Category Archives: PlayStation 4

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag – Freedom Cry Review – PlayStation 4

What’s a pirate to do when all the booty has been plundered, all the enemy ships have been sunk, and all the rum has been drunk?   Well, you can sit around the bar reminiscing about the “good ole days” over a pint and a game of checkers or Nine Men’s Morris or you can fire up Freedom Cry, the first DLC content package for Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and see what your quartermaster, Adewale was up to after you and he parted ways near the end of the main game.

The DLC starts off much like the main game with its own ship battle resulting in Adewale getting washed ashore as the camera pans up over the city to reveal the title logo.  This is more than a DLC – this is a miniaturized version of Black Flag with its own emotional story and unique set of characters.

The majority of the gameplay in Freedom Cry takes place in Port-au-Prince, a mid-sized coastal city about half the size of Kingston, but when you factor in the three surrounding plantations, ends up being about the same size.  Your main goal in this DLC is to free as many slaves as possible while checking off all the story objectives and secondary goals.    Slaves are almost like a unit of XP in Freedom Cry, with a tiered structure of Liberation goals that reward you with new weapons, gear, and other rewards at regular intervals all the way up to 500 freed slaves.

There are endless rescue missions available at almost any time during the game.  You might find an escapee fleeing through town, or perhaps a slave is being beaten, or there could be a small caravan of slaves being marched through town, or slaves being held in outdoor cages, or even a live slave auction block.   Killing their masters allows you to set them free adding to your ranks.  Later in the game you will uncover the Maroon hideout and after that certain slaves willing to fight back will actually join the resistance movement, which unlocks its own set of tiered rewards.

These random and reappearing freedom activities only net you a few slaves at a time.  To really increase your numbers you will need to raid plantations, first the three in Port-au-Prince, and later the plantations on surrounding islands around the limited scope of the map from Black Flag.  Plantation raids are quite exciting and can be tackled in two unique methods depending on the time of day.  A nighttime raid will have you seeking out the one guard with a key then opening all the slave quarters.  A raid during the day will require you to stalk 20 slavers as you sneak through tall crops, disable alarm bells, and defeat the entire plantation crew without being discovered.   If you are spotted or an alarm is sounded the slaves will start fighting and dying reducing your overall reward at the end.

Near the end of the 9-memory DLC you can set sail to explore the surrounding lands which include three other plantations, roving slave ships where you must first destroy their escort before boarding and freeing the slaves.   Ships, much like the plantations, can yield upwards of 80-90 slaves at a time.  There are also forts and random beaches with the occasional treasure chest and even a sunken shipwreck that just might be the Jackdaw.  You can hunt and fish but without any crafting option this can only lead to money, which isn’t hard to come by in more rewarding ways.

Many of the missions take place in Port-au-Prince where the game does a good job of showing you what it was like to be a black man during a time of slavery.   You are constantly being watched and those yellow alert circles are almost indicating watchful eyes are upon you, and the roving jailers with their circle of awareness are a constant thorn in your side.  Needless to say, much of Freedom Cry is played as stealthily as possible, which means lots of back alleys, rooftops, and hiding in bushes.

I really enjoyed the story arc and especially the bits of conversation where Adewale was reminiscing about his adventures with Edward.   It really is as nice follow-up piece to the core game and a nice exploration of this new character and his trials and tribulations during a time of rampant slavery.  Naturally, they throw in the obligatory Templar artifact and a corrupt governor, so you definitely have a defined villain and clear mission objectives, but there were times when it did seem like I was “grinding for slaves” just to hit that next reward tier.  But no matter what I was doing or how many times I did it the game was always fun and challenging.  Chasing down a slave ship in mission 8 was the highlight of the game, which made the finale a bit anticlimactic, but overall I enjoyed the 6-8 hours of additional adventure contained within Freedom Cry and look forward to more high-DLC adventure soon.

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Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag Review – PlayStation 4

It’s ironic that the best Assassin’s Creed game in the series to date has the least to do with the core premise upon which the franchise was founded.  Sure, there are Assassins and Templars, cool hooded cloaks, fancy parkour moves, swords, pistols, and even that blue/red/gold instinctual hunter vision mode, but this latest installment in the series has much more up its sleeve than just a pair of deadly wrist blades.

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag uses the death of Desmond Miles to essentially reboot the series, or at least take a serious detour.  The centuries-long battle between Assassin’s and Templars is a mere footnote in the historical Animus archives.  Abstergo has gone from a shady corporate villain to a major public company that has joined forces with Ubisoft (yes, this gets pretty Meta) to create entertainment products from harvested DNA memories.  You play as the latest new hire, destined to spend countless hours in your cubicle tapping into the memories of Subject 17 – aka Desmond Miles, whose body was recovered after the tragic events at the end of Assassin’s Creed III.

There is a rich tapestry of ancestral memories ripe for possible game ideas, but as you start hacking into your coworkers computers you’ll realize that most are unsuitable for consumer gameplay.   In fact, the only game to be successfully marketed so far was Assassin’s Creed Liberation (another meta-reference to the PlayStation Vita game that launched in 2012).  You are now conducting research on a new historical figure; Edward Kenway.

We meet up with Kenway in the opening prologue where, after a brief ship battle, he finds himself marooned on an island with an Assassin.  After a brief chase, Edward kills this Assassin and steals his clothes and mission orders.  You’ll need to suspend your disbelief on how Edward is suddenly imbued with all the skills and inherent abilities of a professional Assassin.  Apparently being a seasoned pirate shares many of the same skill sets.

While Edward certainly has the skills of an Assassin, he lacks the motivation and allegiance to their cause, which provides players with a unique mercenary perspective to the story.  Edward is obsessively driven by two things; treasure and information that leads to more treasure, even to the detriment of his crew.  When he learns of an ancient place/device known as the Observatory he becomes obsessed with finding it and exploiting it for profit.   Both the Assassins and the Templars are also desperately racing to find this ancient artifact, and hundreds of years in the future, Abstergo is also trying to mine its current location from the DNA memories of Subject 17 and using you to do it.

