Far Cry 4

A screenshot of characters taking a selfie?!?!?! META!!!!

A screenshot of characters taking a selfie?!?!?! META!!!!

Open world games have a really difficult balance to achieve. Filling a giant sandbox with enough, but not too many, toys for the world to not bore the player and giving a story that gets the player to keep invested enough that they keep driving forward instead of just playing with the toys. Most games don’t get either really right. They overfill the world hoping it will distract from the bad and under cook the story or overstuff the story with drivel and present a nearly empty world that’s just there to pad the time it takes to get from point A to point P. Ubisoft has long tinkered with open games in all of their biggest franchises. There’s little doubt that Ubi always gets at least half the formula right. You can always count on them offering great sandboxes but they rarely giving a story that’s worth the time despite glimmers of something better along the way. They’d almost gotten the balance perfect in Far Cry 3, giving a strong and compelling story that was driven by an interesting plot and one of the best villains in gaming’s recent history- then they toss you on another island to start all over again but this time without the antagonist, more mystical bullshit and no new twists or wrinkles just more of the same you just spent 10 hours doing. So close, Far Cry 3… maybe your sequel will fix this.

    Ajay Ghale returns to the country of his birth, Kyrat, to scatter his recently deceased mother’s ashes. The majestic Himalayan nation has been locked in a twenty year civil war. The current regime of Pagan Min has been brutal but the Golden Path rebellion has stagnated and is close to breaking down completely. Ajay, it just so happens, is the son of the Golden Path’s first leader and is just the emblem that they need to breathe life back into their movement. By that I mean “They want Ajay to do all the work and single handedly take down the whole of Min’s regime because they are all pretty damn worthless”.
The story’s biggest problem, despite bonus points for not doing the whole Great White Hope that pretty much every other shooter does, is that there is no reason to care if the Golden Path succeed. Yeah, Pagan is a bastard and gleefully tells you about it himself, not nearly often enough by the way, but that doesn’t make either of the leaders of the Golden Path, Sabal and Amita, any better or make their struggle any more compelling. One is a religious nut who wants to make the country a theocracy lead by himself with his youngest sister as a living goddess figure head, the other talks about progress but is really planning an even more brutal regime complete with child soldiers and ethnic cleansings. The game all but lights a neon sign signifying these outcomes in the first act. There’s no reason to fight this war and even for how bad Pagan is said to be- he often feel like the best option of the three but he’s not one that you can take. The supporting characters are even worse. A pair of inane English chasing the greatest high and repeatedly drug Ajay… yet for reasons that are inexplicable the game does not allow you to shoot them in the face after the first time. A woman who claims to be a pawn of Min because her family has LONG been held captive by one of his lieutenants- a character that’s so incredibly stupid to think they were still alive that instead of compelling tragedy it is just eye-rolling. A vicious mercenary with a wife and kids back home who have no idea of his double life (we’re lead to believe anyway…). The most psychotic DJ this side of Vice City. These examples COULD work but we aren’t given nearly enough time with any of them. The villains are too easy to get to and only appear for a scene or two, the others just aren’t compelling enough to be bothered with. Then there’s Pagan Min. Ubi’s Far Cry team can do villains. The charismatic king is the highlight of the game, just like Vaas before him, Pagan is really the driving force and real emotional heart of the story. Pagan is a villain worth hating but also so incredibly compelling. He is a vibrant flamboyant monster that is also ultimately sympathetic and human.

    Pagan is voiced by Troy Baker, this guy has yet to disappoint. His performances are always worth at least a rent for and Pagan is easily his best to date. The rest of the cast do great jobs and try desperately to lift their parts out of the stench of the script. Player character Ajay Ghales is voiced by Ubisoft veteran voice actor James A. Woods who has done voices in Ubisoft titles since 2010, just isn’t given much to say. Lost’s Naveen Andrews gives Sabal the right sound of conviction and a charisma that his words do not hold. Janina Gavankar’s Amita holds her own against Andrews. The rest are simply there, competent but nothing memorable. Not that this is on the actors in anyway, they do the best they can with what they are given.
Far Cry 4’s world is amazing. Kyrat is a great living sandbox. The terrain is brimming with wildlife and patrols. There’s rarely a dull moment as you traverse it, constantly coming across someone who needs a hand in a firefight or a rescue from an animal attack or a convoy to hijack. Hunting, side quests, liberating outposts and just wandering the countryside is simply so much more fun than the story missions that many many hours will be lost to them without a passing thought to continuing the story’s forward progress. Even more when playing in co-op. The inanity is cranked to another level that needs to be experienced. Unfortunately the co-op isn’t really an organic experience in game. Instead of being given the option to drop in or drop out  when playing, you have to make the choice at the start of each session and if there’s any problem with the connection you get kicked back to the main menu.
The open approaches given to you are much like previous titles in the series. Every hunting ground offers hiding places you can toss bait from and wait or you can casually walk around until stumbling on your prey. Every outpost have a hill near it for you to set up a sniping camp if that’s what you want, each also has a temptingly open gate that you can charge though firing wildly the whole time and a hole in the fence that you can slip through to stealth kill everyone inside.

