Batman: Arkham Origins Review – PC/Steam

I’ve been playing a lot of Batman: Arkham Origins over the past two weeks and I have yet to find a single element that distinguishes this action-brawler from the previous games in the franchise.  Much like movies, sequels seem to stall out around the third installment, especially when they try to make that sequel a prequel.   Prequels are usually a copout; an easy way to provide filler material without actually advancing the plot – something I’m sure Rocksteady plans to do with whatever next-gen sequel they are cooking up in their own bat cave.

While the idea of exploring the early days of Batman isn’t a bad one, I would have much preferred seeing him slowly build up his crime-fighting HQ.  Instead, we meet up with a fully equipped Batman and a fully stocked bat cave, and a full roster of criminals who want the bat’s head on a platter.   Aside from subtle points in the story you have no real sense of where this game fits into the timeline.  Small clues like Commissioner Gordon not being the commissioner yet and the obligatory first encounters between Batman and some of his more infamous foes like the Joker are conceptually pretty cool, but in the end the game devolves into the same button-mashing attack-counter combat that we all know and love.  Well, hopefully you love it because this fight engine seems to have been adopted by just about every other game being release, only those games continue to do it right whereas Arkham Origins seems to have broken it.

The game takes place in a familiar but slightly different version of Gotham City.  It’s Christmas Eve and the flurries of snow give the game a frosty chill that makes you wonder if Batman’s awesome new bat suit/body armor has any thermal properties.  Despite this being early in his career, Batman has obviously pissed off the mobster known as Black Mask who offers a $50 million bounty to anyone who can bring him the bat in one night.  Personally, if I was Alfred…hmmm…  With that amount of cash at stake all sorts of criminals and assassins come out of the woodwork including a few names casual fans won’t even know and then some big names like Deathstroke, Killer Croc, and Bane.

The city is much larger this time due to the addition of a southern map that is connected by a bridge patrolled by large numbers of enemies, which makes going between the maps an unnecessary chore.   In order to help you get around a bit easier (or faster)  you can hack a series of communication towers that are blocking the GPS system on your Batwing.  Once hacked, you can then fast-travel to any other hacked tower, but until then you are at the mercy of your grapple, which as always, feels more like Spider-Man than Batman.

Oddly enough, previous games seemed to handle the grapple better than Arkham Origins.   There were way too many instances where I would be zipping from building to building with a few cape glides stuck in the middle and all of the sudden there were no more connection points.  I would drop to the ground and have to walk around a bit to find the next place to grapple and continue.   These random, and sadly too frequent interruptions in my travels, really hurt the flow of the game.

Arkham Origins is huge yet it didn’t seem quite as “sandboxy” as Arkham City.  There are certainly plenty of side quests like the random criminal activity you can thwart like saving a citizen from a mugging or stopping a guy from robbing an ATM.  Enigma (aka The Riddler) has scattered extortion documents around town, both in the city and within the story levels, so you have your collectibles, and finding many of these actually requires considerable effort and environmental puzzle-solving.  You’ll also have to deal with defusing a series of bombs that Anarky has scattered about the city, so yes, there is plenty of “filler material” but it’s not that well integrated and comes off feeling just like that; filler.

Contained within this massive city are the core story missions, many of which take you indoors and that is where the game really shines; at least in level design.   While visually interesting, the missions are way to linear, funneling you along from one combat encounter to the next.   I really loved the stealth elements and all the detective bits from the previous games, but those have been pushed aside in favor of an overabundance of combat, and the more you fight in this game the more you realize that the fight engine isn’t nearly as good as it used to be.   It seems you must now fight on pure visual cues, always looking for that indicator over the enemy head signaling it’s time to hit the counter button.  In past games you could get into this awesome combo rhythm, but now the beat is off just enough that you can actually mess up if you slip into your old fight style.

Arkham Origins also has this annoying feature of grading each combat encounter no matter how large or small, so there is always this scorecard being tallied in the top corner with a resulting letter grade.  I don’t mind that system at the end of a chapter like in DMC, but we really don’t need real-time evaluation of our fight skills every two minutes.  It really breaks the immersion and continually reminds us we are playing a game.

Despite a wonderful rogues gallery none of the Batman games have been terribly strong with their boss fights but Arkham Origins seems to be the worst of the bunch.   None of the fights are all that interesting or even challenging.  You simply learn the boss patterns and exploit their weakness, usually while fighting off dozens of filler enemies who try to distract you from your true target.

Arkham Origins adds a few things to the mix.  Despite being pushed aside in favor of more combat, the detective mode has gotten tweaked allowing you to reconstruct crime scenes and then analyze these holographic reenactments for clues.  The whole concept had a very “Remember Me” feel to it, only without the ability to remix memories.  In this new mode you are looking to reveal red indicators that can be scanned for additional clues.  Sadly, the entire process, while cool to watch, isn’t very interactive.  And then you have a handful of new gadgets, which are more for show than anything else, and only leads to uncomfortable prequel questions about why he didn’t still have these in the other games.

