Category Archives: PC

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.


Hitman: Absolution Review – PC

After six long years Agent 47 makes his triumphant return in Hitman: Absolution. Ask any fan of the series and they’ll tell you, Blood Money is a tough act to follow, but a lot has been happening with the stealth-action genre lately; just look at the recently released Dishonored, and of course Assassin’s Creed has taken covert killing to all new heights.

Absolution continues the tradition of “freedom of choice” by providing you with these elaborate scenarios set in highly detailed levels, often populated with dozens of brilliantly designed AI bystanders. Your mission objective is clearly laid out but the way you execute that mission is entirely up to you. It’s no wonder I played through the opening prologue tutorial level five times before moving on to the first missions – there were just so many ways to approach not just the final target, but every encounter leading up to her.

The story involves 47 going after a rogue agency handler who has wiped the organization’s hard drive and gone into hiding in a luxurious safe house in Chicago. It is there we meet up with 47 as he pulls up in an ice-cream truck and begins his expertly guided tutorial that teaches you the new stealth mechanics as well as 47’s new powers of observation, body concealment, distraction, and multi-shot takedowns. By the time the tutorial is over 47 will have rescued a young girl who has secrets of her own, but rather than turn her over to his boss he stashes her in a monastery, making 47 the target of his own agency’s manhunt.

Hitman has always been about experimentation and even a bit of trial and error. Sometime the solution is obvious and other times it may take painstaking exploration of the entire level to unlock all the possibilities. One of the earlier missions in Chinatown you are tasked with killing a target who is heavily guarded by police. The obvious tactic would be to take down a lone cop, use his disguise to get close and strangle him, but there are so many other more interesting ways to get the job done; many of which I didn’t even realize until the final mission tally screen where these methods are revealed. Somewhere in the level is a sniper rifle. You could also find some poison and dose a plate of food, or in my ultimate solution, I planted a car bomb, hit the car to trigger the car alarm and when the target came to investigate, detonated the device remotely and casually walked to the exit. Ironically, this method ended the level after only five minutes of play, but it also netted me the highest score.

Scores and checklists give Hitman: Absolution incredible replay value, especially since many of these levels can be finished in less than 30 minutes once you know the “secrets”. The entire time you are playing an ongoing tally of your progress will be shown in the corner in the form of a score that is compared with your friends, your region, and the entire world. There are goals that are checked off for completing your mission in each of the various methods as well as unlocking guns and disguises for all the possible NPCs in each level. Perhaps the most difficult achievement is completing the Suit Only goal, as this requires you to finish the level without using any disguise. Obviously, this method requires more action and gunplay than others, and that is where the new point-shoot gimmick comes into play. If you played the last Splinter Cell you know exactly how this works. You freeze time and mark your targets then watch them all go down in a hail of glorious scripted gunfire.

Hitman is all about stealth and despite your trademark silverballer pistols that can be dual wielded or used alone and silenced, you have your other trademark weapon, the piano-wire garrote that you can keep readied yet undetected. Your new instinct mode allows you to scan the area for enemies as well as key objects you can interact with. You no longer have an endless supply of coins to toss to distract the AI, but you can find other objects that serve the same function. Then it’s up to you whether you slip past or strangle them while their back is turned. You’ll want to stash dead or unconscious bodies so they aren’t detected by patrolling guards, and there are usually ample boxes, lockers, crates, or other human-size hiding spots that can hold one or two bodies including yourself if you need a quick place to hide.

Disguises play a huge part in Hitman by allowing you to access new areas of the level without drawing undue attention, but even disguises have their own rules. Disguises only get you into certain areas and anyone wearing the same outfit has a greater chance to see through your deception, so if you are dressed as a landscape worker you need to be careful when approaching other landscape workers. Of course, you can also enhance your disguise with a momentary use of Instinct.

Using your instinct, either to analyze the levels or blend into the crowd, will slowly drain your instinct meter, but this can be refilled by simply doing your job. On the higher difficulty settings the instinct feature will no longer show useful items in the level and manual checkpoints will be disabled, adding a bit of pressure to the mission. While the game auto-saves at key moments, you will occasionally find optional glowing checkpoints to save your progress – usually right before a particularly challenging situation.

