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Beta’d Review: CALL OF DUTY: GHOSTS

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by on November 18, 2013

Another year, another Call of Duty game. At this point, they’re such a regular occurrence that farmers could set their almanacs by them. While fans of the series, which has more collective hours played than humanity has existed, period, are doubtlessly thrilled, others are beginning to show signs of battle fatigue. As with other perennial offerings like Madden or FIFA, the challenge inherent to the franchise is keeping it fresh, offering new content, and enough innovation to warrant consumers plunking down another $60 for a new game that isn’t just reheated leftovers with a glossy coat of paint. Does Call of Duty: Ghosts rise to the challenge? Not exactly.

Seeing as I always play through the campaign first, let’s start there. Call of Duty‘s meat and potatoes may lie in the multiplayer arena, but Infinity Ward made a name for itself with glitzy, high octane single-player stories that put the player in the starring role of their very own Mark Wahlberg action film (Boston accent optional). Unfortunately, Ghosts seems to be coasting on past successes rather than pushing the envelope, resulting in a hollow, stilted, and unenjoyably arcade-y experience.

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Ignore the mooks saying the campaign only lasts for four hours; I finished it in about six to eight, which is still less content than I’d like in a campaign, but enough to feel like a complete experience, or at least a solid framework. Ghosts takes place ten years after an extinction-level event that devastates the United States and destroys the Middle East, forcing the United States into a brutal war against the oil-producing nations of South America who now call themselves The Federation. As Logan Walker, you wind up joining an elite black ops force known as the Ghosts, fighting alongside your brother Logan (Brandon Routh), father Elias (Stephen Lang), the game’s true star/attack dog Riley, and several other generically gruff soldiers, on a globetrotting mission to save the world from the onetime Ghost turned supervillain Rorke (Kevin Gage).

That all sounds well and good in the abstract, but it’s such well-worn territory at this point that it feels rather cookie-cutter. Despite being able to play as Riley (briefly) and use him on several missions, the characters and those crazy over-the-top plot moments that are supposed to leave you breathless and on the edge of your seat seem like a pale imitation of games past by comparison. The story does have its moments, like the opening sequence where you fight off enemy astronauts in zero gravity, but it is more predictable than a 22-year-old girl ordering a pumpkin spice latte at Starbucks.

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Gameplay-wise, the campaign feels underwhelming, as its duck-and-cover map layout and shooting gallery enemy mechanics lack the randomness and excitement offered by the human element in the multiplayer. New additions like the ability to knee-slide and contextual leaning to peek around corners are nice, but ultimately unnecessary. They feel inessential, whereas you want gameplay changes to feel seamless and progressive like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2‘s addition of the manual. Similarly, the omission of certain mechanics, like Black Ops 2‘s multiple endings, seems baffling by comparison, giving the sense that Ghosts is more style than substance.

In terms of multiplayer, the fast-twitch shooter inside of you will be satisfied, as it’s essentially more of the same hugely successful formula. Addictive, run-and-gun fun and plenty of customization options are offset slightly by the head-scratching omission of certain game modes and the decidedly broken spawn points on some maps. No launch on this scale will be entirely smooth, but given that this is an annual event, you’d think they’d have it on lock by now.

New game modes like Cranked are a fun way to spice up the standard team deathmatch tedium, and co-op Extinction mode brings the all the fun of Horde mode and murdering scores of aliens to the world of Call of Duty at long last. There’s a location-based meta-game that integrates social networking with your endless attempts at humiliating your opponents via killcam, but I haven’t had much time to futz around with it outside the early press day I attended. In short, fans of the multiplayer will find plenty to like, but it’s a little disappointing when compared to the leaps and bounds between Battlefield 3 and Battlefield 4.

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Graphically speaking, the game looks good, and is on par with other high-end, late-cycle offerings. I played it on the Xbox 360, and only noticed jaggies and pixelation when I got stupidly up close and personal to textures I had no business inspecting. I’m told that the PS3 and PS4 versions look better, but let’s be honest – you weren’t buying this for the immense graphical update, now, were you?

Call of Duty: Ghosts is pretty much exactly what you’d expect, for better or worse. They don’t need to reinvent the wheel because if your massively successful formula ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But, to mix metaphors, people will only eat plain hamburgers for so long before they start wanting cheese or bacon or a brioche bun as well. Riley may be their attempt at Animal Style, but this feels more like they were trying to turn around a quick title rather than take the series to the next level. And after Ghosts, I’m starting to get awfully tired of hamburgers.

Final thoughts: While there’s hours of fun to be had both on and offline, Call of Duty: Ghosts feels more like a lateral move rather than a step forward for the long-running series.

Beta’d Review: BIOSHOCK INFINITE: BURIAL AT SEA Episode 1

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by on November 13, 2013

PlayStation 4 this, Xbox One that, everywhere you turn, one of the new consoles is somewhere in the discussion. Not to be veiled by the cyclone of anticipation from this week’s jump into next-gen, Bioshock Infinite: Burial At Sea is out and aims to expand on one of this current generation’s most solid titles. The second of three DLC releases and the first of a two part series, Burial at Sea takes players on a trip to very familiar territory. Does Irrational Games succeed at again delivering that Bioshock level of excellence? Let’s take an in-depth look at the first episode of the spanking new story-based DLC.

BaS3We return to everyone’s favorite highbrow, Art Deco inspired, underwater utopia, Rapture, to further frolic about with our hero Booker DeWitt (a seemingly different Booker than the one in Infinite). He arrives in the city hours before the civil war that imminently ravages it is to begin. Right off the bat, you run into Elizabeth, whom as you can imagine doesn’t recognize you, but rather requests your assistance in locating a little girl named Sally. All the makings of a noir-esque sleuth drama are crammed into the beginning of Burial At Sea and are a welcome change of pace for Bioshock.

