Friday, December 13, 2013

Starbound (Beta, PC)

Reviewed on PC, available on PC, possibly consoles in the future.

A space-themed builder-adventure game with high expectations.

Get your pitchforks ready, because I'm about to admit something that is sure to anger a lot of PC gamers. I don't like Terraria. Not even a little bit. I bought the game and on four different occasions, I tried to play it, and quit due to boredom and severe lack of interest. Despite the constant praise it was given, the game was never up to par with builder-competitor, Minecraft. With this in mind, Starbound shares a lot similarities with Terraria, and you can see why I was hesitant to buy into the hype. But after much debate, I caved and purchased Starbound, and was surprisingly happy with my decision.

Starbound is an open-world miner-builder RPG of the 2D family. Unlike Minecraft and Terraria, Starbound allows players to create a detailed custom character, and provides a background as to why your character started their journey. Although you start on your very own spaceship, your supplies are limited and require you to beam down to the planet. From the surface, you gather food and materials to craft medieval-era tools, weapons, armor, and even structures. As the game progresses, your tech level steadily increases, allowing you to fly around to other planets, craft more advanced items, and so on.

The game currently includes 6 races, with a 7th on the way.

On a visual scale, the game looks good for a 2D game. Planets with different biomes are vastly different in color palettes, ranging from lush alien forests, to deserts of sand and bones. The large number of visually different monsters, items, and blocks allow for some very creative and unique experiences. Lighting and water effects are more impressive than any game in the genre. Unfortunately, character animations are few, and monster animations are practically non-existent, so the world ends up feeling a bit stiff after a while.

Creatures spawn just out of visual sight, often times in large and aggressive groups. Many occasions I've stepped away from my house for a few moments and came back to a wall of angry enemies. In one instance while mining, I found and mined a small patch of iron, only minutes later to have it spawn 6 enemies that swarmed and killed me. This combined with the death penalty of losing pixels (the game's currency needed to make almost everything) can make for a very frustrating experience at times.

The alien environment are pleasantly reminiscent of Spore.

Combat is simple and straight-forward in most cases. Swing your sword, shoot your bow, don't let the enemy hit you. Most enemies will charge directly at you over and over until they are killed. Every now and then, you will encounter an enemy with abilities, and combat becomes much funner. The first boss fight is an excellent example of this, and while he is strong and will take several attempts to defeat, the victory is both satisfactory and rewarding. Lastly, your character can unlock abilities, called Techs, to spice up your character's capabilities.

The inventory system is bare-bones, but the crafting system is plentiful and well designed. There are dozens of tools, weapons, armors, decorations, etc of multiple tiers and play-styles. Items and crafting recipes are found inside dungeons, or buried deep within the planet. There are hand-held shields in the game, but after a few trials using the lowest-level shield, it seemed to be broken and did nothing but make me a target. As I mentioned before, almost everything requires pixels to make, and it becomes a grinding process to gather hundreds or thousands of them in order to make even the slightest upgrades.

Dungeons, villages, and other interesting structures can be found at random.

Gameplay - 9/10
Despite its many flaws, the game is addicting and rewarding to play. Building your character from a desperate existence to a badass space commando is a damn good feeling. The tools to build your own and (mostly) functional environments are plentiful. Multiplayer is double the fun and functions well. Patches and updates are regular, adding content and fixing bugs, and giving me confidence that this game will be one of the heaviest hitters on the market in little time.

Design - 9/10
Although I'm not a fan of the 2D style, I will admit it has grown on me. The vastly different biomes and underground areas paired with the large variety of npcs, enemies, and items gives for a very unique and charming visual appeal. Lightning and water effects are high quality and add a lot of neat experiences.

Replay - 9/10
There is a lot to do, and even more to do if with a friend or multiplayer. With new content and features being added fairly regularly, there are a lot of reasons to keep coming back to Starbound (or in my case, don't stop playing). 

Final - 27/30 Amazing
Starbound is a game with exactly that - sky high expectations. The game is may not be for everyone, but if you enjoy creative building games, or adventure loot games, then Starbound is worth looking into. There is only one thing I have to request from developers reading this review: More!

Monday, July 22, 2013

Dynasty Warriors 7 Empires (PS3)

Reviewed on PS3, available on PS3 (PSN Exclusive)

The Dynasty Warriors series is famous (or perhaps infamous) for it's grinding hack-and-slash gameplay that has changed little over the generations. Traditionally, the games take place during the "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" era in Chinese history. From here, players select their character from a massive roster, and jump into the battlefield to clash against their foes. The "Empires" series takes this familiar and 1-dimensional game and adds a new element of strategic management into the mix.

