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Fatality - Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning Review

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The first thing I noticed about the front cover on my copy of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning wasn't the decked out warrior wielding both a sword and a warhammer, but rather its bold pronouncement that it comes "From the minds of R.A. Salvatore, Todd McFarlane, and Ken Rolston." Yet, for all the namedropping that's been going on surrounding the game's release, Reckoning does little to prove these creatives deserving of their visionary status. That's not to belittle the exceptional work that they've all made in the past, but rather a way of pointing out the fact that Kingdoms of Amalur ultimately plays it too safe to show off the kind of ingenuity one might expect from this game-development supergroup. But while its adherence to role-playing traditions may cause it to lose the kind of shock-and-awe provided by recent groundbreaking RPGs like Skyrim or The Witcher 2, Reckoning falls into a comfort zone that any RPG fan can enjoy.

"Fate" is the most important key-word when it comes to describing Reckoning's story and overall design philosophy. To start with its narrative implications, the idea of predestination comes up often in the game's core narrative, as well as many of the major sidequests. The denizens of Amalur all have a fatalistic worldview, and subscribe to the notion that their path through life has been totally pre-determined. Yet the player character seems to be an exception, as he or she is brought back to life after being killed in battle to discover that they are fate-less. It's an interesting take on the usual "chosen one" trope that's been repeated so many times throughout RPGs, but the rest of the game's narrative simply doesn't back it up.

Reckoning

When it comes to any new role-playing IP, one of the first things many players scrutinize is the lore and world-building on display. While Big Huge Games certainly seems to have an astounding amount of lore (it's been said that they wrote about 10,000 years of history for Amalur), the level of quality in terms of its presentation doesn't nearly match the quantity. The game doesn't introduce players to its world in an accessible way, and unless you decide to dig through numerous extra dialog options or peer through texts lying around, it's hard to piece together a detailed understanding of exactly what this newfound fantasy realm is all about. The game's use of confusing, borderline-incoherent pieces of recorded dialog (dubbed Lorestones) in order to flesh out the game's millennia-spanning narrative doesn't help much either.

The minute-to-minute plot is a little more successful, though it still has its faults. The game tasks you with finding out your place in the world, all the while fighting off the deranged villain, Gadflow, and his army of equally deranged immortal beings. The main plot is pretty good since it makes more of an effort to bring the game's themes of predetermination and changing the fate of the world to the fore. The game's sidequests vary in terms of providing interesting narrative. At best, these side stories feel as worthwhile as the main plot; at worst they are merely throwaway context for a simple fetch mission.

Reckoning

As mentioned before, the idea of playing a character with no set path translates to gameplay as well. Reckoning allows for an unprecedented amount of openness when it comes to building your character. While you can train in the kinds of abilities and talents that will send you down the more traditional paths of the warrior, thief, or mage, you can easily hybridize any of these general cla.sses, or even make a jack of all trades. What's more, the game rarely puts equipment restrictions on you, and you can cheaply and easily reallocate your talent points whenever you may feel a change of heart. No RPGs have succeeded as well as Reckoning when it comes to circumventing restrictive character-building, and the level of freedom the game provides in terms of customization is one of its most shining qualities.

Another of Reckoning's greatest strengths is its visceral combat. The game takes more queues from hack-and-slash action games than traditional RPGs. As such, the controls are satisfying and responsive, and there's no shortage of moves, spells, counters, combos, and quick-time executions. Of course, your damage output and defenses are supplemented by behind-the-scenes stats and dice-rolls, making character progression feel even more meaningful. While even the simplest of combat encounters are a blast, great boss battles, and the occasional opportunity to pick off some enemies with stealth executions help shake things up a bit.

Reckoning also features the now-requisite dialog wheel, but conversing with the world's NPCs isn't nearly as engaging as it could have been. The writing and voice acting are perfectly good, but stiff character animations, terrible lip-synching, and the fact that half the screen is inexplicably blacked out all work towards making dialog something of a chore. The dialog options for the player character don't help either; your character isn't voiced, and rarely do you get to say anything that can shake up a conversation beyond a quick response from an NPC. Luckily, a few instances of meaningful decision making do pop up from time to time, and most choices result in tangible consequences.

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The land of Amalur itself is something of an oddity as far as open world RPGs are concerned. Honestly, it's hard to compare the environment to any other game. While Reckoning certainly doesn't feature the sprawling vistas or the "go anywhere you can see" philosophy of games like Skyrim, it features a scope that more linear role-playing experiences like the Fable series simply don't offer. There are about two dozen different zones total, and unless you enter a major city or cross to a new continent, they are all seamlessly interconnected. While there are never any breathtaking expanses, there's plenty of room for exploration in each of these zones, and the locales never feel especially restrictive.

Reckoning's production values aren't very impressive, but they mostly get the job done. While conversations suffer from the aforementioned presentation problems, combat and cutscenes are animated very well (no doubt thanks to Todd McFarlane). The game's stylized art direction takes is undeniably inspired by the exaggerated visuals of games like Fable and World of Wacraft, but the world still feels relatively unique, and the art hides the fact that the graphics aren't all that impressive on a technical level. My one major gripe with the game's visuals is the camera, which focuses so much on the action taking place on the ground that you rarely get a sense of the game's often impressive scope and verticality. The game's sound department is similarly passable; the game's voice work and sound effects are good, but the music is uninspired and bland.

Amalur

Reckoning delivers a lot of value for your dollar. Even if the story might not always keep you coming back, the prospect of leveling up and getting your hands on some new loot certainly will. If you set off to complete every side quest you come across, your play time could stretch well over the 60 hour mark. However, it's worth noting that the game's abundance of side quests are often quite bland and repetitive. Thusly, if you simply stick to the main storyline as well as the game's more inspired faction quest lines, you'll avoid the feeling that your playthrough is more a chore than anything else (not to mention that the game's running time will still be about 30-40 hours).

