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Banning Video Games: How to Shut Them Up

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It's your old pal Monco here with a quick little nugget of information worth it's weight in gold. Or, since an internet article doesn't weigh much, worth considerably more.

As avid gamers, we've all seen our fair share of ignorant hate and bigotry aimed towards our beloved pastime. It seems like not a day goes by when someone isn't advocating banning video games or comparing them to Satan's splooge. Most of us try to rise above it, hoping to show the world that no, we are not all cannibalistic serial killers. Yet still, there is no shortage of condemnation and ridicule towards us and our sick little fantasy worlds.

So the next time you get in an argument with someone advocating the ban of video games, direct them to this delightful article I stumbled upon over at Destructoid.

Though by no means scientific, I found it to be not only entertaining and amusing but a very solid defense against all these encroaching nasties armed with their almighty ban-hammers.

Fortunately, we can always find additional solace in the knowledge that gaming is receiving such negative attention only because it is the new kid on the block in this city of entertainment we call Terra Firma (you do call it that, right?). Just like rock music, movies, porn and countless other forms of (by now well established) entertainment before, video games too shall one day be accepted and celebrated. In fact, we are nearing that day slowly even at this very moment and by the time today's gamers enter tomorrow's positions of government and religion, all this shall be naught but an unpleasant footnote in the grand history of gaming.

Sorry to sound so pompous, but I just loves my vidjamagames.

A Premature Holiday Greeting

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Tomorrow I will be leaving for the tranquility and blinding whiteness of Lapland, to spend Xmas with my family. I will be returning a few days before the new year rolls in and would like to take this opportunity to let all my friends (both of you) know that even though you may have wished for it on many an occasion, I have not left for good just yet. I will be taking my laptop with me, so if the wireless gods are in a permitting mood, I will pop up every now and then like a bad rash.

Without further delay, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas (or whatever it is you celebrate this time of year) and a Happy New Year. And since no Monco holiday-themed blog would be complete without a scantily clad elf, here you go:

Oh, and please people, remember to vote for Left 4 Dead every chance you get when GS' yearly awards come around.

Sincerely, your pal

Monco

A TrueScore Review - Left 4 Dead

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Gameplay - 9.5

Visuals - 9

Audio - 9.5

Singleplayer/Multiplayer - 10

Chin Factor - 10

TrueScore - 9.6

"Every bit as fun as a real zombie apocalypse and twice as safe!"

If you're anything like me (and judging by the sales of books like World War Z and The Zombie Survival Guide, you are), you spend a good portion of each and every day wondering what a zombie outbreak might be like, and most importantly, how to survive it. Now that Left 4 Dead has hit shelves, we no longer need to wonder.

The game picks up two weeks after the first infection, conveniently by-passing such tedious genre conventions like where the plague originated from and how. Let's face it, the only thing people want to know about zombies is how to kill them. This isn't a slight against the game by any means though, since it features a surprisingly strong cast for a multiplayer game, something most of us are not accustomed to. Instead of generic soldiers or aliens from the future, in Left 4 Dead you control a group of four unlikely heroes, thrust into the zombie apocalypse from all walks of life. Zoey, the lone female of the group is a college student and horror movie aficionado and is as quick with her tongue as she is with a gun. Francis, the no-nonsense biker thinks himself to be indestructible and acts accordingly. Then you have Louis, a former Junior Systems Analyst just looking to survive and Bill, a gruff and grizzled vet with two tours in 'Nam under his belt and a new enemy to fight. Even though there is little real story in L4D, events and backstories materialize through the brilliant and often humorous dialogue characters have with each other. Literally hundreds of lines of dialogue was recorded simply for this purpose. That's dedication you can only find in a Valve game.

With so much talking going on, it's a good thing the voice actors are on top of their game. Everyone comes off realistically, nailing their prospective characters. Louis always has a nervous edge in his voice, typical of white-collar cubicle-lemmings on the edge. Bill has a nihilistic world view and a touch of fatalism in him, while at the same time clearly enjoying his one last chance of experiencing the thrill of combat. You get to learn all these quirks and qualities the characters possess simply by playing online with others and keeping your ears open.

The Hunter is one nasty fellow...

Like most games, Left 4 Dead is split into two main parts; singleplayer and multiplayer. Singleplayer is just you with three bots against the usual zombie horde. While the bots are entirely capable buddies in combat, what is missing most is that indiscribable human factor. Even if you don't communicate with your fellow team members at all during the game, it's still much more rewarding knowing these are real flesh and blood people you're playing with. It imbues the experience with that ever-important feeling of camaraderie and playful one-upmanship. Keeping that in mind, it's best to use the singleplayer portion strictly as a learning grounds, getting to know the controls and layout of the various maps. After you feel suitably accustomed to the proceedings, jump straight into multiplayer (for a more thrilling and ultimately rewarding experience, I recommend going for Advanced or Expert difficulty straight from the bat) and discard the singleplayer altogether. That is, unless you're a sucker for easy achievements.

... but a mere puppydog compared to the Witch

Multiplayer is where the real fun is and it too is split into two sub-parts. You've got the Campaign mode, which is essentially the main mode and has you and three others fight through four different scenarios, each containing five maps. This is easily the best part about the game, as the scenarios play out like old-fashioned horror movies, with names like Dead Air and Blood Harvest. The campaigns run the gamut from a downtown metropolis and hospital to small town America and beyond. As a great touch, once you finish a certain scenario, it will be dedicated to any players unlucky enough to succumb to the horde, after which the end credits roll that let you know how each player stacks up in his performance. At the very end you even get a "this many zombies were killed in the making of this movie"-counter.

Each map is carefully crafted and oozing with atmosphere. You'll often run into writing scribbled on walls by previous refugees, be they helpful notes and warnings or apocalyptic messages of doom. The flow of gameplay is smooth and despite a few divergent paths, every level is easy enough to navigate that even first-timers are able to take the lead without fear of leading everyone down a dead end. There is a common formula for every campaign which has you advancing along the path trying to reach safe houses at the end of every level, where you can stock up on ammo, upgrade your arsenal and heal up. After getting to the end of the final evel, you're tasked with holding a certain position (like an abandoned house or airport runway) against an unrelenting zombie horde that comes a-runnin', no doubt smelling the free meal. These last stands are among the tensest moments in all of gaming, with players dashing to and fro, trying to stop a tidal wave of dead flesh pouring in from every door and window. Needless to say, these moments are also among the toughest, requiring the very best of each and every player in order to make it through.