With the core premise in place it’s time to settle in for what is easily a 60+ hour game and one that completionists can spend upwards of 80-100 hours, and that’s before tackling the DLC content and the online multiplayer modes that now include an exciting new Wolfpack mode, complete with its own 8-chapter story.

I can make a lot of hyperbolic claims about Black Flag.  Yes, it’s the best game of the new generation – not saying much this early into the limited libraries of both consoles, but it is easily the best Assassin’s Creed game in the franchise, and personally, the best game I’ve played in several years.  I normally struggle to finish any game that lasts longer than 12-15 hours but I was desperately seeking reasons to keep going back and playing Black Flag, whether it was to collect some missing treasure, hunt the elusive white whale, sink all the Legendary Ships, or simply check off a few more of the 100 Abstergo Challenges.

Part of the appeal to Black Flag is the sheer freedom you have while playing it.  You can play for hours; even days, without touching that icon that will trip the next memory sequence to advance the story.  For the most part, the entire massive map is open from the start, and you are free to plot your own course to adventure, and there is certainly no shortage of ingredients when it comes to cooking up your own pirate experience.  There are dozens of cities; some quite large and others merely small island settlements.  There are Smugglers’ Dens, Plantations, temple ruins, and you even get to setup your own island pirate base and build it up with various structures.  Scattered about the map are 46 uncharted treasure chests that are stashed on beaches or remote sandbars and only revealed on the map after you have defeated any of the numerous enemy forts to lift the “fog of war”.

Fort battles are just one of the many sideline activities where you begin by first assaulting the island structures with cannon and mortar fire to level the battlements then invade the interior with your crew to kill the leaders and take over the fort.   Navy forts provide you with money-making privateer contracts as well as a friendly dock to repair your ship and lower your wanted level.

Also scattered about the map are various shipwrecks and underwater ruins that can be explored later in the game when you have acquired the diving bell.  This opens up a whole new world of adventure as you quite literally hold your breath while seeking out even more buried treasure and Animus fragments while hiding from sharks and avoiding jellyfish and Moray eels.  These underwater sections are some of the most visually striking and terrifying moments in the game.

There is also a surprisingly in-depth crafting system in place that will have you hunting various types of wildlife on land and in the sea; the latter triggering a quite enjoyable and sometimes-challenging harpoon mini-game where you battle sharks and whales from a small rowboat.  Skins and bones can then be crafted into all sorts of useful accessories or simply sold for cash.

For as much time as you’ll spend on land you will likely spend even more sailing the ocean, and let me say there is nothing quite like the exhilarating feeling of sheer open freedom as you glide across the rolling waves, identifying ships with your spyglass, and engaging in exciting naval combat.  The level of tactics and strategy is seamlessly integrated into the easy-to-use controls where weapon selection is as simple as facing a certain direction.   Look forward to fire the chain cannon to stun your opponent while looking to the rear will drop fire barrels that float and explode on contact like mines or can be shot with your swivel shot.  Your broadside cannons fire from either side, often revealing weak points that can be targeted with the swivel shot for precision damage, and you also have the long-range mortar that rains fire from above when you get within range.  Of course you can always ram your enemy in moments of desperation.  You’ll need to mix-up your tactics based on the type of enemy; especially when going up against the four Legendary Ships.

Assassin’s Creed III only gave you a taste of what is possible with ship battles – Black Flag takes it to the next level.  Your ship, the Jackdaw, is the second most important character in the game next to Edward.  It can be fully equipped and upgraded with hull upgrades, rams, cannons, mortars, and fire barrels.  You can upgrade your hold to carry more cargo and your barracks to sleep more crew.  And don’t even get me started on all the visual customizations like sails, mastheads, and steering wheels.

Upgrades require both cash and in some cases resources such as cloth, wood, and metal.  These precious resources are obtained by raiding island warehouses and defeating enemy ships.   Sinking a ship will get you half the possible salvage but actually boarding a ship will get you the full amount as well as some extra perks.  Once you have battered a ship down to critical damage you can pull alongside and board.  Victory requirements change based on the size and type of ship.  Sometimes you just have to kill 10-15 crew but other times you’ll need to kill the officers or scouts, cut down the flag from the main mast, or blow up powder kegs.  Once the ship is captured you can scrap it for parts to repair the Jackdaw, or in some cases recruit the crew to lower your wanted level or salvage the entire ship and send it off to your fleet.

Fleet battles are the new replacement for the Assassin’s Guild missions in past games.  In this strategic mini-game you will build up a fleet of various ships ranging in size, speed, and firepower.  You are then given a map of the Atlantic with a growing number of destinations.   You’ll first need to engage the enemy in these turn-based ship battles with as many as three ships.  Once the shipping lanes are safe you can then send your ships to various cities to deliver or exchange cargo, thus unlocking new destinations on the map.  Missions require ships with certain cargo capacity and they all have a preset time of completion – some taking 30-40 hours of real-time, so this is one of those activities that you need to queue up before ending each game session so it can play itself while you are away.

Collectors are not forgotten and Black Flag has plenty of collectibles like 200 glowing Animus shards found in cities, under the ocean, and even on the random sandbar.  Like the floating pages of Ben Franklin’s almanac in Assassin’s Creed III, you now get to chase 35 Sea Shanty pages around city and jungles, and for each one you collect a new song opens up for your crew to sing while you sail the high seas.  There are 20 letters stuck in bottles, 22 maps that lead to buried treasure, and 18 blueprints to upgrade your ship and equipment.  Then you have 30 Assassin contracts, and 5 special Assassin missions that result in 5 keys that unlock a special set of armor.  And if armor is your thing, there are 16 special Mayan monoliths that you can climb and use your vision mode to reveal 16 stones that when combined, will unlock a cool piece of Mayan armor.

