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: Grand Theft Auto V [Xbox 360]

Grand Theft Auto V [Xbox 360]

Grand Theft Auto V
System: Xbox 360, Playstation 3
Genre: Action-adventure
Developer: Rockstar North
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Release Date: September 17, 2013

I have a confession to make: until Grand Theft Auto V, I had never completed a GTA game. I have played every game in the series, and had a (mostly) positive experience with each one, but I would always seem to lose interest at around the 10-15 hour mark. That is not the case with Rockstar’s latest blockbuster, the first GTA game to finally get nearly everything right.

One of my biggest pet peeves with the series has been its lack of mission checkpoints. There was rarely anything more frustrating than starting a mission, driving to point A, accomplishing set goal, getting killed on the ensuing shootout back, and then having to start it all over again from the very beginning. That is not the case in GTA V — now there are multiple checkpoints within each mission, ensuring that any tedium is kept to the bare minimum.

Another huge, huge addition to the series is a brand new quick save system. That’s right — instead of having to drive to a safe house and walk into your bedroom, you can now just open your cell phone and save at any point you wish. In essence, by fixing these two major issues alone, Rockstar has succeeded in creating what is truly the ultimate Grand Theft Auto experience.

Grand Theft Auto V [Xbox 360]

In another bold move, the game has three protagonists instead of just one rags-to-riches story. These characters — Michael, Franklin and Trevor — are all wildly different and can be switched between at your leisure. Michael is a rich ex-convict who is going through a mid-life crisis, and he can’t resist the urge of getting back into the tempting world of crime once again. He befriends Franklin, a repo man who is trying to get out of the hood while pursuing higher levels of crime. Later, Trevor, an old pal of Michael’s, is introduced, and he is the epitome of the stereotypical GTA gamer’s play style. Trevor is a wild, out-of-control white trash psychopath who has no problems killing and torturing others. He is completely ludicrous, but he is responsible for many of the game’s most memorable moments. All three characters have their own personal missions while also working together on the main storyline.

The absolute highlight of using these three characters together comes in the form of elaborate heist missions. These require intense planning, and the game gives you two different ways to pull off these robberies. One is usually stealth-oriented, whereas the other is guns-a-blazin’. A lot of piecework is required to be successful, including recruiting NPC helpers (the better ones require a higher cut of the score), getting proper getaway vehicles and of course, scoping out the area beforehand. There are only a handful of these heist missions, but they are easily the most fun I have had in any GTA game’s main campaign, period.

Grand Theft Auto V [Xbox 360]

Switching between the three characters is quite easy, and it works surprisingly well. For example, during a heist you can switch from one character who is engaged in a gunfight at ground level to another character who is ready with a sniper from above. Being able to switch back and forth adds a new dimension to these missions, and and they are a blast to play.

Of course, if you really want to, you can avoid missions altogether and just go buckwild in the massive world of Los Santos. Unlike in previous games, the entire map is open to you right from the start, and boy is it massive. The city is full of life, with yuppies walking down the sidewalk with frappucino in hand, bar patrons lounging around outside, people walking their dogs in the park… it truly feels like a living, breathing world. Outside of the city, there’s an impoverished, redneck town (where Trevor’s trailer is located), as well as a large mountain that is begging to be explored.

Grand Theft Auto V [Xbox 360]

The game is full of bonus side quests and little Easter eggs, some of which may not be discovered for months. There are tons of random events, and each character has their own unique interactions. For example, Franklin can tow illegally parked cars to earn more money, while Trevor can work as a bounty hunter. Trevor also has the distinction of being able to kidnap random citizens and then drive them to a cult at the top of a mountain, where they will exchange money for their next human sacrifice victim. Basically, you can be as evil as you want in the game.

Other improvements in GTA V include far superior car handling (especially compared to GTA IV) and much better combat controls. The gunplay, especially, is a huge step-up, as now it is much easier to lock onto an enemy. Also, dying in the game no longer erases your weapons — you will respawn with everything in tact, which is a another nice bonus.

