Kinect Finally Has Its Hardcore Game

Capcom’s Steel Battalion might have just become the flagship game for Microsoft’s motion-sensing camera.

There’s a moment in Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor where you and a crew manning a large bipedal tank are making landfall on a beach assault not unlike the storming of Normandy’s beaches during World War II. A member of your crew, unable to handle the pressure of the situation, loses his mental faculties and makes his way for the hatch–not completely aware of the mortars and bullets waiting for him on the other side. You reach with your left arm to pull the deserting member of the crew back into the cockpit. A few attempts bring him back down, but he’s not sold on staying–you then proceed to repeatedly punch him in the face until common sense finally gets knocked back into his skull.

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He reluctantly goes back to his position. You resume your command. It’s one of the game’s many tense moments, and all of it happened using the Kinect. You have to reach at the crew member and beat him, but in the real world where he doesn’t exist.

The original Steel Battalion was intended to be a simulation of something that didn’t actually exist, and bets were placed firmly on Capcom attempting to re-create that sensation and its most notable quality–the massive dual-stick controller that came with the game. But what Capcom has actually done is integrate a very human element into a very technical experience. Along with the aforementioned freak-out, there’s a scene in which a very thirsty crew is on the hunt for a remote oasis in the desert. A crew member hands you what’s left of his water–what you do with it or who you give it to is entirely up to you. Just know that your actions can have unforeseen consequences.

As mentioned, while all of this is going on, you still have to worry about what amounts to being commander of a bipedal tank. The number of handles, levers, bars, and other sorts of functional interactive objects within reach is almost daunting, including the popular self-destruct button re-created in virtual form–activated only by lifting the glass and punching the button inside. A periscope is available for sighting long-range targets. There’s a separate map console to pull in front of your face and a separate lever to engage a higher gear speed. You can swing around inside the cockpit to talk and (sometimes inappropriately) interact with other crew members. You can even stand up out of your chair and raise a hand to your forehead–this lets you peek from the top hatch to survey the surrounding areas with binoculars that don’t actually exist. It’s one of the more surreal options in Steel Battalion, if only because it’s one of those things you try as a joke to see if it works, only to find that it actually does.

Admittedly, getting adjusted to the Kinect-enabled parts of the game take some time, but it’s not because they aren’t responsive. It’s because you have to train your brain to move your hands and body around as if they were in an actual cockpit. For example, when you reach for the bars in front of you to pull your face to the blast window, your motions have to mimic that. To return to the default camera view in the cockpit, you have to physically push yourself away from the window with the opposite motion. It’s not quite as easy as it sounds at first, but we started getting the hang of it after a dozen or so minutes.

The reason this particular move is a sticking point is that it’s how you switch from the cockpit view with Kinect controls to the blast-window, first-person view, which uses the regular Xbox 360 controller. Indeed, despite the heavy Kinect integration, movement, targeting, and shooting are still executed through the traditional first-person shooter setup, and surprisingly it’s not all that jarring. In fact, the transition between the cockpit and first-person view is long enough that it gives you more than ample time to get readjusted, or to pick up your controller if you happened to put it down–though, it’s worth pointing out that Steel Battalion’s Kinect functionality has been designed to anticipate the occasional nose itch or various other sorts of unintentional movements that would otherwise cause problems.

From just about every perspective, Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor is the game that you will probably use to show off how a typically hardcore game can be used to properly harness the Kinect when it’s designed specifically for it–as opposed to just adding Kinect functionality onto a game as an afterthought. We’ll be seeing more of the game before its release on June 19.

By Giancarlo Varanini

MMA Games: Room for One More?

Do you have room for another mixed martial arts game in your collection? The team behind Bellator: MMA Onslaught certainly hopes so.

Games like UFC Undisputed 3, EA Sports MMA, and Street Fighter X Tekken have more in common than the fact that they involve a lot of punching and kicking; they also employ complex control schemes that can be intimidating for newcomers. Developer Kung Fu Factory is hoping to address this with its recently announced Bellator: MMA Onslaught–a mixed martial arts game coming to Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network later this year that, if nothing else, is easy to pick up and play. We had no problem stringing together impressive-looking combos during a recent demo, but we won’t be trading in our copies of the aforementioned fighters anytime soon.