In recent years, big-budget RPGs have been pushing the genre to its very limits, offering grand worlds, game-changing decisions, and unique gameplay experiences. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is ultimately too derivative and too safe to reach the lofty heights of many of its peers, but the game does have its own small triumphs. The game's character progression is unprecedented in its openness, and allows for a truly freeing gameplay experience. Combat is also a blast thanks to the game's responsive controls and vast number of weapons, spells and special moves. Beyond these great mechanics, almost everything else in Reckoning, from the more minor facets of its gameplay to its presentation, are simply passable. Though the game is only notable in a few areas, there are also very few missteps (aside from the occasionally convoluted lore). Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning does absolutely nothing to shake up the role-playing genre, but a die-hard RPG fan will surely find it enjoyable.

Why I Quit SW:TOR

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About two years ago I vowed to never again play an MMORPG. After playing a ton of World of Warcraft for about five years, I had simply gotten sick of that style of game. Not only did the constant influx of content render it a never-ending grind, the MMO genre is so inherently time-consuming that it precluded me from playing any other games. However, back in December and January, I did break that oath briefly.

Though I hadn't been following Star Wars: The Old Republic since it was announced back in 2008, in the months leading up to its launch I started reading up about it, playing in the beta weekends, and checking the game's official site for new media. Naturally, I bought the game pretty much as soon as it launched, and was initially very impressed. In terms of concept and design, I was (and still am) blown away by the steps SW:TOR was taking to shake up the MMO genre. While the basic controls, combat and class roles still follow the precedent set by WoW, the game's emphasis on narrative, and inclusion of classic BioWare tropes like companion characters and moral decisions really hooked me.

SWTOR

As my Imperial Agent Sniper, I felt like a total badass not only through the way the game adeptly handles the standard MMO fare of gearing up and killing hordes of enemies, but also through the dialog and story that bring another (admittedly more compelling) layer to character-building. Facing off with the rebel leader on Balmorra, and posing as the Red Blade were amazing story sequences that rival some of Knights of The Old Republic's best moments.

However, as I really started thinking about the implications of a narrative-heavy MMO, I started having real doubts as to whether or not SW:TOR was worth its hefty time investment. Since so many players are going to be playing through the same content, decisions lack permanence in a physical sense. While the game is wise to utilize seamlessly instanced zones so that you'll never again be able to, say, enter the building you blew up in a cutscene, there are a number of simpler annoyances. For instance, you'll be able to run through an area littered with the respawns of mobs that you killed hours ago in order to crush an uprising, or you'll see the guy you told to get out of town in order to avoid certain death simply standing idly where you first found him, waiting to give his quest to others just like you. While someone who is playing through the game more as an MMO than a story-driven RPG might be totally fine with these narrative inconsistencies, I was drawn to SW:TOR because of the stories it offered, and suffice to say, issues like these add up to distract from the tale quite a bit.

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Discussing permanence on a larger scale is even more troubling. Though I didn't play my cla.ss story through to completion before I canceled my subscription, I've read through several threads and watched a few videos that focused on the Imperial Agent's ending. Without spoiling anything, things can end up quite differently for your Agent depending on your endgame decisions. While that level of divergence is great, my concern lies in how it can possibly follwed up on in later patches and expansions. Surely creating eight lengthy, fully-voiced cla.ss stories was resource-consuming enough as is, and I don't think I could even imagine the ungodly budget required to follow up on each of those stories while taking players' previous decisions into account.

Though that inevitable lack of continuity might be a necessary evil considering the game is an MMO, it's still rather disappointing considering I got into the game pretty much solely on the basis of building a character through story and decision-making. All this shouldn't be seen as a heavy criticism of the game; from a sheer gameplay perspective, SW:TOR is superb, and I can't deny that BioWare's efforts to incorporate a driving plot into an MMO are admirable. However, in the end, the way in which MMOs inherently limit the idea of permanence in regards to the actions of individual players means BioWare is fighting a losing battle in terms of introducing a lasting, divergent story to the genre.

Crack the Sky - Skyward Sword Review

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The Legend of Zelda series is one of gaming's greatest mainstays, and aside from a couple infamous Philips CD-i titles, has been a remarkable series in terms of consistent quality. For the most part, this may be due to the series' fairly strict adherence to a set formula. Each Zelda game shares a core narrative and general gameplay design, and while these basic ideas are expanded upon and explored differently with each ensuing title, Nintendo has essentially been following the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" rule for the past quarter-century. Before its release, Skyward Sword had been touted as a completely new direction for the series.

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There is some truth to that claim, as Skyward Sword's overall structure and heavy reliance on motion controls give it a decidedly different feel from its predecessors, but the game still carries on plenty of past traditions. The end result of these simulatenous moves toward change and preservation of past mechanics and tropes is somewhat mixed. In my mind Skyward Sword stands with the likes of Bully and the first Assassin's Creed as a truly flawed masterpiece. The game has some pretty fundamental narrative and design flaws, but the overall experience is compelling enough that it remains a blast despite its missteps.

The first of these major flaws lies within Skyward Sword's narrative. While its story gets off on the right foot thanks to some great characterization (particularly in Zelda's case), the game comes close to dropping its driving plot all together throughout the game's middle stretch. The proceedings do pick up once again in the game's final hours, but it's a shame that the interesting world-building done in the game's opening moments is barely touched on again for so long. Even though the game starts with a lot of promise, the action is scarcely elevated from the usual Triforce-hunting, evil-vanquishing adventures we're all used to.

Luckily, while the main plot lacks interesting characters and events, side missions and some of the world's more minor denizens are very charming. Skyward Sword is the first Zelda game with proper side quests beyond mini-games and scattered collectibles, and these small diversions add a lot of life to the game's small collection of environments. Moments like an encounter with a sociable, but misunderstood demon, and deciding what to do with a cla.ssmate's letter add some memorable moments to the game's mostly sparse narrative.

