the second stash before the first one burns out, but if you can get them both lit at the same time a firestorm ensues. At this point a radio appears on the map and it’s a race to see which team can reach that radio first. If the team who triggered the firestorm gets there first a plane will fly over and dump fuel on the rest of the map burning out the enemy and ending the game, but if the defending team gets the radio that same plane will dump water on the supply depots and reset the match.

Second only to Skyrim, Far Cry 3 is perhaps the most epic of game worlds ever created for this generation of gaming. It’s just a shame there wasn’t a better story to carry me through that world. I was left feeling probably very much like Jason, lost and directionless and completely overwhelmed. There was one five-hour game session where I did nothing but search for relics and lost letters, and the simple act of getting from those visible icons on the map provided so much random entertainment. I would come across some pirate roadblock and a jeep chase would ensue that would lead me up a mountain road where I would escape by hang glider, or I was hunting a group of Cassowary only to have them stampede and knock me off a cliff into the ocean below where a shark was waiting forcing me to swim for my life to some half-sunken shipwreck that had a hidden relic in its hull.

Everything in Far Cry 3 is alive and seems interconnect, both in the elaborate ecosystem as well as the cascading mission design and the tiered structure of unlockable skills and crafting levels. I’m guessing there is more than 40+ hours of gameplay spread across the Rook Islands, and much like real life, what you do during that time is entirely up to you.