While that formula may not sound terribly thrilling when keeping in mind that there are only four scenarios to choose from and you'll be running through each multiple times, what really gives the game replay values is a system Valve has dubbed the AI Director. The Director is an adaptive presence that changes up the locations of health packs and ammo as well as the spawn locations of the infected and their numbers. What was a hotly contested battleground in one playthrough may be just another abandoned parking lot in another. Do well and the director will increase the heat by sending in more undead. But if you and your team are struggling, the Director will ease off, spawning fewer zombies and doling out ammo and health accordingly. This, accompanied by the always unpredictable human factor makes each and every play session different from the last and quarantees you'll be having a great time with the game no matter how many times you've beat each scenario. That being said, a few new scenarios wouldn't hurt and judging by Valve's terrific post-launch support of their previous games, we can expect just that.

Hey buddy, you got something in your eye!

The other portion of multiplayer is called Versus Mode. This is where up to four Survivors square off against four Infected (in addition to the regular AI-controlled zombies), each controlled by a player. Versus Mode flips the gameplay on it's head, creating a more fast and competitive setting. Both teams take turns playing as the Survivors and the Infected. The game scores you on how far your team of Survivors gets (if a team gets to the very end, it's an automatic win), along with various multipliers tied to difficulty level and number of Infected killed. The Infected need to stop the Survivors as quickly as possible and to do that each player is randomly assigned one of the four "boss zombies" from the Campaign mode to play as. Hunters are quick and agile zombies that stalk in the shadows and pounce on Survivors, clawing their guts out. Boomers are corpulent zombies that specialize in vomiting green bile on Survivors, thus sending the AI directed horde mad and blindly attacking any Survivor sprayed with the ejected substance. Smokers are tall and lanky zombies that can grab and drag Survivors great distances with their tongues. Finally, the tank is a hulking behemoth with an incredible amount of health, who is free to wreak havoc among the Survivors with his immense strength. There is also the Witch, a female zombie that can kill in one swipe (at Expert difficulty), but she is not playable in Versus Mode.

Even though the thought of playing as zombies is enticing, Versus Mode is not as fun as the Campaign mode. Sure, playing as a zombie is great fun and demands an entirely different approach to the maps and teamwork but the fact that two teams are competing against each other means it's also a very hostile and demanding experience. Whereas Campaign mode is usually a lot of fun for all players, Versus Mode can quickly turn into your typical online shooter game with profanities and expletives flying about. It's also missing that tense feeling you only get by having four people fight through a succession of increasingly hard scenarios as a team, not worried by points or looking good. Also, Versus Mode is only playable on two scenarios (No Mercy and Blood Harvest), making it more of a fun distraction in-between more serious bouts of Campaign sessions.

Expect plenty of hair-raising, pulse-pounding moments like this one

The single greatest strength Left 4 Dead has going for it is it's simple yet deep gameplay system. Unlike any other online game before it, Left 4 Dead is built entirely on top of a foundation of teamwork and the game is not shy of letting you know this. Every aspect of the game drives this "No I in Team" -mentality into you from the get-go. Thanks to some simple inventions, like a conxtext sensitive button that handles everything from helping up downed buddies to manipulating levers and doors means you're never in the dark about what button to press or what to do. Even though you have some radio commands to communicate with others, the dialogue is automated to the extent that you don't even need a microphone to enjoy the game fully and engage in some tactical planning. The entire system is easy to get into, yet delivers hours upon hours of deep and satisfying content. And unlike most multiplayer shooters, L4D doesn't rely on nor need any Patton-grade planning between players before they're ready to jump in. Just put four people together and they'll set off, helping each other on the way and coming up with fire teams and squad compositions on the fly. Naturally, having four players with mics makes everything that much more easy and co-operative.

Previously I touched upon the game's voice acting, which is top notch. Despite some good but fairly generic weapon sounds, that same quality carries over to the atmospheric sounds themselves. All of the Infected growl and scream in disheartening gibberish, whilst the four bosses all have their own, unique vocal signs. For example, the Hunter growls and roars like a rabid dog, whilst the Boomer is always belching and otherwise sounding like a wet sponge. The music is great but extremely scarce, which is exactly what the developer intended. The sound world concists mainly of an ominous silence, pierced every now and then by various background sounds like birds flying off hurriedly or animals squealing in the distance. Along with the suitably drab and oppressive color palette, this is what really helps set the ambience and creates tension.

Each scenario plays out like an old horror movie, complete with cheesy tagline

Left 4 Dead is built using Valve's Source engine, which is 5 years old as of now, a true relic in industry standards. And indeed, while the game is not technically impressive and the color scheme is a bit on the dark side, the game is very pleasing on the eyes and runs extremely well even on older machines. Animations are top-notch, with a number of inventive and cool death throes for the zombie hordes. Character models are also extremely detailed and feature Valve's trademark immersive facial animations that convey a myriad of emotions and feelings. The lighting builds on top of the great system introduced in Episode 2 and is one of the highlights of the game, graphically. Moving through dark corridors and cornfields is made that much more scary thanks to some terrific silhouettes and shadows. Like most games using Source though, the textures can be a bit muddy at times, though never to the point of becoming a distraction.

As it stands, Left 4 Dead has few real faults, if any. It's gameplay is typical Valve, which is to say it's been polished to a glimmering sheen. No other game before this one has captured the teamplay aspect quite like Left 4 Dead, resulting in an absolutely thrilling and utterly fun experience, whether you're playing with friends or strangers. It's easy to get into and gets more rewarding the deeper you go. And while Left 4 Dead certainly isn't a long game any way you look at it, it has replay value far surpassing that of any game I have ever seen. Like Portal before it, Valve has another winner on it's hands with Left 4 Dead.