At times, Hitman: Absolution is more of a puzzle game than an action game. Unlike any other game in the genre, your situational awareness of not only your surroundings but the people in those areas and all the tools at your disposal are paramount in completing the levels and earning top scores. While it is entirely possibly to trigger an alarm and still finish the level, the gamer in me had me clicking on the Restart Checkpoint countless times in the game, or better yet, once you “blow the mission” you can race around the level gathering valuable intel for your next attempt or trying to locate the hidden evidence in each level.

Absolution is a 10-hour game that will take you 20-30 hours to complete out of the sheer joy of experimentation and original replay value, but that doesn’t even include the Contracts mode; perhaps the most ingenious aspect of Absolution. Contracts allows gamers to create their own missions, not with some fancy level editor, but by merely using the existing missions and letting you create a custom rule (or restriction) set; anything from limiting the weapons used to the disguises worn to imposing an impossible time limit for completion. You can then share these contracts with the online community and compete for the highest scores. For something so simple, Contracts is deceptively addicting, not only in creating your own diabolical rules, but attempting the ones created by others.

Released on console and PC, our review was done with the PC version and I have to confess, this is one of the most gorgeous games I have played in 2012. Even my 2-year old PC manages to run this game flawlessly at the highest of settings and the lighting, textures, animation, and sheer spectacle of complexity blew me away level after level. There is one scene early in the game where you open these doors and enter Chinatown, and the way the designers framed the event then pushed the camera into this congested area with at least a hundred people milling about – you just know they were sitting back smugly saying, “yeah…we can do that.” The designers go even further with their crowd designs in a later level as you make your way through a congested train station.

To complement the outstanding visuals is a masterful soundtrack, flawless sound effects, and impressive voice acting by some major Hollywood talent. The open credit sequence reads like a major motion picture. Since you’ll be spending a lot of time either eavesdropping or blending in using a disguise, there are numerous chances to overhear some amusing conversations, some of which may even provide a valuable clue.

When it comes to Agent 47, Blood Money will always have a special place in my heart, but given the six years of evolution for stealth-action gameplay, Hitman: Absolution is definitely the crowning achievement for this franchise. The game is more cinematic and more story driven than ever before, the Instinct is a much better alternative to the old map view, and you have never been given this much freedom when it comes to killing in a video game. Absolution is a brilliantly designed game, perfectly executed, and looks and sounds amazing on the PC.


Far Cry 3 Review – PC

I’ve played a lot of first-person shooters over the years including 2004’s Far Cry which sets you on a series of islands fighting for your life against mercenaries and science experiments. The open-world nature of the game was what really drew me in to the point that I even dove into its console ports without a second thought. The series has changed hands since the first release and a sequel set in Africa was released in 2008 though I found it lacking despite being able to dynamically set things on fire. It’s been 8 years since my first adventure in the Far Cry franchise and I can happily say that Ubisoft’s newest addition, Far Cry 3, is single-handedly the best in the series so far.

It isn’t insanity that makes me say this but Far Cry 3 has completely regained my attention like the series did back then but not just for the same reasons. The game starts off like a movie featuring a rich kid’s paradise filled trip to another country to party and get wasted with friends. Actually that’s exactly what happens right up until Jason Brody, the main character, ends up in a bamboo cell with his army trained brother Grant. It’s here we meet the crazy mercenary named Vaas who seemingly lets you escape after he unmercifully kills your brother. After you flee for your life, and are forced to kill for the first time, you wake up in a village after a nasty fall from a collapsed rope bridge.

There you are greeted by an ex-army man named Dennis who sets you on your path to save your friends… oh and liberate a country while you’re at it. As I started playing I quickly fell into the role of Jason Brody, and not just because I share his name. It’s more to do with the fact that the basic controls are seemingly consistent with previous installments especially when using the traditional keyboard and mouse setup. The only time where I found a controller useful is when driving a vehicle throughout parts of the campaign if your so inclined to using them. The thing about Far Cry 3 is that while using vehicles is handy to get around the island, you’ll miss the beauty of the island itself that you’ll experience up close on foot. Just don’t expect the beauty to always love you back.

