Call of Duty: Black Ops II Review – Xbox 360

This has been an unpredictable year for FPS games, especially when it comes to the yearly rivalry between EA and Activision. With no Battlefield game releasing this Fall it was up to the Medal of Honor franchise to compete with the Call of Duty behemoth – an impossible task you say…but keep in mind that this year’s Call of Duty is Black Ops II, created by Treyarch, which has had a troubled past with the franchise, at least when compared to the staggered release of Modern Warfare games by Infinity Ward. So basically, 2012 is the battle of the B-franchises.

Medal of Honor Warfighter knocked our collective socks off at E3 this year and even managed to snake the “Best FPS” award from Call of Duty and other nominees, but it wouldn’t be until four months later that the Frostbite hype and glamorous trailers were stripped away to reveal the game to be perhaps the ultimate disappointment of 2012. That left Activision and Treyarch to redeem the military FPS genre and judging from the limited amount of content being trickled out prior to release, we were skeptical at best.

Now, after several weeks of having played Call of Duty: Black Ops II, both the single-player campaign, the new and improved Zombies, and the drastically enhanced online game, I can safely say that this is the best Call of Duty game Treyarch has ever released, but there is still room for improvement.

Up first is the campaign, a relatively short adventure through a handful of missions than not only span the globe but two timelines, taking us on historical missions set in the 1980’s that lay the groundwork for the events that unfold in the present – or in this case, the future of 2025. To potentially expand the length of the narrative, Treyarch has added a branching storyline, so at several key decision points your choices will affect the ultimate outcome of the game. It’s certainly nothing major like entirely new missions, but it does provide a minor incentive to replay the game or at least check out the alternate endings on a Wiki or YouTube.

The main story is set around David Mason, a son in search of the truth about his father’s death. This quasi-revenge tale is juxtaposed against a similar quest for vengeance by our newest and perhaps most satisfying villain in the franchise to date; Raul Menendez. We experience his motivational loss in one of those 80’s flashback missions that triggers a lifetime plan of worldwide revenge, as he plants a computer virus in our automated defense network and takes over our very own robotic drone forces to wage war on the USA and China. Co-written by David S. Goyer (Dark Knight, Man of Steel), when it comes to story and plot, this is one of the best, even if it can be difficult to keep track of with all the time travel and globetrotting.

Mixed in with the story chapters are the new Strike Force missions that try to put a fresh RTS spin on what should have remained an FPS game. While I appreciated the ambitious nature of these missions and the way they were presented, both in their limited availability and their possible repercussions in the story, the simple fact that these missions are clearly BROKE destroyed all potential enjoyment. Strike Force missions present you with a set of forces divided into three selectable units that can be controlled individually or grouped together. The premise is simple. Playing from a top-down tactical map of the level you pick your units and click on the map or enemy units to have your men and/or drones move and attack. At any time you can click on a single unit and take control of that person or drone and play the game in traditional FPS view.

This would be all fine and good (and even fun) if it worked, but your men will frequently ignore your orders and the D-pad is not entirely responsive for selecting your groups. Ultimately, I would just lump my entire force into one collective assault and rush each objective in linear fashion. I tried playing a few levels entirely from the tactical map and was met with repeat failure. I tried playing the game as a one-man wrecking crew and was met with a similar fate, which meant I often had to game the system. In one rescue mission I learned that my target would always be in the last structure searched, so I would leave the house closest to the extraction point for last. Even then, after rescuing the girl and her promise of “I’m right behind you”, I dash for the VTOL and she heads out the other door into the waiting arms of five heavily armed enemies – her full health bar depleted before I can even respond. Ultimately, I had to take control of her and run her to the extraction point myself since the AI and pathing is clearly broken.

The good news is these Strike Force missions are completely optional and from what I could tell, made no substantial impact on the core campaign; at least not enough to endure the frustrating gameplay and non-responsive controls. Perhaps a future patch will address these issues, but for the sake of your own sanity, skip these sideline excursions for now.

Zombies are back and better than ever and in some ways might even surpass the solo campaign for sheer fun, especially given the fact that you can co-op this mode with up to four players in this Left4Dead-style survival horror game that blends the weapons of Call of Duty with plenty of undead targets. Tranzit is the big new mode that adds a minimal attempt at storytelling mixed with hilarious one-liners, hidden mission objectives, and countless Easter eggs. As always, you kill zombies to earn points that can be spent to unlock doors and purchase new weapons. You can also collect parts and assemble them into useful gadgets on workbenches. The levels are much larger this time around; so large in fact that there is an AI-driven bus you can ride to get to new areas of the map – just watch out for any zombies who tried to board the bus with you and make sure your entire team is onboard before you close the door.