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In terms of basic gameplay, Skyward Sword sticks closely to the blueprint layed out by past Zelda titles. The player is almost constantly faced with a gauntlet of enemies, environmental puzzles, boss fights and platforming sections that have to be navigated through using the proper move or tool (which is usually an item from Link's ever-expanding collection of gadgets).

The most commonly used item is undoubtedly Link's sword. Thanks to tricky enemies and responsive, nearly 1:1 motion controls courtesy of the WiiMotion Plus attachment, swordplay is a blast in Skyward Sword. Enemies will be a lot smarter about defending themselves than they've been in the past, so the key to most combat encounters is catching an enemy off-guard and moving in for the kill. Occassionally, battles against stronger enemies will require such a constant barrage of attacks that you'll have to resort to mindlessly waving the Wiimote, and sometimes you'll need to recalibrate your controller if you exaggerate your motions too much, but on the whole, the basic combat is superb.

Aside from your sword, nearly every item in Link's arsenal benefits from compelling motion control. The newest item, a flying mechanical beetle controll entirely with the Wii remote, is one of the most useful, fun to use item in the game. The almost-too-accurate bow and arrow, as well as the awesome grappling hook are other highlights. It's a shame that a game that so effortlessly integrates items that show off the Wii's accuracy in motion controls came so late in its life-cycle.

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In terms of its overall design, Skyward Sword is indeed quite different from past Zelda games. The areas you're dropped into are fairly open-ended, but there isn't much to do in them besides collect hidden treasures or materials for crafting, and none of the game's four main zones connect seamlessly. For the most part, your journey is as straightforward as it gets, and you constantly know where to go next.

Luckily, the openness and wonder of past Zelda titles isn't sacrificed for nothing. The game boasts the most consistent and prevalent set of challenges this series has yet seen. Puzzle-solving, and major enemy encounters are no longer strictly limited to dungeons, as the outdoor environments leading up to them are just as well-designed. In one particularly brilliant instance, you'll have to navigate your way around a ruin, solving some pretty devious puzzles and navigating your way through quicksand in order to even unearth the next temple.

At first this pacing is blissful. It plays like a pure distillation of the Zelda series' finest mechanics and does well to get rid of any filler. However, around the twenty hour mark, the game seems to try as hard as it can to stretch out its running time far longer than it should. Soon you'll be backtracking through zones you've previously visited with sloppily designed objectives. I consider some of these moments to be the most egregious examples of padding and backtracking I've ever encountered in a game. In the game's absolute worst moment, you're forced to leave the zone you're in while in the midst of solving a puzzle in order to get an item which will allow you to proceed (which is, of course, in an entirely different area). Then, once you retrieve the item, you must, for no apparent reason, make your way back to the spot you need to get to on foot (even though you would normally be able to fast-travel there), completeing a ridiculously unnecessary escort mission along the way. Now, this is the worst instance in the entire game, but there are plenty of scenarios that are similarly forced. As a 25 hour game, Skyward Sword is superb, but once you add in the 10-15 hours of hugely unnecessary backtracking, the game is considerably less impressive.

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Fortunately, the game's dungeons are pretty great overall. Aside from one overly-simple dungeon later in the game, the dungeons have great layouts, fun boss battles and a smooth difficulty curve. The game's desert dungeons which revolve around manipulating time altering artifacts are downright genius, and the game's Sandship level ranks as one of the most mind-bending and unique dungeons in the series' history.

In terms of production values, Skyward Sword is excellent. The graphics are absolutely incredible, and well surpass the Wii's limited graphical capabilities by focusing on gorgeous art. It easily ranks among the likes of Super Mario Galaxy as one of the Wii's best-looking titles.

The sound department is also great. Sound design is great thanks to great effects, and the series' trademark jingles that are no doubt burned into the reward center of any Zelda fan's brain. The score is awesome as well. Nintendo seems to have stuck to the more quirky, avant-garde music displayed in Super Mario Galaxy 2 rather than the usual Zelda orchestration, but the result is equally as effective as it was in the plumbers last intergalactic adventure. Another one of the series' returning quirks is the lack of voice-acting. At this point, you've either accepted it, or dislike it, but it's simply a fact of life as far as the Zelda series is concerned. While I personally have no problem with it, I did notice that Link had a ton of implied dialog, which leaves me to wonder why he's still a mute.

Zelda

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is, in many ways, a brilliant game. The excellent pacing displayed through the games first two-thirds or so is a welcome change from the series usual formula, and slick motion controls really do their part to elevate the basic gameplay. What's more, the game has excellent production values, and features some worthwhile side content. However, the game has two fairly major flaws. The first is that the story never takes off in the way it should until the game's final few minutes, and the game generally lacks the epic feel and importance that it strives for. Secondly, the game features an unbearable amount of backtracking once you start approaching the endgame content, and this padding serves to damage the experience greatly. However, Skyward Sword's strengths shine brightly through all its unnecessary clutter, and is ultimately another great entry in the flagship series, and is without a doubt one of the Wii's few recent must-play titles.

Meeting of the Minds - Assassin's Creed: Revelations Review

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The Assassin's Creed series' protagonist used to go by the rather longwinded name of Ezio Auditore da Firenze. But the truth is, players have seen him come a long way from his humble beginnings in Florence, and it's the fact that series veterans have played through nearly four decades of his adventures that makes Ezio Auditore one of gaming's greatest characters. And while Assassin's Creed: Revelations sees Ezio and Altair presumably making way for a new ancestor in the inevitable next installment, it ultimately serves as a fitting sendoff for one of gaming's greatest heroes.

After a brief visit to one of the series more iconic locales, the game quickly moves you along to Constantinople, a city that turns out to be one of the series' most well designed environments. From there the game branches into multiple story threads on Ezio's side alone. On one hand, he must track down a set of keys that will reveal an old secret locked away by Altair centuries before. On the other, he quickly finds himself entangled in political strife which, of course, involves the Templar. By dropping Ezio in a new environment, the series also relinquishes its hesitance to introduce new characters, something that held back Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood's narrative to a crippling degree. Ezio's love-interest Sofia, and the calculating Prince Suleimann are among the several great new characters that Revelations introduces.

