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Pixilated joy




Platforms: 3DS/WiiU

Nintendo is ready to pull on our retro-gaming heartstrings yet again with the newest Super Smash Bros. The fan-service fighter pits four characters against each other in a battle royale, and the now-familiar Nintendo roster of Mario, Link, Starfox, Donkey Kong, and gang will be joined by new third party characters: the blue bomber, Megaman, and everyone’s favorite pellet muncher, Pac-Man. Online play and the ability to create your own fighters using the Wii and 3DS Mii system are enough to get any Nintendo geek doing a barrel roll for joy.

Release: 3DS, Oct. 3; WiiU, Holiday 2014




Platforms: Windows/Mac OS/Linux

Leonardo Da Vinci has discovered a way to transmute egg yolk into a super-powerful golden substance that jump-starts human intelligence and allows the manipulation of space-time (like you do). This strange, wonderfully chicken-laden concept launches the French Revolution into space, as Renaissance-era kingdoms wage war in a Real Time Strategy-style game. It’s like Age of Empires meets Starcraft meets chickens. This is the game no one knew we wanted until we saw it enslave fowl, and launch to the stars. Bawk bawk bawk la revolucion!

Release: Fall 2014




Platforms: PC/Mac OS

World of Diving is like a fish tank you can dive into, and just relax. It’s not a game in the traditional sense, rife with goals, action, or perilous adventure (though you must avoid the occasional shark). The game outfits the player in diving gear for a leisurely paddle through ocean reefs, sunken ships, and other underwater settings. Your mission? To look at the pretty fish, snap photos of them, and chill out. There are occasional checklists (how many lionfish can you find?), and the randomly generated maps are sure to keep things fresh, but this is definitely a placid affair. Bonus: The game is Oculus Rift compatible, if you want a dose of virtual reality swimming.

Release: Fall 2014 (demo available now)




Platform: 3DS

The Final Fantasy series is known for its stellar orchestral compositions, so it’s surprising so few games in the series have centered around music. But now that historic injustice has ended! TheaterRhythm is a rhythm game (like Guitar Hero), centered entirely around chibi-versions of well-known Final Fantasy characters. Okay, it is a little strange to avenge the death of Aerith while battling Sephiroth using hip-swinging dance moves, but still … Chocobos, dancing! The quest mode spans most of Final Fantasy‘s 13-plus games, giving every FF fan music to jam to.

Release: Sept. 16




Platforms: Linux, Mac OS, OUYA, Windows

The life of a cat seems easy, but this game will convince you otherwise. Cats have goals, dammit, and in Catlateral Damage you must knock over as many of your owner’s possessions as you can within the time allotted. Look, a perfectly whole coffee mug! It’s an obvious invitation for a swat of your paws. The satisfying crash signals gaming success. The demo, out now, features cel-shaded cartoon graphics à la Zelda: The Wind Waker, and your kitty avatar seems to be able to jump with super-feline prowess. But don’t hiss over the small stuff, because you’ll have too much fun swatting the big stuff, like that TV on the dresser.

Release: Fall/Winter 2014 (demo available now)

www.catlateraldamage.com *


From brushes to bytes



CAREERS AND ED Matt Burdette is a video game environment artist, crafting expansive alien vistas by tapping out ones and zeroes the way a painter flourishes a brush. But unlike paint on canvas, Burdette’s vistas are meant to be explored by video game avatars hunting computerized enemies.

He’s crafted trees and bushes, and paid loving attention to every stem and every leaf, but his proudest project was not nearly so serene. While employed at LucasArts he worked on a later-cancelled project: Star Wars 1313.

Burdette was tasked with blowing up a spaceship.

“They said to me, ‘This needs to look photoreal,'” he told me. “I was all, ‘Hell yeah, let’s do that.'” The video game trailer that played at the 2013 Electronic Entertainment Expo featured a laser toting hero jumping through a burning spaceship. It was hailed by the national press as the most impressive looking new video games on the horizon.

But Burdette was not always a digital craftsman. At one point, he was a pencil and paper artist.

For artists facing hard times in a dwindling San Francisco art scene, the Bay Area’s burgeoning video game industry is rife with possibility. About 100 video game studios call the Bay Area home, according to Game Job Hunter, from Electronic Arts to Zynga. And many of these studios need artists and composers. Burdette made the digital leap from traditional art by studying film visual effects at Savannah College, in Georgia.

Above is the E3 trailer for Star Wars: 1313. 


“To bring a more artistic sensibility to what is maybe a technical, rigid kind of space is valuable and a lot of fun,” Burdette, 28, said.

Disney later bought LucasArts and laid off many of its staff, and Burdette found a new job at Visceral games crafting environments for Battlefield 4. But despite the video game industry reputation for grueling work hours, he still manages to find time for personal art.

Lately he’s slowly built a virtual island, like a hobbyist building a model ship during off hours.

“It was nice to come home and think, ‘I’ll make a tuft of grass today,'” he said. He then plugged his island into a new virtual reality device known as Oculus Rift, VR goggles that show the player a 3D world that looks eerily real, sensing the player’s head movements and portraying a sense of depth.

“I put on the Oculus and thought I was going to cry. You are there,” he said. “I walked up to a bush and felt physically uncomfortable, like this is impugning on my personal space.”

Burdette may get to play inside virtual worlds some artists haven’t dreamed of, but his reality is the same: Business can be tough.

He noted that many video game designers and artists are laid off after projects are complete, a standard industry practice. Most industry workers, he said, “are very much more mercenaries now.”

Some opt out of the boom and bust system altogether. Liz Ryerson, 26, is an independent game designer, visual artist, and music composer. She’s had hard times, crashing on couches and bordering on homelessness, but found a new way to raise money for her work. She now solicits support on Patreon, a Kickstarter for artists.

Thanks to contributions from fans, she has a spiffy new place by downtown Berkeley where she crafts her indie games.

“Indie game” is a nebulous phrase, of course. But if the multi-million-dollar video game Halo is comparable to the blockbuster film Avatar, Ryerson’s version of indie is closer to the DIY digital videographers of the local Artists’ Television Access. She makes video games for expression’s sake, not necessarily for profit.

Not to say Ryerson isn’t successful. She composed music for the immensely popular Dys4ia, a flash game detailing the lead designer’s gender transition. Ryerson’s own game, Problem Attic, tackles her own personal demons.

Floating crosses pursue the avatar, a stick figure, across a 2D plane. The game world resembles an 8-bit rendering of a brain merged with a nightmare, and the player must traverse frightening but intentional digital glitches. In an industry filled with shoot-’em-up games, it’s esoteric and strange, and that’s how Ryerson likes it.

“The game is definitely David Lynch-inspired, without a doubt,” she said. “Things that are more indefinable, with more of a sensibility to them. That’s what I respond to.”

A trailer for Liz Ryerson’s game, Problem Attic.


She’s mostly self-taught, sometimes building games in flash, and scoring the games using computer software like Reason. Though her design ethos couldn’t be further from Burdette’s blockbuster Star Wars games, they share a common bond: They were artists before they were game makers.

“I used to record songs and play guitar,” Ryerson said. “That was one of the biggest things I wanted to do, was be a pop musician.”

Eventually she started remixing video game compositions and posting them to the web via video game music website OCRemix. She studied film in school and made a documentary. The music from a Gus Van Sant film, the visual presentation of comic books, and the movement inherent in a game controller — all of these concepts inspire her work.

“That’s what you can do with video games, you can create these abstract, very different worlds,” she said. “You can do this more easily with video games than you can represent reality.”

Consumers spent over $20 billion on video games in 2012, according to the Entertainment Software Association. But for artists looking for an easy transition to an industry flush with cash, Ryerson and Burdette made one thing abundantly clear: The video game industry is extremely competitive.

“It’s hard to make games,” Burdette said. “You’ve got to want it real bad.”


Boss fight



GAMER Imagine Mario telling Nintendo to piss off.

Fed up, he gathers his fellow video game characters for a venting session: Princess Peach, Master Chief, Lara Croft, Nathan Drake, Sonic the Hedgehog, and other characters, waxing philosophic about more inclusive video games. Games where the damsel isn’t stashed in a castle, but included in the hero’s journey. Afterward, inspired, they go back to the digital world and make those games a reality.

