Earth Defense Force 2017 Portable Review – PlayStation Vita

Just two months shy of its sixth birthday, Earth Defense Force 2017 Portable makes its handheld debut on the PS Vita. We reviewed the original game back in 2007 when it released on the Xbox 360 and were not terribly impressed with the gameplay or graphics, but succumbed to its B-movie charm and goofy premise. Not much has changed at the core of Earth Defense Force 2017. The graphics are still dated, although they may look slightly better on a 5-inch screen versus a 55-inch screen, and there has been a modest effort to update the content with new levels, characters, and even some multiplayer options.

The plot is as clichéd as anything you might watch on MST3K or a TCM sci-fi marathon. Aliens are invading Earth and they are using giant insects and robots to do their dirty work while their mammoth ships eclipse the skies above. As a member of the Earth Defense Force it is your job to use every weapon at your disposal to kill every non-human entity in sight…over and over again. Yes, the sights may change slightly but the gameplay seldom evolves from the mindless mashing of the fire button and nimbly avoiding the advancing swarms of alien infestation. Thankfully, the varied weapons are so powerful and fun to use that the repetition gets lost in the awesomeness of pure firepower.

As you lay waste to countless alien hordes you’ll need to collect a seemingly endless supply of loot drops; everything from ammo and health to new weapons, which always keeps you moving into the fray when commonsense tells you to backpedal. Don’t ask why that giant ant was carrying a med kit or rounds for a gun it can’t even wield. If you start pulling at the threads of this concept the entire game will unravel. By design, the game practically demands to be replayed as that is the only way you can experience the new weapons you unlock as well as replaying with the new character, Pale Wing. She has a jetpack and energy based weapons which give the game an excitingly fresh perspective, both in verticality of movement and new combat tactics.

While Earth Defense Force 2017 Portable may have smoothed over the framerate issues from the Xbox 360, there is still plenty of boring level design, bland textures, and poor draw distance that will have enemies and skyline structures popping into view from just a few blocks away. Often it’s not a big deal since you are focused on some giant creature or robot that is right in your face, but when the enemy clusters are scattered out you will often have to rely on the mini-map to find new targets. Character modeling and animation is simplistic and the menus are something from the 90’s. The music is campy and the dialogue is humorous at first until it starts repeating to the point of annoyance.

Earth Defense Force 2017 Portable really shines if you can find a few other people with the game, as the Vita version supports up to four players for local or online co-op of the entire 60-level campaign; a nice improvement over the local-only, couch co-op, splitscreen on the Xbox 360. They also added a versus mode, but after a week of post-launch searching I couldn’t find a single person playing this mode. Sadly, there was no use of any Vita specific features other than some extremely awkward touchscreen aiming. How cool would it have been for an augmented reality mode where you had to shoot alien critters in whatever scenery you had in your camera view?

Earth Defense Force 2017 Portable is an okay shooter, but after six years I would have expected something a bit more polished and entertaining. Admittedly, the PS Vita library is lacking in new releases, but that shouldn’t mean we have to accept this lackluster effort. The biggest improvement is the online modes, but if you can’t find anybody else with the game then even those cease to become a feature, and as a solo shooter there are better Vita games out there for the same money or less. Wait for a sale or just skip this and wait for the next alien invasion.


DmC: Devil May Cry Review – Xbox 360

I’m a big Devil May Cry fan and have been playing the series from the very beginning, so I was extremely interested when I heard that Capcom was rebooting the franchise with DmC; even more so when I learned that Ninja Theory was going to be developing this next-gen reimagining. Sure, faithful fans of the series may balk at the subtle tweaks to characters and events, but at the core of DmC lies the insane and stylish combat and mind-blowing action we expect from a Devil May Cry game. Ninja Theory delivers all that and more…

We meet up with Dante after a wild night at the club. A bang on his trailer door quickly turns into a tutorial level to beat all other tutorial levels as a Hunter demon pulls Dante into Limbo and destroys his trailer. Thankfully, Dante manages to put on a few clothes in a classic Mike Myers (Austin Powers) “hide-the-naughty-bits” cutscene, the first of many humorous pop-culture and even self-referencing bits of comedy.

The tutorial does a great job of easing you into the basics of combat, both for your sword, Rebellion and your dual-wielded pistols, Ebony and Ivory. But you’ll constantly be learning as you add more satisfyingly vicious moves to your repertoire and bolster your arsenal with new weapons like the Arbiter, Osiris, and Eryx just to name a few. About six hours into the game you will be switching weapons and cycling through new ones in mid-combo for some of the most creative chaos in recent memory. Stringing together lengthy and original combos fuels your score and your Style ranking, just one part of your overall score and rank for each of the 20 levels in DmC.

With so many weapon types and so many uses for those weapons it can all seem a bit overwhelming, so I was surprised to find just how flowing and intuitive the combat ended up being, even when you throw in some of the more powerful and nastier creatures in the rogues gallery. Your grapple-like device has dual functionality, both in level navigation as well as combat in that you decide whether you want to pull something toward you or pull yourself toward it. This is great for grapple-swinging through areas or yanking a shield away from an enemy, or even launching yourself straight up to fight a Harpy on her own turf.

Weapons have multiple combos with various button sequences that can be triggered from the ground or in the air and then combined with other attacks or even other weapons to create cool combos, and your pistols can be used to extend those combos into some startling scores. And as much as the left and right triggers determine the “polarity” of your grapple, it also chooses your Angelic and Demonic slant to combat; an important factor in some battles as some elemental enemies take more or less damage based on the type of attack. You can yank an enemy toward you then quickly kick him away or launch an enemy straight up then jump up to flurry him with sword slashes or yank him down to the ground and perform an aerial ground pound attack. The options are truly endless, and for the first time in a fighting game I was never relying on any one set of “favorite” tactics. The combat is always evolving dynamically with each encounter.

