24 November 2009

Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey

Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey First Impressions

We get our first look at Atlus's latest entry in the Shin Megami Tensei series, which ventures into sci-fi territory.

Recently released in Japan, Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey on the Nintendo DS is another addition to the long-running SMT series. Taking on a more sci-fi approach, Strange Journey revolves around a soldier who is assigned to examine a massive void in the South Pole. Atlus stopped by our office to give us a quick look at the game and how it plays, but we'll be able to update you with more details regarding the story at a later date when we get to play the game for ourselves.

Using the Etrian Odyssey engine, Strange Journey is a first-person turn-based role-playing game in which your party members consist of demons that you collect. Our demo started us off a couple of hours into the game where we played as one of the crew members on the Red Sprite and were headed to the South Pole to investigate a strange void. Things went wrong as soon as we arrived, so we had to explore the area alone, except for our demon companions. Up to three demons can be summoned into your party, and they'll level up and grow stronger as long as you use them in battle.

Demons have their own particular alignment and by keeping their loyalties in mind, you can use them to your advantage. A feature known as demon coop allows you to give everyone in your party a bonus melee attack if you or your demons exploit the weakness of an enemy. Everyone in your party who shares the alignment of the one who attacked will automatically throw in an extra melee attack for more damage, so it's important to decide what kind of demons you want fighting alongside you. Your alignment changes depending on the decision you make within the game.

As the human in the party with no special powers but a nifty demonica suit, you must rely on guns and elemental attacks. There are apps that you'll come across--which are like key items--to help you find components for crafting or unlocking specific doors. Sub apps are special items that can increase the chances of getting an item after battle, but these apps take up space--sometimes more than one slot and you have 10 slots. Your demonica suit is what you'll use to access your mission logs, side quests, and tutorials. A forma search app is inherently in the suit, which can detect and track down stuff to trade later.

Demon fusion returns, and you'll be able to create all kinds of combinations; you'll even be able to throw an item into the mix to create a special demon. We didn't have time to go into all the details of this process, but we will once we receive a build of the game. The turn-based battles are self-explanatory if you're familiar with any kind of turn-based Japanese role-playing games. As you get to know the demons you encounter better, an analyze bar will fill up so that you can eventually determine their weakness and use it against them. If you're grinding away and don't particularly want to pay attention to an easy fight, you can hit the X button to have the battle play out for you. It won't make any special adjustments, though, so you have to be sure you'll win if you choose the option to have the battle play for you.

Our demo ended with a boss battle against a giant minotaur-like creature that had an extremely low opinion of humans and decided to tell us all about it. It took awhile to take it down because it had the ability to scare and confuse our demon party members. But it was nice that the target reticle changed to red if the enemy was near death because it allowed us to plan accordingly, which was a helpful feature.

Like all the SMT games before it, Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey has a lot more to it, and it can take several hours to really get a handle on it all. We only had 20 minutes with it, but once we get our build of the game, we'll be sure to post updated impressions. Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey is scheduled to be released in March 2010.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Smash-Up Tech Info

Publisher : Ubisoft
Developer : Game Arts
Genre : Beat-'Em-Up
Release Date : Sep 22, 2009

By Gamespot


Bayonetta Updated Hands-On Impressions

Publisher : Sega
Developer : platinumgames
Genre : 3D Fighting
Release Date : January 2010 (more)
ESRB Descriptors : Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Partial Nudity, Strong Language, Suggestive Themes

We delve into the first four chapters of Sega's upcoming action adventure and get bewitched by the sassy British heroine.

The first 30 seconds of Bayonetta are quite a ride. You'll fight a pack of demons on a broken cliff face plunging at rapid speeds down a mountain side, wildly pushing at random buttons trying to figure out what's what. But that doesn't mean it's not a carefully orchestrated beginning. In fact, the opening scene of the game is exactly what Bayonetta seems to be all about: spontaneous, crazy, and fun. There's never a dull moment or an enemy with just one head, or arm, or leg. But Bayonetta is fast proving to be a little bit more engaging than your average over-the-top action game. With the game's release just two months away, we had a chance to delve a little deeper into the game's story, combat, and gameplay with an updated hands-on demo that took us through the game's prologue and its first four chapters.

Those who have been following our previous coverage will already be familiar with the heroine of the game--Bayonetta is a leather-clad modern-day witch with some pretty remarkable powers and a sassy British accent. Found in a casket at the bottom of the sea 20 years ago, Bayonetta remembers nothing of her former life and is constantly haunted by memories, which she must piece together throughout the game. The game's opening sequence serves as a little teaser to Bayonetta's past: we see her fighting angelic-like demons side-by-side another witch named Jeanne, whose relationship to our heroine we won't discover until later. The game's prologue is set during the present day where Bayonetta is working with a muscle man named Enzo (think Danny DeVito) under the influence of a spiritual-leader-cum-crime-boss called Rodin, who looks and sounds suspiciously like Laurence Fishburne. What exactly Bayonetta does is difficult to determine--the only clue we're given is that she's searching for a stone for her necklace, which will somehow help her uncover her past.

The first combat sequence takes place during the prologue in a cemetery where you're finally taught how to fight. Bayonetta has a wide and varied combo library at her disposal, which you must slowly learn to master if you want to keep things interesting. You'll start off easy with punches and kicks, as well as a move that triggers "witch time." This is a slow-motion sequence that lasts about three seconds and makes all your enemies move slower while you remain in real time. Witch time is triggered by pressing R1 at the very last possible moment to dodge a blow before it is delivered and is relatively easy to master. Bayonetta also has guns (and oh, what guns!) equipped to her hands and feet. Holding down kick or punch will unleash a torrent of bullets (automatic aim) while rotating the left thumbstick before holding kick or punch will see Bayonetta spin around on her head (a la break dancing) and shoot her enemies with her feet. These moves will serve as the base for all the combos, the majority of which are unlocked from the start of the game.

Because there are a lot of combos, the game gives you a chance to practice them during the loading screens. While in combat, you'll only be able to remember four or five combos (six if you're mentally acute), but the rest will come as a result of trial and error and button mashing. This is both easy and satisfying, especially when you stumble across a previously unknown combo. Bayonetta can also pick up and drop weapons lost by her enemies, but be wary: the bigger and more impressive a weapon is, the longer it will take to swing it, which leaves Bayonetta open to attack. 

Chapter One shows us that Bayonetta is a woman prone to serious and frequent flashbacks, in which she is an active participant rather than a passive observer. After receiving some new information about the location of the stone she's seeking, Bayonetta travels to the European citadel of Vigrid, where, predictably, she fights some bad dudes. Whether Vigrid is part of the real world or an imagined one--or even another dimension--we're not sure yet. Not even Sega can answer that question at this stage. What's known for sure is that Vigrid is infested with The Lumen Sage--evil angels and monsters guarding treasures, mountains, and passageways, which you will have to make your way through.

Here, we're introduced to the game's shop, subtly called "The Gates of Hell" and run by Rodin. You can enter the shop in between chapters or by accessing portals as you play. Each time you slay an enemy, you'll collect halos, which transform into currency for purchasing weapons, new moves, and accessories. These include magic charms and spells to increase vitality, as well as items such as health boosts. There are also treasures, which include new books that give you information about Bayonetta, her past, and the world she inhabits. You can assign items to the D pad for your convenience, as well as collect treasures, charms, and items in-game. The end of this chapter sees us fighting our first boss--the giant dragon demon with the face of a Botticelli cherub that we've seen in our past previews.

Chapter Two treats us to a bit of background information on the relationship between Bayonetta and Jeanne via a playable flashback. We also bump into a promiscuous young man named Luka, who Bayonetta insists, despite his protests, to call Cheshire. Luka is connected to her past somehow, but we'll have to wait until later to find out more. We then enter an area of Vigrid called Purgatorio (which is not actually the Purgatory). Because Bayonetta is fighting at nearly every turn, it's easy to imagine that the combat sequences could quickly become somewhat of a bore: the same combos, the same finishing moves, the same demons. But this is not at all true; in fact, one of the most engaging aspects of the gameplay in this demo was the varied and immersive combat. You're encouraged to be as creative and stylish as you want when you're killing dudes; the more flair, the more handsome the reward. The spectacular and over-the-top demons also represent different eras in the mythology of the game. For example, you'll fight demons that represent virtues and dominions, and others that represent principalities. Not that you'll be able to tell: though some are made of flesh and others are made of steel, they're all extravagant, weird-looking, and, as mentioned before, have various limbs. 

The best way to finish a combat sequence is with some of Bayonetta's finishing moves, which include a torture combo and a terribly fun move playfully titled “the climax combo”. The former is triggered by a meter under your health bar, which you can build up by damaging your enemy's health while not sustaining any hits yourself. Once the meter is full, you'll be prompted into a quick-time event that, when executed successfully, culminates in an impressive and gory stage show that has Bayonetta throwing her enemies into coffins or cutting their heads off with a guillotine. The climax combo can only be used on bosses and is activated when you're nearing the end of the fight (and you're winning). After the quick-time event, Bayonetta's hair will come to life and transform into a giant creature--be it dragon, vulture, or sparrow--which will proceed to tear apart what's left of the boss.

