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Trine 2 is lovely

It's a very well made game, comes off as very child-like and innocent with the story but the puzzles and platforming are very well designed.  I've been hooked since I started.  Of course, it's ridiculously pretty too.

The Last Angel

The Metro series has become a surprise success story over the last few years, pushing strong production values, an interesting and moody world as well as an atmosphere that evokes a sense of sadness rarely seen in modern games.  Metro 2033, 2010's sleeper hit, managed to set the framework for an interesting game but failed to incorporate any sort of meaningful interaction to the experience.  Last Light, set one year after the events of 2033, manages to impress with various mechanical improvements to the gameplay.  But what really makes Last Light stand out against the crowd is how atmospheric the game is.  Last Light is a testament to narrative craftsmanship through world-building and should be played for that reason alone.

In the Metro universe we only see the people of Moscow that managed to make it to the underground metro where they began to live out their lives in a new world after humanity decided to destroy itself.  The atmosphere is absolutely amazing, and Metro, despite it's post-apocalyptic nature, manages to stand out against other games in the genre because it pushes for sorrow.  These people are only twenty years into the apocalypse.  They can still remember their old lives and that sense of despair highlights how important telling a story through the game world truly is to the overall experience.

Last Light tells a basic but interesting story.  Depending on how you played Metro 2033 you may have been able to make what seemed like an important choice about whether the Dark Ones live or die.  4A Games have decided to tell a story that ignores that choice overall and immediately opts for the worst-case scenario.  In Last Light a single Dark One has been spotted and your mission is strictly search and destroy.  The game's narrative holds up until about two-thirds of the way through.  You reach a level where one of the game's characters mentions finding a river that can show you visions and grant wishes and it was at this moment where I clocked out, put my hands in the air and walked away from the story.  The game literally jumps the shark, and everything was going so smoothly before that.  It all had a nice build up, even a romance had blossomed; admittedly it was obvious it would from the first level, but it was appreciated and nicely done.  4A Games had done everything so well and then it immediately got stupid.  In the final third of the game the stealth and combat scenarios are exciting, the atmosphere is just as rich as before in the game, if not moreso, but the narrative was just terrible.

Despite the game's narrative failing, the mechanical improvements in combat and level design are very noticeable.  The Metro games are split between the underground sections and the radiated surface areas above the metro.  Metro 2033 was primarily set underground and felt very much on-rails even in the sections that weren't underground.  The levels were designed like an amusement park ride but the atmosphere and story were enough to keep you invested.  Admittedly, some old problems from Metro 2033 do occassionally pop up in level design, such as how clearly open paths may sometimes be unexplorable.  Minor bumps may block your progress unless the developers intended for you to go over it.  It isn't as glaring an issue as it was in 2033, but there are times when it is noticeable and can break the immersion of the game very easily.

Last Light manages to have more areas above ground and the design can feel very liberating and free compared to the dark tunnels underground.  You can explore the surface and take part in some of the game's most exciting sections.  One level, set in the catacombs of a destroyed church, stands as the game's highlight showcasing an appropriate intensity and urgency for the situation through the narrative (when it was good) and the game's mechanics.  Even underground you will come across sections that allow you to explore different ways to get the jump on your enemies.  Last Light also features great variety in its ideas and gameplay.  Whether it's sneaking through a concentration camp underground, dealing with enemies where you have to shine light on them to push them back, or running with a mad panic through the surface when your gas mask breaks after a nasty tumble.  There are even vehicle sections, although they are on rails since you only use the car underground.

The act of shooting is improved over Metro 2033, although it isn't as satisfying as something like FEAR or Halo.  However firing your weapons feels responsive and with a better sense of weight than Metro 2033's floaty gunplay.  One of the major issues with Last Light is the enemy AI.  Find a good chokepoint or hiding spot and in general everything will hastily rush at you.  This may be excusable for the monsters, but not so for the human enemies.  Last Light is split between two very different halves.  Playing underground and going against human enemies will often lead you to play stealthily, destroying lights, silently knocking out or killing enemies with your knives and generally trying to get the jump on them.