In addition to Tranzit is the classic Survival mode that lets you pick individual maps from Tranzit and see how many waves of undead you and your friends can survive. Grief is the other mode, often referred to as “dick mode” where you have two teams of four players doing battle in a zombie-infested map only you can’t directly attack the other team – merely stun them with knife attacks or try to trap them with barricades so the zombies can do the dirty work for you. I enjoyed the backhanded tactics required to play this mode, and we all know there are plenty of “dicks” online, so this may be the new cult favorite variation for zombies.

My only quibbles with Zombies is that the game is nearly impossible if played alone, even if you just want to learn the levels, and there are definitely some serious detection hotspot issues that make it frustrating to pick up a part, repair a barricade, or even purchase a gun or open a door. I often found myself getting needlessly mauled by a zombie while simply trying to find the proper pixel-perfect spot to stand to activate the command prompt.

Of course the true staying power of any Call of Duty game is in its multiplayer and Black Ops II has taken some serious steps in changing the way we engage in online warfare. The new Create-a-Class divorces itself from the past method of merely picking weapons and perks and now uses the new “Pick 10” system, perhaps the most ingenious system since perks themselves. You get ten points to use for equipping your soldier. Every weapon, every attachment, and every perk costs a point, giving you unparalleled freedom in creating the perfect warrior. If you don’t like your current selection of perks then spend your points on extra attachments for your gun. Due to my short survival rate I rarely have need of a secondary weapon, so I spent those points on something else. If you are really daring you can spend all your points on personal perks and take just a pistol into the game and hope to get a kill so you can take that player’s weapon.

The Pick 10 system gives the multiplayer game a unique RPG-like flavor, as well as allowing an open-ended player/class creation system that can be finely tuned to match your personal play style. I was amazed at how balanced the gameplay has become, especially in light of all this new creative freedom. Potential imbalances work themselves out by using a Wildcard system that doubles the cost of perks chosen from within the same tier, and the unlock system provides nonstop incentive for continued experimentation and subtle tweaks to your Pick 10 classes.

Other multiplayer changes include the shift from Kill Streaks to Score Streaks, which not only encourages teamwork, but also rewards it. This means that any contribution – not just kills – you make toward your overall team objective is rewarded with some sort of score, making support classes just as important as infantrymen. It is no longer just all about the K/D ratio, but your overall contribution to the team.

In an attempt to improve online matchmaking as well as infiltrating the growing world of eSports, Black Ops II now has League Play. You start by playing in five preliminary rounds that will determine your skill and initial rank. Your league standing will then slowly adjust itself based on all your future matches, so basically the more you and everyone else plays, the more refined the matchmaking process becomes. Of course this only works if you are playing using the League Play option, and with more than a half-million players actively playing during any of my online sessions, it seemed that most are still just diving into the more traditional ranked match games. Hopefully League Play will take off.

You also have menu options for Call of Duty Elite, support for CODcasting, allowing you to create your own eSports play-by-play commentaries, and the ability to live stream your League Play on YouTube without any additional hardware. And this all integrates back into Elite so you can track your favorite players using their custom player card to reference stats for Black Ops II and other Elite-supported Call of Duty games. This truly is the ultimate evolution of multiplayer for the Call of Duty franchise. What’s next…fantasy leagues?

As far as presentation, Call of Duty continues to show its age when compared to more modern games using newer engines, but that’s not to say the game doesn’t look great, and the fact that this non-stop Michael Bay popcorn flick manages to run at 60fps astounds me. There are moments of visual splendor, shock, awe, and amazement but there are also times when I cringed at a model or texture. The sound effects are quite literally “explosive” and the soundtrack rivals a Hollywood production with contributions from Academy Award winning composer Trent Reznor (theme), BAFTA nominee Jack Wall (score), and tracks from musical acts Avenged Sevenfold and an original collaboration by Skrillex and Alvin Risk. The voice acting is fantastic once you get past the salty language of Admiral Briggs and features talent such as Michael Rooker, Sam Worthington, Tony Todd, Nolan North, and James Burns just to name a few.

