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

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Video Game Review: FIFA 13 [Xbox 360]

FIFA 13 [Xbox 360]

FIFA 13
System: Xbox 360 (also on pretty much every other current system)
Genre: Sports (Soccer)
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: EA Canada
Release Date: September 25, 2012

I don’t often buy sports games the year they are released, but I couldn’t pass up getting FIFA 13 this year. A lot has changed since the last version I played, FIFA 11, and what we have now is one of the most complete sports experiences I have ever seen.

Upon firing up the game, the options are nearly overwhelming. Just take a look at the different modes offered: Games of the Week, Ultimate Team, Seasons, Career, Be a Pro, Pro Club Seasons, Skill Games, Online. To the unaware, it would be difficult to even begin to think about where to start.

FIFA 13 [Xbox 360] -- Ultimate Team

I began my FIFA 13 playing career with the Ultimate Team mode. I had dabbled with this before, but never gave it the time of day it deserved. In this mode, you are given packs of cards in which you receive different players, attributes and other options. By playing and winning matches, you earn points that can be used to purchase more packs of cards, with the ultimate goal being to continually improve and upgrade your team. Cards can also be purchased, sold and traded in the online marketplace, allowing you to target certain players if desired. It’s an addictive little feature, and EA has undoubtedly made a great deal of money off of it by allowing impatient gamers to purchase more points with real money as well.

After spending a good amount of time with Ultimate Team, I moved onto “Be a Pro” and created a virtual version of myself. Soccer was always my weakest sport to play in real life, but I fit right in on the cyber confines of FIFA. As a young striker, I joined the celebrated club of Bayern Munich (an ode to my German heritage), but they had little room for me until I worked on polishing my skills. I accepted a transfer to the Scottish Premier League, becoming a starting forward for Dundee United. It didn’t take long for me to begin to establish myself, scoring my first ever hat trick in my second match, and quickly building up my attributes thanks to strong performances on my end. Unfortunately, a couple of injuries derailed my promising start (thanks to me abusing the “sprint” button, apparently), and the team struggled to play well without me. After finishing the season, which was mostly successful on an individual level despite the injuries, I decided to try out another mode: Seasons.

FIFA 13 [Xbox 360] -- Gameplay

I found Seasons to be the most challenging and addictive mode yet. In this, you pick a team and embark on a series of head-to-head matches against other gamers online. Every “season” has 10 matches, and you are required to earn a certain amount of points (three for a win, one for a draw) in order to move up to the next division level. If you fail to reach this goal, you will be relegated back down to the level below you. It’s a very competitive mode, and I found myself outclassed often by others online. After tightening down the settings to only match up against teams of the same star rating as my own, I began to achieve a bit more success, eventually moving up to the next division. A series of devastating defeats sent me right back down to relegation status, however, and I had to work my way back up. While frustrating at times, the level of competition in this mode is fierce, and it’s a great way to improve your own game.

FIFA 13 [Xbox 360]

The Skill Games feature is a welcome addition, as these drills serve as in-game tutorials of sorts, helping improve passing, shooting and dribbling skills. Best yet, they can be completed during the load screens for offline games. I can’t think of another game that offers such useful loading screens.

Between all of these different modes, I have spent a lot of time with FIFA 13, and I have absolutely had a blast with it. There are some minor issues here and there — occasionally my passes went to the wrong player, and I ran into a handful of laggy games online — but this is still an incredible soccer/football title that offers a seemingly endless amount of replay value. For fans of the sport, buying this is a complete no-brainer.

9/10

Video Game Review: Call of Duty: Black Ops II [Xbox 360]

Call of Duty: Black Ops II [Xbox 360]

Call of Duty: Black Ops II
System: Xbox 360 (also on PS3, PC and Wii U)
Genre: First-person shooter
Publisher: Activision
Developer: Treyarch
Release Date: November 18, 2012

Love it or hate it, the Call of Duty franchise has been an intriguing one to watch over the years. What started as a series of World War II shooters has turned into a brand split into two territories. Infinity Ward’s Modern Warfare series and Treyarch’s Black Ops have been alternating entries over the last few years, with both of them being neck-and-neck in terms of quality. With this year’s Black Ops II, Treyarch may have just taken the lead.