BaS1For the first time, we get the delight of witnessing Rapture in its heyday, when the city was flourishing and overflowing (no pun intended) with the elitist ideals Andrew Ryan always babbled about in the original game. It’s a thing of beauty, and proved to be quite successful in immediately vacuuming me into the atmosphere. But not too long after being absorbed into this neo-Rapture, you start to hear the townsfolk speak ill about Andrew Ryan and his ambitions. You also learn that Sander Cohen (the devious artist mentioned in the previous games) is still breathing, and from that point on, everything in Burial At Sea takes a rapid turn to tedium, as your very brief visit to golden aged-Rapture is halted abruptly when Booker is deployed in a ruined, abandoned corner of the city.

bioshock_infinite_burial_at_sea_9This is where the fighting begins, and you’re now able to utilize the game’s combat system, which has changed slightly from what you may have remembered. Plasmids have been reintroduced, replacing Infinite’s “vigors” and adding a new ice plasmid to the mix. The Skyhook has also been replaced with the “Air Grabber,” which is functionally identical (and most of the time unnecessary) to its Infinite counterpart. Given that you’re back in Rapture, you’re once again able to exploit the environment to gain the edge on opponents. Electrocuting enemies who like to hang out in puddles of water, for instance, is still absurdly effective and pleasing.

bioshockburial03033The two-gun limit that made Infinite a pain in the arse has been remedied, and now Booker can haul his entire weapon loadout with him. Not that things are any more challenging this time around, as the amount of enemies you square off against has been quite noticeably reduced. Dispatching them is as easy as picking up and eating a good ol’ floor-sandwich, especially when you utilize Elizabeth’s bizarre, Samurai-summoning tear abilities. I’m sure Irrational was aiming for a certain style of pacing by reducing the amount of enemies, but the end result saw the chapter becoming far too simple, tedious and boring.

BaS5With the combat not selling the game in full scope, I was heavily reliant on the narrative aspects of Burial at Sea to bring some freshness and authenticity to the mix. This didn’t turn out the way I had anticipated, as the storyline proved to be very predictable, following the same storytelling methodology as Infinite. Not to say the plot-line was unsatisfactory, but it was certainly not compelling, due to the fact that as the story progressed, I found myself subconsciously preparing myself for the steep climax that would to come to fruition.

BaS4I blame most of this on Burial at Sea‘s length, which is only a short two hours of gameplay. While two hours is a good length for story-based content,  the connect-the-dots approach to storytelling isn’t as engrossing when there’s so little time to flesh out plot points. I appreciate Irrational Games’ willingness to take risk with their narrative, but Burial At Sea‘s developments felt like forceful yet unnecessary attempts to captivate in a small time frame. Overall, this DLC turned out to be a small chunk of “more of the same,” lacking a true cliffhanger by using predictable plot-twist to enthrall players. The downside to that is that one can only take so many unwarranted twists before they become dizzy, disoriented and annoyed.

BaS6Burial at Sea goes the distance in terms of fan service. It’s an immensely scenic trip back down Bioshock memory lane with Infinite‘s unique combat style, pacing, and memorable characters. But the trip back to pre-devastated Rapture was all too short, and the gameplay and story that followed the small bit of tourism failed to validate the existence of this DLC expansion. This is just episode one of two, and there’s still a slight chance Irrational Games could somehow make this DLC story interesting. If you’re a die-hard Bioshock fan looking to return to the city where it all began, you’ll likely find fulfillment in the Burial At Sea adventure. Otherwise, this add-on lacks anything gripping enough to warrant an immediate journey back into the wonderful world of Bioshock.

Beta’d Review: THE WOLF AMONG US – ‘FAITH’

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by on October 10, 2013

Fresh off of their critically acclaimed, Game Of The Year award-winning triumphant outing with The Walking Dead last year, Telltale Games is back with their next episodic adventure, The Wolf Among Us. Based on Bill Willingham’s edgy comic book series, Fables, Telltale looks to compel gamers as they did with their previous blockbuster, by delivering a ruthless plot filled with bizarre twists and an extreme layer of shock value. Will they be able to recreate or exceed that level of magic this time around? Episode one of the five part series suggests that they are well on their way to doing so.

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Bigby Wolf, formerly known as the Big Bad Wolf, has given up his life of Little Red Riding Hood stalking and huffing-and-puffing to take a more righteous path… justice. As the sheriff of Fabletown, it is Bigby’s duty to maintain peace amongst the Fables and to keep their whereabouts concealed from the non-Fables (often referred to as “Mundys”) of New York City. Now the lead investigator in a strange unsolved murder case, you must take to the streets to solve the first Fable homicide to hit your town in years. Your reputation precedes you, however, so getting the information you need from folks isn’t going to be easy.

Unlike Lee Everett, who was a new character introduced in The Walking Dead game, Bigby Wolf is an established character in the Fables series. Fans familiar with Willingham’s comics can choose to make choices that they believe are canonical to Wolf’s comic book persona, or put themselves in his shoes and play the game entirely from their own perspective. I found myself choosing the high road most of the time, going against that “Big Bad” reputation of which Wolf is trying to cleanse himself. Of course, you can choose to be a complete asshole the entire time to everyone, if that’s what you prefer.

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At first glance, I noticed that the similarities between The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us are rather conspicuous. Both star protagonists with troubled histories that continue to plague them into the present day of their lives. Both start off with their protagonists sitting in the back of a moving vehicle, with a seemingly perturbed look on their face. Both games make you feel apprehensive about every word that you say and every action that you choose to make. Telltale Games has mastered the art of choice and consequence, and every time you see “So-and-so will remember that” flash at the top left of the screen, there is still that eerie reminder that the button you decided to mash will have repercussions, be they good or bad.