Call of Duty: Black Ops II is a great game; easily the best military shooter of 2012 with greatly improved modes like zombies and the new Pick 10 multiplayer. We’ll chalk the Strike Force missions up to a failed, yet ambitious experiment. The campaign mode has some great characters and a surprisingly deep narrative that circles back to events from four decades prior, and while there was some attempt at story branching, I did find the actual gameplay a bit linear. Interactive moments where I was expecting to participate were played out for me like a movie and other events that should have been a movie inexplicably required me to press a single button to proceed.

If you are a Call of Duty veteran then you are probably already playing Black Ops II by now, but if you are on the fence or perhaps waiting to spend some of that Christmas cash then by all means, check out Black Ops II. The campaign is an 8-hour blockbuster movie that might actually play out better on the big screen than a video game, but it’s the new and improved Zombies and the extremely addictive multiplayer – not to mention a new year of DLC maps – that will keep you playing Black Ops II until next November.

The Walking Dead: Episode Five – No Time Left Review – PS3

It’s finally over. After months, Telltale’s The Walking Dead Season One is finally complete, and if you were waiting for all the episodes to be released before you played, then go and do it. It’s amazing! If you really want to, come back and finish reading this review afterward, but there’s your summary right there: One of the best games this year, and the best game writing in years.

You’re still Lee Everett, of course, and Clementine’s been kidnapped by a stranger. You have your band of survivors, your mission, and a very short amount of time to complete it. There are tough choices to make, and when there is this much behind you the choices you made in the past come barreling back to haunt you. Everyone has become a monster in the wake of the end of the world, but whether Lee can live with, or despite, the things he has done is up to you.

At this point, Lee is pretty well-defined no matter the choices you’ve made. You might lose your temper, you might have reservations about the people you’re with, but by now you know Lee and all the choices feel right. The game’s writing is just a triumph, showing what can happen when good writing and strong choices work together to help the player discover their own character and make their own path.

The adventure game elements are comfortably tucked away again, forming a nice balance between the extremes found previously, while still giving some room to experiment with the environments and presenting tasks to accomplish that can impact the story. The shooting controls are back, and refined from previous episodes, making the combat segments much more manageable than before, getting your pulse going without inducing a headache.

The game’s controls, and the ways you interact with the world have finally come into their own. There aren’t many cringe-inducing moments in the mechanics compared to previous episodes, but it’s still brutal and desperate, and the choices you have to make are as rough and quick as ever.

Really, it’s hard to say much about the game without spoiling it. The Walking Dead is all about the story of what happens to the survivors, the desperate downward slide, how societies work and how they break. By this point, you’ve basically rolled the dice. Your hard decisions are in the moment, how you deal with new crises and old wounds, both literal and metaphorical.

The game’s graphics and sound are right on the mark. With character designs taken straight from the comic and cell-shaded graphics, the game looks like an animated, colorized version of the graphic novel, and the sounds and voice acting are spot on. Even the little touches are brilliant. When you finish the final episode, you’re presented list of the major choices you made, and how they stacked up to the choices others made, as well as a final season tally board showing all character outcomes.

The game continues to offer optional pop-up clues telling you when an NPC’s attitude towards you has been affected by your response. Telltale really grasps every opportunity to highlight when and where the things you do matter.

Before, I said that the Walking Dead might not be for everybody. At this point, I pretty much take it back: Some people might not like it, but I’m pretty willing to chalk that up to operator error at this point. Telltale has made a game where your choices matter, where you build meaningful bonds with characters that mean more than just raising your relationship stats ever higher, and they’ve even managed to balance tense action and exciting combat into what is fundamentally an adventure game engine.

If The Walking Dead isn’t the game of the year it’s only because 2012 has seen some of the best video games in console history. It’s certainly the best digital release you’ll find on PSN. Get it now, and be glad you did, or wait for the complete retail release of all episodes coming on December 4th.

The Sims 3 Seasons Limited Edition Review – PC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transformers Prime: The Game Review – 3DS

I’ve been watching Transformers in one form or another here in the States for as long as I can remember. I haven’t exactly liked every version out there over the years but Transformers Prime, one of the newest shows on The Hub, was an instant hit with me. Activision and Now Productions has brought the fantastic world of the show Transformers Prime to the even smaller screen with the release of Transformers Prime: The Game on the Nintendo 3DS.