Building on the foundation set by its Cold War era predecessor, Black Ops II takes place in two different time periods: the 1980s and the year 2025. In the 80s, you once again take on the role of Alex Mason, the protagonist from the original game. Now retired, Mason is recruited on an unexpected mission in Angola to extract his old buddy, Frank Woods. In 2025, you play as his son, David, who has followed along in his father’s military footsteps. The common trait between the two settings is the rise of terrorist mastermind, Raul Menendez, who eventually grows to be a despicable villain seeking to create a new world war in 2025. In a nutshell, it’s the type of story you would expect from Call of Duty, but it’s so over-the-top with bombastic action set pieces and explosions that there’s never a dull moment.

Call of Duty: Black Ops II [Xbox 360]

The inclusion of a futuristic setting is an exciting and much-welcomed development, as it offers a breath of fresh air from years past. The year 2025 is host to a wide variety of new military equipment, and the game isn’t afraid to throw them into the mix. One early campaign highlight has you gliding into the jungles of Myanmar using some sort of flying squirrel outfit — one of the best introductions of any level in the series. Being able to play with new gadgets is a lot of fun, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a greater emphasis placed on this in future installments.

Another compelling addition to the campaign is the Strike Force mission concept. These are optional levels that allow you to control and issue commands for an entire squad. The missions can be completed via an “Overwatch mode” from above, or by controlling individual soldiers/vehicles/etc. on your own. They are a nice change of pace from the normal linear structure of the main levels, though there is room for improvement. Sometimes AI units will remain stuck in a position, letting enemies run by them without firing. The controls can also take some getting used to, but still, it’s great to see Treyarch trying something new.

Completing any of the Strike Force missions can also alter events in the main campaign — in fact, there are several branching storyline options scattered throughout. Important characters can live or die by your actions, and these decisions will greatly affect the story’s ending. In this sense, there is a bit of additional replay value, which is a good thing since the campaign still only lasts approximately six hours (typical of the series).

Call of Duty: Black Ops II [Xbox 360]

But regardless of the game’s largely enjoyable single player mode, nearly everyone plays Call of Duty for its multiplayer action. In this regard, Black Ops II does not disappoint. There aren’t nearly as many groundbreaking revelations online, but there are still new features sure to entice even the most seasoned veterans.

In an effort to help even out the playing field, there is a new “Pick 10” create-a-class system in which you can only keep a total of ten items (i.e. weapons, perks, grenades, etc.) on your person. This adds an element of strategy since you have to decide what pieces are most important to your style of play. Matchmaking overall has been improved to line you up with players of similar skill, and so far the results have been quite good.

Call of Duty: Black Ops II [Xbox 360]

Another pleasing change is the removal of Killstreaks in favor of “Scorestreaks” — basically the same concept, but now these streaks can be built up by completing objectives (i.e. capture the flag) rather than just killing enemies. New scorestreak rewards are included as well, with several different options available to use based on your preference.

Essentially, this is the same Call of Duty multiplayer we have had for the past few years, just with a few new bells and whistles. There are some connection kinks that still need to be worked out — I have lost connection for no reason on more than a few occasions — but I suspect these will be cleaned up as usual over time.

Call of Duty: Black Ops II [Xbox 360]

Since this is a Treyarch game, the popular Zombies feature is back as well. Not just restricted to the familiar Survival mode, there are two new ways to play: Tranzit (a story-based version) and Grief (two teams compete against each other while fighting off the onslaught of zombies). Fans of this feature will appreciate this new group of options, though it remains best to play with people you know. I had a difficult time getting matched up with random players despite thousands being shown available. When playing with a buddy (or three), it’s just as fun as you might remember.

With a strong combination of three entirely different main game modes — campaign, multiplayer and zombies — there’s something for everyone in Black Ops II. I had a blast playing through each of them, and multiplayer junkies will especially get their money’s worth here. While a handful of minor issues keep this from being perfect, this is still another excellent entry in a series that shows no signs of slowing down. And hey, if every Call of Duty is as good as this, why bother stopping at all?

9/10

 
(A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review.)