And finally you have the completely unnecessary yet somehow obligatory multiplayer mode created by Splash Damage.  While these guys are known for some great multiplayer games, Batman just doesn’t lend itself to online or team play unless you are doing a Justice League game.   You basically have three teams; Bane vs. Joker vs Batman, and while the villains are supported by various henchmen, you get Robin.  I’m guessing this mode might be more popular on the consoles.  I wasn’t finding a whole lot of people playing or even willing to try this Battlefield-style domination game, and the few games I did manage to play didn’t compel me to go back anytime soon.

If you can do without the multiplayer (and I think we all can) then the PC version offers the superior visual experience for those with the rig to run it.  Cranking up those DX11 settings is only the first step in witnessing the glorious textures on the batsuit and the flowing cape that naturally drapes and flows around our hero.   Toggling on the PhysX gets you even more eye candy like fluttering debris as papers and trash kick up around Batman as he walks around or even the steam that floats from his mouth when he talks and breathes in the icy air.   The indoor levels are vastly superior to the indoor areas of the previous games and the city skyline looks amazing with a great draw distance, no visible pop-up, and some nice twists to the city design that keeps the landscape fresh for Gotham veterans who think they know their way around town.

I hate to say it but Batman: Arkham Origins seems more like a flashback DLC than a standalone game.  It’s one thing to try and keep a franchise alive with yearly installments, but in this case I think a year or two between games would have only made whatever Rocksteady has in store for us all that much sweeter.    Aside from a surprisingly engaging narrative, there just weren’t enough new or updated features when it comes to game mechanics or gameplay.  If anything, the game seemed a bit recycled.

Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate Review – PlayStation Vita

People always ask me why our reviews are posted days or weeks after a game launches.   Part of it is that we don’t get pre-release copies.  We play the same retail games that you are playing, plus we playing them longer than most other sites and play them in the same style that you play them; like leisurely gamers.   Sure, we might marathon a game, but if we do it’s because that game is awesome and not because we are trying to meet some arbitrary deadline to guarantee site traffic and ad revenue.

The only reason I even bring this up is that I did get my copy of Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate a few days ahead of release day and I still chose to spend some extra time with my review after it shipped, and I’m glad I did.  If I had reviewed this game  two weeks ago (or even a week ago) it would have gotten a much lower score.  From the moment I started playing Blackgate until just a few days ago there was something that was bugging me about the game.   Maybe it was the lack of true 3D environments and the freedom of exploration in a sandbox city I normally associate with a Batman game; maybe it was the lack of direction, objectives, and goals that had me wandering aimlessly around the prison trying not to throw my Vita against the wall in frustration.  Whatever the reason, the things I hated about the game weeks ago are the very things I love about it now.  I’m not sure when, how, or why it clicked, but I’m a pretty big fan of Blackgate on the PlayStation Vita.

Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate took the bold approach of not trying to create a portable version of its console cousin.  Instead, we get a totally original game with a fresh story that picks up a few months after the events of Arkham Origins, but detaches itself enough from that plot so playing the console version is not required.  The game opens with quite the exciting tutorial stage that has Batman zipping around the Gotham skyline in pursuit of a highly sexualized Catwoman.  Though he’d never admit it, Batman shares a bit of chemistry with the kitty, even after he apprehends her at the end of the level and has her tossed into Blackgate Prison.

When he is forced to go into Blackgate and foil the plans of the combined forces of Black Mask, Penguin, and the Joker, Catwoman may prove to be more of an unpredictable ally than a nemesis.  Only time will tell.   The rest of the game takes place inside Blackgate Prison that has been divided into three main sections, each under the control of one of the aforementioned villains.   Batman will need to clear out each section of the prison, engaging in plenty of combat, puzzle solving, and item collection using his high-tech detective abilities that have been tweaked to make the most of the Vita’s capabilities.

Blackgate is a 3D world presented in a 2D view which allows for a lot of cool perspective shifts where the world will rotate to accommodate the action as well as provide some thrilling camera angles, although it can take a while to get used to the presentation as well as the controls.  While the sticks and buttons offer smooth movement and intuitive combat not unlike the attack-counter system from the console game, the real star of the show is the detective mode.  Tapping the screen will toggle the blue filter overlay, revealing key items and people as well as a few collectible secrets, but you will also need to tap and hold then swipe around the screen for more precise analysis.  You can click on a keypad to identify the type of encryption you’ll need to hack it or you can scan a person to find out their vitals and ID their weapon.  Thorough use of the detective mode on just about every screen is required to keep the game moving, and if you get stuck with nowhere to go, chances are you didn’t scan a room to find a vent shaft or hidden door.

