Peter Galvin

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. 

The Duke abides: Gamer takes on “Duke Nukem Forever”


Duke Nukem Forever
Xbox 360, PS3, PC
(3D Realms / Triptych Games / Gearbox Software / 2K Games)

Duke Nukem Forever is an exploration of myth and ego, a commentary on celebrity-obsessed culture…

Oh, who are we kidding? Duke Nukem is a steroid-popping meathead who loves beer, blow jobs and blasting aliens. DNF is a direct sequel to Duke Nukem 3D, a PC game that debuted in 1996 – in those dying days of action movie excess, nu-metal and witty one-liners – and the sequel does not stray far from its roots.

That it took 15 years to release a sequel makes DNF the oldest video game joke in the industry. Following numerous delays, funding issues and company closures, its imminent release is a moment being watched by many gamers with cautious anticipation: Will the game enjoy the same success it might have had in the 90s? Or has the world changed too much, lending this joke a pitiful punchline?
Somehow, both of these things have happened. DNF successfully channels the crass humor of the original game, which was full of strip clubs and naughty curses, and it benefits from employing the same voice actor, Jon St. John. But the world has changed: it is still capable of containing a character as radical as Duke but the celebrated Duke gameplay is a tad past its sell-by date.

Following the events of Duke Nukem 3D, Duke is enjoying the good life in Las Vegas, where seemingly everything is Duke-branded, from burger joints (Duke Burger) to strip cubs (Duke Nukem’s Titty City.) As Duke is on his way to a late night talk show appearance, aliens attack once again and steal all of Earth’s women. It’s hard to tell whether, at some point in the game’s development, there was ever more to the story. Here it acts as a thin framework to drive the action across Vegas towards the Hoover Dam.

I was only half-joking by describing DNF as an exploration of myth and ego. Certainly, the game makes no great statements on matters of fame and narcissism, but the developers have fumbled the character’s celebrity into a game mechanic where your health is called “Ego” and performing tasks like signing autographs and admiring yourself in the mirror increase your Ego bar permanently. Yes, the first thing you do in the game is press the right trigger to “Piss” in a urinal.

While this jibes with the humor of the original game, it is also suspiciously pandering. There’s a strong disconnect between newly conceived gameplay and whatever was conceptualized over the course of 15 years. Fifteen years is a long time and Duke Nukem 3D wins no awards for its mechanics in today’s modern playground, but DNF more or less sticks to its guns. If you missed circle-strafing enemies, you’re going to have a blast with this.

Likewise, the platforming sections that interrupted the original game’s carnage can’t hold a candle to the type of sure-fingered control we enjoy today. Its inclusion here brought a smile of recognition and a frown of frustration when I couldn’t make jumps that I should have. Let’s not even bring up the fact that it takes over a minute to load a level after you die. How is that possible in 2011?

It’s hard to say what it would have taken to please everyone waiting for Duke Nukem Forever. In adhering to outdated mechanics you frustrate new players, and by updating everything you wind up with a relic of the ’90s in a world where Duke doesn’t belong. DNF straddles the line. It’s funny in a 12-year-old potty humor kind of way, and the Duke character survives his awakening into the 21st century. But 15 years of anticipation overshadows anything less than a home run and DNF is not a home run. If you are a card-carrying member of the cult of Duke, DNF often brings back the ridiculous feeling of playing that game, warts and all. I found myself excusing its failures whenever possible.

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. 


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.

Gamer: does the dismal “Homefront” have a silver lining?


Can Homefront’s failures inspire change in the game industry?

I’m almost reluctant to add to the media blitz that first-person shooter Homefront (now available) was and is getting. Even with low scores and plummeting stocks, the game managed to sell 300,000 copies on its first day, so to a degree it would seem the publicity has paid off. But, after being personally subjected to an overwhelming number of posters and billboards, hundreds of balloons, an anti-Korean rally, and a long schoolbus ride to a barbed-wire-laden warehouse, I was disappointed to find that behind this velvet curtain was a pretty flimsy product. Maybe Homefront will be the game that gets the ball rolling on an important issue that has been brewing for a while: game pricing.

Kaos Studios was smart to attach itself to a wholly original idea, implausible or not, and putting the power of Academy Award-nominated screenwriter John Milius (1979’s Apocalypse Now) behind it doesn’t hurt. But the premise is wasted on such an impossibly underdeveloped campaign; it’s almost like Milius wrote “North Korea invades U.S.” on a napkin and called it a day.