Video Game Review: BioShock 2 [Xbox 360]

BioShock 2 [Xbox 360]

BioShock 2
System: Xbox 360 (also on PS3, PC and Mac)
Genre: First Person Shooter
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: 2K Marin
Release Date: February 9, 2010

I purchased an Xbox 360 late in 2008, and one of the very first games I played was BioShock. I was smitten right away. Crashing in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and discovering the idealistic world of Rapture hidden underwater was unlike anything I had ever experienced. Critics and gamers alike had similar reactions, and its success meant a sequel was inevitable. Despite BioShock 2 (BS2) being released in 2010, I never got the chance to play it until recently (largely thanks to Microsoft putting this on sale for $10 last week).

As soon as I began my BS2 campaign, a flood of memories came rushing back. I didn’t realize how much I missed Rapture and its bizarre 1960s setting. Even though it had been years since I last entered this underwater dystopia, it felt like I never left. Everything was so familiar.

BioShock 2 [Xbox 360]

Set eight years after the end of BioShock, this time around you get to play as a Big Daddy, the large (and dangerous) protectors of Little Sisters. I was initially apprehensive about being able to play as one of the most-feared enemies from the first game, but my worries were quickly put to rest. The Big Daddy isn’t overpowered at all, and he has access to the same weaponry and plasmids as the previous protagonist.

Basically, everything you know and love from the first game is back again. The haunting atmosphere, the ability to harvest/rescue Little Sisters, the frenzied enemy “splicers”, the copious plasmids (including access to the Big Daddy’s drill) and gene tonic power-ups. Looting corpses and safes for ammo, cash and ADAM (the game’s version of XP) is still commonplace. It’s all there.

BioShock 2 [Xbox 360]

Being more of the same is a double-edged sword with BioShock 2. Part of what made the original so alluring was the sense of discovery — Rapture was a new and exciting place with so much to see. Now that we are familiar with the locale, it has lost a bit of its “wow” factor. More could have been done to expand upon the first game. At the same time, it’s great to return to such a unique world and play through the perspective of a different character.

Undoubtedly the biggest difference between the two games doesn’t come from the single player campaign, but rather the addition of a new multiplayer mode. Much like playing the role of a Big Daddy, I was skeptical of this inclusion. BioShock was a tremendous single player experience — was multiplayer really necessary?

BioShock 2 [Xbox 360]

The answer is still no, but the multiplayer is surprisingly well-executed. This mode is tied in wonderfully with the game’s universe, and it offers a fun diversion from the main content. It’s pretty basic stuff — the XP system gives access to new plasmids, weapons, etc. as you progress — but the addition of random Big Daddy suits during matches adds an interesting element to the gameplay. The online feature isn’t a particularly deep mode but it does complement the campaign quite nicely.

Between the two modes, I put in a good 15 hours into BioShock 2, and I quite enjoyed my time with the game overall. Sure, it’s more of the same, but there really isn’t anything like the world of Rapture. I will be happy to come back once again for next year’s BioShock Infinite.

8/10

Video Game Review: Sleeping Dogs [Xbox 360]

Sleeping Dogs [Xbox 360]

Sleeping Dogs
System: Xbox 360 (also on PS3, PC and OnLive)
Genre: Action-Adventure, Open World
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: United Front Games
Release Date: August 13, 2012

It’s too easy to dismiss Sleeping Dogs as “Grand Theft Auto set in Hong Kong”, though the similarities are certainly there. Both are open world adventures set in a world of crime, but this offering from Square Enix is strong enough to stand out on its own.

The game places you in the role of Wei Shen, an undercover cop in Hong Kong who is tasked with infiltrating the infamous Triads gang to take them down from the inside. As the game progresses, the number of crime and mob story clichés increase, but the end result is still satisfying. It’s a well-told story, especially when compared to other like-minded video games, and it is engrossing despite its reliance on familiar tropes.

Sleeping Dogs [Xbox 360]

Since Wei is a highly-trained officer, he has an impressive array of skills at his disposal. Not only does he know how to handle a gun (of which there are many), but he is an expert in hand-to-hand combat. The fighting system is one area where Sleeping Dogs really shines — it’s very similar to Rocksteady’s Batman games, and it is easy to pick up and play. As Wei works through the story and completes different side missions, more fighting combos are unlocked, offering a surprisingly deep system.

Wei can also use his police abilities at various points, and these include hacking security cameras, lockpicking, and tracing cell phones. He is a man of many talents, and this leads to a diverse group of missions that send him all over the streets of Hong Kong.

