Peter Galvin

Vinegar and salt


FILM The B-movie is alive and well in modern cinema, running the gamut from SyFy dreck like Sharknado (2013) to the populist (and Oscar-winning) entertainment of Quentin Tarantino. But there was a time when an even “lesser” kind of film thrived, something less commercial than the genre film or the indie. These were films experienced communally, in dark, dirty movie theaters, with like-minded cinema adventurers, as well as in the company of perverts, weirdos, and people looking for a cheap place to sleep. Yep, we’re talking about the grindhouse: grade-Z movies and X-rated films.

Vinegar Syndrome knows all about the grindhouse. As one of a small crop of emerging, genre-focused home video releasing companies, VS was born in 2012 when film collectors Joe Rubin and Ryan Emerson raised $10,000 via Kickstarter to restore and release a set of lost H.G. Lewis films. Rubin and Lewis used their profits to keep going, their mission to preserve a number of niche exploitation films that have been forgotten over time, including bizarro action and horror flicks and a good deal of what is basically ’70s and early ’80s porn.

Possessing a preservation spirit similar to that of the late Mike Vraney’s fanatical Something Weird Video, VS shares its Connecticut headquarters with film restoration lab OCN Digital Labs (also run by Rubin and Lewis) and has built its small cult following through delivering consistently high-quality releases of long-forgotten gems, all mastered in-house from original camera negatives. The year ahead bristles with promising releases from San Francisco luminary Alex deRenzy and gay icon Wakefield Poole, as well as a streaming service called Skinaflix, which promises rare erotica in full HD. VS also caters to horror fans, teasing a slew of titles that includes a 4k restoration of Troma’s groovy Graduation Day (1981), as part of a multi-title deal with the company.

Some of these films are tremendously amateur and that’s half the fun. For today’s burgeoning cinephile audience, it’s exciting to see films that give the finger to established tenets of scriptwriting and mise en scène. In many ways, the crazy-passionate filmmakers of the grindhouse circuit were closer to true auteurs than the filmmakers we see today, and they were thriving in a time when low budgets led to some truly inventive shortcuts. Below, some highlights (and/or lowlights, and I mean that in the best way possible).



Alice, a young New York City hippie, receives an obscene phone call and is so taken by the experience that she sets out to find the caller. Along the way she bumps into a number of colorful characters who would impede her quest, and the film culminates in a surreal series of scenes involving a man in a pig mask and hypersexual animation. Shot in black and white, and featuring a magnetic performance from Laugh-In performer Sarah Kennedy, writer-director Nelson Lyon’s film is a quirky and calculated trip into the New York underground.



In 1954 Kansas, Miss Wyckoff (Anne Heywood) is a teacher who discovers that her solitary lifestyle has resulted in early-onset menopause. Her psychiatrist (the ever-delightful Donald Pleasence) suggests she find a lover, and her attempts to embrace the unfamiliar landscape of her femininity result in disappointment, sexual assault, and a thoroughly unhealthy relationship with the school janitor. Based on the novel by William Inge (with a screenplay by Polly Platt, who also wrote that year’s Pretty Baby), it offers a fearless look at sexuality and racism in an era that rarely engaged such hotbed issues.



Horror anthologies were big in the 1980s, but Night Train to Terror came about in an altogether unfamiliar fashion. Director Jay Schlossberg-Cohen took three feature-length films, chopped them down to about 20 minutes each, inserted claymation gore scenes and crude-looking monsters, and filmed a wrap-around story about God and the devil on a train with a New Wave dance band. All these poorly advised decisions came together to create a truly disorienting, hilarious throwback experience that would play well at your favorite bad movie night.



There’s no getting around it: a good portion of what VS releases comes from the era known colloquially as “porno chic.” These are full-on hardcore adult pictures, but the stigma of the X rating doesn’t indicate a lack of creativity. Often, the sex scenes were a commercial concession to gain financing. The fact that they attracted raincoaters and other negative attention was merely the price of doing business.

This double feature from notable adult filmmaker Kemal Horulu is a formidable starting point for someone unfamiliar with the genre. Virgin and the Lover is a lighthearted tale of a young man having difficulty with his strange feelings of love for a mannequin, and Lustful Feelings is the downbeat ordeal of a woman who enlists in the sex trade to pay off her drug dealing boyfriend’s debt to the mob. If you’re too young to have seen an adult film with a plot before, prepare to have your assumptions shattered.



For a deeper look at the adult film industry of the 1970s, A Labor of Love is a fly-on-the-wall documentary about Iranian filmmaker Henri Charr, who ran out of money while making his independent film The Last Affair. Desperate for funding, Charr agreed to shoot a number of adult scenes to increase the likelihood of a profit for his investors, and what follows is an account of a cast and crew with no background in the adult scene attempting to make a professional and meaningful adult film. The actors and crew are brutally honest in their unfamiliarity with the production’s new direction, and a number of the challenges that arise on set are a far cry from Hollywood’s usual horror stories. *


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. *


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? *


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.

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. 

A non-game Gamer review: Astro A50 deadphones


Guardian video game reviewer Peter Galvin tests out technology designed to enhance the gaming experience. Product was provided for review purposes.

Someone once labeled current gaming headset star Astro Gaming the “Beats of gaming,” referring to the enormously successful Beats by Dre product line of consumer headsets. It’s a comparison Astro itself seems eager to encourage and, while aligning your company with such a ubiquitous brand name makes sense financially, more discerning audiophiles are quick to point out that most of the cash you shell out for a pair of Beats is for name-brand style rather than for sound.