Above ground, Last Light becomes a different beast altogether.  You can't breathe on the surface of the Earth any longer and so you take your gas mask and some filters.  Each filter has a time limit and swapping out filters should give you about five minutes of time to breathe.  You need to complete your objectives before you run out of filters or if you get beat up enough by monsters to where your mask breaks.  The hectic search for a new mask remains one of the most delightfully stressful events I had to endure in Last Light.  On the surface, mutated beasts rule the land and the only thing they see when you arrive is fresh meat.

4A's engine is impressive and the graphics in Last Light are very beautiful, both below and above ground.  Character models are nicely animated and detailed and the monster designs are very gruesome and disgusting.  Running through the underground to see people trying to make a life for themselves is as satisfying as fighting for your survival in a destroyed Moscow.  But moreso than the visuals, Last Light's audio design is simply something else.  The sense of tension that builds in the dark when you have no idea what's around the corner can be felt through your speakers.  The silence of the lonely dark broken by the growl of something absolutely savage waiting to pounce on you never failed to get me to pump my flashlight to its maximum brightness.  The heavily accented voices will also grow on you and give the game a sense of place, but the sound design work in Last Light not only adds to the atmosphere, but is crucial to building the world at large and giving it it's identity.

If you enjoy single-player shooters, Metro: Last Light is a fantastic option.  While the narrative fails to hold up during the final third of the game, the atmosphere, overwhelming sense of sadness and mechanical improvements make the stand out in a major way.  Any fan of Metro 2033 will absolutely adore Last Light and fans of shooters in general will find an exceptionally well-crafted shooter.  While there are times where Last Light can literally be on-rails and feature poor AI, the overall experience is a positive one.  When at its best Last Light gives even BioShock Infinite a run for its money, and in some cases even outclasses 2013's biggest shooter.

Score

Champion of Kirkwall

I played Dragon Age II on a whim, when so many people actively hate a game its difficult to expect it to be any good.  After playing Dragon Age II I can now safely say all of those people are insane.  Dragon Age II is an exemplary role-playing game, because despite how large game worlds become, how ever many advancements are made that let you bludgeon giant rats in a sewer, BioWare have crafted a game that lets you truly roleplay a character as you see fit.  And the decisions you make in that role come with lasting consequences that make Dragon Age II absolutely stunning.

You start off choosing a class and the choice carries meaning as a different character in the story will survive based on your choice at the very start.  Dragon Age II begins at the same time as Dragon Age: Origins, but as Hawke and his family escape the destruction of Lothering.  You lose your status, everything you ever owned and start life anew as a refugee in Kirkwall.  

The game is set almost entirely in the city of Kirkwall with the occasional trip outside of the city, Dragon Age II emulates the familiarity of learning a city across the years.  It starts out alien but eventually it becomes home, a place you know like the back of your hand.  Its a feeling most videogames avoid as you hop across the world, righting wrongs in every impoverished town you enter.

Dragon Age II is a very personal game.  Set across roughly a decade you play the role of Hawke as he grows from refugee to Champion of Kirkwall.  Major decisions in game can have lasting consequences.  Even skipping minor sidequests can cut off chunks of the game for later years.

The cast of characters that surround Hawke have some of the most interesting personalities in the genre.  Their banter inbetween combat manages to surpass even the skits of the Tales series.  And even seeing your crew of misfits make fun of the NPCs you save helps you grow fonder of them.  Its more akin to dealing with regular problems and how people would react in those situations.  Each of the characters are severely flawed in personality with different weaknesses and BioWare have done an admirable job to bring those weaknesses to light, from Avelines inability to express her feelings of love, Merrills overall awkwardness in society, or Anders just, well I hate that guy.