A trip through the beautiful Rook Islands will wield many surprises along the way including caves, hidden tombs, and water holes hidden amidst lush terrain and sandy beaches. There are also plenty of reasons to explore the world and they heavily have to do with you becoming strong enough to save the ones Jason cares about most. From the moment you first reset a radio tower to the first kill of a little boar; your actions define you and prepare you for the battles ahead. You see Far Cry 3 is a lot like a lot of the big RPGs out there where every kill, mission completion and hidden collectible gains you experience until you level up and gain skill points.

Unlike most RPGs this shooter has a unique way of showing that you’re getting stronger via the Tatau (tattoo) on your arm. Players will start out being able to gaining abilities like basic takedowns and the slide ability and then graduate to better archery skills, advanced foraging and better takedowns as the story progresses. For each skill you purchase another part of the Tatau is inked on your arm until the design is complete. I have to say that while that part is really cool and immerses you into the culture and feel of the experience, I really enjoyed the crafting and survival aspect of the adventure more.

Initially you are given enough money to buy a pistol to defend yourself, but you’ll soon find that you need more serious firepower down the road to survive. However you can only carry one gun and limited ammo; that is where crafting comes into play. Normally I’m not a big fan of crafting items, even in RPGs, but unlike them it’s a necessity in Far Cry 3. You have to craft everything from holsters, ammo pouches, quivers and even wallets and loot sacks to get very far in the game. Luckily your crafting materials are found all over the place in the form of plants and animal hides.

While plants won’t put up much a fight don’t expect the wildlife to stand there and get shot at willingly. The world of Far Cry 3 is a living and breathing entity where animals will go into fight or flight mode at the slightest provocation and humans will actually mourn death instead of walking by as if nothing happened. There are so many AI routines running under the world’s shining exterior that it boggles the mind. You could fire one round of any gun around certain animals and get pecked or stampeded to death. You can often use the wildlife to your favor in sticky situations or as acts of subterfuge like shooting the door open of cage containing a tiger and letting it do the dirty work for you when taking over an outpost.

Outposts are one of many things to do in Jason’s story as you explore the Rook Islands. For starters, you can do supply drops via a quad, races on jet ski or boat, and even trials indicated by red rocks in designated locales across the islands. There are also a lot of collectibles to be found scattered everywhere including SD cards that reveal seedy dealings across the island, as well as the missing letters of WWII Japanese soldiers. There are also a lot of hidden relics to find as well. For the not so avid treasure seeker there are maps for sale in any shop to show you the general location of each one. It’s up to you to do the rest of the leg work.

As I said before walking through Far Cry 3’s world is a great way to take in the beauty of the islands. The folks at Ubisoft Montreal have created a world that absolutely stunning and one that lives up to the tradition that this series is known for. You can stand on a rock off the shore of pearly white beaches and look through crystal clear waters to see a giant manta ray swimming by. If beaches and the sound of wind and water as it flows upon the sand don’t suit you can retreat to the beautifully created lush forests full of wildlife or the high mountain terrain where you get a grand few of the area around you via camera or sniper scope. If your PC and graphics card can handle it I absolutely recommend cranking the settings up to Ultra with DirectX 11 enabled to see the developer’s vision the way it’s meant to be seen right down to the realistic textures of people’s skin and clothing.

Far Cry 3 features amazing graphics but it also contains and equally impressive audio package that really puts you in the world. If you want you can stand on the shore after the sounds of a gunfight end, close your eyes and listen to the soothing sounds of water and birds. I had a feeling the audio was going to be good after hearing M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” during the opening video amongst the voices of the main character and his family and friends. But the audio is more than a way to put you in the mood to play as it also can be utilized to keep yourself in one piece. By listening to the world around you can determine what animals are around you in the wild or enemies so that you can prevent detection if possible. If you have a 5.1 Audio setup you can practically detect where animals are long before you see them if you’re the cautious hunter.

