Category Archives: Game Reviews

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.

Sports Champions 2 Review – PlayStation 3

Zindagi Games is probably best known for the original Sports Champions that quickly became the equivalent of Wii Sports on the PS3, or maybe you enjoyed their Medieval Moves: Deadmund’s Quest game that released this time last year that took the sword and shield combat and archery components from Sports Champions and crafted them into a compelling fantasy adventure setting. Regardless, the masters of Move are back with Sports Champions 2, and after a week of solid solo and party fun I’m here to tell you about it.

Sports Champions 2 brings six new sports to the party, and much like the first game, you may not like them all but there are sure to be a few standout favorites. We now have Skiing, Tennis, Boxing, Bowling, Golf, and Archery. Okay…so maybe not everything is new. Archery is clearly back, and while the controls have been refined it is essentially the same game as before. Disc golf has been replaced with real golf, table tennis has been replaced with real tennis, and gladiator combat has been replaced with boxing.

These events can be approached in solo Cup Play, or if you would like to gather a group of friends you can check them all out in Free Play or Party Play that will organize the players into a tournament bracket and randomly choose the events. There have been several enhancements to the interface and the game engine that no longer requires the constant recalibration of the Move controller. You simply stand in your video box and squeeze Move+Trigger to lock in your controller…no more up-down-belt buckle aerobics. This also means that any player can use any controller, so you don’t have to keep track of a certain device/colored orb if you are playing with fewer controllers than players.

The first thing you have to do is create your character, either by choosing from the premade selection or creating your own avatar by customizing those characters with various clothing and gear that is unlocked through solo cup play. You’ll also get to take a snapshot of yourself, posing with a variety of augmented reality objects like a foam finger, dumbbell, trophy, hammer, or stick of dynamite just to name a few. This photo serves two purposes. It clearly shows which players will be playing the next event, and it also allows the winner of each event to deface the other player’s photo with various colors of magic marker. This can quickly turn an E10+ game into an M rated game with just a few strokes, but that’s not the ESRB’s problem. Later in the game you can also take victory poses and trophy photos and share them on your connected Facebook page.

Sports Champions 2 is obviously designed as a party game and it serves that function well by providing a lot of fun gameplay with challenging events and responsive controls, but sooner or later you will find yourself playing alone and Zindagi managed to work in a solid list of sequential challenges for each sport, and as you win one challenge the next will unlock in a surprisingly lengthy series of events. To add some pressure, you are awarded up to three gold stars for each event, and unlocking those can be extremely challenging, especially in the golf.

So how about those sports? Going down the line we’ll start with Skiing. Depending on how many controllers you have to go around, many of these games can be played with one or two motion controllers, and while you may get a bit of added precision when using two, it’s mostly a mental thing, and skiing is the perfect example. Skiing requires you to furiously move your hands as if you were gripping a pair of ski poles – or at least one ski pole if you only have one controller available as was the case in my four-player party with only two controllers. You pump the controller to build up speed than twist your wrist slightly to steer your way down the slope while raising up or ducking down to crouch or stand. It takes a few minutes to fully grasp the nuances but it’s a lot of fun when you figure it out.

Tennis is basically a poor-man’s version of Virtua Tennis 4 or EA’s Grand Slam Tennis. Like those dedicated tennis games, Zindagi fares no better in creating a connect feeling between your motions and the ones you are seeing on the screen. Delayed reactions and even blatant errors in making contact with the ball suck the fun out of this game and unlike table tennis where you can stand in one position, you must now contend with moving your player around the court to reach the ball. You can work through a lot of the timing issues by playing the solo cup, which will make everyone else hate you during party play.

Boxing is another game that really wants two controllers, otherwise you are trying to throw punches while pressing those tiny symbol buttons to dodge and weave and throw punch variations while simultaneously blocking with the trigger. Ultimately, multiplayer boxing matches devolved into both players furious punching away in a race to knock the other player out first (while trying not to hit the person standing by their side with a stray right cross), while solo play required a bit more strategy, but also allowed me to play using both controllers for more accurate rights and lefts.