As usual with any Telltale Games title, the highlight of the experience is the compelling plot and the extreme twist that it takes. This is how The Wolf Among Us differentiates itself from The Walking Dead, taking the world of the Fables comic series and constructing an insanely gritty thrill ride from within. You quickly learn within the first twenty minutes of the game that this story is destined to be heartless and unpredictable. You learn not to get attached to any characters unless you want to be heartbroken and not to trust other characters unless you want to feel betrayed. The Wolf Among Us is yet another emotional free-for-all from Telltale Games, and you better believe that no one is safe.

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The writing in games like these is the lifeline that can make or break the experience. There is no shortage of engaging dialogue in episode one, perfectly delivered by the game’s stellar voice acting cast. Adam Harrington’s terrific portrayal of Bigby Wolf sits perfectly between that of an extreme douchebag and a misunderstood nice guy. The game’s writers didn’t hesitate to use the cruelest of obscenities to set the tone for The Wolf Among Us’ unforgiving atmosphere. The pacing is also very well done, getting us accustomed to the game’s setting and the rules of the source material, while humoring us with a sense of raw comic relief during the game’s less frantic moments, just to keep things fresh and interesting.

The cel-shaded art style that has come to define Telltale’s games is the most refined that it’s ever been. Substantially more polished than their previous games, the game graphically excels in delivering those “living comic book” visuals that are pleasing to the eye. It may be a bit different from what fans of the source material are used to, but it’s an outstanding adaptation nonetheless.

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If you’ve played The Walking Dead on the PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360, you’ll be familiar with the point-and-click control scheme in which the left analog stick moves the character and the right analog stick moves the game’s cursor (WASD and mouse on a PC, respectively). You’ll also be familiar with the abrupt quick time event action sequences which call for your immediate placing of the cursor on a certain area of the screen, combined with a press of a button. The interactive dialogue is back as well, with players having to quickly skim through the answers before pressing a button while a timer winds down. You are allowed to let the timer run empty and be silent if you please, though that has its own repercussions as well.

Upon finishing the episode, you are given a preview of the next (which will be different based on your choices made during episode one), followed by a recap of the choices you made throughout your playthrough. I fell into the vast minority in every choice except for one, but I’m sure once the game officially releases this Friday, the numbers will even out a bit. This is yet another one of the excellent features Telltale includes in their titles, and an interesting way for folks to gauge their thought process with the rest of the game’s player base. If there are two things the folks at Telltale Games know how to do, they are coercing you into questioning your morality and making you explore the lofty extremes of your conscious, just to see the outcome of your wild decisions.

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There are a slew of similarities between The Walking Dead game and The Wolf Among Us. From a technical standpoint, I’d even go as far as saying they’re close to identical, mechanics-wise. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that the characters, environment, music and plot are all unique and extremely entertaining. With an abundance of choices to be made throughout the first episode, the replay value and justification to go back an make different choices is extremely high.  I even found myself backtracking to scavenge every inch of the playable area Bigby was allowed to explore, searching for anything that might change the story’s outcome.

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At the conclusion of my four-and-a-half hour playthrough on the Xbox 360, I was left at a rather nightmarish-yet-mind-blowing cliffhanger, a fine ending to the first installment of what is looking to be another masterpiece by the folks at Telltale Games. They’ve not only managed to put their unique touch on the Fables comic series, but they’ve remained true to form in regards to the source material. If you are a fan of Fables or you enjoyed The Walking Dead games from last year, this is definitely a game that you do not want to miss.

Are you excited for Telltale’s The Wolf Among Us? Let us know in the comments below!

Beta’d: Ed Boon on His MORTAL KOMBAT Legacy

by on September 26, 2013

Mortal Kombat: Legacy premiered its second season today on Machinima. It tells the continuing, and hyper-violent, journey of your favorite characters from the classic video game franchise. The man behind all of it, the creator of the video game, is Ed Boon, who, along with John Tobias, brought some of the most colorful and singular characters in all of gaming to life. We spoke to Mr. Boon back at Comic-Con about the new season, about taking the Mortal Kombat formula to Injustice, and about the legacy that led to Legacy.

NERDIST: So, what’s it like having created a game that was so well-known for digitizing actors, and then seeing them fully realized by actors? How has that been from your perspective?

ED BOON:Well, the evolution, I guess, has been very gradual. We went from 2D kind of sprites to pretty awesome technology, so it’s been great in that it’s endured as long as it has. I just saw the episode with Johnny Cage. And the spirit of Johnny Cage is that he was our comedic change in the whole story. He’s the guy with the smart-ass lines with that kind of twist on it. Raiden’s the serious god who came through, and the spirit of those characters has maintained throughout all those renditions of it.

N: How do you feel having created all this and knowing that there are people out there, like the creators of the show, who love these characters so much that when they see that it’s not in the public eye, they say “We need to do this”? What’s that like, having people not just love it, but want to support it and want to make it big?

EB: It’s overwhelming, I guess? It’s weird to think that one little idea you had is now represented in so many different forms of media. You see the guy in Legacy 2, the Liu Kang guy, he throws a fireball and that was an original idea we had represented in sprites, and now it’s presented in a much more sophisticated way. That’s so cool to see that as technology evolves, different mediums adapt Mortal Kombat in a much more sophisticated way than we originally did with sprites. I’m still in awe.

N: So with the games evolving, you moved into 3D graphics, and continuing to follow things, you’re still involved with the series, correct?

EB: Yes.

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N: And to have it move beyond just Mortal Kombat, where DC is saying, “Okay, now we need a fighting game that feels natural and real.” NetherRealm, your company, helped create Injustice, and it doesn’t feel exactly like Mortal Kombat, necessarily, and it’s so interesting that Mortal Kombat has a flavor but it’s so amiable. How do you feel about the interpretations people are bringing to it?

ED: I guess to your point about “Injustice feels like Mortal Kombat but it’s not” is that we did try to separate it, but you know, the DNA of us and stuff is there.

N: It is the best pick up and play game of the year, by the way.

EB: Oh, thanks.