Far Cry also has a lot to offer to the more ambitious player. For starters there is multiplayer that features all your favorite modes including team Deathmatch or territories based matches. What makes Far Cry’s multiplayer modes different is that there is team economy system in play. Every time a player helps take a location or aids a fallen teammate they earn points to call in Pysch Gas to turn the tides of battle in unexpected ways. Players can also design their own maps for added insanity via the Map Editor.

While the multiplayer mode wasn’t for me I really enjoyed the Co-Op mode featuring a separate story based around the same island. This story follows four down-on-their-luck individuals looking for a way to escape their own private hells. The story seems to take place before the events of the main story though you’ll find out that key players from the main story are involved like Vaas across this six chapter story arc. I actually enjoyed the faster paced nature of this story especially when I experienced it with a full crew online. There are already a strong number of people in the world playing the co-op mode and I have to say that there were some real team players out there that I’ve ever had the pleasure to play with.

Far Cry 3’s story depicts one man’s survival, sacrifice, and dive into the depths of insanity as he risks more than he bargained for to save the ones he cares about most. Ubisoft did a masterful job of bringing back the essence of the original predecessor while crafting a much darker story. Far Cry 3 features a fantastic emotional story with solid controls, breathtaking visuals and a co-op mode just as energetic as the main event. This is by far one of the best shooters that I experienced all year and I absolutely recommend picking up Far Cry 3 for PC today.


FIFA Manager 13 Review – PC

Since 2002 EA has pretty much kept a little secret from US soccer fans. The FIFA Soccer series has always been one of the top selling games for EA. But few people have ever heard about its little brother for stat-heads, FIFA Manager 13. You’ll likely never find it a store shelf, but thanks to easy downloads from Origin, every statistic loving soccer fan can live out their dream of managing their own club.

This is kind of a niche market after all. You’ll never find a statistics soccer game on a Wal-Mart shelf, or any other retailer’s shelf in the USA. But these games have been out for quite a while. There are all kinds of sports simulators to appeal to those who love numbers and order. EA’s only real soccer competition comes from very popular Sports Interactive’s Football Manager 2013 (distributed by Sega). But they are a big competitor.

EA of course has the money to buy licenses. Lots of them. FIFA Manager 13 has even more than FIFA 13. For USA soccer fans that’s a big deal. FIFA 13 only includes Major League Soccer. But FIFA Manager 13 also has the NASL (the resurrected North American Soccer League) and USL Pro (the United Soccer League’s top division). Well sort of. While MLS is a full license with team logos, the NASL and USL Pro are there in name only. The teams are just various city names and generic logos.

FIFA Manager 13 has quite a few improvements over last year. The team analysis feature “Team Matrix” as well as a player hierarchy pyramid allows you to see which players are having issues in the team pecking order. In the team dynamics section you see an overview of team hierarchy, rivalry, personality clashes, personal goals, family relationships and much more.

Your assistant manager helps you to analyze the team, and requesting a psychological profile of a player before signing him might help avoid future problems. The assistant manager is also vital to those of you who don’t want to get too deeply involved in the minutia of player problems and other team issues.

New individual player objectives have a special role, and your team will be successful only with enough team leaders and everyone pulling in the same direction. Balancing player rivalries and spending enough time understanding and setting player expectations, are critical to your team success.

Also every player of the team has his own personal objectives. Some players want to become a first team regular, others want to play for their country, some simply want to improve their skills, whilst others want to be captain or take the penalties etc. The status of these objectives has big influence on the player’s morale and as manager you must try to keep your players happy or you’ll start to lose games and maybe even your job.

You can head problems off at the pass though because now you can talk to a player to change his expectations or help give him new objectives. Also there are specific new talks for many situations, so when you want a player gone for whatever reason, you can convince him to accept a loan deal, go to the reserve team or even sell him to another team.

The positional level has been removed from the game. The general quality of a player is now calculated with a formula that includes the skill levels and the player type. This makes sure only the relevant skills determine the general level of a player. I found the player ratings to be slightly more accurate than ratings than the console version of FIFA 13 for English Premier League teams, but MLS ratings are less so. That’s fairly understandable since FIFA Manager 13 really isn’t marketed to the USA fans.

