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The launch of Gears of War: Judgment is nigh upon us, and though our written and video reviews aren't ready just yet, the review embargo has lifted, and I wanted to share some of my impressions of the game with you. Judgment feels like a Gears of War game all right, complete with weighty weapons, brutal executions, and armored characters sliding heavily into and around cover. The refined mechanics that define the series are still going strong, but the campaign structure diverges significantly from Gears' past, making Judgment feel like something different.
Set before the events of the first Gears of War, Judgment tells the story of Kilo Squad, a group of four COG soldiers who are being court-martialed by a stern colonel who looks like Rhett Butler from Gone With the Wind. As each soldier gives testimony, you play as him or her and go through the actions being recounted. Series veterans Baird and Cole are joined by newcomers Sophia, a recruit in the elite Onyx Guard, and Paduk, a former UIR soldier and enemy of the COGs who now fights alongside them. They make a decent crew, and Paduk's heavily accented jabs at his former foes are often amusing.
As you make your way through the campaign, it quickly becomes clear that the structure of the action is fundamentally different. Rather than simply following one continuous story, Judgment breaks up the action into distinct sections linked by short walk-and-talks. These sections begin with the option to add a difficulty modifier and end with a scoreboard.
The difficulty modifier is cast as declassified testimony, so it might say something like "Kilo Squad alleges that the Locust were using heretofore unseen tactics" or "Paduk says they were only able to find shotgun ammunition in the area." Accepting these modifiers changes the conditions of the combat encounter to come. Lower visibility, tougher enemies, limited ammunition, strict time limits, and specific weapons are some examples of the varied limitations you might face. These often make things harder, and generally feel like a welcome challenge for confident players on normal difficulty. On harder difficulties, they make things much more difficult, especially if you are striving for a three-star rating.
Indeed, it's the scoring element that really sets these sections apart. During the action, miniature leaderboards pop up in the corner, comparing your stats (headshots, executions, kills, and so on) to other players on your friends list. Once you've completed a given stretch, the action pauses, and a scoreboard pops up to tally your stats. You're assigned up to three stars and given the chance to try again. When you move on, things pick up where you left off with continuing testimony, and the story proceeds.
The overall feeling then is not so much seamless campaign story as it is story-driven arcade mode. Judgment treats you less like a soldier on a mission and more like a performer showing off combat skills. It's an odd sensation, but it seems to fit with the narrative structure of giving testimony. The Gears are recounting their combat exploits in detail, and what Gears wouldn't want to talk themselves up?
I'm enjoying the campaign, different as it is, and have also had some fun with the new Overrun multiplayer mode. With up to five COG and five Locust players, this team-based competitive mode recalls the cooperative Beast mode from Gears of War 3, only with human opponents. Playing as the different species and varieties of Locust as you try to break open the locked-down emergence holes is still a gruesome, sinister treat. Combating human players in Locust form as the COG team is also more engaging, and the four specific classes of soldier depend on each other in ways that are important to survival. Matches can come down to the wire and create some truly exciting moments, and I'm looking forward to playing more of this and other competitive modes as I prepare to write the full review.
That review will be coming in the next few days, but until then, I hope these impressions will tide you over. Judgment plays with the Gears of War formula in a few interesting ways, so those fearing just another familiar Gears game may be pleasantly surprised. Share your thoughts in the comments below, and keep an eye out for the review coming soon.
Hi GameSpot readers!
Yesterday, we posted our review of Natural Selection 2--but unfortunately, it's come to our attention that the review contained several inaccuracies. We take our reviews seriously, and we stand by our reviewers' critical analyses and writing abilities. However, our greatest responsibility is to you, our readers and viewers. We own up to our mistakes, and in light of the errors in the Natural Selection 2 review, we have chosen to remove the review and assign it to another author.
I apologize for the inaccuracies in the review. We look forward to publishing a replacement review once we have had a chance to fully explore Natural Selection 2.
Kevin VanOrd, Senior Editor
I have a soft spot for Max Payne. Perhaps it's the nostalgia talking (it could be the three pints and a burrito I had for lunch), but the thought of Max with his growling New York accent, his ability to break the laws of physics, and his complete disregard for human life fills me with joy. Or maybe that's indigestion.
Still, if there's one thing I love more than anything about Max, it's his face. Look at it, all smug and knowing and resembling Play-Doh smeared over a cardboard box by a preschooler. It's a reminder that back in the day developers didn't need millions of polygons to make an endearing character, but just enough to form a cube suitable for plastering with a gurning texture of a semi-attractive member of staff like Sam Lake.
So imagine my joy when I leapt onto the App Store and discovered that Max Payne in all his block-headed glory was available to download for iPad and iPhone for the princely sum of £1.99. And with Retina display support! I almost did a little wee. Though that was probably the beer again.
As I soon discovered, it's quite the port. Everything you loved about Max Payne has been faithfully updated and given an HD makeover. On a Retina display iPad or iPhone it looks incredibly sharp. No, you won't be fooled into thinking it's a current-generation game or anything, but it's impressive nonetheless.
Even its touch-screen analogue sticks work a treat. Compared to the mobile version of GTA III, they feel much more responsive. Answering the endless string of phones in the tutorial is child's play, and the layout of the virtual buttons for shooting, jumping, and activating bullet time is intuitive. Their size and position are customisable too, should the default layout not be to your liking. Plus, there's an automatic lock-on system, which makes aiming and shooting that little bit easier.
So, great visuals, a decent set of controls, and a brilliantly gritty storyline (more on that in our original review) at a bargain price. Really, the only reason not to download it is if you have some weird hatred of Sam Lake. And look at him. Look at Sam Lake's face. Look into those eyes and tell him you don't want to download his game. Impossible.
Max Payne is out now on Android and iOS. Download it now. Sam Lake compels you.
Earlier this month, the Back to Karkand downloadable content for Battlefield 3 arrived on the Xbox 360, PC, and PlayStation 3. The pack includes four maps (remastered from their Battlefield 2 incarnations), three new vehicles, a handful of new guns, and a new gimmick for unlocking said guns. Any BF3 owner who bought (or buys) the Limited Edition of the game (which costs the same as the non-limited edition and is still available) is entitled to download Back to Karkand for free. Anyone else hoping to play these maps will have to pony up about $15 for the privilege, but if you're still interested in Battlefield 3 multiplayer, it's a good buy. Read on to find out more about Back to Karkand and see if you agree.
The main selling point of Back to Karkand is the maps. Wake Island, Gulf of Oman, Sharqi Peninsula, and Strike at Karkand all appeared in Battlefield 2, and while they are all easily recognizable to those who knew them well, each has received a significant visual overhaul for Back to Karkand. Wake Island, for example, ditches the saturated colors of its appearance in Battlefield 1943, offering instead a more washed-out, war-ravaged setting for battle. Though the maps all look good, visual appeal isn't the reason you'll keep coming back.
That distinction belongs to the environmental design. With the exception of the fairly barren Wake Island, the urban spaces in each map create superb venues for firefights of all sizes. The narrow streets and alleys of Strike at Karkand offer close-quarters building-to-building combat, and taking a light vehicle or tank through the streets is both dangerous and deadly. One-third of the city is at a lower elevation than the rest, so ramps and stairwells are key to navigation. A low-lying marketplace feels similar to Grand Bazaar, but Strike at Karkand outclasses that map in both size and complexity.
