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Shoot to thrill


FALL ARTS At some point in the last 30 years game publishers decided that releasing in the summer was financial suicide. Maybe these publishers were under the mistaken impression that everyone is out enjoying the sun and, I don’t know, hiking? But as those of us who also enjoy gaming will tell you, you make time for video games.

So it’s been a pleasure to see the fall gaming season inch ever earlier into August, where it can leverage gamers’ anticipation about autumn releases and avoid being subjected to the intense scrutiny of a more competitive schedule. Two games released last week teeter on that precipice and officially ring in what looks to be another big season of gaming.

Darksiders II is a tad rough but an immense undertaking for a still-unproven license. Playing as Death himself, you must undo the end of the world and save your brother, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Dabbling in light heaven-hell mythology, the art style of Darksiders II is vigorously heavy metal, but it’s the game play homages to Zelda, God of War, and even Portal that make this epic game a pleasure. Dungeons and puzzles are faintly familiar but that’s part of the charm, and the series’ new RPG elements and abundance of treasure chests make the game irresistibly fun to play.

Similarly rugged, Sleeping Dogs sometimes struggles to match the fluidity and detail of Rockstar’s best efforts, like Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption, but it’s also not nearly as self-serious and has one of the best open-world environments the genre has seen. In this sandbox game set in Hong Kong, you play an undercover cop working his way up the ranks of the triads, playing both sides of the law. In terms of sheer delight, few games this year can match the unique experience of cruising through a neon city listening to traditional Chinese string music while vendors call to you to try their pork buns. And then running them over with your SUV.

Of course, the months of true autumn are still where you’ll find the big titles, and it’s impossible to list upcoming games without acknowledging that there is another Call of Duty game coming out this November, and it will undoubtedly sell more copies than any other game in 2012. The first sequel from odd-year, back-up developer Treyarch, Call of Duty: Black Ops II occurs partly in the Cold War era and partly in the near future, where the PRC have taken control of US revolutionary drone warfare technology and are using it against us.

In lieu of a new Battlefield game, publisher Electronic Arts hopes a new Medal of Honor will fill the shooter-sized hole in their schedule this year, but Medal of Honor Warfighter seems unlikely to compete with Black Ops, considering the player reaction to its 2010 prequel.

No, the Call of Duty franchise’s nearest competitor this year is 343 Studios’ Halo 4. It’s been five years since the last numbered entry in the Halo series and a new developer aims to repeat the mammoth sales of Halo 3 (a game with such crossover appeal that I picked up my copy at 7-11) with another blockbuster. Halo 4 will once again star iconic space soldier Master Chief, and promises a renewed focus on exploration and discovery over straightforward alien bombast.


Fan favorite Resident Evil has slowly evolved from its deliberately-paced survival horror roots into an action series — resulting in both uproar and increased sales. And we all know which result matters more to publishers. But in an effort to satisfy fans new and old, Resident Evil 6 has two protagonists, and for all intents and purposes two separate storylines. One plays it slow and scary while the other delivers on the explosions and firefights that likely mean big sales this October.

Another series that developed a new identity based on fan feedback, Assassins Creed III brings the time-traveling franchise to the USA during the American Revolution. Playing as a Native American assassin, you hobnob with the likes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson in a dynamic recreation of 18th century Boston and New York. You’ll probably also murder a lot of redcoats. Like Call of Duty, Assassins Creed has a new entry each year, and its dependable quality is its greatest asset.

Then there are games whose futures are less certain. New IP Dishonored looks to take BioShock’s steampunk aesthetic one generation earlier, into the Victorian era, with a stealthy first-person-shooter soaked in atmosphere. Borderlands 2 takes its predecessor’s successful basic characteristics — a boatload of loot, focus on cooperation and tongue in cheek humor — and ratchets them up to 11. Also, releasing in the typically untouchable month of December, Far Cry 3 explores an entire tropical island, complete with psychedelic mushrooms and a very nasty pirate villain.

All of the above for the new season, without even touching Nintendo’s new Wii U. We know it’s coming, but no release date, price, or game lineup yet. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Nintendo’s slow approach to starting the next generation of hardware may be a case of wanting to fully size up the competition before committing. With games like these, it’s never been clearer that people crave good games above new hardware.

Same time next year


GAMER There was a moment when it seemed this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (better known as E3) would be the most exciting since way back in 2006, the year Wii and PlayStation 3 premiered. This January, rumors swirled around Sony and Microsoft, that they were developing next generation consoles, and perhaps looking to premiere them alongside Nintendo’s big Wii U reveal.

But Microsoft’s decision instead was to coast on their current success as market leader, and Sony chose to concentrate on setting themselves apart in an increasingly multi-platform marketplace by focusing on peripherals and exclusives. So, at least one more year for this generation of gaming, making E3 2012 pretty interchangeable with 2011.

Nintendo’s presentation played it safe with first-party games that were either already known (Pikmin 3) or practically indistinguishable from past installments (New Super Mario Bros. 2), and left innovation for new Wii U software to third party developers. Playing nice with outside development teams will go a long way towards winning back the “hardcore” crowd Nintendo desperately craves but the dearth of exciting games evoked too-fresh memories of last year’s disastrous 3DS launch.

Speaking on the Wii U at an investor presentation prior to E3, Nintendo president Satoru Iwata stated “There is always a limit to our internal resources … if I said that an overwhelmingly rich software lineup would be prepared from day one, it would be too much of a promise to make.” Attendees at Nintendo’s conference would have been wise to heed that warning, as an initially excited crowd grew more restless with each announcement that wasn’t a hi-definition Zelda or Metroid game.

On the other side of the coin, Microsoft opened with a guaranteed bread-winner for the Xbox and their only exclusive blockbuster releasing this year, Halo 4. Coupled with the annual release of Call of Duty, the Xbox is in a safe spot, and Microsoft was smart to concentrate the rest of their show on apps and an application they’re calling SmartGlass, even if doing so created some disappointment in the crowd. An experiment in tablet crosstalk, SmartGlass is just one example of the “second-screen” gameplay all three publishers appear keen on for 2013.

Last of the “big three” publishers, Sony attempted to entice consumers into supporting the low-selling PlayStation Move and the new PSVita handheld, but their exclusive titles remained the most compelling reason to own a PlayStation. A new project from Quantic Dream, Beyond: Two Souls improves on Heavy Rain‘s cinematic storytelling, and Naughty Dog’s post-apocalyptic survival piece The Last of Us wowed audiences with gruesome one-on-one combat. Sony also featured the Expo’s biggest failure: way too much time devoted to a buggy and simplistic augmented reality book, Wonderbook, based on the Harry Potter franchise.

Concentrating on games over peripherals, Ubisoft had arguably this year’s best showing. New action/stealth IP WATCH_DOGS, about a hacker who can control the power of a city’s technology, had many declaring it E3’s biggest surprise, and Ubisoft also delivered strong demos for Splinter Cell: Blacklist, Assassin’s Creed III, Far Cry 3, and Rayman Legends, the last of which harnessed the possibilities of the Wii U in ways even Nintendo couldn’t match.

On the E3 show floor, the Tomb Raider series’ reboot is emotionally engrossing and includes a more robust upgrade system than the game it most closely resembles, Uncharted. Where Uncharted is known for strong story and characters, Tomb Raider competes with a terrifying sense of helplessness and mature storytelling. Making its debut at E3, Star Wars 1313 also made a lot of promises about being first to set a “mature” game in the Star Wars universe. It’ll be interesting to see if LucasArts uses that freedom as a tableau to create a truly interesting story, or if it becomes a bar to hit in terms of language and violence. Either way, 1313 features some of the most realistic motion capture I’ve ever seen, and lighting and animation that rivals entries in the film series. If there was a constant among the big E3 games, it was the year 2013. Publishers are tired of getting beat up each fall by Call of Duty‘s annual release and have relocated to next spring. Most titles demoed at E3 have been slotted for 2013’s first quarter, which currently looks as stuffed with games as November usually does. It’ll be interesting to see who stands their ground and who makes one last push to the barren summer months. If 2013 looks to be an exciting time to be a gamer, in 2012 it remains business as usual. 