Bowling has been done to death on the PS3 in everything from major releases to lame digital download variations and while the bowling in Sports Champions 2 is far from perfect, it is definitely in the top-3 of bowling games, not just on the PS3, but across all platforms, and much like Wii Sports, this is the standout game in the compilation. The Move does a phenomenal job of not only tracking speed but also the slightest of twists in your wrist to apply realistic spin on the ball effectively allowing you to bowl in this game just like you would in real-life (wear your wrist strap). Admittedly, some of the pin action is questionable at times, as I was picking up splits in the game I would never be able to do at my local lanes, but I have yet to bowl a 300 game – something I did almost immediately on the Wii. Playing in the solo cup events is great fun. Not only do you get to bowl against computer bowlers of increasing difficulty, you also get these crazy challenge events that put you on a timer for Super Pin Bowling or where you have to knock down pins lined up down the alley in crazy patterns and lines.

Golf is another game that is easy to find in other forms on the PS3 ranging from Tiger Woods to various mini-game variations, but Sports Champions 2 blurs the lines of both and brings you some surprisingly realistic golf action and responsive controls that again, detect the slightest twist of the wrist and mirrors that on the club face as well as the strength of your swing (wear that wrist strap). Aiming your shot, addressing the ball, and making successful swings definitely takes some skill, and there is a great tutorial in place as well as fun and challenging cup events and competitive party multiplayer.

Last up is the return of Archery, which seems to have been greatly enhanced since the first game; perhaps using new detection code from Medieval Moves. The aiming is a lot more refined, and you still get that great sense of immersion as you reach over your back to grab an arrow, notch it, then zoom in on your targets. Whether you are playing the cup challenges or in the timed multiplayer events, Archery is probably the second best game in the collection after bowling.

Sports Champions 2 definitely has better visuals than the first, and all the events take place in a unified themed location so you might see the ski lift behind the tennis courts or bowling alley. Most of the focus is on the games, so characters and background art might not be as fancy as some AAA games, but in the heat of competition you really aren’t checking out texture detail on that rock as you are screaming down the ski slopes or questioning the blocky crowds in your tennis match. The game supports 3D which adds some cool depth to many of the events; some more so than others, but it’s probably best for solo play only unless you have enough glasses for all your party guests, otherwise that’s just one more thing you’ll be passing around the room.

The music and sound are pretty good; nothing outstanding but good enough for a party game or casual solo experience. I wasn’t expecting ESPN–quality commentary. The game does allow each player to record their own short personal taunt during character creation and those are played back at certain times throughout the game – just another fun twist like the photo graffiti.

I was slightly annoyed by the lenghty load times. Sports Champions 2 doesn’t install to the hard drive and there is no way to force an install like on Xbox, so you have some 30+ second loads between various screens that can often add up to a minute or more, not just changing events, but simply changing players within the same tournament session. These load times are more easily disguised in Party Play, as players are moving into postion and passing around controllers, but in solo Cup Play the waits are painfully annoying when it’s just you staring at a load screen.

If you enjoyed the first Sports Champions then the sequel is probably worth checking out. Bowling, Archery, and Golf are the standout hits and Skiing is also quite fun, but Boxing and Tennis are pretty lame and will likely only come up in your randomly selected Party Play modes, as nobody would ever intentionally want to play them. Sports Champions 2 is one of those games that gets better the more people and controllers you have to throw at it, but also offers a nice casual pastime for solo gamers as well. Definitely worth a look; especially if a PS Move is in your holiday future and you need a good game to play with it.

LittleBigPlanet Karting Review – PlayStation 3

Two years ago I stuck my neck out on the game reviewers’ chopping block by making the grand pronouncement that for the first time in the history of gaming there was finally a cart racing title that was better than Nintendo’s Mario Kart franchise. That title I was reviewing was the PS3 exclusive, ModNation Racers, from developer United Front Games. ModNation Racers expertly combined the light-hearted competition of Mario Kart, with the white-knuckle racing physics of Ridge Racer, and the hip visual aesthetic of Jet Grind Radio, all while throwing in the best character, vehicle, and track user editing software – with it all wrapped up under Sony’s “Play, Create, Share” philosophy.