Grand Theft Auto V [Xbox 360]

Now, GTA V isn’t quite perfect. For one, helicopters are incredibly awkward to control, and they are mandatory for a few missions. While I was able to handle most missions with relative ease, I found myself dying much more frequently when I had to fly. It makes sense that there are flying missions since Trevor was a former certified pilot, but I could have done without being forced to use them so often.

There are also problems with the game’s writing and use of satire. The GTA series has always been tongue-in-cheek, and this game is no exception. However, some of the satire and jokes just come across as lazy. For every genuinely amusing moment, there are plenty of groan-worthy spoofs (i.e. FBI = FIB, Facebook = Lifeinvader, etc.) or overly juvenile gags. The game’s characters are also hastily written, and their reasons for working together are vapid at best. Still, shallow writing aside, I am willing to overlook most of these flaws simply because the game does so much right.

Put simply, Grand Theft Auto V is a remarkable achievement in gaming. There is just so much to do in the island of Los Santos, and every foray into its world produces new experiences. The game looks incredible — try not to be impressed the first time you dip your toes in the ocean — and it has a killer soundtrack to boot. There’s even a brand new online mode that is essentially its own full-fledged game (which will get a separate review later). In short, this is the GTA that I have always wanted, and it is easily one of this year’s must-play games.

10/10

Video Game DLC Review: The Walking Dead: 400 Days [Xbox 360]

The Walking Dead: 400 Days

The Walking Dead: 400 Days
System: Xbox 360 [also on PS3, PC, i0S and Vita (soon)]
Genre: Point-and-click adventure
Publisher: Telltale Games
Developer: Telltale Games
Release Date: July-August, 2013

Meant to bridge the gap between seasons one and two of Telltale’s The Walking Dead (my pick for 2012 game of the year), 400 Days is a much-welcomed expansion that plays out like a short story anthology. Rather than focus on a couple of characters like Lee and Clementine from season one, here we are introduced to five completely different people who are all brought together in the end.

The game gives you the option of playing through their stories (all of which take place at varying points of the zombie outbreak) as you see fit, and each segment lasts about 15-20 minutes. This gives just enough time to start caring for these characters while also craving more time with them.

Each story offers up a unique situation. One involves a prison bus being attacked by zombies en route; another revolves around a car accident. The characters are a diverse group, and all of them are well-written even though their appearances are brief.

The Walking Dead: 400 Days [Xbox 360, 2013]

There is a lot crammed into these little segments, and as expected, there are a number of difficult choices to make. Once again, your stats will appear at the end of the episode, allowing you to compare your decisions with the rest of the gaming public. In fact, in terms of gameplay, there are little differences between the mechanics of this and the first season. Telltale added a couple of missable achievements, but other than that, the gameplay is pretty much the same. That’s not a bad thing.

If there are faults to 400 Days, they are stemmed in it being almost *too* short. The episode can be finished in under two hours, even when exploring every dialogue option. The epilogue feels a bit rushed as well, though it will be interesting to see how/if it ties into season two. Still, I’m happy to get any bits of The Walking Dead experience that I can, and 400 Days is a satisfying appetizer until season two arrives in the fall.

8/10

Video Game Review: Crysis 3 [Xbox 360]

Crysis 3 [Xbox 360]

Crysis 3
System: Xbox 360 [also on PS3 and PC]
Genre: First Person Shooter
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Crytek
Release Date: February 19, 2013

In a year already loaded with big name sequels (i.e. Bioshock Infinite, Dead Space 3), somehow Crytek’s Crysis 3 got lost in the shuffle. Surely, a big budget first person shooter with gorgeous visuals would manage to snag a large slice of the pie, right? Unfortunately, no, that is not the case here. Instead, Crysis 3 offers more of the same with little to differentiate itself from its superior predecessors.

The story, never a strong suit in this series, is basically a rehash of before. Aliens are still invading the earth, and the evil CELL organization is up to no good. It’s up to the Prophet character and his powerful Nanosuit to save the day once again. Even the game’s setting is familiar; whereas Crysis took place in the jungle and Crysis 2 in New York City, Crysis 3 is set in a jungle in New York City. Yeah.