Those characters have lives of their own that they live out as Hawke grows.  They can come and go, whether thats leaving the party for the duration of the game, dying or even having a relationship with another character either from your party or an NPC in the story.  Dont romance a character and he or she may end up finding another mate, closing off that option for later.  If you do romance them you can call it a one-night stand or aim to continue for a relationship.  Its entirely up to you.  But most importantly is whether your party members are your friends or your rivals.

If you want to be wishy washy and try to be friends with everyone or attempt to please everyone youre doing things wrong.  Dragon Age II avoids the love-hate or good-bad relationships and aims for which character is your friend and which is your rival and each side of the spectrum leads to different benefits for you.  Try and tiptoe around the system and you may simply be stuck with a character that does not trust you at all when the moment comes.

The most noted improvement is BioWares use of the dialogue wheel.  Dragon Age II gets rid of the Mass Effect series red for renegade, blue for paragon choices that limit role playing to two styles.  In Dragon Age II there are three choices to make for every response you give whether its speaking politely, being a bit of a prig or just sassing the person you are speaking to.  But these choices are made based on the situation and how you feel about it.  While I generally tended to play my Hawke as a roguish jokester there were choices where it made more sense to be angry or more sense to be understanding.  It would simply not suit my character to crack a joke over a victims dead body.  But it would also not suit him to be polite to every jerk that passed his way.  

You can play Hawke however you like and that level of role-playing is absolutely refreshing.  You can get angry about blood magic in one conversation with your team and it can lead to a rivalry with one character and friendship with two others.  You can make fun of an Orlesian noblewoman and watch some of your saucier friends crack up and join you while the more uptight ones may find it disrespectful.  But there are no real guidelines to play by; you simply play Hawke as you want.  Its a level of role-playing freedom that feels only possible because of Dragon Age IIs focus on the characters and how they grow over the years.

With that said, the storytelling and writing take some risks that really help the game as well, from cheeky references to moments of absolute hilarity.  Varric, one of the first party members you come across, serves as the narrator of your journey and depending on whether you are friends with him or a rival there may be a few liberties taken with the story.  There were moments of playfulness in Dragon Age II that have not been in other BioWare games and with its reception Im afraid we may not see those again for some time.

Each act is set years apart from one another so the game implies that you simply live your life regularly until something demands you get to work.  Whether thats building a fortune for yourself or something more sinister down the line, the game never makes it about the world but always about the characters.

Despite all of my praise for characters, storytelling and the overall writing and themes of the game, Dragon Age II falls under a lot of scrutiny for not being like Dragon Age: Origins when it comes to combat (and just about everything else).  While the combat is less challenging than in Origins you can still set up tactics for your team, position them how you like and while the game doesnt have the same overhead camera as Origins, you can still scroll up a fair distance to see the battles.   It was fun with fluid animations and various combos you could have your team execute and I preferred the easier difficulty that let me focus more on my characters and choices and less on surviving a battle against four wolves.  Admittedly, enemies are like ninja as they jump down off of rooftops to face you.  Its funny and a little weird, but its a minor quibble.

Character progression in Dragon Age II is absolutely spectacular though.  It really lets you focus on improving in the areas you like.  You can play your character as a jack of all trades but that wont help you much in the long run.  Specialization is important, so you can play a mage as an elemental damage dealer and a healer or you can play the mage as someone with a focus on entropy and spirit magic or maybe blood magic is more up your alley.  Play a rogue that likes to make the battlefield an area of confusion for enemies or go for an archer waiting in the distance.  Focus on daggers and assassin abilities or choose to be a duelist.  Each skill tree is independent of the others and lets you level through them as you please, and focusing on two or three trees will help make all the difference in combat.

What really brings Dragon Age II down are the repeated environments for the dungeons.  It is absolutely ridiculous.  Under no circumstances should a game reuse dungeon maps at the level Dragon Age II does, particularly with BioWare being such a large team.  There have to be maybe ten, if not less, dungeon maps and they are constantly reused for each minor quest you take on.  Oftentimes you will enter a dungeon and part of it will be blocked off, the next time that dungeon is reused the part you explored will be blocked off and the other open.  Its very lazy and very noticeable and one of the worst uses of recycled environments in a major game release in some time.