Combat is excellent; perhaps even better than the console version of the game.   You can pick your targets and perform aerial glide attacks from a perched overwatch then mix it up with melee moves and cool blocks and counters or attack your foes from a distance with your trusty batarang.   Batman also has plenty of gadgets by the end of the game.  These are a bit slow to come by during the story, but are spread out enough to keep that carrot dangling at the end of the stick, and finding these gadgets will aid you in getting past environmental puzzles.

The graphics on the Vita are gorgeous with excellent detail, lighting, shadows, and special effects.   The animation for Batman is smooth and lifelike, and his combat moves are also flashy if not somewhat repetitive, but so are the enemies for the most part.   For a 2D game the camera is always in motion creating a fresh perspective on what would otherwise be a standard sidescroller.   While most of the action is presented from a distant camera, you will get the occasional zoom or slow-motion final takedown for added effect.   The between-mission story is told through some expertly crafted comic book panels with a fantastic art style.  Music, sound effects, and voice acting are all console quality and worth playing with a good set of earbuds or headphones.

The one thing I did notice is that the structure of the game isn’t really designed for pick-up-and play; at least not in the defined 10-15 minute mission blocks we normally see on handheld games.   Blackgate is a 6-8 hour game with no real logical breaks or intermissions, so I ended up just suspending and resuming my game a lot whenever I wasn’t fighting something.   The game does save and checkpoint but not in any obvious way.

Once you adjust to the game’s unique visual perspective, control scheme, and reliance on the detective mode to keep the game flowing, Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate turns into a fantastic handheld action-brawler that is hard to put down; and this is coming from someone who had to force himself to pick it up and play for the first week.   Sure, the game has issues, many of which have to do with some serious backtracking through empty levels, a poorly designed map system, and some overly ambitious and poorly executed boss battles, but for those looking for a console quality Batman game they can take on the road, Blackgate is definitely worth checking out.

Deadfall Adventures Review – PC/Steam

I went into my review of Deadfall Adventures thinking I was about to play something along the lines of an FPS version of Uncharted, and came away realizing this was nothing more than one of those cardboard sleeve budget games you see at Wal-Mart in the wire rack next to the 1,500 versions of Solitaire, only this one is $40 and being sold on Steam.  That’s not to say there isn’t some fun to be had with this Indiana Jones knockoff, but it’s more of a $10-15 level of fun.

I hate to be harsh because FPS is my favorite genre and adventurous treasure hunting is my favorite sub-genre, but the designers tried to make this wacky hybrid of adventure and FPS that just never seems to work, and even when it does sort of work, it just seems very stale and “been there done that”.    Deadfall Adventures plays the vintage card by having your adventure take place in 1938.  You play James Lee Quatermain; great grandson of the famous Allan Quatermain who unwillingly teams up with Jennifer Goodwin to search an Egyptian archeological dig site for the Heart of Atlantis.

If this is starting to sound a bit like Indiana Jones just wait until your efforts are thwarted by…you guessed it…Nazis; but since this game is multilingual and available in Germany where the swastika is “illegal” our blonde haired Hitler groupies simply have an X on their armband.  After escaping Egypt your quest will take you on a whirlwind adventure around the globe to the icy arctic and humid jungles, trying to stay ahead of the Nazis and Russians as you search for the ancient and powerful relic.

Cliché as this all sounds, it would appear to be a firm foundation for a great backdrop to an adventure game or an FPS, or even both, but the shooting isn’t any fun and the adventuring; aka puzzle-solving and treasure-seeking, isn’t remotely challenging.    There is a nice selection of guns, authentically modeled after the period, but you feel very stiff and robotic using them and the enemy AI is ridiculous.   I did enjoy the combat where you had  to work your guns in tandem with your flashlight to weaken the enemy before bullets were effective, but even that has been done before in Alan Wake.

There are hidden treasures that actually play into your character and ability upgrades, and while some are treated like real treasure and hidden in places of honor, others are casually stuck inside Urn #87, which means you’ll spend way too much time smashing everything that can be broken in this game.   Your magic compass points to nearby treasures which helps narrow down the search.  Puzzles are a bit cooler in design, but their solution is always handed to you in the form of James’ notebook that will always be open to the proper page to show you the way past any obstacle.   It seems the designers got tired of trying to design puzzles as they all but vanish for the second half of the game, leaving you with one long and boring FPS.

The graphics look really nice once you turn up all the settings.  The opening level in Egypt gave me serious Serious Sam flashbacks.  The environments, textures, and lighting are pretty cool as are the weapon models, but the supporting characters are a bit bland in their design.   Obviously James is the macho cool dude and Jennifer is the busty sidekick – everyone else is just filler.  Even the villains seem generic.   The script is poorly written, full of clichés and sad one-liners for James to try and deliver with a straight face.   Cutscene conversations and encounters with Nazis are cringe-worthy at best.   Sound effects are good and there are some nice adventure themes happening with the soundtrack that you can actually get separately if you purchase the $50 Digital Deluxe Edition of the game, which also includes a Making of movie, Artbook, and some DLC – a new gun and three multiplayer skins.