Kyrat. Part Nepal, part Burma (or Myanmar if you prefer), all crazy.

Kyrat. Part Nepal, part Burma (or Myanmar if you prefer), all crazy.

Shooting mechanics here are among the best. Each weapon feels different, even within their type, which makes the choices more interesting and reliant on playstyle. Driving most vehicles is still a loose and annoying experience. Thankfully there is a new auto-drive feature that allows AI to take over steering so you can focus on what’s really important- firing grenades out your broken windshield at everything you pass. To make up for the annoyance of cars is the best new feature, Buzzers. These light small gyrocopters are the only way to get around for some free exploration. What about on foot, you ask? Besides running Far Cry 4 gives you a grappling hook. This is a common navigational item in games these days but rarely are they as good as they are here. Instead of just being a way to get up a peak or down into a cave, here you can Tarzan your way to small ledges holding loot or swing your co-op partner up to blast a passing helicopter pilot in the face.

    Far Cry 4 is really just more of the same. There is nothing wrong with that. Giving a better tuned experience that is just great fun to explore. Yes, the story and characters could be much better. That’s not really what any of us come to these titles for. For open mayhem there’s not many options out there on par with it.

Far Cry 4- 8/10

Blurry images from a hidden ending. Now let's go shoot some fucking guns.

Blurry images from a hidden ending. Now let’s go shoot some fucking guns.

Tales of Xillia 2

Scenes like this litter the game like a beach after tourist season. But unlike bottles of discarded suntan lotion, these scenes are charming.

Scenes like this litter the game like a beach after tourist season. But unlike bottles of discarded suntan lotion, these scenes are charming.

    Japanese Role Playing Games fall into three camps for me. You have the Legacy series which keep chugging along and finding success based on their title alone despite there not being an actually good entry in a decade or more, like Final Fantasy or the SaGa franchise. These title’s fans will often tell you things like “It gets REALLY good at the 10 hour mark! You have to stick with it!” It doesn’t and you really don’t. You have the We-Are-So-Precious-And-CUTE! games, where there’s the same regurgitated characters and terrible sex jokes repeated endlessly and awful 2D animation or stills. All of these have a bevy of female characters who the player character lusts after in a way that makes most peeping Tom’s seem like romantics. The fans of these games usually say things like “I imported my copy of Toki to Eien because there’s more pantie shots.” There’s nothing wrong with these, they have their place and those they’re made for enjoy them. The final category are Cult Series, these are somewhere between the Legacy and WASPAC titles. These are often long running series that consistently deliver in some manner. They present characters in situations that are consistently compelling in fully realized worlds… even if the gameplay has barely changed for the last decade. The Shin Megami Tensei series still reigns in this category. Though the Tales series comes a close second. The fans of these usually stay in the corner until the run up to a new one when they annoyingly announce it to all “The new Persona game is finally coming! It’s onna be the greatest thang EVA!!! OMG!!! They all so brilliants!!!”.

    Tales of Xillia 2 is the fourteenth entry in the Tales series, the third that’s a direct sequel, and another worth entry from Bandai Namco Studios. Picking up a year after the events of Tales of Xillia, we are placed in the shoes of the tragically named Ludger Kresnik. Ludger’s first day at work ends up being far more eventful than most people’s. Ending up on a hijacked train with a young girl in search of a way to a mystical land to reunite with her father. He’s soon pulled into a journey to save the world, alternate dimensions that are trying to consume his thanks to the events of the first game and a test of humanity’s worthiness for continued existence. You know, usual RPG stuff.

Decisions, decisions. I usually strive to be an asshole.

Decisions, decisions. I usually strive to be an asshole.

    While the story is not really fresh, it’s the basic plot of almost every RPG ever conceived, it shines in the same way all the other entries have shined. These are world you are going to want to save, populated with characters whose company it is a joy to spend time in. Which is great news because Tales of Xillia 2 is dialog heavy. Optional scenes pop up constantly to advance the plot or character dynamics. While Ludger himself is a bit of a blank, the returning characters are all a lot of fun, their easy banter and compelling relationships are a breath of fresh air in a genre dominated by heavy handed but thoughtless meditations on how awful everything is or lascivious soliloquies about tender flesh. The voice cast is functional and neither a plus or negative. They do their jobs competently enough and besides one character aren’t gratingly annoying on purpose because some drunk producer thinks it’s what people want in a Japanese title.

    Tragically the pacing of events is often ground to a halt with the grind heavy debt mechanic which restricts your travels. For every step forward you have to slaughter madly in every available field to scrimp enough cash to open new areas. It’s just padding to a title that’s already overloaded with story and side quests. There is nothing more aggravating than having to stop everything to grind your way to one hundred thousand that you will never be able to spend. It’s unnecessary, a glaring exception to the exceptional design that’s showcased at every other turn and will turn off a lot of gamers out there.

He slices, he dices! He also shoots and smashes.

He slices, he dices! He also shoots and smashes.

