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Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag Review

The Assassin’s Creed franchise has become victim to repetitiveness on an annual basis, and many view it on the same level as Call of Duty. As the yearly titles roll out, many wonder if AC has lost its edge, and has fallen into the trap that annual franchises do. But that is just not the case with Black Flag, as Ubisoft delivers another astonishing addition to the AC universe. A mix of what made the original games great and the modern style of Assassin’s Creed III combine to help make AC IV one of the best games you’ll play this year.

Black Flag dumps you into the Golden Age of piracy, in the shoes of Edward Kenway, last year’s assassin Connor’s grandfather. You work as a privateer in the Caribbean, plundering ships and taking control of islands. You’ll find yourself in the company of other notorious pirates, with the likes of Blackbear, Charles Vane, and Calico Jack. Assassin’s Creed titles have always had two parallel story lines, one set in the past and one in the present. While the last game ended Desmond’s storyline, AC IV still features a modern day setting, in which you play as an intern at Abstergo Industries. These modern missions are a fun break from all the pirating you’ll be doing, and are quite a neat diversion.

The story of Assassin’s Creed IV won’t blow you away by any means. It’s more of an excuse to go and do some badass pirate stuff. There’s no problem with this, but I would have liked some more interesting supporting characters. Edward Kenway is great, however, as the central protagonist. While not as suave as Ezio, but not as dull as Connor, Edward has a charm of all his own, and is quite the jokester. You’ll quickly grow to love him and the world of the Caribbean within a few hours.

Assassins-Creed-4-Black-Flag-hello-thereUbisoft takes the excellent pirate gameplay from AC III, and expands that to a full-blown open world adventure in the Caribbean. Black Flag’s map is massive. The scale is impressive. Countless islands litter the map just waiting to be explored, and you’re free to do whatever the hell you like, even avoiding the main storyline as necessary. While in some games, this kind of freedom can be a hindrance, I didn’t feel that way in Black Flag. All of the side activities, from harpooning whales to assassinating targets, feels fun and unique, and doesn’t detract from the main story missions. There are possibly more side activities here than in GTA V, and these are even more fun and rewarding.

When you’re not invading fortresses, synchronizing viewpoints, or hunting animals, you’ll be sailing in the Caribbean aboard your own ship, the Jackdaw. The ship controls are excellent, and the weapons and upgrades you can equip add quite a bit of strategy and complexity to the game. When you attack a neighboring ship, you can choose to sink it to the depths or climb aboard for some plunder. A spyglass can be used to identify enemy ships and see if they contain anything worth taking. You’ll come away with some awesome rewards, that can be used to upgrade your ship. You can add new cannons, upgrade the hulls, set up a new sail, and the entire experience feels personal and fun.

That’s not to say you’ll be spending your entire time out exploring the open sea, however. You’ll also explore island villages and big sea ports like Kingston. Dense jungles also populate the region, allowing for some fun stealth sequences as you make your way through these beautiful rain forests. The main hub city, Havana, is gorgeous, full of crew members to recruit and shops to visit. The city is more detailed than AC III’s Boston, and more fun to explore using AC’s signature free running system. Even more upgraded from AC III, the free running allows Edward to perform parkour jumps and climb things like an animal. You’ll be spending quite a bit of time on the rooftops and in trees, so free running is an essential part of the experience. Sometimes it doesn’t work as well as you’d like, however, leading to some frustration as occasionally you’ll make a jump you didn’t mean to, and then get spotted by guards, ruining your entire plan. AC III was also plagued with these problems, and they are still aplenty in Black Flag, which is a shame.

The combat in Black Flag remains largely unchanged from the previous title. You can counter, disarm, and break enemy’s defenses. The enemy types you encounter mimic those that you found in AC III. There is still little variation in the combat system, unfortunately. The weapons you can use still feel fun though. You can buy new scabbards and rapiers, increasing the damage dealt, and you can also wield a wide variety of pistols. The pistols are seamlessly interjected into the combat, as you’ll be pulling off double kills and using your dual-wield pistols to great effect, chaining together spectacular kills worthy of the slow-motion finish. Stealth is also a big part of Black Flag, even more so than in previous games. You can still stalk enemies from above, eliminate them from haystacks, and silently pull them from ledges. Sometimes you’ll even need to be stealthy while aboard your ship, as you tail enemy ships in order to find out where they are headed. These missions became frustrating, as sometimes you’ll become engaged in combat with other ships, and have to restart the mission. The constant stalking missions became tiresome after a while, and some more varied mission structure would have been much appreciated.assflag

Assassin’s Creed Black Flag is gorgeous, and made to be played on next gen systems. I played on the PS3, and the game still looked stunning. From the beautiful open sea, to the populous cities, there is no shortage of eye candy in Black Flag. Characters on the whole look solid, and the universe is very well detailed. However, at a price for such beauty are the occasional graphical glitches and texture issues. The draw distance is limited, adding some strange pop-ins when islands appear out of thin air. Cutscenes are also a mess, as character’s voices don’t match up with their lips, and the cutscenes feel more like loading screens as they are poorly rendered and look unpolished. This is a shame really. A few extra months of work would have made the game even more beautiful, but it still is an visually enjoyable experience all around. The soundtrack is great, featuring high-adventure songs reminiscent of Pirates of the Caribbean. Your crew even sings a variety of sea shanties while you sail, and these are a lot of fun.