Altair

In the midst of all this are two more very interesting narrative hooks. Most notably is the degree to which Desmond's role has been cut back. Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood saw lengthy platforming segments in which players could control Desmond much like Ezio. Unfortunately, it also saw incessant and insufferably quip-heavy exchanges between Desmond and his Assassin buddies. Neither of these things make a return in Revelations, and the game is all the better for it. After the previous game's ending, our modern-day protagonist is something of a mental wreck, and as such, spends much of his time in Revelations on the sideline. The most major gameplay sequences on Desmond's side of the equation involve first-person platforming and puzzle-solving in which players must navigate environments by creating either one of two shapes. It might sound odd, but these small sequences are actually a refreshing break from the usual formula, and the proceeding never get too tricky. These segments also feature running narration from Desmond that provide this previously two-dimensional character with a lot of interesting background, and motivations.

The final thread of Revelations' narrative yarn are a collection of recorded memories left by Altair. These segments let you control the original Assassin, but aren't especially gameplay heavy. Much like the Desmond sequences, Altair's cameos serve to flesh out the previously flat character and draw parallels between his life and Ezio's.

In the end, Revelations delivers the best story the series has yet seen. Ezio's last mission is a vast improvement over Brotherhood's stagnant plot, and Desmond and Altair are given compelling second-looks. The game's final chapter is one of the most poignant and memorable story moments in recent gaming memory.

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While a good deal of the game's fun does lie in this strong narrative and welcome gameplay deviations, Revelations once again executes the Assassin Creed's series core experience masterfully, and much of the game's joy lies in these tried-and-true mechanics.

As per usual, maneuvering through environments and tackling objectives is done through mixing low-profile sneaking and high-profile actions. Getting to know Ezio's vast move-set is key, as you'll need to know when to blend into crowds, or cause havoc by hiring a group of thugs depending on the scenarios the game throws at you. But, of course, bounding across rooftops, climbing up towering structures and performing leaps of faith is the game's centerpiece element, and it's just as sublime a thrill as ever. Assassin's Creed remains one of the only open-world series in which navigating the environment is just as thrilling and engaging as playing through missions.

Combat is also fun in its own way. While Ezio has a fairly broad set of moves, the two that will find the most use are no doubt counters and killstreaks. When an enemy is ready to strike, all you need do is counter their attack to finish them off. From there you'll be able to dispatch any other enemies instantly with a simple button press unless a foe can manage to stop your rampage. If you compare this combat system to those featured in most action-adventure games, it could seem relatively simple and easy. But, the game makes you feel fittingly badass, even more so thanks to the brutal kill animations.

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The story missions themselves are quite good. Objectives are generally varied and relatively open-ended, though players who want more of a challenge can pursue more restrictive optional objectives. Aside from some admittedly dull introductory levels, the missions almost always provide interesting objectives. Inciting riots, posing as a musician (playing jingles about previous victims no less) are just a few of the great missions Revelations offers. Occasionally, bigger set-piece moments pop up, and they are almost always thrilling. A chaotic escape from the docks of Constantinople, and the game's five dungeons are all expertly crafted changes of pace.

Disappointingly, there is a shortage of side content in Revelations when compared to its predecessors. This is partly due to the fact that some of the better side content from previous entries has essentially been integrated into the campaign, but there is an undeniable lack of singleplayer content. There are a few simple side missions that the city's various guilds offer up, a number of collectibles scattered about, and one extra dungeon, but that's about it in terms of structured side quests.

The game also sees the return of the Assassin's Guild, and this meta-game is just as fun as ever. As Ezio reclaims new portions of the city, he can recruit new Assassins. He can then send them on missions for loot, cash and experience. Most importantly, however, they can provide aid in combat, which can prove quite handy for more the game's bigger challenges.

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The game's two major singleplayer additions are unfortunately the game's weakest links. Finding materials to craft bombs never sees much use as Ezio's arsenal of 16th-century gadgets can help you through pretty much any confrontation as is. The game's Den Defense mode is similarly superfluous. The Templar can try to reclaim parts of Constantinople you have taken over, but holding down the fort is relatively easy; all you need do is set up a multitude of defenses and employ the use of your cannon. And while the game very annoyingly forces you into these defense sequences once your notoriety meter gets too high, they can easily be avoided altogether by bribing heralds, and killing key politicians.

Luckily, the multiplayer portion of the game is rather remarkable. Revelations iterates and expands upon Brotherhood's intense and unique online offering. Mostly this comes in the form of now-standard multiplayer features including an extensive list of unlocks and customization options, abilities, modifiers, and kill/death streaks. These inclusions add a lot of staying power to the multiplayer experience.

It's hard to give a general overview of game's multiplayer just because it's so different from most other games, and is even quite unlike the singleplayer portion of the game. Essentially, the multiplayer revolves around sneaking, blending in, and dispatching players quickly and quietly to earn the most points. There are no all-out brawls, and special items only come in the form of unlocked abilities. You also can't go around killing everyone you see. In most modes, you are only given one target, and killing an NPC or the wrong player will void your objective. While all this may feel limiting at first, the deliberately slowed pace makes matches intense, as you are always looking out for your target while simultaneously looking out for potential assassins.

New maps and modes also elevate the experience beyond most multiplayer offerings. Even though the game does recycle too many maps from Brotherhood, each stage is expertly designed, complete with useful choke points, and concentrated areas where most of the action happens. The new modes are also great, especially the intense, close-quarters Deathmatch mode.

Ezio

Though the engine the Assassin's Creed game have been running on for years is starting to show its age in some respects, great art direction ensures that it's still a visual marvel. One of the series' greatest strengths is how immersive it's environments are, and Revelations is no exception. The game's audio also contributes to the atmosphere - streets feel alive with thanks to chatty NPCs, sound effects are all pitch-perfect, and there's plenty of glitchy sci-fi ambience courtesy of the Animus. Animations are even more expressive and fluid than ever before, and the game's soundtrack is truly exceptional.

