Video Game Review: Defiance [Xbox 360]

Defiance [Xbox 360]

Defiance
System: Xbox 360 (also on PS3 and PC)
Genre: Third-person shooter, action RPG
Developer: Trion Worlds, Human Head Studios
Publisher: Trion Worlds
Release Date: April 2, 2013

Defiance is nothing if not ambitious. The latest effort from Trion Worlds (creators of the popular MMORPG, Rift) is a third-person shooter set in a large MMO world, with the caveat of being a tie-in for the Syfy show of the same name. Defiance also has the distinction of being a rare MMO on the home console market.

I have to admit I am a novice when it comes to massively multiplayer online games, but Defiance‘s Borderlands-esque gameplay had me intrigued from day one.

Much like Borderlands, the core of the game revolves around shooting and looting. There are five chapters of main storyline missions, a handful of missions based on episodes of the TV show, and countless side quests. There is certainly no shortage of things to do.

Defiance [Xbox 360, 2013]

While exploring the in-game world, you will frequently come across others playing at the same time. While most people seem to be doing their own thing, occasionally you will see someone working on the same mission as you, allowing you to team up and work together. These types of encounters are when Defiance is at its best — it’s an especially great feeling to receive unexpected backup during a tense situation.

This is also an excellent game to play with friends. There are five co-op specific missions available, and main story quests can easily be started together as well (aside from a select few that are solo-only).

At the same time, if you prefer to go the solo route, the game can still be a blast. In fact, in many ways, Defiance feels like a single player game in an MMO environment. This is both a blessing and a curse. It’s nice to be able to do what you want without having to worry about others, but it’s also difficult to communicate with strangers online when you might want to. The in-game chat system is a disaster, as the only way to really talk to anyone else is by using the Xbox party chat function. There are a handful of default sayings and emotions that can be used, but these are laughable at best. Just being able to voice chat with others in the surrounding area would be a huge addition to the game.

On the plus side, anyone who has played a third person shooter will feel right at home with the controls. The game is easy to pick up and play, and combat is fine-tuned. There are a wide variety of guns to choose from, including traditional weapons like assault rifles and rocket launchers, as well as those infused with alien technology. Weapon types can be mastered over time, and the more you use them, the more XP you get.

Defiance [Xbox 360]

Now, even though there are quite a few weapons available, the game has a bizarre looting system. It’s quite possible to find a decent gun at the beginning of the game and just keep it for the rest of your playing time. Loot is plentiful, but it’s difficult to find a weapon that is significantly better than what you may already have. There are various forms of each weapon (ranging from white “common” types to the ultra-rare oranges), but each upgrade only slightly tweaks the overall gun performance. For a game that prides itself on looting, it’s disappointing that there is rarely anything useful to be found. It is rumored that Trion is performing a complete overhaul of the weapons system, however, so this may no longer be an issue at some point.

Defiance is constantly being patched, so the game is always worth keeping an eye on, even if you haven’t played in a while. A recent upgrade finally allowed for the release of more hard-to-find weapons, a much-welcomed feature. Most patches just fix bugs and glitches — of which there are many (more on that later) — but occasionally Trion will make some major changes. While it’s fantastic that the game is still being updated months after its release, it can get frustrating to try to play the game, only to find a number of patches being forced to download first. By the way, on your first time playing Defiance, brace yourself for a lengthy download of mandatory patches (I’m talking well over an hour, regardless of speed).

The in-game world is a post-apocalyptic wasteland, but there are always random events happening. At any given point in time, there is at least one Arkfall taking place. These events are where you will meet the most gamers. Arkfalls happen when massive chunks of alien ships fall from the sky, causing enemy scavengers and ark hunters (players) alike to fight over the wreckage. Successfully clearing out an Arkfall will net significant XP and loot.

Defiance [Xbox 360]

Aside from these random events, the wasteland setting is actually rather decrepid. There aren’t many memorable areas, aside from perhaps the ruined Golden Gate Bridge. It doesn’t help that the game is ugly — it could probably pass for an original Xbox title. A major sacrifice was clearly made in terms of the game’s visuals, and there are constant issues with graphical draw-in, disappearing objects and the like. This didn’t bother me too much, and in fact, some of the glitches are quite amusing, but it’s worth noting for those who prefer slick-looking titles.