N: If I have a friend who I say, “I want you to come over and play video games” and he says, “I don’t play video games,” I can say, “It’s fine, I have Injustice”. We’ll be able to play and you’ll be able to beat me a few times. It’s such a good game; sorry, a little aside there.

EB: Thank you. But, yeah I think the DNA of our studio, of our people, some of that just has to get into Injustice. You know, that’s a very superhero over-the-top game. Mortal Kombat is a little bit more, I don’t want to use the word tongue in cheek, but we don’t like to take ourselves too seriously, like we have elements of humor and stuff like that that we introduce.

N: With Legacy, it is very popular, people know it, and it is a part of Mortal Kombat now.  Do you feel at some point you might take these people and go back and do the Mortal Kombat game based on Legacy? Is that something you want to look at as DLC for another game?

EB: I think that could happen. I think, like you said, like the DLC of Legacy Johnny Cage would be a hit. I don’t know about the entire game being around it; that might be a different interpretation.

N: But a cast-portrayed DLC of Johnny Cage.

EB: Exactly. I think that would be cool.

N: I would download the Legacy DLC if it all came together in a heartbeat.

EB: Exactly, and with Injustice we had Arkham City versions of Batman, we had just different renditions of….

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N: Oh, you’ve gotten a lot of my money sir.

(both laugh)

EB: So, I think it’s great that, like those comics, they have these different universes, these different interpretations of it, and that’s what I consider Legacy to be. It’s just a great contemporary model.

N: It’s interesting to me that you have this DLC coming out and everybody’s moving into DLC, and some DLC is better than others. I mean, people that are doing the multiplayer maps, things like that. You guys went in and you’re not just unlocking skins with your DLC; you’re getting a fully formed character that’s balanced. Lobo has completely different traits than the Martian Manhunter, and nothing feels farm-produced, and you guys are doing it right. As a company realizing that DLC is what going to be pushing people forward, how do you get people that might even be skeptical on your own team; how do you get people jazzed and going, “guys, people are going to embrace it, we just need to go with it for now.”?

EB: Honestly, with our team, I didn’t have to convince anybody, everybody was like “I wanna see Darkest Knight skin, I wanna see Flashpoint skin, I wanna see New 52”.

N: And you gave us so many skins in the regular game, I don’t feel cheated when I’m being asked for a whole new character.

EB: Exactly, but the level that it has been embraced has exceeded our expectations and it’s been ridiculous. I was always a little bit wondering for the skins, like Hal Jordan skin vs. John Stewart skin, and “are people really gonna care?,” but they’re all over it.

N: Everybody has his or her favorite version.

EB: That’s exactly it. Everybody has something that resonates with them and it’s cool, it’s nostalgic, there’s a novelty to seeing it in the front game and just like you were saying with the Legacy thing, people dig seeing something like a Johnny Cage character.

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N: This is the last question on the games, and then we’ll focus back on Legacy: With the DLC and the Xbox One and PS4 coming out, one of my favorite moments in games of all times is Metal Gear Solid when Psycho Mantis reads my card. Do you feel that DLC is moving in such a way where, say, someone buys one NetherRealms game and then a few months later they buy the next game, do you think reading games of all you own is going to start becoming an unlockable thing with the way Xbox One is integrating?

EB: Absolutely. Especially, studios like us really like to have a relationship with the players. A lot of people identify us with “they’re still doing DLC” and other stuff. So it’s almost like talking with the play, like, “we know you got Mortal Kombat 9 so here’s a free thing to give you for that,” just as like a loyalty thing.

N: It’s just got to feel good to have the publishers reinvigorating by some of the things that have happened. For a while there I felt like we were just getting a bunch of ultimate editions and things like that, and in the last few years with Warner Brothers and everything it feels like people are reinvigorated. And it did seem for a little while it was starting to feel like Mortal Kombat was starting to eclipse and find its end, but between this and Warner Brothers and everything, it’s really like it’s back.

EB: Warner Brothers is absolutely great. Every conversation I’ve had with the higher-ups and stuff like that is that they are absolutely committed to Mortal Kombat. This Legacy 1, Legacy 2, my fingers are still crossed for a third movie; I’d love to see these guys to do a full-length feature film. That would be a great thing as well. And you know I wouldn’t be surprised if we never did a Mortal Kombat game again. So I really think that they are committed to it, and they are showing all the support in the world.

N: As far as Mortal Kombat: Legacy goes, how soon did they get you involved? Because that original teaser, that was just a proof of concept video that you guys weren’t involved in.

EB: You know what’s so funny is, we were one day away from releasing our own trailer for Mortal Kombat 9, the Mortal Kombat game that came out in 2011. The day before we released ours, Kevin’s trailer came out, and everybody thought it was us somehow showing, “hey, this is what Mortal Kombat is”. And it wasn’t and I was in front of my computer screen like everybody else going, “What the hell is this?” New interpretations of Baraka and Reptile and all these characters so it couldn’t have been better timing because people just started talking about Mortal Kombat. And then ours came out and they kind of played off of each other.

N: I think from the word “go” everybody just thought “OK, make it now”.

EB: Exactly, it was just a fantastic, like you said, proof of concept that just laid the groundwork, established the vision, everybody saw the third movie and the Legacy series just from watching that.

N: When they sat down with you, what were you happy to bring to the table for Legacy? What contributions have you been able to point at and go, “I’m happy that this is in there and it’s in there because of me,” aside from just the general whole thing?

EB: They sent us scripts really early on, and we were just the gatekeepers in terms of keeping the characters consistent. What’s great about the series is they have diverged, like their interpretation of Raiden was pretty way off, but I kept thinking this is an alternate universe like Red Zone Superman or something like that. It’s something that has the spirit of the character, but it’s in a completely different context and so when you think about it in that way I was cool with them taking some risks and taking some tangents. But the spirit of the character is what our conversations maintained.

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N: And just to wrap up, what are you playing right now?

EB: I’m playing The Last Of Us, which is the main thing I’m trying to consume. And the smaller games and stuff like that. And I’m trying to go back to trying to some of the games that I missed just ’cause I was in the middle of finishing a game or something like that.