The Lost Levels un-conference — the brainchild of indie game developers Harry Lee, Fernando Ramallo, Ian Snyder, and Robert Yang — is just like that. Gamers, mainstream developers, and developers-in-training sit in the grass of Yerba Buena Gardens to brainstorm ways to make video games more inclusive for women and other oft-ignored groups in the gaming industry. March 20, it marks its second year, though its location this year may change.

The renegade gamer gathering is held in the shadow of the bigger, better-known Game Developers Conference, a mainstream video game industry meetup at the Moscone Center. Thousands of game developers flock to the annual event, ready to hear ideas from the biggest names in the industry. But an oft-leveled critique of those big-time game developers is that, in America at least, they are often male, straight-identified, and white.

The differences between the two conferences are defined by who’s talking, and who’s listening. “Lost Levels is a place for those who don’t have access to GDC but still need a voice,” said Mattie Brice, a newer addition to the Lost Levels organization. GDC’s passes start at $195, but seeing all the panels will set you back a cool $1,495. That’s a daunting chunk of cash for the classic garage-start-up gaming developer, bootstrapping his or her way into the gaming industry. Lost Levels, by contrast, is free.

Fringe indie developers often push boundaries, making games about queer culture or including main characters from different ethnic backgrounds. But Lost Levels talks aren’t just limited to ideas on diversifying games. Gamers are invited to jump in with any idea for a presentation. Having one’s say about the future of video games is as easy as penning an idea on a bulletin board with a sticky note.

Last year the ideas ranged from outlandish to just the right amount of wacky — say, if the Madden series is getting stale, why not create a fusion football-dating simulation game?

Sometimes the talks were just about getting to know each other. “Whenever we got pizza as a kid, my brother and I would rush to eat it so we had this whole cardboard land,” said one scruffy-haired game designer at last year’s Lost Levels, speaking in a video on the Lost Levels website. “We’d take a sharpie and fill it in to make our own legend of Zelda map. We’d make our own weapons. I started programming at 14 and made games similar to that.”

A peek at 2014’s presentations ensures one thing: Talking about the future of games doesn’t have to be all that serious. “Sound as a Commodity: I rant about music and how sound is employed/how to employ sound in popular music because MUSIC, GAMES, IT’S ALL THE SAME IF YOU THINK ABOUT IT!” video game composer and sound designer Liz Ryerson writes. And this, from presenter George Buckenham: “I dig eSports and I don’t care who knows. I’ll talk about how rad they are in some capacity.”

Some discussions branch out beyond games, but all are welcome. Few subjects are taboo, and that’s the point, Brice says. “The best way to get people speaking about what they really find important is to just let them do it.”

The growing interest in Lost Levels, and the issues it and other alternative conferences (like GaymerX, a San Francisco convention aimed at LGBT gamers) raise, may be having an influence on GDC. The event tends to center around technical improvements, but recently made tip-toe advancements into realms of inclusivity. This year, Brice, a noted LGBT gaming advocate, will speak at GDC in a workshop entitled “How to Subversively Queer Your Work.”

GDC is making strides in including women as well. Anita Sarkeesian — famous in the gaming world for calling for better representation of women — is slated to receive an award for her “Tropes v. Women” YouTube series. But though the award is nice, mistreatment of women is still a large part of video game stories today. In the mainstream, at least, the tide is far from turning.

To that end, one indie designer is sitting out GDC this year: Anna Anthropy, designer of Dys4ia, The Hunt for the Gay Planet, and others. This year she’s focusing her energy on Lost Levels. “I’ve been invited to give several talks at GDC and I’ve turned them all down,” she says. “It’s stressful and corporate and exclusive.”

At Lost Levels this year she’ll touch on shifting queer games’ focus away from coming-out narratives. Though she’s careful to say she doesn’t speak for everyone, those in the queer community “play games not to re-experience their victimization, but to escape it,” she says.

Last year she tried to encourage GDC audiences to think more about their role in equality, reading from her poem “John Romero’s Wives,” named for the creator of the classic shooting games Doom and Quake. It read, in part, “Had to be mistaken for a booth babe. Had to be told to stop talking about it. Had to be the indie game developer who told my friend she could give him a blowjob. Had to hate other women because you were taught to. To call us “females” like we’re another species. Had to be John Romero’s wives.”

When we asked about the audience’s reaction, Anthropy told us many women came up afterwards, telling her they were affected by her reading. The men? Not so much, she said. *


Lost Levels will be held March 20, tentatively at Yerba Buena Gardens. Check out LostLevels.net for location updates.

Play on



YEAR IN GAMER The year 2013 has been a triumphant, confident peak in a particularly long generation of gaming, and as we gather around various top ten lists to send off the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in style, let it be remembered that the pair received a more-than-decent eulogy. Most of the year’s accolades will likely fall upon three games, and while all involve guns, shooting and explosions, the refinements of those mechanics demonstrate the medium is unquestionably evolving.

Following a massive plague that wipes out much of the US, Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us is a survival horror/third-person shooter involving an unlikely pair of survivors, Joel and Ellie. “Zombies” and “stealth combat” seem to be two ever-present gameplay types, but here they are conduits into a lengthy and subtly-developing relationship between these protagonists. Playing this game won’t change your mind about what it means to shoot a guy a bunch of times, but the human moments between the battles are some of the strongest the medium has seen.

>>Check out our indie game picks of 2013 here. 

BioShock Infinite (Irrational Games/2K Australia) also offers a memorable experience — even if at first you don’t fully understand what you’re playing. Set in an alternate 1912 America, Infinite initially plays out like gumshoe pulp fiction, as private eye Booker DeWitt blasts through a city in the sky in search of a missing girl — but the game concludes with a twist that will have you playing it again to see all the ways in which you were duped. A storytelling exercise in the guise of a first-person shooter, Infinite might be more fun to think about than to play…but boy is it fun to think about.

You’re aware Grand Theft Auto V  (Rockstar North) careened onto shelves this year? Admittedly, the series hasn’t changed much — it’s still an excuse to play the bad guy, this time in a faux-LA setting. But left to your own devices, and given the keys to the most detailed and straight-up “fun” cities the Grand Theft Auto series has seen, how will you spend your time? For every criminal option there’s an equally enticing civilian activity, and taking the experience online allows for fascinating commingling among fellow tourists of the criminal lifestyle.

Beyond the big three … Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag  (Ubisoft Montreal) shrugged off last year’s messy entry by casting the player as a pirate on the high seas. Like Grand Theft Auto, freedom is key to this series’ success and ACIV wastes no time loosing you upon small islands, lush jungles, and 18th-century port towns in your very own, customizable privateer vessel.

Who doesn’t like Ghibli movies? Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is a Ghibli movie you can play. Featuring cut-scenes direct from the Japanese animation studio and stirring music from frequent Ghibli composer Joe Hisaishi, Ni no Kuni is more than a little “grindy,” but it offers a truer sense of childlike wonder than any other title this year.

Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please is often decidedly not-fun. As an immigration agent for a fictional communist country, you decide who enters and who is denied. Managing applicant’s passports and entry tickets is just the beginning of the frustration, and the real bite is in juggling doing the right thing against feeding your family. No matter which decision you make, you’ll probably feel a bit icky about it — a genuinely exciting feat for an industry that traditionally triumphs fun above all.

Sometimes it’s best to go in not knowing anything about a game. In the Fullbright Company’s first-person mystery Gone Home, a young woman returns to her childhood home to find no one there to greet her. The mystery of her family’s disappearance draws you through the old house, where you discover the private histories and desires of her loved ones through the bits and bobs they’ve left behind. *


Don’t shoot!



YEAR IN GAMER This list is for all the gamers sick of blasting your last alien, zombie, or oppositional soldier of the moment (Nazis, Soviets, snore). That’s it. Done! As indie games grow in popularity, games that eschew the “shoot everything” mentality are becoming easier to find. Get your joystick thumbs ready and enjoy this list of 2013’s “top games where you don’t shoot things.”