    Gameplay has changed little from earlier Tales titles. On the map screen touching an enemy avatar will draw you into a fight. Three other party members will join Ludger in the fight. Basic attacks vary depending on selected weapon and position of analog stick with the attack button. Special artes attacks also change depending on the analog stick entry. Partnering with different characters give you access to cooperate attacks. The number of attacks and artes is limited by the action counter which refills when you stop attacking. This is the same system that’s been in place since the first game… and it’s still incredibly fun. The fights are fast paced and always entertaining. Even when grinding there are enough variables that it never feels boring. The system is deep enough for the most meticulous of players and also accessible enough that button mashers can enjoy it too. It’s a classic case of don’t fix what isn’t broken. It’s not broken and could probably stay fun for many more titles to come.

    Great characters, fun gameplay, an absolute ton of content. There’s more than enough here to easily recommend Tales of Xillia 2 to anyone. No, it’s not perfect but what is? If you want a good RPG that will happily carry you to it’s conclusion without needing to grind through 10 hours just for something to happen or without desperate pretenses of MEANING! you could do a whole lot worse.

Fast travel maps are the best thing since the advent of the bread deslicer.

Fast travel maps are the best thing since the advent of the bread deslicer.

Tales of Xillia 2- 9/10- A great time that will sate any RPG fan’s craving for an adventure.

Battlefield Hardline

Watch out! We got a real bad ass here! A bad ass with a badge! For the first couple episodes anyway.

Watch out! We got a real bad ass here! A bad ass with a badge! For the first couple episodes anyway.

    EA moved Battlefield’s original developer DICE to head up their newly acquired Disney Star Wars license and crushed the hopes of all horror game fans by moving Visceral, the studio behind the massively popular Dead Space series, over to their signature first person shooter war series. Then Visceral did something really interesting. They took the action from the military and focused it on the City of Miami’s police department and moved the spotlight from online multiplayer to the often overlooked in the genre single player campaign. It’s such a daring departure in an industry where every shooter is almost mandated to follow in Call of Duty’s footsteps and an interesting set up that could lead to some real points about modern real world issues. It’s so incredibly disappointing that it doesn’t really work and lets so many opportunities slip by.

    Detective Nick Mendoza joins the Miami Vice Squad and is immediately thrown into a brewing turf war, a conspiracy of crooked cops and a new cheap liquid cocaine called Hot Shot that has started to flood the streets. With a wink and a joke about Miami Vice, Hardline skirts any modern real world issues and statements on the military-police-industrial complex, not even stopping to comment on how all the game marks everyone in the low income housing complex you are illegally stalking through is labeled a criminal, for easy and empty prattle about the war on drugs.

    The cast is full of veteran television and film actors who all give fine performances with what they’re given. They all turn their blandly written cutouts into characters that spending some time with isn’t incredibly frustrating. It is just too bad that the writers couldn’t give them something more to work with. There is no character development and little tension despite the stock story having plenty of setups to have them. It ultimately feels more like a network series that has pretensions of being gritty progressive crime drama but doesn’t want to offend or challenge anyone who might tune in to a primetime slot. It’s frustrating to see the potential being within easy reach but realizing that no one involved was every going to even make the attempt.
Visceral’s best design choice is the television series being streamed on Netflix setup. Every episode has a nice rhythm to it, an introduction scene to advance the narrative followed by some action set pieces that build to a small episode payoff before dumping you into a Netflix inspired screen with a window running your score and stats for the episode where the credits would be and a Next Episode countdown window. It’s a nice gimmick and gives some nice entry/exit points for the player.

    The combat mechanics are taken directly out of the last installment and there’s nothing wrong with that. Shooting is solid and the controls are responsive. It’s not all wash rinse repeat from Battlefield 4 though. Gameplay has some nice new additions to it. The new stealth mechanics to lure enemies into easier to control situations or use non-lethal takedowns. Being a police you can flash your badge at up to three enemies for them effectively stunning them. It’s nice that Miami gangs are so easily intimidated by someone saying “Freeze”. It works so well, and rewards you with so many more experience points, that you can get through the most situations without ever firing a shot. It’s so effective that the fairly deep weapon selection and modifications, which are unlocked with experience level ups, feel pretty useless. Why bother tinkering with your loadout if you can easily stun everyone with a little patience? It’s all made that much easier because the AI is painfully stupid. Your partner will sometimes just openly stand there, gun drawn, looking off to some spot in the distance… but that’s ok because the enemies will walk right past without registering the slightest thing a miss with such a heavily armed statue.

    Of course since it’s a shooter there is a large variety of online modes. Staying within the new theming, the massive maps of previous entries are left in favor of more up close and personal room by room encounters. Instead of whole cities being destroyed in a hail of tank volleys, it’s chunks of drywall raining down as you shred the enemy’s urban focused cover.  New modes with a cops and robbers focus include Heist, with a squad of police defending a vault from a squad of criminals who must break in, clean out the vault and escape. Battlefield’s flagship Conquest mode has been retooled into Hotwire with ground territory being replaced with stolen cars. It’s all passable but the gimmick wears quickly and none of the modes offer anything really special or dynamic enough to keep players coming back for hours on end.