Bullet blender


Max Payne 3

(Rockstar Games/Take-Two Interactive)

Xbox 360, PS3, PC

GAMER There will be fans who complain that Rockstar Games doesn’t “get” Max Payne. Remedy Entertainment, a Finnish developer that has since moved on to the Alan Wake franchise, developed the action-noir series’ first two titles, and Rockstar picked up the ball in much the same way they revived Red Dead a few years back. The truth is there may be no company better suited to reimagining Max Payne; Rockstar and Remedy share a fascination and fetishization with the old cop movies, comic books, and cinematic style that inspired the series.

After the deaths of his wife and child in the first game, Max has given up. Holed up in a dingy bar in Jersey, he’s drinking himself to death when an old police academy buddy suggests private security work in São Paulo, Brazil. The suntanned change of scenery is pleasant, and the authentic music, un-subtitled Portuguese and po-faced grime of the dangerous favelas is typical Rockstar distillation of what makes Brazil “cool” to outsiders.

The wife of a wealthy aristocrat is kidnapped, and Max sets out to retrieve her from the corrupt cops and drug lords of Sao Paolo’s streets and slums. It’s got a Man on Fire (2004) vibe, one the developers encourage by incorporating Tony Scott-esque editing tricks like double exposures and scrolling key words of dialogue across the screen as characters speak them.

If one element will divide old fans from new, it’s a certain self-seriousness, something scoffed at by the original Max Payne. There’s a joke about gaming in the aughts and how every developer seemed to turn their protagonist into alcoholic, bearded scumbags, but at least Max embodies these traits thematically. The game’s grizzled noir clichés aren’t overtly tongue-in-cheek and aside from some superficial commentary about the divide between rich and poor in a predominately poor city, this is a game about slow-motion bullets and it’s hard to take too seriously.

Max Payne invented “bullet time” gaming, where the game world slows down as you dive through the air, picking off multiple enemies in slow-motion, and the mechanics haven’t changed. Basically, (1) keep moving, (2) keep shooting, and (3) kill thousands of people. Level design is inspired — though flashbacks to New York feel like a consolation to fans unhappy with the change of setting — and rock band HEALTH delivers a moody score that’s equal parts Jan Hammer and Japanese taiko drums.

There’s something quietly retro about a game that isn’t anything more than shooting a ton of bad guys. It’s a simple pleasure, and Max Payne 3 feeds that monster. But Rockstar Games aren’t known for “simple”; when they took over Red Dead Redemption they transformed a game about gunslinger showdowns into an epic open-world western. Part of me hoped for something revolutionary to happen here, and the final product looks quaint compared with the caliber of Rockstar’s past releases, but there’s no denying Max Payne 3 is a uniquely stylish take on Latin American crime.

Viva la Vita


GAMER News of the Vita’s death in Japan has been greatly exaggerated. Sony’s new handheld console arrived on Japanese shores last November, with meager sales compared to 2005’s PSP and even fewer than the much-ballyhooed Nintendo 3DS launch last spring. Analysts were quick to point to the 3DS’s disappointing launch as the beginning of the end for dedicated handheld systems, and Sony’s comparatively low sales had many pundits patting themselves on the back.

But, unlike Nintendo, Sony seems to have learned that software is as important as hardware. Where the 3DS launched with a sparse game library and hoped to sell units on name recognition and a 3D gimmick, the Vita has arrived with one of the best all-around software launches in recent history. That the hardware is no slouch either indicates we’re looking at a winner — if gamers are willing to carry around another gadget.

The Vita is a system for tech geeks. It’s got gimmicks and novelties — front and rear cameras, tilt control, and a rear touch pad — but it’s the more traditional elements that drive them home. The system is comfortable to hold and has a beautiful OLED front touch-screen. It’s quick as a whip, and best of all it’s aesthetically pleasing. It’s no accident the Vita looks more like an iPhone than a plastic Speak & Spell. (Yes, that’s a dig at the 3DS.)


Additionally, it’s a real surprise to see Sony at the forefront of the impending digital revolution. Not only is every Vita game available on a cartridge, it’s also available for download — often at a lower price. Flexible pricing is something Sony seems interested in across the board, and it’s a development the industry has needed for a while; helping smaller games release at prices related to their stance in the marketplace makes sense.

Early sales reports for the Vita’s Western launch currently remain low, but the problem is not with the system. The Vita is slicker and quicker than its big brother, the PlayStation 3, and with the right publishers and a steady pace it could be the handheld we’ve all been waiting for. Buying the Vita now means banking on the system’s potential. Its launch lineup is full of games that are undeniably fun to play, but one could argue they are mere previews of the bigger-and-better experiences the Vita can offer. Whether or not we see those experiences is in the hands of a public that just might be OK with 99-cent iPhone games and 10-minute time-wasters.

Check out Peter Galvin’s Vita game reviews over at Pixel Vision.

The bottom of the top


YEAR IN GAMER One of the most exciting release windows in recent memory, this year’s fall gaming onslaught is officially behind us. And while most gamers are quick to rank the marquee experiences — battling dragons (The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim), thwarting diabolical clowns (Batman: Arkham City), and riding giant birds in a green tunic (The Legend of Zelda: The Skyward Sword), it’s only when you approach the bottom half of a critic’s top 10 that the real debate begins.

So let’s skip ahead, past Uncharted 3 and Portal 2, which round out the established top five games of the year, and delve into the bottom half of the top 10. Any one of the following games might have taken home top honors in years past. As it stands, you may have overlooked one or two. And that’s what Christmas is for.

6. Rayman Origins

2D platforming in 2011 takes place in one of two venues: the games marketplace, like PSN or XBLA, or on your phone. Rayman Origins‘ greatest disadvantage is that it looks like something you can get on your phone for a buck but it costs full price. Don’t be fooled, a dollar will never get you as much content as you’ll find in Rayman, with its more than 60 levels of hand-drawn animation, four-player co-op, and star limbless thingamajig. Rayman isn’t just a re-skinned Mario; it’s a brighter, sillier and more rhythm-based experience than the Italian plumber, with a similar level of polish.

7. Dark Souls

It feels strange to be recommending a game that I’m often too afraid to play. Dark Souls is a brutal action RPG wherein you play a sort of zombie that most enemies can kill with a single hit. Save points are sparse and taking a break respawns any enemies that you might have killed already. (If you’re an old-school gamer, you’re screaming “all games used to be like this!”) Dark Souls employs an amazing level design that intricately connects its diverse dungeons and features a unique multiplayer system that allows other players to either leave tips for you or invade your game and make life even harder. You know that snotty friend who says today’s games are too easy or too much like movies? Get him this game.

8. L.A. Noire

Dismissed by some as a hackneyed attempt to marry Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto with a point and click adventure, L.A. Noire may not be the perfect joining of genres we all hoped it would be, but it’s a wonderful homage for aficionados of 1940s crime movies. A sordid tale of an ex-Marine turned policeman rising through the ranks of the LAPD, L.A. Noire is well paced and acted, with a fully fleshed-out story — which can be hard to find in video games. Though it ultimately made more headlines for the developers’ harsh working environment, L.A. Noire remains a unique and expansive take on an under-represented genre.

9. Driver San Francisco Do you like driving fast cars but find yourself overwhelmed with the intricacies of real-life simulations? More racing games are contextualizing their in-game courses with a bit of drama and back story, and Driver San Francisco takes the cake when it comes to unique storytelling. You play an SF cop in a coma who can enter the bodies of other drivers on the road and drive like a maniac without consequence. He uses this amazing power to help teenagers win street races, freak out driver’s ed instructors and save the city from a terrorist attack that may or may not exist at all. Driver SF is less than polished, and local residents will notice some discrepancies in the city’s geography, but for pure entertainment few games take risks like these.

10. Super Mario 3D Land

After a bit of an embarrassing year for Nintendo, and the 3DS in particular, Super Mario 3D Land marks the first game to make the troubled console truly worth owning. A jump-in-and-play good time, Mario 3D highlights both the 2D platforming of New Super Mario Bros. and the fluid 3D exploration of Mario Galaxy, creating something that’s more than a throwback, it’s a refinement of everything that makes the 25-year franchise so popular. It’s not innovative enough to be worth buying a 3DS for, but early adopters finally have a game to call their own.