Nor are we expected to do so.

Kung Fu Factory and publisher 345 Games consider Bellator: MMA Onslaught to be complementary to more complicated games; the fighting game you boot up when you want to play against friends with no experience in the genre, perhaps. There’s single-player content in there as well, though it’s in the form of tournaments featuring eight of the Bellator organizations toughest fighters. There’s also a Path to Glory career mode in which you level up a created fighter and progress from fights in gyms to events in packed arenas. You’ll also earn experience points for your fighter when competing with other players online and, as you do so, you’ll get to add more moves from multiple fighting disciplines to your repertoire.

We didn’t get to see any of this during our demo, though. Rather, we got to participate in three two-player fights featuring Bellator featherweights Joe Warren and Pat Curran, none of which lasted more than a minute or so as our attempts at blocking proved unsuccessful for the most part. Throwing punches and kicks using face buttons mapped to limbs could hardly have been easier, and using the left and right sticks to move and grapple was also intuitive. None of the moves felt particularly impactful, though, and resolving submission attempts by mashing the face buttons was far from satisfying. Even knocking our opponent out in the one fight that we won wasn’t particularly exciting.

Bellator: MMA Onslaught is still very much in development, and it’s clear that the team at Kung Fu Factory has plans for the game that simply weren’t evident in the demo that we played. There was talk of a feature that will let players know when it’s a good time to counter opponent’s attacks and talk of TV-style presentation throughout, for example. Hopefully, all of the planned pieces will fall into place in time for Bellator: MMA Onslaught’s summer release date; that seems a tall order on the evidence of what was shown behind closed doors at GDC though.

By Justin Calvert

Ace Combat: Assault Horizon Updated Hands-On

We take to the not-so-blue-and-usually-heavy-under-fire skies of this upcoming reboot.

Just like the film industry, the games industry has been seeing a lot of reboots and reiterations of past iconic franchises as of late, ranging from the decent to the potentially unnecessary. With Namco Bandai now performing this feat with another classic franchise, the target being the Ace Combat series, developer Project Aces is planning to enshroud it with modern warfare trappings that would make action director Michael Bay wet himself. As far as we’re concerned, with the recent playthrough of a near-final PS3 build, we didn’t really mind if it deviated slightly from the past title’s long-range combat focus.

We had a go with the first three missions of the game: a dream sequence called Nightmare, an assault mission called Inferno, and an Apache helicopter rescue mission called Red Moon. The first stage acts as a tutorial for the game’s controls and the Dog Fight Maneuver system; you can engage enemies to accurately shoot them while automatically tailing them from behind. To initiate this, we pressed the L2 and R2 buttons together as soon as the plane reticle was red and shaped as a circle and if we were close by. We didn’t need to worry about navigating and ground obstacles, as movement is done automatically; we had to worry only about keeping our target on sight.

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If enemies are tailing you, a giant red circle will move around and overlap your screen. From here, you can perform a counter move by slowing down (press L1), waiting until the green and red arrows onscreen connect, and then pressing L2 and R2 together. This enables you to reverse your aircraft and tail your former pursuer. If the arrows pass each other, your aircraft will stall and leave you momentarily vulnerable. Of course, if such a risk isn’t your cup of tea, you can still use flares to draw tailing missiles off your plane.

The radar helps immensely when looking for enemies and dodging projectiles. Enemy jets are red arrows, while missiles are white tubes. When in doubt, you can also press the triangle button to turn the camera to the last target for a brief second. The air fights in the Inferno stage were just the tip of the iceberg of the action, as we were bombarded by MIG fighter planes swarming left and right. The majority of them were TAC leaders, so mastering the DFM and knowing when to counter and break off from DFMs is a must since these jets can dodge conventional missile launches.

The planes and weapons provided are plentiful. We had to pick between the F16C, the MiG 21, the F16F, the Mirage 2000, and the F4E for the Inferno mission. To play it safe, we picked the F16F, since it had the best rating of armor amongst all the aircraft, along with good moderate attribute ratings. For the weapons to equip on our fighter jet, we had to choose between powerful air-to-air missiles, air-to-ground missiles, or bombs that scramble an opponent’s targeting system. When we took the reins of the Apache helicopter in the third mission, we got to play around with a ground missile system that could target up to four enemies at a time, in addition to using the standard rockets equipped on the chopper.