Gulf of Oman is another large map with dense urban combat opportunities, but a wide freeway running through it gives it a more open feeling. This feeling is augmented by the surrounding desert, which provides a quick way to flank your enemies if you are willing to leave yourself and your passengers exposed. The desert buggy vehicle has speed enough to make such runs feasible, though gunners will find the restricted turret movement limits their effectiveness. Large matches on Gulf of Oman are also great places to hop into the STOVL fighter jet and try your hand at hovering.
Sharqi Peninsula also boasts urban combat areas, including a few multistory buildings without any walls, which afford a greater field of view at the expense of cover. Sharqi even goes so far as to place some capture points above ground level, making the approach to the TV station perched on a hill even more perilous. And as anyone who watched our Now Playing for Back to Karkand on the PS3 knows, Sharqi's hotel pool is a hazard drivers would do well to avoid.
Wake Island's lack of tall buildings and flanking aircraft carriers make air combat particularly fierce, especially on big Conquest matches. Back to Karkand also includes the Conquest Assault mode, which is a variation on Conquest with fewer capture points. Furthermore, one team starts with control of every point (and the ability to spawn at each one), while the other starts with more respawn tickets. This twist drastically changes the initial conflict in a match; rather than everyone scrambling to grab points, you have an attacking force trying to oust entrenched defenders. It's a great variation, though it may make you yearn for the larger scale of Conquest.
None of the new guns are real game-changers, but some folks will no doubt be delighted to see the FAMAS and PP-19 back in action. To unlock the new weapons, however, you'll have to target your battlefield efforts more specifically. There are 10 assignments divided into five pairs; you must complete one to make the other available. Tier one conditions are generally lighter (for example, perform 10 heals and 10 revives) while tier two conditions are more time-consuming (for example, 100 kills with light machine guns, 50 suppression assists, and 50 ammo resupplies). Tying unlocks to specific feats is uncharacteristic of the Battlefield series, but it's nice to have something to strive for even after you've played a ton of multiplayer.
Fifteen bucks may seem like a lot for four maps and a few other new bits, but the high quality of the maps makes it a reasonable proposition. Each one offers a great diversity of combat spaces that makes them feel more replayable than the original BF3 maps, so if you're itching to get into some excellent multiplayer action, Back to Karkand is a good bet.
Hey all! It's unusual for us to take down a review, but we unfortunately had to do so today with our review of All Zombies Must Die, an unreleased Xbox Live Arcade game. The reason for this has nothing to do with the content of the review but, rather, a miscommunication regarding the review's embargo date.
If you don't know what an embargo is, here's the gist: Publishers and developers sometimes give us advance review code of their games. The twist is that we can't publish it whenever we want but, rather, at a specified time provided by the publisher or developer. (Of course, once a game is on shelves, it's fair game.) The original embargo date and time provided to us for All Zombies Must Die was today, December 21, at 9:00 a.m. Pacific Time. As it turns out, the embargo was changed because the game was delayed, but we didn't receive the notification sent to various publications.
Out of respect for the developer of the game, we have decided to unpublish the review until the new embargo time has arrived. When it does, the review will be published without change. I just wanted to make sure we were being as transparent as possible about the circumstance. If you have any questions, you are always welcome to send me a private message (username: kevin-v).
And in case I don't get another opportunity to say so: Happy Holidays!
-Kevin VanOrd, Senior Editor
Believe me, I know how you must feel. The gag that kept me from extolling the virtues (and lamenting the missteps) in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword has been removed, and yet I don't have a full critique ready to go, complete with numerical ranking. The review embargo was lifted earlier today, and I had planned to have my analysis up by now, but there's still more ground for me to cover in this lengthy adventure before I can offer up my last word. I'm sure you're just as disappointed as I am with this development, and possibly much more so, given many individuals' insatiable love for prerelease information, but it's a situation that cannot be avoided.
As of this writing, I am just a shade under 37 hours into my sky-faring quest, and I'm currently trying to figure out how to open the door to the sixth dungeon. As a rule, a frog's thirst can't be quenched with a small amount of water, and wouldn’t you know it, a thirsty amphibian is guarding my path onward. If only there were a bright gold doorknob, maybe with a triforce insignia etched in the surface, to guide me to my next objective. But things are rarely that obvious in Zelda games. As soon as I wrap up this blog post, I'll once again dive into Link's latest adventure and hopefully grab hold of the elusive solution that has momentarily halted my progress, but I thought I'd give you a few of my thoughts before getting back to business.
I've been playing Zelda games for almost 24 years, but I don't remember ever laughing quite so hard in any of my previous experiences. There's some deceptively good writing in Skyward Sword, with subtle jokes often layered into dialogue that hits me a minute or two after the fact. My favorite of these is as much of a visual gag as it is a written one and is quite juvenile, but that doesn't diminish its comedic value one bit. I won't spoil too much of the surprise; just know there is more than one use for a love letter, and some of it can be rather foul.
As good as the writing is, no one plays Zelda games solely for their stories. It's the sense of adventure that is the biggest draw, and it's the secret-filled world that is primarily to blame for my not having finished the game just yet. There is always a new distraction luring me away from the main plot in Skyward Sword, and it's that urge to discover every hidden aspect that makes it so difficult to resist. During my exploits yesterday, I spent a good half hour trying to make my way into an oversized bird's nest to procure a baby's rattle. It may sound like a fool's errand, but I was nicely rewarded for my derring-do.
However, you don't come across side missions quite as organically as in many of the previous games. The fractured overworld lacks a sense of cohesiveness, and most of the floating islands are decidedly barren except for a lone treasure chest sitting in an open field. You usually learn about quests by tromping around the main city, Skyloft, and talking to citizens that have thought bubbles over their heads. There isn't the same sense of discovery you might find in Twilight Princess or Ocarina of Time, for instance, where just riding through the countryside could lead you to a hidden cave, mysterious lake, or some other natural wonder.
The overworld is closer to that of Spirit Tracks than previous console games, though you thankfully have much more freedom to move around than those confining rails allowed. Despite the more restrictive nature, there is still a strong push to try your hand at every optional mission because you never quite know what task you'll be handed. Some of them, such as carrying pumpkins, are quite lame, whereas others, such as a baffling one in which you essentially deal steroids to an out-of-shape friend, are intriguing enough that you'll be hanging on every word. Roughly half of the game seems to be made up of these side projects, and they're interesting enough to make ignoring the main quest line for hours at a time fun while you suss out the secrets of this crazy land.
I fear I'm getting a little too specific for my own good now. I don't want to commit to an overly strong position before I wrap up this game, so I must cut off this blog post and get back to adventuring. Look for a full review sometime next week, complete with a breakdown on how well the controls function, the complexity of the dungeons, and whether the bosses are giant pushovers or worthy foes. I can tell you that I am thoroughly enjoying my time with the game. Now proceed to dissect my words to parse out exactly what score I will give and hope time flies by until you can get your own hands on The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.