There are treasures to be found, and Quince the Plant Cat will snag them all with his ability to create ridiculously long vines that curve and bend off cliffs and walls. It’s a game as cute as Kirby’s Dream Land, with a heavy Game Boy esthetic, a nod to the annual Game Boy Jam coding contest the game was made for. A side scrolling adventure à la Mario, the game (and soundtrack) is pure retro goodness. Though mouse and insect enemies abound, Plant Cat deals with them by feeding them vines, leading one to wonder if maybe all the evil Goombas in Mario are just hungry. flashygoodness.com/games/plant-cat



You are Born, a scrap of darkness that separated from “the Void” and formed sentience. Now the Void wants you back. Nihilumbra is a deeply atmospheric, side-scrolling puzzle game; playing as Born you discover different colors, which you magically paint around levels in order to escape the Void’s teeming, mysterious black mass. Colors help you escape the traps of the world: Blue is ice, speeding your runs; brown sticks enemies (and puzzle objects) in their places; red burns things away; and green turns surfaces into trampolines.

Throughout your travels, the Void questions your right to live, and solving the mystery of your existence is half the fun. Nihilumbra is a heady game that first debuted on iOS and Android last year, but only recently was released on the computer — with vocal performances and HD graphics. Now available on Steam and as a web browser demo online, Nihilumbra will have you hooked. www.nihilumbra.com



Quick! Clean the puke! Bat the piranhas away from the guy dancing underwater! Dumb Ways to Die is a hyperactive mobile game tasking the player with protecting cute jellybean creatures from eminent death in new ways every 10 seconds or so. Failure to save the adorable smiling beans leads to all manner of hilarious deaths: bears chomping half their bodies off, trains flattening them into bean paste, pythons biting them in the eyeball, etc. It surprised the bejesus out of me to find out this was a Public Service Announcement game made by Melbourne, Australia’s Metro Trains network. The lesson? Rail safety. Why can’t more municipalities create games revolving around cute bean people? San Francisco, get on it! www.dumbwaystodie.com



Waking Mars is one of those games that makes you want to explore its every nook and cranny. The year is 2097, and playing as Dr. Liang, an astronaut and research scientist, you land on Mars and discover a cave under ancient ruins. That’s when you meet Martian life for the first time, only the aliens aren’t monsters — they’re plants. The game quickly becomes part exploration, part horticulture simulator. Armed only with a jetpack and his science skills, Dr. Liang must experiment with and breed the “Zoa” to help solve the mystery of how the red planet turned to dust. Waking Mars is the very opposite of shooter games, as growing ecosystems and creating life are the axis of gameplay (instead of, ya know, killin’ stuff). Technically speaking, this game squeaked onto Steam in December 2012, but it’s still notable enough to include here. tigerstylegames.com/wakingmars *


Pros and cons(oles)



GAMER The next generation of game consoles is officially in stores and consumers demand to know — definitively — which is the superior console. Is it the PlayStation 4 or the Xbox One?

Unfortunately, the comparison isn’t that simple. Although both are sleek, state-of-the-art devices that play video games, we’re talking about two machines with different aims. Sony hopes the PS4 will lure back gamers that it disenfranchised with the expensive, non-intuitive and difficult-to-love PlayStation 3 by making things simple, fun, and focused on playing and sharing games. Microsoft is high on the success of the Xbox 360 and looking to dominate home media on all fronts, creating in the Xbox One an all-in-one device that allows you to control your TV, movies, and other digital downloads.

Strictly speaking, if you want to just play games and have an experience that is the same but prettier, Sony has your interests at heart. It’s the more powerful machine, current games look a bit better, and navigating the PS4 generally is an all-around smooth experience. Upon booting the system up, you’re greeted with soothing music and a fairly straightforward, simple interface. I was able to find all my games, apps, and settings within seconds, rather than minutes. The new DualShock 4 controller has a touch pad and a light bar for motion gaming (provided you have a PlayStation camera) and it performs these new functions with a minimum of hassle.

The most “next gen” aspect of the PS4 is the share button. A new button on the DualShock 4 is dedicated to sharing your experiences with friends, whether what’s being shared is video clips or actual streams of gameplay that can be viewed on another PlayStation, computer, or phone. Game streams and Let’s Plays have become their own genre on YouTube, and, by giving people that experience on day one (Xbox One’s streaming services are set to launch next year), Sony has a real upper hand on conquering the online gaming community that enjoys watching other people play games.

The PS4 is a machine that plays games, plain and simple, and right now the games it plays are only so-so. You’ve got a new Killzone, Shadow Fall; first-party beat ’em up Knack; and a few multi-platform — and cross-generationtitles that are likely to do well, but the must-have next-gen gaming experience just isn’t here yet.

The Xbox One is not nearly as intuitive as the PS4 and your first few hours with the machine will require patience and a bit of learning. Applications and settings are hidden in sub-menus and the revelatory Kinect voice commands are exhilarating when they work and aggravating when they inevitably do not. Growing pains were inevitable; Microsoft is attempting things that have never been done on a gaming machine before — like the ability to route your cable box into the Xbox One and change channels with your voice — and, if their history of iteration is to be trusted, it’s likely that the issues with organization and un-matched voice commands will melt away sooner rather than later.

Xbox’s launch games are favorable only in comparison with the PS4’s meager lineup. Forza Motorsport 5 is a wonderful showcase for what the Xbox One is capable of, and the best buy on either console so far, but the other exclusives are essentially limited to Dead Rising 3 and Ryse: Son of Rome, which are fun in spurts but offer nothing you haven’t hacked or slashed before.

Which leaves the question, what do you want from your “next-gen” console? If you’re in the market for a new device, you’re not wrong to expect improved graphics or increased resolution and frame rate. You want games to look better. And that’s at least partially there if you want it, but it doesn’t seem to be the current focus for either machine. Even on the PS4, the visual leap we’re seeing right now isn’t worth the $400 asking price, and the lower-spec’d Xbox One is tagged at a whopping $500 for a system bundled with Kinect.

In spite of all the internet furor spouted by gamers in the past few months about sub-standard resolution and graphics, perhaps Microsoft and Sony both realize the real coup is getting people who aren’t gamers to buy these consoles. In that area, Xbox One’s ambition to do more than play games is a risky pursuit, but one that could make all the difference for consumers who have only a passing interest in traditional gaming.

Time will tell which console resonates more with the public and some day financial reports aplenty will give us a definitive resolution on which console is more successful. But calling this a “console war” is more than a little sensational. Both the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One currently offer incrementally better experiences than their previous-gen counterparts, and the world of popular consumer electronics has proven a little better is often just enough. *


Goin’ back to Gotham



GAMER There’s something inherently lazy in subtitling your video game sequel Origins. Almost as ubiquitous as games with names ending Revelations, it is a title that means very little outside of indicating that the game in question is a prequel. This specific move into prequel territory comes in the same year that the self-titled Batman comic revisits the vigilante’s first year as a caped superhero with the storyline Zero Year, and features a similarly reckless Batman battling a series of assassins amid a Christmas Eve snowstorm.

It was a good decision to set Batman: Arkham Origins (Warner Bros. Games Montréal/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment; Xbox 360, PS3, Wii U, PC) a bit further into Batman’s first year on the beat, considering even a casual fan can recite the details of Batman’s initial transformation from billionaire bachelor to crime-fighting defender of Gotham City in the wake of his parents’ murder. Thankfully, Arkham Origins skips all that and gives people what they want: more of the tempestuous and enduring love-hate relationship between Batman and the Joker. The clown-faced psychopath is an unknown quantity for Batman this early into his crime-fighting career, and the unhinged performance by new voice-actor Troy Baker, following Mark Hamill’s departure from the series in 2011, is the glue that holds Arkham Origins‘ mostly clumsy and contrived narrative together.

Aside from the Joker, the villains of Arkham Origins are less-than-exciting; headlining C-listers like Electrocutioner, Copperhead, and Firefly prove we are well beyond the realm of Christopher Nolan’s film universe. Arkham City (2011) offered a fair number of lesser characters as well, but their inclusion lent the sandbox city a feeling of life and excitement — there was a new story to discover around every corner — and there was a weight to the threats they posed. By comparison, destroying Black Mask’s drug caches or disarming Anarky’s bombs matter little in the grand scheme of the night, and leaves Gotham feeling a smidge emptier than you might remember.