    Battlefield Hardline is an ok game. It’s standard and basic and doesn’t try to be anything else. If you’re looking for an average shooter to fill your time, it’s exactly what you are looking for. If you want an interesting narrative that tackles some modern issues, you should look at something else. Hardline puts it’s fingers in it’s ears and tunes out anything that could be considered questionable or difficult subject matter. Maybe the promised sequel will have a little more guts and a little less head in the sand but somehow I doubt it. Not worth full admission price but very few FPS are.

Battlefield Hardline- 5/10- Passable shooter that will fill your time until the next passable shooter that will fill your time until the next passable shooter…


Lego Batman 3 Beyond Gotham

    Nothing can stop Lego. They’ve been slowly checking off a list of new areas to dominate and keep succeeding. One of the first areas they broke ground in with their march toward total global domination was gaming. After a few years of mediocre titles based on their original properties a light bulb went off above some corporate drone’s head to start making games based on the giant catalog of licenses they held. In 2001 they released Lego Creator: Harry Potter and took a fumbling step toward the path. Turning to UK developer Traveller’s Tales for 2005’s Lego Star Wars The Video Game they’d finally found the tongue in cheek humor style and action puzzle approach that would deliver blockbuster (get it? What? I thought it was funny) after blockbuster.

    Lego Batman 3 does exactly what it promises. It goes beyond Gotham. Far far beyond the city limits. This is a Batman game in name only. After an introductory level with the Dynamic Duo we step out to the vast reaches of the DC Universe. The Caped Crusader joins with almost every group the designers could think of, including a cadre of rogues including Lex Luthor and Joker, to stop Brainiac from shrinking the Earth for his planet collection.

    Beyond Gotham is easily some of Traveller’s Tales best work. The plot holds together well. The dialog is snappy, the one-liners are fairly fresh and the slapstick works consistently. All of these are firsts for the series which has always before depended on gameplay alone. The voice cast does a fantastic job for the most part. Unfortunately this time around we also have several CELEBRITY GUESTS! crammed in to poor effect. Conan O’Brien’s narration in hub areas isn’t just plainly unfunny… it’s incessant. His voice spewing the same handful of lines over and over again makes exploring every nook and cranny almost impossible. Kevin Smith’s appearance adds nothing, is terribly done and should have been cut out in the early planning stages. But then there’s Adam West… apparently Lego Adam West has a habit of getting himself in some bad situations wherever he goes. His voice crying out in comical terror is a fantastic cameo.

    The music is complementary and fits it’s place almost perfectly. Of course that doesn’t stop TT from playing with some familiar themes. Reaching back into the histories of DC’s biggest characters expect to hear TV themes or dramatic theatrical strings. Even when it’s repeated it doesn’t fail to at least bring the flicker of a smile.

    The levels all look great and there’s some undeniable attraction stepping into almost every single major location in the DCU. From the Batcave to the Watchtower to the Fortress of Solitude to all the various Lantern worlds. Seriously… when did there get to be so many different Corps? Sadly this little real variety despite the incredible number of levels. When a level does deviate from the norm, it’s a welcome change of pace. If only there were more of them. Even if they start to feel fairly similar early on there’s still plenty to do in them all. Being able to explore almost every pixel of each location, there’s an overwhelming number of unlockable characters (over 150), collectables and eye popping scenery. That’s not even starting on the bonus levels. Which are undoubtedly fun but really begin to push the limits of a title like this. Is simply an overwhelmingly massive game to begin with that stuffing in mini games, that probably would have been better suited being in the main game itself, just starts to feel like overload.

    Gameplay itself has changed little since the first Lego franchise title. It’s serviceable but there’s something that have needed to be fixed for a long time. Not a deal breaker by any means. Two player couch co-op is still the best way to enjoy it. While adults can get a lot of enjoyment from it… it’s even better when you have a youthful ward in the as the other player. It’s Lego, it’s definitely aimed at kids. The puzzles are never too difficult for children, and if they do get stuck TT knows well enough to just spell it out after a little while. The massive scale can only be completed by someone who doesn’t mind endless repetition like a kid or someone who is so in love with DC that they are compelled. I just can’t see anyone pushing for 100% for any other reason.

    Lego Batman 3: Beyond Gotham delivers what it promises. A lot of Lego, a lot beyond Gotham. An enjoyably giant game that is both the pinnacle of the Lego series but also starting to show signs of it’s age.


Lego Batman 3: Beyond Gotham- 7/10


Falling Skies

Load screen!  You see this A LOT. But it's the only way I could identify the featured characters.

Load screen! You see this A LOT. But it’s the only way I could identify the featured characters.

    TNT’s Steven Spielberg produced summer sci-fi series released it’s first licensed game with a whisper. Little promotion to make series fans aware of it’s existence is usually one of the signs that something is an especially terrible licensed game. It’s well known that most licensed franchise titles aren’t worth bothering with, too often they are quickly made cash grabs that are just repainted versions of better games. Falling Skies doesn’t break that trend but it does succeed in it being a competent copy.