The support of different screen resolutions has improved. There is a minimum of 1024×768 for those playing on laptop computers. The maximum is now up to 1920 x 1200 so you can fit a ton of information on screen. The increased resolution is great, but there still is no support for multiple monitors. When you play FIFA Manager 13 in full screen mode on one monitor is seizes ownership of your mouse so you can’t move it to the other screen. It really puts a damper on things if you like to take notes while you play. In my case it made it more difficult to write this review!

The new quick access menu bar allows you to select as many menu items as you like. You can then directly reach the relevant menu item with one click. Every item also shows and also flags potential problems.

The new half-time feature gives you more control with detailed player speeches and new team speeches. You also have options to boost the energy of a player by a massage or to offer players with minor injuries medical treatment. You’ll get direct feedback on your decisions and the new Assistant option to delegate your work.

The tactical settings now have more precise definition. You used to get up to 6 settings, but now you can basically select probabilities for short versus long passing, the playing direction, the position of the defensive line, or the height of crosses. Crosses into the penalty area have been greatly improved and the headers are now more realistic. There a also a bunch of new fan banners in the stadiums to create a more authentic atmosphere, and the fans now show their colors with shirts, scarves and jackets.

There are also quite a few improvements that were suggested by the fans of the game last season. Improvements include:

  • Option to control the penalty taker
  • Option to select the penalty takers before a shoot-out
  • Option to send all players to warm-up at once
  • Special commentaries on fan behavior
  • Weather changes
  • Live ticker to allow for manager to shout directions
  • New injury time calculation and comments
  • Step-by-step text mode

Additionally, you get set up a plan for your club for next season. You can select current squad players, players in negotiations with your club and players who are just on your scouting short list. Then you can try out various combinations to explore the impact they could have on your team and to directly start negotiations in case you want to really sign a player.

Upcoming events is another tool is a new screen that lists all upcoming events and improvements such as important matches; important transfer market dates; completion dates of stadium elements, club facilities, and youth camps; required points for a personal promotion; changes in the all-time tables; experience gains of players and many more. This allows you to take immediate action or to set reminders for when further steps are needed.

The player development tool allows predicting the career path of players depending on parameters like injuries, matches played, other positions, natural talent etc. It’s a very helpful tool to make sure a player can really help the team long-term.

But is FIFA Manager 13 fun to play? With this and all other simulation genre games, it is an acquired taste. It takes a significant investment of time to build a quality team that will have a successful legacy. This is certainly not the game for those who want to win after a few minor tweaks. You have to be willing to stick with it and build a team. With FIFA Manager 13 there are a huge number of items that contribute to the health of the club – from picking souvenirs and selling prices to which type of player to bring up from the youth academy. It can be tedious; very tedious, but finally getting a team to work well together and win… that has a certain feeling that is more satisfying than a quick Call of Duty game. Well kind of. It’s different.

FIFA Manager 13 isn’t a huge leap from last season. Die hard players from last year might even be a little disappointed at first glance, but the subtle improvements are there if you look. EA has listened to the users and tweaked enough items to peak my interest. If you love manipulating statistics, there is nothing better than a good sim game and FIFA Manager 13 fills that role quite well.


 

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.


The Sims 3 Seasons Limited Edition Review – PC

The eighth expansion pack for The Sims 3, The Sims 3 Seasons is my favorite of the add-ons released for the game so far. A reprise of the analogous fan-favorite add-on for The Sims 2, Seasons for The Sims 3 again introduces the refreshing variability of dramatic weather effects, cycling seasons, and seasonal activities and holidays to your Sims everyday lives—and it does so with the kind of humor and flair that we’ve come to expect from the Sims games.

More than that, though, it’s a welcome departure from several past expansions in that it updates the entire Sims 3 experience globally, across all towns, without requiring players to place new, gimmicky lots or move their families to new locations to fully enjoy the new content. Instead, each town’s central park is painlessly updated to feature seasonally rotating festivals that liven up a previously humdrum location. At these events, Sims can get their faces painted, bob for apples, try a kissing booth, join a spring dance, search for eggs, try the snowboard half-pipe, participate in eating contests, buy fair food, redeem festival tickets for prizes, or try other festive activities, depending on the time of year.