That said, the graphics have improved dramatically over Dragon Age: Origins, so even if environments repeat, at least they look pretty good.  Character models and designs have improved dramatically as well, most noticeable should be Isabella who had a brief cameo in Dragon Age: Origins but is now one of your main companions.  Her character model is significantly improved over the original.  The visuals quality is closer to Mass Effect quality right now, though the use of colors is full of earth tones are far less of Mass Effects sci-fi trappings and fancy light shows.

The voice acting as usual is absolutely top-notch.  Characters come alive and the improved facial features help convey emotions better than before.   The low and fierce grumbling of the Qunari can unsettle anyone, while Varrics cheery demeanor will make you wish he was your constant drinking buddy.  The soundtrack is decidedly different from Dragon Age: Origins, although that makes sense since one is about stopping essentially a worldwide crisis and the other is a personal story, but the score works, and the liveliness of a place like The Hanged Man pub helps highlight some of the audio in the game.

Dragon Age IIs character progression already make it a fun game to play, but the creative storytelling method employed along with the excellent characters elevate it beyond fun.  But most importantly BioWares emphasis on creating a game where you play the role of a character rather than leveling up some faceless guy in an open world is what makes Dragon Age II so special.  You care about your family, your friends, your city and the conflicts that rise.  As cool as it is to become the Champion of Kirkwall, what made it special was that it happened the way I wanted it to happen, in an absolutely romanticized way that made Hawke seem like a legend.   I couldnt ask for more than that.

Score

Ellis calls MGS5 sexist and Kojima a "man baby"

http://www.oxmonline.com/files/u40051/oxm_h4_cortana_big_0.jpg

http://wac.450f.edgecastcdn.net/80450F/screencrush.com/files/2013/09/Metal-Gear-Solid-5-Quiet-1-630x472.jpg

http://i.imgur.com/TfPRt.jpg?1?8427

http://wac.450f.edgecastcdn.net/80450F/screencrush.com/files/2013/09/Metal-Gear-Solid-5-Quiet.jpg

Who's David Ellis again?

We know Kojima's Metal Gear universe is hardly realistic and going for sexualized designs, and openly admitting to doing that, is A-OK with me.  Acting like openly sexualized designs are a bad thing when you're involved with the sexualization of an AI from hologram to semi-solid woman with firm ass, large breasts, flat stomach and waving hair... not so much.  Go home Ellis, you're drunk.  And the real man baby.

Don't get me wrong, Quiet's design is neither appealing or attractive.  But knowing Kojima and his ridiculous stories it'll likely be explained.  I still have no idea how Cortana became a sex kitten.  This is the pot calling the kettle black, but the kettle admitted what it did and is happy to do what it's doing.  The pot's in full denial and trying to be a voice of reason.  F*ck the pot.

Thank you GameStop!

For all the outrage over GameStop reprinting and selling Xenoblade Chronicles at $90 (the average price on Ebay) they've managed to actually drive that price down with their greedy reprint.  I purchased Xenoblade Chronicles for $65.  Sure, it's used, but it beats $90.  No tax either, so if I had bought the game when it was available I guess I'd have saved $10 or something.  Either way, I'm eager to see if this game is as amazing as the folks who play it say it is.  At this point I might as well pick up Pandora's Tower too to just complete the Operation Rainfall initiative.  I'll wait on that one though, it's cheap.  I don't see the price jumping to $90 anytime soon.