    Most of Earth’s population is dead. Evil Aliens have all but taken over. They take human children and turn them into alien foot soldiers. There’s a small resistance group whose helped by Good Aliens. The game assumes that you’re already familiar with the series in a way that no other recap is needed… since I’m not familiar with it at all I can only assume that the evil aliens are really some odd anti-adoption metaphor. Maybe I’m wrong.

    The voice cast is blandly forgettable. Even the series characters are all blanks giving flat “My contract demands that I do this” line readings. Not that the script is anything to write home about. The dialog is oddly stilted and unless you know the series intimately nothing that happens in the cutscenes will matter to you in the slightest.

Cover, shoot, cover, shoot.

Cover, shoot, cover, shoot.

    Falling Skies is graphically dated. It looks like a game from the PS2/Xbox era. While having the team members be generic random features for a game like this, as they’re all just disposable designed to follow orders and die in the field without any impact to the overall story. This isn’t acceptable for the featured characters. They all have featureless portrait images. The only way I knew what any of them were actually supposed to look like is because of the tv series promo still that’s used for load screens.

    Gameplay is perfectly passable for a strategy title. You have a squad made up of a variety of character types who level up with successful mission completions. Movement and fighting are turn based on a gridded map. Enemies aren’t visible until line of sight is acquired. They don’t do anything until seen. You could kill several waves of enemies and one standing two squares won’t even bother moving until you take those two steps. Enemy AI is almost nonexistant. They just rush player, melee and back off to cover, repeat. Every enemy type. Every stage. Unlike it’s inspiration, XCOM, there’s no challenge. There’s no ambushes lying in wait, there’s no need to ever bother with a strategy and your squad is never really in danger most of the time.

    Falling Skies is just for fans of the series, it’s impossible to recommend beyond that. No one else should even give it a first glance. Everyone else should just go play XCOM. Really… go play XCOM.

Ooooooohhhhhh.... MAP SQUARES!

Ooooooohhhhhh…. MAP SQUARES!

Falling Skies: The Video Game- 4/10- A better licensed title but not worth your time or money

Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark

Because it's too ugly to look at again, even just to add images... here's the best thing from the game. EPIC COVER ART! HELLZ YES!

Because it’s too ugly to look at again, even just to add images… here’s the best thing from the game. EPIC COVER ART! HELLZ YES!

   Transformers has been fairly fortunate with it’s franchise tie-in games over the past few years. The series was developed by High Moon Studios, for Activision, with more care and effort than is usually placed in cash grab titles. That’s not to say they’ve been perfect or great or even must plays but they’ve been good enough to pass a couple of hours with. Even the obviously rushed Dark of the Moon had good things at it’s core. Which lead to what happens to all good developers owned by Activision. High Moon was “promoted” out of the trenches and on to the team that fiddles with the all mighty CALL OF DUTY! series. Pity that. Edge of Reality, a studio that’s been around since the around since the late 90s, takes the wheel for this entry.

    A purple meteor crashes on Earth within it’s rocky crevices lies the Dark Spark, the antehisis of the Autobot’s Matrix of Leadership. Where the Matrix grants a debatable amount of wisdom, the Dark Spark allows it’s owner to bend the universe to it’s will. Yeah. It does seem a little bit lopsided in power, even more with all the tedious dialog about equal and opposite balance blah blah blah. Of course, the Autobots fail to recover the nasty little plug and play peripheral and the hunt for the Decepticon who has taken it is on. Because this is a Transformers title we then flip once again to Cybertron, the robot homeworld, where once again it’s the Autobot’s DARKEST HOUR and once again the Decepticons are about to win the ancient war for control. We take the Decepticon’s side as they search the battle scarred metal planet in search for the… all together now… Dark Spark! Why they’re bothering with this waste of time and resources when victory is pretty much assured is never really explained in anyway that makes sense.

    The script is awful. These are long established characters, they have personalities that are recognizable beyond what’s presented here. All of the Autobots are flatly heroic and all the Decepticons are bumbling fools. That might not really get across how incompetent they are. It makes you marvel that they could ever succeed at anything. The awkward slapstick is unending and desperately forced in like an afterthought. Maybe in a  panic to salvage something here? Either works.
The voice cast is anchored by Peter Cullen being supported by a who’s who of voice actors. They do their best with what they’re given but none of them can do much with it. The musical score might cause ear bleeding. Short but obnoxiously “epic” orchestral tracks are feed through a cheap Do-It-Yourself-Home-Techno-Party program. Then it’s looped endlessly at a volume level that’s sure to make the dog next door howl but fortunately drowns out some of the worst dialog.
Level designs are boring. Alternating between destroyed Earth city and identical ancient outer space catacombs it all doesn’t just look the same ingame, it looks just like a million other titles. Specifically it’s all poor copies of a couple of environments from High Moon’s last entry in the series. The visual copies don’t stop just at the level looks but it extends to all the weapons, all the enemies and everything. Of course the environments can be forgiven if the gunfights and transformed segments are good. I mean, what else do you really need in a Transformers game? The fights in High Moon’s series were solid so if they’re lifting stuff they’ve just taken them, right?