Thankfully, the backbone of Rocksteady Games’ Batman titles proves strong enough to support a less ambitious entry in the series. Cinematic, referential, and fiercely game-y, the Arkham games walk the line between slick Hollywood thrills and narratively incongruous, old school collect-a-thon, and new in-house developer Warner Bros. Games Montréal has done its best to respect the formula. Whether you’re countering a knife-wielding thug or picking off goons from the shadows, being the Batman remains as invigorating as ever, and you certainly get to do plenty of both during the 10-plus hour campaign.

Ultimately, you probably aren’t mistaken if you think Arkham Origins sounds like a quick cash-in to keep insatiable fans happy and to continue making money off a successful franchise. Arkham City‘s great feat was that it was an ambitious expansion of everything that worked in Arkham Asylum; by comparison this is a lateral move for the series. Still, it’s only truly disappointing when you consider the benchmark Arkham Asylum and Arkham City set for comic book adaptations. Five years ago, this would have been the best Batman game ever made. Today, it stands as only a decent one. At least they didn’t get Ben Affleck to play Batman, right? *




Humans beware. The great robot revolution is nigh, and builders of combat robots have done us no favors by creating machines whose sole function is to destroy. Way to go, guys. But, on second thought, maybe it’s for the best that these “combots” exist, and are still obeying their owners by fighting battles — exclusively with each other — inside a giant, bulletproof pen at the annual International RoboGames. This gives us an opportunity now to study their moves — before they launch their surprise attack on the human race. Combots have advantages such as brute force, whirling blades, super-sumo skills, and general imperviousness to pain. There are even androids that perform kung fu (shudder). But by observing them in action now, we can start formulating our defense strategy ahead of time. Thanks, RoboGames, for giving us this opportunity for the past decade.


Drive time



GAMER Yes, it’s time to talk again about the game in which you steal cars and kill prostitutes. And it’s another chance for the national news media to organize roundtables to discuss violence in video games, and the effects it might be having on the nation’s youth.

Let’s be honest: You know right now, before reading this article, whether or not the Grand Theft Auto series — which released GTA V (Rockstar North, Rockstar Games; PS3, Xbox 360) last month, and made a cool $1 billion in its first three days on sale — is something you want to play. And for developer Rockstar North, that’s both a blessing and a curse.
Perhaps surprising for those who haven’t played a game in the GTA series, the biggest draw isn’t the rampant violence but the experience of exploring a carnival funhouse version of present-day America.

GTA V’s look-alike setting of contemporary Los Angeles and its surrounding countryside, including windmill-strewn hills, mountain ranges, and a great salt sea is more than scenery. Billboards for fake reality shows and overwrought radio commercials shilling products like lap-band surgery and bottled water serve to drive home the absurdity of modern life. Buildings don’t just give the impression of a real city; each one has character, and often times a backstory. It is a city that feels alive. Amid the hail of gunfire, it’s easy to forget that Rockstar consistently pushes the limits of what a sandbox world can look like, with a level of detail that is unprecedented in a game of this size.

The story is divided among three protagonists: Michael, the ex-criminal trying to enjoy retirement in a posh house in the hills; Franklin, the hungry young gangster who dreams of making the big time; and Trevor, the lunatic. Though he is by far the most compelling character, it’s easy to see why Trevor isn’t the star of his own game — his complete lack of respect for human life or the rules of society make him an untenable prospect for a lead character in a title of this visibility. But, while his morals are despicable, he possesses a code of honor that’s difficult not to respect on some level.

Eventually, the three characters meet and perform heists and other criminal activities, and you are often allowed to switch from one character to another on the fly. Compared to GTA IV, the narrative — concerning a betrayal nine years previous and a number of government blackmail schemes — is wound much more tightly around the gameplay, and the draw of completing missions is in fleshing out the characters, rather than performing chores (something players have harped on in the past). However, the game does sometimes struggle, as if almost too big for its current-generation breeches. Pop-in and frame rate drops and ultra-compressed video prove that GTA V unfortunately is still working within the strict limits of the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.

Is it the biggest and best Grand Theft Auto game ever? Absolutely, but such a feat is no surprise considering the legacy the series has developed. And, being aware of that legacy is paramount to tempering your expectations; as much as the GTA series is targeted for being controversial and edgy, the formula isn’t exactly risky. People want to be told they can do anything they want. Buy a yacht. Do yoga. Trade on the stock market. Shop for cargo shorts. Drive a car out of an airplane and take a selfie to post on the internet when you land. For all its little refinements, GTA V doesn’t stray far from its roots as an over-the-top pastiche of crime movies and low-brow comedy.

Community reaction to 2008’s ambitious-but-flawed GTA IV has shifted so dramatically since its release that it’s tempting to be overly critical of GTA V’s more grating or game-y elements rather than risk being out-of-touch a year on. Ultimately this is a game that gives you exactly what you came for. But you knew that already.

Fall, out



GAMER Gamers who’ve grown weary of blasting aliens and other generic supervillains need not worry: the Bay Area’s indie video game designers share your pain. There’s an indie game revolution being birthed right here in our backyard, led by a cadre of designers who really couldn’t give two flying flamethrowers about making another first-person shooter. The best part? The games are all (mostly) free.




By Anna Anthropy, music by Liz Ryerson

Available via Steam Fall/Winter 2013, price TBD


Video games go to alien worlds all the time, but rarely have they explored a transgender person’s identity until Dys4ia. The 2012 Adobe Flash game traced designer Anna Anthropy’s hormone replacement therapy journey, guiding the player through trying on women’s clothing for the first time, dealing with the agony of shaving, and correcting all the people who call you “sir” instead of “ma’am.”

It only takes a moment before you want to slap each pixilated person who blurts out “sir” — and that moment personifies gaming’s unique power to make a player experience someone else’s life. Anthropy (www.auntiepixelante.com) runs with that concept, yanking and pulling the player (willingly) along the transition into her new gender identity.

Anthropy’s new release, Dy5phoria (note the subtle title change), is not quite a sequel to the original, she says. It’s a rerelease of the original game with a brand new chapter, one where she tells the story of finally learning to be comfortable with her new self. The new scenes have more detailed animations than the first release, and though Dy5phoria shares the original’s nebulously retro pixel style, the character you control on screen is a fully formed person. This was a conscious choice, Anthropy explains.

“In (the original) the avatar you controlled changed depending on the context. You might be a blobby thing, a shield, or a little munchie mouth thing,” she says. “My body and identity were going through a lot of flux at the time, and it made sense for the game to represent that by not having a consistent avatar.”

Clearly, this is a new frontier for games; a girl who recently started her journey transitioning told the Bay Guardian that Dys4ia gave her the confidence to make the decision to begin hormone therapy and come out to her parents. Though Anthropy notes that hormones aren’t necessarily the central experience of being trans, she was touched Dys4ia could help people.

D5sphoria will be available via download service Steam “when it’s done,” Anthropy said, which will likely be at the end of fall or slightly later. The original Dys4ia flash game is available at www.newgrounds.com, a website stuffed full of indie games. It’s free to play, and simple enough for even casual gamers to get through in less time than an episode of the Big Bang Theory.

Read our Q&A with Anna Anthropy and hear our audio interview with her here



By Porpentine

Available at aliendovecote.com; free to play in any web browser


“Leave the tomb behind, and with all your stolen riches, return to the land of the living.” Once you click “return,” you’ve started your climb. Where do you go next?

That’s a question most Twine games ask, as the text-based games mostly resemble the choose-your-own-adventure books of a 1980s childhood. Climbing is one of the better, briefer ones, and though the adventure ultimately is linear, the branching paths will make you chuckle and make you think.

Climb. Climb. Climb. And when you’re done, check out twinehub.weebly.com for even more text-based Twine games. You can also learn how to make your own.




By Merritt Kopas, music by SCRAPS/Laura Hill

Available at www.mkopas.net; free to play in Flash-enabled web browsers


Have you ever sat with someone playing Halo, and heard the TV calling out “triple kill, KILLING SPREE!” and other lovely hyper-masculine achievements? Well, now’s your chance to go on a hugging spree.