Left 4 Dead Bandwagon

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OK, so I bought Left 4 Dead this week and installed it. Due to time constraints, I merely installed it and gave the singleplayer a cursory glance. It seemed okay, which was to be expected since L4D is not in any shape or form a singleplayer experience. This much should be obvious to anyone with a marginally functioning brain (yet, from the looks of some internet forums, a small batch of people continue to contaminate the gene pool).

I figured I'd get to the actual experience later. And so, there the game sat, on my shelf until yesterday. After playing the multiplayer portion for the better part of two days, I can state the following with unequivocal, unwavering and unbiased resolution:

Left 4 Dead is not only THE GREATEST multiplayer game of the year, it is the MOST FUN game I have played in a good long while. Just to hammer home the previous statement, consider this; we have seen the likes of Fallout 3, Dead Space, Crysis Warhead, World at War, Gears of War 2, Resistance 2, LittleBigPlanet, Fable 2 and many, many more equally earth-shattering games in the last few months alone. Now, I'm not saying that L4D has all these games beat or is superior to them. But when it comes to sheer unadulterated fun, Valve and Turtle Rock have got the market cornered.

Those of you who know me better will also be familiar with the fact that I tend to avoid multiplayer-only games, deriving much greater satisfaction from a gripping singleplayer experience. In light of this, my support for Left 4 Dead is given monolithic weight. The reason Left 4 Dead manages to be so much fun even for us loners is evident in the design and overall philosophy of the game itself. Even though it's been repeated to the point of becoming a cliche, one cannot escape the fact that L4D not only coerces, but downright beats you into a teamplay mentality the very moment you boot it up. This could pose major problems for us hermits (not in the platform sense) if it weren't for the smooth yet unrelenting way the game forces you to play nice with others. A single context sensitive button means you're never overwhelmed with what to do. The radio chatter is automated to the point that you don't even really need a microphone. And the gameplay doesn't rely on fancy tactics that take hours of pre-play planning to execute in order to succeed. All it takes is for four people to be thrown smack dab in the middle of a ravenous zombie horde and they'll find a way to survive... together. This is evident in the many impromptu sessions I particpated in. I was able to team up with three complete strangers and without so much as a word spoken or typed, we supported each other through the nail-biting experience.

Never before have I seen a videogame capable of that. And so we finally get to the point I'm trying to make. Even if you're an anti-social loner with no redeeming social skills whatsoever, you WILL be able to play L4D. And not only that, you WILL have fun.

So join the zombie apocalypse and have some fun.

A TrueScore Review - Call of Duty: World at War

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Gameplay - 9.5

Visuals - 9

Audio - 6

Story/Multiplayer - 10

Chin Factor - 10

TrueScore - 8.9

"The Good War is back and it's better than ever"

You'd be hard-pressed to find a gamer today who hasn't heard of the Call of Duty franchise. After wresting the crown of premier WWII shooter from Medal of Honor, CoD has enjoyed tremendous success, with 9 games in the series so far and millions of units sold. To the shock (and delight) of many, last year's Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare took the series from it's trademark WWII setting and into the modern day. Now, almost precisely a year later, Call of Duty returns to the Good War, courtesy of Treyarch.

Not much has really changed in that period, both for better and worse. World at War doesn't blaze new ground and it often feels familiar to a fault. Yet, despite these shortcomings, it's hard not to get swept up in the intense action and sweeping set pieces that go hand in hand with any Call of Duty game. You'll still shoot your way from Point A to Point B in highly scripted levels that are often nothing more than twisting alleyways, despite their open appearance. You'll still engage in firefights where the enemy respawns endlessly until you manage to reach your objective. And yes, you'll still have loads of fun, enjoying the highly polished gameplay and tried-and-true mechanics. In an effort to add some fresh pizzazz, Treyarch added a few new weapons into the familiar arsenal you'd expect from a WWII shooter. The two most notable (although far from original or new) additions are the bayonet and the flamethrower. Out of the two, the bayonet fails to add any real change. Sure, impaling a Japanese soldier desperately trying to banzai your ass is a great deal of fun (especially if you manage to shoot him in the gut immediately after, as he's staggering about), but the fact that only a few weapons are equipped this way means it's a rare indulgence that has little bearing on the actual gameplay. Conversely, the enemy will use this maneuver often and quite effectively. However, the flamethrower, while not a new idea in gaming either, is so well implemented and utilized in a number of levels that it is a genuinely effective (albeit extremely sadistic) tool . Not only is it imperative to hose down bunkers and entrenched enemies with fiery death from time to time, it's an exhilirating experience to boot. Trust me, you'll be toasting Tojo every chance you get. As a nice touch, the flames will set fire to any surrounding vegetation, though the damage is not as extensive or long-lasting as in Far Cry 2.

 Fun? Yes. Effed up? You better effin' believe it!

The story alternates between Pvt. Miller, a Marine Raider fighting againts the Japanese in the Pacific Front and Pvt. Dimitri Petrenko, a Russian shocktrooper fighting his way into Berlin. Though not nearly as riveting as Modern Warfare's storyline, it serves as a useful excuse for jumping between two very different fronts. This difference is apparent in the wildly differing level design and enemy behavior of the American and Russian campaigns. The Germans pose a traditional threat, using conventional tactics and generally playing by the book. The Russian campaign is still extremely brutal, with both sides killing unarmed and injured soldiers at whim. On a few occasions, you're even asked to join in. The Japanese are a very different foe though, which serves to mix up the otherwise familiar gameplay. Japanese soldiers will often lay boobytraps, climb up trees in order to snipe, rush you in mad banzai charges, spring up from underground "spiderholes", play dead until just the right moment as well as use other devious guerilla tactics. This makes the American campaign a unique experience in all it's nerve-wracking glory. At the end of the day though, both campaigns are intense, bloody affairs with many memorable instances. Following along Modern Warfare's footsteps, World at War features both a sniper mission and a bombing/strafing run aboard a PBY Catalina, though each is decidedly different when compared to it's predecessor. Your stint onboard the PBY is an especially nice addition, since it contrasts nicely with Modern Warfare's cold and methodic AC-130 level by thrusting you into the middle of the action and carnage.