During our demo, we also discovered that Bayonetta can walk up walls, but she can only do so when the moon is out. Surprisingly, we weren't taken back to the modern world but kept a path through Vigrid territories that became darker--fire, lava, rain, and hail--until we reached the last boss fight of our demo. We'd encountered this pesky dragon before, but now that it had managed to get on Bayonetta's nerves, we had to finish it off. It wasn't exactly much to look at, and even Bayonetta remarked on its offensive physique: a Buddha-like form consisting of two dragon heads and a giant, upside-down Roman head not unlike the ones you find in the antiquities section of a museum, plus some chains and pudgy baby arms flailing about. The entire fourth chapter of the game is taken up with this boss fight, which is epic in every sense of the word. We had to use every combo we could remember to keep one step ahead of the dragon and, one by one, decapitate its heads until the climax combo finale.

The last thing we thought we'd mention is the subtle humour that seems to be abundant in Bayonetta. The game's music, design, and dialogue seem to be a pastiche of different styles. Cutscenes have a habit of switching between normal and film-reel-style stills, while the game's music is reminiscent of both the "Pulp Fiction" and "Charlie’s Angels" themes, Japanese anime, and the electronica you get with old-school fighting games like Street Fighter. Bayonetta herself is a charming and hilarious character, sounding like a schoolteacher at one moment and Austin Powers the next ("Flock off, feather face"). Finally, the game likes to mix things up: after each chapter you’ll have to participate in a shooting minigame to earn more halos; in another instance, you’ll have to face off against three bosses in a row in the middle of a chapter. 

No matter which element of Bayonetta you're most looking forward to, it seems there's something in it for everyone. Stay tuned for more Bayonetta coverage before its release in January. 

Tekken 6

Tekken 6 PSP Hands-On

TGS 2009: Namco Bandai gives us a taste of the upcoming portable fighter that looks gorgeous.

Namco Bandai announced Tekken 6 PSP at its press day in April of this year but didn't show us anything on the game at the time. Given the high bar set by the last Tekken on the PSP, Tekken: Dark Resurrection, we've been eager to see what the Tekken team is going to pull off with its second outing on the portable system. We finally got a chance to not only see the game in motion but try it out as well here at the Tokyo Game Show.

Who's Making This Game: Namco Bandai's Tekken team.

What The Game Looks Like: The Tekken team has managed to wring even more performance out of the five-year-old hardware and has wound up with a stunning game. Once you get past the jaw-dropping visuals, there are actually a surprising number of subtle surprises on display as well. The game is based on the most recent version of Tekken 6 in the arcades, the Bloodline Rebellion update, and will feature breakable objects ranging from background elements to the floors and walls on certain stages. The new graphics engine created to support the various features is the most impressive we've seen on the PSP yet and is rivaled only by Namco's other PSP fighter, SoulCalibur: Broken Destiny.

What There Is To Do: The work-in-progress demo we played let us pick from the roster of more than 40 fighters--yes they crammed a train station's worth of brawlers onto the PSP--and take on opponents in one-round fights. In talking with the members of the team demoing the game, we got a sense of what we weren't seeing, although they were still pretty cagey about giving up too many details. Basically the game will feature a comparable number of modes to the last game, although the team is finalizing how much it can cram onto a UMD. Sadly, the game only supports ad hoc versus play, which will include some all-new stages. One of the big questions right now is the number of alternate costumes for the fighters. Given how dense the game is, it sounds like the UMD is going to be packed.

How The Game Is Played: If you've played Tekken: Dark Resurrection, then you should be right at home with Tekken 6. The game uses the same control scheme, which is a good fit for the PSP.

What They Say: The team members demoing the game said Tekken 6 is the most ambitious game they've done on the system yet and that even they were surprised by what they were able to pull off in terms of supporting all the different systems and visuals from Bloodline Rebellion.

What We Say: Given what we played, we have to say that Tekken 6 is shaping up to be another landmark game from the Tekken team for the PSP. The game is doing a lot of impressive things with its visuals, from graphic quality to interactivity, and the sheer number of playable characters, stages, and extras being lined up is a pretty fantastic offering. Proper online infrastructure multiplayer would be nice, but it wouldn't be that big of a loss if Sony could get its act together and release ad hoc party play. Tekken fans and anyone looking for a shiny fighter for their PSP will want to keep an eye out for Tekken 6 when it ships this fall. Look for more on the game soon.

22 November 2009

ModNation Racers Hands-On

We visit United Front Games to take a closer look at the fully customizable kart racer that is heading to the PlayStation 3.

Next up in the Play, Create, Share genre that Sony initiated with Little Big Planet is ModNation Racers, a classic kart racing game that lets you customize your own character and racing kart and build a professional-looking track from scratch in just minutes. We made a trip to Vancouver to meet up with United Front Games, the developer behind ModNation Racers, and had the opportunity to create our own character, test our skills on the track, and use our imagination to create the craziest course possible. What surprised us is just how easy it was to make a fun little course, and given the powerful and easy-to-use editor tools, there should be some exciting tracks once this goes out to the entire public.

Before diving into the game, we watched the intro to ModNation Racers to get a quick glimpse of the story. We were introduced to Biff and Gary, two commentators who were discussing the new season of the ModNation Racers Championship (MRC), a premier international kart competition. They went on to talk about how the MRC got started and how it's all up in the air in terms of where the next champion will come from. We'll assume for now that it would be us. We were then taken to the modspot, an area that functions as an interactive menu in which you can jump into your racing career or race against friends online or offline. Other options in the modspot include the creation station--where you'll customize your kart and racer--and next to it was a podium with some of the best karts and characters. The latest news, coming attractions, hottest tracks of the day, and a list of players are all displayed and accessible by driving up to the signs. When you're online, you'll be able to meet with other racers and talk to them via voice message or text. If you don't want to drive around the modspot to get to where you want to go, pressing start will bring up a quick menu so you can just select which mode you want to play.

Our first stop was the creation station, where we got to customize our own racer. The wacky and customizable characters in the game are known as mods and were inspired by urban vinyl culture. It's like being able to design your own plastic toy, because you're given a blank mold to start with and you can immediately start to dress him or her up and slap decals and other fun stuff on. There's a randomize option if you want to skip the process, but it's fun to mess around because there are so many options when it comes to customizing your mod. You can easily spend a good chunk of time trying to create something classy, funny, hideous, or plain. The circular menus are self-explanatory and easy to navigate, and a help button is there if you need additional info. You can shuffle through a variety of eyes, ears, hair, skin, clothing, stickers, and odds and ends to add to your mod as well as change the texture of your character. To give you an idea of how many options there are, we saw 260 types of eyes, 315 mouths, 20 noses, 29 hairstyles, and 51 skins, and there's more. For more-advanced adjustments, you can rotate, shift, and change the color of accessories. A color wheel is there for you to pick the ride shade, and there's a match-color button if you want to be color coordinated in the least amount of time. The only thing you can't do is create your own designs from scratch, but you can layer decals to create your own unique designs.

After decorating our vampire bunny mod, we were eager to jump into a few races to check out some previously seen tracks as well as a couple of new ones. Unlike in some other kart racers, your performance is entirely based on your own skill and how you drive, because the customization of your mod and kart are superficial. By drafting, drifting, and spinning in the air during jumps, you'll raise your boost meter, which will help keep you ahead of the pack. The L1 button activates your boost, and it's important to make sure your meter isn't empty, because you need it if you want to swipe your opponents with the right analog stick. Gas is mapped to the R2 button, and the X button is used for hopping and drifting. For a quick start at the beginning, you need to hit the L1 button when the last light goes off, but the trick is that the three-two-one countdown is always timed differently. Even if you don't get a good start, the items you'll pick up on the track are dependent on what place you're in to help bring you up to the front if you're lagging behind. We saw missiles, spiked mines, portals that let you warp through some of the track, and powerful boosts that can easily move you up a few ranks. The square button unleashes the item that you've picked up, but you can hold it if you want to leave it behind you. By saving your item and picking up another, you can upgrade the weapon that you've picked up for an even more powerful attack later. As long as you have some boost left in your meter, you can shield yourself from attacks by using the circle button to bring up a bubble shield.