The first thing that I noticed, to great avail, is that this adventure starts just like an episode of the show itself right down to the opening movie. The story this time follows the Autobots and their human constituents Jack, Miko and Raf as they must stop Megatron as the Decepticons uncover an ancient power to aid in their plans to take over the Earth. The story really takes off after a battle upon a giant meteor filled with Dark Energon breaks apart and sends the Autobots scattered upon the Earth. After their friends go dark their human partners take it upon themselves to come to their aid which often got them captured by the Decepticons.

Players with get to play as all of the prominent Autobots from the show in a random order as you progress through the levels. You start with the mighty powerhouse Optimus, who fires powerful ranged blasts as well as painful blows in melee combat. You then get to take turns playing as the Bulkhead, Ratchet, Bumblebee and my personal favorite Arcee. While you might expect a title featuring giant robot warriors to be nothing but a giant slugfest with no real skill involved you’d only be right by a little.

Each of the Autobots is different when it comes to strengths and you have to learn how to use them effectively. Sure Optimus, Ratchet and Bulkhead are all heavy hitters but they all move and attack differently. For instance Optimus can move and attack faster than Bulkhead but just not as hard thanks to Bulk’s girth. On the other side of the spectrum you have Bumblebee and Arcee, who are both faster paced. Even they have their own flavor of speed. Bumblebee can be powerful in melee but he really shines with his dual rapid-firing guns. Arcee on the other side has fast mobility and quick agility to land more melee hits but also has a decent ranged attack.

As you progress through each of the levels, you will fight off plenty of Decepticons and usually a boss fight that features one of the signature villains from the show including Megatron, Airachnid, Shockwave, Dreadwing, Knock Out and of course the treacherous Starscream. Though that may seem like a tall order to fill there are a few features in place to help you. Throughout each level are crates that have either Energon or Synergon that can give you a boost when you need it most. Synergon is extremely valuable in this game as it fills a special Upgrade meter that once full allows any Autobot to perform moves of immense power against their enemies. This bar is filled normally through continued combat but at least one crate of Synergon can be found near most enemy encounters for an easy pick-me-up.

I have to say that navigating the 3D world of Transformers Prime: The Game at times was rather treacherous. This was mainly thanks to the occasional misstep or poorly timed jump on my part rather than bad controls. Despite that there were a few areas in the control department that I wasn’t exactly fond of. The first issue was the camera controls while in robot mode. You’re able to rotate the camera around the character by using the left/right directions on the D-pad but it is rather awkward at times when moving the character around at the same time or when trying to find who’s shooting you from off screen.

There is a lock on feature that aids in keeping track of enemies however and the same D-pad inputs function rather nicely as a means to switch between multiple enemies in a fight though. There is also the somewhat big matter of every Transformers vehicle mode (except Arcee) making you feel like you’re driving a tank if try to do anything but drive forward in a fairly straight line. Turning around normally in vehicle mode was practically a joke, especially in tight areas, until I realized that you can do a delayed 180 degree turn around with the double tap of the R button. You just have to be quick with your input as that button also activates boosting as well.

The 3DS version of Transformers Prime: The Game features pretty decent graphics all around. For starters there is the exact opening movie from the show and each of the concurrent videos that progress the story feature mostly polished character models and landscapes. When it comes down to the gameplay itself the graphics still retain an admirable level of detail. The character models, especially those of the Transformers lack the finer detail of the videos but you clearly tell one robot from another thanks to authentic colors, body designs and transformation animations. The use of 3D also flushes out the world, characters and videos giving everything a greater sense of depth. Now if it could only help with my depth perception while playing I’d be set.

While the graphics lack a bit the sound department certainly does not. The sound effects and transformation sounds are perfectly recreated from the show and that’s not all that’s been brought over from the source. All of the show’s original cast of voice actors lend their talents to make this game as authentic as possible. The music for this game including the theme song in the opening movie created by film composer Brian Tyler (The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift) is absolutely perfect. While Brian didn’t do the music for the game several others have stepped in to deliver pieces for the score including Jesper Kyd. The overall result is one that is decidedly authentic to this reviewer’s ear.

There is plenty to do in Transformers Prime: The Game besides the story but the story is definitely worth a few playthroughs especially if you missed some of hidden Cybertron Artifacts or want to get a higher ranking to unlock those emblems. By collecting them you can view unlockable character models and concept art to view in the Gallery. You can also view all of the cinematics as you complete levels here as well.