The PBY Catalina mission is just one of many excellent moments in WaW

Unfortunately, the singleplayer campaign is about as short as Modern Warfare's. Thanks to a four player online co-op campaign mode though, the game has some serious replayability. Treyarch also decided to lengthen the game with the inclusion of a silly yet entertaining mode called Nazi Zombies or Nacht der Untoten. Just like the name implies, you and up to three others are holed up inside a reinforced yet dilapitated building, tasked with fending off the undead Nazi hordes. You get points for killing zombies and fixing the barricades, which in turn allows you to purchase better weapons and open up new areas of the house. With the right group of people, this mode can be immensely fun.

Nazi Zombies? Bruce Campbell would be proud

The multiplayer portion builds off of the solid foundation laid by Infinity Ward in Modern Warfare. The gameplay is practically unchanged, with create-a-cl@ss leveling, rewards and perks making a comeback. Naturally, this being WWII, the weapons and abilities have been given a makeover. When you get seven kills in a row without dying, instead of Modern Warfare's attack chopper, you're rewarded with a pack of attack dogs that tear the enemy apart. Vehicles are also thrown into the mix, along with some vehicle-specific perks. With all the old modes (Headquarters, Search & Destroy, Team Deathmatch etc.) and two new ones (War, a Battlefield-esque control point grab and the iconic Capture the Flag), World at War has all the makings of a terrific online shooter.

World at War uses Call of Duty 4's engine and it still manages to impress. Not only is the framerate mostly smooth, even during the most hectic of firefights, but the level of detail is quite astounding. Character models are detailed and varied and they move realistically, thanks to some impressive motion capturing. The lighting is top notch, particularly near the end of the game when levels take on an almost apocalyptic feel. The game also makes brilliant use of some terrific effects, like ashes floating around the battlefield after an artillery barrage and the way blood splatters in realistic fashion. World at War has few real faults when it comes to graphics, though it's not a graphical powerhouse anymore. Facial animations could use some work and textures tend to look a bit blurry in some levels. Likewise, water and smoke effects look a bit dated.

WaW has all the makings for a terrific sound package. Treyarch tapped some considerable voice talent for the game; the always astonishing Gary Oldman plays the part of a vicious and uber-patriotic Russian, whereas the not-so astonishing (though he delivers a solid performance here) Kiefer Sutherland portrays an American Marine that acts as a sobering counterpoint to Oldman's vitriolic character. The ambient and weapon sounds are top notch, as has always been the case with CoD. World at War also has the best soundtrack in the series so far, with masterfully remixed tunes that incorporate typical, epic orchestral music with tense electrical and rock compositions. Each level manages to outdo the former as the score keeps ramping up the pressure. However, despite all this, the audio stumbles in two extremely important aspects. The mixing is off, resulting in weird balance issues, where some sounds are very low key and others practically pierce your ears. The more grievous complaint however is the extremely low quality of the audio itself, especially apparent in the voice acting. Everything sounds fuzzy, as if a poor filter was used in the sound design. Whether or not it's actually a bug or just bad design (according to forums, either option is open), it's still inexcusable that a game of this caliber could have slipped past the QA department in this shape. This is a thing that can be ignored without any real detriment to the actual game, but it's still distracting at first and incredibly disappointing.

Despite the grumblings of many, World at War shows there is still a lot of fight left in WWII as a setting. And despite some obvious shortcomings, like the broken audio and straightforward story, World at War is every bit as intense and fun as it's predecessor. The presentation is top notch, with cutscenes that mix real wartime footage with sleek, modern graphics. The short singleplayer campaign is helped by a terrific multiplayer and co-op portion as well as the ever fun Nazi mode. World at War doesn't reinvent the wheel by staying snugly in Modern Warfare's shadow, but it does make for a thrilling and enjoyable ride that fans of WWII and shooters alike are sure to appreciate.

A TrueScore Review - Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway

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Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway

review

Gameplay - 9

Visuals - 8.5

Audio - 10

Story/Multiplayer - 9

Chin Factor - 9

TrueScore - 9.1

"Hell's Highway is a joyous mix of finely-crafted tactical combat and mature, unapologetic storytelling."

Despite crafting Opposing Force, the phenomenal expansion pack for the original Half-Life, Gearbox Software is best known for their equally marvelous Brothers in Arms -series. BiA has always been about tactical, realistic WWII action, peppered with an engrossing story and strong characters. Hell's Highway is no exception. It continues Road to Hill 30's and Earned in Blood's finely-tuned tactical combat gameplay, whilst infusing some much needed maturity into the shooter genre.

The game takes place during Field Marshall Montgomery's infamous Operation Market Garden. As anyone with a passing knowledge of WWII knows, the operation was an utter disaster, with over 17,000 Allied casualties in just over a week. Set against this bleak backdrop, you play as Staff Sergeant Matthew Baker, tasked with leading his Recon squad through the fields and towns of Holland. As the initial optimism of the mission crumbles and gives way to despair, it is also expertly portrayed not only in the characters and story, but everything from mission objectives to level design and overall mood. BiA has always been something of an anomaly amongst WWII shooters. Instead of switching wildly between different soldiers, nationalities, countries and even continents, BiA has always strived to maintain a close bond between the player and his in-game persona, at the same time reinforcing the story by keeping it squarely aimed at a small group of men. Hell's Highway takes an already strong backdrop and well established cast and digs deeper. As Baker loses man after man, each loss shaking him to his core, he slowly begins to question his own sanity as do others around him. Hallucinations begin to bother him more frequently. It's deep stuff and handled with great care and respect. The only real downside is that the game overly relies on your knowledge of past games in the series, particularly RtH30. Despite a recap at the start of the campaign, many will feel left out on the more important aspects of the story if they have no previous knowledge of the canon. And even if you've played the first game (released in 2005), 3 years is a lot of time for someone to remember past characters and happenings. Unfortunately, this turns an otherwise great and deep storyline into a muddled mess at times. Not helping matters are occasional oddities in cutscenes. Sometimes a cutscene will shift extremely abruptly or characters will seem to teleport great distances to deliver their lines. It can be a jarring experience and confuse you even further. Therefore, barring a visitation back to the first two games, I strongly suggest playing through the game twice. The second time around you'll have a better understanding of what's happening and why, leading to a more satisfying experience.