The new (open) world order


YEAR IN GAMER In 2010, year-end awards were dominated by one game: Red Dead Redemption. Published by Rockstar Games, the title was a sweeping, epic Western in the best American tradition. Using a proprietary game engine, Rockstar stitched together a giant swath of imaginary frontier, a teeming open world that seems to leap straight from the imagination of John Ford or Sergio Leone.

Now that 2011 is nearly done, it’s clear that Red Dead Redemption‘s success was merely a sign of things to come. Rival publishers must have watched contentedly as the game’s accolades stacked up. They were about to make 2011 the year of the open world game, ushering in a glut of go-where-you-want, do-what-you-want, slay-who-you-want titles that would dominate both discourse and sales.

Rockstar themselves were the first to get in on the action, taking a second bite at the apple in May with L.A. Noire. Developed by now-shuttered Australian studio Team Bondi, the game takes place in a meticulously recreated version of late-40s Los Angeles. Like Red Dead Redemption, Team Bondi’s title is an engrossing pastiche of classic cinema, drawing on the tropes, mopes, and molls of vintage noir. While critics rightly complained that the game’s open world offered little except the opportunity to drive around and sightsee, the simulated city’s presence added atmosphere and heft to an already immersive game.

Explore L.A. Noire‘s carefully art-directed metropolis, and the most dangerous thing you’re likely to encounter is fast-talking dame with nothing to lose. Not so in Dark Souls, an October release by iconoclastic Japanese studio From Software. From’s open world is a foreboding, twisted take on fantasy gothic, full of decaying grandeur, uncanny creatures, and fetid environs. Players must creep forward against their better judgment, dreading whatever horror lurks around the next corner. Though the game’s uncompromising difficulty acts as a deterrent, Dark Souls‘ labyrinthine, deadly world and endless creativity are well worth the frustration.

In Batman: Arkham City, British developers Rocksteady Games put Batman in his place: perched on the roof of some crumbling Gotham pile. The game’s titular open world is a vast outdoor prison, an entire urban zip code done up in hyperbolic neon-noir, then filled with psychopaths and super-villains. While he’s not using Rocksteady’s impressive, flowing combat system to put the hurt on Gotham’s criminal underclass, Batman can deploy gadgets like the Batclaw to swoop around. Though Arkham City mostly serves as a backdrop for a fairly linear narrative, but there are also dozens of collectible, lime-green “Riddler Trophies” scattered around, giving gamers an incentive to explore every inch of the game’s open world.

For sheer size and scope, you can’t top The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, released in November by Maryland-based Bethesda Game Studios. Bethesda have made open worlds something of a specialty in recent years, and Skyrim is the company’s most ambitious effort to date. Set in a frigid, arctic landscape, the game showcases natural beauty on a grand scale, rendering icy peaks, swampy tundras, and furtive wildlife darting among snow-dappled pines. Players will spend hours completing hundreds of quests, scaling the world’s highest heights and descending into the bowels of its darkest dungeons. Though the game makes it easy to follow a floating arrow directly to you current goal, Skyrim’s best moments are often the product of getting hopelessly lost.

When it comes to the sheer joy of exploring an open world, Minecraft reigns supreme. Created on a lark by Swedish programmer Markus Persson, the game randomly generates a gargantuan new environment every time you tell it to. Comprised entirely of chunky, Lego-like blocks, the world can be altered at will — dedicated players have spent hours moving blocks one-by-one to create replicas of things like the USS Enterprise. Minecraft is an impressive indie success story — first released in its alpha version in 2009, the game now boasts nearly 242 million logins per month.

What lessons will open world games learn from the class of 2011? Will 2012’s vast gaming environments be welcoming or forbidding? Will players be given long lists of collectibles to hunt, or simply asked to explore for its own sake? Dec. 20, thousands of people logged into Star Wars: The Old Republic for the first time, a big-budget MMORPG from local publishers LucasArts and Electronic Arts. Not content with the vast worlds already available to them, these intrepid gamers opted for an entire galaxy — a galaxy far, far away.

Ezio come, Ezio go



(Ubisoft Montreal/Ubisoft) Xbox 360, PS3, PC

GAMER Historical fiction tale and science fiction soap opera about a man who relives his ancestors’ memories through a special machine, Assassin’s Creed is a satisfying fusion of the stealth and platforming techniques pioneered by publisher Ubisoft with its Prince of Persia and Splinter Cell franchises. And each year fans cringe at the prospect that the ambitious saga is spreading its potential thin with an annual release model.

The fourth entry in as many years, Revelations has players catching up with Italian assassin Ezio Auditore. Now a much older gentleman, Ezio arrives in 16th century Istanbul in search of physical recordings of the memories of the life of Altair, the first game’s protagonist. As Ezio uncovers Altair’s memories, there’s a bit of Inception going on: you’re reliving the memories of a man reliving the memories of another man. But, in choosing to address the existing mysteries of the series rather than create new ones, Revelations manages to close Ezio’s story with grace, and legitimize Altair’s brief presence in the series.

By the fourth game, hand-holding tutorials should no longer be necessary, but Revelations is eager to introduce new gameplay elements, at the expense of the open-world exploration and colorful characters that make the series intriguing.

Topping the list of new gameplay features are bomb-crafting and a tower-defense mini-game that tasks Ezio with controlling armies of assassins against waves of attacking Templars. The tower defense is fun enough, and makes sense thematically, but it feels like a different game and the pressure to constantly protect your assassin dens is frustrating. Likewise, the constrictive spotlight on bomb-crafting is surprising considering how much less practical bombs are than sneaking and platforming.

Failed though these features are, the core of Revelations holds a technically brilliant game, and Ezio’s story is told with some nuance — an all too undervalued commodity in the game industry. If there’s a crack in the story execution it lies with present-day descendant Desmond, who is comatose and silent throughout most of the game. Collecting Animus fragments in Constantinople opens first-person puzzle levels for Desmond, which are unwieldy and — again — out of place, but at least offer a unique way to relive Desmond’s pre-Animus life.

Last year’s Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood might have been cosmetically similar to its predecessors, but it was also a showpiece for the marriage of storytelling and gameplay. Revelations’ clumsy new ideas make it a trickier sell and, ultimately, skipping it won’t make a lot of difference story-wise. If you’re invested in the travails of Ezio, the few answers in Revelations make it a must-play, but it’s the first game in the Creed series to feel inessential.

Combat fatigue


Battlefield 3

(DICE, Electronic Arts)

Xbox 360, PS3, PC

GAMER It’s disappointing that a Battlefield 3 review has to begin with a discussion of Call of Duty, but we can’t ignore the elephant in the room. For months, the Battlefield team has been shooting barbs at Call of Duty, warning the makers of the best-selling video game in the world that they intended to steal the Brown-War-Shooter crown. The previous Battlefield release was a multiplayer surprise success, performing just below Call of Duty for the better part of a year, and Swedish developer DICE intended to go all the way this time.

Well, the time has come to evaluate the threat. And while the multiplayer delivers on the promise, the rest of the package makes those earlier boasts seem a little premature.

A significant number of Battlefield fans never touch the single-player campaign, bypassing it to dive right into the online experience, and this time they aren’t missing much. In search of authenticity, the campaign takes a deliberate approach to combat, but it feels old hat. Most action takes place in corridors — not Battlefield‘s strong suit — where soldiers pour into an area and you have to clear them out. Yawn. You start thinking, maybe Call of Duty was right to juice up their ostentatious campaigns in the name of fun.

In the campaign’s second half, DICE comes around on Call of Duty‘s strengths as well, feebly aping that series’ better bits: a nuclear threat, car chases and shootouts in the streets of Paris and the NY subway. It’s not just disappointing that the levels are unmemorable and derivative, it’s a shame there’s no real exploration of the team-based combat that makes the series unique.