Sleeping Dogs [Xbox 360]

While working undercover, Wei can perform work for the Triads while also sneaking off to help on police cases. There are dozens of random side quests scattered throughout, some of which include helping pedestrians with small tasks, street racing, or even performing karaoke. Quite simply, there is a lot to do in the game, with no shortage of things to discover.

One gameplay tweak that Sleeping Dogs offers over other sandbox titles is its increased amount of checkpoints. No longer do you need to replay an entire mission if you die — there are checkpoints provided after every major event. Unfortunately, while this sounds great in theory, it’s both a blessing and a curse. It’s a relief to not have to drive halfway across the city just to restart a mission, but having so many checkpoints also lowers the difficulty quite a bit. During my 15+ hours with the game, I was rarely ever challenged. Once I got the hang of the countering system within combat, I was able to breeze through most of the missions, with nary a restart necessary. It’s a bit disappointing that the game is so easy.

Sleeping Dogs [Xbox 360]

On the flip side, one area that Sleeping Dogs absolutely nails is its presentation. A great amount of detail went into building the in-game Hong Kong, and the story is given the full Hollywood treatment, even bringing in big names for voice work, including Tom Wilkinson, Emma Stone and Lucy Liu. Perhaps most impressive is the in-game soundtrack. The score, composed by Jeff Tymoschuk (Nightfire, Everything or Nothing), is fantastic, but the radio stations are some of the best I have found in any game, period. Music buffs will love that there are stations devoted to individual record labels, including Daptone (Budos Band, Charles Bradley, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings), Ninja Tune (Bonobo, Emika, Lorn) and Warp (Bibio, Flying Lotus, !!!).

It’s a shame that Sleeping Dogs got a bit lost in the summer of gaming, but it is a great sandbox title that deserves a good, long look. For fans of open world games, this is a must play, and it will likely be a fixture on my “best of” year-end list.

8.5/10

Video Game Review: Borderlands 2 [Xbox 360]

Borderlands 2 [Xbox 360]

Borderlands 2
System: Xbox 360 (also on PS3 and PC)
Genre: Action RPG, First-person shooter
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: Gearbox Software
Release Date: September 18, 2012

It’s hard to believe that it has been three years since Gearbox Software’s Borderlands created a smash sensation just by merging two long-running gameplay tactics — shooting and looting. With the long-awaited Borderlands 2, Gearbox has upped the ante and delivered the goods just like any proper sequel should: by keeping what worked so well before while also refining the overall experience.

Using the same gorgeous cel-shaded visuals that impressed the first time around, Borderlands 2 begins five years after the ending of the first game. Four new Vault Hunters are introduced, and they are on a mission to find new villain, Handsome Jack, who has taken over Pandora and is ruling the land with an iron fist. Just like before, each hunter has their own traits. There’s Salvador, the Gunzerker, who is an absolute brute that becomes especially dangerous when holding two guns. There’s Maya, the Siren, who can suspend enemies in midair, making them easier to target. There’s Axton, the Commando, who has the unique ability of making turrets appear out of nowhere, mowing down anything in sight. Finally, there’s Zer0, the Assassin, probably the most used character this time around. He has the ability to go invisible for a short period of time, allowing for deadly sneak attacks or other stealthy actions.

Borderlands 2 [Xbox 360]

Each character offers a different playthrough experience, and they can even be tweaked via skill points to allow for greater customization. For example, Zer0 can be built into an impeccable sniping marksman or a melee fiend, depending on your personal preference. With four unique characters (and a fifth now available via DLC), the amount of depth and replay value in the game is staggering.

While Borderlands 2 can be played on your own, it undeniably works best as a co-op adventure. With up to four players, the game becomes an absolute blast while working together, especially if each user has a different character. Tag-teaming enemies by suspending them in air via Maya’s “Phaselock” and then throwing down Axton’s turret is a thing of beauty. Playing with others also increases the difficulty and the chance of finding better loot, allowing characters to level up faster. When playing with friends, there is little to no monotony while traversing the expansive Pandora, and it’s fun to even go back and replay missions just for the communal experience. Again, this still works quite well in single player, but this is arguably the best co-op experience of the year.