The plot is absolutely ridiculous and is just there to pad out an already thin single player campaign, which itself can be completed in a mere 4-5 hours. The campaign feels even more linear than Crysis 2, as much of the game’s progression requires following along Prophet’s old comrade, Psycho, from checkpoint to checkpoint. Occasionally there are wide open areas that allow some semblance of freedom, and that is when the game is most fun.

Crysis 3 [Xbox 360]

Using the Nanosuit remains a real treat, as the abilities to use both heavy armor and cloaking features are what sets Crysis apart from other FPS titles. Being able to go invisible for short bursts at a time allows the game to be played stealth-like; this is especially convenient when there are nasty enemies lurking about. The heavy armor feature is helpful, too, for those who just like to go in with a heavy rain of fire.

The biggest addition to Crysis 3 is a bow. At first, this feels like an underwhelming inclusion, and Prophet even remarks as such when he first receives it. However, this is not an ordinary bow; it’s basically an all-in-one killing machine. This new weapon is incredibly overpowered, as it allows Prophet to stay invisible while firing, and it can wipe out enemies from a significant distance. Using the bow almost makes the game *too* easy, and I found myself not even using it unless truly desparate.

Crysis 3 [Xbox 360, 2013]

The actual combat and shooting are solid, and the controls are tight. There are plenty of weapons to choose from, and the enemies are diverse enough to keep things interesting. It’s just a shame that the campaign is a mostly unmemorable affair that never fully utilizes the groundwork laid by the core gameplay mechanics. There are no noteworthy set-pieces as found in the first two games, and it truly feels that Crytek were just going through the motions with this effort.

The multiplayer is extensive and has the ability to be a huge plus; unfortunately, it is nearly dead just three months after its release. I have put in a few hours online, but never saw more than a few hundred people playing at a time. Nearly all of them were playing Team Deathmatch, and several of the other playlists had no gamers at all. That is absolutely sad for such a new release, especially since the stealth/armor mechanics are a refreshing change of pace from the Call of Duty series.

Crysis 3 [Xbox 360]

When you do manage to get into a full game, the experience is enjoyable. The maps are pulled straight from the campaign, and they are big enough to take advantage of all aspects of the Nanosuit. Perhaps the recent price drop will bring in a bigger online community, but I’m not holding my breath.

In a nutshell, Crysis 3 is a visually stunning game — one of the prettiest on the Xbox 360 — but it is a hollow one. This had the potential to be truly special, but the rushed campaign is a huge disappointment and a major step down from the first two games. There is still a competent shooter underneath, but there’s no question that this will be known as the black sheep of the Crysis series.

7/10

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

Poll Results: Favorite Video Game Era

If ever there were a poll to warrant a tie, it’s this one:

n64ps1
ps3xbox-360

THE RESULTS:
– 32 & 64-Bit: 4 votes
– Current Generation: 4 votes
– 8-Bit: 3 votes
– 16-Bit: 3 votes
– 128-Bit: 2 votes
– Early Arcade: 1 vote
– First Generation: 0 votes
– Second Generation: 0 votes

Honestly, I wouldn’t have been surprised if we had a four-way tie for this one. There are so many great games from *every* era, and it really is hard to pick just one favorite. It’s interesting that the current console generation ended up in a tie for first — hopefully the next batch of systems is even better.

This Week’s Poll: Last week, John from the excellent movie blog, The Droid You’re Looking For, shared a post in which he ranked the movie decades from best-to-worst. This question seemed like an excellent followup to last week’s poll about video game eras. So, movie lovers, what is your favorite movie decade? Do you agree with John in saying that the 70s are best? Are you more of a silent era fan? How about the great film noirs from the 40s and 50s? Let’s hear your thoughts!

Have a great week, folks!