If you're anything like most of us at GameSpot, you can't wait to get your hands on Battlefield 3 next week. You might also be expecting to check out reviews of the game this side of the weekend, but I'm afraid that's not going to happen.
Just yesterday we received an email asking us to confirm our mailing address because review copies of Battlefield 3 are coming soon. More specifically, the email explained that the game will be making its way to our mailboxes "early next week." In case any of you have lost track of time during this busy fall season, Battlefield 3's release date of October 25 is also "early next week." Clearly, receiving a game so close to its release makes it impossible for us to deliver a timely review.
The silver lining here is that Electronic Arts' thinking behind not sending out copies of the game early appears to be very much in line with our own reviews policy. Day-one updates sometimes make it hard for us to review the exact same game that you'll be playing on launch day, but we never knowingly review from unfinished builds of games, and on consoles we always insist on testing copies that will run on retail hardware (as opposed to debug/test kits) before committing to a review score. EA and DICE want to make sure that everyone reviews the game that you'll be playing at launch rather than the game that's on your disc, and we really can't fault them for that. Here's the official line:
Copies are set to arrive on Tuesday because there is a Day 1 update. DICE are perfectionists -- they will not stop polishing the game until it is in your hands. The Day 1 update incorporates real-time feedback from the beta, ensuring that the consumer experience on launch day is outstanding. It is the actual consumer experience that we wish to be reviewed. The game with the Day 1 update will be available for review on Oct. 25.
At the time of writing it looks like we might be able to get our hands on a PC version of the game (complete with launch-day patch) this side of the weekend, which is great news for our reviewer and for any of you hoping to read a review before making a purchase. Where the console versions are concerned, though, it looks like we'll be stepping out onto the battlefield for the first time alongside many of you.
My colossi-killing blade had gone rusty since I last put it to use six years ago. I found myself wandering through a graveyard meadow in search of another behemoth to cross off my list. Dappled patches of sunlight flitted through the trees, illuminating mounds of earth that resembled Hobbit homes. When I crossed a barrier separating this quiet oasis from my prey, the camera pulled back to reveal a stone-encrusted beast resting on its haunches. It looked like a horse with trusses dangling off its face, and it moved with the awkward grace of a just-born lamb. It was as angry as it was confused and wanted little more than to banish me from its home so it could resume its slumber.
I couldn't figure out how to slay this beast. Each hoof stomp shook the screen, threatening my life with every thunderous blow, but I couldn't find a weakness. Its back was covered with hair, but it was dozens of feet above the earth. How could I, an ordinary man, attempt to reach such a lofty height? I brandished my trusty bow and sent a few piercing arrows sailing toward its thick hide, but it remained unperturbed. My limitations were overwhelmingly apparent. I was no threat to this gargantuan foe. I was but a mere fly, a pest that abruptly awakened it and could do nothing to topple it.
And then, when another crashing hoof landed dangerously close to my fragile body, I was forced to dive into the Hobbit hole. An ascending staircase awaited me, and because my equine match was still snorting and stamping outside, I figured it was worth exploring. Down the stairs I ran, pursuing a dusty, dreary path. I sprinted up the hallway as I looked for something of value to make this trip worthwhile but could only find another staircase. This one led up; I took it, two stairs at a time, and emerged in a clearing a little away from the horselike creature. Its back was turned toward me, its legs squatted, as it searched the hole I had disappeared down. My opportunity had presented itself.
Once I figured out what to do, the focus shifted to pure action as I found myself clutching onto its hindquarters with every ounce of my strength. It grunted and screamed, shook its body, stamped its foot, and let out a frustrated growl. But it was no use. I slowly mounted my opponent, desperately grabbing fistfuls of its hair when it tried to shake me off, making slow progress when it stilled itself.
Shadow of the Colossus is a puzzle game wrapped in an adventure brought to life by stunning artistic design and evocative music. Everything is a struggle in this game. Your controls are restricted by the realistic animations, so you can't scamper where you please as other games so willingly allow. You fight for each yard of turf you conquer, and once you find the glowing weak spot that beckons you forward, you still have to steady your sword and hang on tight to have any success. Movement is handled so differently in Colossus from other games that it can be frustrating at first, but once you understand that grip is not infinite--that you can be thrown clear from these towering bodies if you get cocky--you learn to love what it delivers. When I finally plunged my sword into its broad backside and it fell to the ground, I felt a mixture of elation and grief. I had slain the beast, but at what cost?
Six years after it first came out, Shadow of the Colossus is still a unique experience that has no peers. Sure, you can point to the boss fights in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow or maybe Kratos' struggles with titans in God of War III, but the superficial similarities only hint at the wonders found in Shadow of the Colossus. This was an incredible game when it first came out on the PlayStation 2, and it's only more impressive today. It's an emotionally riveting experience that is not only eminently satisfying while you're playing, but it also stays with you long after you put the controller down. I know I haven't been able to get it out of my head since I saw the first colossus years ago.
Shadow of the Colossus appears for the first time on PlayStation 3 alongside its spiritual predecessor. ICO was initially released ten years ago, and didn't have a very strong emotional connection to it. When it first came out, I spent less than an hour with it, realized it was an escort game, and put it permanently back on my shelf. I was young and foolish then, and I'm not proud of my actions, but after sinking a few hours into the HD remake, I realize the error of my ways.
The scope of Ico is much smaller than that found in Colossus. There are no giant monsters to slay, no vast expanses to explore. Rather, you're confined to a castle with a girl who doesn't speak your language. It's an odd concept, but it's executed brilliantly. I was immediately drawn to this strange girl, Yorda, even though we couldn't communicate. You feel like you have to protect and care for her because demons will banish her to the netherworld if you are not vigilant. It's an interesting conceit, and though it does lead to moments of frustration when she refuses to come as you beckon, it's usually empowering and engrossing.
Both of these games have stood up to the ravages of time remarkably well. Strong game design has the ability to transcend eras, but it's the artistic touches that are most striking. Although they don't offer the technical showcase of other PlayStation 3 games, both of these games are still beautiful. Both use a subtle color palette that draws you in without being flashy. Grays and browns are the predominant colors, and there's a dank dusting over every object. It's somber, and the music feeds into this tone. There's a feeling of helplessness and intimidation in both games that makes it easy to connect with the characters and inhabit their struggles.
Aside from the touched-up visuals, there are a couple of other enhancements. For those with state-of-the-art televisions, there is an option to toggle on 3D visuals. This isn't particularly impressive in Ico, a small and intimate game that doesn't push the boundaries of the space you inhabit. But it's a sight to behold in Shadow of the Colossus. You feel just how large these beings are when you're riding on their heads hundreds of feet in the air, and you almost feel as if you're going to be touched by vertigo if you look down too suddenly. There's also behind-the-scenes footage of the creation process of these two classics, which is certainly interesting if you wonder how people could craft something so exquisite.
The bonuses are nice, but the reason to own this package is that both games in it need to be experienced. It doesn't matter if you've played through both already or are taking this journey for the first time; these unique and incredible games are unlike anything else out there. They are in turns stunning, somber, and outright thrilling. I can't recommend them enough, and they are a great tease for the upcoming spiritual successor, The Last Guardian.