Things to watch out for on the track include a variety of farm animals, poles that pop out of the ground, moving platforms, rolling barrels, and machines that shoot out flames. The game is fast-paced so that sometimes you won't really see what just flew by, but you'll get to know the hazards well once you start playing around with the track editor. It looks like there will be several themes to choose from, but we were given access only to the alpine theme. Before paving our track, we decided to edit our environment first, and by using a variety of landscape brushes, we were able to manipulate the terrain with a simple push of a button. Watching the beautiful mountains rise instantly is impressive, and by pressing L1, we were able to switch the functionality of the brush to create lakes with very little effort. Once we were happy with our landscape, we switched to the track editor, which allowed us to drive around and find the perfect starting point. The drive-to-create track studio makes it incredibly easy to create the track you want to drive on. After putting down the starting line, a giant steamroller was ours to control as we weaved around the green pasture, leaving a trail of asphalt behind us. We could change the elevation at any time or drive through mountains. The best part is that other than driving into the track itself, you can go virtually anywhere, and the landscape will mold itself around you. If you want to go through a mountain, the rock will give way so that you can go through. You can choose to drive along the terrain so that you don't go through anything or stay in free drive. Either way it's incredibly easy and you're done as soon as you loop back to the starting line, or you can hit the triangle button to auto-complete.

A new feature that has been added is the auto-population command, which will bring your track to life by randomly filling up your track with props, boosts, and other items. This way, you don't have to manually place individual trees or houses to make your track look nice. It's going to look fantastic from the get-go, and once you do a test run on it, you'll know whether or not you want to add more boost pads or a jump somewhere, take out a fence or two, or throw in some cattle. There's an option to add more props along the track, making it easy to plop down items, and you'll conveniently be placed next to the last thing you put down when you enter a test run.

This entire track-making process can take as little as five minutes, but if you want to make something really incredible, it'll take a bit more time, though it's intuitive and easy to use. There are more-advanced options where you can manage the finer details, like adjusting the width of the track or the spline. The developers showed us a spectacular-looking track that took them weeks to create. It had moving platforms, banked turns, insane jumps, a spiral track, and a ton of triggers on the road to activate hazards. With the track studio, it's easy enough for anyone to come up with a functional track in minutes.

The most exciting part is seeing what the community can come up with, because once you've mastered the tracks that are included in a kart racer, there isn't much left to do unless you take the competition online. We really enjoyed our time with ModNation Racers, especially when playing around with the track editor. It's one of the easiest creation tools that we've come across, there are no long-winded tutorials to bog you down, and it hardly ever tells you that you can't put an object in a certain place. If you decide to put a ramp that is too big to fit on a particular section of the road, the terrain will adjust itself so that you can put that ramp down. As we mentioned earlier, as long as you don't steamroll your track into itself, you can go anywhere within the confines of the zone and place anything wherever you want and the editor will handle the rest. We look forward to spending more time with the game as it gets closer to its spring 2010 release date.

Modern Warfare Reflex

Modern Warfare Reflex Review

This belated port successfully brings the greatness of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare to the Wii.

The Good

    * Excellent campaign is full of thrills and surprises 
    * Online multiplayer is engaging and addictive 
    * More online modes than World at War.

The Bad

    * Campaign is short 
    * Occasional control hiccups.

Wii owners who have been waiting since 2007 to experience the excellence of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, your time has come. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare: Reflex Edition is a successful port that includes the intense, breathtaking campaign and engaging, addictive multiplayer that made Call of Duty 4 such a hit. While the visuals lack a certain sharpness, the environments still convey the drama and diversity that help make the campaign so excellent. And though there are some minor aiming hitches, the controls are precise and customizable enough to let you be all you can be. The multiplayer system that first arrived on the Wii last year in Call of Duty: World at War is even more robust in Modern Warfare, making it the best online shooter experience the Wii has to offer. If you've already played COD4 on another system, there's no reason to pick it up again. But if you have yet to experience Call of Duty's first foray into the 21st century, Modern Warfare: Reflex Edition will entertain you immensely.

In the modern world, wars are no longer fought as massive clashes between sovereign nations. Conflicts are much more isolated and far flung, requiring mobility, flexibility, and, of course, superior firepower. The campaign in Modern Warfare embraces this philosophy, and you undertake a wide variety of actions playing as a few different soldiers. There are tense infiltrations behind enemy lines in which silenced weapons and stealth tactics are the order of the day. These missions require you to quietly eliminate enemies or just sneak past them undetected. Then there are full-blown firefights through Middle Eastern streets where the bombed-out buildings are crawling with enemies and a friendly tank is your only sure cover. In these missions, enemies continually pressure you, so not only do you have to dispatch them rapidly to avoid being overrun, but you have to push forward to your next objective. The environments are more or less linear, and though they have occasional lapses in sharpness or detail, they do a very good job of accurately depicting a variety of locations. In most levels, the terrain allows you to take a number of different approaches to any given section, giving you an invigorating sense of battlefield freedom while still spurring you onward.

Many of the missions throughout the campaign are intense and exciting for various reasons, but there are a number of dramatic set-piece levels that ratchet things up to a whole new level. From the first mission in which you race to escape a sinking ship, to the levels in which you become the powerful air support that you have previously relied on, to one of the most electrifying sniper sequences to ever appear in a game, Modern Warfare's campaign keeps you on your toes. You'll see some things you never expected to see in a shooter, and these dramatic turns are used effectively to create an expertly paced, immensely exciting experience. 

Unfortunately, it's all over pretty quickly. The campaign doesn't last much longer than five hours. You can play through individual levels again once you've beaten them, and there's an arcade mode that scores you on your performance, but there's no way to share those scores online. You can also have a friend join you and add some extra firepower as a disembodied target reticle, but this feature is novel at best and ends up being pretty distracting. Still, despite the short length and so-so replay options, there's no denying that Modern Warfare's campaign is an intense, diverse, and exciting shooter experience.

And that's just the campaign. Once again, Call of Duty's online multiplayer is a standout. The core system is largely the same one featured in World at War. You earn experience for killing opponents, accomplishing objectives, and completing challenges. This allows you to level up and unlock new guns, new equipment, and new perks. Equipment includes explosives like grenade launcher attachments and claymore mines, and perks are battlefield bonuses that bestow a range of abilities. Some of these are similar to those in World at War, but many are either tweaked versions of old perks or entirely different ones. They are still a lot of fun to unlock and employ, and you can outfit a number of custom classes with different weapons, equipment, and perks to suit many different gameplay styles. There are also different kill streak perks that fit the modern setting, so players who string together kills can call in an airstrike or an attack helicopter to decimate the enemy.

One of the biggest improvements is the number of online game types available. While World at War was limited to a handful of Free-for-All and Team Deathmatch variations, Modern Warfare includes objective-based modes like Sabotage (plant a bomb on an enemy target) and Domination (capture and hold control points). These modes add some much-needed variety to the online scene, and the 10 player cap (up from eight in World at War) fits the well-designed maps very well. There is still no support for Wii Speak, and the Kill Cam has been lost in translation, so you won't get to how your enemy got the better of you. Yet despite these omissions, Modern Warfare's multiplayer not only more robust than its predecessor, but it's also the best online shooter action the Wii has to offer. 

There's just one other wrinkle in this otherwise excellent package, and that's the occasional aiming hiccups. When you look down the sights of your weapon and are aiming near an enemy, your targeting reticle will snap onto that enemy. This assist is helpful when it works, but sometimes your reticle will jump back to where you were originally aiming or otherwise dislodge from your opponent. Sometimes the problem seems to be the result of frame rate stutters, and other times it happens while things are running smoothly. It's disorienting and possibly fatal, but fortunately it doesn't happen enough to become a full-blown nuisance. Extensive customization options that allow you to find your preferred aiming style go a long way toward mitigating this issue.

All told, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare: Reflex Edition does right by the source material. The expertly scripted and intensely exciting campaign is just as entertaining as it was two years ago on other systems, and even the occasional lapses in visual fidelity and control precision can't keep it from being a must-play for Wii shooter fans. Though the multiplayer will feel familiar to World at War veterans, the modern guns, equipment, and perks will make it feel new again, and the expanded gameplay modes offer a lot more variety. Though there are a few hitches to deal with, the core excellence of this game shines through, giving Wii owners a great shooter to keep them entertained for months to come.

Super Street Fighter IV

Super Street Fighter IV Update - Deejay, Juri, and T.Hawk Hands-On

We kick butt with the new additions to the Street Fighter roster in Capcom's upcoming entry in the series.

We got our first peek of Super Street Fighter IV a few weeks ago in Japan but didn't have a chance to get our hands on an arcade stick and bust some heads with the new characters. Since then, we've been harassing Capcom for some hands-on time and our wish was finally granted this week. Capcom reps stopped by our offices with a demo version of the game that--while bare bones in terms of modes and the full roster--let us try out some of the new roster additions.

The version of the game we tried featured several returning characters: Ryu, Guile, and Chun Li. There was also newcomer Juri, as well as returning favorites T.Hawk and Dee Jay. The new returning characters have all gotten the funky 3D-watercolor makeover the rest of the cast received in Street Fighter IV and fit in well. While there were no new stages in our demo, the returning stages in the demo had a number of tweaks to them that included changes to static background elements, the addition of more animation or tweaked detail, and some lighting changes.