While combat controls are virtually flawless the same can’t be said for navigation. The camera has a mind of its own and requires constant tweaking as you navigate these eerie 3D worlds. Grappling is made easy by a blue and red color coding system, and for the most part ledge-hopping is easy enough until you factor in the air-dash move, which for some reason is not nearly as responsive as it should be and ends up responsible for numerous death falls, retries, and missed collectibles. Something as easy as jumping from the top of a fountain to free a second-story Lost Soul from the wall shouldn’t take more than 12 attempts, but it did.

DmC is surprisingly long. My initial 8-hour game session took me to level 13 with seven more levels still ahead – not bad for a 3D action-platformer in this day and age, and keep in mind that is just my first pass. By design, many of these levels are going to need to be revisited as you collect keys, weapons, and new abilities that will grant you access to previously inaccessible areas of the levels in order to find more collectibles like keys, secret doors with mini-game challenges, and Lost Souls struggling to free themselves from the environment. And of course, each level is scored and ranked so you can compare your performance with that of your friends or the entire world on the Xbox Live leaderboards.

What DmC lacks in next-gen visuals is more than made up for with one of the most stylized graphical presentations since the cel shading in Borderlands or the fantasy art style of Darksiders. Your time in the “real world” is usually limited to cutscenes and story bits, with most of the gameplay taking place in the ethereal world of Limbo, a world overcast in radioactive reds with all sorts of haunting special effects and the occasional smoky image of someone from the “other side” trickling through if you stand still long enough. Even more interesting is when the game periodically reverts back to the real world and you can see the results of your actions in that world. Dante and the other members of the cast all look like they stepped out of a gothic graphic novel. Their art design is only trumped by the expert motion-capture used for animating Dante’s endless list of combat moves that somehow bring a physicality and weight to his swinging of a sword or skidding to a halt after landing an air-boost leap.

The soundtrack is great if you love death metal and head-banging energetic rock accenting all your bloodletting. There are few moments of quiet that reveal creepy environmental effects, but even when the game takes a dramatic twist the music maintains a certain level of demonic and evil influence. The voice acting is superb; even the intentional over-the-top bits, and I loved all the quips from Dante, both internal dialogue and one-liners directed toward the enemy.

There is no multiplayer for DmC and I am fine with that. While I see a possible co-op game in the future, perhaps featuring Dante’s twin brother, Vergil, this was not the time, and I for one applaud the choice to release a quality single-player experience rather than try to cram some awkward multiplayer modes into the package. With a 12+ hour initial pass and potentially twice that time lying ahead for total completion, achievement hunting, and score competition, DmC will keep you busy for the better part of a month.

DmC is just a few control refinements away from perfection. The combat is massively complex in scope and refreshing intuitive in execution with so many options and so many stunning visuals that sometimes it’s hard to believe you are responsible for what you are seeing on the screen. The evolving combat can quite literally get away from you and take on a life of its own. Normally, by the time you get to the end of one of these games you are just muddling through to see the story resolution, but DmC is one of the few games in the genre that is just as fresh at the finale as it was during the introduction. Whether you are a longtime fan like me or even if this is your first Devil May Cry game, DmC is the first must-play game of 2013 that no action gamer should even consider skipping.


Anarchy Reigns Review – Xbox 360

Platinum Games seems to be on their “A” game with the release of Anarchy Reigns for Xbox 360 this week. I have to say that I enjoyed a brutally satisfying brawler that continuously throws hordes of enemies at you in a world that’s one more carpet bombing away from being a… wasteland. Oh right, that’s pretty much the summary of the world in which Jack Cayman lives in.

Anarchy Reigns could be easily described as a sequel to the 2009 Wii exclusive MadWorld which features the same dual chainsaw-wielding Chaser. This time you can play the single player experience, either the biker garbed Jack or the arm-blade wielding pretty boy Leo. Each offers two very distinct play styles while navigating the same locales. Anarchy’s main focus however is actually in its online multiplayer though I wouldn’t jump into that until you have a good grasp on the combat.

The combat in Anarchy Reigns could easily be summed up as a button masher where you pummel your enemies until they blow up or turn into a blue puddle, but there are some tactics required to being successful in the long haul as I quickly found out. If you choose to learn the ropes via the single player, you’ll find that most enemies can be dispatched with a few well placed punches or chainsaw hits. As you progress further though it is quickly apparent that using blocks and evades are crucial to avoid being K.O.’d at the worst moment. I don’t know how many times I would be doing just fine up until the point that 4+ Executioner behemoths would rush me at once and I’d get trounced thoroughly.

The single player is broken up into four stages and progression is fuelled by a point system. For every enemy you defeat you come that much closer to unlocking one of the three side or main missions by the way of experience points. Once you complete all three main missions you get treated to some good old-fashioned wisecracks mixed with few moments of sorrow and remorse before heading off for your next locale. The cast banter of this little romp happens to be one of my favorite parts about Anarchy Reigns aside from chainsawing mutants in half.

One of the things that makes Anarchy Reigns live up to its name and keeps players on their toes is the A.T.E, or Action Trigger Events that can pop up at any time, both in the single player venue as well as the multiplayer modes which I’ll cover in a second. Among these events that spawn to make every mission and multiplayer match different are runaway semis, carpet bombings and black holes, just to name a few.

To make things even more interesting players get access to power-ups throughout each level by way of slot machine boxes or random chest-carrying enemies that spawn periodically. These range from health packs and triggered shields to full on rampage triggers and my personal favorite, the sniper rifle. The only drawback is that once activated you can’t use your chainsaw until the item is depleted. There are also five blue safes half-hidden around each stage to find to collect concept art and other goodies as you go through the campaign.