I also purchased Metro Last Light since it's on sale for $20.  Not expecting it to be nearly as memorable as BioShock Infinite but with 2013's releases being fairly forgettable thus far I figure what's one more piece of fodder.  Regardless, I'm living in 2011 right now, playing Dragon Age II and Zelda: Skyward Sword.  Once I beat DA2 I'll move on to either Dead Space 3 or Metro Last Light for a semi-spooky shooter experience from this year.  As with Metro, I'm not expecting Dead Space 3 to be anything more than pure fluff.  Basically, there's room to surprise me.

After Skyward Sword on the console side of things I'll either jump to Xenoblade or The Last Story.  The Last Story looks more appealing to me, it always has, but Xenoblade is that sort of sought after fruit that comes along once in a while so maybe I'll start with that.  Either way, I'm still roughly halfway through Skyward Sword so it'll be awhile before I get to either of the RPGs.

This Week's Favorites

1. Ys Silver Anniversary

2013 is the 25th anniversary of Falcom's pioneering JRPG.  It started as a sort of Zelda-like game back in 1988, just with a fully realized world, excellent characters and an ambitious narrative and has since evolved into one of the most challenging and fast-paced action RPG experiences on the market.  Memories of Celceta is the game to be released for the Silver Anniversary and the special anniversary edition will come with a three CD soundtrack spanning the entire series' best works (and a map I guess, but I just want my 3CD set).

2. Nintendo makes a handheld for children

In the process people who are over the age of seven are pissed off and think Nintendo is stupid.  RABBLE RABBLE RABBLE!

3. MegaMan Kickstarter!

Keiji Inafune is still hurting from the cancellation of MegaMan Legends 3.  Sure he followed it up with Soul Sacrifice at his new team, but has taken to Kickstarter to show Capcom what's what with MegaMan.  The Mighty No. 9 is his new game, a true MegaMan title sans MegaMan.  Our main guy is Beck, a blue robot that didn't fall victim to the virus that took his other robo buddies down.  The name of his sidekick/partner is Call.  Like, Beck and Call.  I love it.  I pledged and after a day or two on the web the Kickstarter is literally half way to its goal.  Also, blue is apparently Keiji Inafune's favorite color.  Just watch the Kickstarter video.  Manami Matsumae has also created one hell of a bitchin' theme song for the game.  MegaMan would be proud.

4. Puzzles and Dragons

It's a free to play puzzle RPG I found by GungHo on my phone.  They've reached 20 million downloads like a day after I downloaded the app.  The game tries to combine Poke'mon monster collecting and colorbased puzzle matching.  Colors that match are based on monster abilities to red orbs are fire damage, blue is water, etc.  But you can create your team based on the cost of how much a monster is worth to your own level and you can choose any combination of monster types, though if you don't add certain types you have to try and use the color orbs to help boost your damage through combos since those orbs won't do damage on their own.  The only thing the game charges you money for are the magic crystals.  You get a crystal if you complete a dungeon on the first run without dying, consecutive logins, etc.  You use the magic crystals to gamble for new rare monsters, or to continue from where you died and other things.  You can't buy monsters to win or level them up with money so the game remains fair while those who spend end up gambling.  It's a ton of fun!

5. Rune Raiders

Another free to play game with an excellent pay system I just became aware of.  Rune Raiders features basic RPG aspects, basic Turn-based Strategy design and lets you play everything you like.  You build a party based on your preferences, from having a healer, mage, warrior, etc in the group (up to 6 total) and guiding them to the end of the level while killing all enemies and doing so in as few turns as possible and with as few deaths as possible.  The game released with 20 levels and a bunch of character classes, Retro 64 later released an expansion set in an ice world for $1 and a new character class, the Rocketeer, for $1.  For those that don't have smartphones, you can check out Retro 64's web browser version of it sans expansion pack and new character.  Great game.

I love it when Nintendo is smart

Let's be real, the 2DS is a great idea no matter what Tom McShea says because despite his stance that it's Nintendo stepping away from their own values I'd argue it's Nintendo stepping back towards their own values.  They call the 2DS an "entry-level" system.  Remember when every Nintendo handheld had an entry level price point for mass market appeal?  The Gameboy was not the coolest piece of tech, neither was the DS.  But they outsold the premium-priced competition time and time again.  There was no premium price, it simply was not a thing.