The seasons transition gradually and naturally, and weather effects like lightning storms, rain, and hail are all beautifully represented and accompanied by convincing sound effects that muffle nicely when the camera zooms indoors. Bodies of water freeze over, bare tree branches wave in the wind, and frost covers the windows in chilly weather. Additionally, weather patterns and the lengths of each season can be individually customized for each game, allowing you to create neighborhoods with different climates. The amount of thought that the developers put into imitating real-life weather conditions really shows, and fans are sure to appreciate all the quaint little details.

Each season has its own set of new interactions and opportunities, like swimming in the ocean, spray or sun tanning, ice and roller skating, water balloon and snowball fights, raking fallen leaves, building igloos and snowmen, hanging up holiday lights, trick-or-treating, and carving pumpkins, just to name a few examples. Sims can throw new types of parties, featuring costumes, feasts, or gift-giving, in celebration of several popular holidays.

On the flipside, Sims can suffer from allergies, sunburn, or catch colds. They can also be struck (and possibly killed) by lightning, spontaneously combust from extreme overheating, or freeze to death if they expose themselves to the elements too long, providing sadistic players with new ways to torment their Sims.

One of my favorite parts about the expansion, though, is the reintroduction of aliens to the game. Sims 2 veterans will remember the intergalactic scamps that occasionally abducted curious Sims who overused their telescopes, sometimes impregnating unfortunate Sim males. The aliens are back, and if lured to visit, interact like any other computer-controlled Sim—and can perhaps be convinced to move into your Sim’s household to become a playable character.

Alien Sims meditate to restore brain power instead of sleeping and have some interesting mental abilities that I won’t spoil, though it’s probably worth noting that if you own The Sims 3 Ambitions, they can summon meteors to devastate a location of their choosing. Another perk is their UFO vehicles that teleport instantly to locations and allow your Sims to abduct their hapless neighbors, attack community lots with laser cannons, and try some space travel (albeit rabbit-hole style).

This add-on may not include a new town as most previous expansions did, but the new content is substantial enough that I hardly noticed. Besides the features that I’ve already mentioned, Seasons also adds a new outerwear outfit slot and a collection of new items, including a handful of outfits and hairstyles, umbrellas and parasols (which, incidentally, also protect vampire Sims from burning in the sun), snow cone machines, firecrackers, pumpkin pie, snowboards, and skating rinks. If you manage to get the Limited Edition, you’ll snag an extra Ice Lounge lot with some snazzy ice-themed furniture. Players who also own the Supernatural expansion pack will have added to each city a Weather Stone, which can be used by supernatural Sims to summon unique unnatural weather effects.

On the downside, Seasons does load slowly, the growing item catalog can be unwieldy enough to make finding specific objects difficult, the game’s interface feels increasingly pushier about selling you DLC, and there are sadly still many unresolved bugs. As of the time of this writing, I noticed that seasonal actions are sometimes available during the wrong season (e.g., water balloon fights in winter), butlers (from Late Night) are still problematic, and the game still sometimes freezes up for seconds or minutes at a time, to name a few. These problems aren’t absolute deal breakers, but they can be frustrating, particularly as some of these bugs have been around for a while.

Still, this add-on undoubtedly infuses a three-year-old game with new life, and it’s, by far, the strongest of the eight. At a suggested retail price of $39.99, The Sims 3 Seasons is one of the pricier expansion packs, but it’s hard to imagine a Sims 3 fan missing out on this one, even with its foibles.


Chaos on Deponia – PC Review

It’s been about six years since adventure games were revived, and it pleases me to say that they show no sign of slowing down. Chaos on Deponia is a hilarious ride through a colorful world with colorful characters. This is a sequel to a game titled, aptly enough, Deponia. While the game does start off with a tutorial, newcomers to the series should start by playing the previous (and excellent) title, since the story directly builds on the events of the previous title (which ended on a cliffhanger).