While it's undeniably disappointing that the number of side missions has been cut down in Revelations, it's ultimately not a huge deal since the campaign can easily last 12-15 hours, and I wouldn't be surprised if true completionists could clock in at upwards of 20 hours in the game's singleplayer component. Add to that the fact that the multiplayer is addictive enough to provide some pretty high replayability, and Revelations is a rather complete package.

The Assassin's Creed series is one of my favorite new IPs of this console generation. While it was initially worrying that the game would go down the road of one-year development cycles, this series as still proven to be entirely worthwhile. While Revelations has some weak new additions, its strengthened multiplayer component and excellent narrative make it close runner-up to the series' high point, Assassin's Creed II. Fears of this being a rushed title should be pushed aside, Assassin's Creed: Revelations proves that truly great concepts and mechanics will always entertain.

2011 Game of the Year

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Finishing of my Top 10 list is, of course, my 2011 Game of the Year:

Batman: Arkham City

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It takes a truly remarkable game to stand above the competition in a year such as 2011. But Batman: Arkham City has a quality that no other game on this list (and very few games in general) possess. That quality is painstaking, wholly uncompromising attention to detail. Everything in this game is put together so well, and this game is just as much a triumph taken as a whole as it is when examining its finer concepts and mechanics.

The most immediately impressive part of Arkham City is its presentation. The voice acting is absolutely incredible; Paul Dini's sharp writing and the many actors' pitch-perfect delivery give a ton of personality and life to Arkham City's main characters and minor denizens alike. The game's story uses seemingly all the major Batman antagonists to great effect, and its conclusion is one of the franchise's most striking moments. The graphics are equally great. The animations are fluid and dynamic, and the art direction is truly masterful. The gritty, grimy streets of Arkham City are teeming with references to the Dark Knight mythos, and major characters' designs combine elements from their many iconic representations.

Batman: Arkham City

Just as the game's presentation and detailed environment provide an excellent sense of place, Arkham City's gameplay truly shines because of how well it puts you in its protagonist's shoes. The strategic, rhymthic, and perfectly animated combat feels just how it should for a Batman game. Stealth is similarly effective. While sneaking sequences in most games have a certain element of passivity to them, Arkham City's more aggressive stealth segments make you feel as if you're the one Batman's foes should be hiding from. Smaller gameplay elements such as investigation, navigation and platforming are all equally fitting and well-realized as the game's more major mechanics.

I could give many more reasons for Arkham City's excellence, but my main point is ultimately that the game is an example of perfect execution, and the kind of gaming greatness that will stand the test of time. Even though it faced a lot of extremely strong competition this year, Batman: Arkham City shines because of how an immense level of detail and smart design made its source material integral to its gameplay and presentation. Very few games come close to providing the level of immersion, and feeling of being the protagonist that Rocksteady seems to pull of so effortlessly.

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Thanks for reading. Hopefully 2012 will be just as great a year for games.

Top 10 of 2011 Part 3

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It's getting close. Here are my 4-2 picks. You can check my two previous blogs for my 10-5 choices.

4. LA Noire

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Few games have combined storytelling and gameplay as effortlessly as LA Noire. The game demonstrates not only Team Bondi and Rockstar's mastery of typical open-world conventions, but also the restraint and dark atmosphere that defines the noir genre; Slow-burn homicide investigations feel just as natural, and play just as well as cruising around the beautifully-realized 1940's LA or taking part in one of the game's more action-oriented sequences. Where the game truly shines, however, are the interrogation sequences. This is thanks to sharp writing, and Rockstar's groundbreaking MotionScan technology, which delivers the best performance capture games have yet seen. The intensity in these sequences can often rival, or even surpass chaotic setpieces that define current-gen action games. Another resounding achievement is the game's narrative. Cole Phelp's rise through the ranks of the LAPD, and eventual investigation of a huge, multi-faceted conspiracy is one of the best narratives I've ever experienced in a game. It can't be denied that LA Noire does draw influence from open-world action games and point-and-click adventures, but the experience as a whole is unlike anything else gaming has yet seen. MotionScan technology on its own represents a huge opportunity in terms of advancing storytelling in games. But, LA Noire's great art direction incredible gameplay and enthralling story keep it from using its innovative technology and excellent performances as a crutch.

In a lot of ways, LA Noire reminds me of another Rockstar opus, Grand Theft Auto III. At the time, that game represented just how far open-world games could go, and went on to become the blueprint for all subsequent titles in that genre. Ten years later, LA Noire makes an equally compelling case for how these kinds of games can advance, and I can only hope it reaches the same status that Rockstar's last genre-defining game did.

3. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Skyrim

Speaking of open-world masterpieces, Bethesda's latest is one of 2011's many true gems. Right off the bat, Skyrim does something truly impressive by not requiring a choice of character cla.ss This openness to explore the game's many combat and interaction mechanics is actually quite representative of the game as a whole. It goes without saying that the land of Skyrim is one of the greatest environments in the history of games, and simply wandering around is a joy. Small glitches aside, there are so many gorgeous environments to explore, dragons to fight and small adventures to stumble upon that Skyrim could have easily entertained for dozens of hours even without more structured quest chains. But pursuing these major storylines is just as rewarding as simply exploring. Great plots, epic moments, and of course, phat loot underscore each of the game's larger campaigns.

I could shower praise on each of this game's innovations and well-realized mechanics for a while, but I'll wrap it up. Many lengthy games strain to deliver enough content to keep players occupied for dozens of hours, but Skyrim is one of very few that effortlessly delivers a good 100+ hours of easily-accessible content. And ultimately The Elder Scrolls V's most remarkable achievement is the land of Skyrim itself - an open world to truly get lost in.