I have to say that I really enjoyed the single player with all its quirks but the real lasting power of Anarchy Reigns is found in its online multiplayer modes. While pummeling computer AI foes into oblivion is a blast, it’s no substitute for butting heads with other real players for top bragging rights. This is where anarchy truly reigns as you can compete in everything from classic deathmatch and team deathmatch to the crazy blend of brutality and sports with Death Ball. One of my favorite modes is Battle Royale where everyone is your enemy and there’s no such thing as safe. It’s up to you to stay one step ahead of the others and two steps ahead of the calamity in a 16-player hell on earth battle.

One of the best parts about the multiplayer as a whole is that you can level up any one of the 16 different characters that you’ll have available to you after getting through the campaign. If you join the many ranked players around the world you’ll be put in evenly balanced team-based or free-for-all matches which is pretty cool.

As I said before, I really did enjoy the campaign, especially seeing some of my favorite characters from MadWorld brought over into the world of color; a world that screams disorder. The stages that you’ll see in both the campaign and multiplayer are beautifully designed shells of what was probably once prominent locales. Of all the places Jack or Leo will travel, I have to say that I liked Hong Long the best with its rather neo-Chinese visuals. The environments and characters may not be the most polished creations in gaming, but I think it suits the game perfectly and the cutscenes sprinkled throughout the campaigns are easily my favorite parts.

The real treat to Anarchy Reigns is the awesome voice actors attached to this project including industry vets Steve Blum(Jack), Yuri Lowenthal(Zero) and Stephanie Sheh(Rin Rin) to name a few. Steve’s role as Jack is one of the main reasons that I love this game so much. If awesome vocals wasn’t enough the score to this game is insanely awesome. I love everything from jazzy tune on the menu screen to the hip-hop/rap that keeps you pumped from the first punch to the last beatdown.

What surprised me the most about Anarchy Reigns is that it hits shelves this week with a price tag of only $30 dollars. Sure, the game lacks some polish here and there and I thought that after viewing the opening static scrolling backstory that this review was going to go downhill fast. But the truth is I really enjoyed Anarchy Reigns on a number of levels. The combat is brutally fun, the online was addictive and the music and voice acting rocked. There’s not much more that I could ask for in a brawler following in the steps of MadWorld. If you love chainsaws, a few pretty girls and a whole lot of mayhem, I definitely recommend checking out Anarchy Reigns for the Xbox 360.


Disney Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two Review – Xbox 360

I have to admit I was pretty excited when I learned that the sequel to Epic Mickey was coming to next-gen consoles. The entire time I was playing the Wii-exclusive original I kept telling myself how much better this would be in HD with better controls…or at least a better camera. Having spent much of December playing both the 360 and the Wii U versions of Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two I’ve come to learn the truth in the saying, “be careful what you wish for.”

The sequel stumbles right out of the box by making this game heavily reliant on information and story content that only players of the Wii original will be privy, but it doesn’t stop after the opening intro. The game continues to alienate franchise newcomers time and time again, as nonstop references to people, places, and events are tossed around like common knowledge. It’s been close to a year since I played the original and I was struggling to remember a lot of this information. I can’t imagine someone coming into this with a blank slate.

As the name implies, Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two is designed heavily around co-op adventuring, which is all fine and dandy assuming you have someone ready to play with you for the endless hours you’ll need to invest in the game and don’t mind splitting your screen. We’ll get into the troublesome controls in a bit. Player one is Mickey while anyone who picks up a second controller can drop in or out as Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Mickey continues to use his paintbrush to unleash paint and thinner with fire hose imprecision to either restore or erase the word around him, while Oswald zaps things with electricity or uses his helicopter-like ears to airlift Mickey around annoying platform levels.

If you attempt to play the game alone you may be better off splitting the screen and controlling both characters at once as the AI driving Oswald is pretty pathetic. He will continually get stuck on architecture or refuse to follow you to a specific area. In one level I had revealed a chest and needed Oswald to fly me to the ledge, but he would not join me from the jumping-off point, so I had to grab a controller, manually move him to my ledge then drop out of the game so the AI would finally fly me to the chest. Clearly, if you want to go for all the collectibles and secrets in the game you had better bring a friend.

The world of Epic Mickey 2 is impressively large and complex which makes the lack of any guidance whatsoever completely unforgivable. You are continually given quests or told to talk to a certain person or go to a certain shop and then left to stumble around the colorful landscape in search of these obscure waypoints. There are no icons, dots on a map, or dotted line showing the way. Early on I was told to go get a camera from the camera shop on the other side of the earthquake crack and I spent the next hour wandering the area looking for the shop, going in and out of every other possible shop but no camera shop. In complete desperation I jumped into the sewer and somehow magically arrived in a new part of town that was home to the camera shop. When a kids game is so poorly designed that a 30+ year gaming veteran is ready to toss the controller and the game out the door I can’t imagine what little kids are supposed to do. The game does offer a map view, but even it is so vague it is of little use.

While I enjoyed the visuals of the Xbox 360 I really missed the tactile feel of aiming my “brush” using the Wiimote, so I’m guessing the PS3 and its use of the PS Move make for the best HD experience. Gamepad controls are extremely stiff for moving and sloppy for aiming and the camera, while better than the original, still has plenty of problems that will often lead to missed jumps and missed connections when trying to hitch a ride with your partner. The camera loves to swing down low and behind and will fight you as you try to position it higher to try and actually make a jump. Of course your camera is also your aiming unless you decide to switch to a first person view, but then you can’t move.

This all translates into rather bland combat that may or may not require Oswald to stun an opponent so you can thin them out or paint them into friendship. Ultimately, you’ll avoid combat or simply run past enemies rather than tolerate the poor controls required to fight them. Boss fights are even worse, especially playing alone since many fights are designed around having the boss attack Oswald while Mickey attacks the boss, but in solo play the AI pretty much keep Oswald in close proximity to Mickey making him the shared target of any boss affections.

Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two is a pretty game to be sure, both its HD gameplay graphics and the stylized storyboard panels used to create the animated cutscenes. There are also great sound effects and some classic Disney music including many of your familiar themes blended into the score. The voice acting is “authentic” Disney which also means it is extremely annoying and for some reason many of the throwaway lines are repeated to the point of insanity. And if you ever step away from the game make sure to pause or mute or Oswald will drive you up a wall with his urging to get back to action. And love it or hate it, Epic Mickey 2 brings music into the game with a singing mad scientist who only speaks in song.

The sequel expands on the original ideas with talking characters, a much bigger world that will take 20-30 hours to finish and twice that to complete. New inks are added to the mix and there are numerous side quests and even some RPG elements, but none of it ever comes together in anything coherent or even enjoyable. It’s just a bunch of loose content tossed into a Disney theme park that you’ll stumble around trying to check off.

I love animated platform adventures, and I was really hoping Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two was going to join the ranks of Jak and Daxter and Ratcher and Clank, but with its awkward camera, jerky controls, and directionless gameplay, I can’t really recommend this game to anyone but the most devoted Disney fan with infinite patience and a friend who shares that passion.


Disney Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two Review – Wii U

I have to admit I was pretty excited when I learned that the sequel to Epic Mickey was coming to next-gen consoles. The entire time I was playing the Wii-exclusive original I kept telling myself how much better this would be in HD with better controls…or at least a better camera. Having spent much of December playing both the 360 and the Wii U versions of Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two I’ve come to learn the truth in the saying, “be careful what you wish for.”

The sequel stumbles right out of the box by making this game heavily reliant on information and story content that only players of the Wii original will be privy, but it doesn’t stop after the opening intro. The game continues to alienate franchise newcomers time and time again, as nonstop references to people, places, and events are tossed around like common knowledge. It’s been close to a year since I played the original and I was struggling to remember a lot of this information. I can’t imagine someone coming into this with a blank slate. At least Wii U owners have the option of seeking out and playing the original game on their new system.

As the name implies, Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two is designed heavily around co-op adventuring, which is all fine and dandy assuming you have someone ready to play with you for the endless hours you’ll need to invest in the game and don’t mind splitting your screen. We’ll get into the troublesome controls in a bit. Player one is Mickey while anyone who picks up a second controller can drop in or out as Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Mickey continues to use his paintbrush to unleash paint and thinner with fire hose imprecision to either restore or erase the word around him, while Oswald zaps things with electricity or uses his helicopter-like ears to airlift Mickey around annoying platform levels.

If you attempt to play the game alone you may be better off splitting the screen and controlling both characters at once as the AI driving Oswald is pretty pathetic. He will continually get stuck on architecture or refuse to follow you to a specific area. In one level I had revealed a chest and needed Oswald to fly me to the ledge, but he would not join me from the jumping-off point, so I had to grab a Wiimote and Nunchuck, manually move him to my ledge then drop out of the game so the AI would finally fly me to the chest. Clearly, if you want to go for all the collectibles and secrets in the game you had better bring a friend.

The world of Epic Mickey 2 is impressively large and complex which makes the lack of any guidance whatsoever completely unforgivable. You are continually given quests or told to talk to a certain person or go to a certain shop and then left to stumble around the colorful landscape in search of these obscure waypoints. There are no icons, dots on a map, or dotted line showing the way. Early on I was told to go get a camera from the camera shop on the other side of the earthquake crack and I spent the next hour wandering the area looking for the shop, going in and out of every other possible shop but no camera shop. In complete desperation I jumped into the sewer and somehow magically arrived in a new part of town that was home to the camera shop. When a kids game is so poorly designed that a 30+ year gaming veteran is ready to toss the controller and the game out the door I can’t imagine what little kids are supposed to do. The game does offer a map view, but even it is so vague it is of little use.

The Wii U marks a decisive improvement in visuals over the classic Wii version, but for some reason the game insists (nay, forces) player one to use the GamePad even though the Wiimote and Nunchuck combo are clearly the more intuitive control scheme for this game. This may be the first co-op game on the Wii U where people are arguing over who doesn’t have to use the GamePad. Even more puzzling is that despite the obviously dual-stick mentality of the Mickey controls you cannot play the game using the new Pro Controller. Not only is the GamePad a bit large for this type of game, you may find your game time limited by the short battery life. And it’s not like they are doing anything fancy with the device. You get a map and touch icons that basically duplicate what you get on the big screen if you hit +Start. There is no motion control or even support for using the GamePad as a camera viewfinder in the numerous photo hunt missions. You can’t even swap the game to the smaller screen for remote play. What could have been a fantastic system launch title for the Wii U turns out to be a lackluster and lazy port.

GamePad controls are extremely stiff for moving and sloppy for aiming and the camera, while better than the original, still has plenty of problems that will often lead to missed jumps and missed connections when trying to hitch a ride with your partner. The camera loves to swing down low and behind and will fight you as you try to position it higher to try and actually make a jump. Of course your camera is also your aiming unless you decide to switch to a first person view, but then you can’t move.

This all translates into rather bland combat that may or may not require Oswald to stun an opponent so you can thin them out or paint them into friendship. Ultimately, you’ll avoid combat or simply run past enemies rather than tolerate the poor controls required to fight them. Boss fights are even worse, especially playing alone since many fights are designed around having the boss attack Oswald while Mickey attacks the boss, but in solo play the AI pretty much keep Oswald in close proximity to Mickey making him the shared target of any boss affections.

Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two is a pretty game to be sure, both its HD gameplay graphics and the stylized storyboard panels used to create the animated cutscenes, but the game seems to stutter in places and framerates are far from consistent. It’s never game-breaking but for a system that is “on paper” more powerful than the current competition it is still inexcusable, especially for a game that isn’t even attempting to mirror the TV to the GamePad screen.