There are also three modes to enjoy via multiplayer. You can compete in the last man standing mode “Brawl” or the “Energon Match” mode where you have to defeat enemies to rack up points. Then there is the final mode “Energon Battle”, where you have to keep an Emblem in your possession as long as you can to rack up points in a sort of Oddball-style event. The cool thing about these modes is that you can play them with up to 3 of your friends locally or against up to 3 other AI competitors if you so choose.

Transformers Prime: The Game isn’t a game without its share of problems but, it’s a satisfying game none the less. As a fan of Transformers and this show in particularly, I have to say that Now Productions did a pretty amazing job capturing the essence of the source material while giving us a solid Transformers brawler. If you own a 3DS and love Transformers Prime then roll out to you local retailer and give Transformers Prime: The Game a go.

NASCAR The Game: Inside Line Review – Xbox 360

NASCAR has almost turned in to a year round sport. They have races almost every weekend, a passionate (i.e. inebriated) fan base, and enough drivers fighting that they consistently end up on ESPN SportsCenter highlights.

NASCAR has a long and bumpy history in the videogame world. There were games tied to specific drivers, official NASCAR arcade games, a few licensed “simulation” style games, arcade “carnage” style games, and arcade kart racing. Most recently EA had NASCAR 09 (their last edition) and Polyphony Digital’s Gran Turismo 5 included NASCAR in their excellent game on the PS3. But despite the realism of Turismo, it was only a few cars and tracks, not the full schedule. The only real competition for anyone comes on the PC with ultra-realistic iRacing, but you need to drop significant cash for a PC and graphics card to get the most out of it.

Eutechnyx came along in 2011 and dropped a surprise on everyone when they released a fully licensed NASCAR 2011 The Game. There wasn’t much advance buzz about the game… and it pretty much landed with a resounding thud. It was… okay. People were hungry for an updated NASCAR game with excellent graphics and authentic tracks, and Eutechnyx provided those things. But there just wasn’t much to do in NASCAR 2011. The list of things lacking in NASCAR 2011 was quite long. Many people tried it but most who were serious about racing jumped over to iRacing on PC or kept playing the much more robust NASCAR 09 on consoles. Let’s face it, there are tons of user created cars on the internet and if you have Photoshop you can make your own updates.

I stuck with Gran Turismo 5. It provides the all-around racing experience with just about every class of car and type of track available around the world… and it’s fun, especially with my trusty old Logitech steering wheel. So with predominantly mediocre reviews, Eutechnyx had their work cut out for them in 2012.

With the first introduction from Carl Edwards you get a little idea what is in store. Eutechnyx updated the graphics for NASCAR Inside Line to be on par with Gran Turismo. Even the sound has been updated with crowd noise and FOX’s Mike Joy and Darrell Waltrip in the broadcast booth. Don’t worry, if you don’t like DW’s “boggity boggity” you can turn it off.
The actual driving itself is as easy or difficult as you want it to be. When you start the game you are asked to drive a few laps and the game recommends help settings for your driving style. Everything from braking to anti-wheel lockup measures can be tweaked to your liking. In easy mode you will quickly be winning races even when you start at the back of the field. For the most realistic experience the Normal and Hard settings really push the bounds of my patience. But winning a race is its own reward complete with “burnout mode”.

The normal Xbox 360 controller works fairly well for NASCAR Inside Line but the subtle touch needed to keep the car in line really begs for a wheel controller. There are many deals available this time of year for Logitech and other great wheels for under $100 which I highly recommend.

The crash dynamics have improved but not in a way many gamers would want. Eutechnyx now has a much more advanced damage system where impacts and velocity have a more direct effect on parts of the car. The tire smoke is a bit more realistic and scuffs on the paint are spot on, but you won’t see any flying parts or tires rolling down the infield. Every racer tries the infamous turnaround head-on collision to take the entire field out. But NASCAR Inside Line puts an immediate stop to the shenanigans by bringing out the caution as soon as you start going to wrong direction. You can do it in practice but don’t expect much. The cars act like a solid one piece mass so there are no particle explosion graphics or much of anything. Even running an opponent into the wall yields little excitement. There’s usually some smoke and a few sparks along with the requisite panel damage but the parts never fly even if someone gets airborne. It’s sad but NASCAR Inside Line still has the underlying problem from 2011. Aside from the strategy of passing people, it’s just not much fun. Those looking for crashes will still have to play Burnout Paradise.