Kaos’ shooter isn’t the first game to re-neg on its promises (see the ever-fresh wound of the Molyneux/Fable debacle for proof of that) but this burn was unique in that it was a title that appealed to a game audience that is largely overlooked. Alternate history, as a genre, has ardent supporters but aside from Fallout and Singularity its ranks haven’t been stocked particularly well. In that light, Homefront’s undelivered promise only intensifies the sting that results from its brevity.

Sixty bucks and all I get is a three-hour campaign?
You don’t hype a three hour tour.

Homefront’s single-player is surely not worthy of its price tag, so what else is in the box? The game includes a multiplayer mode and it’s light years more focused than the campaign, but multiplayer-only experiences like Battlefield 1943 run around $15. If the studio had released a multiplayer-only title, they would have been welcomed to the table differently. Instead, we’re left wondering how much developer weight was actually put behind the single-player campaign, and why the quality seems so inconsistent with the seemingly-great weight the publicity team put into hyping the mode over the past year.

Now that a sharp divide has evolved in the value of game content, making every game the same price not only hurts the consumer, it also directs the development process towards creating a viable product rather than a singular experience. As more and more players purchase titles purely for their multiplayer components, I might go so far as to suggest completely separating single player and multiplayer experiences through independent purchases.

No matter how it is sold, it seems clear that the value of each mode is rarely analogous to the amount of time developers invest in them. Call of Duty campaigns are five to six hours long, and no one bats an eye because they know the multiplayer will afford them hundreds of hours in entertainment. At the same time, enormous resources are spent on creating multiplayer for games like Bioshock while all anyone wants is to be told a cohesive story. Instead of feeling obligated to deliver both, why don’t developers make a greater effort to give players what they came for?

Perhaps there’s something to be learned from the casual games market. While many console gurus malign the low pricing of iOS games, at least games are variably priced based on their worth. What’s the answer? Publishers would be smart to figure it out before all games go digital, because I expect that flat rate of $60 is going to feel a whole lot heavier without a physical product in hand.

…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.

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!”

War — what is it good for? Video games!


Medal Of Honor

Danger Close, Electronic Arts

(Xbox360, PS3, PC)

GAMER Though it arrives a few years behind its contemporaries in updating the mechanics of the original World War II series, Medal of Honor follows Call of Duty and Battlefield into the modern age of warfare. The most memorable aspect of this reboot’s PR muttering was that it was going to be authentic. Game developers working closely with members of the military is nothing new, but developer Danger Close wanted its take to be relevant to today’s war by setting the fight in Afghanistan and making the villains the Taliban. The game’s professed intent is to honor the soldiers who die every day in the conflict but, while the locations lend the game a sort of theoretical accuracy, Medal of Honor mostly just feels like War Games 101.

You won’t have any problems jumping into the action. From the first moments, Medal of Honor‘s game play, pacing, and button layout recall Modern Warfare‘s winning formula. The story is a tad more down to earth, but not without thrills and chills, and a good chunk of the game is devoted to sniper missions that do more than pay homage to the iconic Modern Warfare level “Ghillies in the Mist.” There are a few new twists (I will say, it’s been a while since a war game has made suppressive fire a mandatory game play element) but for the most part Medal of Honor emulates Modern Warfare‘s “shooting gallery” experience, which makes it fine, if not terribly inspired.

First-person shooters now ship with split personalities: single-player and multiplayer. The experiences are so divided (literally, with completely separate title screens) at this point that they might as well be two different games. Many developers have begun to send multiplayer development out-of-house, with the intention of focusing all their strength on the single-player experience. It’s probably a good idea — if one team is spread too thin, both experiences suffer.

Medal of Honor seems to have taken the stance “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” enlisting Battlefield developers DICE in creating its multiplayer experience. As such, Medal of Honor‘s multiplayer emulates the tight feel and style of Battlefield 2 fairly well, but lacks the balance of the different classes. Limiting the choice to assault, spec-ops, or sniper doesn’t encourage teamwork in the same way that including a medic or engineer does.

I suppose Danger Close deserves some kudos for even attempting to engage with a real, contemporary war, but it’s also the sort of thing that needs to be done right. If you’re going to talk the big talk, you better walk the long walk, and Medal of Honor doesn’t really offer much that you can’t find in either of its competitors’ more refined products. Nonetheless, it remains an engaging, well-made war game that delights adequately enough and could indicate a better game to come. 

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.

Good enough, fella?