Whoa…what’s that you say…multiplayer?  Yes, for those who just can’t get enough of this generic shooter you can head online for some competitive deathmatch or even a co-op survival mode.   Keeping in mind Deadfall Adventures has just released might explain the lack of “anyone” playing this game online, but I’m guessing the bigger reason is that people looking to play online shooters are playing Battlefield and Call of Duty.   Multiplayer is obviously an afterthought that deserves as much attention as the core adventure you’ll struggle to finish.

I hate to be so harsh on Deadfall Adventures, but what little fun I do admit to having was quickly sapped away by all of the game’s inadequacies.   Sure, there might be something worth exploring if this game ever drops to $10-15 on a Steam sale, but as far as a $40 PC game, you can do much better and probably for less money with any of the exceptional indie shooters out there.

LEGO Marvel Super Heroes Review – PC/Steam

“Two great tastes that taste great together…”   If you were about to sing the finish to that famous tag line using “Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups” you would be historically correct, but I dare say that when WB Games and TT Games got together one day to “play” these words were heard in the executive conference room:   “Hey!  You got your LEGO’s in my comic books.  No…you got your comic books in my LEGO’s”.   And magic was born.

And by magic I surely mean LEGO Marvel Super Heroes, perhaps one of the best comic book inspired games of all time and certainly the best in the long line of LEGO games.   Yes, better than Star Wars, better than Indiana Jones, and definitely better than Batman, LEGO Marvel Super Heroes excels in every facet of being an enjoyable game from start to finish, although I’m not sure you can ever finish this monster endeavor.  With more than 100 heroes and villains waiting to be unlocked, each with their own abilities; that makes for thousands of possible combinations when it comes time to go back and revisit the amazing worlds TT Games has crafted and populated with ingenious puzzles and hidden secrets.

The first LEGO games were very much about the blocks, but slowly, over the years, game after game and now movie after LEGO movie, LEGO has become more of an art style than a way to assemble architecture.   If it weren’t for the distinct plastic head character designs and the occasional pile of vibrating blocks, you’d never realize this was a game based on interlocking bricks.  LEGO Marvel Super Heroes blew me away on the PC with crisp visuals and no aliasing on the edges.  I don’t know what this game looks like on the consoles but it sure isn’t this good.   The colors are vibrant and the design for each of the 100+ characters was as flawless at it was charming, and don’t even get me started on all the fun superhero animations.

LEGO Marvel Super Heroes is more than a random assortment of missions.  There is a movie-worthy plot at work here with villains like Doctor Doom, Loki, and Galactus, and while the Avengers are featured prominently led by Nick Fury onboard his flying carrier and S.H.I.E.L.D. star Phil Coulsen, just about every other Marvel character has been mined from the archives and makes a valid contribution to the story and the action.    And therein lies the beauty of this game.  While the Avengers movie gives us the cool mash-up of a handful of heroes, this game creates some of the best ensembles in entertainment history from all franchises, and if you don’t like the way the story assembles your team you can always replay the level and mix and match your own from any of the unlocked characters or even create your own custom characters.

It’s almost mind-melting to conceive some of the adventures you’ll be playing out.    Iron Man and the Hulk vs. Sandman and Oblivion kick things off, and then Spidey joins in for the final battle.  Next its Captain America and Mr. Fantastic skydiving off Fury’s heli-carrier and battling Doc Ock in the Baxter Building, then seamlessly moving across the rooftops to the Daily Bugle where Spider-Man joins in for the final battle.   And so it goes with one amazing mash-up after the next with loners like Magneto to team players like the X-Men.   No one is safe from being buddied up with the most unlikely of partners, and that is where all of the fantastic cooperation and teamwork comes into play.

Like previous LEGO adventures, the gameplay relies heavily on puzzles that can only be solved by a certain character using certain abilities.  If you are playing alone this means a lot of switching around between the two or three available characters.  Obviously playing with a drop-in/out partner makes things a bit easier when it comes to getting past the puzzles, but you do have to come to terms with the unique split-screen nature of these LEGO games.   The rotating angular split was even more pronounced in this game as some characters can fly, and if you go higher than the other player the screen will quickly rotate around so the flying character is on top.   You just really have to focus on your character if you want to play local co-op.

While there is a bit of combat in the game, most of the action is more thinking than fighting.  You’ll spend much more time smashing inanimate object rather than people to create debris that can be reassembled into something useful.   Puzzles often rely on a character standing on a special plate or using their special ability like Captain America’s shield or Fantastic’s rubbery shape shifting abilities or even Spidey’s tingling spider sense.