    Wrong. The fights lack any need to really engage. Wave after wave of enemies who all react the same way. Who mindlessly repeat the same patterns with the occasional incomprehensible dodge move thrown in just to annoy the player. The only redeeming feature in them is the large armory at your disposal. Of course all of that was lifted out of High Moon’s efforts.
So gunfights aren’t so great. What about vehicle combat, you ask hopefully, that gleam that seems to appear whenever a beloved childhood favorite makes a new appearance. The same gleam that leads you to go to every film adaptation and drag the little ones along, the gleam that whispers to you in the dark just how great the coming Masters of the Universe movie is going to be. Well, you can just turn that off right now. Vehicle play is even worse. All the vehicles feel slow. There are even two boost buttons at your command and you still never get any feeling of speed or change in tempo. Flying robots should always be awesome but instead they’re more of a chore, lacking anything to help you navigate they end up being a tedious game of hide and seek. Ground vehicles lumber along without power steering through sets that never give them a chance to be used as anything more than a “Well… it’s Transformers so we should probably have them, you know, transform.”


    Activision… please give the franchise back to High Moon. They will eventually make that truly great Transformers title that folks want in their heart of hearts. It’s never going to happen with Edge of Reality or the dozen other B and C teams you have on the bench. Learn a lesson for once. Good studios you own can work on more than just CALL OF DUTY!!!. Really they can.

Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark- 3/10- All the points are for the voice cast. Just don’t bother.

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel!

Go ahead... make my day... Anybody? Hello?!?!!

Go ahead… make my day… Anybody? Hello?!?!!

    Gearbox’s Borderlands series has been a real highlight of this past console generation. Massive piles of bullets spewed from a near endless variety of gun, enough character customization to make your eyes glaze over, all tied up with some of the best dialog and funniest characters to grace our screens with their batshit crazy. Ok, sure, the plots were loose and not as cohesive as they could have been but who needs that when you have a giant brightly colored world to slaughter your way through? To keep the franchise in view and still let them get some other projects finally attended to Gearbox has handed the reins over to 2K Australia for The Pre-Sequel! and Telltale for the currently running episodic Tales from the Borderlands series. 2K Australia does a perfectly passable job with their entry.

    Taking the spotlight this time around is Borderlands 2’s exuberantly sadistic villain, Handsome Jack, to give a better focus on his how and why. Hyperion’s still under construction space station, Helios, is attacked by The Lost Legion just as four new playable Vault Hunters, all returning NPCs from previous games, arrive. With Helios temporarily taken, the Vault Hunters make a break to Elpis, the moon orbiting Borderland’s usual location of Pandora, to regroup and get themselves a robot army.

    Once again we can take our pick from four Vault Hunters. Athena the Gladiator, a former assassin for Atlus Corporation, who appeared in the original title’s The Secret Armory of General Knoxx DLC. Her primary skill is a temporary shield that absorbs damage, be thrown Captain America style and can reflect elemental damage back at enemies. Nisha the Lawbringer, an Old West style bandit who kills bandits, who originally appeared in Borderlands 2 as Jack’s girlfriend and the Sheriff of Lynchwood. Her main skill is The Showdown, which slows time while improving gun damage, speed and allows for snap targeting. Wilhelm the Enforcer, the cybernetics addicted second boss from Borderlands 2. He’s this entry’s turret character but is a drone and as the game progresses he gets modifications that make he creeps toward the monstrosity he was the first time we shot him in the face. Finally, but certainly not least of all, is Claptrap the Fragtrap, the series mascot and fan favorite character finally is under your control. VaultHunter.exe skill generates random effects that can help or hurt you and your party, many of them are based on skills from the player characters from the earlier games. Claptrap is the only choice that actually plays in a new style. I know you were either sold on that choice already or rolling your eyes in disgust at his return but I want to assure you it’s great fun… if you’re playing with a group… for a second run-through… maybe a third.

    While the humor isn’t as biting or as, well, laugh out loud while peeing yourself funny as 2, it still works for the most part. The player characters are all given expanded roles with more dialog and variations depending on which you are playing as. It’s a nice touch that was oddly missing in the earlier titles. That 2K Australia embraced the Aussiness of their team actually goes a long way to make this title worth a play. Instead of only catering to American and European players they sell the accents and Australian cultural references up thick, quick and don’t ever feel the need to have to explain them… because fuck you if you don’t get it. Sorry, it’s Australian, so I mean “because ***k ya gob sh****t if ya don’t get it”. While the old gang almost all of the old characters from the original Borderlands game returns in some capacity with cameos from all of the more popular NPCs from 2, most of the new NPCs just don’t leave that much of an impression.



    Since half of the action takes place on Elpis, don’t expect the lush environments of the earlier games. While Elpis itself looks great, the moon above Pandora doesn’t offer much in the way of location variety. It’s all very grey and rocky or grey and spaceship like. Time spent on Helios makes up for this some, with everything from a grassy area where they’re breeding Nightstalkers to the cold vacuum of space. It’s not just the environments that start to take on a look of “Haven’t I seen this already?!?!?!” so do the enemies. While the previous titles had a breathtaking number of enemies, even if many were just variations on themes, The Pre-Sequel has a very limited number of even variations. I’d estimate there’s only three of four variations of each type of enemy and unlike previously they don’t all come in smaller versions.