In Dynasty Warriors 7 Empires, the game introduces managing territories and resources, in addition to the standard battlefield gameplay. During setup, players may choose from pre-built scenarios which dictate the starting forces and resources, or they may choose a clean slate to manually (or randomly) populate the map. Even further still, players can then choose to play as a leader, officer, or roaming mercenary with no allegiance yet. Once the starting conditions are set, the player is free to begin their conquest.

A leader discussing with his officers their next course of action.

From the strategic map, players will manage four different types of resource: Food, info, gold, and a new resource called "fame". Food is used to heal and train your soldiers, info is used to invest and for diplomacy, and gold is for purchasing equipment. Fame is broken down further into six categories: Brave, Wise, Kind, Orderly, Affluent, and Evil. The higher your fame is in a particular category, the more abilities you unlock of that type. For example, a player with high orderly fame can summon elite cavalry, while a player with high evil fame can pillage enemy bases. Any abilities you earn can be selected and used anytime in the battlefield, and add a very interesting and fun aspect to the game. The game is interrupted with a cut scene every time you use an ability; which is highly annoying in multiplayer or even after an extended play.

Despite having all these different resources to acquire, the strategy portion falls flat very quickly due to no significant depth. Unlocking new abilities can be fun, but the usefulness of the early abilities compared to later ones ruins the incentive. Improving your army is borderline meaningless, and the only worthwhile investment is buying items to buff the player himself. Diplomacy is also painfully shallow, as it is impossible to have long-term friendly relations with another faction. You can make a temporary alliance, but the moment it expires, former friends will be marching on your lands without hesitation.

Defeating thousands of enemies takes little effort.

Once the player has reached the battlefield, they must navigate capturing (and defending) bases to create a path to the enemy's main camp. Enemy soldiers and officers will engage you, but serve no purpose other than to stand in your way, and are quickly dispatched after a few well-placed combos or musou attack. Friendly officers have improved A.I. over previous games, and are capable of pushing and even capturing the main base. Fame abilities (called strategems) are by far the most interesting part of the battle, allowing you or any officer to place ambushes or set bases on fire. Unfortunately, strategems are far from critical, and rarely change anything significant.

Perhaps the most redeeming feature Dynasty Warriors 7 Empires has to offer is it's detailed custom character creation. Complete with sliders, tons of outfits, and ridiculously large weapon selection, it's very easy to make tons of unique and interesting characters. Even further still, you can choose to have your custom character replace a particular officer in game, allowing the player to replace all the generic officers with characters they have made. Players can also download custom characters from PSN, or choose to have PSN automatically push random custom characters seamlessly into the game instead of generic officers.

The custom character screen will entice you for hours.

Gameplay - 4/10
There is nothing new to be had here in terms of gameplay, aside from a strategy mode that adds little to nothing (even compared to previous Empires titles). Combat is fun at first, but dries out quickly once you figure out the formula to win even against powerful enemies. The strategems are a step in the right direction, but need a lot of work to become worthwhile.

Design - 6/10
The visuals are high quality on characters, but the environments are plain and barren. Strategy map interface is pretty bland and generally uninteresting. Occasionally, there's a cool cut scene where your character interacts with another character during the battle, which adds a lot to the feel. Most points are given here for the excellent custom character creation.

Replay - 8/10
Playing with different fame types and custom characters greatly improved the replay value of this game. This game gets excellent replay points for the return of split screen, which is becoming a rarity these days. Different scenarios and a few unlockable features after beating the game. There's also the ability to jump into another player's game via PSN, but its only for a single battle and takes a long time to match.

Final - 18/30 Poor
With this many games in the Dynasty Warriors series (as well as the Empires series) you would expect to see some ground-breaking improvements of some sort. Unfortunately there is little satisfaction to be had, aside from the custom character creation. If you are a die-hard fan who lives for this franchise, then grab a friend and create custom characters to greatly improve the experience.

Recommended Buying Price: No more than 30$

Monday, July 8, 2013

XCOM: Enemy Unknown (PC)

Reviewed on PC, available on Xbox 360, PS3, and PC

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a turn-based strategy game, based off of the classic XCOM: UFO Defense, and developed by Firaxis (popular for its addicting Civilizations series). In this game, the player leads a small force of specialized soldiers against the alien threat attacking various countries. The enemies are stronger, smarter, and in greater number, but can XCOM rise to the challenge? It should be noted, this game is fairly violent, despite it's appearance.