N: I’m going back way further than you should normally have to, but I’m playing Beyond Good and Evil for the first time.

EB: Are you really? (laughs)

N: I’m playing it on my Gamecube. I didn’t get it downloaded on my Xbox so I’m like “No, I’ll play it on my Gamecube, I’ve had it.”

EB: One of the games that I’ve seen people play, appreciate and I’ve got an idea for but never played was Resident Evil 5 or something like that, so I really want to get those.

N: So Street Fighter vs. Tekken happened and there was that kind of synergy. Warner Brothers seems open to that kind of conversation sometimes. What’s the likelihood that we might ever see a Capcom/Mortal Kombat brawler? Like the game where everybody’s jaw would drop if you ever did that because DC vs. Mortal Kombat paid off.

EB: What I tell people is, the obstacle isn’t our desire to do it. To me, the obstacle is Capcom and NetherRealm to Warner Brothers are competitors, and it’s like, who would control it?

N: Pure fanboy question, I will make sure it’s worded (so) that it doesn’t sound like you’re bad, but if you had your choice of which franchise Mortal Kombat would square off against in a Vs. game like that…

EB: Oh, Street Fighter.

N: Street Fighter?

EB: Yeah, without even blinking. That would be great, that would be my number one choice. I mean, I would love to do Marvel Vs. DC as well, but Disney owns Marvel.

N: Yeah, but there are certain things, like Kingdom Hearts is that example I like to put out there, where everybody would make so much money it’s just, whatever.

EB: Oh, yeah. (laughs)

And if you haven’t seen Mortal Kombat: Legacy‘s first season, you can catch up on the whole thing by clicking here.

Beta’d: Taking to the Seas of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

by on September 15, 2013

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag turned out to be the bad kid that got straight A’s at PAX Prime this year. Ubisoft Montreal has taken the naval battles from Assassin’s Creed III and went on to build what is appearing to be an incredibly refreshing addition to the series. Forget anything that Disney’s Peter Pan has taught you about pirates. Black Flag is the real deal and is aiming at landing the most authentic and engaging depiction of the Golden Age of Piracy in a video game to date. Also, as an added bonus to all of that, the game is actually shaping up to be the funnest Assassin’s Creed title in the series thus far.

Assassins-Creed-4-Black-Flag-poseOn this adventure you take control of Edward Kenway, the grandfather of the previous game’s protagonist Connor. You’re the swashbuckling captain of the avian-themed pirate ship, the Jackdaw. Managing the Jackdaw’s crew and it’s upgrades are a focal point for players throughout the game. There are a plethora of different ways to accrue currency to improve the Jackdaw and every action you take will have an effect on your ship so that it may hold it’s own over Black Flag’s harsh waters.

Deep Sea DivingRight off the bat, I noticed that Black Flag feels a lot more open than the previous “Creed” installments. You want to sail across the ocean to uncharted territory while hijacking other ships along the way? How about using a diving bell to deep sea dive and find treasure or spelunking through caves that can only be accessed from down below? These are just a few of the side-missions that you find yourself being sucked into. How and when you choose to engage in these activities is completely up to you, but succeeding in them feels extremely rewarding since the earnings can be used to grow your pirate empire on the Jackdaw. The motivation to make your ship the best it can be makes the sidequests feel a lot less chore-ish and serve as a stern distraction from the game’s main storyline.

Shark HArpoonI got extremely absorbed into one particular activity while demoing the game and I’m sure it may have made some folks question my stance on animal cruelty. Hunting sea animals with harpoons is indomitably fun. At first I mistook the activity as a simple, quickly packaged mini-game, but soon learned that there was a learning curve to the activity that required precision and timing to succeed. Not to mention the bull shark I was hunting actually fought back and rammed the boat in anger and desperation if I failed to kill it fast enough. There was an odd-yet-extreme look of pleasure on my face as I penetrated the poor shark with harpoons until it stopped moving. It was a gratifying challenge ; especially when considering how the successful hunting outing would benefit the Jackdaw.

assassin_lower_marqIt wouldn’t be an Assassin’s Creed game, however, without extreme human-on-human combat. I was able to check out a bit of the game’s fighting sequences and can say that the combat system feels as smooth as ever. Edward is an expert swordsman and can switch between his main weapon and handguns just like his grandson Connor. As usual with any Assasin’s Creed game, you can choose whether to take out enemies full on or with a quiet, more stealthy approach. Movement around the environment feels the same as before also, so veteran Assassin’s Creed players will have no trouble adapting in Black Flag.

gaming-assassins-creed-4-black-flag-screenshot-7Since I was demoing the PlayStation 4 version of the game, I noticed several nice features made possible with the Dual Shock 4’s touch pad. The ability to view the game’s map with the touchpad was a nice addition and feels about as intuitive as using google maps on a smartphone does. All of your normal swipe and “pinch to zoom” motions that have become second nature are present and setting waypoints is as easy as tapping the touchpad. The possibilities the PS4 touchpad offers have become more evident thanks to it’s solid implementation.

If you’re curious to see just how open Black Flag is shaping up to be, have a look at this thirteen minute gameplay video.

I’ve always been fairly disinterested in anything pirate-themed that doesn’t include Jack Sparrow and Assassin’s Creed III encouraged ample table flipping by me with it’s redundancy and lack of gameplay direction. With that said, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag was well on it’s way to sailing into the Bermuda Triangle of my gaming radar before PAX. But a couple of pirate ship battles and an awesome shark harpooning session later, I’m totally onboard with the direction Black Flag is heading in; all puns intended. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is due out October 31, on PS3, 360 and Wii U; PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on their respective launch dates.