To say that the game feels like “Call of Duty in the air” is underselling it. Every moment flying around the first two stages while sizing up the oncoming threats felt empowering. Chaining up different targets while in DFM and destroying them in a row is a reward in itself, provided you can lure three or more enemy aircraft into your line of sight. As per the rule of flight sims, each mission will take a minimum of 20 to 30 minutes to complete and up to even an hour due to on-the-fly objectives.

Airborne explosions are commonplace in the alternate universe of the new Ace Combat.

Airborne explosions are commonplace in the alternate universe of the new Ace Combat.

Luckily, checkpoints are plentiful and fairly distributed. Load times after deaths are instantaneous, as evident from our constant failure at the Red Moon mission due to getting used to the chopper’s cumbersome movement and the accidental button press that shot out missiles that killed a friendly ground target we were supposed to protect.

Fans may take umbrage at that particular section, as it contrasts heavily with the free-for-all fighter-jet-piloting shenanigans the series is known for. Still, gamers who like their flight sims with a huge tinge of arcade action, variety, and close-quarters duels with a rocking soundtrack blaring through the speakers can see the full game for themselves on October 11. Other regions will have the game on shelves on October 15.

By Gamespot Staff

Getting Physical With London 2012 – The Official Video Game of the Olympic Games

Get off the couch and get involved with the sports in London 2012 – The Official Video Game of the Olympic Games.

It’s that time again, when vague disinterest gives way to devoted nationalism and cries of “Gold!” As the Olympics draw closer, so does the release of the video game: Sega’s London 2012 – The Official Video Game of the Olympic Games. We recently had the chance to sit down, suit up, and embrace our inner athlete. Featuring more than 45 sports across five different console platforms, there are plenty of ways to get your sporting fix. You’ll be able to participate in a number of events, from cycling to synchronised diving, striving for Olympic greatness at the end of it all.

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Thankfully, the controls in London 2012 are significantly improved, compared to previous Olympic video games. But while the once-infamous button-mashing events are far fewer in number, they still make an appearance. Quick-time events attached to sports, such as trampoline and vault, help capture the authenticity of the actions performed during the events. Artistic director Dean Ferguson stressed to us during our demo that it was particularly important to have the player feel as if they are directly involved in the success or failure of their athlete’s performance. That said, while faithful, it took us a few tries (even with the aid of the tutorial) to figure out how to balance timing and precision to perform at our digital best.

Trying your hand (or legs) at hurdles requires you to push forward on the left analog stick, and tap “A” at the correct time to vault over the steel barricades. Missing the required timing sends your athlete’s knees towards the obstacle at speed.

Sega has even gone to the lengths of setting up an in-house motion-capture rig at its Brisbane studio to help create realistic movement for the characters. The same attention to detail has been applied to many of the game’s venues, digitally reconstructed using real-world blueprints, and helping give credibility to the “official” feel. Unfortunately, though, while they have gone to great lengths to capture the authenticity of the experience, the licence doesn’t extend to permitting the developers to use the likenesses of real athletes. Where many players may have been looking forward to finally beating Usain Bolt at his own game, they will be forced to line up on the blocks with a virtual unknown.

Difficulty for each of the events is flexible for a range of skill levels, but, even on the normal setting, attempting to kayak down a white-water rapid was about as awkward on the Xbox as it probably is in real life. Because of this, the inclusion of both Kinect and PlayStation Move support is extremely clever. We suffered some unresponsiveness during events, but when they were working at full speed, we had much more fun shooting an arrow or batting back a ping-pong ball than we did performing the same action on a controller.

The Move controller is perfect for events that require the quick snap of a wrist, as the device mimics a paddle, while arms work just as well on the Kinect as your awkwardly positioned arms would with a real bow and arrow. The Kinect follows as you draw back your bow, and fires as you throw up your arms. It took some getting used to–not to just release our invisible arrow as you would a real one.