The goal of XCOM: Enemy Unknown is to defeat the alien menace while defending various countries in the world. The combined countries make up a mysterious group, known as "The Council", who funds the player and provides objectives. If a country is frequently attacked and XCOM fails to defend it, the country will drop out of the XCOM project, and cease to fund the player. If too many countries drop out, the game is over. The catch here is that multiple countries are always invaded at the same time, and its only possible to defend one, so managing defense can be frustrating and require significant planning.

Soldiers are highly customize-able, and level up by killing enemies.

At your disposal initially are basic soldiers, equipped with your standard body armor and assault rifle. After a mission or so, they will choose a specialization and become either a Sniper, Heavy, Assault, or Support class. Their stats will gradually increase, and players can choose which talents to unlock with each soldier's individual talent tree. This is all possible only if your soldiers survive, since death is permanent and frequent on harder difficulties. Your enemies will have stronger weapons from the start, and it becomes apparent when your favorite troop's face is melted by a plasma rifle.

Enemies are various and very, very powerful on the game's intended difficulties. One true aspect of the game is how desperate the fights will feel, and how conflicted players will be gambling on the lives of soldiers they have invested in. Your soldiers will feel the pressure too, and if things start to go badly, they will panic and attempt to flee or open fire without orders. No matter how perfect you play, some losses will be unavoidable, which is a very praise-worthy piece of the game. This is war, after all.

Enemies are wide in variety, with different strengths and weaknesses.

In order to improve your chances against the alien threat, the player must choose to research gathered materials from the enemy. In time, the player can unlock some impressive technology, including new weapons, armor, robots, and even aircraft. The catch is that research is painfully slow, and only one research project can be done at a time. Would you rather improve your soldier's weapons and ability to fight, or your soldier's armor and ability to survive?

Visually, the game looks fantastic with an excellent color palette. Structures and forests are detailed, inside and out. Alien ships are well designed, and feel mysterious and threatening from the inside. Walls will crumble under fire and cars will explode, as nearly everything is destructible in this game. Finishing shots will bring the player's camera into a kill-cam view, bringing great satisfaction (or great disappointment depending). The sound effects are top notch all around, with the exception of some absolutely terrible voice acting during randomized escort missions.

Foes will maneuver to get the best shot on you, while keeping themselves protected.

Gameplay - 8/10
The combat is highly entertaining, while also being highly frustrating. Research and development is exciting, and customizing your troops is satisfying. Enemies are smart and challenging, with excellent AI. The global and base management elements of the game are great, but felt like there could have been a lot more to do. Mission variety is a little stale after a while.

Design - 7/10
Visually, the game is high quality, but stages are recycled too frequently. In a full game, a player may play the same stage 3-4 times. Missions in different countries do not differ from each other, and always resemble an English-speaking city. Similarly, troops from different countries speak perfect English with no accents whatsoever, which hurts the immersion. Voice acting is notably bad by escorted NPCs, and they honestly sound like they were done by random people with no acting experience.

Replay - 8/10
With the popular Second Wave features unlocked (various select-able changes) this game has greatly improved replay value. Harder difficulties will challenge the player significantly, but only add so much. An additional point is granted for the optional "Iron Man" mode, which auto saves the game and prevents the player from reloading to provide them a better outcome. Multiplayer is 1v1 versus only, which is a significant oversight. Mod support is surprisingly poor as well.

Final - 23/30 Good
There is a great experience to be had playing XCOM: Enemy Unknown; especially now that the price has dropped a bit. The gameplay is smooth and satisfying for strategy fans, but may leave players wanting at the end of the day. If you are on the ropes about this game, try the demo and see how it feels. Although I personally enjoyed it, this game is not for everyone.

Recommended Buying Price: No more than 40$

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Cube World (PC, Alpha)

Reviewed on PC, available on PC, possibly consoles in the future.

Before I get into any depth with this review, allow me start by saying Cube World is NOT a Minecraft clone. It's a common mistake to associate this game with Minecraft, simply because it also shares the block world style. While Minecraft has large focus on building, Cube World has its own flavor with roots strongly in the RPG genre, and is a great experience even currently in its alpha stage.