Video Game Review: Tomb Raider [Xbox 360]

Tomb Raider [Xbox 360]

Tomb Raider
System: Xbox 360 (also on PS3 and PC)
Genre: Action-Adventure
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Crystal Dynamics, Eidos Montreal (multiplayer)
Release Date: March 5, 2013

One of my biggest pet peeves in gaming is when a game scatters dozens, sometimes hundreds, of collectibles throughout the environment in an effort to boost replay value. The Grand Theft Auto series, in particular, is notorious for this, but this is a common practice in open world games. I usually don’t bother to go back through and find these random trinkets, but I made an exception for this year’s Tomb Raider reboot.

You see, in Tomb Raider, it’s actually *fun* to explore the world it presents. A novel concept, right?

In this reboot, a young Lara Croft and a team of archaelogists/adventurers have embarked on an expedition to find the lost kingdom of Yamatai, an island off the coast of Japan. Little is known about the island, other than that it causes death and destruction for those who near it. Sure enough, upon arriving to the area, the crew’s ship crashes in the midst of a violent storm, and the group becomes stranded on the island.

As one might guess, it turns out that they aren’t alone on Yamatai. A violent cult of “Sun Queen” worshippers inhabits the island, and they don’t take kindly to visitors. As Lara navigates through the island in an attempt to find a way off of it, the cult members are there nearly every step of the way. They are a huge problem at first — especially since young Lara has never encountered such violence at this point of her life — but by the end, they become nothing more than mere nuisances.

Tomb Raider [Xbox 360]

The evolution of Lara Croft from an ambitious archaeology graduate to cold-blooded adventurer is marvelous, and quite frankly, it’s one of the biggest reasons to play this game. Not only is her transition to a hardened explorer believable, she also looks anatomically correct for once. Crystal Dynamics did an excellent job developing Miss Croft, humanizing her while showing the immense suffering she receives along the way.

The other major player in the game is the island of Yamatai itself. This is a gorgeous island full of wild life (including boars, wolves and rabbits, all of which can be hunted), and there is so much of it ready to be explored. The island is incredibly well-designed, as anyone with a sense of adventure will surely be curious enough to climb the various ledges in hopes of seeing where they lead. While the story is a fairly straight-forward affair, there are plenty of opportunities to traverse the wide-open world in order to find relics, documents and other historical items scattered about. Hell, I found myself visiting every nook and cranny of the island just for the beautiful views they might provide. Seriously, this is one gorgeous-looking game, easily one of the best from this console generation.

Tomb Raider [Xbox 360]

As this is a tale of survival, much of the gameplay revolves around Lara doing what she needs to do to survive and get off the island. A convenient XP system allows her to “level up” by killing enemies, hunting animals and finding treasure. These experience points are in turn used to improve her current capabilities, such as adding a rope gadget to her bow, or adding extra ammunition for her guns. What’s great about this feature is that every improvement is shown on screen. If you add the rope gadget, for example, it will appear on top of the bow and remain visible while harnessed on Lara’s backside. This attention to detail is very impressive, and it only adds to the sense of realism within her character.

Also on the island are a handful of optional tombs that can be explored, and each one presents an interesting little puzzle. Some of them are real head-scratchers, but the reward at the end is always worth the trouble. Each tomb has its own chest full of goodies to help Lara, often including treasure maps that show locations of collectibles in the area.

Miss Croft also has the unique ability to use her “survival instinct” — with the quick press of a button, the environment turns gray, and any items of interest are highlighted in yellow. This is similar to Batman’s detective mode in the Arkham games or the Eagle Eye vision in Assassin’s Creed, and it comes in handy quite often. At times, it perhaps makes things too easy, but it can be avoided altogether for those who want a bigger challenge.

Tomb Raider [Xbox 360]

The single player campaign lasts anywhere from 10-15 hours, and it plays out much like an Indiana Jones movie. There are several big adventure scenes that will leave you breathless, but at the same time, there’s nothing “new” here in terms of storytelling or action setpieces. If you have played any of the Uncharted games, you will know what to expect, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Tomb Raider also features a multiplayer mode, but it is merely tacked-on and mostly irrelevant. The online features were dead on arrival, as the community has dwindled rapidly, making it difficult to find matches less than a month after its release. I played online for a couple hours, enough to get a feel for the three different modes, but it did not leave a lasting impression. This has always been a series to play for the single player campaign, and this reboot is no different.