There are also great sound effects and some classic Disney music including many of your familiar themes blended into the score. The voice acting is “authentic” Disney which also means it is extremely annoying and for some reason many of the throwaway lines are repeated to the point of insanity. And if you ever step away from the game make sure to pause or mute or Oswald will drive you up a wall with his urging to get back to action. And love it or hate it, Epic Mickey 2 brings music into the game with a singing mad scientist who only speaks in song.

The sequel expands on the original ideas with talking characters, a much bigger world that will take 20-30 hours to finish and twice that to complete. New inks are added to the mix and there are numerous side quests and even some RPG elements, but none of it ever comes together in anything coherent or even enjoyable. It’s just a bunch of loose content tossed into a Disney theme park that you’ll stumble around trying to check off.

I love animated platform adventures, and I was really hoping Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two was going to join the ranks of Jak and Daxter and Ratcher and Clank, but with its awkward camera, jerky controls, and directionless gameplay, I can’t really recommend this game to anyone but the most devoted Disney fan with infinite patience and a friend who shares that passion, and if you do decide to get it you may be better off with the classic Wii version, which is oddly enough, better in all the important ways than this lame Wii U port.


 

Assassin’s Creed III Review – Wii U

As a lover of both stealth and action games, Assassin’s Creed is easily one of my favorite franchises out there, even if it did take me awhile to warm up to the whole sci-fi front end of the story with the Animus and diving into memories embedded in DNA. I suppose it’s a neat way to tie all the various games together into something much grander than they would have been had they been released as standalone titles. It also allows for nearly unlimited creative freedom, as we can travel just about anywhere at any point along the historic time line. Personally, I was hoping the next game was going to be set in London; perhaps working Jack the Ripper into Desmond’s ancestry, but Ubisoft is taking us quite literally to a New World in Assassin’s Creed III.

When I first learned that this new game was going to be set in 18th century American I had my doubts, but it only took a few hours of actually playing Assassin’s Creed III before I slipped into my old assassin ways. The story once again begins with Desmond and his crew seeking out a new base of operations in order to prevent the Templar from unleashing a devastating attack on the modern population using ancient technology. Once he starts DNA diving we get a brief opening level with an assassination in a giant theater before hopping a ship to America. Even the 30+ minutes on the ship offer up some great moments, both in sheer spectacle as well as a possible mutiny you’ll need to foil when are you below decks talking to the crew and playing challenging board games. Depending on your focus, it can be upwards of an hour or more before the clouds part and the title screen appears signaling your arrival at the New World.

At its core, the gameplay is much like all the previous games. You’ll start to stack up primary and secondary missions along with the random fetch-quests; the first from none other than Ben Franklin who has lost some pages from his Farmers’ Almanac. The game does a good job of propelling you through the main story-driven events while providing you with ample free time to check off these side objectives, and you are always free to exit the Animus and return to the present to catch up with Desmond.

Game mechanics are also still intact even if the world around you is much more vertically challenged this time around. There are no more instances of climbing for several minutes to the top of dizzying tower heights before swan diving into a haystack. Most buildings are only 2-3 stories when in town and your traipsing through the treetops is not much higher. The whole parkour element has been automated to the point where you merely need to keep the trigger held down and the stick pushed forward to have Conner navigate the levels with acrobatic ease.

Combat is also fluid, at least for melee and stealth kills. Ranged weapons are entirely another matter, and you will quickly learn that muzzle-loaders suck in battle, especially when you realize you can’t reload while running. Some of the earlier missions had me carrying a rifle and a pistol just so I could get off two quick shots before retreating to a safe reload distance. The good news is that it takes just as long for the enemy to reload, so if you can dodge their bullets you can easily kill them with a sword or knife during their reload animation, assuming they aren’t sniping from a rooftop.

Assassin’s Creed III supports the Wii U GamePad with a few unique features; mostly a mini-map that highlights the collectibles in the immediate area as well as the enemies, making certain stealth sections almost too easy. You can also tap the screen to summon your horse, which actually frees up a slot for an additional weapon. And yes, you can swap the game from the TV to the controller and play sans TV as long as you stay within range of the Wii U. I was hoping for small screen access to the extensive Animus database, so I could look up people and places without having to exit the game. If you prefer a more conventional controller or want to play beyond the GamePad’s relatively short battery life then you can also use the Pro Controller, making this game nearly identical to the PS3 and 360 in almost every way.

I did notice the stealth element a bit lacking. Perhaps I was just used to all the disguises from the new Hitman game, but even blending into crowds didn’t seem to function as well as it has in past games, which can make some missions like stealth pursuit and eavesdropping more challenging than they needed to be.

Conner will find himself exploring the great outdoors much more than cities in this game, which offers plenty of opportunities for hunting, trapping, and other frontier activities, but without the integrated crafting element of a game like Far Cry 3 these hunting expeditions feel a bit contrived, almost as much as some of the QTE moments when you are attacked by random predators. Also lurking beneath the surface is a fairly important economic system that ties into Conner’s homestead; something you are continually working to improve upon, so you can bring new workers to your base of operations. These workers fuel the trade system which in turn allows Conner to upgrade his various weapons and armor.

And if there wasn’t enough to do on land, just wait until you climb aboard your own majestic sailing vessel and take the adventure to the high seas in a part of the game that could easily have been marketed as a standalone title. Not only are these missions gorgeous to watch, the gameplay mechanics of commanding a ship, piloting, attacking, and boarding other vessels will have you singing, “It’s a pirate’s life for me…” And again, there is a whole economy and ship upgrade system in place to keep you coming back for more.