And yet: it’s revealing that for the reviewed Xbox version, Battlefield 3’s campaign comes on the second of two discs; the campaign itself is negligible. Battlefield‘s roots are multiplayer, where their Conquest and Rush modes prove that war is not just about killing, it is about cooperation. Whether you’re driving friends around in a jet, helicopter, or tank, fixing vehicles or attacking capture points, Battlefield is more than a shooter, it’s a full war experience. Undeniably, having 64 combatants on the field in multiplayer makes PC the go-to version if you can afford the rig.

Despite how much went wrong with the story missions, if you approach Battlefield 3 with the right expectations, it comes out largely unscathed. DICE’s multiplayer offers up massive vistas and the opportunity to feel like an essential cog in the war machine. Will it take this year’s Brown-War-Shooter crown? The online community will suss that out for themselves, but until DICE can deliver a complete package, I suspect Battlefield will have to learn to share. 

Three is the so-so number


GAMER Take a look at your favorite games from the past few years and you’ll find most were released not only on one system, but on two or three. The days of platform exclusivity are waning, and all these multi-platform releases mean console exclusives like Resistance 3 are increasingly important to manufacturers interested in maintaining their position in the industry.

Sony’s Resistance saga traces the path of a space virus sent to Earth to turn humans into alien-beings called the Chimera. The first two games follow Nathan Hale, a soldier who battles the virus across Europe, and eventually America. Resistance 3 kicks off where the second game ended (Resistance 2 spoiler warning): virus-stricken Hale is shot dead by his second-in-command Joseph Capelli.

Capelli is a more interesting protagonist than his predecessor, and killing off the main character allows developer Insomniac Games to create a more compelling story that deviates from the military action of the first two titles, but it also robs the story of its building tension, and the final product doesn’t have the oomph needed for an epic end to a purported trilogy.

Visually, Resistance 3 boasts some impressive animations and lots of detail. Little things, like trees bent backwards and street signs trembling during a windswept shootout on small-town Main Street, create an uncanny atmosphere that is not unlike Half Life 2 — a game that the cross-country trek of Resistance 3 evokes in more than just atmosphere.

Where Resistance 2 had a more modern shooter attitude (maximum of two guns, regenerative health), the third entry flips the switch in a positively old-school way. Health is distributed via health packs and you can carry a vast and devastating weapons arsenal for the duration of the campaign. Much like Insomniac’s other series Ratchet & Clank, the devil is in the arsenal.

Weapons are introduced at an alarming pace, each with primary and secondary fire, doubling the number of options. Even the earliest of weapons, like the Bullseye (shoots around corners) and the Auger (shoots through walls) are designed to create diverse combat experiences, and a limited ammo supply encourages you to try them all.

Three years of polish has done wonders for Resistance 3, but it’s hard to believe this is the end Insomniac had in mind. Despite its Sony exclusivity, consumer hype is not where it needs to be and Insomniac recently indicated that they are ready to move on. On paper, Resistance 3 is easy to recommend: it’s atmospheric, varied, and has a ton of content when you factor in above-average multiplayer, 3D and Move support. But in a sea of options, it’s hard not to be wary of the sinking ship. 

Sequel smackdown


GAMER Though video game sequels abound every season, fall 2011 plays host to an unusual profusion. Three is indisputably the magic number, though five and a pair of un-numbered twos make a strong case. Decide for yourself which game deserves your dollars by delving into the details below.

Shooter wars In terms of sheer seismic impact, it’s hard to match Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, which hits store shelves Nov. 8. Successor to Call of Duty: Black Ops — literally the best-selling video game in the history of world — Modern Warfare 3 is the 2011 iteration in a once-yearly parade of market-dominating games released by publishers Activision. Defined, for better or worse, by its frenetic gameplay and rabid fans, Call of Duty‘s vast popularity has resulted in uncanny levels of cultural saturation. It’s the video game of choice for people who only own one video game.

This appeal to the lowest common denominator has been tacitly criticized by the team behind Battlefield 3, another hyper-realistic military shooter from rival publishers Electronic Arts. Released exactly a fortnight earlier than its megalithic competitor (Oct. 24), Battlefield 3 will point to a less puberty-addled player base and the excitement of pilotable vehicles (tanks, helicopters, etc.) as its main selling points.

Though the chivalric code of video game public relations prevents these two giant franchises from really laying into each other, the gaming intelligentsia expects a consumerist cage match come late October. By the time the first-week sales numbers are compared, they’ll be baying for blood.

Open worlds Evaluated superficially, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim seems like a parody of itself. Every gaming stereotype is represented, starting with the portentous title. Screenshots reveal barbarians swathed in fur, casting wary glances at the dragons wheeling overhead.

But despite its conventional high fantasy trappings, Skyrim (Nov. 11) represents the sophisticated, forward-thinking apex of modern RPG design. Its new Creation Engine allows surprising flexibility — the A.I. modifies quests on the fly to test a player’s strengths and weaknesses, and to showcase the content that player might be missing. The aforementioned dragons are given license to roam, appearing randomly to ruin your day at the expense of choreographed, scripted sequences.

Speaking of ruined days, no game will kill you quite as dead as Dark Souls. The follow-up to the cult Japanese import Demon’s Souls will expand on its predecessor’s distinctively punishing gameplay, turning players loose in an ominous open world filled with booby traps and seemingly invincible monsters. It will take unwavering concentration and an iron will to succeed when the game releases Oct. 4.

Gamers who prefer a more modern open world are gearing up for Batman: Arkham City (Oct. 18.), sequel to 2009’s surprise smash Arkham Asylum. Escaping the confines of the comics world’s most recognizable prison, Arkham City will allow the Caped Crusader freedom to explore a wide swath of dystopian Gotham, putting paid to recognizable Batman adversaries like the Penguin, Bane, Two-Face, Catwoman, the Riddler, and the Joker.

Arkham Asylum won players over with its fluid, timing-based combat system, which will return improved, able to pit Batman against 27 heavily-muscled henchmen at once without breaking a technological sweat. Fisticuffs aside, Arkham City will also allow you to swoop down off buildings with only an inky-black cape to break your fall — who wouldn’t want to try that?

Trilogies completed Like Batman, Uncharted protagonist Nathan Drake is no stranger to precipitous heights. The wisecracking Indiana Jones homage returns Nov. 1 in Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, rounding out a trilogy of cinematic, visually stunning adventure titles.

Clambering up priceless ancient architecture while dispatching baddies with bullets and bon mots, Drake will take advantage of huge investments in motion capture and hardware optimization that will make Uncharted 3 one of the most realistic looking games ever. You can also expect it to set new benchmarks for video game writing and voice acting — traditional strengths of the series.

Gears of War 3 might not boast the same level of insouciant wit, but its graphical and gameplay bona fides are second to none. Due out Sept. 20, the new game from influential studio Epic Games (famed for their extensively licensed Unreal 3 engine) aims to wrap up the story of hydrant-shaped marine Marcus Fenix, who first growled his way onto consoles in 2006. The plot is conventional stuff — find your missing father; save the world — but Epic’s satisfying cover-based shooting mechanics and popular multiplayer modes will attract customers in droves.

The joy of joysticks


GAMER On a sunny Sunday afternoon in late June, the crush of body-painted, thonged masses surged down Market Street, a trail of gold confetti, empty bottles, and promotional debris in its wake. Downtown was full to bursting with what seemed like everyone in the Bay Area celebrating Pride. But only a few blocks away, a very different scene was unfolding.

South Town Arcade is easy to miss. Tucked into a corner at the mouth of the Stockton Tunnel, its vivid green awning is all that stands out from the other small doorways at the periphery of Union Square. If you’re serious about video game arcades, South Town is a godsend: the cabinets are all sit-down, Japanese “candy cabs” with ultra-precise parts. And there is no shortage of skilled competition.

This particular day, the arcade was a locus of activity. Much like the teeming blocks nearby, South Town was packed with people, although not nearly as uncomfortably. About two dozen men and a handful of women were talking amicably, sketching in notebooks, or glued to a screen in rapt attention.

Every now and then a group of girls in thigh-high fringed moccasins and tie-dye tank tops, or someone in heels without pants, wandered past. It was a little surreal, but no one at South Town seemed to notice. Everyone was too absorbed with Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition (which I was assured is the end-all, be-all of cabinet games these days) tournament that had been underway since noon. When contestants were evenly matched and a good game was in the works, everyone crowded around, enrapt as Hadoukens, as the sounds of two digital characters pummeling each other mixed with the emanations of around a dozen other cabinets and the eight-bit coming over the stereo. The tension was palpable, but you definitely couldn’t hear a pin drop.