HUGPUNX is described as a “fluoro-pink queer urban hugging simulator” — and indeed, players basically run around doing just that. Hugging. People. Lots of them. The music is fun and light, and you’ll be shimmying in your seat while you play. The game is simple to control — use the arrow keys to move, and Z to hug. Plus, you can hug giant cats. The world needs more games where you can hug giant cats.

CRYPTWORLDS: YOUR DARKEST DESIRES COME TRUE By Cicada Marionette Available at www.cicadamarionette.com; free in PC, MAC, and LINUX versions Missed Burning Man? This game may be a nerdy substitute to the insanity of the desert. Played a bit like The Legend of Zelda, the game (created by a Texas-based developer) begins with the player talking to the folks in surrounding towns and crypts, performing fetch quests and collecting inventory items. Unlike Zelda, though, a crypt filled with human sacrifices (who all sort of look like Indiana Jones), a horse-god, and a “programming hell” await you. Hundreds of nerds in plaid pants stand by their desks around a flame, or a volcano, I can’t quite tell. But don’t worry — once you escape, there’s a pulsating monster that resembles somebody’s liver just above you. Bring your favorite Burning Man party favors and play this game in the dark for hours. * For a podcast interview with Dy5phoria‘s Anna Anthropy, visit www.sfbg.com.

Big game hunting



FALL ARTS As summer slips away for another year, our consolation prize is that we are about to witness one of the most jam-packed seasons gaming has ever seen. Not only are we welcoming two spiffy new game consoles for the first time in six years, but here are six games that prove those suddenly less-shiny systems you already have are not going quietly.




Before bidding summer a true farewell, we can enjoy a few releases that sneaked in at the tail end of August.

Saints Row IV  (Volition, Inc.; out now) is the best Saints game so far, marrying the gritty crime-sandbox foundation of its past with the incongruity of superpowers. As president of the United States, you’re tasked with entering the computer simulation of a small city to fight aliens with super-speed and telekinesis, as well as with novel alien weapons like the Inflato-ray, the Abduct-O-Matic, and the Dubstep Gun, which shoots actual rays of concentrated dubstep. It’s all very silly, but the series has found the sweet spot between funny and stupid and manages to remain there for the length of the game.

Similarly, The Bureau: XCOM Declassified (2K Marin; out now) seeks to join the strategy tactics of its past with the in-vogue third-person shooter — albeit with less successful results. Set in America of the 1960s, The Bureau is meant to divulge the humble beginnings of an alien-busting government organization known as the XCOM (Extraterrestrial Combat) unit. Unfortunately, the game’s publicly turbulent development is reflected in its rough-edged, bland shooter mechanics. Still, for franchise devotees there’s fun and horror in seeing the XCOM franchise try on a new hat.



Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead was undoubtedly last year’s breakout success. A zombie game more interested in the bits that didn’t involve mowing down hordes of the undead, the series of five short “episodes” forced players to make quick life-or-death decisions with no single correct answer. Season one made a good case for video games as a viable storytelling medium and, with The Walking Dead Season Two  slated for this fall (release date TBD), we’re about to find out if Telltale can make a nation of gamers cry twice.

You probably already knew there was a new Grand Theft Auto coming: it’s kind of a big deal. This year’s Grand Theft Auto V  (Rockstar North; Sept. 17) brings the series back to Los Santos, the faux-Los Angeles setting last seen in 2004’s Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and boasts a healthy three simultaneously playable protagonists (compared to most games’ paltry one). GTA V will no doubt give us beaucoup gunfights and explosions — but it’s the little diversions like deep-sea diving, tennis, yoga, shopping, and bike riding that make this one look special. Finally, a version of The Sims that involves committing felonies!



If one word could describe this generation of blockbuster gaming, it would likely be sequels. So it’s encouraging to see a pair of promising new titles offering diversions that haven’t been iterated upon a billion times before.

Beyond: Two Souls  (Quantic Dream; Oct. 8) is from the studio that brought you Heavy Rain, the ultra-cinematic choose-your-own adventure detective game about a serial killer who drowns his victims in rainwater. Beyond, too, seems intent on imitating film, sporting a convincing, motion-captured performance by Ellen Page as a young girl who has spent her life linked to a ghost. Willem Dafoe also stars? Sold!

Finally, much-buzzed-about WATCH_DOGS (Ubisoft Montreal; Nov. 19) draws on our fear of surveillance and technology’s overwhelming dominance of our everyday lives, and takes that fear to the extreme. As an uber-hacker capable of manipulating the technology around him — from street lights to ATMs to your social media profile — using his cellphone, WATCH_DOGS might be the rare sci-fi game with brains.

Console prizes



GAMER The days of game consoles being all about pretty graphics are over. The leap in visual fidelity when we went from PlayStation 2 to PlayStation 3 isn’t going to happen this time, which is one reason it’s been seven years since the current consoles have been refreshed. All that changes this year, with the impending release of the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4.

Microsoft had a false start last month, with the reveal of Xbox One occurring ahead of the Electronic Entertainment Expo, better known as E3. Showing off the sleek new console, the One was positioned as a unifying “everything” box, addressing the many Xbox users who regard the system as a gateway to all things movies, TV, and Netflix. However, by ignoring games and being cagey on important issues of DRM (a type of copy protection that has caused much past furor) and positioning the console as a high-speed always-online device, Microsoft willfully alienated a chunk of its audience.

The Xbox conference in Los Angeles last week saw the company hoping to gain ground by backing off its usual focus on sports, Kinect, and kids games and keeping true to “core game” experiences. In this regard, Microsoft was smart to tempt the Metal Gear Solid franchise to launch simultaneously on Xbox for the first time, and likewise big-time Sony-only developer Insomniac Games announced the One-exclusive Sunset Overdrive. Other Xbox-only experiences included Titanfall from the newly formed Respawn Games, which has the chops to be as big as the team’s last huge success — Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. And of course, more Halo is ever imminent.

Initially, Sony’s E3 conference appeared less cohesive, and quite a bit sloppier, than the Xbox conference as it proclaimed a new life for its struggling Vita handheld, but failed to follow its passionate declaration for the console with big game announcements. The company chose instead to revisit previously announced PS4 games, Killzone: Shadow Fall and Infamous: Second Son.

But Sony’s presentation deficiencies were quickly forgotten as the show drew to a close. Directly addressing complaints about Microsoft’s next-gen policies, Sony loosed a salvo of not so subtle digs against Xbox One, announcing the PS4 to be DRM-free and offline-friendly — not to mention the PS4 at $399 would cost $100 less than the One. Such brazen acts of competition are rare between these two, but Sony apparently found the cracks in Microsoft’s strategy too tempting to ignore.

Since the 2011 PlayStation network hack that left many users’ personal data at risk, Sony has performed the humble, pro-consumer act well and, even if it doesn’t always offer a superior console experience, it knows its audience. For once, it didn’t matter who had the better games, the bigger hard drive or the best specs. This E3 was all about attitude.



As we wave goodbye to the consoles that have kept us warm for the past seven years, gamers have been looking for a game to dub “the last great game of the generation.” Releasing amid all the hubbub of E3, The Last of Us (Naughty Dog/Sony; PS3) is a fitting final hurrah, capping the reign of the PS3 with not so much a bang but with an assurance and a confidence that are unfamiliar to the medium of video games.

Set a number of years after a worldwide infection has destabilized the country, The Last of Us follows Joel, a no-nonsense smuggler, as he attempts to transport a 14-year-old girl named Ellie out of Boston. From the developers behind the Uncharted series, one might expect big action set-pieces and witty banter, but The Last of Us is more true to the conceits of survival horror. At heart, this is a stealth adventure, until the odds invariably and adamantly force your hand into acts of ferocious brutality. There are bad people, bad monsters, and a whole lot of riveting moments — which I won’t spoil — but it’s not so much the story as how it is told. Despite its gloom, The Last of Us has sweetness and a sense of hope that shapes the characters and makes their journey all the more impactful.

In other words, The Last of Us is the game to beat in 2013.

Loud, with clouds



GAMER BioShock Infinite (Irrational Games/2K Games; Xbox 360, PS3, PC) presents an experience that video games are best suited for: plopping players in a captivating fantasy world and saying, “Check it out!” The sequel to BioShock, a first person shooter set in a city beneath the sea, Infinite takes us instead to the clouds, in an alternate version of 1912 America that includes a floating city called Columbia.