Gameplay in Hell's Highway is atypical for the shooter genre. It strongly encourages use of smart team tactics, laying down covering fire and flanking enemy positions. Like previous games, HH hammers home the fact of strategic thinking and execution by forcing the player to learn and endorse the Four F's of combat; Find him (locate the enemy), Fix him (suppress the enemy), Flank him (find a position overlooking the enemy's exposed side) and Finish him (kind of self-explanatory, huh?). Needless to say, this is a game where foolishly running headfirst toward a squad of entrenched Germans doesn't yield desirable results. As a new feature, Hell's Highway introduces the oh-so popular cover system into the mix. Despite sounding like a contrived addition, it actually helps the gameplay dramatically. Even though it has the somewhat unfortunate effect of turning a first-person shooter into a third-person shooter for much of the time, it adds a sense of realism and ease into the squad control mechanism by giving you a better view of the battlefield. Squad controls are simple and context sensitive. By pressing and holding down the right mouse button, you call up your squad commanding reticule. By pointing the reticule anywhere on the ground, you order your squad to move to that position and take up any available cover. By pointing it at an enemy unit, you order your squad to attack said enemy. The system is extremely intuitive and fun to use. And it should be, since your success depends entirely on your ability to command your squads in a logical, sensible manner. However, hampering the brilliant squad control mechanism is a friendly AI that is prone to making bonehead moves, like taking up position on the wrong side of cover, thereby exposing themselves. They even have the audacity to yell at you, complaining how unsafe they are. Sometimes your squads will refuse to follow through on your orders or get stuck on scenery thanks to some dubious pathfinding. However, moments and glitches like these are fairly rare, though when they do happen it can be aggravating to no end.

One of the game's more serene moments

The level design in Hell's Highway is cohesive and natural, though sometimes it's painfully obvious it was constructed entirely to allow for certain set pieces to occur. What also bothers me is that the level design goads you into certain actions and dictates the strategy, rather then leaving it up to you. Whenever you find an enemy squad up ahead blocking your path, checking the map will reveal one obvious route you can use to flank the enemy. It would have been better to present you with multiple paths or even open up the level design entirely and let players choose their strategy. It ends up feeling like you were given this awesome power to command various squads, yet find no real use for it, instead reducing yourself to elementary leapfrogging tactics.

Visually, Hell's Highway varies between gorgeous and simply average, often without a moment's notice. You've got some unfortunately low resolution textures and awkward, choppy animation to deal with. Weapon models look quite bland and blurry and the architecture can sometimes feel a bit "boxy". These issues are outweighed by detailed character models, excellent water effects (particularly rain) and a spot-on artistic design and terrific lighting. The game boasts numerous occasions when you'll want to stop in the heat of battle and just gawk at the scenery, be it those first early morning sunrays filtering through clouds, a burning windmill sending a thick, black tower of smoke up into the ominously crimson sky or carpet bombings lighting up the night sky, sending up tons of dirt and debris. A nice touch is added by the color filters utilized in various missions. The game starts sunny and bright, slowly turning to a subdued, darker palette and finally erupting in a hellish red that perfectly captures the raw desperation, fear and brutality of the later missions. The Hell's Highway mission actually looks like Hell, with burning wreckage everywhere, towering black clouds piercing a burning sky and everything, including Baker, being enveloped in an oppressive red glow. The game also manages to keep the framerate steady, with only a few minor glitches sprinkled here and there. Options for tweaking the graphics are scarce and oversimplified, but since the game works well with the settings given, there's little reason to start mucking about under the hood.

Hell on earth

One final, major gripe (at least for me) were the subdued effects firearms produce. Unlike previous games in the series, weapons make a very small impact on the scenery. Instead of sending up liberal amounts of debris, firing at the ground or any objects in the game produces a few funny puffs or some pathetic splinters of wood. This is an extremely disappointing facet of the game and one that drastically tones down the intensity and awesomeness of firefights. Luckily, explosions are still "meaty" enough. Firing a bazooka at a bell tower blows up the entire upper portion into smithereens. Chucking a grenade at a group of enemies not only flings dirt into the air, but body parts as well. As you may have guessed, the game is very violent and gory. A grenade can easily tear a man in two, spilling his guts for all the world to see. A well placed headshot will literally blow out the back of your mark's cranium. Blood splatters in accordance with slasher-flick rules. Highlighting these atrocities is the action cam. Every once in a while when you pop a Nazi in the noggin' or blow up an entrenched group of enemies, the game zooms in and slows the action to showcase your handiwork. Watching a group of soldiers get thrown into the air in slow motion, complete with rag-doll physics, is a sight to behold. As is nailing an unsuspecting enemy straight between the eyes with a sniper rifle, watching as his body tumbles backward in a shower of blood. Despite the ample gore, it never feels gratuitous or exploitative. In fact, it strongly helps bring out the real brutality of war and thus even further cementing the game's realistic approach to WWII.

The action cam in action

As is almost customary for a WWII shooter, weapon and combat sounds are of a high-quality and suitably bombastic. Each weapon pierces the air with a distinctive sound, from the MP40's metallic clank to the BAR's thunderous bass. Also customary for a WWII shooter is an equally bombastic score that contains enough melodrama and heroic anthems to fill a Bruckheimer pic. In this regard, Hell's Highway also delivers. Although you'll also find some more down-to-earth, intimate pieces in the mix. They help underscore the game's emotional moments and your characters mental progression. Finally, unlike is customary for most WWII shooters, the voice acting is also top-notch, and it has to be to properly sell a story of such magnitude and seriousness. Particularly of note is Troy Baker's portrayal of Matt Baker (yeah, Baker does Baker). He brings an emotional depth and burdened sadness into the character rarely seen in videogames. At one particular cutscene near the end of the game, he delivers some grim news to a good friend and fellow soldier. This scene (as well as another in which he is pleading to God) left an indelible mark on me and actually made me quiver, reeling from a performance worthy of Hollywood. I know this may sound like hyperbole, but trust me, if you see the scene for yourself, you'd have to be a husk of a man (or woman) to not feel anything as Baker delivers his lines.