Beyond the game's visuals, the meat of our demo focused on the gameplay. Our first test was with Juri who played pretty much like we expected--fast but not a powerhouse. The various special moves we saw demoed in Japan were easy to pull off and not too hard to chain together. She's a flashy character who can dole out a decent amount of damage if she's played aggressively and can keep an opponent off balance. However, the party ends quickly if she starts taking hits. The lithe fighter has a pretty glassy jaw, which makes it maddening to try to go toe-to-toe with the heavier hitters in the game, such as Guile and T.Hawk. Her super and ultra moves help even the odds but currently require some very specific setup to do the max amount of damage. On the other end of the spectrum is T.Hawk who felt pretty familiar. The burly Native American isn't very fast but hits like a truck. Hawk's modest array of special moves, air charges, and throws should be familiar to fans of the series.

From the look of things in the demo we played, Hawk's classic moves all seem to be back and performed with the same controller motions. It's interesting to note that it seems easier to pull off his storm hammer grab. His supers and ultras were all nicely flashy, as well as capable of doing a respectable amount of damage. So far, T.Hawk feels like he's made a good transition to the SFIV system. He still has the same strengths and weakness in balance that he always did, with the current notable exception of the easier storm hammer. Finally, Dee Jay seems to be in the same boat as T.Hawk, with a familiar feel, as well as the same pluses and minuses. We tried his classic moves, dread kicks, projectiles, and hyperfist, which all came off without a hitch. The sweatpants-wearing kickboxer's supers and ultras were the most forgiving of the three new characters we tried, although they didn't do as much as we would have liked. We tried each character's taunts, which were decent (Juri), bland (T.Hawk), and goofy (Dee Jay). The demo version we tried only had one taunt for each character, but the final game is set to include more.

While we weren't able to check it out ourselves, we got briefed on some of the new content we weren't seeing, such as the car and barrel bonus stages, which will stay faithful to those seen in the various Street Fighter II games. We're probably most excited about the various multiplayer options set to be included SSFIV, team and endless battles, as well as the replay channel and upcoming Tournament mode, which will be a free piece of downloadable content due to hit after launch. The new multiplayer modes aren't a perfect substitute for a proper arcade experience with mobs of people and machines, but it's likely the best we're going to get given the state of arcades in the US, so we'll take what we can get.

Super Street Fighter IV is still looking and sounding like a promising evolution of Street Fighter IV. As we said in our last look at the game, we're just hoping the price is right. The amount of content--both obvious and subtle--being put into the game is meaty, but its appeal is directly tied to its price. Super Street Fighter IV is slated to ship in the spring of 2010. Look for more on the game in the coming months.

King Arthur - The Role-playing Wargame Tech Info

    Real-Time Strategy
Release Date:
    Nov 24, 2009

Shippin' Out Nov. 8-14: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

Activision shooter dominates busy holiday release week; new Dragon Ball, Pro Evo Soccer games also set for launch.

There are more than 40 games set for release this week, but one title stands head and shoulders above the rest. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC--touted by Activision as "the biggest entertainment launch ever"--will make its long-awaited arrival in stores on Tuesday. Accompanying it on store shelves will be the spin-off Modern Warfare: Mobilized on the DS and Modern Warfare: Reflex for the Wii, which is a port of 2007's Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.

The game has seen plenty of prerelease hype and will be arriving alongside plenty of ancillary merchandise. Mad Catz has a full line of Modern Warfare 2-branded peripherals, while Microsoft is packing copies of the game in with a limited edition 250GB Xbox 360. Naturally, the game is also being released in multiple versions, from the $60 bare-bones version to the $150 Prestige Edition that includes working night-vision goggles.

Anticipation aside, coverage during the past few weeks of the title has been racked with controversy. Some gamers were livid at the decision to drop dedicated server support from the PC edition of Modern Warfare 2. One went so far as to give the $60 he had planned to spend on Activision's shooter to Swedish developer DICE, asking the studio to put it toward the development cost of including dedicated server support in its upcoming Bad Company 2.

More recently, leaked footage of the game's single-player revealed a controversial gameplay segment, causing Activision to go into damage control mode and emphasize that players would be given the option to skip the objectionable part of the game. Finally, last week saw the posting (and subsequent pulling) of a YouTube video on Infinity Ward's Twitter account. The clip was a mock public service announcement decrying "grenade spam" in the multiplayer modes of Modern Warfare and created a fictitious activist group with a gay slur for an acronym.

Looking beyond Call of Duty, there are still a handful of titles arriving in stores that might interest the traditional gaming crowd. Ubisoft expands on last year's maiden voyage to the mountain with Shaun White Snowboarding: World Stage on the Wii, while Xbox 360 gamers get their own snowboarding game in Stoked: Big Air Edition. Also, Konami's Pro Evolution Soccer 2010 gets new versions for the Wii, PlayStation 2, and PSP, and Namco Bandai offers Dragon Ball: Raging Blast for the Xbox 360 and PS3, or Dragon Ball Z: Attack of the Saiyans for the DS.

For further details on the week's games, visit GameSpot's New Releases page. The full list of downloadable games on the PlayStation Store, Xbox Live Marketplace, and the Wii Shop Channel will be revealed later this week. Release dates are based on retailer listings and are subject to change.

NOVEMBER 8, 2009
Shaun White Snowboarding: World Stage--Wii--Ubisoft

NOVEMBER 9, 2009
Arcade Shooting Gallery--Wii-- Zoo Games
Dora the Explorer: Dora Saves the Crystal Kingdom--PS2--2K Play
NBA 2K10--Wii--2K Sports
Wedding Dash--DS--Zoo Games

NOVEMBER 10, 2009
BUZZ! Quiz World--PS3--SCEA
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2--PS3, X360, PC--Activision
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare: Mobilized--DS--Activision
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare: Reflex--Wii--Activision
Chaotic: Shadow Warriors--360, PS3, Wii, DS--Activision
Dragon Ball Z: Attack of the Saiyans--DS--Namco Bandai Games America
Dragon Ball: Raging Blast--X360, PS3--Namco Bandai Games America
Fairyland Melody Magic--DS--Ubisoft
Final Fantasy XI: Ultimate Collection--X360--Square Enix
Final Fantasy XI: Vana'diel Collection 2010--PC--Square Enix
Harvest Moon DS: Sunshine Islands--DS--Natsume
Harvest Moon: Animal Parade--Wii--Natsume
Hasbro Family Game Night--X360--Electronic Arts
Hot Wheels: Battle Force 5--Wii, DS--Activision
Jambo! Safari: Animal Rescue--Wii--Sega
Jonas--DS--Disney Interactive Studios
Kenka Bancho: Badass Rumble--PSP--Atlus Co.
Petz Nursery--DS--Ubisoft
Phantasy Star Zero--DS--Sega
Pop'n Music--Wii--Konami
Pro Evolution Soccer 2010--Wii, PSP, PS2--Konami
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus--Wii, DS--2K Games
Smart Kids Journey to Adventure--Wii--Tommo
Spectral Force Genesis--DS--Role-Playing--Ignition Entertainment
Stoked: Big Air Edition--X360--Destineer
Style Lab Jewelry Design--DS--Ubisoft
Style Lab Makeover--DS--Ubisoft
Team Elimination Games--Wii--Ubisoft
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Arcade Attack--DS--Ubisoft
WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2010--MOBILE--THQ

NOVEMBER 12, 2009
Braid--PS3--Number None Inc.
King Arthur - The Role-playing Wargame--PC--NeocoreGames

NOVEMBER 13, 2009
Buck Fever--Wii--Destineer

20 November 2009

Divinity II: Ego Draconis

 Divinity II: Ego Draconis - first look
You’re a dragon slayer. You’re also a dragon. Tricky one

The Divinity series, like its classmate at High Fantasy High School, Gothic, is a big deal in mainland Europe. Until now, neither RPG has made much of a dent in either the UK or US. With its impressive translation, convincing animation, inventive quests, and combat and reward systems reminiscent of Diablo, Divinity II has the best shot yet.

Cast in the role of a Dragon Slayer, your role is, oddly enough, to slay dragons. Once a regular-ish presence in the land of Rivellon, the leathery fire-bastards are largely banished thanks to the efforts of the slayers. But, ack! Some more have turned up for an unexplained reason. Time to get levelling up, offing standard goblins, bandits and miscellaneous undead spooks in an attempt to hone your abilities to a dragon-biffing peak.

Confusingly, on reaching the later levels, the game also promises to let you become a dragon. Cue bemused glances as your silver-eyed slayer wonders whether he’s next in the kill-queue. Those silver eyes come about thanks to your ‘dragon memories’ – a set of implanted visions jammed into your cranium by your obliging trainer early in the game. Conveniently, this means the dragon slayer forgets the previous 20 or so years of hardcore training at the dragon-training dragon-facility. We can only hope he’s still able to tie his dragon-shoelaces after this nasty onset of forced dragonesia. Fortunately for those would-be players who want to craft their own specialized dragon-character, the resulting dragon-slayer is a blank slate, ready to level-up in the usual kill-baddies/get experience dragon-fashion. Dragon.