The soul harbors many mysteries.
It's appropriate, then, that Dark Souls harbors a multitude of them as well. I've been playing the follow-up/non-sequel to Demon's Souls for over a week now, and I have uncovered some of this game's secrets, but many horrors and delights still await. Demon's Souls sunk its claws into me, poisoning me with its glory. That game coursed through my veins so that I was living it--feeling it--whether I was at work or at play. How impressive that Dark Souls' invasion of my being is even more complete than I thought possible. I breathe this world; it fills my lungs until I am high on the dread and fear it instills in me. This might be the most terrifying game you'll ever play.
A full review comes next week, but for now, I wanted to give you a taste of this action role-playing game's delicious stench. Explaining how a stench can be delicious is difficult, but if you played Demon's Souls, you might understand what I mean. The world has weight. The thick atmosphere burdens you. In the depths of Darkroot Forest, you walk cautiously, wondering when the foliage might turn homicidal. In the dreary burg of Blighttown, you can almost smell the swamp gas as you trudge through the marsh, fending off fire-breathing monsters on your way to the ghastly spider-lady who awaits at the end of your journey.
And through it all, you can expect to die. Often. Death is woven into the experience, though the particulars have changed. In Demon's Souls, death took you to the hub zone known as The Nexus. But Dark Souls is an actual world, rather than separate levels connected by a hub. After the tutorial, you begin the game proper at Firelink Shrine. You then set out to explore, making your way through the game's interconnected regions. Within them, you find bonfires, where you can rest, level up, replenish your supply of health flasks, resupply the number of spells you can cast, and perform a number of other tasks. (Though you do have to purchase the ability to do certain things, such as upgrade your equipment.) When you rest at a bonfire, you set it as your spawn point upon death. The caveat? Every time you rest--just like when you die--most creatures you defeated respawn, and you have to battle your way through them again.
And what a world this is; I am 80 hours in and still pushing ahead. Slowly. It's a treat to defeat a boss and encounter a new area, as well as the new creatures within it. Dark Souls is much, much larger and even more atmospheric than Demon's Souls. You explore a fortress filled with deadly traps and long-necked lizardmen; a valley infested with lightning-spewing drakes; a castle guarded by towering dark knights; and other incredible-looking regions. The creatures that murder you repeatedly are some of the most fabulous ever devised. You've seen rats before--but Dark Souls' rats? The glowing gashes infecting their skin make them more grotesque than garden-variety rats. Shambling undead, flame-spewing bugs, and giant trolls that roll boulders at you are just some of the standard enemies. But the bosses are something special. After many grueling attempts, I have triumphed over a humongous demon coated with flames; a gigantic wolf wielding a sword in its mouth; and a creature called a gaping dragon. I'll let you imagine what such a monstrosity might look like. Or better yet, allow me to show you:
Some mechanics have been changed, and others have been added. For instance, you earn a rare currency called humanity and use it to regain your human nature. Possessing humanity has its advantages, perhaps the handiest of which is the ability to "kindle" at a bonfire. Doing so increases the number of healing flasks you earn at a particular bonfire when resting. The covenant system is a brand new mechanic in which you align yourself with a particular faction. The reasons to join a faction are numerous. For example, I am currently in the Forest Hunter covenant, which allows me to traverse through certain areas without being attacked. There are multiplayer benefits as well, though at this early stage, those benefits aren't immediately obvious. (In some cases, you can have a beneficial effect in another player's world; in others, you gain access to unique spells.) I haven't yet experienced how covenants affect your interactions with other players, but betraying your covenant might have dire consequences.
As for standard multiplayer interactions, well, you still see ghosts of other players and encounter bloodstains that show you the final seconds of another player's life. You still may write messages to other players, as well as view and rate other messages. And you can still summon/be summoned to the worlds of other players--or invade them. Invasions have returned as well, but some parameters have changed. For instance, a key non-player character was killed in my game, and I was given the chance to invade the world of the phantom that assassinated her.
As you can tell, Dark Souls is complex, sometimes extraordinarily so. Everything you do has consequences, but sometimes, those consequences are a mystery. And that's part of the joy. You never know what is around the bend or what fate might befall you if you don't take care as you make your way through this extraordinarily challenging game. At one point, I had bizarre froglike creatures breathe a cursing mist all over me, causing me to become cursed. Becoming cursed means losing half of your health bar, and lifting the curse involved sprinting through the murky New Londo ruins, avoiding ghosts while seeking the special healer who could lift the curse. After idling for too long in a demon's abode, a bulbous growth sprouted on my head, and I could no longer equip a helmet. Now I have a giant tumor growing on my neck instead of a head and no access to the defensive benefits of the black-hemmed hood I love so much!
And yes, Dark Souls is exceedingly difficult, but it's almost always fair. Like Demon's Souls, it has its quirks. The lock-on system hasn't changed, so if you don't manage it properly, you might whip the camera around rather than target an enemy or lose your lock if a boss jumps too far away from you. And the frame rate can get a little rough from time to time, especially in Blighttown and Darkfalls Basin. But it rarely interferes with the combat, which is still ultraprecise. When you die--as you so often will--it is because you didn't manage combat properly. I could go on and on about Dark Souls and the unique pleasures within it. What game could make me shout, sweat, and gnash my teeth--and yet make me want to spend every waking hour playing it? What RPG could so forcefully break the rules we've come to expect from most games, yet never feel cheap or unfair? For now, I will simply say this: It's good. You'll find out just how good soon enough.
More than six years after my one and only playthrough of Resident Evil 4, I still have the most frightening moment seared into my memory. I had spent two straight days going through this utterly terrifying adventure with two of my best friends at the time. Tired from days sitting idle in front of the television, clenched muscles screaming for a minute's reprieve, I had immersed myself so completely into Leon Kennedy's struggles that I no longer had the barrier separating my reality from the game's fiction.
As it was my turn to play, I had the controller gripped tight in my hand, moving with the steady pace of a particularly slow snail. I was in an underground basement, lights flickering, unseen monsters lurking in the shadows. I didn't want to move forward, but I needed to, so I tapped the analog stick as slightly as I could, rounding every corner with the paranoid temperament of someone who is still fully alive, and wants to stay that way.
I came to a dumpster. It was green and, in ordinary circumstances, would look benign. But after hours of unexpected scares and horrific deaths, I knew better than to trust any container that could potentially house a monster. Slowly, excruciatingly so, I crept forward. Inches away, I tapped a button to peer inside, and, at the precise moment that Leon started to investigate this potential death trap, I felt a vibration in my leg.
I'm not ashamed of my reaction one bit. I screamed. I screamed long and loud, threw the controller across the room, and slid as quickly away from the television as I could. My utterly baffled friends watched my actions with a fear they hadn't experienced before. Had I finally lost it? After regaining my composure, I reached into my pocket, and extracted my cell phone. It was set on vibrate. My roommate wanted to know if I'd be back for dinner.
I tell this story now not because I'm proud of my actions (though I am), but because Resident Evil 4 has just been released (with an HD upgrade) for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. I have long considered this the finest horror game ever created, and one of the best games ever released for the GameCube (and PlayStation 2, for that matter). But after sinking a half dozen hours into this graphically enhanced adventure, I'm left wondering at what struck me so profoundly the first time through.