2. Gears of War 3

Gears of War 3

The original Gears of War is one of my top 10 or 20 games of all time. Gears of War 2, on the other hand, was a hugely disappointing mess of a game that effectively killed all hype I may have had for Gears of War 3. But, since it does have the #2 spot on my Top 10 list, I can quite simply say the game blew me away, delivering an experience that equals (maybe even surpasses) the original game's glory. One of the most surprising things about this game is just how well it fleshes out its characters. Even though most of the soldiers in Delta Squad fall into the category of "Badass Space Marine on Steroids", they've become fairly iconic characters, and Epic capitalizes on that masterfully. While it can get heavy-handed at times, and it certainly doesn't outdo many of the previously listed games, Gears of War 3's story is surprisingly compelling. The rest of the campaign is just as great. There are plenty of great setpieces, beautiful environments to explore, fun battles and surprisingly interesting collectibles to be found.

Modern Warfare 3 and Battlefield 3 be damned! Gears of War 3 also has the best multiplayer component of any game this year. Four player campaign co-op and Arcade modes, Horde 2.0, Beast, and good old-fashioned adversarial multiplayer coupled with a ton of unlockables all add up to the most diverse, rewarding and addicting online offering of this year. Add to that Epic's amazing post-launch support, which has thus far included weekly events and free maps, and Gears of War 3 adds even more staying power to its already huge amount of content. The originator of cover-based shooters is finally back to reclaim its throne.

Check back tomorrow for my 2011 Game of the Year. Exciting. Sort of.

Top 10 of 2011 Part 2

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My top 10 list continues. Check back to the last blog for 10-8. Here are my 7-5 picks:

7. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings

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The Witcher 2 is one of the best examples of divergent storytelling gaming has to offer. Of course there's the big choice, one which almost totally alters the rest of the game, but there dozens of decisions to be made throughout the game that give the player an almost unprecedented level of authorship. Back that up with compelling characters, gorgeous graphics and challenging combat, The Witcher 2 is one of the best PC RPGs in years.

6. Assassin's Creed: Revelations

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This series is something of a mainstay on my yearly Top 10 lists. The original Assassin's Creed and it's sequel were my games of the year in 2007 and 2009 respectively, and Brotherhood took the number two spot last year. While Revelations is further up on the list than its predecessors, it has more to do with the sheer number of great titles that came out this year than the game's quality. While there are a few missteps in terms of new content, Assassin's Creed Revelations continues to excel at what makes this series such a joy to play in the first place. The environment is truly immersive and fun to explore, combat is swift and brutal, the story is an excellent combination of historical and bizarre sci-fi/conspiracy theory themes, and the production values are stellar. The multiplayer is also much more compelling this time around thanks to the addicting Deathmatch mode, better balancing, and increased customization. Assassin's Creed: Revelations is yet another incredible entry in one of this generations finest new series.

5. Star Wars: The Old Republic

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Three years of hype and over a hundred million dollars all lead up to this. Even though I was determined to never play an MMO ever again, I picked up The Old Republic on a whim and have been really surprised. In terms of sheer quantity, it's pretty safe to say that SWTOR is unmatched in terms of its storytelling elements. But not only is there a lot of story, it's also generally quite good. My Imperial Agent cla.ss story has thus far been a ton of fun, with great dialogue, decisions, characters, and voice-acting; it's of the same quality as other BioWare heavyweights like Mass Effect. The combat is also a lot of fun thanks to the wise decision to omit an auto-attack button, leaving the player constantly involved in the action. The Old Republic is by far the best launch-window MMO I've played; the game is already packed with content, is balanced very well, and is relatively glitch-free. The idea of a game that ships with potentially thousands of hours of narrative (with room for further expansion from patches) is pretty mindblowing. Not only is The Old Republic the best new MMO since World of Warcraft, it also breaks new ground in terms of merging heavy narrative elements and online gameplay.

That's it for now. Check back tomorrow for my 4-2 picks.

Top 10 of 2011 Part 1

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As is tradition, I reflected on what my 10 favorite games were from this year. Selecting my top 10 was a lot tougher this time around than it has been in the past just because 2011 has seen so many great games, so it took a lot of thought, but I've finally been picked my favorites. Like last year, I wrote a too much about each of my top 10 games to give you the list in one fell swoop. So here are my number 10-8 picks:

10. Bastion

Bastion

Finally, an XBLA game that is not only an artistic success, but is downright fun enough to match up to bigger console titles. The most immediately remarkable thing about Bastion is its sublime presentation. From its quirky, sometimes haunting score to the great oversaturated art st.yle, environments that take shape before your very eyes, and of course, the narration that runs through the whole game, Bastion looks and sounds totally unique. The actual gameplay is a bit more traditional, but the experience is still surprisingly deep thanks to the game's fun combat and great sense of progression, doleing out rewards and upgrades at a near-constant basis. Add in two very memorable endgame decisions, and Bastion is easily the best downloadable game of 2011.

9. Saint's Row The Third

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It's a shame it took so long for this series to establish the whacky, crude and satirical identity that it pulled off so well in Saint's Row The Third. While the Saint's Row series initially tried to copy the st.yle and tone of the Grand Theft Auto series, Volition wisely decided to go for something totally different. While the game is still an open-world shooter at its core, its shift toward sheer irreverance and absurdity doesn't just provide tons of laughs, it also makes the game feel truly unique. Entering a Tron-esque world to kill a gang of hackers, robbing a bank wearing masks that bear the likeness of one of your fellow bank robbers, and participating in an deranged game show are some of just a few of the many outrageous and hilarious scenarios to be experienced in Saint's Row The Third. By throwing logic completely out the window and becoming intent on being as low-brow as possible, the developers at Volition have crafted a truly striking open-world title. Add to that a fantastic array of weapons and vehicles, campaign missions with huge setpieces, tons of side activities, and the utterly ridiculous Whored Mode and Saint's Row The Third has some real substance to match its over-the-top st.yle

8. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

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It's odd that reactions to this game have been either lukewarm indifference, or showers of praise and superlatives. Skyward Sword is simply a great game, and exactly the kind of title the Wii should have seen more of throughout its life-span. The story and settings are all very memorable, while the well-realized art st.yle and the now fully-orchestrated score really bring the game to life. The general layout also appeals to me much more than previous entries in the series; whereas previous games put too much emphasis on dungeons alone, Skyward Sword's relative linearity allows for better design throughout the entire adventure. Additionally, Link's moveset allows for much more freedom than it used to thanks to his newfound agility and the amazingly accurate MotionPlus controls. And these controls are perhaps the most significant aspect of Skyward Sword. After five years of largely remaining unconvinced of the supposed greatness of motion controls, Skyward Sword makes the strongest case yet for their ability to add to games. It would indeed be very difficult to go back to playing this series with standard controls.