While I enjoyed playing co-op with some of the guys in the office I ultimately played most of the story mode solo.  The AI for the uncontrolled characters is pretty good, but there are times; mostly navigation puzzles, where the game insists on your moving all characters individually across the obstacle using their unique route.   The open world map of New York City serves as your hub to the various levels giving you easy access to revisit them with new and different characters later.    But your adventures aren’t confined to the NYC skyline.  Prepare to explore Stark Tower, Asteroid M, a Hydra base, the X-Mansion, and one of my favorites, Asgard.

As is the case with LEGO games, you will see plenty of interactive objects during the story that cannot be accessed with the default characters.  Make notes and return later with the proper character to unlock those secrets and collect all the collectibles.   Speaking of collectibles, a LEGO Stan Lee is hidden in each level much like “Where’s Waldo”, so find him for a fine “Excelsior” thank you.

The music is very heroic and adventuresome and the script is delightfully charming and makes me so grateful they finally added speech to these LEGO games.  They even got some reasonable sound-alikes to do the voices; some of which are from the Marvel animated shows.   Sandman utters one of the most hilarious lines of the game in the very first boss fight – I was laughing so hard I had to pause the game, and it stays consistently funny throughout.  And then you have all the subtle sight gags and character expressions going on that you really have to watch for, especially in the cutscenes.

LEGO Marvel Super Heroes is not only my favorite LEGO game to date, it is also one of my favorite action-adventure games of the year.  With a strong emphasis on teamwork (even when playing alone), puzzle-solving, and for the most part, non-violent combat, this is the perfect family-friendly game that will delight gamers of all ages.   And that 10-12 hour campaign is just the beginning because there is more than 20-30 hours of replayability lurking behind all those colorful bricks.  Your adventure is only getting started.

Hexodius Review – PC/Steam

Hexodius is a game that sounds promising at first glance. It’s a twin-stick shooter dungeon crawler. It’s a cool combination, and one that worked well for Gauntlet or (if you think it counts as a shooter), Binding of Isaac. Unfortunately, Hexodius fails to recognize what makes these games work.

The key to a good twin-stick shooter is frantic action coupled with a compelling score system. Geometry Wars is the unseated champion of what a good shooter should be like. This kind of experience is pretty intense, so the bursts of play need to be short and sweet so players don’t get tired out. On the dungeon crawler side, you need a big place to explore, and that’s going to take some time. If a game like this is going to succeed, it needs solid pacing and variety.

That’s where Hexodius falls short. This is a game the developers really intended for people to play in longer stretches of time, giving the game a big map to explore, throwing in a shop system, and writing a story about a killer AI. To stop this AI, you’ll have to go through stage after stage, and each stage has the exact three same objectives: An escort mission, a target destruction mission, and your basic “Destroy every enemy” mission. This gets old quickly. Sure, you have boss fights to mix things up here and there, but ultimately, you’re just doing the exact same thing over and over. To make things worse, the enemies in general are slow and never really put any pressure on you, which is a grave sin in a twin stick shooter. I should be constantly on the run and trying to clear an escape path through the enemy waves. On an alarming number of occasions, I found myself just sitting in one place and just shooting the enemies as they came at me.

Between levels, you can purchase upgrades. Here, I thought, would be a point where the game distinguishes itself, but that turned out to not be the case. Here, the game features an enormous variety of upgrades, but to be honest, you don’t really need any of them. Few of the upgrades really do anything that you have a real need for, and I rapidly stopped caring about them. This could have been the killer feature that could bring some excitement to Hexodius, but it just became another example of unfulfilled potential.

As far as aesthetics go, there isn’t much to write about. The graphics and special effects are serviceable. You’ve got a snow world, a lava world, and your basic video game environments. More irritating is the plot. Like the rest of the game, it’s barebones. I don’t expect Chris Avellone-quality writing, and I can forgive it for being an afterthought, but when you start repeating the same flavor text to describe each type of mission when there are only three types of missions and dozens of stages, it’s hard to draw a generous conclusion.

Hexodius is a neat idea, but that’s all there is to it. If the experience were shorter and more exciting, we might have something here. The Binding of Isaac is arguably a twin stick shooter, and there are mountains of text offering it praise. There just isn’t enough content to justify the game’s length. It’s just another dime a dozen example of a good idea that just couldn’t be executed with the care it needed.

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag Review – Xbox 360

Does anyone remember when Lara Croft died?  No, I’m not kidding folks; Lara Croft did die – for real.  Well, not like in real life – but for real in a game – Tomb Raider IV: The Last Revelation to be exact.  The year was 1999, and the original developers of the Tomb Raider franchise – Core Design – were so overwhelmed with Eidos’ demand for yearly releases that they killed Lara off in the ending cutscene.  At the time of her death, Lara was one of the most recognizable characters in gaming (actually, she still is) aside from Mario and Crash Bandicoot, and her unceremonious demise rocked the gaming world.