Before, I was so riddled with fear I couldn't even walk with the confident gait you would expect from a video game protagonist. Now, my pulse never rises above an ordinary, resting rate; I make Leon run the vast majority of the time. The haunting score, foreboding atmosphere, and creepy sound effects have little impact on my peace of mind, because there is little reason to worry about death. Ammunition is plentiful, enemies move in predictable patterns, and Leon is agile enough to dance away from most encounters. Outside of a tricky boss fight with a submerged, demonic fish, I have died only one time, and that was because I had become too cocky for my own good.
Resident Evil 4 is an incredible relic from a past that is worth remembering, but not revisiting. Stiff controls provide an artificial handicap when interacting with this world and straightforward level design requires little thought about where you need to go. Games have changed significantly from when RE4 was groundbreaking, and though many advances have been to the detriment of immersion (regenerating health comes to mind), controls have generally been improved upon, especially in shooters.
The easiest game to compare Resident Evil 4 to is another that I reviewed earlier this year: Shadows of the Damned. Shinji Mikami lent his talents to both games, and they have a similar emphasis on killing the undead from an in-close, third-person perspective. And though the visual design in RE4 is light-years ahead of its modern-day offspring, the moment-to-moment gameplay is far more rewarding in Damned. Both games are action focused and set in a horror universe, but RE4 hides from this marriage while Damned revels in it. Movement is much more satisfying in Shadows of the Damned, the weapons are more inventive, and the puzzle sequences are more intense. Larger bosses that are absolutely grotesque offer an amazing diversion from the typical combat, and an enticing score creates all types of moods. Damned sometimes tries to scare you, frequently tries to make you laugh, and is diverse enough to keep you guessing.
Resident Evil 4, in contrast, has one note: fear. It tries to scare you in the village and the castle, or out by the lake, and it does a fantastic job of making your blood rush. Or, at least it did the first time through. Now that I know what to expect, the anxieties have dissipated, and I'm left going through the motions, spending as much time fighting the controls as I do enemies. And for newcomers, there are certainly surprises to be found, but the core action is not particularly satisfying. The act of killing is rarely intense enough to get your palms sweating, and the clunky controls require too many excuses in this era. Your aiming cursor moves in fits and starts, creating a feeling that you're slightly out of control. The game compensates for these irregularities by snapping on to nearby enemies, but the act of aiming is so arduous that it removes much of the satisfaction.
The action is sadly stuck in the past, but updated visuals do look nice. Well-defined creatures exhibit the pain of battle quite well, holding their wounds or exploding in bloody bits of goo. However, the surrounding textures aren't quite as impressive. Low-detailed textures populate this world, and you don't have to investigate too closely to see how blurry they appear. Still, the visuals look good enough, just don't expect any "wow" moments.
Because the atmosphere in Resident Evil 4 is so expertly crafted, from the enemy design to the architecture to the music, I am still thoroughly enjoying my time with it. But I am not engrossed as I once was. I am not invested in Leon's struggles. Where once I jumped when my cell phone buzzed, now I stare sleepy eyed when an ambling zombie canters through a door. Resident Evil 4 is more of a historical curiosity than a captivating experience in 2011. If you haven't yet played this classic, I would recommend you download it for your preferred system posthaste, turn off the lights, and see firsthand what the hoopla is about. But if you already have fond memories, leave them locked away behind the rose-tinted glass of nostalgia and spare them the scrutiny of the harsh light of day.
I know what you're thinking: There can't be a review in progress for Age of Empires Online; it's free-to-play, and GameSpot doesn't review free-to-play games. Wrong. At least as of sometime next week when our review of Age of Empires Online is expected to post. We've largely ignored free-to-play games in the past, but they're becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish from retail games, and more importantly, some of them are a lot of fun. Reviews for these games won't be radically different from those that you already see on GameSpot, but there will undoubtedly be some subtle differences. Value for money isn't a consideration when a game costs nothing to play, for example, but whether or not these games can really be enjoyed for free definitely is.
There's no doubt that you can have fun playing Age of Empires Online without spending any money whatsoever, but both the promotion and pricing of its premium content options are aggressive. After choosing to play as either the Greeks (which I'm playing as currently) or the Egyptians, the game rarely misses an opportunity to remind you that for only $20 you can upgrade your chosen civilization to a premium civilization. What does that $20 buy you? You can use/equip rare and epic loot items that otherwise just sit in your inventory waiting to be sold, your inventory expands from a maximum of two warehouses to five, and otherwise unavailable buildings for your city grant you access to party PVP options and additional unit types and crafting options, to name but a few.
I spent maybe seven or eight hours playing for free before going premium, and right now I feel like that $20 was well spent. Other premium options right now include the Egyptian premium civilization for $20, a horde mode of sorts set on the island of Crete for $10, and four Empire Extras packs containing statues and plants for your customizable hub city that run $5 each. Launch offers include buying both premium civilizations and the Crete pack for $40, or paying $100 for everything that's available now and everything that's released in the next six months. Since I opted for that last option, I can tell you that this isn't just the most expensive free-to-play game I've ever played (World of Tanks is the only other one that I've spent money on to date); it's one of the most expensive games I've ever played, period.
Fortunately, I'm enjoying my time with Age of Empires Online. I like the colorful and cartoony visual style, the uncomplicated RTS gameplay, and the way that MMO staples like crafting, leveling, skill tree, questing, and loot have been incorporated. Repeatable quests are an MMO trope that I'm far less excited about, but they at least afford an opportunity to level up and grab more loot for my units if I get stuck on one of the more challenging campaign quests. For the moment, I'm also not having much fun with PVP. Almost every time I try it I get randomly matched up against an enemy several levels higher than I am, so not only are most of these guys better than me (I freely admit that my tendency to turtle doesn't seem well suited to AOE Online and I'm having trouble adjusting), but they're coming at me with units sporting better gear and, worse still, units that I don't even have access to yet. I daresay the odds will change in my favor at some point (I'm currently level 20, and the level cap is 40), but I don't particularly want to be matched up with opponents who are lower level than I am either.
Before delivering the full review next week I need to spend some more time with the Greek campaign, check out the Egyptians, get into some more PVP battles, and take advantage of the co-op option, which--based on what I read in the ever-present chat window--can make some of the challenging quests significantly easier. If you're already playing and happen to be on the Athens server, feel free to look me up and lend a hand. I'm playing as JusticeCovert.
After their unexpected debut in Call of Duty: World at War, Nazi Zombies became a beloved part of that game and were featured in numerous DLC packs. Call of Duty: Black Ops brought the undead back with a vengeance and has featured the shambling soldiers in previous downloadable content. Now the Rezurrection pack has arrived, and all five of the included maps are for cooperative zombie-killing play only. If you're more of a competitive multiplayer fan, then this DLC isn't for you. Rezurrection is a no-brainer for avid Zombies fans, but if you aren't sure you want to take up arms against the undead once more, read on to find out more about what Rezurrection has to offer.