There were cheers throughout the matches as someone landed a combo or dodged a sweep, and discussions in between as players and audience members (though basically everyone in the audience was also in the tournament) dissected what went right or wrong. There was a sense of community and camaraderie, something that Simon Truong, who runs the arcade along with Arturo Angulo and Cameron Berkenpas, points out is at the very heart of South Town.

“We wanted to build a community. Playing online is fine, but it’s totally different when you can actually see your opponent. You could, you know, talk shit if you want,” he said, laughing. “But mostly, the people who play in our arcade, if they lose, they talk. They figure out, how can I beat you with the same moves? They give each other tips — so basically everybody can up their level of play and represent San Francisco and Northern California. We need better players out here to represent the area.”

It seems to be working. With little or no advertising, South Town Arcade has seen the number of customers balloon in the six weeks since it opened. Some players sit down when the doors open and only leave when they close for the night, six to nine hours later. As I sat feeding my tip money into Metal Slug between tourney matches — the coin slot basically a vacuum at first, but less so as an hour of play began to hone my meager skills — I could only imagine what that amount of time playing Street Fighter IV could do for your game.

Watching Pavo Miskic, a lanky San Mateo resident, shoot his hand across the buttons before a match, it became clear to me that practice helps. But until South Town opened, the only places in the Bay Area for Miskic to get his hours in were limited to Golflands in Sunnyvale and Milpitas, and to the student centers at San Francisco and San Jose State universities. “San Francisco hasn’t really had that much of a scene for [Street Fighter IV],” Miskic says. “[South Town] is gonna help. Until then everyone was playing mostly in the San Jose area.”

After braving Pride parade traffic and finally making it to South Town, Miskic emerged six hours later as tournament champion, despite arriving late and taking a default loss. As he stepped outside to speak with me, a girl handed him a congratulatory portrait she had drawn of Balrog, his character of choice in the day’s matches. Inside, even though the tournament was over, no one seemed ready to leave. A small circle began gathering around the Street Fighter II cabinet.

“I’ll add that I’m really bad at this game,” Miskic said. “I consider myself terrible. That’s the thing that I like about it, though. Because there’s always a constant challenge between the old-school people and the new-school people coming up, once you’re around the community for long enough, people will get used to you. You’ll make friends in it. People will help each other out.” 


447 Stockton, SF.



Gamer road trip: E3 report!


If last week’s E3 press conferences in Los Angeles are any indication, game consoles are no longer just about games. The Electronic Entertainment Expo, the year’s biggest video game industry event, lavishly presented gamers with a sneak peek at the most-anticipated titles and hardware goodies looking to lighten wallets later this year. But as more blockbuster game franchises are released simultaneously on the Wii, PlayStation, and Xbox, it’s become imperative for their parent companies to differentiate themselves — and traditional gaming has begun to take a back seat to this broad experimentation.

Along those lines, Microsoft attempted to guide itself out of the corner it had painted itself into following the huge sales of Kinect, the camera device that quickly became the fastest-selling consumer electronic of all time. Microsoft has been lacking significant game releases for Kinect owners, making this year’s release slate integral to satisfying the new and unexpectedly large consumer base. An upcoming Xbox interface allowing users to control other entertainment like Netflix and live TV by voice seemed to be a hit, as was the announcement of Kinect controls for traditional games like Mass Effect 3 and Ghost Recon: Future Soldier. Microsoft undoubtedly launched Kinect to compete with the draw of Nintendo’s family-friendly Wii, and the device’s appeal to the more serious gamer is a delicate maneuver that these franchises could help accomplish.

In the PlayStation camp, Sony made a speedy apology for the PlayStation Network outage that has battered its reputation for the past two months and piggybacked its return with announcements for bundles, deals, and partnerships offering consumers considerable content for their respective price points. Presenting these products as “gifts” to consumers was an interesting approach to mitigating ire over the network snafu. All business, Sony’s presentation was the least titillating but perhaps most solid of the conferences.

No more beating around the bush: the biggest question going into E3 2011 was “What is Nintendo’s new console?” Leaked information that pointed to a new, more powerful console was confirmed when Nintendo announced the Wii U, a console with a touchscreen controller capable of streaming games to your hands — with or without a television screen. Actual game announcements were left to the newly-launched 3DS and surprises were scarce: tried-and-true franchises Mario Kart, Starfox, and The Legend of Zelda. While the possibilities for Wii U initially seem vast, the console’s true nature — and that of its “revolutionary” controller — remains nebulous. There’s the potential for an HD system to recapture Nintendo’s diminishing hardcore audience, but right now the Wii U looks like another stab at cornering families and casual players.

Third-party publishers care less about console revolutions and more about good ol’ fashioned video games. Electronic Arts stuck to its guns, offering concrete gameplay footage and loud (loud!) speakers that shook the Orpheum Theatre with Battlefield 3 explosions. The Battlefield franchise is looking to take Call of Duty head-on this year, and time will tell if players favor authenticity over that series’ scripted bombast. Either way, Battlefield 3 is one pretty game. EA also made a strong go at providing social networking experiences that augment traditional play, and offered them all for free — perhaps a dig at Activision’s recent announcement it will offer paid subscriptions to a similar Call of Duty social experience.

Inside the Los Angeles Convention Center, many newly-announced games were playable or shown in demo form. Highlights: Uncharted 3‘s two gameplay demos both boasted a top-tier knack for exciting set-pieces and storytelling, and it is the first game to truly suggest the power 3-D can add to the gameplay experience. BioShock Infinite was unmatched in attention to detail with its departure to a city-in-the-clouds backdrop. And Mass Effect 3 finally gave gamers a glimpse of Earth’s destruction in a short demo that demonstrated massive carnage and a surprisingly-affecting level finale. There were tears in a few eyes, folks.

E3 2011 was less about this or that game, and more about the process of evolving your traditional game console into an entertainment center where you surf the Web, watch movies, and even take the experience on the go. Nintendo was eager to suggest the new home applications its controller might afford, and Microsoft and Sony focused on expanding new possibilities for their current hardware through Kinect and Sony’s motion device, PlayStation Move. As more and more of the public identify as gamers, this is the playing field expanding to allow for different types of game experiences. Even so, games like Battlefield 3, Uncharted 3, and Mass Effect 3 suggest traditional gaming is more than up to the competition a broader user base might bring. 


Facing the right way


It has been roughly two decades since the arrival of 3-D graphics changed video games forever. Visual fidelity and realism have increased geometrically. But though the ability of designers to render convincing buildings and 800-ton interstellar battlecruisers is at a zenith, one aspect of their games falls consistently behind: the people.

Sure, glistening muscles have long been perfected, and the hair looks better every year. Stare into the lifeless, glassy eyes of a cartoonishly-breasted video game sexpot, however, and there’s no mistaking where you are: the uncanny valley, a metaphorical location coined to describe the sudden onset of revulsion we experience when exposed to simulated humans that approach but do not attain realism (think Tom Hanks in 2004’s The Polar Express).

L.A. Noire, at long last, has built a giant suspension bridge over the gap. Team Bondi, the game’s Australian developers, relied on a new technology called MotionScan, which entails filming actors in a special room using 32 synchronized high-definition cameras that shoot from every angle, but focus on the head. The data from the cameras is then combined to create a stunningly accurate 3-D model of an actor’s face, right down to the laugh lines and the slicked-back, 1940s hairstyle. The model is then grafted onto a body rendered using conventional motion capture, resulting in the most believable human beings ever seen in a video game.

This technological innovation was crucial to L.A. Noire‘s design. As a police procedural, the game makes interrogating suspects the player’s most important challenge. Team Bondi turned to MotionScan in order to create a game that allows sharp-eyed, controller-clutching gumshoes to scrutinize the faces of potential perps, hoping to spot the telltale hard swallows, sidelong glances, and spastic blinking of a liar.