However, Astro Gaming seems to be looking to the Beats phenomenon more as a guide to positioning itself at the top of the industry for premium gaming headphones. The market isn’t exactly teeming with game-specific headsets, so when I say the new Astro A50 (Astro Gaming, $299) headphones are some of the best money can buy in this category it doesn’t automatically mean they’re mind-blowing. It does suggest that Astro’s first big release in three years is conclusively about looking towards the future rather than playing catch-up.

A local San Francisco company, Astro has made a name for itself by selling headsets solely on its own website, and, with the release of the A50, it hopes to expand the web store into a downtown retail space. Gaming is in the process of legitimizing itself for mature players and Astro wants a place in that richer realm, not just for posterity’s sake but because we’re talking about a market that’s growing every day. As the average age of game players rises (currently somewhere between 30 and 35 years old), the industry has seen a rise in gamers and tech enthusiasts with considerably deeper pockets.

Linchpin to Astro’s success is the A50.The wireless A50 headset offers a 5.8 GHz upgrade to the A40s, the best currently on the consumer market. If you like having friends over to play, one base station supports up to 4 voice streams, and all with zero compression. Physically, the sets are heavier, so more padding makes them somewhat bulky. But the size helps comfort and noise reduction, on both sides of the velvety cups, and quality metal parts mean they don’t look or feel like cheap toys.

Set-up is simple. Plug the base station into your console (or audio tuner, and pass-through the TV, which allows you to watch movies and TV with the headset) and you’re synched and set. The set is fully rechargeable, a nice feature, though it charges via USB, so if it’s plugged into your TV or console, it won’t charge while those are off. The idea is that these headphones work right out of the box, offer few problems, and, outside of initial tinkering to get them just how you want them, you might not need to touch anything ever again.

As for sound, the set features a high number of volume stops, Dolby Digital 7.1 “surround” sound and 3 different, customizable sound modes. The faux-surround sound does a pretty good job of mimicking real surround speakers and the attached microphone turns on and off automatically when you bring it into position. There’s a lot of power in the set, a good sense of space, and I didn’t notice any distortion. The most important aspect is the quality of the wireless, something that can be tough to nail in a room increasingly packed with wireless devices. I have a lot of wireless junk, all running at the same time in the same room, and didn’t hear a single pop or click from my A50s, a problem that plagued my old Turtle Beach set.

One wireless snafu deserves mentioning: Microsoft has an exclusive deal with Tritton headsets for wireless chat, and all non-Tritton headsets require you to plug the headset into your controller. This lack of direct Xbox support may disappoint some users, but it’s not Astro’s fault and comes with the territory.
Like past products, the A50 also sports detachable and customizable “tags.” The area of plastic that covers each ear is removable and replaceable with new tags that sport game logos, characters or original art. The customizable aspect of the headphones implies Astro intends the A50s to A) last, and B) be shown off.

You might say if it ain’t broke why fix it, but with three years since the Astro A40 debut, it was not unreasonable to expect something of a revolution. Perhaps the A50 isn’t for the truly discerning audiophile, but it is a refinement of everything Astro has become synonymous with: style, comfort, flexibility, and customization. As long as they continue to include quality in that list, Astro’s likely to come out on top.

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.

Gamer: Sony PlayStation Vita top picks (and games to skip)


Read Peter Galvin’s review of the Sony PlayStation Vita in this week’s Gamer column.

Most of the Vita’s launch games exist to show off what the system can do. Mini games, short races, puzzlers; a lot of this initially sounds like phone gaming. But, even with all of Sony’s efforts to ape the success of Apple’s app store, don’t discount the Vita’s sticks and buttons, a fundamental that phone gaming has yet to overcome. Real games have buttons, people.

Little Deviants
This mini-game collection came as a pack-in with early orders of the Vita and seems specifically designed to show off the system’s novelties. Think WiiSports, but instead of a remote, you have touch screen games and “augmented reality” that uses the rear camera to allow you to shoot aliens in your house. Each game is fairly one-note and, for all but children, the novelty will grow old fast.

Uncharted: Golden Abyss
For everyone who thinks their phones can play games, play Golden Abyss. While this third-person shooter may stack less favorably against its console brethren, as a handheld title it’s simply stunning. An Uncharted adventure with very few concessions, Golden Abyss is closest to a home experience you’re likely to get on a handheld.

Super Stardust Delta
A score-attack twin-stick shooter where you wipe out asteroids as a tiny spaceship, Stardust has been a fixture on the PlayStation, and this handheld version might be the prettiest and most addicting entry yet.

Escape Plan
Early shoo-in for most unique downloadable title in the launch, Escape Plan has a gloomy black-and-white aesthetic that recalls Limbo and early Tim Burton. Basically a point-and-click adventure game, Escape Plan probably tries to do too much, but its distinct style is worth a look.

WipEout 2048
The best racing game at launch, WipEout offers a lot of content, a great sense of speed and a steady increase in difficulty — and it means you can skip the depressingly shallow ModNation Racers: Road Trip and Asphalt Injection.

Hot Shots Golf: World Invitational
This entry in the Hot Shots Golf series is largely uninterested in the Vita’s touch-screen, but golf mechanics are tight and short rounds create an addicting “just one more hole” experience that would seem to go against the sport’s generally calming nature.

Lumines Electric Symphony
Lumines may be the most addictive puzzle game. The Tetris-esque gameplay seems simple, but Lumines is more of an audio-visual experience that challenges you to beat your own — and the world’s — high scores to some pretty rave-y electronic music. Wear headphones!

Rayman Origins
Rayman Origins may be a port, but it’s a port of a full length console game and remains one of the best platformers of this generation. Even without co-op play, the colorful and fast-paced stages are masterfully designed and it’s nice to have them on the go.

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.