And then like an angel, Lara was back.  Yes folks, just shy of a year after her overwhelmed developers killed her off in an attempt to put the brakes on Eidos’ yearly release requirement, Core Design brought the very same Lara back in a new adventure called Tomb Raider Chronicles.  To their defense, Chronicles was sold to gamers as a replaying of Lara’s favorite experiences of her past life.  But just over a year after Chronicles, Core released yet another Tomb Raider title – Angel of Darkness – and Lara was back as if nothing had ever happened.

You would think that after the sadness left in the wake of Lara’s passing in The Last Revelation that gamers would be ecstatic to have their high-profile heroine hack on the small screen.   But they weren’t.  In fact, after gamers had finally come to terms with the realization of Lara’s passing, the announcement of Chronicles seemed like a bit of a slap in the face.  And even though Chronicles and Angel of Darkness were technically solid games, the fact that gamers felt like Eidos and Core Design had toyed with their emotions for financial gain put a negative stain on the franchise that remains with it still.

So why am I talking about Lara Croft and Tomb Raider in the opening of my Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag review?  Because there are a lot of similarities between the timeline between Assassins Creeds III and IV as there was back in those dark days of the Tomb Raider franchise.

Spoiler Alert: Desmond is dead.  Actually, he sacrificed himself at the end of ACIII to save all of humanity (sound familiar?).  While gamers have become accustomed to having their favorite characters killed off all sorts of media in those 13 years since Core killed off Lara – Desmond’s death still sent a minor tremor through the gaming world.

And here we are – a year later, our main character (of sorts) is dead, and we’re looking at a new Assassins Creed title with Black Flag.  But rather than come up with some cockamamie explanation for how the storyline can continue without its main character – the developers have picked the most meta explanation they could think of; Cloud computing.

Yes, Desmond may be dead, but gamers can continue to explore his ancestry through the wonders of cloud computing, as all of his genetic memories have been uploaded from samples taken from his body immediately after his death.  This means that from this point forward pretty much anybody can jump into the Animus and connect to Demond’s ancestors.  It is a lame end-around to avoid the inconsistencies posed by the dramatic ACIII ending, but thankfully the exciting and accessible gameplay more than makes up for any hurt feelings.

It doesn’t hurt that most gamers are bound to like the new present day Abstergo Entertainment subject better than they did Desmond – simply because, well…it’s them.  The premise that that the gamer has been hired to do research on the pirate Edward Kenway for the production of an interactive feature film on his life and will enter the Animus to gather information for the film.  By now it’s no surprise that Abstergo has more insidious plans for the gamer’s visit to the past – and in the case of Assassin’s Creed IV it is to find an ancient structure called the Observatory for the Templars.

The tale is a rich and exciting high seas swashbuckling adventure that brings the gamer in touch with legendary real life pirates like Edward “Blackbeard” Thatch, Calico Jack, and the elusive and beautiful Anne Bonny.  The Assassin’s Creed franchise has always been a bit of a history lesson of sorts, and Assassin’s Creed IV’s story does a fantastic job introducing gamers to the Golden Age of Piracy.

And by high seas, I really mean high seas.  Assassin’s Creed IV puts gamers in command of Edward’s ship, The Jackdaw (a species of crow-like bird) from which the will not only do they get the chance to do the normal Pirate fare – sailing from port to port and battling with other seafaring folks – but gamers also get the unique chance to explore the beautiful underwater landscapes, and to hunt sharks and even whales.

Whales?  Yes, gamers will get the chance to become whalers, hunting a very large Humpback Whale.  It is It is exciting, it is gruesome, it has even stirred a bit of PETA-led controversy – but the whaling segment is one hell of a ride, and a realistic glimpse of what the life on the high seas was (and is, in some cases) all about.

The best part is, all of this high seas action is rendered in some of the best graphics yet seen on any gaming console.  A simple glimpse across deck and between the realistic waves and lighting, and few would argue that this is about as close it gets to a realistic seafaring experience without getting wet.  Likewise the on-land segments are just as richly detailed with gorgeous city streets representing the hubs of Caribbean Piracy; Havana, Nassau, and Kingston.   The streets are bustling with pedestrians, police, and soldiers and the beautiful architecture gives ample structure for the Assassin to make his elevated traversals.

Not only are the visuals impressive, as Assassin’s Creed IV easily delivers the best sounding game of the year with superb voice acting and overall sound production.  The wash of the waves against the hull of the Jackdaw, the cry of the seagulls overhead, and even the nonsensical NPC banter in the streets – the audio package is spot-on for a high seas adventure.

As with any Assassin’s Creed title there is as much fun to be had out of the story as in, and the simple act of exploring every nook and cranny of each city in search of hidden treasure, Animus fragment, letter in a bottle, and any of the numerous other objects scattered around the world.  Like that seminal enjoyment we all got from the original Crackdown title, Assassin’s Creed IV has enough fun outside the game that most gamers will spend more time exploring than they will playing.