Previous games had you buying maps to reveal all of these item locations, but Black Flag only asks that you either defeat the navy forts or simply sync the numerous Viewpoints to reveal all possible pickups in the surrounding area.  With literally hundreds of collectibles and hours of sideline activities, it is easy to see how you can get lost in this world without ever touching the core story, but periodically you will be swept back to reality – aka the real world – and asked to wander the impressive office tower of Abstergo.

Your time outside the Animus is limited but still entertaining; especially if you are a fan of the lore and backstory of the franchise.  As you sneak around hacking into 33 computers and collecting 20 Sticky Notes, you’ll become privy to a lot of controversial information about Desmond, Subject 16, and even Subject 1.   There are three types of hacking puzzles; one where you navigate a sphere searching for an infinite loop, another where you must get a data node across multiple scrolling firewalls like a game of Frogger, and another where you must dial in a certain frequency using a set of mathematical rules.  None of the hacks proved terribly difficult although I did feel I stumbled on the answer more often than solving it.  Most of the resulting data is either audio or video so you don’t have to spend hours reading, but for those who really want to sink themselves into every last bit of content, Ubisoft has created something quite wonderful – the companion app.

The Black Flag app is a free download I was able to install on my iPad (also works on iPhone) that gives you unprecedented access to features and modes of the game even when you aren’t playing it.  The app connects to both Uplay and your specific platform (if the game is running).  When used during gameplay you have full access to the world map with the ability to filter the icons and even plot waypoints.  You also have access to all of your treasure maps making it so much easier to find where X marks the spot without having to open and close menus on your main game.  Using the companion features just makes the whole experience that much more seamless.

iPad Companion App Gallery

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The app also lets you track your progress, total sync, play time, etc. as well as granting you access to ALL of the information you have been slowly unlocking in the massive Animus database.  If you can’t be bothered to read all the information on people, places, and things, or learn the lyrics to your favorite sea shanty during the game, you can now catch-up on all that peripheral info anytime you have a free moment with your iPhone or iPad.  And then we come to the most useful part of the companion app; Kenway’s Fleet.   Yes, you no longer have to retreat to the captain’s quarters to manage your naval empire.  You can play the complete fleet battle mini-game from within the app anytime, anywhere, and then collect your earnings the next time you play the main game.

The last part of the companion app is the Initiates feed which provides a list of Hot Topics as well as a real-time progress feed outlining major events within the game.  This also ties into Ubisoft’s new website, acinitiates.com that opens up another tangent world of activities and challenges.   This site syncs with Uplay and provides multi-tiered challenges that reward you with XP and other special rewards that can be redeemed on Uplay.  I got an awesome set of new sails by completing all three levels of the Beachcomber challenge.

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is a work of art, and the PlayStation 4 version is the closest thing you can get to the PC experience without an expensive PC.   The video card alone would cost as much as a PS4 to create a comparable experience.  The rolling waves are a treat for the eyes or perhaps a terror when a storm rolls in and giant rogue waves start sweeping your crew from the deck.  The night and day cycle creates some of the best sunsets and sunrises, and nothing is as calming as sailing through the night with nothing but the glow of the moon and the twin lanterns on your stern to illuminate the blackness.

The next-gen version not only brings much improved dynamic weather, 1080p native graphics, and silky smooth framerates, it also adds a unique skeletal system to the plant life so it bends and moves with your body, or even to the gentle breeze.  Since you spend a lot of the game hiding in bushes this makes it much easier to keep track of Edward while stalking your prey.  The lighting, textures, and level of detail are incredible with minimal pop-up and impressive draw distances that really make you appreciate those 360-sync cams.  The world is so natural and alive it’s hard to believe that it was created by artists and programmers.  God would be impressed.

Load screens are nominal, and you can now transition from land to ship or even ship to ship with nary a break in the action.  The only significant loads are when fast-traveling, advancing chapters, and when going in and out of the Animus.  The DualShock 4 functions flawlessly with smooth analog motion on the sticks and easy map access via the big touchpad.  Another perk for PS4 gamers is the included DLC code for an extra mission starring Aveline, the female assassin from Liberation on the Vita.  While this is currently a PS3 and PS4 exclusive I expect this to be available on other platforms as paid DLC in April 2014 when the codes expire.

As of this review I have logged over 120 hours with Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag including both the Aveline and Freedom Cry DLC missions, and that doesn’t include the hours I’ve spent managing my fleet on my iPad.  There is so much to do in this game and it is all addictively fun.  Beneath all the pirate panache there is a lot of repetitious gameplay – some might even call it grinding, but the only thing that gives it away are these silly little post-event cutscenes like a crew cheering when Kenway spares their lives or watching your crew repair your ship and test fire a cannon.   These animations are much more obvious and repetitive than the activities that trigger them.

Black Flag also has a competent and surprisingly addictive online multiplayer component that, for me, rival the depth and fun of anything Call of Duty or Battlefield has to offer.  All of the traditional modes are back as well as the new objective-based Wolfpack mode that even comes with its own 8-chapter story and can be play cooperatively with up to four people.  The more you play the more XP and money you earn which will increase your rank unlocking new weapons and abilities that can be purchased and assigned to the various slots in your character sheet and organized into various loadouts for specific missions and game types.  While the graphics take a slight hit in quality, there is no shortage of suspenseful hide-and-seek gameplay in Black Flag’s thrilling online modes; especially when you factor in the new Game Lab that lets players create and share their own custom online game modes.

I have to confess to a bit of separation anxiety now that I am out of content and have no real reason to sail the seas with Edward and crew.  I can only look forward to the next DLC coming in the Season Pass collection, and further into the future with whatever adventures the Assassin’s Creed franchise has for us in their next sequel.  I only hope it can live up to the incredibly high standards Black Flag has set for the series.  Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is easily the best game currently available for the PlayStation 4 and our pick for the best game of 2013.