Borderlands 2 [Xbox 360]

Borderlands 2 offers well over 100 quests in total, and the rewards for completing them include cash, weapons or other forms of loot. It’s always a rush to finish a quest or two then turn them in to hear the familiar “cha-ching” sound. In fact, searching the environments for any and all types of loot can be an absolute addiction. Any box, locker, barrel or even port-a-potty that has a green light on it can be searched for new goods. Oftentimes these will only have a few dollars in cash or ammo, but every now and then it’s possible to come across a new, badass weapon. There’s no greater joy than discovering that an enemy dropped a rare, orange gun that is better than anything else you own.

Seriously, if you have any addiction to Diablo or other hack ‘n slash looters, Borderlands 2 will consume you.

Borderlands 2 [Xbox 360]

I would be remiss if I did not mention the game’s improved writing and overall storytelling. The original lacked true narrative substance and didn’t have very many memorable characters. That’s not the case at all here, as new writer Anthony Burch has penned a more rewarding plot with even more humor than before. The new villain, Handsome Jack, is hilarious as he randomly appears over the in-game communication system just to verbally abuse the Vault Hunters. Old favorite, Claptrap, the peculiar little robot, is back and full of even wittier banter than before. Other new characters such as the English gentleman, Sir Hammerlock, and the 13-year-old ball of terror, Tara, are quite memorable.

Now, while the writing is improved overall, it occasionally dabbles into low-grade humor that appears to have been included with teenagers in mind. For example, there is one sidequest that involves hunting down a particular monster species in hopes of coming up with a new name for them. One name suggestion? “Bonerfarts.” Yeah.

Moments of immaturity aside, there are some rewards within the writing, particularly when you stumble across any of the countless hidden Easter Eggs. From references to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Breaking Bad, the Double Rainbow Guy and the Skyrim “arrow to the knee” meme, there are endless bits of pop culture references scattered throughout. It’s a real treat finding them all.

Borderlands 2 [Xbox 360]

Aesthetically, Borderlands 2 also offers a number of improvements. The cel-shaded visuals are even more beautiful than before, especially when it comes to viewing the landscapes far off in the distance. An early area takes place in a cold, icy environment with large icebergs in the background. Looking up at the star-filled sky is always fun, especially when observing the full moon with a space station nearby. The game owes a great deal of its charm to its graphical appearance, and it does not disappoint at all. The voice acting is also noticeably better this time, and the music hits all the right notes.

In short, Borderlands 2 has all the makings of a strong “game of the year” candidate. Right now, I would be hard pressed to find something better. Its flaws — such as the occasional juvenile humor, and a somewhat overlong tutorial — are incredibly minute in the grand scheme of things. If you have friends to play this with, purchasing Borderlands 2 is a no-brainer, and it comes highly recommended even when going solo. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to looting.

9/10

Top Five XBLA Summer of Arcade Games

XBLA Summer of Arcade

With this year’s Xbox Live “Summer of Arcade” now complete, I thought it would be fun to take a look back at the best games the series has brought us over its five year span. This year’s batch was admittedly pretty weak, but the series has provided plenty of classics. Here are my top five:

Braid [2008]
5) Braid [2008]
Jonathan Blow’s indie hit had nearly unanimous positive reviews upon its release, and it still holds up well four years later. A puzzle/platforming hybrid with gorgeous art design, Braid is frequently mentioned in the endless “video games can be art” debate.

Trials HD [2009]
4) Trials HD [2009]
While now overshadowed by the superior Trials Evolution, Trials HD burst onto the scene with insanely addictive racing/puzzle action. I can’t even tell you how much time I put into this game — I didn’t even finish an “Extreme” level until just this year! Even though its sequel is better, this is still a blast to play (albeit often frustrating).

Limbo [2010]
3) Limbo [2010]
With stunning black & white visuals and an incredibly simplistic but engaging premise, Limbo is an unforgettable experience. The side-scrolling gameplay is basic and the campaign is rather brief, but I can’t think of another game like this. Creepy yet utterly beautiful.

Bastion [Xbox 360, 2011]
2) Bastion [2011]
One of my favorite games from last year, Bastion is an action RPG with eye-popping visuals, and it just oozes all sorts of charm. Who can forget the omnipresent narrator and incredibly fine-tuned hack ‘n’ slash gameplay?

Shadow Complex [2009]
1) Shadow Complex [2009]
Not only is this the best Summer of Arcade title, this is the best XBLA game, period. This “2.5D” side-scrolling shooter has elements from the Metroidvania style of gameplay and encourages exploration. The single player campaign is comparable to full-fledged $60 games, and there is even a bonus “Proving Grounds” mode. Replay value is high as there are all sorts of secrets and areas that cannot be accessed until certain power-ups are acquired. One of my favorite games from this generation, arcade and otherwise.