The success of MotionScan reaches far beyond the interrogation sequences, however, or even the game itself. There are important scientific findings suggesting that the interpretation of facial expressions is crucial to the way we experience empathy and understand emotions. The introduction of believable human faces into video games will have a seismic effect on the medium, revolutionizing the creation and efficacy of story and character.

L.A. Noire, like any good detective, provides elegant proof. It may be a game about arresting criminals and identifying their lies, but it is also a game whose strength lies in its tragedy. Lives are ruined, children are orphaned, and a generation of soldiers struggles to cope with the horrors it experienced on the killing fields of World War II. Though they all refuse to talk about it, you can see it in their faces. 


Pulp gaming


For all the serious discussion sparked by the Grand Theft Auto series, Rockstar Games’ blockbuster is not the most serious bunch of games. Notoriously pop-culture obsessed, the company’s otherwise earnest game stories are peppered with movie references, goofy caricatures, and dick jokes. The separation between atmosphere and content became most difficult to overlook when the series joined the current console generation with Grand Theft Auto IV. The tale of an East-European immigrant’s moral struggle to survive in America, Grand Theft Auto IV toned down its signature over-the-top gameplay in a bid for game art, but Rockstar couldn’t resist undermining its characters’ newfound complexities with immature humor.

With LA Noire, Rockstar delivers a truly grown-up game. Constructed under Rockstar’s wing, LA Noire is the first game from development house Team Bondi, an Australian company started by Brendan McNamara of gritty English mob game The Getaway. In Team Bondi, Rockstar has found the perfect studio to indulge its aesthetic while reigning in its more puerile impulses. Taking cues from Raymond Chandler, James Cain, and LA Confidential, LA Noire stars conflicted war hero Cole Phelps, who joins the LAPD as a patrolman and quickly rises through the ranks by solving murders and other crimes in an authentic-looking 1940s Los Angeles. Tempting as it must have been to lampoon the genre, there is nary a Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) reference to be found.

Gameplay follows a simple pattern over the course of its 20ish hours: investigate a crime scene, follow leads and track down suspects, interrogate and arrest. Rockstar has long led gaming’s evolution into “cinematic experiences,” and LA Noire is a stunning example of blockbuster presentation. It has created a studied facsimile of L.A.’s exalted era, developed a new motion-capture technology that allows realistic representation of faces (see sidebar), and devoted hours of game time to cinema-quality cut-scenes.

Taking further steps to ensure that its cinematic style remains front and center, Team Bondi built in options to remove investigation aids, allowed players to completely skip action and driving sequences, and — for real noir aficionados — added the option to play the whole game in black and white. Selecting these choices points players toward the story and, in turn, reveals which elements were likely neglected during the development process. In this case, the shootouts and the driving.

It might sound like a deal-breaker, but it’s not. Flaws in the conventional gameplay of combat and vehicles are most pronounced in the early-going, where cases are shorter and less memorable; without the context of an engaging mystery, the clunky mechanics are emphasized. Driving is stiff and offers little excitement beyond passing the time between investigations. Shoot-outs and fistfights often are over in less than a minute — not nearly enough time to get the blood pumping. But once you’ve passed the first couple of desks and hit homicide — where the cases are based loosely on real-life murders of the period and play off one another in interesting ways — it becomes clear that gunplay and fisticuffs aren’t LA Noire‘s intended focus but were simply concessions to tradition and buyer expectation.

Setting expectations aside, imagining LA Noire as the triumphant return to point-and-click adventure games becomes easy. Investigations task you with wandering around and clicking on things until you click the right thing that lets you move on. Hey, that sounds like Monkey Island! Conversations with suspects are like tiptoeing through a minefield. Action sequences are filled with second chances; playing human lie detector is a merciless activity, and failing severely weakens your case. These sequences are the real stars of the game.

LA Noire is unlikely to disappoint, unless you were expecting something that the game never was. There’s a sandbox, but it isn’t really a sandbox game; nor is it a variable detective simulation. LA Noire has a stand-alone story and is a guided experience. Many of the cases are worthy of novel-length expansion, which is about the highest compliment a game like this can get. More than anything, Rockstar and Team Bondi have created an impressive and consummate example of gaming’s recent cinematic obsession. Today’s games continue to be about making decisions and working toward goals, and about strategy and winning. But more and more, games have begun to reflect our lives, cultures, and histories. If that doesn’t make them art, I don’t know what can.


LA Noire

(Team Bondi/Rockstar Games), Xbox 360, PS3


Portal 2


Valve Corporation

(Xbox360, PS3, Mac/PC)

GAMER Portal 2 reminds us that “first-person” is a point of view first and a game type second. With combat-themed shooters incestuously fumbling over one another to produce the most similar experience, it takes a certain amount of marbles to deliver a shooter about strategy and narrative instead of death. But for developer Valve, Portal’s sequel was never a risky gamble.

Portal (2007) was a surprise success, a last-minute addition to Valve’s Orange Box bundle that boasted heavy-hitters like Half Life 2 and Team Fortress 2. It was Portal, the little game that traces its history to a college senior project in Washington state, that brought the most buzz. A puzzle game where you play a test subject in a future lab, Portal tasks you with escaping elaborate exam rooms by using a gun that shoots portals — one orange, one blue — go in one and come out the other. But it wasn’t just Portal‘s mechanics that attracted players; the humor, pacing, and whimsical approach made it memorable.

In the same way that I can define what made Portal a sensation, Valve too was armed with the secret to its success. A joke is never as funny the second time, but Portal 2 knows its audience and does its best to satisfy old fans while telling an altogether new story.

Sometime after the conclusion of Portal, human test subject Chell is awakened in a deteriorating laboratory by a robot named Wheatly. As Chell, you must negotiate the cavernous lab and a vengeful computer AI named GLaDOS and familiarize yourself with new, futuristic technologies like force fields, light bridges, and gels that make you bounce. Early levels reiterate the first game’s slow and easy increase in difficulty, but soon you are gleefully translating your puzzle-solving skills into a means of escape.

Most of the game is set in test rooms, and it’s unsurprising to learn that Valve’s vision for Portal 2 wasn’t entirely clear: it continues its tradition of creating puzzles first and contextualizing them later. A great benefit in telling the tale comes from stellar voice-acting by Stephen Merchant and character actor J.K. Simmons. Fewer conventional puzzle rooms would be nice, but the brain teasers themselves are consistently satisfying.

Valve could easily have damaged its cult credibility by amplifying a perfectly concise experience, but Portal 2 works. With an equally satisfying (and wholly unique) cooperative mode that highlights teamwork — and a developer commentary mode that places commentary nodes within the game world — Portal 2 packs enough content to justify its standalone release. The joke might be less funny when you anticipate the punch line, but in this case it all comes down to delivery.

Fantastic fantasy


GAMER When they first announced a new game called Dragon Age: Origins, the prizewinning developers at BioWare were enjoying the success of Mass Effect, their wildly popular space opera, which had just introduced the public to the intergalactic potential of the studio’s imagination by creating an entire sci-fi universe from scratch. If Mass Effect was all about the future of role-playing games, Origins was all about their past. Almost defiantly traditional, even down to its title, the game embraced shopworn role-playing game tropes like dwarfs, elves, rogues, and locked chests with the tender respect of a closet-cleaning teenager encountering a childhood toy.

Set in a world of high fantasy that simultaneously revered and reinvented the genre’s many archetypes, the series also resurrected the company’s most popular play style: players control one hero and three companions, switching between them at will. The fighting can be paused at any time to better coordinate your party’s actions.

Despite having many virtues, Origins was marred by its imperfections. Its art directors woefully misinterpreted their retro mandate (the loading screen featured what was effectively a giant, rotating tribal tattoo). The scope of the game world, along with the geographic and interspecies conflicts that underpinned it, was unevenly developed. An overabundance of meaningless dialogue meant that the urgency of the plot was often lost amid the ramblings of boring NPCs. Most damningly, the combat felt strangely weightless — allies and adversaries seemed to stand there swinging mightily at each other until someone fell down.