Assassin’s Creed Black Flag is everything you would have hoped for out of a pirate game. From the expansive world map to the massive number of diversions to take part in, you’ll have no shortage of activities to do in the Caribbean. Beautiful visuals carry frequent visual glitches, and the missions still need a bit more of polish, but on the whole, Black Flag is another great addition to the Assassin’s Creed franchise.

Overall: 8.8 out of 10.0

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Posted by on November 1, 2013 in Game Reviews

 

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Batman: Arkham Origins Review

Batman: Arkham Origins was doomed to fail the moment it was announced. When it was announced that Rocksteady, the studio behind the first two hugely successful Arkham games, would not be creating Arkham Origins, fans went wild. Arkham City was my 2011 Game of the Year, and one of my favorite games this generation. I have been hugely anticipating Origins, and while it is nowhere near the level of the previous two games, it comes pretty damn close, delivering another solid Batman action-adventure title.

Arkham Origins’s story may be the best of the series. This is a prequel, following the adventures of the Dark Knight two years after his arrival in Gotham. He is still at odds with the police, and still hasn’t attained hero status just yet. Arkham Origins finds Batman on Christmas Eve. The villainous Black Mask has hired eight assassins and has placed a price on Batman’s head. This causes the Dark Knight to spring into action to defend both himself and the city of Gotham, as he must defeat each of the eight assassins and stop Black Mask.

The confines of the story work brilliantly with the characters and setting represented. Black Mask has hired eight of Batman’s most villainous current enemies, ranging from Deathstroke to Anarky to Copperhead and to Bane. In Arkham City and Arkham Asylum, I felt that the random villains were placed very sporadically, with barely any service to the plot at hand. That isn’t the case here in Arkham Origins. Every villain plays an important role, whether they be a small side quest or a part of Deathstroke’s major plan.

The setting once more is Gotham City, sending us back to the beautiful open world that Arkham City so brilliantly portrayed. The entire map is available from the get-go, and a whole new area has been unlocked just for Arkham Origins. The open world setting that worked so great in Arkham City works just as great this time around, too. You’ll stop countless groups of thugs, interrogate enemies, solve puzzles, and much more. New this time around are crimes-in-progress, which are intercepted via the police scanner. You can stop these crimes for extra experience points. A new fast travel system has also been implemented, allowing Batman to hop in his Batwing and travel to different areas on the map, provided you have unlocked the fast travel point by solving radio tower puzzles, similar to Assassin’s Creed’s viewpoint system. A staple in the Arkham franchise is side-quests, and there’s no shortage of these in Arkham Origins. The Riddler is back, this time called Enigma, and he has a lot of puzzles and collectibles scattered around Gotham for you to solve. Other side quests find you investigating crime scenes and helping out the GCPD.

The perfect combat system receives some upgrades thanks to some difficult new enemy types.

The perfect combat system receives some upgrades thanks to some difficult new enemy types.

The perfect combat system is once again back, allowing Batman a wide variety of ways to dispatch his foes. You’ll be striking, countering, and using the Bat’s various gadgets in no time. New enemy types shake things up, like the martial artist, who actually counters Batman’s attacks. These new enemies feel welcome in the increasingly large group of foes you already face, and offer new challenges for seasoned Arkham veterans. Stealth is also a huge part of Arkham Origins. Batman sometimes finds himself dropped in a room with ten armed enemies, and must avoid being seen and take them out one by one. Old gadgets return such as the classic Batarangs and Exploding Gel, but new items like the Remote Claw, which allows Batman to tether his foes to items like fire extinguishers, and Concussion Grenades, which do what you’d expect, feel right at home amidst Batman’s ever-increasing arsenal.

A big focus this time around is Batman’s detective mode. At times in the story you’ll find yourself among various crime scenes. You must use the Bat’s detective vision to scan and analyze clues within the environment, and then piece together the crime scene to see what happened. You can fast-forward and rewind the crime scenes as you piece them together, in a sort of augmented-reality type vision, which makes Batman feel like a CSI agent. It’s all a lot of fun, and a nice change in pace from all the fighting you’ll be doing.

All of this would add up to yet another perfect Batman game, but unfortunately there are a few flaws in the formula this time around. The game doesn’t feel very polished, or brand new. At best, it feels like an expansion to Arkham City, something that should have been priced at $40. Nothing has been drastically changed here. The transition from Asylum to City was massive, but you don’t get the sense of surprise this time around in Origins. The story is great, no doubt, but the new additions do very little to justify the purchase of a full-priced new Batman game. There’s a certain lack of innovation in Arkham Origins, and it definitely shows.

Arkham Origins look solid overall, despite a few graphical hiccups.

Arkham Origins look solid overall, despite a few graphical hiccups.

Batman: Arkham Origins has solid presentation overall, but a few bugs and graphical glitches make the game feel rushed and a bit unfinished. Gotham City is beautiful. There wasn’t too much improvement of Arkham City’s already-beautiful world, but small changes make the game look great. It is constantly snowing this time in Gotham, and the game is wonderfully detailed. One reviewer I read complained about the lack of easter eggs and hidden secrets for Batman fans, but that is a blatant lie. There are plenty of fun visuals and gags for Batman veterans to find and explore, and they are a lot of fun. While the gameplay looks great, the cutscenes do not. The Arkham series is notorious for poor cutscene rendering and bad lip-syncing character models. Those are once again back in Origins. Sound glitches and audio bugs abound as well, with the fast travel animation constantly stuttering, and characters sometimes not moving their mouths when they talk. This lack of polish makes the game feel unfinished, and may turn off some fans. The voice acting is great of course. Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy both opted not to return for Origins, to many fans’ disappointment. But their replacements, Troy Baker and Roger Craig Smith, do an excellent job, and I don’t even miss the original voice actors. The soundtrack is good, too. An intense menu theme sticks out, and the ambient sounds among Gotham sound great. A multiplayer mode has even been tacked on, but I have not had a chance to play it yet.