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Zen Pinball 2 Review – PlayStation 4

I’ve been playing Zen Studios’ pinball games for…well…as long as they’ve been making them.  I have played and reviewed all the various versions on consoles, handhelds like my 3DS and PS Vita, and iPad, and even the PC when the game came to Steam earlier this year.  The PC version was not only the best edition to date, with its silky smooth framerate and responsive controls; it quickly became the home to my most complete library of tables.  So when Zen Pinball 2 recently released on the PlayStation 4 I was ready to tackle my silver ball addiction on Sony’s next-gen console and see if it could possibly rival my PC experience.

Zen Pinball 2 is the same tried and true pinball game you have likely already played on one of those aforementioned systems, only now it has the power of the PS4 behind it for incredible 1080p graphics fidelity, smooth 60fps gameplay, and the same great physics and control you’ve come to expect from this series, yet somehow improved once again.

Zen Studios is doing some pretty clever marketing in that you can download the core game engine and the fantasy themed Sorcerer’s Lair table will be free.  There are 20 tables available at launch like the new Marvel Pinball: Dr. Strange table, as well as select favorites from past games including:

  • Star Wars™ Pinball
  • Star Wars™ Pinball: Balance of the Force
  • Marvel Pinball™
  • Marvel Pinball™: Avengers Chronicles
  • Plants vs. Zombies™ Pinball
  • Epic Quest
  • Paranormal
  • Earth Defense

Those who have already purchased these tables for PS3 or PS Vita will be able to import them, free of charge, into this new game.  There are timed demos for all the tables so you can try any of them prior to purchasing.  Tables are $2.99 each or $9.99 in select bundles and with more tables on the way in 2014 including new Star Wars and Marvel themes, there won’t be any shortage of exciting pinball action on the PlayStation 4.

Up until now the majority of my Zen Pinball 2 gaming has been on my Xbox 360 and more recently, the PC using a 360 gamepad.   While the PC still offers near-instant load times the PS4 isn’t far behind, but the true deciding factor is in controller response.  There is virtually no flipper delay from the time you squeeze any of the trigger or shoulder buttons to the time your ball is knocked back into play.  Visually, the game is just as good as the PC but a considerable step up from Xbox 360 and PS3 versions, which is where most PS4 gamers are coming from.

The smooth panning not only makes it possible but also enjoyable to play the various tables from almost any camera view. Before, there were scrolling and panning issues and screen jitters that restricted my last-gen console play to one or two views that wouldn’t make me queasy. Now, I can get right down in the action and appreciate all the artistic detail in these tables and still have the reaction time to keep the ball in play and set new high scores.

As far as features, everything we’ve had in the past has been carried over including individual table achievements, local and online leaderboards, the Superscore and Wizard Score ranking system, and of course, local hotseat multiplayer.   Sadly, Superscores and table high scores do not import into the new game so prepare to start your pinball career from scratch.  Another potential negative is that not all tables are coming to the PS4 (at least not for now), so many of your favorites may be getting left behind.

The PlayStation 4 version of Zen Pinball 2 just puts an extra shine on the glass and a twinkle on that silver ball while offering up the best pinball action you can experience without hanging out in a bar, bowling alley, or forgotten arcade.  And best of all, any investment you already have in the franchise or table library is preserved with the awesome ability to import and upgrade your tables to the new next-gen format.

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Trine 2: Complete Story Review – PlayStation 4

Back for my third review on my third format, welcome to Trine 2: Complete Story.  Frozenbyte is bound and determined that everyone has a chance to play their stunning platform-puzzler, so it’s no big surprise that this is debuting as a launch title for Sony’s new PlayStation 4.   Complete Story is a significant technical upgrade and a slight content upgrade from the Director’s Cut version that released on the Wii U last year, and all of these console variations are compilations of the content previously available on Steam in both the core Trine 2 game and the Goblin Menace DLC.

The PlayStation 4 marks the most comprehensive bundle released to date, both in features and content including Trine 2 and all of the Goblin Menace levels now seamlessly integrated into the story as well as the Dwarven Caverns bonus level awarded after finding all ten pieces of the map scattered about the Goblin Menace levels.  The nice thing about having the DLC integrated rather than offered as a separate adventure is that now all of your upgrades from the main game carry over into the expansion levels.

It’s a bit ironic that one of the best games offered at the PlayStation 4 is not only a digital download title being offered on the PS Store, but also an upgraded port of a game about to celebrate its two-year anniversary, and yet it still holds up as one of the most beautiful and addictively fun games I’ve ever played.     Trine 2 has already dazzled me on last-gen consoles as well as PC, so I was eager to once again dive into this charming storybook world with soothing narration, stunning, rich, vibrant, gorgeous, amazing, (excuse me while I consult my thesaurus…) , dazzling, astounding, elegant graphics.  And it probably didn’t hurt that Trine 2 also offers some of the most satisfying platform-puzzle gameplay that mixes the best parts of Lost Vikings (look it up) and Portal 2.

All hyperbole aside (if that is even possible), Trine 2: Complete Story is quite simply the must-own game for the PlayStation 4 and at only $20 there is no reason for you not to be playing, especially since this version packs in all the bonus adventures of the Goblin Menace along with a few other exclusive features that make this a tempting offer for those who may own or have already played a previous version.

Obviously, Trine 2 is a sequel, although, it doesn’t require any knowledge of the first game as we meet up with Amadeus the Wizard, comfortably napping after long hours researching the elusive Fireball spell. A rush of wind forces the door of his cottage open extinguishing the lights, and then a bright light shines through the window waking him up. Amadeus staggers outside into a lush storybook wonderland that serves as your first of three character tutorials.

Once Amadeus meets up with the Trine (a magical beacon of light), you will link up with the other two members of your team, Pontius the Knight, and Zoya the Thief, who each have their own introductory lessons that showcase their unique skills and abilities. Pontius is your fighter armed with sword, shield and hammer while Zoya uses her bow and grapple for ranged combat and platform navigation. Together, these three are an unstoppable force once you learn to master their unique talents.