The great strength of London 2012, however, is not in its numerous sports or unique control system, but rather its alternative play modes. Next to classic single-player, the game introduces a party mode, where iconic sports such as archery have been changed up for something a little more lighthearted by featuring a rapid-fire version. In it, players compete for the highest score in a designated time. Add to this the online multiplayer functionality, and we can see players getting sporting enjoyment long after the torch has moved on to the next town. Sega has done a decent job at making a genuinely fun minigame compilation, even if only to let you mock your friends while they exert excessive force throwing virtual javelins about.

London 2012 is out on June 28 for the Xbox 360, PC, and PS3.

By Jessica McDonell

Final Fantasy XIII-2 Updated Hands-On: Doing the Time Warp

We reveal more of Serah and Noel’s adventures, featuring time travelling, weather-changing contraptions, moogle-tossing, and Chocolina.

If you’ve suspected that there’s more to Final Fantasy XIII-2 than has been revealed so far, then you’re correct, as Square Enix looks like it will be shoving the age-old time-travelling plot device into the sequel’s design. Specifically, anything you do in a past timeline will affect interconnecting future timelines, be it an obstacle in the way or a story-related plot point. Our protagonists, Noel and Serah, will be jumping back and forth, correcting timelines and eliminating anomalies in the game’s universe in order to proceed with the search for Serah’s sister, Lightning (protagonist of the first game). Judging from what we have played so far, the developers have listened to the many pleas from fans about the prequel’s approach to gameplay.

We checked out a variety of areas from different timelines during our nine-hour playthrough: Valhalla, New Bodhi, the Bresha Ruins, the Sunleth Waterscape in 300AF, and the Archylte Steppe. While the rest of the areas sound familiar to FFXIII fans, Valhalla is a brand-new location, as it’s the place where Lightning starts off when fighting the eidolon Chaos Bahamut and the finally revealed villain Caius in active time battle and cinematic action glory. We can’t reveal any more than that, except that he has the same sort of mission as Lightning and has special ties with the aforementioned eidolon.

Nice doggy…

Nice doggy…

At this part, we checked out New Bodhi, which was recently invaded by oncoming funky-looking bugs, and the Bresha Ruins bit, which we detailed and talked about to death in our past previews. Long story short, we entered the timeline, checked out the branching paths of each corridor of the dungeon, and beat down Atlas with ease after shutting off the nearby generator. When in towns, you can initiate conversations with anyone in tow, be it to open up side quests or just find out what interesting titbits they have to share.

As we took a trip through time, we ended up on the Sunleth Waterscape in 300AF, where we met a bandanna-less Snow. We can’t divulge the nature of his appearance, but we can tell you what he was up against: a goliath-sized Flan made up of other Flans appearing from some unknown time-warp portal. Fighting the giant wasn’t that hard, but we still had to search for a means to stop it from being big and obstructing our path.

We also checked out the Archylte Steppe, where we had to wander around the giant sandstorm-filled field to help fix a time anomaly. After doing a few quests to fetch and “kill a specific number of monsters” here and there for a nearby hunter’s settlement, we were finally given permission to fiddle around with the settlement’s weather-changing machine. Not only did this determine the type of encounters we’d be facing, but it also helped reveal the culprit behind the aforementioned anomaly: a giant Feryl sucking in Flans through its mouth. As we set the weather to a clear blue sky, an Adamantoise stood in the way. Killing it at our current level was akin to committing suicide, so we had to change up the weather patterns to make it go away.

After that was settled, we fought the Feryl. While it possessed the Great Roar skill, which buffed itself while debuffing our party members, we took it down with the usual paradigm shift, job-changing mechanics. We let Serah take a backseat in buffing and ranged attack duties, while Noel and our beast of choice, the Flan, took the offensive. Killing off the beast will alter a particular timeline, but, for spoiler’s sake, we won’t reveal anything specific. We did get to take down a weakened version of the aforementioned giant Flan, though.

We do hope that this version of Hope is less of a whiner.

We do hope that this version of Hope is less of a whiner.

Speaking of combat, the game introduces a new concept called Blood Damage. Sometimes you lose a sliver of your maximum health as you keep getting damaged during battle. While a healer can help solve the problem temporarily, you are encouraged to end battles as soon as possible, unless you would rather have your character still fighting a tough enemy with just a quarter of his health left. During our playthrough, we didn’t feel hampered by its effects, but we would wager that future boss fights will be challenging with this system in place.