Dragon Age II is as elaborately polished and stage-managed as its predecessor was rough-hewn and idiosyncratic. The game’s opening sequence drops you right onto the battlefield, showing off a redesigned game engine that makes combat at once visceral, gory, and kinetic. Even while playing as a mage, zapping enemies at range with your staff, you feel as if your avatar is breaking a sweat. The characters’ special abilities look legitimately powerful, sending foes flying or julienning them into a shower of immaculately rendered giblets.

The story follows a family of refugees called the Hawkes, whose flight from their homeland of Ferelden parallels the events of the first game. Arriving in the city of Kirkwall, they are quickly confronted with the game’s major theme: dystopia. Founded centuries ago by an unpleasant-sounding empire of slave-owning magicians, Kirkwall is marked by strife, xenophobia, and violence.

Much of the conflict centers around BioWare’s carefully crafted axes of enmity. The city’s human residents resent the influx of Fereldean refugees. The local elves are considered second-class citizens, and summarily abused. The series’ treatment of magic is particularly fascinating, pitting a self-righteous order of Templars (who think that the magic-adept are dangerous and should be controlled by force) against the mages themselves (who bridle at the Templar’s pious enthrallment).

Players will experience Kirkwall’s vicissitudes both through their own story and through their relationships with a fascinating cast of characters. Rich or poor, straight or gay, insouciant she-pirate or revenge-hungry ex-slave, the city’s inhabitants spring to vibrant life from the pen of BioWare’s inimitable writing team. The entire narrative is even structured around an ingenious frame story.

Try too hard to scratch beneath the game’s admittedly pretty surface, however, and you’ll be dealt a stinging rebuke. Though its appearance is universally stunning, Dragon Age II compensates for Origins’ excessive ambition by limiting itself to a narrow range of environments, enemy types, and mission structures. In 12 hours with the game, a player will clear out the same identical cave five or six times. Though the cut scene and conversation dialogue is excellent, game play is too often comprised of “travel here, travel there,” with the occasional ambush thrown in just to whet your appetite, your sword, and, thanks to the series’ distinctive blood-spatter graphical effect, pretty much everything else you have on.

If you can ignore some repetition (you want me to save another wayward, magic-addled youth?) and concentrate on the game’s positive qualities (there are many), Dragon Age II will provide some 40 hours of enjoyment. BioWare has taken an old role-playing dog and taught it a number of impressive number of new tricks. Unfortunately, “roll over” and “shake” are often overshadowed by “fetch,” and sometimes, “play dead.”

Dragon Age II

Bioware/Electronic Arts

(PC, Xbox 360, Playstation 3)

…And gaming for all


GAMER For a second there, the mighty PR machine seemed poised to devour the Game Developers Conference. The communal, feel-good GDC was built on sharing ideas, and in recent years the modest think tank had grown exponentially, as established game developers and publicity houses descended on downtown San Francisco with glossy preview events and headline-stealing announcements that previewed things to come at the summer E3 expo. However, this year the most talked-about events weren’t the off-site previews, but the conference-organized developer sessions, a phenomenon that marked a return to the sentiments that inspired the conference in the first place.

Big-name developers like Peter Molyneux, head of Lionhead games and lead developer of Fable; Cliff Bleszinski, design director of Epic games and spokesman for the Gears of War franchise; The Sims creator Will Wright; Doom honcho John Romero; and outspoken French impresario David Cage were just a few of the draws in the “classroom” area of Moscone Center. While these industry giants lectured about their experiences in the industry and gave postmortems on their classic games, the notion was that they were speaking directly to a generation of developers who might one day become successors — or even competitors.

Inspirational stories were the highlight of the conference, but a handful of games were happy to share the spotlight. And one game set out to draw maximum attention to its upcoming release by staging a controversial rally in Yerba Buena Gardens and releasing hundreds of red balloons over the downtown area. With its near-future shooter Homefront releasing in just a week, publisher THQ embarked on the biggest media push so far this year. In addition to the balloons and the rally (themed like an anti-North Korea rally, complete with posters of Kim Jong Il, a diagonal line through his face and the words “Game Over North Korea”), THQ shuffled press into a themed event with barbed wire, smoke machines, and stony-faced Korean soldiers. With publicity like that, it’s almost beside the point how the game plays, but let’s say it’s largely familiar.

Other attempts to stay relevant came in the form of Uncharted 3, whose developers showed the previously-seen “burning chateau level,” this time showcasing the game’s 3-D feature and an additional story-driven animatic that promises the game will be as blockbuster an experience as its predecessors. Battlefield 3 held an impressive “reveal event,” though the game had been partially revealed weeks earlier in Game Informer magazine. The game has wonderfully realistic animations, but the event itself was designed to draw attention to its Battlefield Play4free online shooter, which offers free FPS gameplay if you don’t mind a microtransaction or two.

With most of the game previews having been seen before, it was nice to see a few publishers making their debuts at the conference, such as The Darkness II, which proved that interactive storytelling has a place, even in a post-Heavy Rain marketplace. With musician Mike Patton returning for vocal duties, the sequel mixes gunplay with gruesome “quad-wielding” tentacle murder and an original, hand painted graphics style. Also making a gameplay debut was Batman: Arkham City, which looks to improve on Arkham Asylum‘s successes in nearly every category and with an attention to detail sure to please gamers and comic aficionados alike.

The conference buzzed with goodwill for the industry shift toward indie and mobile gaming, a revolution that meant a much larger contingent of attendees were likely to already identify as genuine developers. In the conference keynote, Nintendo president Satoru Iwata explicitly noted the shift, in the midst of a surprisingly defensive presentation that attempted to downplay the success of casual game developers and situate Nintendo’s place in the past and present of social gaming. If there’s one thing to take away from the keynote, and the 2011 conference as a whole, it’s the industry shift from conglomerate to individual. Nintendo’s threatened stance, and Microsoft’s noticeable absence, indicates a move toward dividing the industry just as gaming stands to enjoy unprecedented appeal in the form of casual gaming. In a world where anyone with a good idea can make a successful game, we might be looking at a return to the exciting, anything-goes Wild West atmosphere that marked gaming’s birth in the 1970s and ’80s. For an industry that could use a few paradigms shifted, it’s the best news yet.

Dreadfully fun


Dead Space 2

(Visceral Games/Electronic Arts), Xbox 360, PS3, PC

GAMER Survival horror might be the game genre most affected by the environment it’s played in. You’ll see the best results when a player agrees to meet the title halfway: turning out the lights and turning up the volume. Then it’s up to the developers to deliver on their half of the equation. Though generally lauded when it released in 2008, the original Dead Space launched with promise but ultimately was content to repeat itself for the majority of its playtime.

Dead Space 2 delivers. An homage to movies like 1979’s Alien and 1997’s Event Horizon (which it most closely resembles), the Dead Space series is set in a future where space travel allows humans to embark on “planet cracking” missions, wherein all celestial bodies of the galaxy are prime meat for resource-exhausting expeditions. On one such expedition the shuttle finds an alien artifact, contagion, blah blah blah … zombies. A pretty first-rate “previously on” feature in the main menu will catch anyone up to speed.

As engineer Isaac Clarke, it’s up to you to survive this “necromorph” outbreak, this time aboard a space station named the Sprawl. Armed with a ton of weaponry and a little kinetic energy module, you’ll have to escape another apocalypse of the undead, as always by dismembering their arms and legs (and tentacles).

Perhaps taking a cue from last year’s Mass Effect 2‘s streamlining successes, Dead Space 2 is far more linear and cinematic than its predecessor. But unlike that other similarly space-themed sequel, the divide between what is lost and what is gained in the transition is far less apparent. In embracing the hallmarks of any good survival horror series — jump scares, the feeling of dread around each corner, and limited supplies — this sequel is less about innovation than it is about refinement.

Contrary to the drab shuttle hallways of the first game, the Sprawl was once a bustling metropolis and the environments you encounter are much more varied. From a church to a mall to zero-gravity space walks, the freshness in each area keeps it exciting. While the scares range from terrifyingly atmospheric (a bloodstained and deserted daycare center is especially eerie) to inelegant “monster closets” where enemies pop out of vents as you walk past, the game is never boring.