There is also a nice leveling-up process that requires you to collect these glass jars scattered about the levels. Some are quite obvious while others require special feats of navigation and acrobatics, or perhaps magical intervention or even the forceful smash of Pontius’ blade or hammer. For every 50 you collect you will obtain one skill point that can be spent to upgrade any of the three characters in various ways.

Amadeus’ skill tree allows him to levitate a monster or increase his initial conjuring ability to include multiple objects or even a plank; a nice alternative to the normal boxes he can summon. Zoya can upgrade to fire and ice arrows or even unlock a stealth ability while Pontius can upgrade his shield so it freezes his enemies or give his hammer a Thor-like throwing ability. The various upgrades get progressively more expensive, so you often have to bank your skill points and save up for the more powerful enhancements.

Gameplay, or at least the concept, is eloquently simple by design but the actual game provides some of the most fiendish puzzles of any game to date.  And thanks to a wonderful physics system, there is an unparalleled ability to experiment and solve these navigation, combat, and item collection puzzles in a multitude of ways. I came away from 60% of the puzzles in this game thinking I had “tricked the designers” and had done something “nobody else would ever think of”.

The DualShock 4 does a competent job of providing smooth and accurate controls for each of the characters.   The touchpad can be pressed to summon the upgrade screen or you can drag your finger around the surface to have Amadeus levitate and rotate objects.   It’s a valiant attempt to mimic the superior mouse controls of the PC, but ultimately you’ll find the analog sticks do a much more reliable job.

If you are playing Trine 2 solo then you can only have one character active at any time, but you are free to switch them out on the fly, even in mid-jump. This presents some creative opportunities for solving a great many of the game’s puzzles. But when you play the game with one or two others all new possibilities present themselves because now you can have two or three active characters working as a team to solve these puzzles.  Couch co-op is preferred since it’s easier to coordinate in a local group rather than having two or three gamers squawking commands over their chat headset.

Unlike previous versions of the game where you could use Amadeus to create a box or plank and have co-op players ride the object like a magic carpet, summoned objects will cease to levitate when another player steps on them.   You can still use created objects as quick stepping stones for other players, but the designers finally fixed a major flaw in the co-op play.  Summoned objects still make collecting jars stashed on high ledges a breeze by still being able to knock them down to the ground.  The camera also needs to pull out a bit more in co-op play. Way too often you are fighting the edge of the screen (and the other players) to grab an object just out of reach.

While worthless in combat, Amadeus is still my preferred character or at least the one I actively play when not required to switch to the other two. His ability to conjure boxes and planks is critical in just getting through the levels, and the more boxes and planks he can summon, the easier it is to get through the game and get a 100% collection. He can also levitate the environment like rocks, logs, leaves, and even these deadly spore-shooting plants that can be aimed at the enemy. You can also affect the environment like jamming a summoned box into the gears of some machine, moving pieces of pipe to create new air streams, or tug on a curled leaf to redirect water flow to irrigate a seed into a climbable plant.

Pontius comes into play whenever the game throws a batch of enemies at you. He can slash his way through most with ease; others require being stunned first, and others require a pounding with his hammer.  Zoya is great for targeting enemies perched on ledges or shooting fire arrows into exploding barrels. Her grapple is perfect for zipping up to the top of the screen or swinging across bottomless chasms.  And when it comes time to go swimming, you can enjoy three individual air meters, effectively tripling the time you can spend exploring underwater as long as you switch characters.

There is a steady progression in difficulty in both the gameplay and the puzzles yet Trine 2 never gets frustrating thanks to its wonderful healing and checkpoint system. About every two screens scrolled there is a glowing orb that will heal your party and resurrect any dead characters. There were even a few combat encounters that take place on the same screen as one of these orbs, effectively making you indestructible. You’ll never have to repeat a combat or solve a difficult puzzle twice in this game.

As “hinted” at above, Trine 2 is simply gorgeous and makes great use of the powerful graphics on the PlayStation 4 and also marks the first console appearance of the game in 1080p and 60fps (all other consoles games have been 720p and 30fps).  The game also supports stereoscopic 3D and will prompt you if it detects you have a 3D TV.   The colors, and the multi-scrolling backgrounds and the sheer level of detail will have you studying the artwork as much as the puzzle designs. The sound design is right up there with the visuals thanks to quality voice acting, mostly by the narrator, but also the three individual characters who will often chime in with their own quips and remarks showcasing their unique personalities and their group dynamic. Ambient environmental sound effects like wind, rain, flowing water, fire, explosions, crumbling rocks, the splash of acid, the roar of a dragon or the bellow of an Ogre king all mix in to create a living fantasy world; one that is uniquely complemented by the magical score composed by Ari Pulkkinen.

Trine 2: Complete Story is a solid 12-15 hour game when you factor in the embedded DLC; although your mileage may vary based entirely on how easily you can figure out the puzzles it presents and whether or not you are playing alone or co-op. There is a built-in hint system that you can tweak to provide hints after a certain amount of time. Completionists will want to go for the perfect kills and collectibles, both XP jars and hidden treasures, plus many fun and challenging Achievements, and there are interesting Game+ modes to experiment with after your initial trip through the game.

Trine 2: Complete Story is simply one of the best and most gorgeous PlayStation 4 games you can play at launch, offer AAA gameplay at a third of the cost of similar games.  And even if you have already played Trine 2 on another system, it might be time to experience the magic of Trine 2 all over again.  It is an unforgettable and timeless adventure that will keep you glued to your TV from start to exciting finish.

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Angry Birds: Star Wars Review – PlayStation 4

Angry Birds: Star Wars has been around for a while now on mobile platforms, and I was surprised when this .99 cent physics-based slingshot shooter was announced as a $50 launch title for the new PlayStation 4.  Even factoring in the most expensive in-app purchase, the most you would ever play to play this on iTunes would be $20.  Perhaps they were including both the original and the newly released sequel, another .99 cent game.  Nope. Angry Birds: Star Wars II has in-app purchases that go all the way to $100, but let me tell you that if you are spending $100 on Angry Birds you need some financial counseling.  Honestly, if you spend $50 on Angry Birds you might want to look into some charitable donations…and no, Rovio is not a charity.