Cube World is an open adventure RPG that generates the world based on a user-input seed (similar to Minecraft here as well). Fans of Minecraft will notice vast improvements in terms of the in-depth character customization and classes. Currently there are 8 different races (which only change the character aesthetically) and 4 different classes. After choosing your character, you can play either locally or connect to a server for multiplayer.

There are some interesting races to choose from, in addition to the casuals.

Visually, the game is impressive for an alpha stage. Within the dense forests, open lakes, or undead-infested dungeons, there is immense effort put into making the world. Although the land is randomly generated, it doesn't feel oddly pieced together. Cities full of NPCs, shops, and class trainers also spawn randomly.

Mobs and NPCs appear in the wilderness in a realistic manner, instead of spawning in plain sight like in Minecraft. Players will frequently run into groups of adventurers, both friendly and hostile, wandering the country side. The variety of creatures is also a high mark, and although I am uncertain of the exact number, there seems to be at least 40 different types of creatures. There are also boss enemies that appear throughout the land.

Places of interest show up on the map, with color coded names for difficulty.

Combat is fun and surprisingly intense for a game of this genre. The character classes are designed to keep the player alternating between abilities, and use items quite frequently. Warriors, rogues, and rangers build up MP through combat to unleash their stronger abilities. Mages start with full MP and it gradually decreases through spell casting. All classes also have a stamina bar, which is used for dodge rolling, climbing, and hang gliding.

The inventory and crafting system are effective, although still in their early stages. Players can craft equipment from materials gathered; provided they have the required stats to wear them. There are very few crafting choices initially, but more recipes are found dropped by enemies or purchased from shops. There are plans to implement the ability to build, but at this time, players cannot build structures of their own.

NPCs offer minor dialogue, but can show the location of places and reveal how to tame certain pets.

Gameplay - 9/10
Cube World is a great game that's fun to play, and even more fun to play with friends. This game takes the formulas from many successful games and merges them into an addicting product with a bright future ahead of it. There is still more to come, and in future reviews, this score may change based on the added content.

Design - 8/10
The design choice is a brilliant take on the block art style. Despite looking similar to Minecraft, players will immediately notice that everything is much more fluid and natural. Points are lost for an incomplete user interface, and some incomplete aspects of the environment. Again, there is more to come in the future, and this score will likely change.

Replay - 10/10
There is no level limit, so players can continually play and reach higher levels. Four different classes, with different move sets for the weapons equipped. Tons of items to craft, dungeons to explore, and bosses to defeat. With more additions on the horizon, there will be tons and tons of reasons to play this game regularly.

Final - 27/30 Amazing
If you can manage to buy and download a copy of Cube World, you are in for a treat. There's a bit of a learning curve, and still lots of incomplete parts of the game, but still easily worth the $20 price tag. This game is best with some friends, so convince a few to join you, and support this awesome indie upstart.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Hotline: Miami (PC)

Reviewed on PC, available on PC

In Hotline: Miami, you take the role of a mysterious character (known by the community as "Jacket") as you are given discreet jobs to kill people. Not much is known or revealed about Jacket, but it becomes clear that he has serious psychological problems. Reality frequently distorts, and the game often keeps you guessing about what is really happening, and who is giving Jacket the jobs. I'll admit, I wasn't quite sure what to think of Hotline: Miami at first look, but it's really an interesting play.

Gameplay wise, Hotline: Miami sticks to a simple style reminiscent of ye old arcade games. The action is lightning fast, and player deaths occur after a single hit by any enemy. Upon death, the player can restart the area instantly by pressing the 'R' key and try it again. There are a large variety of weapons with slight strengths, and more are unlocked as stages are completed.

This game is a straight-up murder simulator. No, seriously.

Enemies are very basic, and don't offer much challenge except when you are taken off guard. Loud weapons, such as firearms, will cause all nearby enemies to rush you from any direction (which frequently results in death). Silent weapons, such as melee weapons, will neutralize most enemies without making noise, but are still a risk to use. Keep in mind you will die in a single hit from gun or melee, so choose your approach carefully.

Before each stage, you are given the choice of which mask you wear. In addition to changing your appearance slightly, you are given a boost depending on your mask. Masks are unlocked by completing stages, and an additional mask can be unlocked by getting a high score on certain stages. Unfortunately, some of these masks have bonuses that are very circumstantial, so you will find yourself using only a handful of different masks from the large selection.

There's a good selection of masks, each with their own name.