Here’s a game that piles on hot-rods, collectible Playboy centerfolds, piano joints with framed Bogie posters, and one instance of a full-fledged Sinatra sing-along. Mafia II (2K Czech/2K Games, Xbox 360/PS3/PC)is the sequel to 2004’s Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven, a well-received PC game that put players in the shoes of a cab driver as he rose through the ranks of the 1930s mafia. Its sequel mines similar Coppola and Scorsese territory, set this time in the 1940s and ’50s, as you play a young war vet looking to settle his late father’s debts.


The American war-era backdrop is a fantastic sandbox to play in: there are old-school billboards, decorative storefronts, and lavish little details like Christmastime snow slowly blowing away from your car as you drive down the street. But in the case of Mafia II, the freedom of the open world becomes largely an irrelevant means to an end: a set of roads that direct you to your next mission. There are really no side-quests to perform apart from stealing a few cars or hunting for Playboys, and even the old pastime of shooting it up with the cops is pretty unsatisfying. I spent most of my travel time with the cops trailing helplessly behind me. You have to wonder why the developers spent so much time creating an open world city that exists only to shuffle you from shootout to exposition.

Jack Scalici, director of production for developer 2K Games, told me that, for him, the story is the game’s most important aspect and he hopes that Mafia II‘s cinematic style will be best appreciated by film critics rather than traditional game journalists. The game does lend itself more to plot deconstruction than gameplay analysis, but unfortunately Mafia II doesn’t quite nail the story either.

The game’s scope is vast — it spans years as you leave the dreary 1940s for the sunny ’50s — but Mafia II never manages a truly satisfying character arc, content instead to putter along in standalone vignettes. The gangster lifestyle ain’t always shits and giggles and there are some fantastic little moments — jail yard fights, lugging a day-old dead body around in the trunk — but tension quickly fizzles, leaving the story a wildly inconsistent experience of highs and lows.

Actually, “wildly inconsistent” describes Mafia II to a T. Bum checkpoints, spiking difficulty, funky camera tics: it seems for every pro there’s a con. But if the aesthetic appeals to you, there’s enough play here to make the game worth a spin. I had a good time; the most promising games always get the most flak.

Chaos channel


MUSIC The first song on Crystal Castles’ new LP, “Fainting Spells,” is a test, a real Indiana Jones-style booby-trap, to ward off unwitting tourists. It opens with a high-pitched squeal, then a driving drum beat — if it came on in the car while your iPod was on shuffle, you’d probably leap out of your seat. The screeching and squealing continues for about two minutes, then plateaus for a breath, and when they return it’s like hearing them for the first time. In the context of a new back-beat, they make you nod your head a bit and notice they’ve been harnessed into a pattern.

Crystal Castles’ sounds are harsh, but they are a band keenly aware of what a difference a little context can make. I’m reminded of that old Jim Thompson quote: “A weed is a plant out of place. I find a hollyhock in my cornfield, it’s a weed. I find it in my yard, and it’s a flower.” Crystal Castles has made a career out of understanding the difference.

Crystal Castles their began their musical career as a lo-fi electronic outfit in Toronto made up of producer Ethan Kath and vocalist Alice Glass. Although they claim the name came from She-Ra’s sky fortress and not the 1983 Atari game, their sound has a catchy MIDI game soundtrack feel to it that makes you wonder if it wasn’t the other way around. When the band first started out, it was Glass’ ferocious voice and raucous stage show that claimed most of the attention. But on the duo’s second self-titled album released earlier this year, Glass’ fierce vocals and Kath’s exploratory coarseness are focused, so they stay harsh while coloring within the lines.

Make no mistake, although the duo’s sound has cleaned up, it’s still not the kind of music you want to spin at your grandparents’ anniversary get-together. The punk-rock attitude suits Kath and Glass just fine, and they return the favor tenfold, first with those aforementioned booby-traps. The albums’ initial single “Doe Deer” headlines a blazing guitar riff under Glass’ chaotic screaming, and has a structure not unlike “Fainting Spells,” where Kath builds on chaos then channels it. But songs like these recall the patchy design of the band’s 2008 debut. Much more surprising are the quieter moments, which see the band embracing the fact that no matter how punk its aesthetic, people are still dancing to this stuff.

Kath continues to experiment with vocal sounds, using repeated syllables that move to the beat and a wide array of samples. I thought “Year of Silence” had Glass singing either in German or backward; a little Googling revealed it not to be Glass at all, but a Sigur Rós sample. Crystal Castles’ 14 little experiments are tighter and slicker than on previous releases, a shift that was hinted at with last year’s “Baptism” single. The song returns here, retooled with additional beats and a quickened tempo that suggests Kath and Glass have more than a passing interest in real rave-style trance.