Prior to the release of ModNation Racers, Sony’s Play, Create, Share philosophy had been exclusively put to use in the Media Molecule’s groundbreaking PS3 exclusive LittleBigPlanet, which had singlehandedly started a revolution in user-created design and sharing. LittleBigPlanet’s robust creation tools had already garnered a community of tens of thousands of gamers building, collaborating, and sharing their user-generated creations. Nothing was off limits or out of the picture; whether it be developing scenery and costumes aping classic Super Mario levels to developing ingenious Steampunk-inspired computational devices, LittleBigPlanet’s toolbox was (and still is) a rich source of creativity, and the subsequent release of LittleBigPlanet 2 only added to the already expansive offering.
 Sony hoped that ModNation Racers similar feature set would incite a similar response from gamers with its fantastically simple toolset allowing users to create their own OEM-quality characters (or Mods), carts, and tracks. And for those of us who stuck with ModNation over the past two years – it has. Over the years, gamers have enjoyed thousands of user-created mods, carts, and tracks covering countless characters from Mickey Mouse to Mario, from Sweet Tooth to Scooby Doo, and anything else you can think of. But while ModNation undoubtedly formed a vibrant community of home developers, the brand never seemed to achieve the massive amount of appeal that LittleBigPlanet has.

Unwilling to simply give up on United Front’s fantastic work, Sony has instead opted to sculpt a Play, Create, Share powerhouse in the form of LittleBigPlanet Karting. And while few would argue that the game is little more than a re-skinning of ModNation Racers to fit within the LittleBigPlanet universe, the two franchises fit together so well that LittleBigPlanet Karting feels every bit an extension of both rather than a cheap cash-in.

For those who have been wondering; LittleBigPlanet Karting starts with yet another fantastically awe-inspiring and imaginative opening cutscene once again voiced by the talented Steven Fry. If you are anything like me, this live-action film – featuring an array of vehicle-bound folks being freed from their miserable traffic-jam existence and into the bright and whimsical world of LittleBigPlanet – is worth the price of admission alone, as it really does a fantastic job rustling up a feeling of enjoyment and excitement that few games can achieve.

Other than the opening cinematic, the game begins with little or no fanfare; instead tossing gamers into a quick introductory race covering the different control schemes and gameplay mechanics. Gamers will quickly pick up on the drift-heavy racing style that ModNation did so well; achieving a feel that was more Ridge Racer than Mario Kart. As the game’s “Story Mode” progresses, gamers will be introduced with the more advanced gameplay mechanics, including using power-ups for both offensive and defensive means, using the grappling mechanic to clear certain obstacles, and performing tricks and drifts to gain extra boost.

It is all pretty straight-forward racing – but for folks who have not yet experienced ModNation’s unique physics, I must stress that this is not your typical kart racer. ModNation’s (and now LittleBigPlanet’s) karts have weight and traction that are more akin to a traditional full-size vehicle racing title than to the standard Mario Kart game. Racing skill and precision play a much more crucial role in the outcome; whether it’s in nailing the perfect line through a chicane, or in knowing just how much is too much in pulling off an off-camber hairpin. That being said, the physics do seem to maybe have been toned down a smidgeon in LittleBigPlanet Karting to maybe be a bit more forgiving for younger players, but they still retain that uniquely ModNation feel.

There is a story mode regarding a new group of invaders called “The Hoard”. Think of them a bit like the Minions from Despicable Me; albeit bent on driving karts to invade areas and steal the items they need. It is up to the gamer – as his or her Sackboy – to travel from planet to planet eradicating the hoard by…well…racing against them. Yes, it is a hokey premise for a story, but this is a kart racing game folks – what did you really expect? Scattered throughout each race level are prize packs (stickers, tools, etc.) that the gamer can collect to use in their own future constructions. The prize packs are littered both along the main course routes and on the many shortcuts and secret passages found along the way.

The story mode courses all have the miniaturized cardboard and tape aesthetic that we have come to associate with LittleBigPlanet, and the use of textures and colors is every bit as detailed as we see in the main franchise. The burlap looks like burlap, and the sushi looks like sushi. What, sushi? Yes, one of the early unlockables is a sushi-inspired kart that had wheels made of sushi rolls – but that’s not all you will see as there are wheels made of old spigot handles, sponges, balloons, and eventually just about every other fantastical round object you can think of.

Gamers can mix and match cart parts using items earned throughout the levels as part of the prize packs. Over the course of the story the available items are eventually too numerous to count, however all of the items seem to be little more than tacked-on visuals rather than the true modifications that could be performed with ModNation Racers which was a little bit of a letdown.