With the mask being the only thing truly customize-able about your character, I couldn't help but feel like there could have been more. Unless you pick a mask that specifically gives you a weapon, you will always start the stage empty handed. Why would a hit man show up to a job with no weapon, when there are numerous targets involved? It seemed like an oversight, but doesn't take much away from the game.

At the end of each stage you are given a score and a rating. Surprisingly, the game tends to reward the Leroy Jenkins approach, and will give low scores for cautiously killing your targets. If you want a high score (which yields more masks), you will want to charge through as quickly as possible and rack up as many multi-kills as you can. This can be a little frustrating, as you will die a lot from that random guy who walks out and shoots you from behind.

A cautious approach will label you "Generic" and yield a poor score.

Gameplay - 8/10
The game is fun, although a little repetitive. Combat is simple, but jumping onto a downed enemy and smashing his head into the floor does satisfy. There are some moments in between stages that qualify as the game's cut scenes, which help balance out the adrenaline-fueled kill fest from moments before. 

Design - 7/10
The visuals are simple, but get the job done. I would go as far to say they add their own flavor to the game, rather than detract. Watching Jacket gradually lose his sanity is a high mark, and personally drove me to complete the game. The story will seem very confusing the entire game, and only truly makes sense after completing the bonus missions. 

Replay - 8/10
There's a ton of stages, each with a reason to replay them. A high rating will unlock new masks with different perks, and your cumulative scores will unlock different weapons that appear in all stages. Unfortunately, there aren't different difficulty levels, so you cannot replay Stage 1 on hard to adjust for your new strong unlocks.

Final - 25/30 Great Game
It's a dark game with a lot of frustration to be had, but highly satisfying. The beginning is arguably slow story-wise, but definitely picks up and finishes with a bang during the bonus missions. Mask selection also satisfies, and gives an incentive to do better. If you enjoy playing a protagonist with questionable morality and psychological problems, then this game is up your alley.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Last of Us (PS3)

Reviewed on PS3, available on PS3

Welcome to The Last of Us; a world ruled by a fungal infection that has turned 90% of the human race into zombies or corpses. Of the remaining humans, there is a struggle for control between the military and a resistance group called the Fireflies. Caught in the middle of all of this is our aging protagonist, Joel, and smart-mouthed sidekick, Ellie.

After an amazing prologue, we join Joel 20 years into the apocalypse. He makes his living as a smuggler, bringing contraband items in and out of quarantine zones. Distrusting of everyone and everything (save his girlfriend Tess), Joel avoids making friends and rarely spares his enemies lives. It is strongly implied that Joel has done terrible things to survive all this time. Early into the game, Joel encounters the Fireflies and is given the job to smuggle a girl named Ellie out of a quarantine zone and to a Firefly base, and thus the journey across the nation begins.

There are many open areas to explore in between tense moments.

Players will quickly realize that this is not your typical zombie-blasting survival game. This is a dark world with terrifying people and creatures around every corner. Supplies are always low, and direct confrontation with enemies is strongly discouraged. Hostile humans are smart and sneak up behind you. Infected will scream and charge when alerted - killing you quickly. Unfortunately, friendly A.I. is terrible, and they will often be standing in your way, or standing out in the open when you are trying to sneak (although this does not alert the enemy).

Combat is fluid and satisfying in nearly every situation in this game. When shooting guns or being shot, the hits feel real and both enemies and Joel will stagger or fall depending where shot. Melee combat feels intense, and Joel and enemies alike will use the environment to slam their opponent's head into corners or pin them against walls. Hold a human hostage and his allies will nervously circle you at gun point and try to talk you down. Infected will claw and snap at your face, giving but a moment's notice to react.

Enemies will fight you frantically.

Exploration is limited to certain areas, but the areas are frequent and the exploration is often rewarding. Most items found are used for crafting or upgrading, both of which are mandatory for surviving enemy encounters throughout the game. Unfortunately the crafting and upgrade choices aren't very interesting, and feels more tedious than rewarding. The weapons found in the game aren't very interesting either, but there are a good number of them at least.

The weapons and ammo system felt a little ridiculous to explain realistically. Joel eventually can have up to 9 weapons on him at once, but cannot hold more than 10-20 bullets for each gun. "Oh, I found bullets for my rifle but I've already got 10, I'm full up. Hey look a flamethrower, better put this into my pack." I understand the idea was to make ammo scarce to prevent blazing through enemies, but I would have preferred making the number of guns carried limited to 3 or 4, and forcing the player to choose between them.