The design of the 2DS isn't particularly appealing but it does improve how hardy the system should be for children ready to play a new Poke'mon game when it releases day and date with that game.  It removes the annoying and superfluous 3D feature of the system all in one.  But the price is the issue and it always has been.  The 3DS started at $249.  An absolutely outrageous price for a handheld.  Cut down to $170 it's still too high, and that's not counting the pricing of the XL models at $199.  Remember when the GameCube launched for $199? Or the Wii at $249?  What happened to THAT Nintendo?  The succcessful Nintendo that aimed to include all consumers with their pricing?

Nintendo's made some bad decisions.  The cost of a functioning screen on the WiiU gamepad has likely driven that system's price higher than it would normally be and in similar fashion, the cost of a screen that produces 3D visuals (sans glasses at that) is also an unnecessary cost that not every player would even utilize.  The fact that the 2DS exists so close to the $99 price point ($129) for a handheld is absolutely perfect.  Sure, it's designed like a poor man's tablet but who cares?  If all you want are the games without paying the price for a premium feature that isn't even fully utilized by most devs then Nintendo made the right choice.

Sometimes you need to step back and evaluate your decisions.  The 3DS may have a nice library of games, but when you sell a handheld with a warning against 3D you're kind of shooting yourself in the foot.  The 2DS has a great price point, plays all the same games with no real difference functionally beyond a visual gimmick.  Nintendo's concern shouldn't be 3DS owners moaning at the new "entry level's" existence because those same users have likely forgotten what it meant to buy a Nintendo handheld.  Everything was entry level, it wasn't a term you used to try and make it seem like something cooler existed.  Welcome back to your core values, Nintendo.

EA lets you return digital games through Origin

It's not a 30 day return policy, but you have either 7 days from date of purchase or once you install and start the game you have one day.  But you get a full refund if the game just doesn't work, or you're bored out of your mind with it.  It only applies to EA's own titles for now.

So far in 2013 this has been EA:

"Guys, take Dead Space 3 and a bunch of other games, pay what you want, we aren't keeping a penny.  It's all going to charity.  BTW, we're already over $7 million!"

"Guys, you don't like Origin, we get it.  But what if you buy one of our games and you just don't like it?  Return it!"

These are things I'm digging.  Very much so at that.

Ahem, Valve?

"We don't have a return policy.  Tough shit."

If this catches on with all publishers through Origin I might just go to the dark side.

Hard Reset is garbage

I played for 12 minutes.  And as fully prepared as I am to hear some folks tell me I need to give it more of a chance I know the game's not going to be anything more than what I saw in those first few minutes.  Bigger enemies, sure.  More explosive weapons, sure.  Better gameplay?  Not in this game.

Run forward, gang of enemies run toward you, backpedal as quickly as you can while holding down the fire button.

I get that it's supposed to be old-school.  But old-school needs better design than backpedal and hold the fire button down.  There's no way in hell this game will get any better.  If you want a good, old-school shooter play Painkiller.  It's like $10 on GoG.  Fun fact, you don't have to backpedal.  Enemies actually die when you shoot them.

The enemies in Hard Reset are massive bullet-sponges and there's no weight to the gunplay.  The team put all their focus into making the game look fantastic that they forget to make it actually fun to play.  The defense of some people of this stuff of "These are B-level games and you should be happy to play them" is ass backwards.

Pretty, but not fun.  It doesn't take more than ten minutes to see that.

With Hard Reset as total garbage that leaves the following indie titles:

Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale
Lone Survivor
Dyad
Fez

A lot of people seem to consider a backlog to be when they haven't beaten games but I never understood that mentality.  If you don't like something why would you keep playing it?  I've got better things to do than play Hard Reset.  I'll gladly try a game out, but if I don't like it I move on from it.