Assassin’s Creed III does an amazing job of not only recreating a visually stunning 18th century frontier; it sets up incredibly rich characters and stories you care about. Following Conner through his adolescence only gives you deeper insight into that character as an adult. I was also surprised with the insightful use of historical figures and the way they were portrayed in the various events without all of the editorial cleansing of our public school history books. After the initial encounter with Ben Franklin I was expecting a bunch of Forest Gump style brushes with notoriety, but every encounter was integrated perfectly to fuel the Templar backstory and preserve our own understanding of history.

I’ve always loved the multiplayer aspect of Assassin’s Creed, even if it hasn’t had the largest or most loyal of followings, but Ubisoft is taking steps to increase that fan base with some cool new cooperative multiplayer. Wolf Pack puts your team on a timer and has you killing a set number of targets to add time to the clock and advance the level. As you get deeper into the tiered session the targets are more spread out and on higher alert, making each sequence that much more challenging. But even if you prefer the more traditional multiplayer modes, you’ll be delighted that Ubisoft has created an entirely new front end with a fantastic story element that ties into the whole Abstergo/Templar storyline to create an immersive setting for some of the best and most suspenseful cat-and-mouse gameplay ever. Admittedly, the Wii U online community isn’t as vast or as active as the other systems but there are quality people playing and you can have some great fun, even if you have to search a bit harder for it.

As far as presentation, the Wii U looks great; perhaps not up to Xbox 360 and especially PC standards, but it still has some incredible details and textures, and lifelike animation from the sneakiest crouched walk to the fastest of parkour leaps across roof and treetops. All animations flow seamlessly together and respond quickly with controller input creating a very satisfying combat experience. Draw distance can be limited at times and there is a bit of pop-up. Obviously, the jaw-dropping DirectX 11 PC version of the game outclasses the console graphics, but if you don’t have a high-end PC rig then the Wii U looks and plays great.

Composer, Lorne Balfe has creating a soundtrack that is as sweepingly grand and majestic as the visuals, with moments of suspense, action, drama, and adventure that all cue perfectly to the onscreen events. This flawless score blends with realistic sound effects, both manmade and natural environmental noises, and the script and professionally voiced dialogue is a real treat and helps to keep you interested in the story.

While I had my fair share of minor glitches and issues with Assassin’s Creed III on the Wii U, none of them were game-breaking, and most were dwarfed by the sheer spectacle of presentation and the epic nature of this historic romp through colonial history. While I’m sure liberties were taking with a few people, places, and events, I certainly had more fun exploring this time in America’s past than any of my high school history classes, and future DLC will keep that entertainment flowing well into 2013 with a new single-player campaign and multiplayer content.

And best of all, thanks to a brilliantly designed and narrated opening recap of all the past games courtesy of John de Lancie, newcomers can dive into Assassin’s Creed III without having ever played another game…but I seriously recommend the entire franchise to anyone who enjoys stealth-action-adventure. It just doesn’t get any better than this.


Abyss: The Wraiths of Eden HD Review – iOS

G5 Entertainment kicks off a new year of mobile gaming with their first new adventure title for iOS, Abyss: The Wraiths of Eden HD, and they’ve come out of the gate strong, which only sets the bar impossibly high for the rest of the games they plan to release in 2013. Abyss mixes up the increasingly stale hidden-object formula by keeping the pixel hunt sessions to a minimum while encouraging more traditional adventure staples such as exploration, item collection, and inventory manipulation to solve numerous environmental puzzles.

And what fantastic environments we have, with levels that range from the claustrophobic confines of a mini-sub to the sprawling ocean floor to a fantastical underwater city not unlike the city of Rapture for those of you who played BioShock. While not nearly as “romantic” in its opulence, the city of Eden is a delight to explore, full of wonder, mystery, and some unspeakable evil.

Since these games seem to target the female demographic you once again play a female diver in search of her fiancé, the famous (and missing) underwater explorer, Robert Marceau. Your quest soon takes you to the abandoned city of Eden where you’ll encounter numerous puzzles and mini-games that will test your logic and memorization skills, as you try to repair the city, find your fiancé, and avoid sinister sea monsters and a demonic wraith presence that has taken over the city.

There are 40 incredible locations to explore that are home to 16 hidden object puzzles and 22 mini-games. The hidden object puzzles are refreshingly brilliant in their design as several objects (noted in blue text) require manipulation within the scene to uncover the quest item. So if your item is a “letter” you may need to find a letter opener to slice open an envelope to collect your prize. And if you still can’t get into the hidden-object mood, Abyss offers a Domino mini-game alternative that allows you to collect your objects by playing this tile-matching game.

Abyss: The Wraiths of Eden HD looks amazing with full support for the iPad retina display. The scenes are loaded with detail and subtle animations, and you can pinch-zoom to reveal even more detail when necessary. The video portions get a bit fuzzy, but once the game snaps back into gameplay graphics it’s a crystal clear work of art. There is plenty of chilling sound effects, both environmental and sounds specific to your actions and the puzzle solving. The voice acting is acceptable and some of it is even good, although the female narration of the heroine sounds a bit stiff at times. The music does a great job of setting the mood and creating some tension that had be jump more than once when a Wraith suddenly appeared out of nowhere.

Your $5 unlocked purchase grants you access to the full game as well as a built-in strategy guide, three difficulty modes and of course, Game Center support for all those fun achievements. There is a nice hint system with standard cool down timer, although it won’t cost you if it only shows you where to go. You’ll also unlock a map early on that will show your position as well as any points of interest/interaction. Your level of hints and assistance are all determined by your chosen difficulty.

I was pretty burned out after the recent batch of HOA games I reviewed over the holidays, so you can imagine my surprise at how much I really enjoyed Abyss: The Wraiths of Eden HD. There is a great variety of puzzle types as well as true level exploration, item discovery, and inventory manipulation that make this one of the better adventure games you can play while keeping the eye-straining object hunts to an acceptable minimum. If you’re looking for the first great adventure game for your iPad this year then look no further than the haunting quest that await in Abyss: The Wraiths of Eden HD.