Infected encounters are frantic and often result in death.

Gameplay - 10/10
There's no getting around it, The Last of Us is fun as hell if you have the patience to play through the slow and fast parts. The combat system is excellent and should be used as an example for third person shooters in the future. The weapons, upgrades, crafting, and inventory system could use some work.

Design - 10/10
The visuals in every environment are wonderful. The graphics do not look as amazing as everyone has been ranting about, but still capture the feel of every room in the game. The game sounds and subtle music are excellent and blend in well. The story and character design is excellent and one of the highest marks in the game, and will drive the players onward.

Replay - 7/10
Being a story driven game, there is only so many times you will want to replay the singleplayer. "Survivor" difficulty removes the ability to see enemies through walls, and makes for a good 2nd play. If you are a fan of multiplayer, it is included but I have not personally tried it. There are also unlockable outfits and such for both Joel and Ellie.

Final - 27/30 Amazing
This game is hands-down one of the better titles released this generation. It has its flaws, but they are easily overlooked in the midst of exploring the ravaged cities, or frantically running from a horde of infected. Be warned: it is a dark and often depressing game with a very dim light at the end of the tunnel. For those switching to Playstation in the next generation, be sure to pick up this gem as one of your introductory titles.

Recommended Buying Price: No more than 50$

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm (PC)

Reviewed on PC, available on PC

The campaign focuses on Kerrigan and the Zerg race

Starcraft II is back with its first of two expansions, Heart of the Swarm (HoTS). In this release, the primary campaign focus is on Sarah Kerrigan; formerly mass-murderer Queen of Blades. In the previous game, Wings of Liberty (WoL), we learn that Kerrigan is essential to an upcoming conflict against the evil and powerful Xel'Naga. This comes into play during the story as Kerrigan is forced to make decisions about sacrificing her humanity to regain her power once again.

While the campaign is certainly more limited in terms of choices in comparison to WoL, you are given the advantage of a hero character in each stage. The majority of these stages has Kerrigan as your go-to girl, but other Zerg heroes occasionally step-up to lead the Swarm when Kerrigan is occupied. Warcraft 3 fans will find themselves reminiscent of the former RTS titan.

Kerrigan levels up, revealing fun and powerful ability choices

Spoilers aside, the story is fairly simple for a complex universe, and doesn't utilize nearly as many characters and factions as the previous Starcraft titles have. You will find yourself in a battle against "Emperor" Mengsk and the Terran Dominion 90% of the time. The ending is somewhat entertaining, but far from satisfying. Hopefully we will see some improvements in this area in the next expansion.

The campaign includes the return of the Lurkers, which sadly did not make it into multiplayer

While the campaign features a large variety of Zerg unit additions, the multiplayer portion of the game did not receive much love.  Each race received 2 new units (Protoss  received 3) in an attempt to expand on the gameplay, but these units are far from interesting or game changing. The main menu did receive a fantastic overhaul, and more unlocks were introduced in addition to a multiplayer level system (which is separate from the ladder ranking thankfully). Players can unlock new appearances for select units, and even unlock the /dance emote for units as well.

Increasing your multiplayer level unlocks new unit appearances

Gameplay - 6/10
Judging the HoTS additions alone, this game just doesn't match up to the release price. The campaign is fun and time consuming, but very repetitive and requires very little effort to complete. Multiplayer changes are minor for an expansion, and did not change much of anything from the vanilla game. The Arcade still has a strong "dungeon finder" feel that makes playing custom games as dry and impersonal as possible.

Design - 5/10
The game boasted improved textures, but I noticed no changes visually. I did notice a large increase in my lag spikes, and my screen freezes occasionally in game. I actually lost against A.I. players twice since they were apparently able to micro while I lagged to death. The main menu interface has greatly improved from vanilla, and new unlockable features are fun and worth praise.

Replay - 8/10
Achievements, matchmaking, and custom games are back in full force. There are a ton of reasons to continuously play HoTS. Clans and groups have been added, and players will receive additional XP when playing with a friend or clan member. A perfect replay score is hurt only by the suffocating Arcade game finder and uneven matchmaking.

Final - 19/30 It was okay...
Starcraft II HoTS isn't an expansion by any means. Perhaps a better definition would be somewhere along the lines of "very expensive DLC". Using Warcraft 3 as an example, game patches would provide more content and improvements than this game did. If you are a fan of the story, then I highly recommend buying this game after the price drops, but definitely not for full price.