I’ve played and finished Angry Birds: Star Wars on both the iPhone and iPad back when they were new.  Coming back to the game after more than a year brought back instant memories and considerable frustration at just how little control you have when playing this game.   By design, levels can be won in less than ten seconds but it can take you upwards of 20-30 minutes of attempts on some of the more challenging boards to get those precious three gold stars.

Angry Birds: Star Wars infuses the puzzle game with locations and characters from the movie, so pigs are now storm troopers and you’ll be launching various characters like Luke Skywalker and Ben Kenobi at the poorly constructed Imperial forts designed from wood and glass.  Han Solo might even swoop in with the Falcon for the assist. Depending on the character (bird) being launched you may have additional powers such as a Force push or a lightsaber slash, but toppling the tower and crushing the storm piggies is your ultimate unchanging goal.

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The PlayStation 4 version of Angry Birds: Star Wars holds up nicely when stretched to 10x its mobile size, but playing the game on a 60” plasma didn’t immerse me in the game as much as it embarrassed me for playing it on a system that is capable of so much more.   The game makes use of the touchpad on the DualShock 4 to fire the slingshot, but it is twitchy and glitchy and you’re better off  sticking with the analog stick.   You can zoom in and out and pan around the 200+ levels that include 20 exclusive boards designed just for the PS4.  There are also two new multiplayer modes that offer a turn-based competition mode for up to four people and a two-player co-op mode.   For those who need to hide their shame and not get caught playing this on the big screen, Remote Play is supported and you can Wi-Fi this over to your PS Vita for a more traditional small-screen experience.  These PS4-exclusive features are a nice touch but in reality they only boost the value of the game to maybe $10.

Don’t get me wrong; Angry Birds: Star Wars is a mildly amusing pastime but it is certainly not worth the physical retail packaging it is being offered on in stores nor is it worth the effort to get off the couch to insert a disc (maybe you can slingshot it into your PS4), so if you must play a game that was designed for a 4” screen on a 50” screen at least buy your copy from the PS Store and pray that it goes on some sort of sale.  You’d be far better off buying a year of PlayStation Plus with that same money and getting all sorts of FREE games over the next twelve months.

Admittedly, there aren’t a lot of games out for the PS4 at launch, which makes it only that much more reprehensible that Activision is capitalizing on the situation.  Unknowing parents will be dropping this $50 lump of coal in their kids stockings in a few weeks – let’s just hope they save their receipts and don’t break the shrink-wrap seal.

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Killzone: Shadow Fall Review – PlayStation 4

Killzone: Shadow Fall has the luxury of being the only exclusive FPS launch title for either of the new consoles releasing this holiday season, but it is not without its competition.  Big names like Call of Duty and Battlefield are also staking their claims to your launch library purchases, and with a much larger and more enthusiastic following that not only spans both systems but also both generations of hardware, Guerrilla Games seems to be caught in the crossfire.

Not that the Killzone franchise is without its own loyal fan base.  Spanning both previous PlayStation systems and most recently appearing in one of the PS Vita’s best portable game of 2013, Killzone is a competent shooter in its own right, and being a first-party Sony title it has always had the luxury of being able to exploit the power of whatever system it shipped for.   That is certainly the case with Shadow Fall as this is the most spectacularly gorgeous FPS I have play on any system of any generation to date – and this is a launch title; just wait until developers have a few years with this new tech.

So if you walked into a club and saw all three available FPS games standing at the bar you’d have three distinct choices.  You have Battlefield, the attractive prospect with long-term relationship potential, Call of Duty, just as good looking but probably only going to hold your interest for a few months, and then there is Killzone: Shadow Fall; the stunning supermodel that is great to show off to your friends, but shallow enough to only be worth a one night stand (or maybe a weekend tryst) at best.   Which girl…err…game are you going to take home.  Well for those who prefer looks over brains, the good news is that Killzone is only going home with you if you are driving a shiny new PS4.

A hypnotic opening cutscene sets the somber stage for the current war between the ISA and Helghan.   It seems that 30 years ago the ISA bombed their planet leaving it uninhabitable, then in an odd twist of guilt and remorse they offered to let the surviving Helghast move to their planet and occupy one of their largest cities.  Imagine that after nuking Japan the U.S. had said, “We’re sorry…here, take New York City.”  That seems to be the unlikely premise that this story is based on.  In the opening level we play as young Lucas who is trying to escape the city with his father during the first days of the Helghast occupation.  After witnessing his father’s senseless murder at the hands of the Helghast, Lucas enlists in the military and we trip through time until we reach present day where the story gets really confusing with all sorts of epic twists and political betrayals, conspiracies, terrorism, and genocide.

Ambiguous narrative aside, most people play FPS games for the combat and Killzone keeps things pretty basic with a standard set of weapons, some with dual functionality, and your new best friend, the OWL.  Call of Duty Ghosts may have a trained dog but in Shadow Fall you have an OWL and it sticks with you for 95% of the game and proves to be the most useful AI partner in recent gaming history.   Swiping in any of the four directions on the DualShock 4 touchpad, you can change the function of the OWL.  It attacks, it shocks and disables shields, it creates its own shield for you, and most exciting of all, it creates an on-demand zip line allowing you to fast-travel around the map provided your destination is within range and lower than your starting point.

I have to admit that I forgot about the OWL early on, but when things started to get tough – and that happens often as the difficulty is brutal in this game, even on the normal skill level – the OWL plays a strategically crucial part to your tactics.   Enemies will often have energy shields that need to be disrupted before you can damage them, and some Helghast will have riot shields and your OWL can force them to turn around allowing you to attack their unprotected side.  Your OWL is also an expert hacker and can be used in numerous key locations to advance the game as well as disable alarm systems that will continuously summon new waves of Helghast until silenced.  Your OWL is even a field medic, able to restore you to full health provided you have an adrenaline pack.