While it’s still quite early, Tomb Raider stands as one of this year’s biggest gaming highlights so far. As far as adventure games go, this is one of the better ones, and it also happens to be a technical marvel. This series received a much-needed breath of fresh air with this reboot, and I’m curious to see where Lara Croft goes next.

8.5/10

Video Game DLC Review: Fallout: New Vegas: Dead Money [Xbox 360]

Fallout: New Vegas: Dead Money [Xbox 360]

Fallout: New Vegas: Dead Money
System: Xbox 360 (also on PS3 and PC)
Genre: Action RPG
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Release Date: December 21, 2010

Every now and then I get the urge to go back to the Fallout universe. Something about that post-apocalyptic wasteland drives me in and doesn’t let go for hours at a time. Although I have exhausted Fallout 3, I still have an unfinished campaign of Fallout: New Vegas sitting on my hard drive, with many of the DLC expansions remaining untouched.

Dead Money was the first piece of downloadable content released for New Vegas, and it offers an intriguing premise. A mysterious signal from an abandoned Brotherhood of Steel bunker beckons the Courier, and visiting this location leads to him being knocked out and transported to the Sierra Madre Casino. The Courier awakens to find an explosive collar wrapped around his neck, and he is commanded by the Brotherhood elder, Father Elijah, to work together with three other captives to pull off a massive heist at the casino. Since the collar will go off if he attempts to leave, the Courier has no choice but to accept, and he does so without any of his weapons, armor or loot. Yeah, no one ever said this was going to be easy.

Fallout: New Vegas: Dead Money

In fact, this expansion is downright brutal at times in terms of difficulty. Not being able to start with your normal loot is a huge disadvantage, and finding worthwhile weapons is a monumental task in itself. Health packs are also scarce, so it can be important to dodge enemies instead of fighting them head on.

Dead Money‘s environment also has other factors that raise its challenge. There is a toxic red fog that covers much of the area, and the Courier loses health rapidly if caught in it. The explosive collar is also a nuisance since its signal causes interference with the various radios and speakers scattered around the environment. If he gets too close to one of them, the collar will explode, killing him and the other three captives. Throw in a handful of new enemies — including the incredibly annoying ghost people — and this can become quite the frustrating save-and-reload experience.

Fallout: New Vegas: Dead Money

What makes Dead Money worth playing is its story. There’s quite a bit of substance in terms of plot, and the characters are especially entertaining. The three captives are an amusing bunch. There’s a super mutant with a split personality — “Dog” and “God” frequently bicker with themselves –, a radioactive ghoul named Dean Domino that used to be lounge singer at the casino, and a mute scribe named Christine that lost her voice in one of the most horrific ways possible. It’s a lot of fun getting to know these characters, and each one has their own quest in which the Courier spends a great deal of time with them.

The expanion lasts anywhere from 6-8 hours, so there is a good amount of juice. It’s just a shame that the great storyline and entertaining characters are diminished by the punishing, repetitive gameplay.

5/10

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: NBA 2K13 [Xbox 360]

NBA 2K13 [Xbox 360]

NBA 2K13
System: Xbox 360 (also on PS3, PC, Wii, Wii U, PSP, iOS, and Android)
Genre: Sports (Basketball)
Publisher: 2K Sports
Developer: Visual Concepts
Release Date: October 2, 2012

I have a confession to make: I’m a basketball junkie. I love the sport, and if I were to let myself go, I could easily watch/play basketball all day, every day. This love of the game extends to 2K Sports’ NBA 2K series, and I have to force myself *not* to buy the game every year simply because I know I will play nothing else for quite some time. In the last entry I played, NBA 2K11, I became hooked on the Association mode, even going so far as to play all 82 games of the first season (8 minute quarters) and then a good chunk of the next. For me, nothing beats taking over a struggling team (in my case, my hometown Detroit Pistons) and restoring them to their glory days.