Columbia is perhaps not as interesting an environment as Rapture, that underwater metropolis from the original BioShock, but few locations in gaming can match the claustrophobia and terror that decaying city evoked, and Columbia has charms all its own. With its barber shop quartet that sings an a capella version of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows,” and its well-populated artificial beach complete with turn-of-the-century boardwalk pavilion, the desolation felt within Rapture’s ruins is replaced by liveliness. If you ever wished you could have wandered the underwater city before its fall, Columbia is the next best thing.

Infinite‘s narrative twists American history into something sinister, and it is almost startling to stumble upon locations and characters that remark on intensely political subjects like classism and race relations — this, in a game where the principal mechanic is to shoot people’s faces. As the game begins, former Pinkerton agent Booker DeWitt is hired to retrieve a young woman who is held captive within the city. Haunted by his collusion in the slaughter of Native Americans in the famous Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890, DeWitt appears to be a prototypically gruff, emotionally damaged male protagonist … but there are hints that not all is as it seems.

Infinite‘s idiosyncrasy could result only from having handed the creative reins over to an auteur game designer, and Infinite‘s singular vision springs from the mind of Ken Levine, chief architect of the BioShock franchise. It was Levine’s union of narrative and mechanics that elevated the original game from shooter to thesis subject and Infinite does not disappoint as the follow-up entry to his abstract game theory. To say more would spoil the fun, but any game attempting to challenge players intellectually is a curiosity in an industry that designs its games largely by committee and consensus.

On the down side, Infinite‘s shooting mechanics remain among the least of its triumphs. Even with a gallery of magical abilities called vigors that allow you to perform such feats as hurling fire or actual crows at your enemies, firefights tend to feel like mere barriers to more content. Perhaps Infinite‘s ambitions to be an experience took precedence over the game play, but to walk the city streets of Columbia is alone worth the price of admission. Liberty, justice, nightmare-churros, and animatronic George Washingtons for all!

Back to life?



GAMER There’s no single trick to staying relevant in today’s game market. The past month has seen three overt attempts to kick-start flagging franchises, and the different approaches developers have taken to boost sales demonstrate just how wily this second Wild West has become for the industry.


Last week’s release of God of War: Ascension, a prequel to the superlatively successful — and single-player-only — God of War trilogy, arrived in stores with meager details about its twisting, soapy take on ancient Greece, but we knew plenty about the action title’s new multiplayer mode. With publishers like Electronic Arts and Crytek nobly prophesying the death of the single-player experience, multiplayer and other online services have become the go-to additions to franchises that are otherwise at odds with any sort of social interaction.

Fast-paced and frenetic, the multiplayer fills a niche that was lacking in the action-combat field, but it remains a mode no one really asked for. And it’s the single-player experience that suffers as a result. With no coherent sense of purpose for the oft-spurned demigod Kratos, and hampered by outmoded game design, it’s a shame that when it came time to reestablish the franchise developer Santa Monica Studio were afraid to truly color outside the lines.


The Metal Gear franchise has been a dependable stealth series for decades, but the extended wait between releases has forced Solid Snake to pass the mic to newer sneaky heroes like Sam Fisher and all those hooded guys in Assassin’s Creed. Which is why Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance is a brilliant method of enriching that legacy and attracting new fans at the same time.

Konami outsourced Revengeance‘s development to Platinum Games, developers of the over-the-top Bayonetta series, and allowed some of Japan’s most outrageous game creators to twist the Metal Gear formula in a refreshing way. Rather than the stealth combat that drives the main series, Revengeance is a ruthless action game, built on linking combos and a thrilling kinetic conversation of offensive and defensive movement. Focusing on bit character (and cybernetic ninja) Raiden invigorates the franchise without messing with canon and speaks to a range of people who wouldn’t normally be interested in a Metal Gear game.


When all else fails, reboot. Tomb Raider‘s Lara Croft has become a punch line in her old age: an iconic pedigree ultimately overshadowed by a pair of Angelina Jolie movies and a controversial PC mod that allows you to play in the polygonal buff. Developer Crystal Dynamics recently attempted to rejuvenate the series with cooperative play in the spin-off The Guardian of Light, but it needed — and failed to provide — something stylish enough to draw in a generation of gamers who were already getting a solid archeology fix from the Uncharted series.

Approachable and slick, Tomb Raider (2013) has a gruesome sense of physicality, as young Lara is pushed to her limit for the first time on an unforgiving island off the coast of Japan. Ditching the cheeky humor and prehistoric dinosaurs and focusing on an origin story that humanizes a character that was a hair’s breadth from becoming a caricature, this new Lara Croft earns a second life and proves there’s still an audience seeking deep single-player experiences.

Of course, Tomb Raider also has a multiplayer mode. Always hedge your bets, I suppose.

Threequel blues



GAMER Crysis 3 (Crytek/Electronic Arts; PC, PS3, Xbox 360)is a very familiar experience, and not just for players versed in the story and mechanics of the Crysis series. If you’ve played a futuristic shooter in the past 10 years, you’ve seen everything Crysis 3 has to offer: a hodgepodge of sci-fi clichés, stealth combat, and big alien guns. It’s an exercise in déjà vu that leaves little in the way of a lasting impression, but it’s a really good-looking hodgepodge.

After its moderately successful 2011 home console debut, developer Crytek set out to expand upon Crysis 2 and — to hear the company tell it — it began with the story. Twenty-four years after the events of Crysis 2, Prophet, the last of the original Crysis super-soldiers, infiltrates a post-apocalypse New York City on the hunt for a big bad alien. Half rubble, half jungle, NYC survives within its own ecosystem, thanks to a giant overhead dome controlled by evil corporation CELL.

Prophet himself might as well be a walking cardboard box, but Crysis finally achieves an emotional core in his soldier companion, Psycho, who struggles to deal with the loss of his own super-powered nanosuit. Unfortunately, attempts to wrangle a complicated story into something subtle and meaningful means tossing aside Crysis‘ rich mythos in favor of highlighting character moments that frequently lack context.

So, scrap the drama, let’s talk about how Crysis 3 boasts some of the finest graphics of this generation — especially on PC. Skyboxes are mighty impressive and incidental animations such as swaying grass, smoke, and fire promote the apocalyptic atmosphere. On consoles, the game sets a similar benchmark but it’s one that often reveals how near we are to the end of the road for this hardware. Similar to seeing The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) in high-frame rate, the studio’s ambition sometimes exposes flaws and behind-the-scenes trickery that players would otherwise ignore.

Juggling between Prophet’s nanosuit camouflage and his armor powers allows players to choose the kind of combat experience they want, and the ruins of New York allow the freedom to tackle objectives using any number of methods. It’s a nice turn on the traditional run-and-gun format to be given the freedom to move about the environment in any way you choose, but objectives ultimately boil down to moving from point A to point B anyway. If you like the mechanics but find the structure limiting, try multiplayer, where managing stealth and shield adds considerable depth to the traditional death-match game.

Crysis 3 pushes the visual boundaries of first-person shooter, but a $60 game can’t be propped up on graphics alone. If you’re into shooting your friends online, Crysis offers a solid alternative to self-serious war games. The rest of the adventure is too often a tech-demo sandbox with no compelling reason for you to explore it. 


Scare tactics



GAMER There aren’t a lot of great horror games on the console market. Even old stalwart Resident Evil gradually dropped anything resembling spooky game play, hoping to conjure the success of Western-developed shooters like Gears of War by incorporating cooperative play and action-packed, cover-based shooting. Good horror is about being alone, outnumbered and outgunned. So when Dead Space 3 was revealed at last year’s E3, fans were appropriately nervous when told the franchise’s new focus would be on cooperative play and cover-based shooting. It was Resident Evil all over again. The horror!

Now that it’s here, perhaps our concerns were misplaced. Dead Space 3 (Visceral Games/Electronic Arts; PS3, Xbox 360, PC) features everything fans were apprehensive about — and some unannounced and sour-tasting micro-transactions — but at its core beats the heart of a classic survival horror experience.