What’s amazing is that even while Defiance has so many bugs and annoying issues, I still find myself coming back to the game. In fact, according to my Raptr profile, this is my most-played video game from the past year. The core gameplay, although repetitive, can be insanely addictive, and it’s a blast to play through the game with a friend. I love being able to earn XP in a variety of ways, and there are just enough tweaks and settings to keep the game fresh.

The suggested retail price of Defiance has dropped to just $9.99, and at that price, there is really no reason to take a flyer on the game, especially if you are a fan of third-person shooters. While it is by no means a perfect game, it’s still a fun adventure that serves as one of this year’s more underrated titles.

8/10

Video Game Review: Gears of War: Judgment [Xbox 360]

Gears of War: Judgment [Xbox 360]

Gears of War: Judgment
System: Xbox 360
Genre: Third-person Shooter
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Developer: Epic Games, People Can Fly
Release Date: March 19, 2013

No matter what happens to the Gears of War series in the future, Judgment is always going to be an outlier of sorts. After Epic Games released the fantastic conclusion to its trilogy in 2011, it seemed the book had been shut on the series, at least until the next console generation. Since the sequels were released with 2-3 year gaps in between, it came as a bit of a surprise that a fourth entry was to be released just over a year after the last.

Gears of War: Judgment is a prequel that takes place 15 years before the original trilogy, so it basically has free reign to try out some new ideas. Some work, some don’t.

This time around the campaign has been reduced to a series of brief, arcade-style missions, and most of them can be completed in a matter of minutes. The main emphasis is on getting a high score and acquiring ribbons based on how well you are playing. Each mission has a 3-star system, and the more kills you get, the faster the stars fill up. All of this is tied into an overarching XP system that lets you level up and customize your selected character.

Within each mission is an option called Declassification, and their purpose is to provide an extra challenge by changing the environment settings, restricting you to a certain weapon loadout, increasing the amount of enemies, and so on. By accepting this option, the stars fill up faster, and you can gain more XP. Some of these tweaks are interesting, but I never found it too difficult to get three stars without accepting these bonuses.

Gears of War: Judgment [Xbox 360, 2013]

There is also an extra chapter set during the Gears 3 timeline that offers the traditional series gameplay. While this add-on can be finished in an hour or less, it’s nice to at least have that option to play the familiar way.

With such a focus on high scores, the campaign offers little in the way of a well-developed or exciting plot. The four main characters — Baird, Cole, a Russian vet and a female ex-journalist — are on trial for treason, and each chapter of the campaign shows their different recollections of the questioned event. Unfortunately, there are very few, if any, memorable setpieces, and the dialogue is sparse and devoid of any of the trademark goofy humor the series is known for. Those looking for the Gears campaigns of yore will be greatly disappointed.

However, even though the campaign does feel lacking in many ways, I did have a lot of fun with it. The combat system is as smooth as ever, and the 4-player co-op is an absolute blast. It’s easy to drop in and out of other players’ campaigns, and if you get a good group together, it’s one of the better co-op experiences on the 360.

Gears of War: Judgment [Xbox 360]

The competitive multiplayer mode has also received a major overhaul. Gone are old favorites such as Horde, Guardian, Warzone and Wingman. In their place are two new modes — OverRun and Survival — as well as Team Deathmatch, Free-for-All and Domination.

Both OverRun and Survival switch things up a bit by allowing players to select different character classes for both COGs and Locust. COGs have four options: Engineers who can repair fortifications, Medics who can heal squadmates, Soldiers who can provide ammo, and Scouts who can spot enemies from afar. On the Locust side, there are eight types of monsters that can be controlled, ranging from Tickers all the way up to the vicious Corpsers (similar to the Beast mode found in Gears 3).

In OverRun, the COGs and Locust square off in a 5×5 battle with the goal being to either defend or destroy three objectives. This takes place on a very large map, and after every round the objectives are moved to a new location.

Gears of War: Judgment [Xbox 360]

Survival mode is this game’s answer to Horde, as it is basically a stripped-down version (no fortifications) where you are supposed to protect an objective while facing several waves of enemies. It’s an interesting twist on a tried-and-true concept, but it really just made me wish there was also a standard Horde mode.

For those willing to indulge, there is still a lot of depth to multiplayer, even with the lack of familiar modes. I have a feeling some favorites will be released as DLC in the future, but as for now there is still enough substance to satisfy most Gears vets.