Beta’d: Bend Time, Space and Bodies in SUPERHOT

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by on September 14, 2013

superhot1Are you having difficulty wasting immense amounts of time when you should be working? Are you looking for a new, extremely well designed game on which to wile away your waking hours? Well, look no further than Superhota new FPS in which time moves only when you do, from a small team lead by Piotr Iwanecki at Blue Brick Software. Originally created for 7DFPSa week-long competition in which programming teams were invited to create an FPS from scratch, Superhot is now up for voting on Steam Greenlight, Valve’s built-in system which allows fans to vote on which indie games they’d like to see sold on Steam’s digital store.

While games that play around with time mechanics aren’t necessarily new, Superhot flips the script on bullet time. As I mentioned, time only moves when you do, so every step you take means that bullet whizzing towards your face gets a centimeter closer. Combine this with limited ammunition and an unforgiving one-hit kill policy and the game plays out more like a puzzle game than a straightforward shooter. The result is an easy-to-learn, but hard-to-master FPS that will test your tactical thinking, timing and spatial relations in unique and deadly ways.

Looks pretty rad and vaguely dystopian, huh? Try out a free demo version of the game for yourself on the official website. It runs remarkably well on the integrated Unity web player, so I’m eager to see how it would run when installed directly to the hard drive. Watch out for that hallway level though; it’s a doozy.

What do you think of Superhot? Let us know in the comments below, hit me up on Twitter or let the community know by voting for it on Steam Greenlight.

Beta’d: WILDSTAR is Wild Fun

by on September 7, 2013

One of the standout games at PAX this year was Wildstar, a new MMORPG from NCSOFT. In the world of Wildstar, there is a galaxy wide land rush for the planet of Nexus. According to legend, Nexus is home to some of the most beautiful places imaginable, as well as the lost technology of an ancient civilization. The Exiles just want to settle the planet and live out their days making a home, while the Dominion seeks to add the power and secrets of Nexus to its empire.

WildstarBetween the Exiles and Dominion, the game has eight races to choose from. On the Exile side, there are the rebellious Humans, mercenary stone giant Granok, the forest-dwelling Aurin, and the space zombie Mordesh. Each race has a history with the Dominion and rebelled, putting down on Nexus to stop the Dominion colonization. The Dominion’s four races include the human zealot Cassian, the savage Draken, the insane yet brilliant Chua and the technological assassins the Mechari.

WS_Chua_Mordesh03The four classes are familiar yet bring subtle touches that make them wholly part of the Wildstar mythos. The Warriors are your standard MMO class, who have brute strength and big weapons on their side. Spellslingers use magic-infused firepower to even the odds; they make great healers and ranged fighters. Stalkers are light fighters that can take a hit and set a trap thanks to their tech prowess. The Esper uses psychic attacks that allow for ranged combat in addition to healing your party. For our hands-on demo of the game we created an Aurin Esper. Psychic blades? Check.

wdstr_screen_039On the surface of Nexus, our first quest involves helping some of the diabolically genius Chua disarm landmines placed across a landing zone. The humor and tone of the game are almost immediately infectious. The opening tasks of disarming mines and killing giant scorpions feel challenging but achievable, and it’s incredibly easy to fall into this game. The game leaves you to your own approach and doesn’t force any specific tactic on you in defeating your opponent. After figuring out that you can set a landmine to disarm and draw a scorpion toward you through the blast radius, I’ve figured out what works for my lightly-armored, psychic Esper. With the style of play I’m choosing, though, I wonder if a Stalker might not have been a better course of action. Within 20 minutes I was at a level 3 Esper and completed a couple of the demo’s goals.

The game will support four paths, Explorer, Scientist, Settler and Soldier. This helpful video breaks it down for us:

Wildstar is one of the most appealing MMOs I’ve seen in recent memory. The bright colors, over-the-top characters, and fun play mechanics make this game incredibly immersive. If you’re more sci-fi than sorcery and want to adjust your gaming experience accordingly, jump on board Wildstar now. The Wildstar Beta has launched and is adding players, so jump in while you still can.

Beta’d Review: GONE HOME is a Hauntingly Real Family Mystery

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by on August 22, 2013

Warning: This review may contain minor spoilers, so please read on at your own peril. Or, better yet, go buy the game, play it, then read this review.

The short review: A powerful experiment in storytelling, Gone Home is a hauntingly real, emotionally charged adventure that is over all too soon but continues to resonate with the player long after the credits roll.

The long review: Every once and a while, a game comes along that is such a palate cleanser, such a shock to the system in all the right ways that it gets you genuinely excited to be a gamer again. I’ve been fortunate enough to feel that several times over the past year or two in titles like The Walking DeadHeavy Rain, and Mass Effect, and now again in The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home. As I get older, I’m finding that I’m putting a premium on immersive storytelling, compelling characters, and the degree to which player choice affects gameplay. Obviously, I’m aware that player choice is something of a cipher, a means to give us a sense of agency over our actions while still guiding us along a generally pre-programmed path, but certain titles manage to make the player feel as though they have a tangible effect on how the story plays out, and Gone Home is no exception.

Set in the Pacific Northwest in 1995, Gone Home is a single-player adventure game about a young woman, Kaitlin Greenbriar, that returns home from traveling abroad in Europe to find that her family is nowhere to be found. Not her sister, Samantha. Not her parents. No one. You know how when you get home at night and you’re the only one home in a dark, empty house, how you get that simultaneous mixture of relief to be home and terror at what unknown horrors might lurk in the dark? Gone Home captures this all too familiar sensation beautifully and manages to sustain it for the game’s duration. Even as you turn on a light switch or close a closet door, you’re never quite sure what could happen next and it keeps the player on edge.

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The core gameplay revolves around exploring your giant empty house and trying to piece together just where the heck your family went. As you poke around the house, opening drawers and finding Clue-like secret passages in the massive old place, you find letters from your sister Samantha in the form of journal entries detailing her difficulties fitting in at school after moving into “The Psycho House,” correspondences between your father Terry – a struggling author – and his publisher, and notes between your mother – a forest service ranger – and her longtime friend. Have you ever read someone else’s diary or a letter written to them? It feels like a violation of privacy, but it’s also compelling stuff, and thankfully the game does not judge you for looking. Through these fragments, you start to build relationships with these characters and trace the arc of what happened to each family member in the time that you’ve been gone. What you find is a profoundly real portrayal of the Greenbriar family and their trials and travails.