Because I get hooked on sports games too easily, I avoided purchasing NBA 2K13 for as long as possible. It wasn’t until a recent Xbox Live sale that I couldn’t resist any longer — how could I pass up the latest basketball game for just $30?

NBA 2K13 [Xbox 360]

The first and most noticeable difference with 2K13 is that Jay-Z’s fingerprints are all over the game, at least in terms of presentation. The soundtrack is comprised mostly of Hov and his buddies (i.e. Kanye West and Coldplay), and his name is plastered all over the menus. It seems like a marketing ploy, but I have no complaints with it.

NBA 2K13 also introduces a new concept that shakes the core gameplay at its roots: Virtual Currency (VC). This is similar to a conventional XP system, as every game you play, no matter the mode, will earn you VC based on your performance. This currency can in turn be used to purchase upgrades for whatever mode you like. It comes especially handy in the RPG-like MyPlayer mode since VC is used to upgrade personal attributes (i.e. 3-point shooting, rebounding, etc.).

The fact that this system is tied together throughout every mode encourages you to try out every aspect of the game. This worked out wonderfully for me, as I have been putting most of my playing time into MyPlayer, a mode I have neglected in the past.

The great thing about MyPlayer mode is that it is basically a sports RPG. You create a player the way you see fit, then take control of him through his entire NBA career while earning upgrades along the way. Upset about your playing time? Feel free to complain to your general manager. Want to go to a different team entirely? Talk to your boss again and let him know — you may very well get your wish. This mode is completely immersive, as not only are there ties to social media (complete with a faux Twitter timeline), but after every game you partake in a brief, one question press conference.

NBA 2K13 [Xbox 360]

Being able to answer questions however you want is a nice touch, even if the dialogue is sometimes laughable. Sometimes my character would take on a completely different tone in his response other than what I intended, not unlike the notoriously off-kilter dialogue in LA Noire. The conversations with the GM are often ridiculous, too, leading to some unintentional hilarity.

Pretty much every other major mode is back as well, including the improved Association, which now allows you to start a season on that very day (i.e. right now) rather than just defaulting to the beginning of the year. There is one new mode that stands out — MyTeam, which is basically 2K’s answer to EA’s Ultimate Team mode.

In MyTeam, you build a team from the ground up by purchasing packs of cards. Each pack gives you a random set of players, jerseys, skills, coaches and playbooks. These are in turn used to improve your team, and you can buy/sell individual cards using VC in order to do so. It’s a fun little mode, even though it doesn’t feel as polished as that found in FIFA 13.

NBA 2K13 [Xbox 360]

With so many modes and ways to play, there is never a shortage of options in NBA 2K13. Unfortunately, there are a number of bugs that mar certain aspects of the game. For one, no matter how many times I tried, I could not join an Online Association. The fact that this is an issue five months after the game’s release is inexcusable. I also ran into frequent lag during online games, occasionally losing a connection entirely. I know this isn’t a problem on my end either.

There are also some truly bizarre gameplay glitches that pop up from time to time. The most prevalent — and annoying — for me was the sudden loss of the score overlay. This happened in every mode I played, and it seemed to be triggered by pushing “X” through the cutscenes/replays. Not being able to view the game score, let alone how much time is left on the clock, is a huge disadvantage. I cannot fathom how this bug hasn’t been fixed yet.

NBA 2K13 [Xbox 360]

The fact that these glitches are still present is frustrating, but there’s no denying that there is still a fantastic basketball experience underneath. The audio/visual presentation is still second to none, and the commentary from Kevin Harlan, Clark Kellog and Steve Kerr is the best out of any sports game, period.

Even with the lack of competition from EA Sports, NBA 2K13 is still delivering the goods year after year. This is another must play for basketball fans, even if it could have been cleaned up a bit.

8.5/10