I have to give credit to the developer, People Can Fly, for trying something new with Gears of War: Judgment. The weak narrative and arcade-style campaign will bother some, but the bite-size missions are addictive, especially when played co-op. The new multiplayer options are also enjoyable, even if it would have been nice to have at least some of the old favorites ready from the start. While certainly a lesser Gears title, it’s still a good one, and it has me excited to see what the next console generation brings to the series.

7.5/10

Video Game Review: Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath HD [PS Vita]

Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath HD [PS Vita]

Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath HD
System: PS Vita (HD version also on PS3 and PC)
Genre: First-person/third-person action-adventure
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Just Add Water
Release Date: December 18, 2012

Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath HD is an upscaled version of the 2005 Xbox title of the same name. In this, you play as The Stranger, a Clint Eastwood-esque bounty hunter — complete with poncho! — who is looking to raise some cash for a life-saving surgery. In order to get this money, he visits various towns to accept bounty contracts, most of which have high payoffs for bringing back the bounties alive (though they pay well for dead captures, too).

Gameplay consists of both first-person and third-person shooting, and the transition between the two is seamless. Instead of using the L2/R2 buttons (which don’t exist on the Vita), a simple double tap of the front touch screen will move between the two views. The third-person view is critical for advancing between areas, as the Stranger will plop down on all fours and run extremely fast. Switching to the first-person view opens up the gun-play, with standard controls like many other shooters.

Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath HD [PS Vita, 2012]

As this is an Oddworld title, weapons are anything but conventional. The Stranger’s main weapon, the crossbow, can use several different types of ammo, all of which are actually live creatures. Boombats, zap flies and stunkz are just a few of the different types of critters that can be hunted and captured as live ammo, and each one has its own unique characteristic. Some work as rockets, some work as cannon balls, and others are used to stun and knock enemies down. As such, there are enough options to suit multiple styles of play, though most will likely find two or three types that they will want to use exclusively.

The game takes place in a relatively large world full of weird little anthropomorphic characters. Many of the towns are inhabited with chicken-like creatures — their ridiculous voice acting never ceases to amuse me — and they will give you helpful hints if you get stuck. In fact, it’s near impossible to get lost, as pushing the square button will prompt the Stranger to remark on what he’s “gotsta” do next. Another handy Stranger function is the ability to beat his chest in order to heal himself (this is done by pressing the triangle button rapidly). He’s quite a handy little character, and he makes a good central protagonist.

Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath HD [PS Vita, 2012]

Most of the game revolves around finding and acquiring bounties, but just as this becomes repetitious, the story goes in a completely different direction and introduces an all-new set of allies and foes. This is a refreshing twist, even if the final act relies more heavily on shooting than ever before.

For $15, Stranger’s Wrath HD offers a lot of bang for its buck. The campaign can last anywhere from 15-20 hours, and it’s a fun ride throughout. The game is incredibly well-suited for the Vita as well, as it is easy to pick up and play in short bursts, and the HD graphics look pretty damn slick on the OLED screen. If not for the dated CGI cut-scenes, this would blend in perfectly as a brand-new title.

On a system starved for shooting games, Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath HD stands tall. There certainly isn’t anything else like it on the Vita.

8/10

Video Game Review: Dead Space 3 [Xbox 360]

Dead Space 3 [Xbox 360]

Dead Space 3
System: Xbox 360 (also on PS3 and PC)
Genre: Third-person shooter
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Visceral Games
Release Date: February 5, 2013

Despite the emphasis placed on horror in the first Dead Space, the series’ gradual transition to full-blown action gameplay seemed inevitable. After all, in the eyes of corporate big-wigs, gamers don’t want to be scared; they want to blow shit up and dismember aliens, right? As such, even though we all knew Dead Space 3 would focus on action, the change is still startling, and unfortunately disappointing as well.

Set three years after the Sprawl incident of Dead Space 2, the game once again places you in the role of Isaac Clarke, the engineer who has now become quite handy with a gun (and chatty, at that). Isaac is dragged out of his self-made isolation in his rather disgusting apartment on the moon, and he is forced on a mission to help find his ex-girlfriend and her missing team. Once again, he encounters an endless amount of Necromorphs along the way, with the added bonus of also having to fight off Marker-crazed Unitologists (essentially cult soldiers).

Dead Space 3 [Xbox 360]

The plot is basically more of the same from the Dead Space series, but the game does go in an interesting new direction when Isaac arrives on the snowy planet of Tau Volantis. Being able to play in blizzard-like conditions is a nice change of pace, even if these moments are often interrupted with forays into the familiar dark, gloomy interior settings.