Dead Space‘s formula consists of traversing old spaceships, zero-gravity space, and desolate planets, unloading bullets into undead creepy-crawlies. Picking up shortly after the events of Dead Space 2, in which spaceship engineer Isaac Clarke battled zombies brought to life by alien artifacts called “markers,” Clarke once again is thrust into combat — this time to save ex-girlfriend Ellie and stop religious zealots from activating more markers on the ice planet Tau Volantis.

Dead Space 3 has a wonderful sense of location and atmosphere — hallmarks of any horror game. Rickety, malfunctioning hallways of long-abandoned spaceships fire sparks, creak and sway as you walk through, and enemies have a nasty way of sneaking up behind you with bloodcurdling screams. Although you won’t see the icy surface of Tau Volantis until maybe a third of the way through the game, the planet’s harsh winds and ivory cliffs are a welcome change of scenery. Some gamers will scoff at the “monster closets,” but Dead Space owns the artifice and builds upon it in interesting ways, making firefights consistently tense.

As for the co-op, cover-based shooting and micro-transactions, they are only as unpleasant as you allow them to be. While wholly different from the solitary feel of single-player, co-op is seamless and presents new approaches to combat and puzzle-solving. Being offered downloadable content each time you approach a work bench or spacesuit kiosk breaks the atmosphere of the game, but the weapon customization system is fun to play around with and cover-based shooting is encouraged only a handful of times.

That Dead Space 3 remains a solid traditional horror game in spite of distracting “broad appeal” additions is a dubious accomplishment, but perhaps it’s one fans can live with for the time being. The marketplace’s lack of quality horror games allows some leeway for a series that gets it mostly right. Let’s not get caught up in worrying how these lesser features might expand in the inevitable Dead Space 4; in the here and now, Dead Space 3 is exciting, beautiful, and best of all — scary.

Zombies FTW



YEAR IN GAMER It was a good year for gaming. You may not have realized it, with fewer marquee titles than last year’s three-mageddon of Resistance 3, Gears of War 3, Battlefield 3, and Modern Warfare 3 in a span of two months, and with no sign of the long-rumored and eagerly-anticipated new PlayStation and Xbox consoles. But this year was actually an embarrassment of riches for gamers who were willing to buck the franchise bug and try something new, suggesting that developing games for a generation of flagging consoles doesn’t have to be an exercise in repetition and sequel-itis. Instead, it provides an incentive for developers to get a little creative.

Tell me a story The surprise success of 2012 was The Walking Dead (Telltale Games), a game that’s a series of shorter “episodes” in which you play as Lee, an escaped convict in a zombie-occupied Atlanta. But the real heart of the experience is in developing who Lee is for yourself. Sure, the game often decides what your character does and where he goes, but you are given the tools that shape his motivations for why.

In my play-through, Lee made many decisions I would describe as “good,” but the options were never black or white. I helped form a back story that had Lee helping others to survive the zombie apocalypse in order to alleviate guilt for his wrongdoings. Each choice you make, no matter how superficial or comparatively insignificant, strengthens your attachment to your character. The real challenge of The Walking Dead is in reminding yourself not to focus on making the “right” decision because there never is one.

Look at what they ask of you! Most gamers play to have fun; it’s cathartic to blow off steam after work by shooting some computer-generated bad guys. Spec Ops: The Line (Yager Development/2K Games) is not content to offer target practice without also asking you to question why you blindly accept the tenets of this structure. On the surface Spec Ops looks a lot like a military third-person shooter — and it plays competently as one if that’s all you’re looking for. But Spec Ops is also a secret art game, a shooter that wants gamers to take a harsh look at the atrocities they commit in these war shooters, and ask why they enjoy playing them anyway.

In direct contrast to The Walking Dead, Spec Ops experiments in neglecting player choice. For instance, there’s a sequence where you have no choice but to deploy the deadly chemical white phosphorous upon a group of enemy troops in order to survive, only to learn that your actions resulted in the deaths of civilians, many of them women and children.

It’s debatable whether Spec Ops fully succeeds in balancing art project and fun; there are times when it’s clear you are not meant to be enjoying the game. But that there’s a shooter on the market attempting to be more than mindless about its murder makes it worth a look.

A new IP isn’t a death sentence Savvy gamers are beginning to recognize that they are being sold the same experiences year after year. Call of Duty and Mario Bros. continue to sell well, but highly iterative franchises like these are causing increasingly apathetic gamers to lash out in interesting ways, such as the now annual Metacritic bombing of Call of Duty.

It’s hard to blame publishers; making a non-sequel, non-franchised game is risky. Each month more and more small companies are shuttering their doors, and the future doesn’t look great for middlemen like THQ either, who are currently dangling on the verge of bankruptcy. So it’s kind of amazing we’re able to celebrate the successes of a good number of smaller titles this year.

Kiss kiss Lollipop Chainsaw did fairly well for Japanese auteur Suda 51, although it may have been the zombies and cheerleader on the cover that gave the game a bit of a boost in the young male demographic. A tongue-in-cheek hack ‘n’ slash game with English dialogue written by indie filmmaker James Gunn, Chainsaw is laugh-out-loud funny in enough places to make up for a little repetitive gameplay.

Bang bang More unlikely successes this year were Square Enix’s Hong Kong sandbox shooter Sleeping Dogs and Bethesda’s first-person stealth game Dishonored, both of which are happily finding themselves on more than a few Top Ten lists. Either one could have been easily overlooked in stores, but it seems more and more consumers are looking at the shelf and saying, “Show me something new!” *


Hail to the Chief


GAMER They say you have to go away in order to make a comeback. To be fair, the Halo series never really “went away,” having released two non-numbered titles and an HD remake in the four years since Halo 3, but those entries lacked the presence of the iconic Master Chief and, compared with the pop-culture phenomenon that was Halo 3, they didn’t exactly set the gaming community on fire.

Perhaps fearful of diminishing returns, series creator Bungie left the franchise in 2010 and Halo 4 (343 Industries/Microsoft; Xbox 360) was left to a new developer, 343 Industries. I’m not sure anyone expected the first-time company to knock it out of the park on their first try, but Halo 4 is a unmistakable grand slam — both a love letter to the franchise’s legacy and a re-introduction to a beloved character that once appeared as fundamentally one-note.

Fittingly, Halo 4 picks up four years after the events of Halo 3. Master Chief is awakened from cryo-sleep by sidekick computer A.I. Cortana and, fearing an attack from villainous alien race the Covenant, the pair set off on a quest that once again endangers Earth and the future of humanity. The first entry in a new trilogy of games, Halo 4‘s story favors mystery over the hollow exposition of past titles, and the relationship between Master Chief and Cortana suggests a truer sense of humanity for the man behind the mask.

Pacing is also revamped, and the game is always barreling towards something new and exciting, as players shuffle from spaceship to alien planet and back again, on the run from a new alien-machine hybrid race called Prometheans. Even when you’re required to perform the same action multiple times, mundane acts like flipping switches rarely play out the same way twice thanks to some impressive artificial intelligence and smart level design. Frankly, it’s surprising that the trusty Halo formula can still be put to such joyous effect; the single player campaign is the most satisfying since the series debuted in 2001.

If you’ve played the multiplayer of the past few entries, you’re largely prepared for the wealth of intuitive maps and game types, solid matchmaking, level editor and ability to save and edit videos of your online escapades. You have new armor and a few new special abilities — like a portable turret — but game play remains easy to learn and challenging to master.

In a field where conventional military shooters top the list each month, it’s exciting to have an invincible space marine blasting up the charts again. After years of releasing games that were essentially two sides of the same space-coin, Halo 4 takes the series back to basics: Master Chief and a whole lot of firepower. Everybody loves a comeback.

Good. But revolutionary?


‘Assassin’s Creed III’

(Ubisoft Montreal/Ubisoft)

Xbox 360, PS3, PC

GAMER Assassin’s Creed III spans decades, from the earliest seeds of the American Revolution and on through some of the most notable events of the war, like the Boston Tea Party and Paul Revere’s midnight ride. Such momentous happenings act as backdrops in a story chronicling the life of Connor, a half-Native American and assassin in a secret society dedicated to upholding the tenets of free will. It’s a lofty premise, and one the Assassin’s Creed franchise has rightly earned with a successful run of past games that combine science fiction, history lessons and parkour neck stabbing. And AC III mostly delivers.