 Much like any previous LittleBigPlanet title, gamers can dress up their Sackboy in a multitude of different costume combinations through the games original set of objects, and then objects obtained through the various prize packs. The game even mentions the future ability to import Sackboys and unlocked Sackboy items from the previous games. I can’t wait to import my Muppets-themed Sackboy items to see Fozzie Bear drifting through a hairpin in my sushi kart!

When talking about the creation aspects of the game, the real crux is in the Track Editor. Built off the well-featured ModNation Racing track creator, LittleBigPlanet Karting likewise has gamers painting (with a paint roller) courses across a huge square of landscape. Gamers have full X-Y and Z axes of motion, allowing them not only to move horizontally about the game field, but also down in or up above. The editor runs nearly seamlessly, even when crisscrossing over or under previously laid track – instantly forming appropriate bridges and underpasses. I say nearly seamlessly, as there are times the system comes to a stop as it renders particularly overwhelming segments. It can be a little frustrating, but we have never had a complete crash or freeze so it no more than a minor inconvenience.
 I was thoroughly amazed at the tracks that I could make, but even more astounded by the creations of my 10-year old son, who spent hours perfecting lines, banking curves, and modifying the landscape. Unlike ModNation, LittleBigPlanet’s editor lacks an “auto-populate” feature, so making a truly appealing visual appearance takes a lot of attention to build and place all of the objects. But like the previous LittleBigPlanet releases, Karting allows gamers to build, share, and implement logic items (virtual machines) into the gameplay. I have yet to come across a track in which I knowingly encountered one of the logic devices, but the fact that they are there is a good sign for the future of the game.

Finally, I have to discuss the Share portion of the formula – and LittleBigPlanet Karting is already off to a pretty good start when it comes to sharing. While lacking the character and kart mods of ModNation Racing, there are already there are thousands of user-made tracks to enjoy under the “Community” world. Gamers have already faithfully recreated dozens of classic Mario Kart levels (complete with turtle weapons), Walt Disney World themed levels, and scores of others. This nearly un-ending supply of OEM-quality tracks means that LittleBigPlanet Karting could be the last karting title gamers would ever need to buy.

In closing, I cannot say enough about LittleBigPlanet Karting. It is a fantastic racing title released to augment and already fantastic platforming franchise. Because the title was helmed by the folks behind ModNation Racers, it got all of the love it needed to be one of the best racing titles of this season. However, I must say that I still think ModNation Racers is a superior racing game in all, and stands as the best kart racing game ever made – but LittleBigPlanet Karting makes a strong showing and is well worth your time and money.

Trine 2: Golbin Menace DLC Review – PC

With stunning visuals and truly diabolical puzzles, Trine 2 was one of my absolute favorite PC games of 2011. Now our heroic trio is thrust back into action with the new Goblin Menace DLC, adding six new crafty missions set in even more breathtaking (and one breath-holding) fantasy locations.

We hook up with Amadeus the Wizard, Pontius the Knight, and Zoya the Thief kicking back in the local pub looking rather bored, but not for long as Goblins invade the bar and our heroes must spring into action once again to save the land and rescue the fair maiden from the invading green menace.

There are no tutorials in Goblin Menace. The game assumes you have played the original and are fluent with the various skills and controls for each of the three characters. At least the first part of the first level takes it easy on you, so you can get back up to speed if it’s been a while. All of your existing upgrades are still in place, so you can use all your new earned experience to fill out any missing skills.

Gameplay is pretty much the same as the core game, only now you find yourself in new locations like a burning desert, an oriental city floating on flying mountains, or even worse, the belly of a giant sandworm so visually repulsive you can almost smell it. Each new location is more impressive than the last. While your worst enemy is always the environment and your ability to solve the puzzles, there are more than a few enemy encounters and challenging boss fights, and as before, there are numerous secrets and areas that will require the assistance of a co-op partner.

Feel free to read my original review for Trine 2 for more details on the core gameplay, but as far as this DLC is concerned, expect six new levels and about four hours of the same quality gaming and mind-blowing visuals you already experienced in the original, and if you are still on the fence, check out these 30 exclusive screenshots from the DLC.