Being able to play on an ice planet is fun, but it can’t mask the fact that the campaign is lacking in any major “wow” moments. The first two games were full of such moments — who could ever forget the introduction of the Necromorphs in DS1, or the eye scene in DS2 (not to mention many others)? After finishing DS3, I have had a hard time remembering much of anything. In fact, by about the 2/3 mark during the campaign, the gameplay grew monotonous to the point of me just wanting it to be over with.

The campaign is longer than before — it took me nearly 15 hours to finish it single player with all optional missions completed — but there is little diversity to keep things fresh. This is a major issue, though it is helped somewhat by the addition of a brand new co-op mode.

Dead Space 3 [Xbox 360]

Now, games can be dropped in and out of using the online co-op feature. In this, one player is Isaac, and the other is John Carver, an EarthGov Sergeant. They have separate personalities, and there are a handful of co-op exclusive side missions that can explore these differences more in-depth. Being able to play with a friend makes it a little easier to overlook the shortcomings found in the campaign, though it is somewhat infuriating that part of the content is exclusive to co-op.

There has been quite a bit of controversy regarding another new feature in Dead Space 3 — its weapon crafting system. Instead of only being able to acquire a dozen or so weapons, you now have the ability to make your own guns based on different parts you find throughout the environment. There are a ton of possibilities, and if you put in the necessary time, you can make some pretty badass weapons.

Dead Space 3 [Xbox 360]

The controversy for this feature comes in the form of microtransactions. Basically, EA has given the option for impatient/lazy gamers to spend real money to acquire the materials needed to craft certain weapons. I had no problems whatsoever finding the elements and parts I needed during the course of the campaign, so this feature does not bother me in the slightest. In fact, I don’t see what all the fuss is about. This isn’t something that is forced onto gamers — it’s entirely up to them if they want to dish out any extra cash to change their gameplay experience. Of all the common complaints with DS3, this is the one I don’t get.

And yes, Dead Space 3 does have its fair share of problems, but it is still a competent third-person action game. Fans of the horror aspects of the series will no doubt be disappointed by the reliance on action, but those especially interested in the Dead Space canon will likely still enjoy this. At the very least, the game warrants multiple playthroughs, so there is a good amount of replay value, and it can be fun to kick back with a friend. It’s just a shame that the series has already gone so far away from what made the first two games so great.

7/10

Video Game Review: Spec Ops: The Line [Xbox 360]

Spec Ops: The Line [Xbox 360]

Spec Ops: The Line
System: Xbox 360 (also on PS3 and PC)
Genre: Third-Person Shooter
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: Yager Development / Darkside Game Studios
Release Date: June 26, 2012

Let’s get the inevitable comparisons out of the way. Spec Ops: The Line owes a lot to Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness, and Francis Ford Coppola’s war film, Apocalypse Now, and quite frankly it almost certainly would not exist without either of these.

At its core, Spec Ops is a third-person shooter with the standard cover-based gameplay found often in its genre. Levels generally consist of killing a bunch of enemies, moving to a new area, and then killing some more. However, it’s what happens between these moments of gunfire that separates this from the rest. Morality often comes into play, and the choices are never easy.

Spec Ops: The Line [Xbox 360]

You play as Captain Mike Walker (voiced by Nolan North, aka Nathan Drake from Uncharted), who is sent to Dubai on a reconnaissance mission along with two squadmates. Six months earlier, a cataclysmic sandstorm destroyed the wealthy UAE city, and the ensuing chaos has left the area a veritable no-man’s-land. After discovering a looped radio signal from a U.S. Army Colonel, Walker and his two partners are covertly sent to determine the status of Konrad and anyone else they may come across. Essentially, it’s a get in and get out mission. If only it were that simple.

It doesn’t take long for Walker to decide that they need to *rescue* Konrad, and not just learn his location. This decision leads his team into an onslaught of violence, as they run into a resistance far greater than they could have expected. Along the way, horrifiyng moments present themselves, leaving you as a player to make increasingly more difficult moral decisions. One early choice has you deciding whether to save a handful of innocent civilians or to gamble on saving the life of an agent with precious intel you could really use. There is no right answer here, only “wrong” and “less wrong.”

Spec Ops: The Line [Xbox 360]

There are a number of unforgettable moments during the campaign, all of which tie in with the “war is hell” theme. Other games have showed the atrocities of war, but not like Spec Ops. It’s quite fascinating to watch Walker and his squadmates change over the course of the game. During the early stages, they are joking around and acting like stereotypical soldiers. By the end of the game, they are at each other’s throats, constantly bickering back and forth.