For reference, here’s the full lineup by year:

2008: Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2, Braid, Bionic Commando: Rearmed, Galaga Legions, Castle Crashers
2009: Marvel vs Capcom 2, Trials HD, Splosion Man, Shadow Complex, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time Re-Shelled
2010: Castlevania: Harmony of Light, Hydro Thunder Hurricane, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, Limbo, Monday Night Combat
2011: Bastion, From Dust, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet, Fruit Ninja Kinect, Toy Soldiers Cold War
2012: Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD, Wreckateer, Deadlight, Hybrid, Dust: An Elysian Tail

How about you guys? Do you agree with my list? What’s your favorite XBLA Summer of Arcade title?

Video Game Review: Deadlight [XBLA]

Today we have a special guest video game review from Max @ Impassionedcinema!

Deadlight [XBLA]

Deadlight
System: Xbox Live Arcade
Genre: Cinematic platformer, survival horror, sidescroller
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Developer: Tequila Works
Price: 1200 Microsoft Points ($15)
Release Date: August 1st, 2012

Microsoft has once again hosted a campaign entitled Summer of Arcade. In the dry gaming month of mid-July until mid-August, Microsoft signs exclusives for titles that show off what XBLA has to offer. Previous years included such classics as Braid, Limbo, and Castle Crashers. This year didn’t start out great with a re-mastered Tony Hawk game and a Kinect-only game. So does Deadlight buck that trend? Not really.

Deadlight is the first game from Tequila Works and was published by Microsoft, so this will be an exclusive Xbox game for sometime. It has elements of survival horror mixed with platforming and sidescrolling action. On paper it sounds like another classic XBLA entry, so where did they go wrong?

Deadlight [XBLA]

The storyline is one of most troublesome areas. Saying that the survival horror elements are overused would be an understatement. Our hero, Randall Wayne, is on a mission to find his wife and daughter in what appears to be a zombie apocalypse. Now they never refer to these mindless creators as zombies, they are just called shadows. Akin to Walking Dead, the shadows aren’t the only enemies here since the humans are out of control as well. Thankfully, all the story elements are skippable (including the ending), so if you just want platforming, skip past them all.

The gameplay will more than make up for the poor story right? That’s a big no. In a mixture of two highly acclaimed XBLA games (Shadow Complex and Limbo) the games has difficult platforming, action, and a mostly black color scheme. There’s also puzzles mixed in for good measure, but they are so easy, I never once found myself stuck trying to figure something out. The only time I did get stuck was because of the platforming. Deadlight isn’t sure of what audience it is catering towards. On one hand, some of the jumps are easy to telegraph. On the other hand, if you don’t press jump at exactly the right time you’ll die and get sent back to annoying loading screens. Deadlight likes to promote the trial and error approach. Walk ten feet, die because something unexpected happened, go back and try again. Rinse and repeat. I didn’t expect to play Dragon’s Lair when I bought this game, but the repetition is ridiculous.

Deadlight [XBLA]

Many times throughout my playthrough of Deadlight, I questioned why I spent $15 on the game. It was probably the promise of high-quality games Xbox Summer of Arcade has been known for over the years. It could’ve also been the mixture of Shadow Complex and Limbo (two of the best downloadable games on the system). Needless to say, Deadlight was an incredible disappointment and I’d go as far as to say some of the game is broken. While I made my way through to the end, there were too many instances where I was honestly fed up with the game. Hopefully one of the other two Summer of Arcade titles impress because otherwise this summer will be a huge disappointment.

5.5/10

 
Written by Max Covill of Impassionedcinema.com

Video Game Review: Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD [XBLA]

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater HD [XBLA] Cover Art

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD
System: Xbox Live Arcade (coming soon to PSN and PC)
Genre: Extreme sports (skateboarding)
Publisher: Activision
Developer: Robomodo
Price: 1200 MSP
Release Date: July 18, 2012

Remaking the original Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater games was going to be a tricky endeavor from the very beginning. Not only are the original Playstation titles beloved classics, they are also rather dated. The skateboarding genre has come along way since those early days, and lately EA’s Skate series has reigned supreme. Could an HD Tony Hawk game hold up today?