To bring you up to speed (without giving anything away), Deponia and Chaos on Deponia follow Rufus, a loveable loser who lives in garbage. One day, a woman named Goal falls from the sky, and Rufus decides that Goal is his ticket out of the dump and into a better life. Chaos on Deponia follows his further attempts to get Goal safe and sound to her home in Elysium. Rufus isn’t exactly the most heroic of characters, but he’s got a lot of heart, and Rufus and Goal grow on you.

The world itself is a colorful and cartoonish place where you can find just about anything and everyone, and all these elements make a bizarre and fanciful setting. This is a world where there are entire cities built on garbage, where platypus is a delicacy, and where a fat Scotsman leads freedom fighters. The best qualities of adventure games are really in their characters and their worlds, and Chaos on Deponia is full of life and imagination.

The animation in the game looks great. Nearly everything these days is done with polygons, and 2d sprites are almost a memory outside of browser games and deliberately retro 16-bit or 8-bit throwbacks, but Deponia brings to life an adventure game style that hasn’t really been prominent since say, The Curse of Monkey Island. The sprite work in Deponia is well-done, and with today’s display resolutions, this could look at home on a TV.

The voice acting and the sound are all well-done. Rufus sounds appropriately roguish, no one sounds bored (a surprising feat in anything less than a AAA big budget title), and I never once felt taken out of the world because of poor sound. I’m surprised at how much love and polish went into this game. Maybe it’s because Daedalic is based in Germany, and adventure games seem more popular in Europe, but this blew away my expectations.

The puzzles in Chaos on Deponia’s are clever as well. I can’t really say too much here without giving things away, but expect a firm challenge without things getting unfair. The game also has a feature that lets you skip puzzles, which is great for those who just want to see the story and characters. There’s nothing wrong with that, but you do miss out on more of the world by just choosing to skip past the game’s actual content. Still, this is a welcome option for those who get well and truly stuck, and getting stuck on a single puzzle for too long can take you out of the world.

The game does have a few flaws. The game’s got a few bugs, such as lines that were never translated out of the original German. Some of the puzzles can be frustratingly cryptic. The game has a load of locales to visit, but this can leave you feeling a bit lost and without direction. Still, in spite of these issues, this is a strong title and a fantastic experience. It stands strong as an adventure game now, and it would have stood strong even in the golden age of adventure games.

Mad Catz S.T.R.I.K.E. 7 Gaming Keyboard Review

The Mad Catz S.T.R.I.K.E. 7 Gaming Keyboard might just be the ultimate keyboard ever conceived.  It’s certainly the most advanced keyboard these hands have ever typed on, and I’ve gone through at least 30 keyboards in my PC/gaming career.  The first thing you’ll notice is the box, which is way too short to contain your typical keyboard, but this is no typical keyboard.   The S.T.R.I.K.E. 7 is the very definition of “some assembly required”, arriving in no less than seven individual modules that need to be assembled into its glorious final form.

Thankfully, Mad Catz has provided all the cables, screws, and even the tools required to get the job done, and in 15-20 minutes you should have before you one of the coolest devices you’ll ever plug into your computer.  Here is the complete list of box contents:

The next thing you’ll notice once you have this beast assembled is the weight.   While it may look like your standard plastic keyboard from the top, the entire undercarriage is reinforced metal, with metal slots and tabs where you connect the modules together with screws.  You don’t really notice it at first when you are handling the individual components, but once it’s all together this thing weighs over seven pounds.  Even the braided USB cable is heavy-duty – I swear you could go mountain climbing with this cable.

You might be expecting a mechanical keyboard considering you just dropped three Ben Franklins on this high-tech device, and while the S.T.R.I.K.E. 7 does feel and respond with the same tactile feedback and accuracy of those fancy mechanical keyboards, it does so by using a specially engineered membrane to avoid all the excessive noise.  Having come from a mechanical keyboard before this, I saw absolutely no difference in performance or feel, but I sure did enjoy my newfound silence, even as I type this review.

At first I thought shipping the keyboard in modules was just a gimmick, forcing you to assemble it to give you some added perception of value, but then I realized that you don’t even have to assemble the parts.  By design, each module is interconnected with its own USB cable so they can work together or apart.  This means that if you want to split your keys from your number pad or even reverse their position on your desk, you can.  You can even mount the palm rest and Macro Function Strip to the keypad module if you so desire.  I went for the traditional configuration as you can see from the photo below.

