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$

Assassin's Creed (PS3, Xbox 360)

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

The game that would spawn a franchise
I have to admit, I was highly resistant to playing Assassin's Creed upon it's initial release. But after a few months, I borrowed the game from a friend, and became instantly hooked. Now, after announcing its 6th console installment, Assassin's Creed has become one of the longer game series to hit console. While each game is arguably improved from the last, the original will always be the top to me personally.

Enter the ancient world of Altaïr, a highly professional and experienced member of a group of assassins. The village where the assassins are based is attacked by the Templars - an ancient religious crusade that is bent on control over the region. Events occur, and Altaïr is charged with gathering information about high value targets, ultimately leading to their assassinations. Although this is a generalization, it summarizes the core of the game pretty well.

Restraint allows you to hide in plain sight

Stealth is a primary factor in Assassin's Creed, ranging from unnoticed to high target. Although Altaïr is more than capable of handling himself in a direct fight, the enemy is numerous and persistent. It's best to lose the enemy in the crowd, hide in a well, or run far away until your status has returned to an anonymous rating. There are a large amount of ways to hide yourself, and many of them are amusing when successful.

Enemies are numerous when discovered

But it seems there is always a downside to great games, and in Assassin's Creed, the downside comes in the form of a strange sci-fi twist. Desmond is your average guy living in modern times who is somehow related to the ancient assassin Altaïr. He is being forced by a shadowy organization to relive the memories of his DNA via some advanced machinery. This entire mini story is muddy at best, and frequently pulls away from the real game to annoy you with vague dialogue.

Scenery is gorgeous, and cities are busy

Gameplay - 9/10
There is rarely anything quite as pleasing as lunging two stories and diving your blade into the neck of an evil overlord. Stealth and assassinations are definitely the highlight to game play, with lots of side quests and things to do. Direct combat can become obnoxious at times, and the game itself begins to become repetitive after a certain point. All these points taken into account, the game still deserves a high score for satisfaction.

Design - 8/10
The visuals and sounds are high quality and fitting. The interface is smooth and carries the appropriate theme for the game. Story wise, it gets a little repetitive in the middle, but shines at the beginning and end. Cities are busy and filled with dozens of people at any time, while looking fantastic from any angle. Character personalities are general, with no real complexity. Everything with Desmond's story is pretty pointless and unnecessary in all honesty.

Replay - 6/10
After the game, there are collectibles you can run around and collect, along with achievement hunting like usual. Other than that, not much value from replaying.

Final - 23/30 Good but not perfect
Like most single player games, this game is great the first time around. The experience of hunting from the shadows and hiding in plain sight definitely feels pretty bad ass. Visuals are great and cinematic quality at almost all times. To truly enjoy this game, its best to continue with the sequels, and I highly recommend this game to anyone who enjoys stealth or action games.

Recommended Buying Price: No more than 20$

Heavy Rain (PS3)

Reviewed on PS3, available on PS3

Before I owned my PS3, my friends spoke of Heavy Rain as some sort of revolutionary new title that will break and reform the industry. After playing the demo at a friend's house, I was intrigued enough to convince  myself to buy a PS3 and the game. My result (after completing this game) was the experience of a truly unique game, although clearly with its flaws.

Heavy Rain is a story-based game, where actions develop into consequences that ultimately fully create the ending (be it a happy or dark twisted ending). Players will control 1 of 4 characters to guide their interactions with their environment, and choices through dialog or action scenes. During action scenes, buttons will flash on the screen (typically to avoid danger of some sort) and give the players only a moment to correctly react.

Can I be a good father to my son?
Often times failing to correctly react only suffers a minor consequence:
  • Your character receives a black eye or a cut
  • Your character drops their bag of groceries
  • Your character drives their car through construction
But on occasion, major consequences will be had:
  • Your character shoots someone innocent
  • Your character is arrested by the police
  • Your character is killed
So let's say your specific character is killed by a psychopathic murder, what happens now? The story continues and the game goes on. There is never a "game over, you lose" screen due to your action (or inaction). In fact, if you really wanted to, its possible to play and have all 4 of the character die. The game's world is yours to bend, be it intentionally, or unintentionally.

The choice is yours, but nothing is black-and-white in this game.

Gameplay - 8/10
While understanding the game is a little rough (and dull) at the beginning, the game eventually becomes familiar and very intense. The suspense grows increasing more with every chapter, and the game becomes difficult to put down. Downsides consist mostly of trying to correctly perform an action, and accidentally (and repetitively) doing it incorrectly. These difficulties are often more humorous than trouble, and did not affect the flavor of the game for me personally.