This baddie-killing is a satisfying prospect, as combat is simple and fast. Very much of the Diablo school of enemy-twocking, speedy clicking is the most effective way to fight. However, it’s not all broadswords and close combat. The first township is a form of training ground, where three of your friends hang around, each with a specialization. Go for the heavily armored chap beating the splinters out of a dummy, and you’ll get the ‘warrior’ specialization, but the classic ranger and mage are also on offer. You’re given time to practice your new-found skills on conveniently provided goblins before leaving the town and selecting your class, but the game also promises the ability to alter your favoured method of bloodshed further along the narrative.

Taking down early enemies is a problem for an unlevelled character, necessitating a good amount of lower-level slaughter to be able to compete. You can be easily swarmed by baddies, and one of the first major foes you’ll need to strike down to progress will stomp you in seconds unless you’ve killed enough boars to keep a particularly fat peasant family fed for life. Fortunately, with combat so unfussy, batting down a small camp of goblins isn’t a chore, at least in the short term.

Quests are, as you’d expect in this comforting duvet of a classic Tolkienesque fantasy realm, pitched between lengthy and serious: investigate a tomb to find an item to kill a dragon! – and short and mischievous: save my pigs because I love my pigs! Most quests appear to have a number of resolutions, from the stereotypically uncaring to the more sneaky. Preview code quests have given us the opportunity to play characters off each other, or employ perhaps Divinity II’s most intriguing addition to the classic RPG template: mind-reading.

Slayers are given the opportunity to muscle their way into the heads of other characters, gleaning either important information or just a bit more background information about the world of Rivellon. There’s a small risk/reward mechanic in such psychic shenanigans: attempting a mind-read will cost one experience point. Small beer, but more hardened discussion partners won’t give away their secrets easily, meaning you could be throwing away valuable XP.

The colorful, almost cartoonish realization of Rivellon is a relaxing hub in which to begin quests. Dappled autumn shades and quaint farmhouses dominate the towns seen so far. When the game decides it’s time for serious business, a slight filter descends, lending the surroundings a darker hue. It’s a nice visual warning, and keeps town-based jaunts jolly in tone.

It’s an ethos that seems to permeate Divinity II. There’s a lot here, but it’s not as po-faced as its competitors. Lightweight in combat and generic in story, it might not grab those looking for a transcendental, truly immersive RPG. But, given the series’ reputation in mainland Europe, there’s enough of you out there that’ll be enchanted by its good looks, customizable loot and sense of fun to while away 40-plus hours looking for mythical beasts to murder.

Lord of the Rings Online Shadows of Angmar

 The Lord of the Rings Online: Siege of Mirkwood
First look: Underappreciated MMO offers a download-only expansion

We haven’t covered LotRO much recently. There’s no dark reason for this, no sinister conspiracy – it’s just that this is an MMO that’s remarkably adept at keeping its head down and getting on with things. On the quiet, it’s accrued a massive and very happy audience. On the eve of its new expansion, it seems a good time to peer at what the game as a whole is like these days, and more importantly, why.

“LotRO is the world’s best PvE game” claims producer/spokesman Jeffrey Steefel. It’s an important distinction – while factional warfare tends to be a big theme of many MMOs, in LotRO everyone’s on fundamentally the same side. Sure, there’s monster play mode to dip in and out of, but the ongoing war is strictly against the big bads of Mordor and assorted Middle Earth beasties. Digital-only expansion Mirkwood builds on that. “There are at least 100 hours of gameplay here,” reckons Steefel. “While most of the content is designed for high-level players, there are several new improvements and content for new players as well, including an upgrade to LotRO’s combat system, which delivers more responsive attacks.”

So, has LotRO become, like EVE or Ultima Online, a tough nut for newcomers to crack? Well, not really. LotRO is made from very familiar MMO systems, and that’s a key reason why it’s been a quiet success: it doesn’t overcomplicate anything. Against this is that it’s possibly been a bit too sleepy. “We have been very focused on what we call the New Player Experience (NPE),” says Steefel. “We’ve gone back armed with feedback from our players and data from over two years of operation, to refine the experience to get players into the world and the story faster.” So, while Mirkwood won’t immediately have much to offer anyone who didn’t stay with LotRO beyond the free trial, the game as a whole is now rather more ‘straight to adventure.’

Perversely, adventure isn’t the most interesting element of LotRO, from where we’re standing. What’s more fascinating is how the game’s community has slowly turned it into a tranquil Tolkien paradise. The music system grew into a major aspect of the game after players pushed it as far as it’d go, while fishing, crafting and, that great wishdream of MMOs, player housing, means there are a whole bunch of ways to be a homely Hobbit if you’d rather avoid beast-stabbing. How much of a focus is this sort of thing for Turbine? “I don’t believe we will have an expansion dedicated to our Music System (Lute Hero?),” says Steefel, disappointingly.

Meantime, a headline feature of Mirkwood (a raised level cap is the biggest of biggies, inevitably) is the henchmen – AI soldiers players can purchase, train and equip for scenarios called ‘skirmishes.’ The skirmish concept is neat – essentially, you create an instance on the spot, which you and your chums can join from anywhere in the game. You can then run it over and over again, thanks to randomised objectives. The soldiers mean you’re able to tackle much tougher stuff than you would be on your own, or even if you were in a small group. It’s going to be a great way to level up.

Any hope of them crossing over into the game as a whole? “By restricting the soldiers to the skirmishes, we can craft our skirmishes with more specificity and provide more unique and balanced AI for the soldiers. To put them on landscape would add orders of magnitude to the balance complexity and would, by definition, require us to dumb-down the soldiers’ AI, which we really do not want to do.” And, perhaps, filling the world with military types might spoil that idyllic fantasy that maintains, even in the face of the impending War of the Ring…

Mirkwood itself is a place of foreboding forests – it’s best known from the Hobbit, as a place where Bilbo ran into a bunch of giant spiders. That said, Turbine are steering away from the events and places of the Hobbit, as they want to store that stuff up to coincide with Guillermo del Toro’s 2011 movie.

Instead, the story-arc of Mirkwood has been compared to a sort of D-Day incursion against the Nazgul, culminating in a 12-man raid against one of said Dark Riders atop a hulking Fellbeast. Yep, essentially Mirkwood is Tolkien porn. “The epic story we are exploring and unfolding in the game is intrinsically tied with the War of the Ring and the players’ epic journey as part of that story – this will always be a big focus for us,” says Steefel, epically.

So Mirkwood isn’t a jumping-on point in and of itself, but combined with two years’ of changes, updates and fan-service, it makes for an uncommonly characterful MMO. There’s a reason LotRO has survived – thrived, even – when so many of its peers have opted for harakiri. Still, we really would love to see Lute Hero.

SSX: On Tour

Take to the powder

SSX: On Tour is a fantastic game... but scratch beneath the surface veneer and it’s definitely an evolution rather than revolution. Yet you’d be forgiven for assuming the latter. First up is the new skiing option. There are those in the boarding fraternity that can’t abide their cousins on skis and imagine that the introduction of the two-footers into their extreme sports games tantamount to collaboration with the enemy. But apart from shelving this outdated view (hey - we all love the snow, dude), whichever you choose, the controls and results are broadly the same.

In a snide move, EA makes you pick your discipline at the start - boarder or skier - and won’t let you mix it up as you progress on the tour. It’s a cheap shot at replayability and totally unnecessary in our opinion. The main differences are that skiers tend to go faster but have fewer tricks to pull off. But their animations are that much more spectacular and they quickly become our favorite way of carving up the slopes.
Surprisingly this means that the core gameplay difference is Monster Tricking using the right analogue stick. Activated when your power bar is maxed out, it slows down your character mid-air and lets you "bust phat stylze" against stunning backdrops. And they do look amazing, giving you the time to put together more complex combos whilst admiring your handiwork at the same time.

Nonetheless, this is mostly familiar stuff for us crrrazy SSX veterans. Although On Tour is noticeably quicker, with longer draw distances and significantly improved runs. You genuinely feel like you’re tricking your way through uncharted territory towards the top of the peak and awesome snow playgrounds at the bottom, all packed with limitless opportunities for making combos and pulling off stunning jumps.

The replay value doesn’t derive from choosing to complete On Tour on boards and then skis, or trying to become whatever the hell a mountain rockstar is - it's the sheer number of secret runs, death-defying jumps and the thrilling attempts to combo between areas that'll make you plough down the mountains again and again and again. This is a bigger, more beautiful, quicker SSX, jam-packed with 'sicker', 'iller' and 'doper' runs - and through the sheer quantity of those runs alone we give this the nod for veterans, as well as piste virgins.

Spartan: Total Warrior

He's no partial warrior. He's a total warrior, which is why they made a game all about him.

Spartan is nothing but a killing machine. We can’t say if it’s because he has no real name, if someone said he'd never make it in a third-person hack-and-slash game because he's not as pretty as Russell Crowe, or what. What we can say is this: the only way his countrymen could have designed a more effective tool for relieving Roman soldiers of their limbs would have been to attach giant razor blades to an airplane propeller.