Gamers can also toss the moogle to grab far-to-reach items. This handy feature was introduced during the Sunleth Waterscape stage, while our party had to ride a behemoth through an inaccessible path. The catch is that since the moogle is in the midst of procuring items, you are left vulnerable against enemy ambushes, because there’s no access to the moogle clock.

We reveal more of Serah and Noel’s adventures, featuring time travelling, weather-changing contraptions, moogle-tossing, and Chocolina.

The fancy-looking Crystarium leveling-up system is also back, albeit in a less convoluted manner since there’s only one Crystarium tree for all roles. No need to hold down the button to fill up stats; paradigm class buffing is now done with a simple press instead. Once you buff up a paradigm class to a level, you get a choice of bonuses: enhance the number of active time battle bars by one, level up any one of the paradigm shift roles Serah and Noel has, or allocate more accessory points for piling up characters with more gear.

Unlike in past games, you can’t just equip up to four accessories at a time; you can equip only as many accessories as you have accessory points. Each character starts off with 50 accessory points; equipping something as simple as a life-boosting bracer will cost 30 points, therefore leaving 20 points for other items.

Gamers may balk at the thought of not equipping three accessories from the get-go, yet at the same time the challenge level is tweaked especially if certain pieces of equipment have the potential to break the game with the right monster to complement the party. You can also equip accessories onto your monsters, but these serve more as cosmetic add-ons than anything else.

Heading back to its semi-nonlinear roots, Square Enix plans to add in more things to do for players. In an area called Xanadu, you can take part in Chocobo races, bet on Chocobos when they race, and gamble your savings away using slot machines shaped like aero bikes. The place accepts only “casino coin” currency, which you have to purchase. We didn’t get the chance to play this bit, but we’re already getting nostalgic due to the old days of Chocobo inbreeding and gold saucer shenanigans in Final Fantasy VII.

Square Enix was also mum about recurring characters from the prequel, but we can reveal that Serah and Noel will meet an older version of Hope, who is now the leader of the Academy, a group of scholars who conduct research on the world’s history and are finding new energy sources due to the absence of the gameworld’s fal’Cie. According to producer Yoshinori Kitase, he will be featured prominently in the game’s plot, and his role connects to the game’s overall theme of regeneration and rebirth.

But perhaps the strangest addition to the universe is the new interdimensional shopkeeper Chocolina. Dressed skimpily in a red two-piece that’s embroidered with characteristics of the famous bird, this young lady will offer to sell her weapons as well as modify your current accessories using random parts you’ve collected either through exploration or during battle.

We should also point out that failing cinematic actions will result in your party’s death, which restarts the entire battle. Any progress on long-term fights you initiate will go to waste if you don’t react to the in-game QTEs, though to be fair, the prompts aren’t instantaneous, and you don’t fail the segment if you press the wrong button. It is something worth bringing up, and so far there isn’t any word on whether Square Enix will tweak this aspect so that gamers can start right at the cinematic action bits if they did not succeed.

Fans who were divided about Final Fantasy XIII’s “corridor RPG” approach can rest assured that this sequel contains that semi-illusion of nonlinearity and choice present in past Final Fantasy titles alongside an assortment of activities to pass the time (so to speak). It also helps that the action and a majority of the game’s mechanics are out in full force right after the fourth hour, give or take. The story requires extensive past knowledge of FF XIII, but there’s a narrative recap of the prequel on the title screen if you are inclined to check it out.

Gamers will feel right at home with this sequel, which is set for release in Japan on December 15 and in North America on January 31 next year.

By Gamespot Staff

Gears of War 3: Q&A With Cliff Bleszinski

Read on to find out what piles of cardboard, Japanese puzzle games, and books on cats have in common with Epic’s third-person shooter.

Marcus and Dom’s adventure is about to reach a conclusion as the Gears of War 3 trilogy comes to an end. We recently chatted with Epic Games design director, Cliff Bleszinski, about building personal game experiences, establishing a profile in the games industry, and developing the Gears of War movie.

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GameSpot AU: Tell us a bit more about the Gears of War 3 season pass, how it will work, and whether you were surprised by the fan response after its announcement.