Most compelling of all the story arcs though is the tale of Samantha, who had a tough time of it at school in your absence, and Lonnie, the cool punk rocker in an army uniform that she meets at school. The game beautifully captures the sensations of youth, the sort of deific power we attribute to music in our formative years, and chronicles a friendship so intense it seems destined to burn out and explode like a dying star. It is worth noting that Sam is the only character apart from Kaitlin whose actual voice we hear. As you search around the house, you find Sam’s diary entries, which play out in the form of audio logs, which are alternately sweet and heartwrenching. The game’s writers really tapped into a sort of primal quality in the teenage experience that draws you in and compels you to keep searching. Without giving too much away – it’s best if you go into the experience with as little knowledge as possible – it is their story that drives the majority of the action and keeps the tension level at a fever pitch.

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My biggest complaint about Gone Home is its price point, which I realize is somewhat petty of me, but it’s for a good reason. Gone Home was one of the most enjoyable, intense and immersive gameplay experiences I’ve had in a while, but when all was said and done, it was only about a four hour experience for $17.99. While that may be on par with your average movie ticket, it is still a bit higher than I’d expected to pay for an indie game, especially one that isn’t exactly bursting with replay value. Compared to Telltale’s The Walking Dead, which charges $5 a pop for roughly 2.5 hours of content, it seems like highway robbery. If they lowered the price to $10-12, I think many potential customers complaints would be assuaged, and it wouldn’t deter your average consumer who might see that figure as being too high.

At the end of the day, though, the folks at the Fullbright Company have pulled off something of a coup with Gone Home, creating a tactile, intensely personal and eerily realistic experience that is not to be missed. Hell, I’m an only child, and I was drawn into the human dramas and tragedies of the Greenbriar family. This is the kind of game that reminds me why I love the medium as a tool for storytelling, and, if you’re not deterred by the price, I cannot recommend it enough.

For an in-depth discussion with the Fullbright Company, listen to the most recent Indoor Kids podcast. Have you played the game? What did you think? Do you have your own theories about what happened? Lord knows I have an awful lot to say about Terry and Oscar, Terry and his father, Sarah and Lonnie, you name it. Let us know in the comments below, but please be so kind as to use spoiler tags so as not to ruin it for your uninitiated fellow gamers.

 

Beta’d: We’ve Seen Telltale’s THE WOLF AMONG US in Action

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by on August 21, 2013

Note: there may be some minor spoilers in this description, but major plot points have been omitted because who wants a mystery ruined for them right off the bat, huh?

Murder. Intrigue. Scotch-swilling pigs. That’s right, America, Telltale’s latest offering, The Wolf Among Us, has all of this and more. As I mentioned last week when the teaser trailer dropped, the Fables-inspired adventure game is one of the titles I am most excited to play this fall. Last week, in an alternately tony and tacky suite at the W Hotel in L.A.’s Westwood neighborhood, I sat down with members of Telltale’s development team, including the game’s lead writer Pierre Shorette, for an in-depth gameplay presentation that covered roughly half of the game’s first episode.

Notice how I said first episode? Much like their terrific The Walking Dead series, The Wolf Among Us is following an episodic release plan, 5 in total for $5 a pop, giving you roughly 10-15 hours of gameplay for $25 when all’s said and done, although if its anything like its zombie-filled predecessor – and it is – those 10 to 15 hours will be so engrossing that they’ll feel like a lot longer. Judging by the gameplay I saw during the demo, it’s entirely possible to blast through the chapter in a couple hours, but if you approach these games like I do, combing every inch of the environment and exploring every nook and cranny for clues, you’ll get your five dollars’ worth and then some.

Whether they intended to do so or not, one of the telltale signs that you’re playing a Telltale game is that it opens on the protagonist looking moody in the back of a car. With The Walking Dead, it was Lee Everett sitting in the back of a police cruiser. With 400 Days, we saw Vince shackled in the back of a prison bus. And now, The Wolf Among Us continues that proud tradition by opening on Bigby Wolf, the one-time Big Bad Wolf who is now the resident sheriff of Fabletown, glowering at the world outside the window of his taxi. The buildings pass by in a blur before pulling into focus as the cab comes to a halt in front of a dingy tenement lit by the burning fluorescent glow of neon signs aplenty.

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This doesn’t look like modern day New York; the signage and posters on bus stations for fake movies like Mongoose, an action picture with a protagonist that looks suspiciously like Snake Plissken, give the suggestion that this is the 1980s or Taxi Driver-era New York City. In other words, this takes place before the Fables we’ve come to know and love, which for my money is a smart call, narratively speaking. Shorette confirms that this is a prequel, so this isn’t the gruff family man that we’ve come to know and love in the comics; this is a Bigby who is still struggling to find himself and prove to the residents of Fabletown that he’s not just a violent sociopath, he’s a violent sociopath that cares about the community’s well-being. But that’ll come later; first Bigby has to deal with the sounds of domestic violence and a very irate Mr. Toad (of The Wind in the Willows fame).

Toad, it seems, is the landlord of this fine bit of public housing, but first the player has the option to dress him down for looking like a 3 foot tall anthropomorphic toad. It’s moments like these where the game wisely doffs its cap to series lore, explaining that non-human Fables must purchase glamors, spells that make them look like a human to onlookers, particularly mundies (the series’ term for “humans” or “mundanes”). The Wolf Among Us is unique in that Bigby is already an established character. Equal parts Wolverine and Sherlock Holmes, players can choose to roleplay the character they know and love from the comics or they can strike out on their own, using Bigby as a cipher, a tabula rasa on which to project themselves. It was a dichotomy that Shorette struggled with, but one he’s ultimately intrigued by, since it puts the choice firmly in the player’s court.