Your D-pad gives you quick access to four useful functions, the coolest being this pulse sensor device where you must hold down the button to scan your surroundings.  The longer you hold it down the further your scan range, but if you hold it down for too long you will overload the system and everyone in the immediate area will know where you are.  Once enemies are pinged you can see them through walls and even order your OWL to target them.  This is especially useful on spider boxes that your OWL can disable before they unleash a swarm of suicide spider bombers.

This new Killzone might not have as many spectacular set pieces as Call of Duty Ghosts, but it is not without its moments of awesomeness whether you are dangling from a rope as a VTOL weaves through the city or making an orbital free-fall return to the planet that turns into a squirrel suit flight through abandoned rubble before landing on a giant inflatable mattress.    While the game doesn’t have any obvious puzzles there is one level where you have to open doors by unplugging and reinserting power cells into various sockets similar to Dead Space.

Shadow Fall is littered with collectibles; comics, newspapers, and even audio logs that play through the speaker of your DualShock 4 while you continue to play the game.  The new DualShock 4 is a fantastic controller out of the box, but it is especially suited for FPS games with great analog movement, responsive touch and D-pad controls, and great trigger action.  Guerrilla seems to address every new feature and function of the console and the controller in this launch title and does so without ever seeming gimmicky.   While it might not be the best FPS game at launch, it certainly sets a few feature bars that future titles need to follow or at least consider.

The story will take most gamers about 8-10 hours to get through.  There is a lot of time spent on just figuring out what to do and where to go.   You can press up on the D-pad to reveal your objective list and put a temporary waypoint on the HUD, but figuring out how to get to that point in some of the more densely populated maze-like levels is a bit of trial and error.    The was one level where I was getting turn by turn directions and doing okay, then the guy in my ear stopped talking and I was immediately lost.   Even Lucas said, “It would be nice to know where I am going”.  Without being too spoilery the ending is sudden, shocking, and possibly disappointing depending on how much you cared about the story and the characters.   There is a bit of redemption waiting for you in the loosely-hidden chapter 10 buried in the end credits.

Killzone: Shadow Fall has a competent multiplayer mode with support for up to 24 players in a variety of game types; the most famous of which is Warzone, a fantastic creation that dynamically mixes up various match types like CTF and Team Deathmatch within a single session.  This is the only mode that really sets Killzone’s multiplayer apart from its competition.  Your more traditional modes are still available but you’ll find most everyone is playing Warzone.  While there is no local co-op or split-screen gameplay, the game does support Remote Play with a PS Vita.

For those who are tired of all the perks and ability micromanagement in those other FPS games, you’ll be pleased with the more objective-based structure of Shadow Fall’s multiplayer system that has you checking off weapon and mode-specific goals rather than grinding XP during combat.  With more than 1,500 of these challenges, you won’t be completing this section of the game anytime soon.  There are multiple classes to choose from and all are equally balanced and integrate nicely with other types of gamers and classes.   Some even have access to attack and support drones, and while not nearly as game-changing as the OWL; these drones do offer their own unique brand of strategy.

As previously mentioned, the presentation is showcase material for the PS4 with in-game graphics that rival anything you’ll see in Battlefield 4 or Ghosts.  There is a certain level of polish that will dazzle you from the opening moment of looking through the rain-splattered window, to the first time you peer over the railing at the sprawling nighttime skyline, to that epic title cutscene that takes you on an aerial tour of a futuristic city.   Each new chapter brings something new to the table as far as original environments and gorgeous graphics no matter how depressing the situation.  And as much as I normally hate and complain about them, Guerilla even got the lens flares and screen dirt right.   Characters look great with motion-capture performances, detailed faces, perfect lip-sync, and excellent voice acting; sound effects are futuristic and powerful with great use of LFE, and the score fits every mood in moments of simple narrative or intense action.

Killzone: Shadow Fall might be a system exclusive but it is far from a genre exclusive with popular franchises like Battlefield and Call of Duty nipping at its heels.   There is no doubt that Guerilla has tapped into the power and potential of the PlayStation 4, creating a technical masterpiece that is pure joy to watch, but for me, that experience was a bit short-lived.    With its unclear objectives and confusing levels combined with the god-like awareness of the enemy AI, death was frequent and frustrations were high even as early as the first level trying to blow up that statue.   There were moments of brilliance and moments of utter failure, and even though there seems to be a thriving online community, I just don’t think Warzone or any of the other traditional online modes can compete with the juggernaut momentum of the competition, but it sure looks good trying.

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Knack Review – PlayStation 4

With the introduction of each new generation of console I’m always excited to see the first release for each genre type, especially when that game is a first-part title as is the case with Knack. Knack is the debut platformer title on Sony’s new PlayStation 4 that blends Pixar-inspired cinematics with a leading character that is part Tasmanian devil and part Crash Bandicoot. It’s simultaneously charming and violent, combining traditional platforming along with endless combat using a simple and somewhat repetitive combat system that will ultimately wear down kids and adults, but Knack is still a remarkable tech demo if nothing else.

The game opens with a brief cutscene that quickly explains the ongoing battle between man and goblins. It seems someone is providing advanced weapons to the Goblin menace and our band of heroes must investigate further. Dr. Vargas, his assistant Lucas, and macho adventurer Ryder, are the main humans in the story but Knack is the true star. You’re introduced to him and his unique abilities almost immediately in a lengthy tutorial sequence that will show you his abilities inside the lab then require you to test them outside in the garden.