Frankenweenie 3D Blu-ray Review

Frankenweenie is the latest in the quirky line of stop-motion animated features from the twisted mind of Tim Burton. Based on a live-action short he originally created back in 1984, the writer/director jumped at the chance to bring his tale to life using the artistry and animation techniques he has helped to pioneer over the past two decades. Some might question his decision to remake the original; arguably one of his best live-action stories in his career, and when asked Tim merely explained that he always wanted more focus on the dog – something you really couldn’t do with a live animal.

Whether you have already seen his original short or if you watch it before or after this new animated feature (it is included in the bonus features), the one thing I found remarkable was just how accurately they reproduced each and every significant scene from the original in stunning stop-motion puppetry. Some scenes are frame-by-frame accurate, almost as if his original film was used as a storyboard for the remake. His original work was so strong in story and style it holds up nearly 30 years later,so the biggest challenge was taking a 30-minute short and turning it into a feature three times the size.

The core story centers on Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan), a solitary young boy with a passion for filmmaking as well as science. The movie opens with Victor and his parents, Edward (Martin Short) and Susan (Catherine O’Hara), and of course, Sparky, all gathered in the living room watching one of Victor’s latest home movie masterpieces. The film wastes little time in setting up a vivid picture of Victor’s home life, his relative social awkwardness, and most importantly, his love for his dog. And while Sparky does get much more screen time in this new animated version, it’s not enough to carry a feature film, so Tim added significantly to the cast and weaved in a fun subplot turning the third act into an all-out tribute to monster matinees.

Victor’s parents encourage him to break out of his shell by taking up a sport, which transitions us to the ballpark where Victor uses what he’s learned in science class to knock the ball out of the park. Sparky dutifully fetches the ball and subsequently gets struck and killed by a car shattering Victor’s life… that is until he is inspired by his science teacher (Martin Landau) to use electricity to reanimate Sparky’s corpse. In a sequence that not only mirrors Burton’s original live-action work but also pays serious homage to the infamous scene from Frankenstein, Victor turns his attic into an impressive “mad scientist” laboratory and brings Sparky back to life.

Of course now, the real challenge is to keep the rambunctious canine a secret, because nobody could possibly understand what he has done. Despite some early close calls, Sparky’s rebirth is kept a secret for a few days, but all too soon people learn what Victor has done including his parents and even worse, Edgar Gore (Atticus Schaffer), one of Victor’s creepiest classmates designed to mirror the infamous Igor complete with hunchback and busted up teeth. Edgar threatens to reveal Victor’s secret unless he helps him animate a dead pet of his own…a fish. They recreate the experiment and the fish does come back to life only it is invisible. As rumors spread about Edgar’s fish and Victor’s dog all the other kids want to reanimate their own dead animals for the upcoming school science project.

This all leads to the climactic third act where various monster hybrids are created and start to terrorize the town including a ferocious rat, a cat/bat hybrid, a batch of sea monkeys that look and act very much like gremlins, and my personal favorite, a giant turtle that stomps and roars its way through town much like Gamera. Victor and the kids must race around town and use their rudimentary knowledge of science to destroy these aberrations, which all leads to the ultimate clichéd finale with the villages cornering Sparky (the monster) in the windmill, setting it on fire, only to realize that Sparky was not the monster they thought him to be, but only after he’s dead. The numerous references to the classic Frankenstein film will certainly bring a smile to the face of any nostalgic monster movie fan.

Releasing Frankenweenie as a black and white feature was a bold move in a day and age where films live or die based on their technical prowess, but make no mistake; the 1080p presentation is a work of cinematic art in both the 2D AVC and 3D MVC versions of the film. The 3D is completely flawless with none of the ghosting you get in some other 3D films. Stop-motion animation is still a marvel to behold when it is done right; something that CG will never be able to capture because everything you are seeing on the screen is real. Burton and his team have perfected their craft to the point where they actually have a Frankenweenie Art Show that is travelling the world sharing the sets and models with fans. I can’t think of a single moment in the film where I wished the movie had been in color. Frankly, I totally forgot about it being black and white until it was brought up in the bonus features. The black levels and contrast are so sharp and the level of detail is off the charts revealing just how much work went into the fabrication of the characters and the world they live in.

Disney continues to impress with their outstanding DTS-HD MA 7.1 audio mix that keeps the dialogue front and center while mixing in fantastic sound effects (every sound had to be fabricated) and the delightful score from Danny Elfman. There is great use of all the surround channels as well as appropriate use of LFE, especially in the “Gamera” scenes and the frequent thunderclaps during the storms.

Frankenweenie only comes with about an hour’s worth of extras, but it’s all quality stuff. This 4-disc set comes with both 2D and 3D versions of the film, a standard DVD copy and a digital copy, which looks amazing on iPad and iPhone even in black and white. As far as supplemental material the main extra is obviously the original 30-minute “Live-Action Frankenweenie Short” that Tim Burton created back in 1984. It’s a marvel to see how much of the original made it into the animated feature as well as see Barret Oliver, Shelley Duvall, Daniel Stern, and a few other familiar faces from 30 years ago.

“Miniatures in Motion: Bringing Frankenweenie to Life” is a fantastic and surprisingly thorough documentary of how the various departments all came together to bring this movie to life. You’ll probably learn more in these 23 minutes than you would in a longer feature or even a commentary track. For those of you who didn’t get to go to the 2012 Comic-Con, the “Frankenweenie Touring Exhibit” feature gets you a brief 5-minute glimpse at this traveling art show that allows the public to interact with the various puppets and sets from the film. “Captain Sparky vs. The Flying Saucers” is a 2-minute short presented in the same homemade style as Victor’s other home movies, and is just as delightful. And last up are 11 minutes of trailers for upcoming Disney movies.