So let’s break it down.  You have a three-piece adjustable wrist support with one piece having a thumb roller and a button that you can configure to do anything you want.  You have your Function Strip that adds four additional programmable buttons and a full-featured number pad with five additional recessed command buttons surrounding the arrow keys.   The primary keyboard is excellent with oversized spacebar, laser-etched backlit keys, and a reinforced WADS cluster that comes with two sets of replacement keys for them and the arrows.

They keyboard works simply by plugging into any USB 2.0 slot on your computer, but if you also use the included AC power adapter you will get additional brightness on the lighting as well as power-up the two USB extension ports on the keyboard itself.  The power plugs into a Y-adapter down by the PC plug keeping your desk free of additional cable clutter.

Of course I’ve been dancing around the biggest draw to the S.T.R.I.K.E. 7 gaming keyboard; the V.E.N.O.M. TFT-LCD control module.   This module has a touchscreen interface about the same size as an iPhone and looks nearly as good.  This is the control center for all the advanced functionality of your keyboard.  You have buttons for volume control, speaker and mic mute, and three mode select buttons.  Despite looking like a twistable knob or dial, the round logo is purely decorative.

The V.E.N.O.M. is home to 12 features, most of which are configured using the software tools you’ll need to download from Mad Catz along with the latest drivers.  Starting at the top we have the Program Launcher that allows you to launch any program or open any web URL with a tap of the button.   Next up is your Media Control followed by Volume controls for mic and speakers.  Next is the Backlight control that allows you to choose from 16 million colors to shine from beneath your keys.  Moving to the next row we have a Clock that can be analog or digital, a Stopwatch, and three Countdown Timers that are very handy for alerting you to in-game timed events like a weapon spawn, etc.  A Windows Lock button lets you disable that Windows key so you don’t interrupt your game.  The final row has your settings for country, screen brightness, and sleep-dim delay, followed by your Macros.

Creating Macros is surprisingly easy using the configuration software.  There are already several downloadable profiles out there for WOW, Diablo 3, Minecraft, League of Legends, and StarCraft 2 just to name a few, plus business apps like PhotoShop and Outlook.  Creating profiles is as easy as clicking on the graphical representation of the keyboard then typing in your command or series of commands.  You can then give that command a name and assign it an icon or even import your own custom icons.  You can assign up to 24 commands per bank and there are three banks providing for up to 72 user-defined inputs, although the V.E.N.O.M. screen will only give you graphical access to 12.  Your profiles can be saved and shared with others in the Mad Catz community.

Next up is the Journal, which allows you to type memos to yourself; a handy feature in games like Skyrim or some other complex RPG or adventure where you need to keep notes.  You can type these in on the keyboard or tap the pencil icon and actually draw on the touchscreen.  And last up is the TeamSpeak function that integrates their state-of-the-art chat technology right into your keyboard.  With the TeamSpeak app running your screen will give you direct access to specific game rooms and individuals within those rooms complete with volume control.

I have to admit I was really impressed with just how good this keyboard feels and performs, plus it is quite the eye-catcher sitting here on my desk.  Normally, switching keyboards is like breaking in a new pair of shoes, but it only took an hour before I felt right at home with the S.T.R.I.K.E. 7, both in typing and in gaming.  I’m even taking the plunge into macro programming since there are currently no profiles out there for Torchlight 2 or MechWarrior Online.   The keyboard is extremely comfortable, and my only small complaint is the palm rest extends beyond the edge of my desk and I keep catching my hand on it and flipping the keyboard around.

The Mad Catz S.T.R.I.K.E. 7 Gaming Keyboard is fairly impressive – it should be for $300, but for those looking for the ultimate programmable keyboard that just so happens to come with a built-in iPhone-like control module, look no further.   You won’t find a more powerful, responsive, or feature-rich keyboard out there – just be prepared to pay for it.

To see this keyboard in action, check out our video overview of the Mad Catz S.T.R.I.K.E. 7 Gaming Keyboard

Here are some additional unboxing and software interface screenshots.