There are over 40 of NASCARS’s top drivers and teams in the game including Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Danica Patrick. There are also 23 officially licensed tracks. Despite a fairly immersive career mode, this is only Spring Cup racing. So moving up in the ranks is really just moving up in the standings since you already got your Sprint Cup ride. It would have been great to see people start in carts, dirt track midgets, outlaw and other local legend type racing. Moving up to the truck or Nationwide series to be finally recruited for Sprint Cup would have been a great career option. But not in NASCAR Inside Line.

When you start in Career Mode you have the bare minimum car. As you begin to win races and accumulate money, you can upgrade your car engine, transmission, brakes and other parts. You can also purchase packages that improve durability, fuel efficiency and other areas. Along the way you will pick up sponsors and awards. Big sponsors mean big money. Sponsors in NASCAR Inside Line include many of the ones in real life NASCAR including Home Depot, Goodyear, M&M’s, U.S. Army, Target, McDonalds, Bass Pro Shops, KLOVE Radio, Wheaties, Best Buy and many others.

NASCAR Inside Line includes realistic race weekends with practice, qualifying and races. Invitational events offer unique challenges with Eliminator, Gauntlet, Thunder Lap and Driver Duel. You can tinker a little bit in the garage with your setups to get every last hundredth of a second of speed out of your ride.

Customization is an area I enjoy the most in games. Custom teams in FIFA Soccer and custom clan tags in Call of Duty can really add something unique to a game. It personalizes it for you. EA’s NASCAR 09 utilized Photoshop files for users to make their own custom paint and decals. There are thousands of .PSD files still available on the internet for people to use – everything from corporate cars to your favorite sports teams. But that requires the developer to have a server dedicated for hosting. The problem with that is they eventually turn the server off like 2K Sports just did for College Hoops. So then you are kinda hosed – especially if the developer dropped the license and doesn’t make a game to upgrade. Eutechnyx went a little different route, instead trying to put the major tools of Photoshop directly in the game. It’s similar to what you use in Call of Duty games for your clan emblem.

NASCAR Inside Line has significant functions for your creativity to be expressed. You can make your own text, decals, and color combinations on just about everything. Text is limited to a few specific font styles, but other items can be created if you work with shapes and layers. Surprisingly they didn’t include individual text characters as decal shapes so when I tried to make a Green Bay Packers “G” logo it took way too long with way too many layers. It can be done; it just takes a long time. A significant number of sponsor logos are included but you won’t find alcohol or tobacco products and there are quite a few sponsors missing. It’s free advertising for them so it’s a mystery why anyone would not want to be included. I suppose some wanted to be paid for their logo use. Regardless, making custom cars can be really fun and creative. All it takes is a little time.

Xbox Live online racing has also been improved with up to 16 players competing. It can be a lot of fun, but as usual, your level of enjoyment is going to depend on the other players. Inevitably there is a dork in the group who wants to crash people so short races end up being mostly run under caution. Unfortunately my time online was marred with multiple lag and graphical bugs. The main problem I ran into was other drivers going up and down the track at whiplash speed without spinning out or any real consequence. Then there was an odd “Fringe” moment when all the cars merged into one long stretch limo style combination (see our screencaps). Despite the occasional graphic hiccup, if you know your fellow racers and you all want to race, online can be fun, but beware the noob.

You can also play with 2 people locally via split screen. The screen is split horizontally for you and a friend to swap some paint. This is one of the few racing games I’ve seen where the graphics worked well in split screen mode. Most games have limited distance visibility due to screen redraw times. NASCAR Inside Line can provide significant multiplayer fun especially if you have a big screen.

Another area of NASCAR Inside Line is Highlights. These are scenarios from the 2011 and 2012 seasons where you can earn points by reliving or rewriting moments from previous seasons. Some of them are pretty basic where you pass someone on the final lap. Others involve drafting until the last second to slingshot to a win. The scenarios are fun for any fan – especially if you want to correct an injustice when your favorite driver got beat. Soon there will be 2013 Highlights available as a DLC from most of the races this season (Bristol, Kansas and Dover are not included I assume due to licensing issues).