I don’t know, maybe aloof indie kids are afraid of the words “trance” and “rave-music,” envisioning a sea of candy bracelets and pacifiers. But in taking a punk music approach to electronic music, Crystal Castles is making it easier to convert the suspicious. Kath’s consistently imaginative use of crude noises and familiar-but-disassociated vocals makes Crystal Castles at once a profoundly jarring and catchy album. In an electronic landscape largely still populated by house and ambient, it’s nice to have a band that can churn out such beautiful flowers where other artists see pesky weeds.


With Rusko, Sinden, and Proxy

Aug. 6, 7 p.m., $35

The Fox Theatre

1807 Telegraph, Oakl.

(800) 745-3000

Ariel, part 2: Think Pink!


MUSIC Ladies and gentlemen, meet the real Ariel Pink.

The Los Angeles musician’s first few 2004-06 releases on Animal Collective’s Paw Tracks label were the stuff of indie water cooler infamy, but they also collected recordings (2002’s House Arrest and Lover Boy; 2003’s Worn Copy) that Pink had made years before. It wasn’t until early 2009 that the world had the chance to hear any new output from the notoriously mysterious musician.

Until then, the talk about Pink largely focused on how serious he was — or wasn’t. Built from lengthy experimentation and goofy gimmicks, such as drum noises made with his armpits, his lo-fi music wasn’t just a byproduct of bedroom recording, it was a reimagining of 1970s and ’80s radio jingles and easy listening sounds. Jingles are disposable by definition, yet anyone familiar with some from the ’70s has to admit they are designed to remain in your brain. They were touchstones for the young Pink, and through a love for them, he picked up a knack for great hooks and memorable choruses.

Catchy though they may be, the repetitive nature of Pink’s early songs nonetheless made some listeners wonder whether he was just monkeying about and marketing lo-fi weirdness to those with nostalgic impulses. A sweeping ballad that might mark a poignant moment in a Sunday night made-for-TV tearjerker, “For Kate I Wait” is one of the best songs from his 2004 debut The Doldrums (Paw Tracks). But the damn thing does not need to be over four minutes long, considering it consists of a single idea: sentences that rhyme with the title.

On Pink’s new album Before Today (4AD), he takes the leap to a larger label, drops a lot of the lo-fi scuzz and delivers smoothly succinct pop songs. The lo-fi isn’t gone completely, but it is refined. And while his vocals remain muddy and hidden behind other sounds, half the fun is guessing just what he’s going on about. You can’t take the weird out of a man, and Pink has spent too many years purposely being strange for Before Today to suddenly strip him of all idiosyncrasy. Keen-eared listeners will pick out stream-of-consciousness mutterings like “Make me maternal, fertile woman/Make me menstrual, menopause man/Rape me, castrate me, make me gay/Lady, I’m a lady from today” on “Menopause Man,” and while the tongue-in-cheek imagery conveys to listeners that Pink is still in on his own joke, the album really shines when he manages to play it straight.

The cover art for Before Today’s chief single “Round and Round” may sport a lovingly drawn image of a man french-kissing a dog, but the track itself is so masterfully clean and structured that it transcends homage, becoming one of the year’s best songs. The gifted flair for a sound and a hook that made Pink’s early works so catchy is still there, but he switches up tempo and groove so many times that the composition never outstays its welcome despite its five-minute length. Likewise, “Can’t Hear My Eyes” is easy-listening heaven, with echoed vocals and sharp piano flourishes that recall the Alan Parsons Project’s more radio-friendly fare, like “I Wouldn’t Wanna Be Like You.” These particular songs stand out for their devotion to time and place, but all of Before Today is a sprawling run through the dollar bin at Amoeba Music, and Pink makes it his own by picking apart the best bits and reimagining 2010 as it might have been if Fleetwood Mac and Cherry Coke still ran the radio.

Pink is often casually tossed in the freak-folk category of knowing eccentrics, alongside the likes of Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom. Both Banhart and Newsom have recently taken a more classic approach to their respective crafts — to great success — while remaining true to their unique personalities. It’s likely that the freak-folk tag’s death and in turn these artist’s survival resides in the realization that weirdness doesn’t have to define you as an artist. Mark down 2010 as the year Pink decided to take his turn at bat, cutting the shit and showing the world Ariel Pink cooks with fire.