Batman: Arkham Origins is already getting a lot of flak for not living up to expectations, but when the previous two titles were perfect, how can they top perfection? Warner Bros. Montreal has done a fantastic job of creating another great Batman title. Despite a few bugs and a lack of polish overall, Arkham Origins is a stand-out, and should not be passed up by fans of the past two titles.

Overall: 8.0/10.0

 
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Posted by on October 26, 2013 in Game Reviews

 

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Pokemon X and Y: Initial Thoughts and Impressions (Semi-Review)

The tried and true Pokemon formula has not received a real update since its first release back in 1998. With Red and Blue, Nintendo and Game Freak created a revolutionary franchise. Now in its sixth generation, Pokemon X and Y represent the 3D evolution of the genre. While still retaining the classic Pokemon elements that make it tick, X and Y are solid titles that will ignite the 3DS and further define Pokemon as one of Nintendo’s most profitable and recognizable IPs.

The biggest change in X and Y comes in the presentation. No longer from the top down, Pokemon X and Y take advantage of the shift in dimension that the 3DS can handle. Now, the game is presented in a 3D world. You can see cities looming in the distance, and the added sense of depth gives a unique feel to the new region of Kalos. It does not use this new dimension to its full potential, however. To many’s dismay, only battles are in fully 3D, with towns and the overworld resorting to traditional 2D. This comes as the game’s biggest shame. This game could have simply been released on the regular DS. While it’s effective considering that the 2DS was released alongside X and Y, presentation-wise, the graphics and visuals seem like a cop-out. It feels rushed, at least in terms of raw potential of the hardware. When it is in 3D, the battles look great. Pokemon feel strong and powerful thanks to the new visuals, and attacks are given neat visual flourishes that look great on the system. But along with this comes a staggering drop in frame rate, which comes as a huge disappointment. Big battles against gym leaders and rivals lag a lot, and when multiple Pokemon take up the screen, it resorts back to 2D. Probably only 15% of the game is possible to be played in 3D. If Nintendo would have taken just a bit more time to refine the 3D effect and make it work with battles and the overworld, we would have had a whole new experience rather than something that feels like a rushed product that doesn’t take full leverage of the hardware.

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Now that my rant about presentation is over, let’s get to the good stuff. Pokemon X and Y bring new changes to the formula that shake things up considerably. First off, X and Y bring 70 some odd creatures into the mix. New Pokemon like Skiddo and Pancham will become instant favorites, and X and Y have some of the best designed creatures we’ve seen in years. While Black and White resorted to inanimate objects and blatant copies, X and Y feel like some thought was put into these creatures. Alongside those new creatures, a new type is introduced, the Fairy type, which balances things out considerably. Fairy type is completely immune to Dragon types, which no longer makes them OP, resulting in a big change to the system, especially competitively. This new type feels completely welcome, and many Pokemon new and old sport this new type. Another new feature is the ability to finally customize your avatar. You are given skin tones to choose from, and countless fashion accessories like hats and bags to sport. This makes your character feel more personal, and makes the online features more fun, which we’ll get to later. The final big game-changer that X and Y introduce are Mega Evolutions. These special evolutions are unique to only certain Pokemon, and this evolution allows them to evolve during battle only. This makes them extra powerful, and some even change types. For example, when Charizard, normally a fire-flying type, transforms into Mega Charizard, he gains the dragon type, which changes things considerably. The only downside to this new features is that it isn’t used very much throughout the game. Other than a short introduction to the new system of mega evolution, if none of your Pokemon can mega evolve, you won’t be seeing it much on your journey.

You still start out in a small town with your mom (where’s dad?), and meet friends/rivals who help you on your Pokemon journey. You are given a starter by Professor Sycamore, and the game gets on its way. You still get 8 gym badges on your way to becoming a Pokemon champion, blah blah blah. Now, I realize that story has never been Pokemon’s strongest point. But when Black and White featured an excellently mature story with interesting characters and villains, I expected X and Y to take that even further. Rather, we are going backwards. Your four friends are boring stereotypes and frankly quite annoying, and the new team, Team Flare, is pathetic and laughable. The main story, involving Team Flare trying to wipe out civilization (wow, unique!) with the help of a legendary Pokemon, either Xerneas or Yveltal depending on which version you chose, is stupid and petty compared to what it could have been. I know the game is made for kids, and story has never been a big part of the series, I still expected something more engaging and original.

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Kalos, the new region based on France, is pretty awesome. Surrounded by a huge central city based on Paris, Kalos features many odds to French culture, and diverse areas to explore, like coastal areas and mountain ranges. The cities and towns you come across are somewhat forgettable, especially in the first half of the game. The game takes a weird turn after the first gym badge, as the gap between the two gyms is huge and expansive, spanning like four new towns and countless Pokemon. You may even become overleveled as you travel to the next town, thanks to an updated Exp Share, which evenly distributes experience points to all of your party members. While this is welcome for after the Elite Four and makes grinding much easier, it feels like Nintendo catering to the younger crowd to make things easier. X and Y are significantly easier than previous games in the franchise. Eventually you’ll come to a point where you can simply slaughter every trainer and gym you pass, as your Pokemon are unstoppable and over-leveled. It’s an interesting new shift in gameplay, as even the worst Pokemon player will have no problem beating all eight gyms and dominating the Elite Four.