Frankenweenie is far from scary. The stylized character and creature designs make even the most threatening monster uniquely quirky and charming, although the cat-bat hybrid and mutant rat test the balance of charm vs horror. Hopefully kids have not become so jaded with mind-numbing colors and fancy CG that they won’t be able to appreciate the level of artistry and craftsmanship that went into creating this film and the bold decision to show it in nostalgic black and white. Nothing is more powerful than a boy’s love for his dog. Burton knew this in 1984 when he created his original short and that magic still permeates every frame of Frankenweenie in this stunning stop-motion masterpiece brought home in one of Disney’s most technically proficient transfers to date.


Guns of Icarus Online Review – PC

It wasn’t always so crowded up here. Used to be that the mists and clouds would pull apart like ginned cotton, the pure, dense white shredding in tendrils and snarls against the teeth of sunlight and sky. Beyond it the long arc of heaven and low line of earth met somewhere so far ahead it was a blur. The wind wild around you and the creak and roll of the boards beneath your feet was enough to make you walk to the edge, make you think about jumping out into that maddening air, smiling all the way down. It used to be that there was so much room.

Now though, now she hides as the air fills with more and more balloons. The roar and sputter of engines. The inevitable crackle of fire and the sharp report of cannon. We fight here now, over a space that seems so large despite the crowding. We fight over the pale broken things below, or towers, or ruins and no one stops just to breathe. No one looks up from the range finders or the rattle of malcontent engines. No one sees the skies we ply anymore. It’s fitting though. We are the Guns of Icarus, it suits that we die in fire and surprise.

If you think that a little flowery…well, it is, but this game inspires flights of fancy, or at least some fancy flying which is close enough. Guns of Icarus Online is a gorgeously meaty game that makes you long for a clear sky, a strong wind and the tang of gunpowder on the air. At base it is just like any other multiplayer PvP title. You pick your role — gunner, engineer or pilot in this case, queue up for a crew and have at your enemies. Simple, clean and to the point. What makes Guns special then, aside from skinning, is that instead of just making a floating platform with gun emplacements, the developers added just enough sailing mechanics to make things interesting and force everyone in a crew to work together for survival.

The result is one of the most compelling multiplayer games of recent memory with a gorgeous backdrop and atmosphere skinned and bleak and somehow beautiful. That being said, Guns does fall short where all such titles falter. The why. Oh, I know, it’s after the millennium and motives are incidental, but seriously, what possible value is there in blowing other ships out of the sky? Military superiority? Salvage rights? Victory over bad manners?

I know fans of the genre won’t care too much as it’s the struggle that matters with these games, not the setting, but it seems such a shame that a beautiful setting like this is so poorly fleshed out. There are ships sailing on the sky, men and women pushing metal and gas and wood by the strength of their arms and will and for what? What spurred this creation? Whence came the drive? This isn’t even to mention the tottering wreckage piled akimbo in the desert, or the arctic outposts and canyon spans that you fight over. What is this world you just brush the surface of with cannon fire? I’m dying to find out.

Cannon fire isn’t quite expansive enough though. These ships come armed with quite the assortment of wonderful toys, from machine guns to flak cannons to flame throwers and flare guns. There’s even a harpoon to spear a ship and drag it closer. Not only that, but gunners have about six different kinds of specialized ammunition to mod all those guns with (though most everyone just slaps the fire-proof rounds in to make the engineers lives easier). The guns also all have different ranges and rotations, which seems like a simple enough idea…until you spend time lining up the perfect shot…only to have it ruined when the pilot banks right and the target slips out of your firing arc.

Which is why you all have to work together. The gunners covering their limited firing arcs need to watch for enemies and shoot when they can, repair when they can’t. The pilot needs to steer, but not just maneuvering. Like all great naval conflicts, in Guns the successful engagement is all about positioning, so the pilot must watch the skies and give his gunners targeting angles. The engineer? He gets to put out fires. Literally as he usually is the only crew member with an extinguisher, but also figuratively as he hustles around slapping a hammer on anything that needs repairs. It all sounds easy enough until you get in the air. Then things rapidly turn into a shouting match as the pilot just ambles around aimlessly, the gunners can’t get anything in their sights and the engineer never stops moving. This being a multiplayer title, you can imagine how polite, helpful and actually co-operative people are.

This being an online-only game also means there are two big obstacles to enjoyment. The first is the inevitable problem of an awesome game without enough players, which is to say long queue times waiting for a crew. Yeah, you can chat while you wait, or Alt+Tab out to go check Reddit or something, but it’s still frustrating, especially after a match or two when you’ve got a good group. Suddenly the action will just dry up and there you are, all dressed up with no one to shoot. The second is lag. Looking at the size of the arenas and the detail of the ships, scenery and characters it’s no surprise that there’s going to be some slowdown, especially when you add about 16 players running about. Still having your ship suddenly disintegrate around you because of lagged fire, or just suddenly jumping to the side gets annoying.

Speaking of ships flying apart under a hail of lead and hatred, this is the only part of the game that looks terrible. It’s like watching Legos get stepped on. Large chunks break away and scatter, but always boxy and square. Considering the detail and beauty of the rest of the game, this always seems so out of place. Like someone put some kids toys in front of Starry Night for a diorama.

You may think I exaggerate, but Guns of Icarus Online absolutely nails the desire to fly. It’s like wind scraping through your hair at 100 miles an hour, and I’m just talking about the feel of standing still on the deck. The air seems to ripple as you pass through it, sand or mist floating suspended like the larger mass of keel and balloon. Mist and cloud envelop you so thick you want to shiver at the cold and hope the flare you just launched lights up enough sky to find the ship stalking you.

Clearly this game makes an impression on you, and for $20 can you ask for more? Sure there are micro transactions for different outfits and all sorts of insane achievement or leveling goals, but the long and the short of it is this: Do you want to fly?

Reviewed by Mat Houghton