All in all, Hell's Highway manages to be a thrilling addition to the series. It stumbles somewhat in regards to graphics and level design. The AI can be a pain every now and then and multiplayer is almost an afterthought, feeling very tacked on. Despite these issues though, you're left with an exciting, albeit rather short singleplayer campaign. Luckily it holds up nicely for a few replays.

A TrueScore Review - Uncharted: Drake's Fortune

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Uncharted: Drake's Fortune

review

Gameplay - 8

Graphics - 10

Audio - 10

Story/Multiplayer - 9

Chin Factor - 9

TrueScore - 9.2

"Despite it's flaws, Uncharted weaves a terrific pulp action plot, beautiful graphics, memorable characters and great level design into one superb package."

Uncharted: Drake's Fortune is the latest offering from developer Naughty Dog, famous for their Crash Bandicoot and Jak and Daxter franchises. Don't be fooled however, Uncharted is a whole different bag of tricks, moving the company away from stylized fantasy worlds into a realistic modern day action romp. Uncharted plays out like an Indiana Jones movie or one of those old pulp serials from the 30's. The subject matter is serious and the game even moves into the realm of horror at one point, but it still maintains that wonderful devil may care adventure attitude throughout

The protagonist is Nathan Drake, a witty young adventurer and possible descendant of famous New World pillager Sir Francis Drake. As adventurers and pillagers are wont to do, Nathan is in search of treasure, and not just any treasure. Setting his sights on the grand prize from the get-go, Nathan goes after the legendary City of Gold, El Dorado. Tagging along for this rollercoaster ride is his old friend and ne'er-do-well gambler Victor Sullivan and Elena Fisher, a stubborn journalist in search of a good scoop. Along the way you'll also meet Nathan's older, eviler British counterpart Gabriel Roman (resembling Belloq from Raiders) and a loud-mouth Indonesian pirate going by the name of Eddy Raja. The characters all have depth and believabality, which really helps the story overcome some of it's more cliche moments. After getting conveniently shot down over the very island they wanted to get on, things get hectic for our trio, thanks to the pirate army present. The story plays out like a lost Indiana Jones movie, with some twists and turns thrown in for good measure. Close to the end of the game we are introduced to a third party in the story, one which took me totally by surprise. It delivers a nice pay off in the end, despite feeling a bit tacked on at first.

"Looks hard, but even a blind person could do it"

The gameplay is made up of two very different concepts; platforming and gunplay. The platforming is strongly rooted in Naughty Dog's previous offerings and as such, it is highly refined but way too easy. The game is very forgiving in regards to the controls and your placement of Drake. A lot of the time it's simply enough to steer Nathan in the right way and press jump at the right time. While this might be good news to those of you fed up with the more precise and demanding gameplay of early Tomb Raider games, it still manages to suck some of the fun out. Sure enough, swinging from vine to vine and climbing up cliffs towering over an ocean filled with jagged rocks looks intense and harrowing, but it doesn't feel like it. The second concept is gunplay, which also suffers from some poor design choices. In addition to some obvious faults like a wonky aiming system which takes a lot of getting used to and a cover system that seems to have a mind of it's own, Uncharted also stumbles in a few profound ways. In an odd reversal of well-established gaming logic, you the player are actually weaker than your enemies. Whereas Nathan can only take a few direct hits before buying the farm, his enemies regularly suck up an entire clip from your AK before going down. Adding insult to injury, the enemy AI is extremely aggressive and extremely fond of rushing your position. On the one hand, the health system favors a cautious approach, maximizing cover and playing it safe. On the other hand, the enemy AI makes sitting behind cover for even the slightest of periods tantamount to a death wish. All these things add up to some extremely annoying and tense firefights, especially near the end. It takes a lot of trial and error, though eventually you'll either get lucky or learn to try some different approach. Nathan also has some close combat moves in his repertoire should foes get too close, but thanks to the enemy having pinpoint precision, fighting is more of a triviality than a viable tactic.

Early on the game tries it's hand at SIXAXIS motion controls, which turn out to be pretty half-assed. Apparently the design team realized this as well, since after a few portions during the early game, they never crop up again. Also making an appearance are the ever so popular dynamic cutscenes (which are decent but scarce) and vehicle sequences. Vehicle sequences either have you driving away from pirates while letting loose with a machine gun or traveling upstream on a jet ski, avoiding explosive barrels and shooting any pirates that pop up on the way. Both are well executed and oftentimes dramatic.

Uncharted also features some light puzzles. And I do mean light, as in light even for someone working at McDonald's. Occasionally you're tasked with flipping switches and turning levers to open up the way forward or if the game really feels like testing you, it presents you puzzles tasking you to rotate statues or other objects to face a certain way, thus exposing a secret passageway. However, a generous hint system (available by pressing L2) and a notebook that practically spells out the solution leave little reason to actually use your brain. Rest assured, if you know your basic Roman numerals and how a compass works, this game will not test you.

"She can blow me any day. Up, that is"

At the time of release there was little doubt as to the fact that Uncharted was the prettiest PS3 game around. Now, almost a year later, it still stands proud and beautiful. There is something to be said of the startling contrast between the lush jungle vistas overflowing with color and the dark, muted underground halls and passages where the dynamic lighting system really comes into it's own. Also worthy of a special mention are the water effects, which are some of the best this side of Bioshock. Most impressive however, is the fact that Uncharted crafts all these stunning visual delights without so much as a single hiccup or framerate drop. Indeed, the game remains buttery smooth even through the most intense firefights and largest set pieces. If I had to find fault with the visuals though (and since this is a review, I do), the weapon effects range from lackluster to outright ridiculous. Bullets ricochet off every surface accompanied by a shower of sparks, much like in the Bond movies of Pierce Brosnan. Most jarring however are the explosions; bright, round balloons that turn into hilarious black clouds that drift upwards and slowly dissipate. The environment is extremely static with only a few, obvious destructible objects scattered throughout. These minor annoyances turn potentially visceral gunfights into regrettably tame affairs. Some might see this as an extension of the game's pulp motif, but since it's set in the modern day, there's really no excuse for such understated effects.