What I enjoy most about X and Y is that it changes the social features for the best, and takes full advantage of the 3DS’s wireless capabilities. The bottom screen this time around contains the PSS, or Player Search System. This allows you to connect with friends you’ve registered on your 3DS friends list, as well as random passersby and people with which you trade. This makes it much more accessible, as you can trade and battle anywhere, you don’t have to go to a Pokemon Center and wait and wait to connect. New features like Wonder Trade, which allows you to play Pokemon Russian Roulette as you trade random Pokemon with a stranger, and O-Powers, which let you give attack boosts and other effects to your friends while they battle, make the game more social and more accessible than ever. It makes it feel like a full-fledged online game, and you’ll never feel alone in this Pokemon world anymore.

Pokemon X and Y make interesting decisions in terms of presentation, but what they change in the gameplay department make up for that. Fantastic new social features, new Pokemon, and a whole new type make X and Y feel not like a whole new game, but a refinement of what we’ve come to know and love.

Overall: 8.0 out of 10.0

 
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Posted by on October 21, 2013 in Game Reviews

 

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Grand Theft Auto V Review

It’s finally here. After nearly two years of waiting since its announcement, and watching the hype levels rise and rise, Grand Theft Auto V is finally upon us. Rockstar’s huge open world series is back in a swan song to this generation of consoles. Making big gameplay changes and with a less serious tone than its predecessor, does GTA V live up to the hype? Let’s find out.

The addition of three main protagonists keeps things engaging and fun.

The addition of three main protagonists keeps things engaging and fun.

The story of GTA V centers around three main protagonists. That’s right. Breaking tradition, Rockstar introduces us to three main heroes, rather than focusing on one. First we are introduced to Franklin, a street thug who wants more than a life of crime in the hood. Next there’s Michael, a retired bank robber who now lives a depressing life in the rich part of town with his resenting family. Lastly, there’s Trevor, a crazy psychopath living in rural San Andreas.

Various events bring these three men together in the city of Los Santos. Franklin is taken under Michael’s wing, sort of as a son. The dynamic between these two is fun to watch as it unfolds. In contrast, the relationship between Michael and Trevor is rocky, to say the least. The two have quite a history together, and until now, weren’t even aware that the other was alive. The three have a good group energy, but neither character is all too interesting. Having three main protagonists unfortunately doesn’t allow time for three main fleshed-out characters or personalities. Unlike GTA IV’s Niko Bellic, or GTA: San Andreas’s CJ, these three guys just aren’t as interesting, without clear motivations or goals. Sure, they have their own struggles, be it with family or work, but on the whole they aren’t as fascinating as other Rockstar heroes.

The new mechanic of having three main characters adds its own unique touch to the GTA universe. For one thing, it keeps the story fresh, and there is always something exciting going on in one of these guys’ lives. If you get bored playing as one character, or don’t want to travel across the sprawling map, you can switch on the fly, zooming out in a Google Maps-type loading screen, which then zones in on the other character’s position. They might be in a crazy situation since you last left them, or they may have new missions to tackle. I like the new system of multiple protagonists, but would I want it to return in future GTA iterations? Probably not.

After an opening prologue, you are introduced to the world of San Andreas, which has seen an update since we last visited. The bustling downtown of Los Santos mimics Los Angeles perfectly, and the resemblance is uncanny. Furthermore, you have backwoods and countryside to explore, mountains to scale, oceans to dive in, and much much more. The initial feeling of having too many overwhelming opportunities eventually subsides, and you are soon left to explore the world at your will. The entire map is unlocked from the get-go, and it is a blast to explore. The diversity in the many locales you venture keeps things from getting stale, and the many diversions will keep you busy when you aren’t on missions.

Speaking of diversions, San Andreas is not lacking in activities to take part in. From golf or cycling, to hunting animals or customizing cars, to base-jumping or scuba diving, you will always have something to do. There are cars to customize, clothes to buy, weapons to upgrade, and a lot more. There is rarely a dull moment in San Andreas. In addition, random events occur quite often, akin to Red Dead Redemption, where you can choose to participate or flee the scene. You may stop a cutpurse, or even save a barber shop from being robbed. These random events keep you on your toes, and sometimes even have unexpected rewards.

The city itself is the star of the show. Los Santos is dense, and jam-packed with people and cars. The concept of a living-breathing world has never been as fully realized as it has here in GTA V, and Rockstar did it best.

Grand Theft Auto V represents a sort of conditioning at work here. Rarely do I cause mayhem as Michael or Franklin, only when necessary. As Trevor, though, I go crazy: stealing cars, killing pedestrians, and the like. The stark contrast between the three characters make things like this matter, even if it isn’t a big deal in the long term. Because the city feels so alive, I feel more inclined to drive with the flow of traffic, and park in designated parking spots. Of course occasionally I’ll speed through red lights or cause heavy crashes, but in GTA V there isn’t much of a point. It’s an interesting thing, and I can’t quite explain it, but at times GTA V feels more like The Sims than it does GTA V. With so many things to do in the city, and with things to do around the house and with friends and family members, GTA V feels like a life simulator. It’s a strange effect, but when not on missions, you’ll feel it, too.

The heist missions are the standouts, allowing for multiple methods of success.

The heist missions are the standouts, allowing for multiple methods of success.