    Elpis does offer some new things though. Low gravity which allows for slow leaps, double jumps and ass slams that will stun nearby enemies.   The new jumping setup allows for some good traversal and environmental puzzles to get from point A to point B. Since there’s little atmosphere on the moon, you equip yourself with an “Oz kit” to breath and maneuver. While double jumping or just exploring uses O2 there’s enough ways to replenish and there are more than enough spots on every map to do it that I never felt rushed or worried by it. Unfortunately you also move slower on the moon so in the early hours that long trek back to whoever gave you the quest you just finished can feel even longer… so fucking long…

    Also new to the series is a laser rifles weapon class. These come in the largest variety of any weapon. Available in models with various shotgun like spreads or single shots or even continuous beams of searing death. They’re a lot of fun to play with and are the most welcome addition from Elpis.

That map isn't that big... how do I keep getting lost?

That map isn’t that big… how do I keep getting lost?

    Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is just more Borderlands. Which is a good thing. While it never really makes it it’s own thing, it’s a fine addition to the series that will tide over fans for a while. Not a must play and not a must skip. It’s an ok entry but a disappointing final entry in the last console generation’s best new franchise.

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel- 7/10- Not a bad entry to the series but doesn’t ever become it’s own thing, to forever stand in the shadow of Borderlands 2.

Alien Isolation

THE FUTURE! (circa 1980)

THE FUTURE! (circa 1980)

   The Alien franchise has a rocky history outside of the movie theater. Game developers usually go to James Cameron’s 1986 Aliens for inspirational sourcing and go full tilt invincible space marine shoot the acid blooding bastards in the face power fantasy. Ridley Scott’s original 1979 film has stood apart from the mayhem. Maybe devs are too reverent of it. Maybe those behind the previous games didn’t know how to approach Scott’s weak human prey vs unstoppable stealth killing machine in a way that would make the experience worthwhile for their audience. There’s no easy hook to swing a power fantasy from, there’s no affirmation that you are the biggest badass in the immediate galactic region. Alien has always been about terror, claustrophobia and waiting for death around the next turn in the ventilation shaft.

    Many big gun developers have take runs at the franchise. Fox Video Games took the first swing at an Alien title in 1982 for the Atari 2600, making it a Pac-Man clone. In 1984 UK companies Amsoft and Argus Press Software teamed up to deliver an early and brilliant strategy title for Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum that is tragically overlooked. Aliens launched into theaters with a couple tie-in games attached to it. These would forge the basic concept of every game in the franchise from here on out. Shoot  Xenomorphs, Win! All the way up to 2012’s massively disappointing, but undeniably ambitious, Gearbox effort Colonial Marines.

    So what could we possibly expect from Alien Isolation. First, notice there is no “s” on the Alien there. Developer The Creative Assembly. best known for the Total War strategy series, boldly goes back the the first film for inspiration. They capture the low-fi esthetic of late 70s sci-fi perfectly and give a world that ol Ridley should be proud of.

It's coming to get you, Amanda... it's coming to get you.

It’s coming to get you, Amanda… it’s coming to get you.

    Taking place in the 57 years between the loss of the Nostromo at the end of Alien and before the Marines are sent to LV-426 to investigate what’s happening. We are placed in the shoes of Alien film heroine Ellen Ripley’s daughter, Amanda Ripley. Amanda has been taking all the jobs available out in the area of space where The Company, Weyland-Yutani, think her mother’s ship went missing. Eventually she is told that the flight recorder from her mother’s fateful last trip has been recovered on Sevastopol Station, a remote space station owned by the Seegson Corporation, orbiting a gas giant. Amanda jumps at the opportunity to be a part of the team going to retrieve the recorder, unfortunately they’re not the only new visitors to this cold and mostly forgotten outpost.

    Alien Isolation looks amazing. The look and feel is consistent and lifted perfectly from the 1979 film. Creative Assembly makes Sevastopol Station a wonderful environment to explore. Using it’s age and soon to be decommissioned rotting nature to great effect for player navigation and environmental puzzles. The station tells its own story separate from that of ultimate predator stalking poor orphan girl, it’s an interesting layer places just under the main action. Making Alien Isolation a first person horror game was a fantastic move, it makes everything feel that much more immediate. There’s no way to cheat the camera around a corner and it makes the environment that much more threatening.

The motion tracker is your best friend... of course that's assuming that things are, you know, moving.

The motion tracker is your best friend… of course that’s assuming that things are, you know, moving.

    Character models are all solid. They move in ways that are naturalistic for the character. Humans move fairly smoothly, WY synthetics slightly more stiffly, Seegson’s synthetics robotically. It’s nice to see this kind of detail given proper attention. The Xenomorph moves unlike anything else. Also the variations in AI for each of the different character types in welcome. It slides to accommodate that specific character in that specific room. Though, just like movement, there is more attention given to the Alien’s. It’s a smart, fast, insistent and determined predator. It’s a foe that you’ve never encountered before.