Of the five maps in Rezurrection, only one is new. The Moon map starts off in Area 51, just before the arrival of the zombie horde. It may be tempting to try to earn some early points by sticking around, but it's advisable to make your stand near the teleporter, because things get out of control quickly. Once you are beamed up to the moon proper, you must scoot over and grab a pressurized external suit before you asphyxiate. Then, it's round-by-round zombie killing as per usual. The moon area is large compared to other zombie-killing arenas, and you travel through both indoor and outdoor spaces. Gravity is low, so you have to be careful when jumping or sprinting up staircases, because the time you spend airborne is time that you are slow and vulnerable. There are some new Wonder Weapons and a new perk (carry three weapons at a time!) available, as well as new enemies to contend with. Phasing zombies crawl along the ground and then teleport uncomfortably close to you, while astronaut zombies don a random gamertag from your friends list and shamble slowly after you. These undead astronauts are not as dangerous as George A. Romero was in the Call of the Dead DLC, but they're definitely still a threat. The longer you survive, the better your chances are of completing the various hidden tasks that reveal more about the strange saga of Zombies mode.
The moon is a novel place to kill zombies, but the other four maps in Rezurrection are much more familiar. Nacht Der Untoten, Verruckt, Shi No Numa, and Der Riese all appeared in Call of Duty: World at War, though most were available only through downloadable map packs. From a sprawling German factory to a remote swamp town, these four maps provide a good amount of variety, and folks who got their first taste of cooperative zombie killing in Black Ops will find plenty to like about the traps, perks, and Easter eggs these maps offer. Those revisiting these "remastered" versions with a veteran's eye won't find many significant differences, however. There are some updated weapons, and you now get to play as the quip-happy characters (Tank, Nikolai, Takeo, Dr. Richtofen) on every map, not just the ones released after their introduction. But these are still old maps that many players have experienced before, making the 15 dollar asking price seem steep.
There's no denying that Rezurrection delivers plenty of zombie-killing amusement, and each level offers a different spin on the action. Whether these levels are fresh new opportunities or stale retreads depends on your experience, and how enticing this DLC is hinges largely on your desire for more of Call of Duty's distinct brand of zombie annihilation. Though Zombies mode can definitely be entertaining, it does tend toward repetition, so Rezurrection's singular focus on zombie-killing and its high price limit its appeal to all but the most fervent zombicidal players.
Earlier this week, the Agents of Change downloadable content pack was released for Bethesda's class-based shooter, Brink. The pack includes two new maps, two new outfits, two new weapon attachments, and five new abilities, and I spent some time with each new element to see if Agents of Change is worth your time. Note that I didn't say "worth your money." Agents of Change is currently free to download for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC owners alike, though Bethesda has announced that it plans to charge 10 dollars for it once two weeks have passed. The only cost now is about five hundred megabytes of storage space. If you're still playing Brink actively, then the download is a no-brainer, but is it worth going back to the Ark if you've already moved on? Read on for descriptions of each shiny new element and how it fares on the battlefield.
First up, let's talk maps. Labs and Founders' Tower both take place in the well-manicured, Security-occupied areas of the Ark. In Labs, the Resistance is on a mission to steal a sample of Arkoral, the ivory-white substance that forms the floating structure of the Ark, and Security must stop them. In Founders' Tower, Security goes on the offensive as they try to break into the Resistance-occupied spire to prevent an explosive act of sabotage. Labs is the weaker of the two, and the two hotspots, both located in large indoor rooms with balconies offering elevated vantage points, feel overly similar. There's a lot of doorway combat in both of these areas, and not a lot of ways in or out, which makes the map feel limited.
Founders' Tower covers more ground, providing a more diverse combat experience. Security first infiltrates through a labyrinthine courtyard with a lot of different levels to traverse and then enters the tower proper for one of Brink's most vertical environments. Each floor isn't very spacious, so there's a lot of climbing and descending aided by an abundance of ramps, scaffolding, and construction material. Light characters can find a bunch of sneaky routes, which keeps the defenders on their toes and discourages pitched firefights. If you happen to spot a character in skinny jeans and runny clown makeup, don't worry. You haven't run into an Insane Clown Posse concert; you're just spotting one of the new outfits. Likewise you might see a crisply dressed bobby (read: British police officer) who looks like he's about to issue a citation.
The next two videos feature the new weapon attachments and abilities, respectively. After each video, I've included Brink's description of the item in question followed by a brief evaluation of whether it's fit for battle or best left on the customization shelf.
This replaces your normal weapon melee strike with a much more powerful stab. You'll no longer knock enemies down, but will do significantly more damage.
This bottom attachment can be used with assault rifles and submachine guns only. It certainly does pack a more powerful stab, and melee kills with this pointy prod yield a juicy squelching noise. It won't kill on the first hit unless your opponent is weakened, but it will, contrary to the description, knock your enemy down. A second hit is always fatal, and players who like to sprint in for the kill and slide-tackle opponents should find this useful. Those who prefer to avoid getting close because of the occasionally finicky melee mechanic should give this a pass, as it negatively affects your gun's stability and equip speed.
The weapon shield can protect you from direct enemy fire but does not provide complete protection.
This bottom attachment can be used only with assault rifles, so light characters can't make use of its mild protective powers. I found it came in handy during mid- to long-range firefights when I was crouched and shooting it out with another player. It definitely helps even the odds when trying to take out someone at a machine gun emplacement, but it is a huge drain on your equip speed.
Agents of Change brings one new ability for each category (universal and individual classes), but you have to be Rank 5 to use them. If you haven't maxed out at level 20 yet, you're going to need to get there before you can unlock these new additions. Agents of Change also raises the level cap to 24, giving maxed-out players a bit more room to accrue abilities.
Tactical Scanner - Universal
Tactical scanner lets you see class indicators for up to four buffs on enemy players when aiming at them, rather than just their health, letting you prioritize your targets more efficiently. Please note, if the enemy has more than four buffs, the scanner will not reveal the additional ones.
This is a small aid at best. In addition to seeing enemy health bars and class icons, you now see smaller class icons lined up underneath the health bar indicating what buffs the player has. It's tough to decipher the small icons in the heat of combat, and only slightly easier if you're sniping from longer range. But even if you aren't dissecting who has what buff, seeing a bunch of icons lined up over an enemy's head can make you a bit more cautious. If you're the kind of player who doesn't need reminding, however, there are better ways to spend your credits.
Napalm Grenades - Soldier
Napalm grenades blanket an area with fire that will damage all enemies who try to pass through it. The napalm will last for a short time and then burn out. There is a cooldown period between successive uses.
As any good soldier knows, throwing firebombs at your enemies is a fun and effective battlefield pastime. Unlike the Molotov cocktail, napalm grenades don't knock your enemies down. Instead, they do damage on explosion and leave nasty little fires burning on the ground. These fires are helpful for temporarily blocking doorways or scattering an enemy advance, but they burn for a disappointingly short amount of time (possibly making you yearn for the sticking power of the operative's caltrop grenades).
Field Regen Unit - Medic
Field regen units, when deployed, will automatically increase the health regeneration rate of any teammates nearby.