In terms of missions, GTA V isn’t lacking. With over 65 story missions, and plenty of side-missions, you’ll be busy for a long time. GTA V has made great changes to mission structure, and they’re for the best. For one thing, checkpoints are now here, so you avoid frustration and having to drive to these locations over and over if you fail.  Another new feature allows you to skip a mission entirely if you fail three times. This is good if you are stuck on just one mission, yet want to continue with the story. The biggest change is in mission variety. GTA IV had a lot of “drive here, shoot these people, get this thing, and come back” kinds of missions, with the exception of an awesome bank-robbing heist. Rockstar has taken that with a grain of salt, and expanded on the mission variety immensely. Early on, you’re still doing small jobs, but these are a lot of fun and don’t feel like they’re tacked on just to teach you the ropes.

The biggest and best part of GTA V comes in the form of heists, huge missions that your gang tackles, in order to make big bucks or make a big score. These require careful planning, and you must plan each element of the heist meticulously. Your pal Lester helps you here, advising you on whether to go in smart, or go in guns blazing. One jewelry heist gives you the choice of gassing the customers and then breaking in, or going in Rambo-style and take no prisoners. You plan these heists straight down to the getaway vehicles, and you choose who you want to take with you on these missions. You need hackers, getaway drivers, gunmen, and more, and these come in the form of gang members you recruit, or old friends from past games. The planning of these big missions make each attempt feel unique, and they allow for repeated attempts, so you can see each outcome.

On these big heists, you can switch to any of your three main characters, to see their perspective on things. The game tells you when you might want to switch, but its entirely up to you. Michael may be holding a man hostage, while Franklin provides cover fire, and Trevor flies a getaway helicopter. By giving you three different points of view to see through, Rockstar has given you more freedom in execution, and this is a welcome change. You can also replay missions at any time to try for a better score, and there are even optional objectives to complete during the mission, similar to Assassin’s Creed’s synchronization challenges.

New gameplay changes help to refine the third-person, open-world experience. The gunplay this time around is more akin to Max Payne 3’s gunplay. A weapon wheel lets you select your weapon of choice, and the snap to aim feature is a welcome addition. This can even be turned off entirely for those who want a challenge. The cover system has been greatly refined, being less sensitive and more tactful this time. Sometimes you even have the option to be a bit stealthy, and you are often rewarded for keeping a low profile. Melee combat also feels tighter, with more options, and character movement is less floaty.

Of course, being a GTA game and all, you’re of course going to run into some cops, and they’ve been made smarter and more aware since the last time they graced Liberty City. Now, instead of escaping a “zone” of police sirens, you can break their line of sight. If you go around a corner, they may lose sight of you. After this, they still search for you at your last seen location. Each cop has a small cone of vision which you must stay out of if you want to avoid capture. It’s a small change, but it makes you think before you act, and gives you more options in evasion. The police officers themselves are now smarter, and they’ll flank your position and take cover in addition to ramming you off the road to spin you out. This nice AI upgrade is definitely a needed and welcome change, as the GTA IV cops were sometimes bumbling idiots.

In addition, each character has their own set of stats, which you can improve as you play. Franklin is the driving expert, Michael’s great with guns, and Trevor can fly planes very well. Stamina, stealth, lung capacity, and more skills can be upgraded as you play, making each character feel useful in specific situations. Each character also has their own unique special skill, which they can use when their special meter is full. Franklin can slow down time when driving, and Trevor goes into a rage mode, boosting damage and defense for a short time. These unique skills allow you to choose which character is best for the job, be it combat or driving.

There is no shortage of things to do in Los Santos.

There is no shortage of things to do in Los Santos.

The driving, too, has been more refined. Cars and vehicles now stick to the road better, and don’t fly past turns or tumble over upon hitting a small bump. Driving is tight, precise, and feels great when you’re flying at high speeds down the freeway. There’s no shortage of vehicles either. From sports cars to bicycles to ATVs to jet skis to choppers and even blimps, the options are endless. Most vehicles can be customized to your need, fine tuning the engines, adding better brakes, or a completely new paint job. You can then store these in your personal garages to take with you when you cruise around or take part in street races. One small gripe I have is with driving and shooting. The reticle is super small, and you use the same button to shoot as you do to aim. This is a hassle when there is a lot on the road and you can’t focus your aim precisely.

San Andreas is visually arresting, and hugely populated.

San Andreas is visually arresting, and hugely populated.

You are given a smart phone, as well, to communicate with NPCs and fellow characters via email or text message. There’s no relationship system this time around, so don’t expect to be pestered by other characters asking to go bowling or get drinks. You can set these up yourself, and plan a night of darts or visiting the strip club, but you won’t be penalized for not socializing. Also on the phone you can take pictures, helpful for heist set-up missions. You can even take selfies and share them via Rockstar’s Social Club, and show them off to friends. An in-game stock market is also present online, allowing you to buy and sell shares of stock in big companies, and their success is determined by in-game events. You may hear financial predictions on the radio as you’re driving, and then its up to you whether you want to risk it all or not.

Rockstar has never been known to shy away from controversy, and their entire game worlds seem to be littered with satire and sharp jabs at pop culture and the media. In GTA V, sometimes they take things a bit too far for their own good. One torture scene has Trevor waterboarding a victim, which calls to mind the CIA’s use of waterboarding on Al-Qaeda suspects. This scene is uncomfortable to say the least. Get ready to hear the media’s reaction on this one.