Their mental and physical deterioration becomes even more glaring in the form of the “execution” option. After damaging an enemy enough, they will sometimes fall to the ground and squirm, desperately trying to do something in the last seconds of their lives. Walker has the option of executing them and putting them out of their misery. As the game progresses, Walker’s executions become increasingly violent, as he continues to become more and more desensitized to the brutality of war.

On these terms, Spec Ops offers a lot of depth. This isn’t just some mindless shooter, as its awful TV commercial suggests. This is about a squad’s descent into madness, and it serves as a sort of deconstruction of the entire shooter genre. By the end of the game, you as a player will feel like you have been to hell and back, which is exactly what this is trying to do.

Spec Ops: The Line [Xbox 360]

Spec Ops relies heavily on its themes, and without its polished narrative, it could easily get lost in the shuffle as another third-person shooter. There are noticeable flaws — the controls could be tightened up, the AI is questionable at times, the campaign is relatively short and the multiplayer mode feels tacked-on and unnecessary — but I am more willing to forgive these issues since it felt like I was playing something meaningful. As gamers, we don’t get treated to narratives like this very often, and this is a game that people will be talking about for years. Hell, it has already inspired one game critic to write a lengthy critique of the campaign, something unheard of in the industry.

If you’re willing to overlook some gameplay limitations, Spec Ops: The Line comes with a very high recommendation. This is one of the most mentally challenging games I have played all year, and it is one with more layers than anyone could have expected.

9/10

Video Game Review: Max Payne 3 [Xbox 360]

Max Payne 3 [Xbox 360]

Max Payne 3
System: Xbox 360 (also on PS3 and PC)
Genre: Third-person shooter
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar Vancouver
Release Date: May 15, 2012

Max Payne is an alcoholic, a pill addict and a chain smoker. He is also one tough son of a bitch. After hitting rock bottom following the death of his wife and infant daughter, Max finds himself in São Paulo, Brazil, working as a bodyguard for the wealthy Branco family. Both on the clock and off, he struggles to cope with his past by hitting the bottle. The man is in bad shape.

While Max’s job as a bodyguard is simple in theory, his commitment is immediately tested when the Brancos are targeted by kidnappers. Having failed at his job of protecting them, Max becomes determined to recover the missing family members, even if it means leaving hundreds of dead bodies along the way. Trouble seems to follow him everywhere, even all the way down to Brazil.

The game’s plot does not play out chronologically; instead, we are given occasional flashbacks to Max’s last days in New Jersey. This is where he meets Raul Passos, the man who recruits him to work security in Brazil. They immediately share a bond by pissing off the local mobsters, and Raul is about the closest thing to a friend that poor Max has anymore.

The storyline, while admittedly familiar, is presented phenomenally in a way that makes the game feel like an action movie. Cutscenes are frequent, but they are used during what would normally be dull loading screens. These scenes use the in-game graphics, providing a seamless transition to the actual gameplay. The presentation is cinematic in that Max provides voiceover narration (often in a snarky tone), and certain words of importance are emphasized on screen. It takes a few chapters before the story and subsequent gameplay takes off, but once it does it sure becomes hard to stop playing.

The core gameplay comes across as a third person shooter, with an emphasis on using cover in the form of walls, benches, couches and the like. What sets this apart from other likeminded shooters is that the game provides the option to use the addictive Bullet Time format. In this, time slows down to a screeching halt, allowing Max to fire off some better aimed shots. This can only be used sporadically so as not to hinder the enemy AI too much, but Max also has the ability to dive at any point and trigger the same sequence. It’s a little tricky to pull off the diving method, especially when multiple enemies are firing at your suddenly prone body, but it can be a great last ditch effort if necessary. Another twist to this formula comes in the “last man standing” feature — in this, when Max is down to his last bar of health, time slows down and he is given the chance to fire off a kill shot on the shooter. If he succeeds in killing him, Max survives. If not, he dies. It’s actually quite amazing just how much this Bullet Time dynamic adds to the overall gameplay, as it surprisingly never grows old during the single player campaign’s 10 hour run time.

Max Payne 3 is a challenging game, even on Normal difficulty. In order to level the playing field, there are options for “Soft Lock” and “Hard Lock”, both of which provide aiming assistance. These are incredibly helpful during some of the more infuriating moments, and thankfully they can be switched at any time.