AC III is a true sequel, not a cash grab or copy-and-paste of AC II, behavior that many gamers have accused developer Ubisoft of committing with their non-numbered sequels Brotherhood and Revelations. Attention to historical accuracy of the layouts of colonial Boston and New York is impressive, the new free-running through trees is fluid and natural, and, once you get into the real battles, you encounter a surprising number of on-screen characters. Purely on a performance level, AC III is a big step up for the series, but the epic scope means players aren’t allowed to jump into the fray right away; it’ll likely be hours before you get to play as the guy on the front of the box. If you can go with the flow, you’ll find it’s one of a number of interesting risks the Creed franchise is taking with its latest installment.

Following the introduction, a bold narrative feint that introduces players to the most loathsome villain in the series thus far, players are drawn through wilderness and battleground on the hunt for revenge. Compared to Ezio Auditore, protagonist of the past few Creed games, Connor lacks charisma and acts with a clichéd sense of nobility that, in the face of the Revolution’s complex matters, seems to make him too simple a character. Greater emphasis on non-player characters has the simultaneous effects of giving the campaign a grander scope than ever before and causing you to feel less like the protagonist than a supporting participant in others’ stories.

Previous Creed games maintained an appealing balance between offering campaign missions with linear tasks and providing players with a true opportunity for exploration and discovery by allowing them to tour these lost cities on their own. Ironically, AC III’s grand outlook leaves little wiggle room for true freedom, and those accustomed to spending hours dilly-dallying between missions are likely to be disappointed that few sequences allow them to deviate from the mission at hand.

It’s not all bad, and sometimes a guiding force is good to have in a game this large. AC III offers so much content that you can confidently anticipate playing it until next year. Hunting animals, collecting Ben Franklin’s almanac pages, creating useful items, naval battling, assassinating naughty citizens, liberating areas of town — there’s more stuff to do than ever before, and it’s rare that you’re forced to do anything outside of the main narrative that you don’t enjoy.

As the conclusion to a five-game story arc, AC III carries a lot of narrative baggage, and the bold moves taken in telling Connor’s story will likely limit the broader appeal that curious new fans hoped for. But, in a game this large, maybe you don’t care why you are assassinating redcoats, only that you can do so with consistent flair. Finding the formula for a successful video game is tricky these days, and many developers fear the risks of continuing to innovate once they’ve found a proven recipe. The risks taken here lead to both successes and failures, but kudos to Ubisoft for not being afraid to try new things.


‘Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation’ (Ubisoft Sofia/Ubisoft)

PlayStation Vita

With another all-new protagonist in debutante and secret assassin Aveline de Grandpré, Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation is set within the same time period as Assassin’s Creed III, but in New Orleans. Moving play from AC III to the PlayStation Vita exclusive, the technical downgrade is difficult to overlook, but Liberation is no less ambitious and laudably attempts to stuff most of what makes the console series work into a handheld experience.

Fitting all that content leaves little room for story, and Liberation drops the science fiction angle for a straightforward re-enactment of a series of important moments in Aveline’s life. Orphaned and brought into the Assassin order at a young age, Aveline is capable of selecting among different “personas” in order to disguise herself, at times as a slave, at other times as a high-class lady. The lady disguise is likely to be a stickler in many a Creed fans’ craw, as the dress restricts the character’s ability to climb buildings or fight, leaving Aveline with the less appealing abilities of charming men and infiltrating restricted areas. Without a deeper story, the Liberation package feels slight at times, but having a little Assassin’s Creed in your hands is impressive, and the venue change allows Ubisoft to prove its formula works outside of the original narrative.

Déjà vu all over again


‘Medal of Honor: Warfighter’ (Danger Close/Electronic Arts)

Xbox 360, PS3, PC

GAMER I hate to start off a review by highlighting the competition, but — Call of Duty. The biggest name in gaming casts a long shadow, and a good number of publishers are happy to step aside and let Call of Duty have the holiday months.

Publisher Electronic Arts has more aggressive plans. Last year they pitted their Battlefield franchise against Call of Duty, and made a pretty good go at taking the crown. But that was last year. The Call of Duty franchise has at least three different developers working at getting a game out every year; can EA compete on an annual level when they have just one developer working on Battlefield?

Enter Medal of Honor: Warfighter. The sequel to a reboot of another World War II franchise, Warfighter sports the same engine as Battlefield 3 and to EA probably seemed just the thing for the off-year between Battlefield entries. But competition isn’t always healthy. If last week’s hefty day-one patch — which introduced a litany of simple fixes and features that should have been in the game to begin with — is an indication, Warfighter‘s release date became more important than the quality of its content.

Warfighter‘s single-player campaign isn’t as egregiously inconsistent as the 2010 Medal of Honor reboot, but it’s hardly memorable. Dropping its predecessor’s gritty, controversial setting of Afghanistan for a hammy international terrorist plot, Warfighter delivers nothing gamers aren’t familiar with. You get cinematic set-pieces, characters delivering a mish-mash of military jargon and acronyms, and plenty of shooting at bad guys; there’s no real context and no real stakes.

Battlefield 3’s Frostbite 2 engine provides nice lighting and animation, but most of the pretty environments are window dressing on cheap thrills and glorified shooting galleries. Car chases through Pakistan and Dubai are nice diversions with solid mechanics, considering we’re talking about an FPS, but you’re probably better off jumping directly into multiplayer.

Fewer frustrations inhabit the game’s multiplayer, and it’s a good bet more time and care went into this part of the Warfighter package. Gamers looking for something that’s not Call of Duty will find Warfighter multiplayer serves up military excitement that’s similarly addicting, if safe.

Military shooters can mine real emotional territory and there are amazing stories to be told, but Warfighter isn’t really interested in telling them. With more time spent on development we might have gotten an interesting game, but its fall arrival is intended to fill a hole in this year’s release calendar, and its creative successes are an afterthought. Warfighter passes the time amiably and it’s hard to chastise it for giving people what they want, but it’s also a lesson in why the annual franchise model doesn’t always work. (Peter Galvin)



Resident Evil 6


Xbox 360, PS3, PC

GAMER Capcom really wants you to like Resident Evil 6. The Japanese developer has been turning out entries since 1996 in the survival horror franchise that has spawned countless films, games, books, and theme park attractions, and with each success came an increase in fans. Resident Evil 6 suggests Capcom has listened to each and every one of its fans, and instead of using fan feedback to make an informed decision about what type of game players want, they simply shrugged and stuffed four games into one.

Resident Evil 6 offers four separate story campaigns, each designed to appeal to a different kind of player. For fans of the original games, fan favorite Leon Kennedy gets top billing in a campaign with a tense atmosphere and sense of exploration. Resident Evil 5‘s Chris Redfield heads a combat-heavy campaign focusing on action and gunplay. New character Jake Muller takes on a story that plays like a mixture of the first two, and the unlockable final campaign stars a bizarrely deracialized Ada Wong as she solves puzzles.

Booting up the Leon campaign reveals mechanics and pacing that are baffling. Levels are designed to be played with a partner, but there are moments when one player performs a task while the other stands around with nothing to do. Quicktime events exist solely to make players jam on the sticks and buttons at inopportune times and lead mostly to cheap deaths. Melee combat is so overpowered it makes more sense to kick zombies to death rather than waste ammunition lining up a shot from a pistol. And the game is relentless with explosions and breakneck action sequences.

The schizophrenic design decisions start to fall into place when you begin Chris’ war-shooter themed campaign. The focus on guns, overpowered melee moves, and arena levels are specifically designed to enhance an action experience but have been applied across the board to campaigns that don’t support the play style. Understandably, it’s impossible to change the fundamental design of each campaign without ballooning the developers’ budget, but my response to that would be not to make four different campaigns. Longtime fans of the series were never going to accept Resident Evil 6. It makes the controversially action-packed fifth entry look like Citizen Kane and it’s a far cry from the slow, solitary experiences that made the franchise a hit. But even separating the game from its baggage, the game stumbles in simple mechanics, pacing, and level design. When a single failed release can sink a development company it may seem justifiable to want to focus-group your game, but in dividing their resources Capcom really just made four different bad games.