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.

Zone of the Enders: HD Collection Review – Xbox 360

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


















F1 Race Stars Review – Xbox 360

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sports Champions 2 Review – PlayStation 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


LittleBigPlanet Karting Review – PlayStation 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Skylanders Giants Soundtrack Review

This year has already given us many great games and along with them great music. While most of those scores belong to the AAA heavy hitters that doesn’t mean that other titles are less fortunate. Take Skylanders Giants for instance. It’s already an excellent sequel to an ingenious idea, but it doesn’t hurt that it has an awesome score to accompany it. I love listening to scores all the time and usually there isn’t a day goes by that I don’t listen to a score piece or soundtrack. There are always soundtracks on my iPhone and this time is no different with the release of the Skylanders Giants Original Soundtrack.

Most of the scores and soundtracks that I own feature epic melodies and powerful pieces depicting amazing feats of bravery and the lowest points in some of my favorite stories. In the many times that I’ve listened to the soundtrack of Skylanders Giants over the past several days each track conveys a child-like presence while retaining a solid fantasy vibe. This is not surprising as the whole album is composed by Lorne Balfe, the man who has also composed several of the Assassin’s Creed titles.

Right from the start, I was treated to an almost royal fanfare with the first track, Giants. There are several great pieces amongst this 15-track score but a few stuck with me especially since I’ve had just recently played the games. I really enjoyed the rhythmic drum beats of Junkyard Isles that really helps set the tone for the rest of the score. There is also the heavily pirate inspired track, Cutthroat Carnival that starts out low with windpipes before ramping up with drums mixed with a lute or something of the acoustic persuasion that I found particularly energetic.

Trust be told, there isn’t a bad track on this score and for a game geared for a younger audience that is amazing. While it may be lost to the young, it definitely wasn’t on this child at heart gamer. The Skylanders Giants Original Soundtrack features the right mixture of upbeat battle theme music and the soothing melodies while retaining a very appealing fantasy audio package.

The soundtrack is currently available digitally through all major providers including Amazon.com

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.


Borderlands 2 Soundtrack Review

As video games continue to get better and better with each new release so do their soundtracks. There have been some truly remarkable scores releasing alongside these AAA titles, and video game soundtracks are easily catching up to movie soundtracks in both quality and popularity. Personally, I’m a huge fan of soundtracks since most of my listening time is either in the car or while sitting at my computer working, and in the case of the latter, I really need music without lyrics.

I’ve stated in past reviews that listening to a game soundtrack is a great way to relive the original game experience, but in the case of Borderlands 2, this is just a kick-ass CD loaded with awesome music that I would listen to over and over again regardless of whether it was tied to a game or not. I’ve only had this CD for a few days now and I’ve easily listened to it at least a dozen times. I have the tracks ripped to my PC and copied to both my iPhone and iPad, and I keep the disc in the car, and play it whenever I’m driving somewhere. There is something so epically masterful about this compilation of music that I’m pretty sure I could listen to it for the rest of my life. In fact, if my life had a soundtrack, I think this is the music I would want.

I knew the moment I heard the opening track to Borderlands 2 that I was in for a real treat, and that track (Ascent) wasn’t even created by Jesper Kyd. Kyd is responsible for about half the tracks on this disc while Cris Velasco and Sascha Dikiciyan take credit for the other half. Raison Varner takes credit for the 19th track (Bandit Slaughter). Despite bouncing around between various composers, the soundtrack has a slick seamless quality to it, even when you switch from an energetic thumping almost tribal track to something with a more western vibe. Some tracks are more ambient and subtly tweak your mental and emotional state while others can cause you to seriously violate the speed limit if listening to while driving.

Unlike most of my music reviews I have yet to finish the game that inspired the music, but I am eagerly anticipating reaching the parts in the game that will have me hearing these awesome tracks once again. Some of the music is so vibrant and even DJ-like in an underground rave kind of way that I can’t even imagine what will be happening in the game when I do.

Borderlands 2 has quickly shot to the top of my list of all-time favorite soundtracks, movie, game or otherwise. The music is so good and so diverse it will fill you with the energy of a six-pack of Red Bulls and when you hit the last track you will welcome the first, so you can begin the ride all over again.

You can purchase your copy from Sumthing Else Music Works, Amazon, or digitally from iTunes or any other digital music site, and I highly recommend you do. One listen to this CD and it will become the soundtrack to your life as well.

Trine 2: Golbin Menace DLC Review – PC

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

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

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

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

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