This meaty brand of third-person action slaughter is executed via the trusted medium of button bashing. The developers will hate us for saying this, because they’ve pointed out to us on multiple occasions the non-bashy, all-skillsy nature of Spartan: Total Warrior’s combat. But put the controller in our hands and those buttons are going to take a spanking.

Yes, we know there’s a fairly workable system in which one button is a forward attack, the other an area attack, and the rest of the buttons switch between magic blasts, arrows, rage attacks, a jump, a rolling dodge, and shield bashes. We still button-mashed. You may well be able to intentionally block an enemy’s blow and deliver an immaculately timed counter, as we often unwittingly did.  But, if you reckon you can do it when you can’t even see Spartan amid the 100-strong crowd of furious combatants swarming around him, you’ve probably been working on the game for the last two years.

Anyway, regardless of how it is achieved, the result is much the same: oodles of rapid-fire killing and the satisfaction of hacking up enemies more numerous than in any console action game that has gone before. Everywhere you look, Romans (and later, skeletons, zombies, and ogre-like “gigantes”) pour over castle walls and invade rooms via unseen doorways. Sometimes you’ll have some dim-witted allies to battle alongside you, but most of the Romans nonetheless go straight to you for the fastest possible ticket to the afterlife.

When you’ve sliced and diced enough people in the current area, you’ll be able to move somewhere else for a battle in alternative surroundings. Health and the little used magic power are replenished by praying at altars along the way, although the sneaky Romans tend to use such moments to start hitting Spartan from behind.

Those rear attacks become annoying, but it almost can’t be avoided. Most of the time you’ll have a full 360° panorama of meat mannequins to hack away at, and the unhelpful camera doesn’t always display the best angles for figuring out who’s next for the chop (hence our rather successful tactic of random flailing).

Before you get the wrong idea, let’s make it clear that there are mission objectives: if you want endless random combat, simply head on over to the Arena mode, where you’re more than welcome to chop till you drop. In the main game, you’ll have to protect certain individuals, sabotage various things, pull levers, climb ladders and find secret items. It’s got everything an ordinary adventure game would have. The battlefields are often multi-leveled cityscapes complete with hidden treasures and interactive killing aids like ballista, racks of spears, and cauldrons full of burning oil.

You’ll also experience some memorable boss battles, courtesy of beasts like a hydra, a dragon, a minotaur and at least one giant metal colossus (though, ironically, he’s more of a mini-boss) that you must make ready for smelting by spearing him with giant ballista bolts.

There seems to be a time limit in some areas that’s either unmentioned or was mentioned too quietly to register through our digital bloodlust. Whatever the cause, the action was frequently and prematurely brought to a halt. Sometimes we ended up losing because we failed to kill a certain enemy. That seems unfair, because we would have gotten to him sooner if we hadn’t been surrounded by other enemies with a death wish. Those Romans may have been civilized, but they were crap at waiting their turn to get skewered.

No matter, because we didn’t need to be asked twice on the Continue screen. Spartan: Total Warrior’s satisfying simplicity makes it easy to lose hour after hour to repeated play-throughs of the same levels in an attempt to max out the combo meter or try wasting a boss with a different type of weapon.

In case you’re interested in technical details, the GameCube version has some special lighting effects that are better than you’ll find in other console versions (yes, even the Xbox). The PlayStation 2 version is, predictably, the most homely of the bunch, but even on that console, the sheer volume of characters onscreen is damned impressive. You can literally become disoriented by the sheer number of dead bodies that can pile up onscreen. So it’s a remarkable feat of programming as well as the most deliciously bloodthirsty thing we’ve played in a very long time.

Yes, it would be nice if your fellow soldiers would open a door on their own once in awhile, and we could definitely do without the oddly paced “stealth” sections. We appreciate the developers’ attempt to mix things up a bit, but this game’s strength is its full-scale battles. Besides, it should be enough that Spartan does things right out of the box that the premeire hack-and-slash series Dynasty Warriors, about to release its tenth PS2 entry, has yet to achieve.


One rat you'll enjoy in your home

If you haven’t noticed - it’s summer, a time where movie theatres get big-budget actionganzas and your console goes through a bit of a dry spell. Unless you want to start tapping that pile of games you swore you’d get to by now, you can always sniff around for the latest, potentially awful film tie-in starring emo spider-men, ambiguous pirates or… a French rat that cooks? Ratatouille - the latest Pixar anthropomorphic animal flick - bucks this trend and offers a solid platformer that doesn’t feel like Disney’s trying to rape your wallet.

Playing as bi-pedal rat, Remy, you’ll traverse sewers, markets and restaurant kitchens in order to help your family find grub, and assist a nerdy Frenchman in becoming a better chef. Each section of the game is broken up into missions that help your fellow rat get one step closer to fine cuisine such as finding a coin to distract a human, disabling rat traps or stealing a key to open a food locker.

While the pathways to your goals are linear, it never feels too distracting because you’ll often traverse much of the wide-open level in order to reach your destination. Need to shut off the gas main? Just sprint past the crabs, evade the cooks by hiding under tin cans, climb up the broom handle, swing on the hooks, grab the umbrella… and it goes on. The constant “A to B to C” missions do get repetitious, but there’s so much variety, it’s almost a platforming dream.

We say almost because after each jump, you need to hit B to grab a hold of the next object or land on it correctly. That mechanic felt archaic in the original Tomb Raider and that came out ten years ago. C’mon THQ, we like our characters to automatically grab swinging poles or ledges. It just doesn’t feel right because you’re never sure when to hit B, leaving each jump to be a leap of faith that may or may not send you plummeting down a hole.

Before the gameplay becomes boring, Ratatouille serves up fresh minigames, that don’t feel tacked on. Admittedly, the cooking minigames - DDR-style button mashing or correctly matching ingredients to the corresponding buttons - are a bit lame. Seriously, we’ve been playing the GameCube for years and still can’t tell the difference between the X and Y buttons. The chase segments (running at the screen all Crash Bandicoot-like), tunnel sliding and even rafting down a sewer creek, feel fun and don’t outstay their welcome. Our favorite is actually a platforming challenge reminiscent of Mario Sunshine’s bonus stages, where you’ll hop around food-themed, surrealist landscapes complete with rotating carrots and ravioli platforms.

The current-gen versions of Ratatouille - PS2, GameCube and Wii - are almost identical save for some wonky remote physics for the Wii and minor graphical flourishes seen on both Nintendo systems. While the PS2 version suffers slightly from lower quality visuals, the GameCube version pops with sharper imagery. It’s difficult to tell, until you watch both the pre-rendered and in-game cutscenes and notice no grain and smoother character designs. The difference is so slight though, that it hardly matters.

Ratatouille’s defied our expectations by dishing out a solid adventure with loads of extras and minigames. If the missions felt a little less repetitive, then we’d really have film-tie in greatness here. Either way, this is one game adaptation that’s easy to swallow.

By Radar

17 November 2009

Lego Indiana Jones 2

Lego Indiana Jones 2: The Adventure Continues Impressions

Lego Indy's back, and this time, he's entering the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

The original Lego Indiana Jones was a smash hit, and with the arrival of the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull last year, there's suddenly more material for a sequel. That's the thinking behind Lego Indiana Jones 2: The Adventure Continues, which will also include material from the original film trilogy that didn't feature in the first game.

We got to see reproductions of both new and old films in our GamesCom demo today, both with the diner section from The Crystal Skull and the opening of the ark from Raiders of the Lost Ark. The latter cutscene was particularly memorable, as the Nazis were compelled to perform funky dance moves before disintegrating into thin air. In-game, Indy can now do more with his whip, such as tie enemies up and drag them around, as we saw in the diner fight scene.

Lego Indy 2 also has plenty of upgrades that will please fans of the Lego series. When two players drift apart, the screen now automatically splits in two, letting players do what they want before joining seamlessly together once they're close to each other. There's also a new level builder that allows you to put down boards and pieces just like you might have done with real Legos as a child. However, with this being a children's title, you probably won't be able to share these creations online, although LucasArts is currently looking into this possibility. At least you and a friend can both work on your design at the same time.

The hubs in Lego Indy 2 have also been expanded and improved, with three hubs from the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and three from the original trilogy. The hubs are themed around different areas in the films, and you can fly around in a plane, parachute out, and then jump into levels straight from these hubs.

Lego Indiana Jones 2: The Adventure Continues is looking almost finished, which is a good sign given how close we are to release. The game will be released on all major platforms in the third quarter of 2009.


Little Big Planet Updated Hands-On

Sackboy is back on another glorious adventure around the globe, this time on Sony's little big handheld.

Little Big Planet's happy-go-lucky burlap star is making his way to the PlayStation Portable so you can create, explore, and share from almost anywhere. Developed by Cambridge Studio with the help of Media Molecule, LBP for the PSP is very much like the PlayStation 3 version, except modified and squished onto a handheld. The scope of the game may not be as big, but it was hard for us to tell the difference from the newly designed levels because it's just like taking a romp through the 3D hand-crafted world from the original LBP. We spent some time playing through several stages on the PSP and were impressed with all the features that have made it into the game and how it all looks.