Design - 12/10 (Extra credit)
Although graphics are not an all-time high, details definitely are here. Characters display emotion well, and the music is fitting and filled with emotion. Voice acting is done well all across the board, and the story is dark and involving. Environments are detailed, and often prompt a ton of interactions. Scenery's lighting changes with the story, from bright and optimistic, to dark and twisted.

Replay - 4/10
It is tempting to go back and change elements of the story to see what the result may be. What if I don't dodge that punch? What if I crash the car? What if I let this person die? The combinations and results feel overwhelming, but ultimately the story is truly at its best the first time around. There wasn't really any demand for DLC, and therefore the game is best kept to lend to friends or revisit the experience after time.

Final - 24/30 Definitely Worth Playing
In my opinion, there is no video game with a story as powerful as Heavy Rain's. You are drawn in, you feel apart of what is happening - because you are. Choices range from shaking the orange juice, to self mutilation and suicide. There truly aren't many other words to describe this game without ruining it, so I'll just leave it with this - play this game.

Recommended Buying Price: No more than 20$

Unholy War (PS1)

Reviewed on PS1, available on PS1

I came across this classic in my youth, and had no idea what I was getting in to. Unholy War is a turn-based strategy/action game, developed by Crystal Dynamics (at the time, quite the heavy hitter in the game industry). This game took me by surprise, with high quality 3D graphics, highly refined characters, multiple game modes, and smooth game play. Unfortunately, the game was released before 4-player was standard for PS1, and thus was strictly duel-style showdowns.

The primary mode for this game was strategy mode. Players would pick their team: either the beast and tribal Arcane, or the technological invaders Tekno. Both sides composed of 7 characters each (total 14) of which were totally unique and did not have reflections of themselves on the opposing team. Even to this day, its practically unheard of to have a strategy game where the teams aren't copy-and-paste of each other, save for a few minor changes.

Strategic mode allowed resource collection and unit training

The maps were typically symmetrical grids, with each side having its own base. Resources could be gathered from particular nodes, and characters would be created and moved along the grid to engage each other. The position of two characters who were fighting one another would define what setting they would battle in once the fight began.

Stages were varied and unique from each other

When two characters engaged each other, the game switches from an over-the-top strategy into a 3-dimensional, fast-paced action game. The player(s) are given direct control over their character, and must use their characters abilities and the terrain to kill their opponent. Strengths and weaknesses really come into play here, and the winner of the fight remains on the board (damage intact) whilst the loser is destroyed.

Showdown between invading machine and native beast

Gameplay - 10/10

To this day, strategy games fail to pull me in like Unholy War did, missing the depth and connection to each and every unit you have on the battlefield. The A.I. was neither too easy nor too hard, and played in a competitive manner. For player vs. player, it was exciting, competitive, and involving. This is all the more impressive, considering it is a console game (considered to be poor for strategy games). For a gameplay score, Unholy War receives a perfect score.

Design - 8/10

Visually, the game's characters was remarkable. Each had tons of personality poured into its being, giving you a full sense of what or who you are supposed to be playing as. The 3D battle environments were also very well detailed, from rocks, trees, and streams in a field, to conveyor belts and neon green lights of the techno factories. Sound effects were also strong and fitting in all cases. The only thing stopping a perfect score here was the slightly dull layout of the strategy maps, and the often dull music. Also, the story's entire plot was "fight fight fight" with no real progression or purpose. These flaws are easily overlooked considering the rest of this impressive game.

Replay - 7/10

The entire campaign is fun in doses, and both sides are entirely worth playing. Unfortunately, there are only so many ways you can play each map, and thus strategy mode quickly loses its edge when playing against the computer. When against another player, or when playing in Arcade mode (consisting entirely of just 3D battles) the replay value significantly increases. The only real problem that arises here is discouragement when one player clearly has a skill advantage over another.

Final - 25/30 Outstanding Game
It is unfortunate that Unholy War did not receive the notice it deserved, perhaps due to being ahead of its time. The game is a classic that I had the fortune of coming across, and still play to this day. I have yet to see another game attempt to become the spiritual successor of Unholy War, most likely due to the twin gameplay aspects being threatening to the console gaming demographic. If you have the extra 20-30$ to spare, buy this game off of eBay or Amazon, invite a friend over, and pop this bad boy into your PS3.