And then there are the modern-day stealth missions in which the gamer – as himself and from a first-person perspective.  These segments are right out of the journal of Sam Fisher, as gamers sneak around the Abstergo offices collecting information that helps the hero (the gamer) realize the nefarious plans of their employer.  The gameplay in these segments is actually quite compelling, giving the same sense of excitement and vulnerability of games like Mirror’s Edge and the classic Breakdown.  If that was not enough already, the developers have seen fit to once again include the online multiplayer modes from Assassin’s Creed II and III, including the excellent four-player cooperative Wolfpack.

It all sounds too perfect, right?  Well, yes – Assassin’s Creed IV does have its share of issues as well.   There are a number of nagging problems that really detract from the gameplay.   The Assassins have always had issues with the occasional unintended wall climb or roof jump, and with a game of this degree of freedom that kind of problem is forgivable.  But having the character suddenly hung-up on, or in, pieces of the scenery in the middle of a mission is not.

More often than I care to count, entire missions had to be restarted because Edward had mysteriously dropped into a piece of scenery and we simply could not figure out how to free him.  Then came the disappearing characters – NPC’s necessary for progressing a missions would simply disappear altogether as if the mission had ended, again requiring a mission restart.

These issues were frustrating, especially in the frequency they seemed to occur – they were not enough to totally ruin the stellar gameplay and presentation, we I have hopes the developers will address them in an update.  Additionally, I have become a real snob about the whole online code/passports required for online multiplayer, and I was about to write a long-winded rant about Ubisoft requiring a uPlay Passport code for to access their online play.  Then I read the news and found out that Ubisoft recently did away with the uPlay Passport and Assassin’s Creed IV is now free to play online.  Kudos to Ubisoft.

When the folks at Core Design killed Lara Croft then brought her back a year later, it put a dark shadow over the franchise that really has remained with it ever since – regardless of how good the gameplay has developed over the years.  Ubisoft seems to have learned from Core’s mistake, and rather than magically bring Desmond back from the dead, they came up with a concept (as ridiculous as it is) that keeps the Assassin’s Creed story moving even without the trademark hero.

But they would not have been able to sell it if the gameplay of Assassin’s Creed IV wasn’t so utterly captivating.  And maybe not so much in the story itself, but in the wealth of exploration Black Flag provides on land, at sea, and underwater.  Gamers will be blown away by the sheer expanse of the world that is available to them right from the beginning of the game, and they will quickly find that sometimes it’s more fun to make your own story than to follow the one presented by the developer.  And as an added bonus, they learn some Pirate history in the process.  It’s a win-win, even when the game is riddled with as many annoying bugs as Black Flag.

Wait – Black Flag, riddled with bugs…now there’s some irony for you, matey.

Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 Full Burst Review – Xbox 360

So, the last time I wrote about a Naruto game it was Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 and it was my first Naruto fighting game as well so I was really excited. This time around I got a copy of the new Full Burst edition, available as a DLC for the original game and now resold as a complete standalone game. It brings all the old missions and story then adds a new coat of paint on top of it plus adding in a new chapter to play, which is great because the ending of the original game SUCKED for Ninja Storm 3.

SPOILER ALERT If you haven’t played or watched Naruto a lot of words are going to seem like gibberish to you, you have been warned.

I’m going to be brutally honest and tell you that it’s the EXACT same game you bought back in March; it even starts the same way; you versus the Nine-Tailed Fox attacking the village. The story is exactly the same, just with new flashier effects for the ultimate attacks, special attacks and transformations you can activate and the cinematics redone to have additional details and look amazingly crisp.  There is the additional chapter at the end that I mentioned where it puts you in the role of Sasuke Uchiha fighting against Kabuto, the mastermind behind the new Edo Tensai “Resurrection Spell“.  For the newbies, Sasuke has teamed up with his dead now resurrected brother to end the spell and change destroy all the reanimated ninja and foil the war that is going on versus Madara Uchiha and the Masked man who I will not spoil for anyone that hasn’t caught up to the show.

The fight against Kabuto is the most ridiculous fight in the entire game so far. Kabuto has the abilities of Orochimaru, has a new Sage Mode and after defeating him once you get to see him heal up to full health and you get to do it all over again while also doing a quick time event which switches you do fighting as itachi, a really cool addition since he is one of the most popular characters in the show and manga. He also has one of the coolest looking Ultimate attacks in which he summons Susanoo and throws a Sharingan looking shuriken at his enemy. It follows the manga amazingly well as itachi finally gets his wish of saving his village and atone for the sins he committed in order to save his brother. Sasuke in turn realizes there is more to his life than just revenge and says goodbye to his brother in the most heartfelt scene I’ve seen in a fighting game to date.