As Sackboy--the fully customizable and lovingly sewn together doll--you'll travel across the different continents, starting with Australia and then venturing to the Orient, eventually leaving your mark all over the world. There are 30 new developer-created levels across seven themed locations, and we really enjoyed the new level designs from what we've played. It doesn't look like anything was lost during the transition, other than the fact that you have to play alone instead of with three other players. There's plenty of detail in the environments as you pass through, making it feel like it was a port from a PS3 game, even if it isn't.

After navigating through the harsh lands of the outback, hanging off koalas and jumping on kangaroos, we made our way to the Orient and had to fend off fire-breathing dragons. It's interesting to note that the levels in the Orient progress from right to left. One of the more memorable stages we saw was a level that required us to use a cannon-like device that fires synthetic logs. We hopped onto the back of a rickshaw and went blazing down a steep hill, trying desperately to hold on while using the cannon to keep the dragon at bay. We had to aim for the target inside the dragon's mouth to get it to back off--otherwise we'd be toast. It was a bumpy ride but a lot of fun. All this game needs is some rockets, which we hope will be included in the later levels.

Some puzzle-solving skills are needed to get past some areas, but the game makes good use of its tools, like switches, which are quite prominent in the levels that we played. LBP is generally fairly linear, but we came across a level that has you exploring multiple zones in order to figure out a combination code, which you then input using the switches. Even though the game is now single-player only, it's still tough to run through the levels and track down every single object. There are still an abundance of stickers, objects, and costumes to collect, all so that you can mess with the items later in the creation mode, but you'll have to carefully explore every nook and cranny to locate them all.

Like in its PS3 counterpart, you'll eventually unlock the moon so that you can create your own levels from scratch, using the items that you've found during the main game. And also like in the other version, you need to go into individual tutorials for each component of the Popit menu system before going to town with it. You can easily escape out of these tutorials, but the load times are noticeable, and it's unfortunate that you can't just have access to everything and choose to check out the demonstration later. It's amazing the amount of freedom you have at your disposal, and once you create a level you want to share, you can do so by heading to the PlayStation Network to show the world what you've come up with. LBP is about the community, so you'll have access to an endless supply of content to play through from anywhere.

It's going to feel very much like the PS3 version, all the way down to the controls. Instead of three planes to manage, there are two, so not only do you need to worry about going from left to right (or right to left), but you have to use some of that depth perception to navigate through the background or foreground as well. It's not bad when you're casually trying to find your way through a maze, but it can be tricky if you don't notice it happening and suddenly find yourself walking or jumping into a fire pit instead of on the block that was on the back plane. Luckily, you have an unlimited number of lives, and the checkpoints are much more frequent, so you can keep going until you feel like manually exiting the stage. The Popit menu is still there, so you can swap your outfit on the fly and access trigger stickers to help you get more items.

Because there's so much happening onscreen sometimes, it does take a while to adjust to playing LBP on a smaller screen. Sackboy isn't going to be nearly as detailed as its high-def counterpart, but you can still have him make funny faces with the D pad, and he'll easily win your heart all over again. A nice variety of music is included, and while the tracks may not necessarily fit with the theme of the level, everything so far is catchy and fun to listen to. The game is what you would expect LBP to be on a handheld, but what's impressive is that it doesn't feel like anything was lost or sacrificed to get it to fit on the system. At least, it's difficult for us to tell at this point, so be sure to stay tuned for our review later this month.

For anyone who wants a playground to play, create, and share, the possibilities are endless when Little Big Planet for the PSP is released on November 17.

Assassin's Creed II

Assassin's Creed II Review

Assassin's Creed II is what you'd want an action sequel to be: bigger, better, and more beautiful.

The Good

    * Huge, beautifully realized world to explore 
    * Ezio is a terrific new character 
    * Tombs put a spotlight on the excellent and enjoyable platforming 
    * A greater variety of missions, weapons, and stealth techniques than in the original 
    * Incredible production values.

The Bad

    * Some additions are a little contrived 
    * A few gameplay and visual quirks.

"Nothing is true; everything is permitted." We learned this adage in the original Assassin's Creed, and Assassin's Creed II carries on the tradition beautifully, inspiring you to rethink the conspiracy at the heart of the series--and to reconsider what you should expect from a sequel. The franchise's second console outing is an impressive piece of work. Developer Ubisoft Montreal has addressed almost all of Assassin's Creed's flaws by filling its follow-up with fresh and enjoyable mission types and layering on new and mostly excellent features, while still retaining the joy of movement and atmospheric wonder that characterized the original. These enhancements range from the subtle (you can swim now) to the game-changing (there's an economy), but aside from a few small missteps, every tweak makes for a more enjoyable, more engaging adventure. The cohesive story and a terrific new character will draw you in, and you aren't apt to forget the memorable and explosive ending that will have you eager for the third installment.

Like in the first game, Assassin's Creed II occurs across two timelines: a modern-day chronology starring bartender Desmond Miles, and another featuring one of Desmond's ancestors. When you start the game, you'll catch up with Desmond right where the original left him, though as fans of the original can guess, the Abstergo labs are no longer a safe haven. You'll spend a bit of time with Desmond during the course of the game, though the shoes you most frequently fill are those of Ezio Auditore di Firenze, the charmingly impetuous son of a 15th-century Italian banker. Ezio is an instantly likable firebrand, as passionate about family and honor as he is about wine and women. When you first meet him, Ezio is living a carefree life and has not yet donned his assassin's robe, nor is he familiar with the creed. However, Ezio's devil-may-care freedom is soon cut short by murder and betrayal instigated by the assassins' greatest threat: the Templars.

Assassin's Creed's Altair was an interesting character, but only for the stealthy order he represented, not because you ever got to know the man under the white hood. Ezio is far more appealing, for he's not just quick with a secret blade, but he's a fully realized protagonist. He isn't at the mercy of the plot, but rather, the narrative evolves from his need to uncover the truth behind his sorrows. It's the personal nature of the narrative that makes Assassin's Creed II's story more compelling than its predecessor's. The few modern-day segments featuring Desmond pack a lot more punch this time around as well, and the conspiracies driving that story arc become a lot clearer and, as a result, more provocative. While the original ended on a vague and unsatisfying note, the latest chapter's climax is downright electrifying.

Ezio isn't Assassin's Creed II's only headliner. The Italy he inhabits is a character in and of itself, filled with visual and sonic details that infuse the world with life and elegance. The cities you explore--Florence, Venice, and more--are larger and more detailed than the environs of the first game. Citizens go about their daily lives, and they look authentic doing so. Merchants sweep the street in front of their shops; small groups stroll along, making conversation with each other; and courtesans smirk and cajole as you pass by. These folks aren't cookie-cutter character models. They are dressed differently enough from each other and are animated so expressively that it's as if the population would go about its business with or without your presence. More impressive are the cityscapes themselves as they unfold in front of you, inviting you to take in their splendor. This is an incredibly good-looking game: the lighting is sumptuous, the draw distance is vast, and textures are crisp. The PlayStation 3 version does suffer from some frame rate jitters, more frequent texture fade-in, and lesser color saturation. Both versions are still attractive, however, and apart from a few small flaws, you rarely get the feeling that visual compromises were made to make the game's open world run smoothly.

Assassin's Creed II's sense of place and time isn't due just to its visuals, however. Its high-quality sound design is equally responsible, delivering a busy-sounding Florence while still allowing the little quips of citizens commenting on your acrobatics to shine through. There's a good variety of such dialogue now, so you won't tire of repeated lines, and because the citizen rescues of the original Assassin's Creed have been excised, you won't hear the monotonous whines of complaining peasants. Two aspects of the sound design are particularly noteworthy: the music and the voice acting. The game's splendid orchestral score is subtle and soothing when it needs to be, never intruding on the exploration and never manipulating your emotions with inappropriate musical melodrama. The simple but effective cello and double bass motif you hear when climbing to a perch and synchronizing your map is the perfect example of this smart melodic restraint. As for the voice acting, it is uniformly excellent. Not only is Ezio voiced with charm and energy, but the surrounding cast is mostly superb--though one particular line delivered by Ezio's uncle Mario might make you cringe.

The greatest beauty of Assassin's Creed II's exquisitely detailed environments is that you can run and jump across the rooftops with ease and climb the tallest towers to get a bird's-eye view of the game's glorious vistas. You control Ezio much as you did Altair, though movement feels a bit tighter and even more fluid than before. The game strikes an excellent middle ground between responding to player input and automating actions like leaping from one surface to the next, so it's simple to leap about the city smoothly without worrying that you're going to plummet to your death on the next hop. You'll still encounter a few awkward moments here and there: simply walking off a ledge onto a rooftop a few feet below can still be bit clumsy, for example. But these moments are few, and in fact, you'll pull off some awesome-looking moves without even trying. One of the many wonders of Assassin's Creed II is that the cities look so natural that they don't seem as if they were created for you to jump around in. Yet you might leap onto a wooden outcropping and find yourself skipping across a series of them, swinging and jumping with fluidity and style. Not only are there more opportunities for organic platforming sequences like these than in the original, but there are entire closed environments called tombs tailored to this kind of jumping.