The audio has also improved over last year. Menu music has a good mix of tunes from Transparent, Uncle Kracker, Staind, The Sheepdogs, Black Stone Cherry and others. While you are driving you get assistance from spotter Ty Norris and crew chief Ray Evernham. As I said before Mike Joy and Darrell Waltrip are in the broadcast booth. The cars of course sound like every race I’ve ever seen along with cheers from the crowd when I passed another driver.

NASCAR Inside Line has 50 achievements available for 1,000 gamer points. Many of the ‘achievements’ are little more than playing the game. Purchasing an upgrade or taking a picture in Photo Mode are rewarded, but so is Finishing a race with the fastest lap 100 times. There are 6 secret achievements but you’ll have to get creative and spend a lot of time online. The “Polish Victory Lap” achievement by driving a victory lap in the opposite direction around the track is a real obscure one.

Unfortunately, graphical glitches and lack of other racing series really make NASCAR Inside Line feel like half a game. There is just so much more Eutehnyx could have done. What they did include is done well and if you are a NASCAR fan, your choices are extremely limited and this game is about the least expensive way to put you in the Sprint Cup. But if you just like racing in general, there are other great options from ultra-realistic F1 2012 to arcade style classics like Burnout Paradise and F1 Race Stars Kart racing. Many of my NASCAR loving friends are sticking with Gran Turismo or EA’s NASCAR 09 which can both be found in the discount bin at your local game store.

Eutechnyx did provide a good update from their NASCAR 2011 game, but unfortunately NASCAR Inside Line is still carrying some baggage that needs work. NASCAR fans will still enjoy racing with their favorite driver and getting a little taste of the NASCAR experience. The graphics and sound of NASCAR are there and if you have a wheel controller and surround sound with a subwoofer, you will spend hours making creating your car and driving till your heart’s content.

Spy Hunter Review – PlayStation Vita

When I heard that Spy Hunter was coming to the PS Vita I immediately had images of the original top-down video game from my high school arcade days.  “Perhaps they will even let me play vertically”, I secretly wished.  Alas, the Spy Hunter I got is pretty far removed from the one I grew up with and has much more in common with the reimagined games that Midway produced back in 2001 and 2002 for the PS2 and original Xbox.

Spy Hunter puts you behind the wheel of the G-6155 Interceptor, the ultimate James Bond gadget car able to break speed records while unleashing all sorts of devastating firepower such as machine guns, missiles, flamethrowers, shotguns, mines and more.   The arsenal is diverse and once you acquire additional weapons beyond the starting four you can pick and choose and assign up to four weapons to the Vita face buttons between levels.   This control scheme works incredibly well and allows you to mix and match your weapons instantly without having to stumble through some awkward menu interface.

Driving controls work well enough with the analog stick providing smooth steering while the bumpers handle your gas and brakes.  A double-tap on the gas activates a momentary turbo boost useful to catch an enemy or escape a pursuer.   You’ll also need to monitor the “health” of your card.  Powered by six energy cores, these cores will regenerate when not taking damage, but if a core should take full damage it will explode and no longer regenerate.  Think of it as a six-part health bar where each part has an individual recharging shield.

One of the cool moments from the original 80’s game was driving into the back of the truck to resupply your car, and Spy Hunter continues that tradition by having a truck available at certain parts of the mission allowing you to reconfigure your weapons based on changing mission parameters.   While inside the truck you also have access to some new gadgets like a weapons turret to defend the truck and a satellite view allowing you to order airstrikes and fire mortar rounds to clear the road ahead.  This is one of the few times where the touchscreen comes into play, and it works really well.

Sadly, the presentation for Spy Hunter is as dated as the license.  The opening movie is laughably bad and the menus and interface screens are totally boring; even primitive.   There is no voice work in the missions and only static drawings for the characters.  Once in the game things get slightly better with car graphics that look good and lots of explosions and effects, but the environments lack the detail and polish that the Vita is capable of delivering.   This honestly looks like a PSP game that was ported over at the last minute.   Sound effects are a droning mix of engine noise interspersed with weapons’ fire and frequent explosions, all set to the non-stop repetitious “Peter Gunn Theme”, or some sort of remix.

Admittedly, the Vita is starving for titles, but that doesn’t mean that we should have to settle for mediocrity such as this.  Spy Hunter would have been an okay game as a $10 online store purchase, but $30 is a bit extreme for a game that can be finished in 4-5 hours, especially when you will have seen all of what this game has to offer in the first hour.

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.