This is a great support tool and easily the most powerful ability Agents of Change has to offer. The field regen unit creates a cloud of increased metabolism vibes, helping any friendlies nearby heal faster and stay alive longer. Parking this bad boy near a contested entryway or in the middle of an allied sniper nest gives your team a significant edge in combat, and opposing players would do well to grenade any FRUs they see. This ability definitely earns a spot on your directional pad for its support capabilities, and the harvest of experience you reap for a well-placed FRU is a nice bonus.
Pyro Mine - Engineer
Pyro mines can be deployed like land mines but deal increased fire damage to enemies.
With a turret, land mines, and the new pyro mine in his directional pad, the engineer has the capability to make the battlefield a lot more dangerous. Once these mines explode, the result is similar to the soldier's napalm grenade. A damaging fire blazes strongly for a few long seconds but then is over too soon to confer a real tactical advantage.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicle - Operative
The UAV lets you place or remotely control a small spy drone. Any enemies the UAV sees, your teammates see. You can also remotely detonate it.
Tiny helicopters have found effective roles in many recent shooters, but the one in Brink is only so-so. Once you activate it, the little guy just sits there until you take remote control. Once it's airborne, any enemies you see will appear on your team's radar. It doesn't handle very well in flight, and you can't manually change the altitude, so you are left hovering at about head height without the ability to surmount obstacles or fly up to a second story. Whoever heard of a helicopter needing to take the stairs? The one redeeming feature is the remote detonation ability, which can easily kill an enemy or two if you are close enough. Also, there's no cooldown period on the UAV, so you can find a safe place and keep spawning little flying bombs until you run out of supplies.
Despite the uneven quality of the abilities, Agents of Change does provide some nice new toys to play with in Brink. If you're at all interested in revisiting the Ark, you should download this pack soon, because it's going to be free for only the next two weeks. It's definitely not worth the 10 dollars they are planning to charge for it, but if you've got some free hard drive space and a hankering for parkour gunfights, Agents of Change is a good bet.
BONUS: Achievement/Trophy List
Science Maven - Win Labs as both factions in Campaign mode
Towering Achievement - Win Founders' Tower as both factions in Campaign mode
A Burning Thing - Kill an enemy with a napalm grenade
Pyromancer - Kill an enemy with a pyro mine
Remote Control - Kill an enemy with a UAV
Mutual Support - Have a field regen unit buff more than three players simultaneously
Ark King - Reach level 24
Source: Comic book and nerd-culture enthusiast site The Quarter Bin.
What we heard: It's pretty clear that Capcom has something up its sleeve for Marvel vs. Capcom 3 at Comic-Con 2011. Both Capcom and Marvel will be hosting panel discussions at the event, and producer Ryota Niitsuma is scheduled to be on hand to deliver "fantastic news" about "future plans" for the crossover fighter. Now, it appears as if the companies' big announcement will be a Marvel vs. Capcom 3 redux, complete with an expanded roster and budget price point.
The Quarter Bin reports that Marvel and Capcom will announce Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 at next week's San Diego event. A rerelease akin to Super Street Fighter IV, Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 will reportedly include 12 additional characters on-disc. The original MVC3 included 38 playable characters, including downloadable fighters Jill Valentine and Shuma-Gorath.
Despite the added content, Capcom is apparently lowering the price for the game's rerelease. The Quarter Bin indicates that Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 will carry a $39.99 sticker tag, a move that falls in line with SSFIV's discount rate.
The official story: Capcom had not responded to a request for comment as of press time.
Bogus or not bogus: Looking not bogus. Capcom has a long tradition of rereleasing its fighting games with gameplay tweaks and expanded content, to substantial success. Expect more information at Capcom's Comic-Con panel, which is scheduled for 11 a.m. on Saturday, July 23. Marvel's talk will follow shortly thereafter at 12:30 p.m.
Shooter fans: Today was the day Crytek officially released its DirectX 11 update to Crysis 2--an update many a PC gamer believed should have been part of the game in the first place. Regardless, we took some time today to download both the DirectX 11 update and the high-res texture pack. And this Wednesday, there shall be even more downloadable happiness available, in the form of a mission editor, which I'm hoping to spend some time with, if time permits.
The updates add features you'd hope to see in a DirectX 11 game: tessellation, high dynamic range motion blur, improved water rendering, and more. In effect, the changes take an already attractive game and make it look even more stunning. Particle shadows and motion blur are particular striking in sequences with a lot of destruction, and the HDR post processing makes moving from a darker area into an area bathed in sunlight momentarily breathtaking. My work PC took only the slightest frame rate hit when compared to the original, only rarely dropping under a solid 60 frames per second.
The recent trailer does a good job of comparing the enhancements. In addition, we took a few gameplay movies and screens for you to gaze at, though the differences at a glance will likely be minimal to those not searching for them. I am hoping to get some pre- and post-patch screens tonight to share tomorrow, but I hope you enjoy these in the meanwhile!
GameSpot reviews editor Justin Calvert detailed last week how the evolving nature of games--and game publishers--makes the reviews process a challenge greater than it typically was in the past. His words stand on their own, so I needn't repeat them, but they do bear on our attempt to provide a timely review of The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. While we ideally would have had the game for weeks already, we never did receive a prerelease copy of the game from Atari, even after countless requests. Our UK office was fortunate enough to receive a copy from European publisher Namco Bandai last week, but the game was unplayable using the retail CD key, because the game couldn't yet be activated online. We received a press key to allow us to start playing just yesterday.
So while I have spent a number of hours with The Witcher 2, I am not sure when the review will post. As you know, it is probably a very long and complex game, and while we would ideally have had a review up on the day of release, we won't rush an evaluation of any game--certainly not one as involved and lengthy as a major role-playing game. Until the review is posted, I will post screens and movies galore. My first priority is to play The Witcher 2 thoroughly and write/film a review, but I will do my best to keep you up to date, and hopefully appease your interest with media until the time the review is posted.
I will say this based on my time with the game thus far, however: the visuals are absolutely phenomenal. I look forward to sharing more with you soon!
As I mentioned in my recent Reality Check column, when MX vs. ATV Alive arrived in stores earlier this week, we had yet to receive anything resembling a reviewable copy of the game. The good news is that shortly after the aforementioned column was written, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 retail copies of the game arrived in the mail. I've spent several hours checking out both versions since then, and our review won't be ready until early next week, but I wanted to post a heads-up on how the game is treating me thus far.
The first thing I noticed about MX vs. ATV Alive is that it doesn't feature a career mode. Rather, you simply have a persistent character across all single-player and multiplayer races who levels up the more you play. That's all well and good, except that your rider needs to reach level 10 before you unlock a decent number of tracks on which to race. Prior to that, you have only four full tracks (two of which need to be downloaded using a code that comes with new copies of the game, so they're currently unavailable on the PS3), two short tracks, and two free-ride locales. Racing the same tracks over and over again isn't a huge deal because they're well designed and there are multiple difficulty levels to choose from, but MX vs. ATV Alive definitely feels repetitive early on because so little of its content is unlocked.