Tombs are more intricate levels in which you must retrieve an important artifact (and if you collect all of them, you are in for a special treat). Some of them are platforming puzzles of the best kind, in which you must figure out how to get from your starting point to the destination, in the manner of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Ezio can't run on walls like the Persian prince, but he's incredibly agile nonetheless, and swinging and hopping about rafters and chandeliers within the tombs is great fun. A few tombs throw some additional challenges at you, such as a time limit in which to reach your goal. The best tombs, however, are those in which you pursue an enemy but run into obstacles that force you to give chase using an alternate route. The chases are excellent, and they require quick reactions, but not so quick as to be unreasonable. Flawlessly keeping up with your target without breaking your momentum is one of Assassin's Creed II's greatest thrills, and as long as you are paying close attention, you can pull it off on the first attempt.

The climbing and jumping wouldn't be as rewarding if Ezio weren't so graceful, but he is one of the best-animated characters yet seen in a game. You'll admire his footwork early in the game in particular, when his assassin's garb does not veil the incredible animations of his legs and feet. When Ezio climbs, his hands are grabbing something and his feet are resting on something. Except on rare occasions, you won't see him pulling himself up using an invisible handle or stepping on a nonexistent ledge. It's a small touch, but it goes a long way toward making these acrobatics look believable. Ezio seems even more nimble than Altair; his legs move inward and cross a bit differently during a climb, and moves connect even more slickly. The only imperfection you are likely to notice is the lack of a transition animation when you bend to loot a body or treasure chest (more on this to come).

Of course, Ezio is more than just a talented gymnast without a fear of heights. He's not afraid to shed blood when the time is right, and he's got a number of ways to exact revenge. The dual hidden blades are his best deadly toy in this regard. You can still stealthily pull off a low-profile assassination (sneak up behind a guard and stab him in the neck) or conduct a high-profile kill (pounce on your target and plunge your blade into him in a single, dramatic move). But the best addition to hidden blade kills are double assassinations: Walk between two unsuspecting guards, sink a blade into each of them, watch them crumple to the ground, and keep walking as if you were none the wiser. If you get really enamored with the dual blades, you can hang from a ledge and wait for an enemy to walk above you, stab him, and toss him to the ground below. It's particularly satisfying to do so above the Venetian canals, because the body will splash into the water and then float to the top. Or if you'd rather conduct your bloody business from above rather than below, you can wait for your target to walk below and then assassinate him in one spectacular move.

If you want to take the direct approach instead, you've got more to unsheathe than a basic sword. One of your brand-new combat moves is the ability to disarm an opponent and take his weapon. For a treat, try taking a giant axe from one of the heavily armored guards and planting it in his head, or skewering another with a stolen spear. If you like, however, you can stick with what you've got and simply pick up your fallen foe's weapon off the ground once the skirmish is done. As before, you can toss throwing knives at pesky archers, but Assassin's Creed II also gifts you with a special ranged powerhouse late in the game. Or perhaps you like to play with your victim before it's time to recite the requiem. If so, stab him with your poison blade and watch him stumble about as he tries to gain his bearings before you slice his throat. If that weren't enough, you can purchase improved weapons and armor pieces from blacksmiths scattered around the cities. By the time you are finished, Ezio may be decked out in some impressive-looking gear--and sporting some highly effective weaponry. The essentials of combat remain the same throughout, however: When battle is initiated, you lock onto targets, dance about each other looking for an opening, and time counter moves to pull off a bloody and satisfying kill. Combat isn't difficult, but the addition of larger-scale battles makes it more exciting in this outing. Nevertheless, it's disappointing that enemies still dutifully wait their turn to attack.

Blacksmiths aren't the only vendors willing to take your cash. Assassin's Creed II sports an entire economy. You earn florins by completing missions, looting treasure chests, pickpocketing strangers, or stealing from dead bodies and covered Venetian gondolas. Your main source of income, however, will likely be your uncle's villa, which serves as your base of operations and is a tourist destination. The adage "You have to spend money to make money" is true. You can spend florins on villa upgrades, such as purchasing a brothel or a church, and in turn, the villa will earn more florins from tourists, and you can take the profits from a chest inside the living quarters. You can then use your florins to dye your garb, purchase treasure maps to point out the locations of all those glowing chests, or buy a new pouch to hold more throwing knives. Most importantly, you'll want to visit a doctor, who not only will inform you that a weekly bleeding is part of a healthy lifestyle (yuck), but will keep you stocked in health packs. That's right: Your health does not replenish on its own any longer, so you'll need to make occasional visits to the doctor to replenish your inventory.

If you'd rather just avoid physical damage altogether, you can still keep a low profile, and there are many improvements in this regard as well. You've still got a few old tricks to rely on: benches to sit on and haystacks to hide in, for example. But contrivances of the original (remember Assassin's Creed's scholars, and walking at a snail's pace in prayer?) have been replaced by more natural and sensible mechanics. If you want to blend with the crowds, you can walk into a group of citizens and be automatically hidden. It's fun to move smoothly from one roving group to another and avoid the watchful eye of nearby guards, though there are sadly few occasions when doing so is essential. Or you can slink past guards by hiring a group of courtesans to distract them with their feminine wiles, or by hiring a group of thieves to engage them. You can even throw smoke bombs and use the resulting cover to sneak past. You can still fight your way through most situations, but there's something uniquely satisfying about taking the stealthy approach.

Yet even if you don't often need to be sneaky if you don't wish to be, you'll still need to stay out of the public eye if you can by keeping your notoriety levels low. Notoriety works much as it does in the Hitman games: The more bad deeds you're caught doing, the higher your notoriety levels rise, and the more likely it is that guards will recognize you. If you want to roam the city without worrying about being chased by every group of guards you pass, you can reduce or eliminate your level of notoriety by bribing town criers or by assassinating key guards. The easiest way to reduce your notoriety, however, is to remove the "Wanted" posters that appear whenever your notoriety meter begins to fill. This is one of Assassin's Creed II's more artificial elements, simply because "Wanted" posters appear in places that no guard would ever see. Nevertheless, "Wanted" posters give you another reason to clamber to the rooftops, which is never a bad thing.

The story missions tying all of this exploration and combat together are vastly improved over those of the original, often stringing multiple objectives together and usually making good use of Ezio's skills. Eavesdropping missions are gone completely, and beat-'em-up tasks are mostly optional. Instead, you will be rescuing prisoners, tailing important targets from the rooftops, assassinating wrongdoers, and plenty more. Some of the best missions act as set pieces and often involve Ezio's ever-positive friend, the resourceful Leonardo da Vinci, who will not only upgrade your synchronization (health) bar, but provide you with a few amusing gadgets, like your poison blade and smoke bombs. In one exciting scene featuring your talented comrade, you drive a horse-drawn carriage at a breakneck pace. In another, you take to the skies in one of da Vinci's flying contraptions, using the heat rising from the city's chimneys to stay aloft while kicking archers out of the way. If you thought Assassin's Creed lacked variety, you'll find plenty in the sequel.

Optional tasks are compelling as well. You can still climb to the tops of towers and make a leap of faith into a bale of hay or autumn leaves beneath, and doing so is just as unrealistic and awesome as it ever was. The flags of the original have been replaced by feathers, which tie in to story events early in the game. New missions include assassination assignments retrieved from messenger pigeons and timed rooftop races, which are always enjoyable in a game that makes the simple act of moving from one location to the next such a pleasure. You also run the risk of being pickpocketed, in which case you can chase after the perpetrator and tackle him, pilfering not just your stolen funds, but the florins of other victims as well. Another intriguing addition is the hidden glyphs you locate on certain buildings by activating your eagle vision. These glyphs tie the story's dual timelines together in an intriguing way and initiate puzzle sequences that in turn unlock short video snippets. The puzzles aren't that great, but the snippets are so weirdly fascinating that you'll want to collect all of them so that you can watch them in sequence. There are enough historical and religious conspiracy tidbits in here to keep you interested, and they're just outrageous enough to delight Dan Brown devotees.

At first, Assassin's Creed II might seem as if it has added more than its foundation was meant to handle, but once all the new features are completely introduced, it develops that magic that so few games can cast. This is the rare sequel that offers fans of the original the basics they would expect, while adding and changing so many other aspects that even those who didn't appreciate the first should take the plunge, without hesitation. A few more contrivances notwithstanding, Assassin's Creed II is a better game than its forebear and is a beautiful and memorable experience on its own terms. But it's more than just a game--it's an escape to a place and a time that feel so welcoming, you'll be making return trips even after your initial adventure is over.

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