When will we see smart and capable females in a Rockstar title? It's about time for that.

When will we see smart and capable females in a Rockstar title? It’s about time for that.

All of Rockstar’s main protagonists are smart, capable men, while the women are portrayed as nothing more than sex dolls or bitchy wives. When will we get a smart, cool female protagonist? One that doesn’t need men to push her around and can make her own decisions. The closest they have ever come to that is Bonnie MacFarlane in Red Dead Redemption, but even she was nothing more than a farmhand. I’m not docking points for controversial statements or misogynistic views, whether intended or not, but these questions and criticisms definitely come into mind when you’re playing.

Grand Theft Auto V’s visuals are subtle, less grainy and more detailed than its predecessor. Colors are brighter, helping the city feel more alive, and its hard not to marvel at the view of the city’s skyline from on top of a mountain. Unfortunately, due to hardware limitations, texture pop-ins are frequent. Characters, too, don’t look all that great in cutscenes. This makes me wonder where the technological potential used in L.A. Noire went. The voice acting is astounding. The characters are funny, and have fun things to say around town or when interacting with NPCs. Many guest stars also help give the city some flavor. The soundtrack is great, as always, featuring many radio stations to listen to while you drive around, with hit songs from great artists. The score is also good, although it didn’t standout from the crowd. There is even an online play mode in the form of GTA Online, which isn’t available until October 1, but I will tackle that in a separate review.

Grand Theft Auto V is the king of open-world games. The best open world in recent history can be found right here in San Andreas. The city nails the feel of a bustling, alive metropolis, and there is no shortage of stuff to do. The gameplay changes keep things new and fresh, and the entire engine has been refined for the better. Despite some graphical hiccups here and there, and protagonists who aren’t as interesting as they seem, GTA V is a champion.

Overall: 9.5/10

 
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Posted by on September 18, 2013 in Game Reviews

 

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Flashback Review – Batman: Arkham Asylum

This is something new I’m trying on my blog, where I review a game or movie that has been out for a while. I’m going to start with Batman: Arkham Asylum, which I just purchased off PSN last week (on sale!).

Batman: Arkham AsylumBatman: Arkham Asylum is the first game in Rocksteady’s trilogy featuring the Dark Knight. The game starts with Batman taking the Joker prisoner, and the two arrive at Arkham Asylum, a prison currently holding many of the Joker’s goons. He soon flips the tables and takes over the joint with the help of Harley Quinn, and kidnaps Commissioner Gordon. Batman must spring into action to save the day and stop the Joker’s plans.

A lot of the strength in Arkham Asylum’s storytelling comes from its cast of characters. Obviously, the Dark Knight is the star here, voiced with brilliance by Kevin Conroy. He’s calm under pressure, and can handle whatever trick Joker throws at him. The Joker, played by Mark Hamill, is also excellent. Insane and loony, the Joker works with many other classic Batman villains in his attempt to take over the island. You’ll meet Bane, Killer Croc, The Scarecrow, Poison Ivy, and many more.

The good thing about all of these villains is that it keeps the story from ever getting too stale. Around the corner, there’s a new villain to be found, and Batman must stop whatever they are cooking up. It keeps you on your toes and keeps you hooked. The one criticism I have about the game being structured this way is in its mission layout. Arkham Asylum is semi open-world, meaning that you can explore the island freely, but some areas are restricted until you finish a mission. The missions mainly come down to: enter a building, track a scent/fingerprint, take down the boss. It gets repetitive after a while, which is a shame. The bosses, too, are unremarkable. Simple pattern solving gets monotonous and dull, and some drag on far too long.

Arkham Asylum is played third-person, as you control Batman and maneuver him around the island. You have a lot of gadgets at your disposal to aid you in exploration and puzzle solving. The batclaw lets you grab onto things and pull them down, explosive gel lets you blow up weak walls, and the line launcher allows Batman to cross horizontal gaps. These gadgets are fun to use and are utilized in clever ways.

Using what is called “detective vision”, the Dark Knight can see through walls, track enemy movements, and find hidden secrets. You can see how many foes are in the next room, or even see how the guard is feeling at the time. It makes getting around and planning your moves a lot easier. On the exploration side, the Riddler has hidden hundreds of riddles and challenges around the island. These range from small question-mark trophies to solving riddles within the many buildings around Arkham Asylum. These allow for some excellent replay value, considering that sometimes you might not have the right gadget, and must come back later.

Besides problem solving and exploring the island, you’ll be punching a lot of the Joker’s goons and villains. Combat boils down to an easy system; one button attacks, the other counters. This allows you to string together long combos and dish out some powerful attacks. Whenever you see a flash above an enemy’s head, you can quickly counter it before getting hurt. A lot of new techniques are thrown into the mix here and there, and soon you must also stun guys first or jump over and attack from the rear. Continuously throwing in new enemies forces you to reconsider strategies and change tactics often.

Batman isn’t always about attack head-on, though, and sometimes you’ll be thrown into a room with seven guys armed with machine guns, in which attacking head-on would lead to death. Luckily, you’ve got a lot of stealth mechanics to work with to make the job easier. First, Batman can swing across gargoyles suspended above the room, to give him the height advantage on his enemies. From here you can survey the room and plan your attack, taking down guys one by one. You can hang from the ceiling and string up the bad guys, or glide down below and silently eliminate them. The freedom of choice you’re given during these confrontations is a nice bonus and allows for some cool planning in how to best get the job done.