After completing the single player campaign, which I greatly enjoyed, I moved onto the other facet of the game: the multiplayer mode. I wasn’t expecting much from this; after all, so many games today just tack on one or two lackluster online modes and call it good. Thankfully, that isn’t the case here at all. Max Payne 3 has a surprisingly deep amount of online options, all of which are presented with a thorough Call of Duty-like progression system. Standard battles such as team deathmatch and capture-the-flag are provided, but the real treat is the storyline-driven Gang Wars mode. In this, a collection of objective-based games are linked together in a longer series in order to determine gang supremacy. The story arc changes based on the performance of each round. It’s a neat twist on the standard online gameplay, and it makes for some tense encounters.

Max Payne 3 [Xbox 360]

Oh, and if an in-depth online mode wasn’t enough, there are also options to play through the single player campaign again in arcade scoring format. In these, points are accrued via how fast levels are completed, as well as the quality of Max’s shooting (i.e. headshots are worth more than knee blasts). An online leaderboard helps keep competition fierce.

In a nutshell, Max Payne 3 is the complete package. The single player campaign plays out like a badass action movie, one that feels better than most of the filth that Hollywood has produced in the last decade, and the multiplayer just adds to the overall value. For those worried about needing to play the first two games in the series, don’t fret — the in-game cinematics will get newbies right up to speed. It took me a few chapters to get into what Max Payne 3 had to offer, but by the end I was breathless. This is another fantastic effort from Rockstar, and it is an early game of the year contender.

9/10

Video Game Review: Dead Space 2 [Xbox 360, 2011]

Dead Space 2 [Xbox 360, 2011]
Dead Space 2
System: Xbox 360 (also on PS3 and PC)
Genre: Survival Horror, Third-Person Shooter
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Visceral Games
Release Date: January 25, 2011

There is a popular comparison going around that Dead Space 2 is to Dead Space what the film Aliens is to Alien. This is surprisingly accurate.

The original Dead Space was a brutal survival horror adventure that placed gamers in the role of a silent protaganist named Isaac Clarke, who was investigating an abandoned ship with unknown enemies. With Dead Space 2, Clarke is back, but this time he is well-spoken and knows what he is up against. No longer an inexperienced combatant, Clarke is a grizzled veteran who kicks a whole lot of alien ass, not unlike Ellen Ripley from Aliens.

Dead Space 2 takes place three years after the original, with Isaac waking up in the Sprawl, a metropolis built on one of Saturn’s moons. He has no memory of the last few years, and he is still haunted by visions of his long-dead girlfriend. The man has lost his mind, and his disturbing hallucinations impede his progress to stop the latest Necromorph outbreak. In a way, it’s more of the same, but this time Isaac feels better suited to take care of the mess.

Dead Space 2 [Xbox 360, 2011]

The gameplay is more action-oriented, and there are now new weapons to help deal with the catastrophic alien mess. The old, trusty weapons from before are still available, such as the always reliable plasma cutter, but it’s fun to play with new toys such as the Detonator, a proximity mine launcher. Enemies are still defeated by slicing off their limbs, creating gruesome and gory bloodbaths.

The wonderful kinesis/stasis functions are back as well, and they are crucial to the gameplay since weapon ammo seems a little scarce to come by this time. The same weapon upgrade system is in place to help build up Clarke’s skills and abilities.

While the combat is very well-executed, Dead Space 2 really shines with its atmosphere. The game succeeds at creating undeniable tension, and there is always a sense of dread while wandering around the Sprawl. Even locations such as a nursery or a shopping mall are creepy to wander about since you never know what will be around the corner. This overall creepiness is aided by little things here and there to make you jump, such as lights flickering randomly or an alarm clock going off unprovoked, or even just hearing something crawling around in the walls. With the lights out and the volume turned up, this game can be pretty damn scary.

Dead Space 2 [Xbox 360, 2011]

Dead Space 2’s campaign lasts about 8-10 hours, but its “New Game+” feature warrants multiple playthroughs. My first thought after finishing the game was to start a new one, this time using my powered-up weapons from before.

A multiplayer option is unnecessarily tacked-on as well. It offers similar gameplay to Left 4 Dead, as it pits humans versus monsters, alternately switching sides after every round. It is a decent enough feature, but it is pretty basic and the online community barely has a pulse anymore.