"Looks flashy, but is utterly useless. Just like me!"

Continuing along it's path of excellence, Uncharted crafts a sound world seldom heard in gaming. Each weapon packs a unigue, powerful punch that punctuates the action marvelously. The soundtrack is pure awesomeness, with a mix of soaring orchestral scores and indigenous jungle music, reminiscent of Mel Gibson's Apocalypto. Using a variety of wind instruments and other "archaic" tools of the trade, the soumd department totally nailed the atmosphere of an uncharted island lost in time. The score effortlessly eases from care-free, happy-go-lucky tunes to scary, mythical notes whenever the game requires it. Perhaps the crowning achievement though is the voice work. Everyone from Nolan North (Nathan Drake), Emily Rose (Elena Fisher) and Richard McGonagle (Victor Sullivan) to Simon Templeman (Gabriel Roman), Robin Atkin Downes (Atoq Navarro) and James Sie (Eddy Raja) delivers an impeccable performance that really sells the characters and story. Even incomprehensible snarl expert and monster man Fred Tatasciore makes an appearance. Aurally, Uncharted delivers on so many fronts, you'd wish every game would achieve such a high pedigree.

Underneath Uncharted's super slick presentation and charm lies a thrilling game. Like all games, it has it's share of faults, but once you acclimate yourself to the controls and learn to accept the relatively short length of the game (the main drawbacks), you're guaranteed to have an experience unlike any other. And even though there is no multiplayer, a reward system and integrated Trophy support will keep you coming back at least once more, if only to unlock some more concept art and making of featurettes.

The End is Nigh

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Yesterday, the Large Hadron Collider was finally turned on after 14 years of development and labor. Even for a layman like me, this event has got me all worked up and for good reason. Without going into specifics (which I couldn't do even if I wanted to), the LHC is the world's largest particle accelerator, designed to crash two proton beams traveling at immense speeds into each other. Why? To recreate our universe right after the Big Bang. This in turn will allow scientists to try to find answers for some exciting, elusive questions that have plagued mankind for so long, including;

- what makes gravity so much weaker when compared to the other three fundamental forces; electromagnetism, weak interaction and strong interaction

- confirming or denying the existence of the Higgs boson or "God Particle"

- why matter seems to have such an edge over antimatter and where this violation of symmetry comes from

- getting a closer, more thorough look at the nature of dark matter and dark energy

- the existence of extra dimensions and our ability to "see" them

As you can see, discoveries in any of these fields could yield some exciting results, even for us Eddie Punchclocks and Sally Housecoats!

In addition to these admittedly intangible benefits, the LHC could spur new technological breakthroughs as well. As was the case with the LEP (the LHC's predecessor) and it's role in bringing the world wide web to the masses, so too can the LHC popularize "the Grid", a private fiber-optic network that is being employed by the scientists at CERN. It is said to be 10,000 times faster than our standard cable internet framework. Just imagine those lag-free sessions of CS this could afford us! Or the amount of porn we could download in the blink of an eye! I tell you, it's enough to make a man giddy.

However, as is sadly often the case with scientific wonders and breakthroughs, religious zealots find it necessary to do everything in their power to stop progress. The LHC and it's various affiliates and manufacturers have been fighting legal battles ever since the program was conceived. Lately, there has been a lot of talk about how the LHC could destroy our entire universe, either thanks to microscopic black holes (which indeed are a possible by-product of the experiments) that somehow manage to grow in size and swallow us whole, or because strangelets or strange matter are introduced with catastrophic consequences. Some have even hypothesized that terrorists could create terrible weapons of mass destruction from stolen antimatter created at the facility. So far, all of this has been proven to be false. Microscopic black holes don't just grown in size, whether you water them or not. Strangelets have not been created the entire time the RHIC has been in service and scientists dismiss any such fears related to the LHC. And finally, to create and contain antimatter in large enough quantities to actually weaponize it would not only bankrupt the G8, but the entire planet. I don't think we need to worry about Osama having that kind of scratch hidden away in any of his caves.

Even so, many have readied themselves for the apocalypse. In India, a deeply religious and superstitious country, tens of thousands have flocked to places of worship. Sadly, one young Indian girl even went as far as to commit suicide, for fear of getting caught in the End Times (which in itself is strange, since you're basically killing yourself to save yourself from death in the event of an apocalypse).

So far, I have been quick to dismiss these prophecies and rumors as nothing more than eschatological ravings of people taking a certain book too seriously. However, this morning I discovered a rather disturbing picture published by CERN, from the first test run of the LHC.


As this picture clearly shows, Gordon Freeman has been spotted conducting tests with the LHC. As we all know, this can only mean one thing; an imminent Xen invasion.

This is Monco, declaring the end is nigh, from his secluded bunker somewhere in the frozen tundra of Lapland.

Run...

One Step Forward, Two Million Steps Back

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I'm dragging myself out of the shadows briefly to bring something disheartening to your attention. If you read part two of GameSpot's Q&A with EA Games honcho Frank Gibeau, I'm sure you noticed something...disturbing:

Frank Gibeau: Well let me back up and say that core to the strategy of the company--and very specifically our label--is that we want to be online with everything we do. I'm no longer greenlighting games that are single-player only, even console products. They have to have deep online modes because that's where our fans are spending a lot of time and, frankly, that's where a lot of the value in the IPs we create can really take hold.

So just as it appeared EA had reformed itself into a productive member of society, they go and do something like this. The message is loud and clear; multiplayer must take precedent over singleplayer. One can only imagine how big a part microtransactions played in this decision.