That's it for now. Check back soon for my 7-5 picks.

Top 3 Most Disappointing Games of 2011

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As is tradition, before I put up my list of the Top 10 Best Games of 2011, I take note of the ones that disappointed me. Usually I feature only one game since avoiding bad games is pretty easy thanks to just how thorough video game reviews are compared to just about every other medium. This year, however, did have its fair share of titles that were both disappointing and highly overrated. Enough, in fact, to make me do a list of the Top 3 Most Disappointing Games of 2011. Time to ruin everyone's fun.

1. Fallout New Vegas: Lonesome Road

Lonesome Road

It was all supposed to lead up to this. One of the most intriguing parts of Fallout New Vegas was the fact that there was an overarching story that extended beyond the core game. Throughout the original campaign, as well as the first three DLC add-ons, much was made of the imminent final showdown between the Courier (the player character) and his predecessor, Ulysses.

Lonesome Road is where it all goes down, but the resulting face-off isn't nearly as intriguing as I'd hoped it would be. I was hoping for a revelatory reason for the fact that Ulysses has been hellbent on finding the Courier, but his goal is suprisingly simple. Seemingly up until the final conversation, New Vegas had always provided a ton of different and divergent dialog options. Not so in this case. No matter what, you'll have to kill Ulysses. Not only that, but the fight against him is extremely easy. Most players will be so decked out by the time they face the final boss that they can simply shoot his face off in a split second.

For 60 hours of build-up, Lonesome Road has got to be one of gaming's most anticlimactic final confrontations.

2. Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception

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A lot of people who have heard my complaints about Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception have said that my disappointment is probably due to the fact that I set my expectations way too high. Upon reflection, however, I don't think that's the case. Aside from a few very minor flaws, Uncharted 2 sits with a select few other titles at the very pinnacle of game design. Thus, I don't think it was all that unreasonable to expect Uncharted 3 to at least equal its predecessors accomplishments.

The end product, however, was something that fell way below Uncharted 2's glory. Almost everything about this game is off. The awful story is riddled with plot-holes, stunted character development and narrative inconsistencies. The game's puzzles are all unintuitive, and the aiming is much more imprecise than it was in previous titles. The superb pacing the series has been known for is almost completely absent, with the game's first half focused almost entirely on the game's clunky core mechanics, while the latter half tosses in about five or six huge setpieces within the space of about 4 hours.

I can't say that Uncharted 3 doesn't do anything right. The graphics are pretty much unparalleled, the music is great, and the voice-acting and motion-capture are excellent. However, Uncharted 3 does a lot more wrong, and it's a true shame.

1. Dragon Age 2

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The previous two games I've listed are ones that I've disliked, though they have enough positive qualities that I'm hesistant to call them bad. Dragon Age 2, on the other hand, is a downright abysmal game that has pretty much no redeeming value.

Where to even start? Maybe the fact that there's no overarching story, and most plot threads are brought up only to never again be addressed. Or that choice is simply an illusion, as pretty much nothing you do has any meaningful consequence. Or that there are only about a dozen distinct environments (interior and exterior) in the entire game, and they are both bland and linear. Or the fact that almost every single one of the game's protagonists is either whiny, annoying, completely archetypal or any combination thereof. Or the fact that each combat encounter is an endless monster closet that you must button-mash your way through.

How did a series that showed so much promise get messed up so badly? In an age when RPGs and RPG elements are constantly being tied to other genres, Dragon Age: Origin's appeal was the fact that it hailed back to the CRPGs of yore, and in doing so delivered a refreshingly old-school experience. By replacing the detailed dialog system with the Mass Effect-inspired wheel, and replacing the Warden (a blank slate of a character who you could truly define on your own) with the smug, sarcastic and insufferable Hawke, as well as going for a non-traditional (read: bad) narrative, BioWare effectively threw the possibility of any roleplaying fun out the window. Additionally, by replacing the deep, tactical combat from Origins with wannabe hack-and-slash mechanics, the entire package is a complete disaster.

Gaming is one of the few mediums in which sequels are rarely something to be wary of. Generally, a developer will take criticisms to heart and improve upon whatever weaknesses their original game had. Considering Dragon Age: Origins was a masterpiece, whos only glaring flaw was the dated presentation (which Dragon Age 2 didn't fix), the radical and terrible overhaul BioWare gave the series is beyond unnecessary. Dragon Age 2 is far and away the worst game I've played not only this year, but the past couple of years, and is certainly one of the worst video game sequels of all time.

Breathing With Dragons - Skyrim Review

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It seems dragons were indeed a fitting centerpiece for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim's marketing campaign. In most fantasy realms, dragons are often a looming, inescapable presence that take their place as the most intimidating and badass creature around. Such a description is a similarly apt way of characterizing what Skyrim is in the realm of role-playing games. Skyrim is a behemoth game that outdoes every single other game of this console generation in terms of sheer scope. From Dragon Age: Origins to The Witcher, and even The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, there have been many immersive fantasy worlds crafted in the past few years, but even the superb world-building in those games pale in comparison to just how impeccably realized the land of Skyrim is.