Dead Space 2 does everything a good sequel should: it builds upon all that made the original so great, then expands upon that in all facets. The atmosphere is even more tense despite the beefed up weapons, and the core gameplay is damn near perfect. It doesn’t hurt that the game is simply stunning to look at, and gore fans will really get a kick out of some of the new death animations. EA has a great franchise on their hands, and I can’t wait to see where they go next.

9/10

Video Game Review: Gears of War 3 [Xbox 360, 2011]

Gears of War 3 [Xbox 360, 2011]

Gears of War 3
System: Xbox 360
Genre: Third-Person Shooter
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Developer: Epic Games
Release Date: September 20, 2011

Everyone’s favorite testosterone-fueled action series is back. Closing the books on the trilogy (although I feel we haven’t really seen the last of it), Gears of War 3 features everything gamers have come to expect from the series: juiced-up alpha males, disgusting monsters, lots of big guns, and non-stop gore and violence. It’s more of the same, but a hell of a lot more refined. This is the definitive Gears of War experience.

Gears 3’s campaign places you in the role of Marcus Fenix, again, as he battles the Lambent and Locust who are trying to take over the planet. During the early moments of the game, Marcus finds out a startling revelation: his father may still be alive. Together with his group of fellow COGs, including series compatriots Dom, Cole and Baird (among others), Marcus embarks on the journey to find and save his father, while also attempting to put an end to the overrun of monsters at the same time. It’s well-written, as far as Gears plots go, but there are a few groan-worthy moments when the developers attempt to tug the heartstrings. I get what they’re trying to do, but it’s hard to get emotional about characters who do nothing but shoot bad guys and spout off cheesy one-liners. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a very entertaining adventure, but some of the plot mechanisms felt a little too forced.

Still, most people don’t play Gears of War for their stories; they play for the action gameplay. I am happy to say that the third-person shooter is at its best here, as it’s clear that Epic learned a lot from the first two games and opted to make the finale the best experience possible. There are new guns, new enemies and new locations, all of which are utilized with a flawless combat system. Moments of intense action are broken up methodically with well-timed (yet brief) quiet spells, leaving a superbly-paced adventure.

Gears of War 3 [Xbox 360, 2011]

While the campaign is a strong ten hour affair, Gears of War 3’s shining beacon is its sheer amount of game modes and options. The campaign itself can now be played with up to four players in co-op, and there’s even a new arcade mode where gamers can earn points based on their play. Other new inclusions are a revamped horde mode and a new beast mode, both of which require teamwork to succeed.

Horde 2.0, as the improved mode is now labeled, has the same core gameplay in the form of fighting off waves of increasingly tougher enemies over and over again. However, there are new elements in place that give it a light tower defense feel as well. Now players can build defense mechanisms to slow down and injure bad guys, and cash is used to purchase ammo and new weapons. The new depth is a welcome addition to an already great mode, and it is a blast to play with a group of friends.

Beast mode is a spinoff of Horde, but this time players take on the roles of the Locust and try to kill the COGs. This is another great idea, and I am a little surprised that this is the first appearance of the mode.

Of course, I would be mistaken not to mention the Versus mode, another staple of the Gears series. This is where standard multiplayer gameplay occurs, everything from team deathmatch to Execution to King of the Hill. Matchmaking has been majorly improved, and it takes a matter of seconds to join a new game — no more of the endless waiting and laggy gameplay that plagued Gears 2.

Players can now earn XP by completing various in-game tasks, and it’s not just about killing as many opponents as possible anymore. There are a variety of ways to play the game and earn XP, and this amount of depth is a major plus. For those looking for a deep online experience that isn’t Call of Duty or another first person shooter, Gears of War 3 offers an excellent alternative.

Gears of War 3 [Xbox 360, 2011]

As expected based on the first two games, this is a dark and gritty visual experience, although there are a few areas where there are signs of vegetation — a pleasant surprise, indeed. It’s still a fantastic looking game, one of the best on the system, and it has a powerful musical score to boot. Epic really went all out to ensure this was a deep experience.

In short, Gears of War 3 is a more than worthy send off to the series (if that is the case). While the campaign may be the weakest of the three, it is still a lot of fun and deserves to be played through multiple times, especially as there are now different ways to do so. Multiplayer is the best yet, and should have a thriving community for quite some time. Fans of the series should consider this a must buy, no doubt. Well done, Epic. Well done.

9/10

Video Game Review: Vanquish [Xbox 360, 2010]

Vanquish [Xbox 360, 2010]

Vanquish
System: Xbox 360
Publisher: Sega
Developer: Platinum Games
Release Date: October 19, 2010

Imagine Gears of War on crystal meth.