Once you’ve finished the main quest, there is a challenge mode to tackle. Here, you play through combat and predator maps, where you’re literally tossed into a room with a bunch of guys and must take them down. You get rewards for stringing together combos and utilizing your gadgets during combat. Predator maps are stealth-based, where you must eliminate all the guards while fulfilling certain goals. These are a lot of fun, and offer great incentive, as the top scores are displayed on online leaderboards.

Arkham Asylum looks pretty good graphically. The island setting of the game lends for some dark visuals, where you might not be able to see anything, but the environment as a whole looks great. Characters, however, not so much. Audio doesn’t sync well with what they are saying, and besides from Batman and the villains, the secondary cast looks awful. The soundtrack is great, offering loud environmental sounds and tense action tunes. The soundtrack reminds me of Nolan’s films, which is a great touch.

Batman: Arkham Asylum is a great action-adventure game. The plot keeps you interested and the combat and puzzles are fun and engaging. Besides some inconsistent missions and dated visuals, Rocksteady has set the stage for what already is an excellent franchise, and I’m excited to see what they cook up for Arkham Origins.

Overall: 8.5/10.0

 
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Posted by on July 10, 2013 in Game Reviews, Uncategorized

 

The Last of Us Review

I finished The Last of Us last night, and I’m still reeling from the ending and the overall experience as a whole. This is a game that every gamer should play once in their lifetime. Games like these don’t come along very often, but when they do, they are something special. The Last of Us is PS3’s best game, and one of the best games I have ever played. It tells an emotional tale of two survivors and they bond they form, all while asking questions about morality and violence in a plague-stricken world.

The Last of Us starts 20 years after an apocalypse scenario and a plague that turns humans into zombie-like infected creatures. Quite the premise for what is to come. We meet Joel and Tess, two survivors living in a quarantined zone in Boston. Through a turn of events, in exchange for weapons and gear, Joel must sneak a young girl named Ellie out of the city and into the hands of the Fireflies, a resistant group. Ellie is immune to the plague, and she may hold the secret to creating a vaccine. Thus begins Joel and Ellie’s trek across the continental United States, as they encounter old friends and familiar faces.

The strength of The Last of Us doesn’t lie in the game’s premise, but rather its characters. This tale has been spun before, in different variations on a similar theme; apocalypses are nothing new to the medium. But its the characters who drive the story here. Joel is a hardened survivor. He has a dark past that he keeps to himself, and he is reluctant to take Ellie on this journey. Ellie, on the other hand, has been born into this world. She doesn’t know what life was like before this infection, and through Joel she pieces together what life was like back then. It’s an interesting dynamic between the two main characters that isn’t seen in many modern games today. The ending is fantastic, and I didn’t want to put it down once I got 3/4 through the game. From then on, it’s a thrill ride, both physically and emotionally, and the ending is perfect.

The Last of Us's world is beautifully detailed.

The Last of Us’s world is beautifully detailed.

Naughty Dog is an expert at their craft in terms of storytelling. The creators of the other PS3 smash hit series, Uncharted, they know how to tell a tale. The world is filled with broken-down buildings and fallen trees and dead bodies, and everything you see in The Last of Us tells a tale. You may see a broken down toy store, or an abandoned train station. In these many locations you visit along your journey you come across artifacts which help you piece together what happened in these locations. The attention to detail here is astonishing, Pixar-level astonishing. You may notice something different your third time through the game, whether be it through an item you missed or an interaction that just now makes sense. Point is, The Last of Us is beautifully detailed and you’ll want to play it again to see things the second time.

The Last of Us totes a gameplay engine similar to that found in Uncharted. Through heavy use of cover and stealth, you battle your way through waves of enemies and in this case, infected. Different here is that Uncharted was a more run-and-gun, killing machine kind of game, and Nathan Drake didn’t think twice about what he was doing. The Last of Us is drastically different. Stealth is much more of a focus here, so is conservation of resources. If you don’t have enough pistol ammo to take out a guy, you better rely on stealth to take him out so he doesn’t alert his allies. You may even want to avoid enemy confrontation altogether because you don’t have proper equipment. This makes the game into a great strategy lesson, as you wonder if you can finish the job with your resources. Luckily, you aren’t left to your wits alone. Joel is given a Listening Mode, which allows him to focus his hearing and see enemy silhouettes through walls. This helps a lot, and you can turn it off completely if you like. Since enemies react on sound, you can throw bottles or bricks to distract them, then run to safety, and the Listening Mode gives you additional help with locating enemies.

Crafting is a big part of The Last of Us. On your journey, you’ll come across all kinds of collectible equipment such as bandages and knives and alcohol, and you can craft in the craft menu to create things such as moltov cocktails, smoke bombs, or med kits. All of this happens in realtime, also, so you’re constantly trying to hide so you can craft a med kit and heal before you’re torn apart by the infected. It creates a suspenseful tone, and adds even more strategy to the game. You can also find gears and workbenches to upgrade your weapons, such as adding a scope to your hunting rifle or increasing your clip capacity. Joel also has upgrades of his own, and you can upgrade his healing speed, listening mode distance, and his overall health. The Last of Us is violent. Very violent. Joel and Ellie are survivors, and they learn to kill, but as a player, I’m here being grossed out by these kills. Joel will bash an enemy’s head into the wall or stomp on his face, but this all adds to the experience and it makes sense given the scenario.

Stealth is important, and very tense.

Stealth is important, and very tense.