After the story you can free roam as previously done in Ninja Storm 3, but I would like to add that you could do so during the game and nothing ever happened.  Events don’t start to happen until you beat the story, it was just a way of going from one load screen to the other, one that really annoyed me when I had to spend ten minutes walking through a town just to hit a load screen with cutscenes that took me miles away and about to enter a fight; really unnecessary. Load screens were also used too often in my opinion and until I installed the game to the hard-drive were really annoying me to the point where I walked away a few times knowing there would be a few lines of dialogue, another load and then finally get to fight.

The overall changes with the Full Burst DLC are the Itachi and Sasuke chapter versus Kabuto, Kabuto as a playable character, the updated Cinematic which look amazing and it’s almost like watching the anime itself when them. The 100 additional missions consist mostly of the go fight this guy, go find this person, go collect this item X amount of times but they were, for the most part, enjoyable if not repetitive, I mean seriously what other kind of missions can you come up with to fill another 5+ hours of gameplay? I’ll cut them some slack for that. You also get costumes from the preorder packs and the DLC from the previous game, which includes the sexy bikinis for characters such as Sakura, Ino , Hinata, Temari and of course Tsunade. Obviously nothing changed for the negative, in fact its been improvements across the board, so I can’t in good faith lower the score I gave the game previously, so it stays at a solid 5/5.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Ultimate Edition Soundtrack Review

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow was an incredible game when it launched on consoles back in 2010 and it got even better when Konami released the updated Ultimate Edition on Steam/PC in September.    While I distinctly remember enjoying the music on the console, and again on the PC, the score always seemed to reside in the background, supporting the story and the action but never overwhelming it, which is exactly what a good soundtrack is supposed to do.   But it wasn’t until I started listening to the Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Ultimate Edition Soundtrack outside of the game that I was completely blown away with just how epic this score truly was.

Spanish composer Oscar Araujo has crafted something quite remarkable; a score that would be worthy of any feature release Hollywood fantasy film.  The expert use of the 120-piece Bratislava Symphony Orchestra combined with the perfectly implemented choral arrangements fusing the lines between haunting and majestic for countless signature moments in the game and the soundtrack.  Characters, locations, and even events like boss fights have their own arrangements and preferences to certain types of instruments.   The whole experience ranks right up there with any of the Lord of the Rings soundtracks.

For a game dealing with the horrors of vampires, werewolves, and other gothic elements the score remains surprisingly upbeat and even heroic, but it is not without a few dark moments that create more uncomfortable feelings of tension than true terror.  I was surprised that there were no hidden bars or callbacks to any of the previously released Castlevania themes.

It’s worth noting that this Ultimate Edition contains new and rearranged content from the original soundtrack that was packed in with the Collector’s Edition of the console game, but for those looking for the “ultimate” Ultimate Edition you’ll want to forego the physical copy of the soundtrack and head over to Sumthing Else Music Works where you can pick up the Director’s Cut version with 42 tracks, although many of the extra tracks are very brief.

For those looking to reminisce about their monster-slaying days after the adventure is over, you won’t find a better way to spark those memories and your imagination than the Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Ultimate Edition Soundtrack.    It’s an epic piece of work that continues to blur the lines of video games and cinema.

Company of Heroes 2 – Original Soundtrack Review

One of the things I enjoy about reviewing video game or even movie soundtracks is seeing how well the music works outside of the original source material.  Many times I have been driving down the road listening to some music from a game I played months ago and start having these images of what was taking place when that track was playing.    The Company of Heroes 2 – Original Soundtrack is a different animal entirely, as I have never played the game, so this review is basically going to be how well this music stands up on its own merit.

The first thing I noticed about Cris Velasco’s score is how cinematic it is, sounding much more like a movie soundtrack than something created for  a repetitious strategy game.  There was this constant rise and fall of the melodies that made excellent use of what I can only assume was a full orchestra.  While I can’t say what was taking place in the game during these 26 tracks my imagination was sparking with all sorts of imagery.

The score has a definitive Russian flavor about it evoking memories of Hunt for Red October.  For as many songs that are as dramatic and tell a story with notes instead of words, there are just as many tracks with an almost overbearing sense of military presence that can often explode with percussion much like the raging battlefields the music supports.  And in those quieter moments there is a distinct feeling of cold isolation and despair.

Company of Heroes 2 – Original Soundtrack has some great music, but I wouldn’t classify it as “casual listening”.  It is very dramatic and at times very intense, so while it might not make the best road trip music it is perfect for when you are hunkered down in your basement painting miniature soldiers and planning your next tabletop reenactment of the Battle of Stalingrad.   The soundtrack is available on iTunes for $10 or if you want a physical CD you can find the Company of Heroes 2 – Original Soundtrack over at Amazon for $15.  It’s great music, even if you never played the game.