Vanquish is intense. Really intense. This game just oozes testosterone. There are muscleheaded freaks, massive explosions, big guns and huge robots. Hell, there’s a button to smoke a cigarette. Best of all, there is never a dull moment.

You play as one of the aforementioned ‘roid abusers named Sam Gideon, a highly-skilled soldier with cutting-edge armor. After Russia — go figure — bombs the hell out of San Francisco, Gideon and several special forces are sent to fight the Commie bastards and save the good ol’ U S of A. Obviously, this is pretty basic stuff and it’s been done a million times before, but Vanquish is a type of game that is not played for its story. Come for the firefights, stay for the explosions.

Vanquish [Xbox 360, 2010]

As a third person shooter, Vanquish throws you right into combat and doesn’t let up until your mission is complete. The combat mechanics are what you would expect – cover, shoot, lob a grenade, repeat. However, as a unique DARPA soldier, Gideon has access to some pretty cool features. For one, he can slide ridiculously fast. This is perfect for maneuvering around large open areas, particularly during the frequent, massive boss fights. Sam is also able to slow down time for brief periods, which allows him to dodge bullets and get in some rapid fire shots on enemies. This feature is automatically triggered when Sam is low on health, and this is an excellent way to buy some time while he gets back to full strength. Gideon also has access to an impressive array of weapons, all of which can be upgraded along the way. It doesn’t get much better than throwing an EMP grenade to disable the enemy and then zooming in with a rocket launcher to blow them away.

It’s difficult not to get swept up in the frenetic pace that Vanquish thrives in. There is one problem with this, however: the good times end far too soon. I completed the game on Normal (which was still a good challenge) in about 5 1/2 hours. After completing the campaign, there isn’t much else to do. Sure, you could go through it again on a higher difficulty, but it’s all single player or bust. There is no co-op option, and online play is nowhere to be found. It’s really a shame that these features were excluded. Vanquish would be perfect for co-op, as it would be a blast to share this high-octane experience with a buddy. It’s almost inexcusable that there are no multiplayer options at all.

In essence, Vanquish is a quick shot of adrenaline that serves its purpose for the campaign’s 5-6 hour length. It is a gorgeous game with lots of pyro eye candy, and its fast pacing pulls no punches. A little more depth could have went a long way in this game, but it’s still a lot of fun for what it is. However, unless you are dedicated to multiple playthroughs to obtain maximum value, Vanquish may be best suited for a weekend rental.

7/10

Lead and Gold: Gangs of the Wild West [Playstation 3, 2010]

Lead and Gold: Gangs of the Wild West

Lead and Gold: Gangs of the Wild West
System: Playstaton 3
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Developer: Fatshark AB
Release Date: May 4, 2010

Lead and Gold is a multiplayer-only Western-themed third person shooter available via the Playstation Network. Released two weeks before Red Dead Redemption, L&G was created in order to ride RDR’s coattails. Since the game is only playable via online multiplayer, it is an absolute necessity for it to have a thriving community. Unfortunately, that it is not the case here, and that makes for an underwhelming experience.

Lead and Gold comes across as a mix between Red Dead Redemption gunfights and Team Fortress 2. This is very much a bare-bones online shooter. You select from one of four character types (i.e. close range specialist, sniper, etc) and then play one of six different game modes (essentially a mix of capture-the-flag games and deathmatches). The core gameplay is decent enough — the shooting mechanics are solid, and the maps are well-designed — but the main problems lie within the online experience itself. First, the community is on its last legs. There really aren’t that many people that play this anymore, and I suspect that number will go down drastically once it is removed from the free Playstation Plus downloads. Second, when you are actually lucky enough to find a full game, there is a fairly good chance you will run into some kind of connection issue and get booted from that session. As mentioned earlier, for a game that is only playable online, the internet connectivity needs to be a strength with little to no problems. Throw these connection issues in with the fact that the majority of players have no clue what they are doing, and that gaining XP is worthless (your progress is not tracked from game to game) and you have one utterly pointless experience.

Lead and Gold might have been worthy of producing good times when it first came out, but those days are long gone. For some reason, this is still $14.99 on the Playstation Network, and that is just an insane price to pay for something that is devoid of content. If you are jonesing for a Western-themed shoot ’em up, just pay the extra $$$ for Red Dead Redemption. Don’t waste your money with this one.

4/10