After a promising debut and a bit of a misstep with the God of War-aping Dante’s Inferno (2010), with Dead Space 2 developer Visceral Games has crafted an adventure that begs to be played more than once. Aspects remain overly familiar but, like the best franchises, the Sprawl provides players with a compelling setting and sense of dread that they’ll happily return to.

Game over(load)


GAMER 2010, TAKE TWO For the first time in my life, in 2010, I feel the weight of games yet unplayed. Soon, 2011 will begin, and the ghosts of my gaming fecklessness will lurk, dormant, on my hard drive, pregnant with the possibility of fun.

Maybe it’s just that I finally got a life; I am now too busy to head out to GameStop on a Tuesday morning, come home with a new game, and only take a break — for lunch — around 7:30. Maybe games have gotten harder, or I’ve gotten worse — are all those mistimed jumps and bungled headshots adding up? Maybe there’s a simpler answer: games have gotten better, and there are many, many more of them.

With each passing month, it grows harder to prioritize, to write off vast swathes of the medium in the hopes of maintaining a schedule that actually allows for gainful employment. Indie games are becoming more ambitious, jabbing the mega-budgeted mainstream in the ribs with the elbow of unfettered creativity. Minecraft, coded by Swedish programmer Markus Persson in his spare time, has attained nearly 2 million registered users, despite debuting in mid-May alongside the putative game of the year, Rockstar’s cowboy epic Red Dead Redemption.

You also start with a backlog of old games: last year’s modern classics and overlooked gems (one day, I will finish Psychonauts), not to mention the really old games that are increasingly available for a Monopoly-money pittance on networks like Xbox LIVE, Playstation Network, Wii Network, and Valve’s potent PC-gaming service Steam — an insidious piece of software that is the gaming equivalent of having a drug dealer literally living in your house.

As if the congestion wasn’t already bad enough, you can never really finish a game anymore. Downloadable content (DLC) has extended the shelf-life of marquee titles almost indefinitely, allowing developers to graft on missions, characters, and crucial plot developments long after the game has been boxed and shipped, thanks to the aforementioned download services. In general, these add-ons don’t provide much in the way of bang-for-buck, though that may change with time. Nevertheless, in some cases, pertaining particularly to popular multiplayer first-person shooters, purchasing DLC is a prerequisite for participation.

Even if you manage to scale your towering “to play” list, the release schedule simply refuses to cooperate. Sid Meier’s Civilization is the game that made me the addict I am today, and when Civilization V was slated for a Sept. 21 release, I was ecstatic. But a round of Civilization takes about 10 hours, and Dead Rising 2 lurked, hungry for brains, on the horizon, ready to hit store shelves the following week. Next to it, juggling a ball with a confident smirk, was FIFA 11, sharing the same release date. I didn’t stand a chance. In the end, the strategy classic got shamefully short shrift.

Whatever guilt I felt at betraying my childhood obsession was assuaged by countless six-minute soccer showdowns and the corpses of exactly 2,129 zombies. Then, just at the time I was ready to consider diving back into Civ, (or at least to compose Mr. Meier an apologetic letter), Fallout: New Vegas ushered in Armageddon.

To date, I have invested nearly 50 hours of gleeful postnuclear role-playing. Despite this effort, there is much of the game I will probably never see. At a certain point, I had to move on, lest I get hopelessly behind. Thanks to the month of December — the annual industry doldrums — some catch up has been played, but not nearly enough. Two weeks from now, we’ll have a new year. Five weeks from now, we’ll have Dead Space 2, and the backlog will begin again.

Shoot ’em up


P>Call of Duty: Black Ops

(Treyarch / Activision), Xbox 360, PS3,Wii, PC

GAMER It probably wears on one’s self-esteem to be perennially known as the “B team,” but game developer Treyarch has carried the burden for five years in its work on the Call of Duty franchise. Following the runaway success of “A team,” and franchise progenitor Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare in 2007, Treyarch’s work on the series has gained a newfound level of awareness, and the company appears determined to take advantage of that increased visibility.

A lot of players were surprised when Treyarch’s 2008 follow-up to Modern Warfare, World at War, turned out to be just as good as Infinity Ward’s blockbuster, in spite of its return to the series’ tired World War II roots. This strategy of taking Ward’s successful formula and polishing it rigorously into a release simultaneously familiar and new is something Treyarch looks to repeat with this year’s Black Ops. But intensifying legal issues between Infinity Ward and parent company Activision mean all eyes are on the franchise and its future, setting a rocky scene for Treyarch’s big reveal.

Black Ops is set largely during the Cold War, globe-hopping from Cuba to Russia, Laos, and Vietnam. You play a top-secret operative as he is interrogated for information, each line of questioning launching the player into a flashback. The structure, which is a no-brainer for a series that leaps from location to location as much as Call of Duty does, allows Black Ops to deliver the best Duty story since Modern Warfare. To say that the story is vastly improved is not to say that the gameplay itself has taken any giant leaps — it’s got explosions but is consistently missing tension. With so many action set-pieces, you often find yourself running around frantically, not knowing what to do while shit explodes all around you and characters yell at you to hurry up. So not much has changed.

Luckily, the single player experience is no longer the feather in the franchise’s hat; players come for the series’ RPG-meets-shooter multiplayer, which has dominated the online charts since its debut. Treyarch hasn’t taken too many liberties here, and Black Ops‘ multiplayer plays a whole lot like its ancestors, but with fewer of the unnecessary perks and killstreaks that bloated last year’s Modern Warfare 2.

Solo-only players might find Black Ops the equivalent of a sugar fix, but the multiplayer continues to deliver the addictive experience that made the franchise so successful, and cuts a lot of fat in the process. It’s not Treyarch’s masterpiece, but it has shown that it can recognize the faults of the franchise and delivered a game that goes down far easier than the last Infinity Ward project.

Take that, “A team!”

No brains required


Dead Rising 2

Blue Castle (Capcom)

Xbox 360/PS3/PC

GAMER If Dead Rising was a videogame homage to Dawn of the Dead (1978), then Dead Rising 2 has taken a big leap forward in the George Romero zombie timeline, landing somewhere near the patchy neighborhood of 2005’s Land of the Dead.

Set a few years after the events of the original, the sequel depicts a society well past the shock and dismay of the zombie outbreak: it’s begun to make money off it. At the game’s outset, motocross driver Chuck Greene is a contestant on a competition TV show called Terror is Reality, where the goal is to slice up zombies on a motorcycle outfitted with chainsaws. This is not a game that takes itself terribly seriously. The original Dead Rising had plenty of goofy material, from Mega Man costumes to psychopathic clowns, but it was also grounded so strongly in its homage to the Romero film that the goofiness felt like icing on a cake. Here, goofiness takes center stage. This isn’t quite a criticism, mind you, and the silly fun you have in Dead Rising 2 beats the pants off watching 2007’s Diary of the Dead any day.

After his appearance on Terror is Reality, and an apparent terrorist attack that caused zombies to break into the show’s studios, Chuck finds himself quarantined on a patch of the Vegas strip with three days to solve mysteries and make sure that his daughter receives her daily shot that prevents her from turning into a member of the undead. As in the original, you’re largely free to go where you like for the three days, but dilly-dallying comes at the expense of saving other survivors. That clock is always ticking down, and it quickly becomes clear that it’s impossible to do everything the game offers in the time given, forcing you to make choices about whom to save and which mysteries to investigate.

This isn’t some complex moral exercise: the real reason to play Dead Rising 2 is to kill lots of zombies. We’re talking thousands upon thousands, filling every screen. Luckily, Las Vegas is packed with the tools of zombie disposal, from lawnmowers to novelty foam fingers, and the game introduces a new system of combining items to make them doubly efficient and doubly hilarious. Grab that rake and attach a car battery and you have an electric rake — perfect for zapping zombies at a safe distance.

Other than the new location and the combo items, developer Capcom didn’t mess much with the formula; in fact, a number of the game’s sections are indistinguishable from the first title. The option to play cooperatively with a friend is welcome, but the multiplayer portion is more afterthought than anything. It’s not reinventing the wheel, but there aren’t a lot of games in the “zombie sandbox” genre and the overwhelming wealth of stuff to do in Dead Rising 2 suggests you’ll be slicing up zombies and making yourself laugh for a long time to come.