Recommended Buying Price: No more than 20$

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

King's Bounty: Armored Princess (PC)

Reviewed on PC, available on PC

Somehow I ended up with this game during a bundle sale online, and it easily became the most fun and interesting game of them all. This game sports a Warcraft 3 cartoon appearance paired with Final Fantasy Tactics strategic gameplay. Its genuinely fun and rewarding, but with a difficult learning curve.

Enter the world of King's Bounty, where you are the princess of a kingdom that is moments away from destruction by an evil force. As a desperate last measure, you are sent through a portal, and pop out in an unknown land. From this point, you are tasked with locating magic stones scattered across the world, which may have enough power to stop the evil from conquering the world.

While the story is fairly generic, the game really excels in its gameplay and exploration. On the world map, you can explore every inch of your surroundings for anything to help your army grow and succeed. You can encounter villagers, merchants, and kings who may be willing to help you, or attempt to destroy you for their own gain. If you are strong enough, you can even storm castles and earn a garrison for your troops. With its riches comes many dangers, and frequently will you be running from enemies that can easily kill your entire army. Your princess levels up from combat and quests, and slowly you become capable of handling previously impossible fights.

Combat can be slow, but its definitely challenging and often intense
One interesting element about this game is that the player does not have any special troops. Anything in the player's army can just as easily be encountered as an enemy. Your princess does not fight in the battles personally, although her stats improve her troops and she can cast spells. To balance the scales slightly, players are given a pet dragon with special moves, but even still the fights are usually close calls. The successful player will balance their troops wisely and strive for minimum losses each fight.

Storming an undead castle is challenging, but rewarding if victorious

Gameplay - 9/10
After the game becomes familiar, it becomes hard to put down. I've spent hours and hours playing without realizing. Exploration and combat are both equally fun. There is tons of customization to be had, including your army, your talent tree, your spells, your dragon's spells, your equipment, and more. Also, the game randomizes a lot of the world map's enemies and items, so each play is fairly unique.

Design - 6/10
The story is bad - there's no denying it. The visuals are wonderful and detailed on both the world map and the battlefields. Music and sounds are fantastic, although some songs become a little repetitive. Some quests and dialogues are a little odd. The UI isn't cumbersome nor it is fantastic.

Replay - 8/10
There's a ton of reasons to replay this game, even if it does not have multiplayer. Since a lot of the world map enemies and items are randomized, you will have a unique play each time. Players may want to experiment with different talents, spells, and army combinations.

Final - 23/30 Great Experience
This game came out of nowhere for me, and has earned its place as a classic in my collection. There are expansions I haven't played yet, which could possibly alter my score. I highly recommend this game to anyone who enjoys a good strategy game and doesn't mind a steep learning curve.

Recommended Buying Price: No more than 20$

Gears of War: Judgement (Xbox 360)

Reviewed on Xbox 360, available on Xbox 360

Gears of War returns to the market with this prequel

Fans may remember the Gears franchise being one of the Xbox 360's heavy hitters. It was known for its over-the-top violence, dark environments, and firefights from behind cover. While the sparkle effect has definitely faded in time, many remember that Gears of War 2 made "Horde Mode" into a regular feature for multiplayer games. So how does this latest (and possibly last) release hold up against the current standards?

In the campaign, we experience the events of Baird, Cole, and other Cogs before the events of the first Gears of War. Baird and his team are accused of treason, and are brought to trial to plead their case. The game that follows is a flashback, if you will, of the events that lead to the treason trial. During the campaign, you can choose to recall certain details, which change enemy encounters slightly. In singleplayer, the character you control will change based on who is being interviewed.

You will find yourself mosh-fighting at Call of Duty paces

While the story itself is about as tasteless as Gears of War 2, fans will immediately notice the dramatic increase in combat speed. Players and enemies alike die at ridiculous speeds, and fighting from cover seems nearly discouraged. This is a very poor direction for a franchise which has focused highly on promoting these elements in the past. Enemies are sloppily thrown at you in disorganized groups with no real rhyme or reason. Weapons are now limited to only 2 (this includes sidearms). There is also a score system, which the game will pause to review with you every 5-8 minutes.