Like MX vs. ATV Reflex before it, Alive is played using a dual-stick control system; the left stick steers your chosen vehicle while the right controls your rider. It's a good setup, and it's taken me a little while to get comfortable with it, but it makes getting huge air off of ramps and successfully negotiating sequences of humps pretty satisfying. I'm mostly playing on the default and Pro difficulty levels right now, and I feel like the game is posing a pretty decent challenge. Unlocking upgrades for bikes and ATVs (vehicles level up independent of you depending on how often you use them) makes winning races much easier, but that's quickly remedied by cranking up the difficulty, at which point you earn experience more quickly.
You can also race online if you're looking for a challenge, of course, though for obvious reasons, I'm currently only able to test this on the Xbox 360. I've yet to race in a full field of 12 riders, but getting into lag-free races with seven or eight other players hasn't been a problem at all. My rider is currently at level 15, and I'm hopeful that, over the weekend, I can get him to level 25 and unlock the six or seven tracks that are still grayed out on the event select menu. I guess I could just go to the in-game store and pay $6 to unlock everything, but where's the fun in that? Some areas of the rather unwieldy "MotoClub Depot" don't appear to be open for business just yet, incidentally, but it's clear that while this is a $40 game, the hope is that you'll spend more money buying new rider gear, vehicles, events, and even butt patches for it.
I look forward to delivering a full review next week. In the meantime, if you already bought the Xbox 360 version of the game and happen to be playing online this weekend, keep an eye out for me playing as JusticeCovert.
As you're no doubt aware, Sony's PlayStation Network has been down for almost three weeks as of this writing. As a result, we've been unable to download a number of PSN games that we were planning to review, including Arcana Heart 3, Outland, and Puzzle Agent, to name but a few. Up until now, this has pretty much been the extent of the PSN outage's impact on our reviews team, but with the impending releases of games like Brink, DiRT 3, F.3.A.R., and Virtua Tennis 4, which all boast online features, that's going to change.
We only post reviews for versions of games that we've actually tested. That's why, occasionally, we're unable to post reviews for all versions of a multiplatform game on the same day. When the Xbox 360 version of Portal 2 was the only one we had access to prior to the multiplatform game's release, the Xbox 360 version was the only one we had a review for on day one, for example. If you wish to base your purchasing decision for one version of a game on a review of another, that's up to you. (It's true that reviews for the same game on different platforms often end up being very similar.) But we're not going to make that decision for you by posting reviews and scores for products that we haven't tested. With that and the continuing PSN outage in mind, we feel we have no choice but to postpone our reviews of PS3 games with online features until we've had an opportunity to test those online features. To do otherwise would be a disservice both to you and to the companies whose games we'd be making assumptions about.
Exactly when PSN will be back online is anybody's guess; today, we're told it will be restored by May 31, but on April 27 we were told it would be "within a week from yesterday," which was about a week ago at this point. When normal service is resumed, catching up on the PS3 reviews that we've been unable to get to will be a priority. In the meantime, we'll continue to play any PS3 games that we're sent alongside other versions, post screenshots and gameplay movies from them, and use this blog to alert you anytime we feel like they're significantly different in some way to the versions that we've been able to review.
Of course you remember Spore, 2008's not-quite-revolutionary game about not-quite-evolution. That game soared because of its excellent use of user-created content. Darkspore uses a few of Spore's creation features, but if you were looking for a similar experience, keep your expectations grounded: Darkspore is an online action role-playing game in the vein of Diablo. The game was released today, April 26, though it was in open beta for some time before. While I did get several days of play in that beta last week, I wanted to take in the full experience this week; online-focused RPGs can surprise us in wonderful and terrible ways upon release. This means I'm not ready to deliver word on Darkspore's quality just yet, but I wanted to share with you a few quick thoughts, along with some screens and video taken from my time with the beta.
Darkspore introduces you to its sci-fi world with a short tutorial, giving you control of a hero creature called Blitz and having you slice up a few foes while a robotic voice-over fills you in on the basics. If you've played an action RPG on your PC before, however, you probably already have a good idea of how the moment-to-moment gameplay goes: you click on your alien foes to turn them into bloody bits, occasionally casting various spells to make them dead even faster, or to keep you alive even longer. You do this alone, or with up to three other players as you progress from level to level, though it's worth pointing out that while you can tackle the campaign alone, this is still an online game meant to be shared with friends and strangers: to play, you must maintain your Internet connection and be signed into the online lobby.
The basic action may be ripped from the Diablo playbook, but there's a definite Pokemon catch-'em-all element at work, too. As you level up, you earn access to new creatures to command, from 100 in total (well, 4 variants of 25 heroes, anyway), each of which has different skills and genetic types. Before each level, you choose a squad of three, and can switch between any of the three in battle, depending on the role you wish to play and the effectiveness of your various heroes versus the enemies you encounter. Your sole goal is to cut through swaths of buzzing flies and grenade-tossing robots on your way to a final boss, accumulating as much loot as you can. In between levels, you upgrade your heroes with said loot in the hero editor, enhancing their statistics and leveling them up simultaneously. (Player level and hero levels are separate entities.) This editor is a highly streamlined version of Spore's creature creator. You place equipment on your heroes where you like and can paint them in various ways, but the editing tools aren't very robust, and as a result, you aren't likely to invest much time in them.
Heroes don't have skill trees in the traditional sense, though a few of a hero's six total spells vary depending on the constitution of your squad. You have to consider not just how those skills can be used to maximum effectiveness, but also your heroes' genetic types: heroes take double the damage from foes of the same type. My favorite aspect of Darkspore thus far, however, is how you choose after each level whether to roll for extra loot then or to transition directly to the next mission, which gives you an even greater chance to earn good stuff if you triumph. I just wish there were more context to all of this saber slashing and laser shooting. You don't experience much story firsthand--you are simply told about one, by the same disembodied voice that guides you through the opening tutorial. Aside from collecting crystals and stat-enhancing orbs, there are no mission objectives or other structural elements designed to give you a sense of purpose. At least the game has a slick New Age style. Spacey atmospheric music drones while you make your way across glowing walkways and down planetside corridors.
There are one-versus-one and two-versus-two battles as well, though I haven't experienced enough of them to get a sense of how much fun they are, though you could say the same about the entire game. I am having fun in the mouse-clicky way of most action RPGs, though I am not yet sure whether the hero collection and squad considerations are enough to give Darkspore the legs it needs to be a long-term prospect. I am hoping to deliver a full review late this week or early next. For now, enjoy the screens and movies, and maybe I'll even see you online!
With the Portal 2 review now live, we've noticed some users in the comments of the video review are wondering, "Why is this review only for the Xbox 360 version?" Good question! Here's your answer:
We received the Xbox 360 version last Wednesday (April 13). We did not receive the PlayStation 3 and PC versions until Monday (April 18), and the PC version was not playable until it unlocked on Steam last night around 9:30 p.m. This gave us plenty of time to play the single-player and cooperative campaigns on the 360 version, but very little time on the other platforms. Even now, we are playing the PS3 and PC versions and testing the cross-platform play through Steam. The multiplatform reviews you read on GameSpot often read very similarly, but each one is backed up by time spent playing the game on that specific platform.
So while it may seem strange to review a game from Valve Software, a historically PC-first developer, on the Xbox 360 first, it would be even stranger (and downright dishonest, to be frank) to publish a PC review without spending quality time with the game. Speaking of which, time to get back to work!