After putting Toad in his place or leaving him to his own crotchety devices, Bigby heads upstairs to an apartment where The Woodsman, looking like a drunk, less handsome version of the Brawny man, is smacking around a call girl, who we quickly learn is another Fable herself. Like most violent creeps, The Woodsman doesn’t take kindly to being called on his shit, and comes after Bigby with a vengeance. As in The Walking Dead, the action has more of a cinematic quality to it, with on-screen prompts that are more in line with Heavy Rain‘s style of gameplay than the frantic, infuriating Quick Time Events of Resident Evil infamy. The bedroom brawl is a brutal affair that presents the players with multiple mid-combat options. Do you try to slam him into the sink or bash his head on the counter? The choice, grisly though it may be, is yours, and that is the prevailing gameplay mechanic of the series. The experience is shaped and molded by the player rather than a completely linear, preprogrammed route. Granted, in many instances, this is but the illusion of choice, but it’s an illusion that works.

The dev controlling the demo threw our assailant towards the sink, but he managed to brace himself and grab a knife in the process. Bad move. He comes at us with a quickness, causing us to frantically mash our action button until we have a chance to pry him off of us. Eventually, we crack him in the jaw, breaking it in two. At least that’s what the Woodsman told us through a mouthful of blood and broken bone. The call girl Fable isn’t exactly forthcoming, and before we can interrogate her too much, we’re tackled by the Woodsman through the window, sending us both hurtling down to the street below and giving Mr. Toad’s car insurance agent a mountain of paperwork in the process. The donnybrook continues on the streets below, and the tide turns against our hero as the Woodsman chokes the life from his practically immortal eyes against a nearby bus stop when suddenly the sickening sound of an axe penetrating flesh and bone rings out. It’s the call girl. She just buried the Woodsman’s iconic weapon deep inside his cerebellum. He’s not dead, though. It’s tough to kill a Fable. Case in point: The Woodsman’s body is missing shortly after Bigby questions the femme fatale. Leave it to Bigby to leave a crime scene with more questions than he came into it with.

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The frenetic, frantic pace of the previous location gives way to a more relaxed, contemplative vibe once Bigby returns to The Woodlands, the luxury apartment complex that houses many of the New York Fables. Fables fans will find many familiar faces throughout – in our trip to the mayor’s office alone, we ran into Ichabod Crane, the Man in the Mirror (voiced by Gavin Hammon, who also portrayed Kenny in The Walking Dead), Snow White, Colin (one of the Three Little Pigs), and everyone’s fan-favorite flying monkey, Bufkin. Unfortunately, it’s not all fun and games where Fabletown is concerned. After a particularly depressing, existential conversation with Colin the Pig, Bigby is awoken with a rapping on his door. It’s Snow White, and there’s something he needs to see. Out front, beneath a lily white sheet, is a severed head. Not just any head though – it’s a Fable. A dead one, which is a feat unto itself where Fables are concerned. Now, the mystery is well and truly afoot. Or a head, I suppose. Either way, the adventure is just beginning….

Graphically, the game is a comic book fan’s dream come true, as the visual aesthetic brings Bill Willingham’s creations to glorious HD life and maintains the heavily outlined comic book style. It doesn’t look clunky or drab like other cel-shaded titles - The Wolf Among Us has a vivid color palette that contrasts the bright pinks and blues of Fabletown/New York’s neon signs with the grime and squalor of a Bronx tenement building. The result is a bit reminiscent of Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive in how it seamlessly blends the glitz and glamor with the gritty underbelly of the city in a supremely stylized fashion.

In terms of gameplay, it looks and feels remarkably similar to The Walking Dead, which is not a bad thing. Telltale has managed to modernize the point-and-click adventure game model that served companies like Lucasarts so well in the past. Crafting a well-rounded, emotional and interactive narrative is no easy feat, but Shorette and company make it look easy. Choice is still paramount, and I’ve learned that the passage of time will have an effect on the gameplay experience too. You can’t be everywhere at once. This is a lesson that was driven home by one of the game’s major choices towards the end of the demo: do you go to interrogate a key witness before something happens to him, or do you go to help Mr. Toad, who seems to be in danger himself. Telltale knows how to pull its players in multiple directions and push our emotional buttons; the very fact that I can’t interrogate the witness and protect Toad is evidence of that fact, and ultimately it makes for a more memorable gameplay experience.

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In terms of faithfulness to the source material, The Wolf Among Us knocks it out of the park. The voice acting is predictably terrific. Even though many of the voices don’t sound as I had imagined them in my head, I found them to be well acted and strong fits for the characters, aesthetically speaking. Of particular note is Adam Harrington’s Bigby Wolf, who manages to strike that balance between Wolverine and Raylan Givens that really brings the Big Bad Wolf to life and shows off an impressive range (as well as plenty of different ways to drop an F-bomb). It’s one of those instantly comforting and relatable voices like Joel in The Last of Us or Lee in The Walking Dead that draws you in deeper into the game world in all the right ways.

If you’re looking for a firm release date, then you’re out of luck. Even with Bigby’s overpowered olfactory senses, I couldn’t sniff out anything firmer than a release window from late September to early October. As I mentioned earlier, the episode will retail for $4.99 on a variety of platforms, including Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC/Mac. No word on iOS or Android versions at the moment, but it doesn’t take a mythical detective to figure out they’re likely candidates for support down the line.

Final thoughts: In case you couldn’t tell, I am awfully excited to play this game and what I saw in person did not disappoint. Although the build wasn’t quite finished, the skeleton of a truly great game is there, and it looks like that at long last we’ll finally have the Fables adaptation that we always wanted to see on our screens.

What do you think of the game so far? Are you going to pick it up? What would you like to see? Let us know in the comments below!