All of this would add up to a 10/10 in my book, but Naughty Dog takes it a step further with multiplayer. Unlike Tomb Raider, another single-player experience, The Last of Us’s multiplayer is astonishing. It’s one of the best online multiplayer modes I’ve ever played. You choose to either side with the Fireflies or the hunters, and from there you start building your clan of survivors. There are two game types. Supply Raid has you and your team play deathmatch against the other team, and you all have a shared pool of lives, 20 to be exact. Whichever team’s pool is depleted first, loses. Survivors is more interesting. No respawns, and you must try and eliminate the whole enemy team. The game’s single player gameplay translates perfectly over to multiplayer. Crafting is still here, and it works perfectly. Listening mode is helpful, as well. But as a whole, given the quiet tone of the game itself, it makes you and others want to be quiet too and plan out their tactics, and this allows for some excellent teamwork and strategy. It’s a beautiful thing. As a metagame, after each match your points convert into food for your clan, and if you don’t perform well in a match, you may not have enough food to feed your clan. The goal is to survive 12 weeks, and it’s a very interesting concept which works quite well.

Visually, The Last of Us is stellar. Like I said earlier, the attention to detail is phenomenal, and the graphics set the tone for the tale. Pre-rendered cutscenes are also beautifully executed and shot, and allows for some great character expression in their faces and body language. Sound is also a big part of The Last of Us. The infected make loud noises, you avoid making a sound, and it helps to immerse you in the experience. When there is music, it’s beautiful, and very fitting.

The Last of Us is one of the best video games I’ve ever played. It tells a beautiful and emotional tale, featuring one of the best duos in gaming history. The gameplay is excellent and very strategic, and it has one of the best multiplayer modes ever. You owe it to yourself to give The Last of Us your time.

Overall: 10/10

 
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Posted by on June 19, 2013 in Game Reviews

 

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Animal Crossing: New Leaf Review

Animal Crossing: New LeafThe Animal Crossing franchise, one of Nintendo’s newer IPs, always prided itself in day-to-day gameplay that always changes. New Leaf continues that trend, expanding on the gameplay by allowing you to serve as town mayor. As mayor you make executive decisions to benefit the town, including funding several public works projects and earning the approval of your townsfolk. It all comes together, along with the classic Animal Crossing leisure activities, to make engaging, bite-sized fun that only a game like Animal Crossing can deliver.

New Leaf starts out like any other Animal Crossing game. You start on a bus, en route to your new town, which you must give a name to. You can choose the layout of your town this time around, which makes for some strategic planning in terms of houses and buildings in town. When you arrive, a misunderstanding lands you in the role of town mayor, and you’re quickly rushed off to the Town Hall to fill out some paperwork, including setting up your home. Once that’s down, you’re free to roam your town, and mingle with the townsfolk, visit Main Street, go fishing or bug catching, the choice is yours. Animal Crossing prides itself on relaxing choice-driven gameplay, and it’s in top-form here.

Familiar faces are back, including Tom Nook. This time, however, he has taken up real estate, and you must pay him back various loans on your home in order to receive home upgrades. You start out living in a modest tent, but eventually you move up into a full blown house with plenty of space. You can decorate your house with tons of furniture, and you can also choose your wallpaper and carpet, to make your home unique to you. Furniture can be bought at Reese and Cyrus’s new store, Re-Tail, where you can sell your wares and browse around. Also, Tom Nook’s children have opened a shop on Main Street selling new items everyday. Also back is the Museum, where you must supply its exhibits with bugs, fish, fossils, and paintings.

Like I said, as mayor you’re responsible for town upkeep, and keeping your approval rating high. Funding public works projects is the best way to do this. You raise money from the townsfolk for new town embellishments such as fountains and bridges, to help beautify your town and make it more appealing. Previous Animal Crossing titles allowed you little to no customization to your town, so this is a welcome addition. Also new to New Leaf is a resort island, which you embark to on the pier. Here you can catch rare bugs and fish, as well as mingle with old faces. Swimming is also new to New Leaf, allowing for some new items to dive for and new activities to do with friends.

Speaking of friends, the Nintendo 3DS allows you new multiplayer capabilities. You can open up your gates to visitors, or you can go and visit a friend’s town. At a friend’s town you can chat, mingle with their neighbors, or trade exclusive items, such as crops that are unique to each person’s village. Up to four people can visit a town together, which makes for a lot of fun. You can all take part in fun mini games, which are surprisingly addictive. And you can earn rewards and take things back to your town. New Leaf makes for one of the best multiplayer experiences present on the hardware.

Visually, Animal Crossing is very pretty. Your character is taller and leaner, allowing for more customization in terms of clothing. All of your animal friends look great in 3D, but overall the 3D effect is subtle and doesn’t provide much depth. Animal Crossing changes with the time and the seasons, so stores close at nighttime and there are new activities per season. The different seasons all bring a new visual flair and new activities to take part in, so there is incentive to stick around and play. Also, via StreetPass and SpotPass, you can receive new and exclusive items from Nintendo or on national holidays, so you’ll want to come back on these special days.

New Leaf isn’t the kind of game you play for hours. Rather, you’ll spend maybe twenty minutes a day catching up with the neighbors, shopping for new items, and acting as mayor. It’s the bite-sized gaming that makes New Leaf so fun and addictive, and it becomes very rewarding for dedicated players. New Leaf is a relaxing experience that works great on the portable Nintendo 3DS, and you owe it to yourself to take a visit.

Overall: 9.0/10.0

 
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Posted by on June 10, 2013 in Game Reviews

 

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