Knack is a unique being comprised of an ancient relic at his core surrounded by all sorts of particulate matter. Think of the relic as a powerful magnet that attracts any nearby metal bits then forms those bits into a physical form; the more bits the bigger the form. And that is where most of the PS4’s power comes into play in this platformer; creating the swirling mass of individually modeled and constantly in flux random reflective bits that make up Knack. It’s impressive to study his construction even when he is standing still, as there is so much subtle animation, but once he starts moving and especially when he takes damage, parts will fall off and he will slowly diminish in size, lose his “hair”, etc. and then as he absorbs fresh pieces he will gradually build back up.

The sad thing about Knack is that once you have played the tutorial you’ve pretty much experienced all the game has to offer when it comes to gameplay. You’ll be doing the same set of attacks, combos, and charged Sunstone attacks over and over again; just in new places; some interesting and some not so much. Despite some nice and varied visual designs the enemies all fit into three or four categories, each with the same type of attacks, tells, and weaknesses, so you’ll fight a giant goblin pretty much the same way you fight a giant robot. Aside from the occasional prompted dodge-to-the-side move most of combat simply has you trying to avoid getting hit while waiting for the lull to unleash your own flurry of spin kicks and attacks then backing away. Repeat this until your Sunstone meters are full then unleash an impressive shockwave, whirlwind, or targeted range attack great for multiple foes. Obviously, the larger Knack is the more powerful his attacks, but the game does a good job of frequently reducing your size by having you spend your body parts to activate special relic devices.

Knack has an interesting upgrade and item collection system in place. Over the course of the game you will be able to add elemental bits to Knack that can turn him to ice, wood, or even metal. These elements have their own advantages and disadvantages; for instance, wood makes Knack susceptible to fire damage, but catching Knack on fire also helps in solving some interesting puzzles. Sadly, these elemental sections only come into play a few times through the 10-12 hour game.
Observant gamers will find numerous breakaway walls and secret areas with special item chests. Inside you will find a random gadget part, just one of many that is required to make a complete and more useful item. The cool factor here is that you have the option to take the item in your chest or swap it out with any item that was in that same chest when any of your PSN friends opened it in their game. This is an awesome idea and something I hope to see further developed in other games.

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“Knack Quest” brings some of that Knack charm to your iOS device with match-three gaming and PSN integration

Something else that seems to be the norm for this new generation of games are second screen support apps. Everyone has them and Knack is no exception. Knack’s Quest is a charming little mobile diversion that combines a Knack-inspired match-three mini game that allows you to earn items that can be used within the main game. Sync your iPhone or iPad with your PSN account and compare your scores and accomplishments with your friends. Knack also supports Remote Play using the PlayStation Vita so you can continue the single-player experience on your handheld or have a second player join you for a co-op session.

Knack is surprisingly difficult considering it’s a “kid’s game”, and unnecessarily frustrating due to an unforgiving checkpoint system that will have you replaying large sections of the game over if and when you die; sections that may contain several fights and possible platforming sequences that can take upwards of ten minutes to replay. There is a drop-in/out co-op mode that allows a second player to assist Knack without really affecting the difficulty of the game. Robo Knack isn’t nearly as powerful as our hero, but he can assist in combat and even feed Knack fresh parts. And when you finish the main game you will unlock two new modes; Coliseum Attack where 1-2 players fend off waves of enemies in a survival mode and Time Attack where one player tries to finish a wave before the timer expires so they can advance.

Platform games have been around since the dawn of console gaming and while great graphics always help make a great game it’s quality gameplay that makes this challenging genre something we all come back to time and time again. Knack is a technical showpiece; a shining example of what the PlayStation 4 is capable of. Sadly, its gameplay hasn’t evolved as much as the system, making Knack a tiresome repetitive chore that last twice as long as it should. Knack is cool, original, and even loveable (especially in his tiny form) as a character – he just deserves a better game.

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Zen Pinball 2 is Coming to PlayStation®4

Zen Pinball 2 will release on PlayStation®4 on December 17 in North America and December 18 in Europe, featuring a selection of tables from the previous generation’s table library. Marvel’s Doctor Strange will join Zen Pinball 2 on PlayStation 4 as launch content. The table will be available for $2.99.

“We are able to bring a special selection of Zen Pinball tables from PlayStation 3 to PlayStation 4. If you own any of these on PS3, we invite you to download them on PS4 at no charge. This is our way of saying thank you to all of the players who have supported Zen Studios on PlayStation platforms over the years,” said Mel Kirk, Zen Studios Vice President of Publishing.

Additionally, the fantasy themed Sorcerer’s Lair table will be free for all players on PlayStation 4! Simply download the Zen Pinball 2 platform and you can access the table at no cost.

Zen Pinball 2 will launch on PlayStation 4 as a free platform download with a total of 20 tables available as paid DLC. Users can purchase tables inside the Zen Pinball 2 platform, including the following tables and packs at launch:

  • Star Wars™ Pinball
  • Star Wars™ Pinball: Balance of the Force
  • Marvel Pinball™
  • Marvel Pinball™:Avengers Chronicles
  • Plants vs. Zombies™ Pinball
  • Epic Quest
  • Paranormal
  • Earth Defense

Table packs will cost $9.99 and individual tables will cost $2.99 on PlayStation 4.

Zen Studios has HUGE plans for pinball in 2014, including more Star Wars™ Pinball and Marvel Pinball™ tables, as well as tables based on more iconic and exciting brands.

And before you leave checkout this trailer for the new Dr. Strange table coming for PS4 launch:

 

 

Basement Crawl (PS4 Exclusive) – FIRST SCREENS

Bloober Team’s Basement Crawl is an awesome mash-up of strategy, action and skill that harkens back to the days of classic Bomberman while immersing the player in a chillingly macabre setting. This multiplayer-focused game brings great imagery, unique challenges, multiplayer showdowns and more to PS4 owners, and is the first must-have post-launch download for the new system.

While no official release date has been set we expect to see something by the end of 2013.  Meanwhile, enjoy these first-look screens, some level art, and a teaser video.

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And if you missed our earlier post with the teaser trailer, here it is again.