    Not up to the rest of the game though is the poor voice acting for the new characters. Far too many of them are simply bland and lifeless. It’s an even more glaring issue as you progress and find voice records left by the crew of The Nostromo with the majority of the original film’s cast returning, the sole exception being John Hurt and his character, Kane. They all give solid performances to characters they brought to life over 30 years ago without missing a step. The old cast bring their A game and remind us that it was a film stuffed with talent in front of the camera just as much as behind it.

    Alien Isolation isn’t just the best horror title this year, it’s not just the best science fiction game. It’s not just the best first person game this year. It’s easily a runner for the best game this year full stop. Get it. No excuses.

Alien Isolation- 9.5/10 Not perfect but close. The best game in the Alien franchise by a wide margin and one of the best experiences in gaming this year.


Sherlock Holmes Crimes and Punishments

Holmes! Incredible! How could you tell she was a victim of domestic abuse?

Holmes! Incredible! How could you tell she was a victim of domestic abuse?

    Independent Ukrainian and Irish development studio, Frogwares, tenth Adventures of Sherlock Holmes adventure in twelve years is going to be tragically overlooked. Starting with Sherlock Holmes: Mystery of the Mummy in 2002 Frogwares have continually shown a strong understanding of Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal sleuth. The series gets stronger with each title and even that is a rarity in modern gaming. While no one could ever accuse any of the entries to be perfect, the series stands against giving into trends and showing that the point and click adventure genre still has life and ways to grow.

    Forgoing their usual set up of one large case per title, Crimes and Punishments is an anthology of six short unconnected cases. It’s the closest to cracking open a volume of the canon and a celebration of the source material. The first case is an adaption of Doyle’s The Adventure of Black Peter. Holmes doesn’t just solve a murders this time around, there are also thefts and disappearances and catacomb or two. The cases range from mundane to brilliantly planned. Each case clocks in between one and two hours to complete and takes advantage of the short nature to take on a wide range of topics and trapping, from Ancient Roman ruins to domestic violence.

    The voice cast is, as to be expected, a mixed bag. While Sherlock’s voice is great and Watson’s voice is fine, many of the bit players sound a bit too “We picked them up walking out of an amatur production of Shakespear rehersal”. None are deal breakers but they can take a moment to accept.

Watson's Creepy Factor was toned down a bit as well.

Watson’s Creepy Factor was toned down a bit as well.

The character models are also mixed. Holmes’ model looks fantastic, and again distinctly inspired by Jeremy Brett’s decade long run in the role. Lestrade and every other single case character look rushed and fairly generic. All the environments are nicely detailed and feel authentic enough. 221 B Baker Street looks like the one Brett’s Holmes occupied, though far messier and cramped, and simply feels right. Unfortunately there are a fair number of graphic glitches, the characters occasionally slightly ghost and the video clips.
The game allows for both third and first person view. On occasion you’ll find yourself switching between them as it’s simply impossible to get the camera to highlight some examinables in the environment. It’s annoying but a minor quibble.

    Gameplay is your usual point and click style. Holmes parades around the environment collecting clues that will form impressions you must connect that will allow you to finally form a conclusion and make an accusation or absolve the culprit. Holmes gets a Batman Arkham series detective mode to highlight things that would otherwise be overlooked and can in, some situations, reconstruct in his imagination what happened from found clues. Holmes can size up a character with an interactive spin around the model. Suspect interrogation which is little more than playing out the dialog tree with the occasional interjection that can be thrown in if you have a contrary piece of information. Found items can be brought back to Baker Street for analysis. There are several mini games tossed in but none are all that interesting or very fun. Though the experience of finding clues, thinking out how they fit, the freedom to draw your own conclusion and the moral choice dilemmas at the end of each chapter easily balance out the awkward minigames.

221 B Baker Street... Home of a master detective or just your common type of hoarder?

221 B Baker Street… Home of a master detective or just your common type of hoarder?

    Crimes and Punishments has one fantastic new element and a couple of tragic problems. Load times are simply too long and too often. Going to a location and waiting through the 30 second screen of Holmes reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment is fine, except often there’s another 15 seconds of black screen loading once that’s finish and there’s a noticeable load pause whenever Holmes interacts with anything. The puzzles are simply too easy and simple. Holmes’ cases really should be a bit more challenging in all honesty. Sherlock Holmes Crimes and Punishments does bring one fantastic new element to the genre. It allows you to be wrong. Incredibly wrong. That alone makes the trip worth taking. You can be wrong and that is such a great breath of fresh air in the medium that I can’t overemphasize how great that is.

    As you’ve probably guessed… I’m an unabashed fan of this series and I love the genre as a whole. I still often lament how there’s so few of these making it to consoles and how no major publisher even bothers with them but have no problems regurgitating identical shooters on the market every year. No, it’s definitely not for everyone but for those who enjoyed the previous entries, fans of either current TV updating of the great detective, those who took a chance on the disappointing Murdered Soul Suspect earlier this year or those just looking for something different I highly recommend Sherlock Holmes Crimes and Punishments and eagerly await Frogwares’ next entry in this stand out series. It’s simply one of the best experiences I’ve had in gaming this year.

Sherlock Holmes Crimes and Punishments- 8/10