Activision has compiled seven levels from the first two games and given them a fresh coat of non-pixelated paint. It’s nice to finally be able to play old favorites with updated graphics, but the selection appears to be random: Warehouse, School 2, Mall, Downhill Jam, Hangar, Marseilles and Venice. Everyone has their own personal favorites, of course, but a few of these had me scratching my head (I can’t recall anyone ever going crazy over Downhill Jam, for example).

A handful of familiar skaters have returned, including Tony Hawk, Rodney Mullen and Andrew Reynolds, as well as a batch of new characters. Create-a-skater is absent; in its place is the ability to use your Xbox avatar. It’s a bit odd at first to see an avatar skating around, but it’s as close as we can get to creating our own player.

The same control scheme is in place, and it only offers the bag of tricks found in the first two games (meaning no “revert” option, though that is to come in future DLC). Each level has the same goals as before — collect S-K-A-T-E, ollie the magic bum, find the secret tape, etc. — and the pieces are exactly where they have always been.

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater HD [XBLA]

A huge wave of nostalgia came over me as I entered the Warehouse for the first time in years. It was like I was a teenager again, getting ready for my favorite two-minute fix. The familiar sounds of Powerman 5000’s “When Worlds Collide” filled the speakers. I was ready.

But then something happened. My skater didn’t move the way I remembered. I botched a simple kickflip, and instead of falling over I went flying into a ramp at the other side of the screen. Blood splattered on the ground, which was a familiar sight, but were the controls always this touchy? I got up and skated over to the half pipe. A few simple grab tricks had me feeling better about my skills, but then I wiped out again after a slightly sloppy landing. I didn’t fly as far this time, but I started to gain the perception that I needed to be a little more careful.

After a few more playthroughs, I began to adjust to the tweaked game mechanics. At first I thought I was just rusty, but it was pretty clear that the physics were completely different. Developer Robomodo remade the game using Unreal Engine 3, and in doing so lost some of the playability from before. The similarities are there, but it’s as if the physics were run through a filter before reaching their destination.

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater HD [XBLA]

I fired up my original Tony Hawk 2 disc to see if nostalgia was tilting my perception. I ran through the Hangar without missing a beat. The couple times I did fall felt realistic, and I did not go flying off the hinges when getting big air off a half pipe. There was a pretty big difference between the two in terms of gameplay, and former THPS junkies will surely notice the changes as well.

Having said that, the new controls do improve a bit once a skater is upgraded with better stats. They’re still not perfect, but pulling off combos is a bit more manageable. It just takes a bit of work to get to that point.

With just seven levels, the single player campaign is relatively brief. It doesn’t take long to unlock each area, but some of the trickier goals are just as difficult as before. Good luck finding and hitting all of the secret tapes — it took me a while to remember where a few of them even were.

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater HD [XBLA]

Playing with friends was always one of the highlights of the Tony Hawk series, but multiplayer this time around is online only. There is no split-screen gameplay whatsoever. Unfortunately, at the time of this writing, the online matchmaking system leaves a lot to be desired. On average, I am able to connect to a quick match once out of every five attempts. This happens regardless of what mode/level I select, even if I opt for the “any” option.

When a connection actually does come through, it is still a lot of fun competing against others. There are occasional moments of random graphical glitches, but they don’t hinder gameplay. Old favorites such as Trick Attack and Graffiti are back, but H-O-R-S-E is strangely missing. In its place is a new Big Head mode, which is enjoyable even if it is peculiar to have replaced an original. I imagine the multiplayer aspect was scaled back due to cost and/or time issues, but the omissions, particularly split-screen, are glaring.

I wanted to love Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD, I really did. To be able to play some of my all-time favorite games again with updated graphics is, in some ways, a dream come true. It’s a shame that the original in-game physics could not be replicated, because otherwise it would be easier to ignore the game’s other faults. It’s not that this is a *bad* game per se, it’s just that it could not live up to its lofty expectations. Messing with nostalgia is a dangerous thing, and this feels like a Tony Hawk game, but one that is stripped of its soul.

6/10

 
Side note: if you really want to play this and have the option to play on a different system, I recommend waiting for the PS3 version, at least if you are a d-pad user. The 360’s d-pad does not do this game any favors.

(A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review.)

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