It doesn't take long after a misleadingly clumsy opening sequence to realize two of this game's most important facts. One, you are free to do whatever you please within the massive realm of Skyrim. Two, you are Dovhakiin, a humanoid with the soul of a dragon (more on that later).

In case it wasn't clear, the sense of place in Skyrim is at the game's core. There's a seemingly endless amount of places to go, quests to embark on, characters to meet and lore to learn. Even at sixty hours of play time, I didn't feel as if there was any shortage of content to explore. That's partly because the game is so well structured in terms of its opportunities to take on various missions and tasks.

skyrim

As with all Elder Scrolls titles, the game's central story campaign is made quite apparent from the get-go. Dragons, thought to have been extinct for centuries, return pretty much as soon as you set foot in Skyrim. Their presence threatens the entire world, and as the Dovhakiin, you soon embark on a quest to slay these monsters before they can destroy it all. The main storyline has a bit of the cliche "chosen one" vibe, but as the story ramps up, major events start becoming more creative, and your decisions become more impactful.

In addition to the main story quest, there are five major quest chains that come from taking a side in a civil war, as well as joining one of Skyrim's guilds. The civil war allows you to join up with either an oppressive Empire, or a group of violent revolutionaries. Again, this may seem heavy on the cliches, but once the story gets going, the narrative ends up being a lot more nuanced than it initially appears to be. The guild stories are all quite engaging, with the Dark Brotherhood content, focused on preparing for a very high-profile hit, being the true highlight. It's worth noting that, despite the implication of being specific to a particular cla.ss you'll be able to go through each guild story regardless of how you choose to build your character.

It's this openness that characterizes nearly every facet of The Elder Scroll V's gameplay. This first becomes apparent when, in a very rare move in the world of RPGs, the game doesn't force you to pick any kind of cla.ss or specialization from the get-go. Instead, as you level up, you can choose to unlock perks that will strengthen certain abilities. This leaves you free to pursue any kind of character build you want, and hybrid characters are much more encouraged than they are in similar games.

The act of gaining experience to level up is similarly intuitive. Experience is gained simply through utilizing your favorite abilities. For example, the more you use two-handed weapons, the more damage you do with them. This formula for improving abilities is so simple and logical that it makes the behind-the-scenes dice-rolls and stat calculations that other RPGs use seem pretty absurd.

Combat itself a lot of fun, and is a marked improvement over past Elder Scrolls titles. Magic is a lot of fun now thanks to your ability to dual-wield spells. Mixing and matching different abilities, as well as combining them for a devastating attack is a lot of fun. Standard melee combat is also far more engaging thanks to an expanded set of attacks, as well as the occassional Fallout-esque brutal slow-motion execution animation. Finally, those who prefer a sneakier approach will find that same degree of fun abilities and attacks. Most significantly, however, is the fact that you can easily utilize any of these cla.sses. While my character was primarily a warrior, I also used a bow for deadly sneak-attacks, and used various defensive spells.

Skyrim

The last, and perhaps most interesting element of combat comes in the form of Dragon Shouts. As the Dragon-born, you are able to read and speak the Dragons' language, and thus can learn various phrases etched into Word Walls littered throughout Skyrim (mostly in monster-infested dungeons). These abilities usually help in combat or exploration. The Fire Breath shout is my personal favorite, but there are around 30 shouts to learn and upgrade.

The only major flaw I found in Skyrim's gameplay is the lack of compelling decisions and dialog options. While the main storyline does offer some interesting choices, they don't have a whole lot of lasting consequence, and few other moments in this huge game allow for this same level of decision-making. While choice has never been a staple of the Elder Scrolls series, it feels odd to play an RPG in 2011 that is as straightforward in terms of dialog as Skyrim is.

Skyrim's graphical quality can vary greatly. The environments themselves are absolutely gorgeous. The overworld is a massive, diverse place, offering up locals that range from arctic tundras, to snow-covered mountains, to filthy swamps. And while you must suffer through a minimal load time to reach interior environments, they are just as engaging (for the most part). The art design here is incredible, and it plays an integral role in truly bringing this world to life. That said, there are still some glitches to be endured, ranging from minor clipping and physics issues to freezes. On the Xbox 360, anyway, there are no truly game-breaking graphical problems or glitches, but it's still worth noting that this isn't a totally polished game.

The story is largely the same on the audio side. The impeccable sound design, surprisingly large voice-over cast and incredible score are some of the game's real highlights. However, there are some returning audio problems that have plagued the series for years. Minor NPCs still rattle off repetitive phrases whenever you draw near, and there are some occasional glitches here and there. At the end of the day, however, the good far outweights the bad.

Talking about The Elder Scrolls V's replay value seems somewhat pointless, as this is a game you can play for hours every day for months and still find new things to do and explore. Each of the six major questlines last between 6 and 10 hours, there is said to be about 150 dungeons to explore, a Radiant Quest system allows for a huge number of unique miscellanious sidemissions, and there are dozens and dozens of more involved quests to come across. And while all that content is good for a few hundred hours or so, it's also worth noting that there is something very rewarding about simply wandering in Skyrim. No matter how many hours you sink into the game, there's always a sense that there's more yet to be uncovered, and the game is so well put together that travelling around in hopes of discovering new adventures or visual wonders is sure to take up hours upon hours of your time.

Skyrim

Even though I've already written quite a great deal about The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, I feel as if this review still only scratches the surface. It's that colossal scope that proves to be Skyrim's most memorable, and unprecedented quality. Besides the game's absolutely ridiculous replay value, the core mechanics are intuitive, and the game's presentation is great. There are flaws to be sure, but they ultimately feel so minimal when compared to this game's unmatched achievements. Knowing that it will only be hardcore gamers reading this review, I'm not going to throw out the "If you're only going to buy one game this year..." phrase, but it's true that Bethesda has crafted one of the most fully-realized worlds in video game history, and with very few flaws can serving to distract from this game's wealth of content, Skyrim is ultimately the most compelling and memorable open-world game of this generation.