You may forget who you are fighting, since both teams are Cogs now
Jump to multiplayer, one of the more successful features in the previous Gears titles, and you will find a similar story here. Once again, players die at ridiculous speeds, and cover is discouraged. The new weapons are re-hashed weapons from previous games, and don't add any new elements. Versus modes are now Cogs vs. Cogs, removing all flavor the former Cogs vs. Locust games had. Horde and Beast modes have been removed, and replaced with the new "Overrun" mode, which removes all the fun of Beast and Horde and slaps them together to create a garbage game mode.

In Overrun mode, both Cogs and Locust have been stripped down to bare bones

Gameplay - 2/10
Take everything you loved about the Gears of War gameplay, and bleed it dry until its a bad third-person Call of Duty game. There is no satisfaction in playing even the over-hyped Overrun mode. The only redeeming quality I have found is that this game still contains a split screen Campaign mode, which is becoming increasingly rare in games.

Design - 1/10
Somehow, this game looks worse than its predecessor; Gears of War 3. Visuals are muddy, stages are narrow hallways with not even a small amount of exploration. The "hidden collectible" items are often found laying in plain sight. There are plenty of weapon skins for your multiplayer guns, if you even care about that.

Replay - 3/10
If this game does not frustrate or bore you to death, then you will have a reason to play it over and over. There are some unlockable characters for multiplayer, but there are significantly less than there were in Gears of War 3, especially considering you can no longer play Locust.

Final - 6/30 Heart Breaking
Being a large fan of the Gears franchise, and even having Baird as one of my favorite video game characters, playing this game was a large disappointment for me. Fans and newcomers alike should avoid this title and instead revisit Gears of War 3 if feeling nostalgic. You have been warned.

Recommended Buying Price: No more than 15$

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Tomb Raider 2013 (PC)

Reviewed on PC, available on Xbox 360, PS3, and PC

The controversial game heroin returns to set the record straight

The Tomb Raider franchise is one that has never interested me. I remember playing a few of the former games briefly, and getting bored fast. The games were increasingly bland, and the franchise seemed to be dead after the release of its successor series, Uncharted. So how does this reboot fair against a skeptical fan base that has moved on?

Let's start with our protagonist, Lara Croft, who is a budding archaeologist following in her family's footsteps. After a tragic shipwreck, her and the rest of the crew are stranded on a mysterious island somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. Its quickly made apparent that the island has a very strong "Lost" feel, where there is a lot going on that cannot be explained with logic.

Make no mistake - this game is dark
After a few cut scenes, we learn that the island is inhabited by a legion of fanatic cultists. They are deadly, they are unpredictable, and they are scared of something.. greater.. on the island. Lara, previously unskilled in any survival techniques, gradually learns how to maintain and defend herself from the danger that hides around every corner. Her weapon of choice is the Bow and Arrow, and although a handful of other weapons are included in the game, her Bow remains her primary weapon.

Hunting provides Lara with experience to improve her skills

The island itself is detailed greatly, with tons of historically accurate features. Caverns are dark and wet, cliffs are narrow and frail, forests are lush and eerie. Ancient Japanese cities, medieval galleons and frigates, World War II bunkers and tanks, and industrial science facilities are common sights on the island. Lara can find collectible items and analyze them, giving some insight as to what may have transpired over the course of centuries. There is a ton to discover in each of the many playgrounds the game provides.

Gameplay - 8/10
Exploration and platforming take front in center, and are easily the most enjoyable and rewarding part of the entire game. Combat is smooth and often satisfying, although it gets repetitive. Weapons, except the bow, are largely uninteresting. The skill tree is functional, although mostly bland in choices. The A.I. can be interesting, but far from surprising. Most of the flaws are easily overshadowed by how fun the game can be.

Design - 12/10 (Extra Credit)
I cannot stress enough the amount of detail put into every ounce of this game. The environment is detailed to the max without being a chain of hallways that many games resort to. Tons of historical accuracy is woven beautifully into the game's fictional lore. This is an experience sought out by many, many game developers, but achieved by few.

Replay - 6/10
There are a lot of collectibles to be had, but don't serve much purpose post-game unless you are achievement hunting. Some players may desire a second play through, but one was enough for me after the plot came to a close. There's a multiplayer, but I have no intentions of ever playing it, personally.

Final - 26/30 Nearly Legendary
The pros far outweigh the cons in this high-quality reboot. Having made a full 180 on my expected experience, I now eagerly await the next installment. This game isn't perfect, but is still leaps and bounds above all other competitors of the genre. I highly recommend this game to former fans and skeptics alike.

Recommended Buying Price: No more than 40$