Well, that's it for me. Catch you all on the flipside.

The Original is Back! A TrueScore Review

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I was initially going to post my Muscle Car Roundup today, but unfortunately hit a bit of a snag. For a classic car buff like me, narrowing down the best muscle carsof all time into a mere top ten can be a daunting task. And on top of all that, I actually need to put them in ascending order. Dearie me...

So in the interest of filler, I decided to clear some of the old review backlog by finally posting my review for Condemned, an overlooked gem of a game way back in '05. This also lets me test out a few changes I made to the TrueScore formula devised way back when.

As always, praise and voodoo curses are welcome.

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Condemned: Criminal Origins

review

Gameplay - 9

Graphics - 9

Audio - 10

Story/Multiplayer - 8

Chin Factor - 10

TrueScore - 9.2

Condemned: Criminal Origins is a refreshing, brutal take on a familiar genre and a game that manages to flourish despite some unfortunate design choices.

Most PC gamers remember Monolith best for their excellent shooter, The Operative: No One Lives Forever. It was a refreshing, revolutionary game that spoofed 60's spy movies with hilarious dialogue, a cheery atmosphere and funny characters. As in F.E.A.R. though, none of these things have carried over to Monolith's launch title for the Xbox 360, Condemned: Criminal Origins. Instead, you find yourself immersed in a world clearly influenced by movies like Se7en, The Silence of the Lambs and other psychological horror movies. A world that is as seedy and dark as the characters that inhabit it.

The story centers on a hotshot FBI investigator named Ethan Thomas, who is framed for the murder of two police officers. To clear his name, Ethan must hunt down a serial killer in a deadly game of cat and mouse, where everything is not as it seems and paranormal occurrences are plentiful. To further complicate the situation, something is killing all the birds in certain areas of the city and driving up the crime rate, turning people in affected zones into crazed, violent savages.

"This guy gives new meaning to the old saying of having a face only a mother could love"

Condemned differs from other first person shooters in a variety of ways. The most profound difference is the scarcity of weapons and their lethality. Unlike in other games of the genre, weapons are hard to come by. Also unlike most shooters, pretty much every gun in Condemned is one-shot, one-kill. In an effort to further intensify the atmosphere and promote survival horror, ammo is extremely scarce. You have to make do with what little ammo has been loaded into the weapon as you acquire it and to make matters worse, enemies share the same reserves. This forces you to attack gun-toting enemies quickly if you wish to have any hope of using their guns before they run dry. Luckily you can use the weapon as a club after it's precious ammo has been used up. You also get a taser that incapacitates anyone long enough for you to grab their weapon, a trick that comes in handy on a couple of occasions.

All this naturally begs the question of how exactly do you defend yourself from those murderous hobos if guns are so rare? The answer is simple; with anything you can get your hands on! Be it pipes, 2x4s, electrical conduits, locker doors, paper cutters, fire axes, sledgehammers or good old fashioned desks, almost anything in the environment can be fashioned into a weapon. One strange omission is the lack of sharp weapons like knives or swords. Because of this, the game features no dismemberment whatsoever, which is also a shame and rather odd when taking into account the otherwise extremely violent nature of the game.

In order to break up the action every now and then, the game uses some extremely rudimentary CSI-esque clue hunting. Apparently Ethan is gifted with an uncanny ability to sense when evidence is around, turning the screen devoid of color and blurring his hearing. When presented with such a scenario, you have to find the evidence and analyze it using various gadgets like black lights, DNA samplers and even common digital cameras. This might sound interesting, but thanks to the extremely simple two button interface, it quickly devolves into mere pixel hunting. The fact that Ethan automatically chooses the appropriate tool for each piece of evidence further dumbs down an otherwise promising aspect of the game.

"Ah, the crowbar! That most hallowed of all videogame weapons"

Graphically, Condemned is a damn fine looking game, especially for a launch title. It's not quite as jaw-dropping as Perfect Dark Zero, but it's art design is undeniably better. Each location is gritty and downright disgusting, lending to the creepy, almost claustrophobic feel. While the level design can get a bit repetitive on occasion (a la F.E.A.R.), the game never gets tedious thanks to it's outstanding visuals that draw you in. Condemned also maintains a mostly smooth framerate, also a great plus for a launch title. The motion capture is truly something to behold. Each vagrant and freak moves with an uncanny realism, making the beatings seem that much more savage. Each hit and parry is painstakingly choreographed and it really helps bring the game alive. Looking at a bum struggling to keep his balance, swearing and pumping his fists after a brutal hit is just one of those "Did you see that?!"-moments in the game. If I had to find fault in the graphics though, it would probably be the character models. Most of them are fine (or even great), but especially during cut scenes you can clearly see that some tighter textures would have helped a great deal.

Audio often gets overlooked in a lot of games and I have honestly no clue as to why. Crusading against this, Monolith has created such a fantastic sound world that will force you to take notice. Each ghostly scream, tilting bottle and creaky door is captured beautifully and it all adds up to an unbelievable experience. If at all possible, be sure to play this game with a proper 5.1 surround sound system. It will drive you to the edge of your seat more than a few times. The music featured in Condemned is a successful, if sometimes odd mix. At certain parts in the game (especially the main screen), the soundtrack takes an almost NOLFish tone that conjures up hilarious memories. There's a fair bit of creepy tracks in there too, most of which blend in with the action nicely, occasionally rising up to scare you or highlight a particular plot point. Most often than not though, the game relies on silence to create ambience. This was a brilliant choice on Monolith's part, as it helps create tension more than any scary track and it also lets the brilliant sound world run free with your paranoia.

Even though there are a few disappointing facets, like the sometimes repetitive nature of the levels, the combat that stays pretty much the same through the entire game, idiot-proof puzzles or the story that doesn't quite deliver in the end, Condemned: Criminal Origins is a fresh take on a stagnant genre, and one that should definitely be experienced by fans of survival horror, psychological terror and visceral, brutal action. As a launch title, it is unrivaled in the Xbox 360 library and deserves a home in your collection.