Cliff Bleszinski: The first problem is that we exist in a world in which there are online passes, so when this was announced, there were perceptions about having to pay money to play Gears online, which was, of course, not the case. It’s a season pass for the DLC; it’s kind of like having an up-front version of the [Gears of War 2] All Fronts Collection that you can pay for. The other thing is that people are thinking it’s just a bunch of multiplayer maps, and that’s not the case. There will, of course, be some multiplayer maps at some point, but there’s going to be other stuff, like new things for Horde mode, as well as new single-player campaign content. It’s one way to get a nice discount and to eliminate the hassle of manually buying each. It’s a smart business decision.

GS AU: You have previously said that thematically, Gears of War is a personal game for you. As the trilogy comes to a close, with so much of yourself represented throughout, are you finding emotional closure?

CB: Absolutely. Personally, when the project really started, I was 29 and 30 and going through a split, as far as my first marriage. If you’re ever going through a rough time in your life and you’re a creative person, the best thing you can do is pour that into your work. You hear about artists who are going through a tough time and it’s cathartic; it’s therapy for them. And some of the things that came out of Gears 1 were the result of that. Coming full circle to the end of Gears 3, let’s just say the ending is very personal for me. I don’t want to spoil a lot of it, but in regards to what happens–and the final shot–it’s not only personal to me, but also Rod Fergusson and Lee Perry, who also lost their dads at a young age. My advice to developers often is make your products personal. Take things from real life, names of friends, locations you’ve gone to, and do that. That’s what makes it not feel like a manufactured product; it makes it feel real and tangible.

GS AU: Given that you are drawing on your own personal experiences, were there aspects you didn’t want to explore in the game?

CB: I’ve had my share of ups and downs and good and bad relationships, but I don’t think I could ever pull off a game like Catherine. I applaud them for going in that direction. Catherine is the first game to touch on themes of stress, infidelity, and uncertainty in a relationship since Silent Hill 2. And that’s an area I wouldn’t even want to touch because it’s tricky.

GS AU: Recently at PAX, 343 Industries spoke about having great new ideas for Halo but that they don’t always fit the universe and support the fiction. As design director, were there gameplay concepts you’ve shelved in Gears 3 not because they didn’t work, but because they didn’t fit?

CB: Yeah, at one point we briefly considered prone [stance], as well as having the ability to be on high cover and peek over, but it felt like added clunkiness to the cover system that didn’t need to be there when we were making it as refined as possible. Those were a couple of examples of things that were floated at one point but wound up being cut.

GS AU: Back in July, an incomplete version of the Gears 3 campaign leaked. What impact did that have on studio staff morale?

CB: It sucks and it breaks your heart, but you’ve got to roll with the punches and dust off your shoulders and keep moving. Keep in mind that anyone who’s a true fan would ignore that build or those YouTube videos. We’re doing what we can to track down anyone who still has it and ban them from the game because it’s not only theft, but you’re also spoiling the game for everyone else. But that’s the world we live in; things just seem to want to be leaked, and all you can do is prevent it from ever happening. Stuff gets out there, cutscenes don’t have facial animation, and there’s debug text. You want the product to be polished, and you never get a second chance to make that first impression, and that’s heartbreaking when that happens.

GS AU: You’ve got an executive producer credit on the Gears of War film. What stage is the movie at right now?

CB: It is in development limbo at the moment. There’s a lot of discussion about where the project goes and what happens with it, but as of right now, it’s stalled a little bit. Hopefully, once the game is out, we’re hoping to resume traction on it.

GS AU: During GDC, you talked about your image and the need for spokespeople to be a brand above and beyond your product. Is that now a necessity of modern game development?

CB: It’s a difficult thing to do. It requires a thick skin, and most of the time, the publishers don’t want that because they want employees to be interchangeable factory workers. No one asked me to do this. I actually jumped up, and any time press came to town, I’d volunteer when I was younger because I knew deep down that it was an insurance policy that if Tim [Sweeney] woke up one day and didn’t like me, I could probably go and get a job at a lot of places just based on people knowing my name. Plus, it’s fun; it leads to a lot of great opportunities. I live in Raleigh [North Carolina], which is a lovely, sleepy, little southern town, but I get to travel around and see the world and then come back here and make cool games. So it’s kind of the best of both worlds. I’d love to see more of it; I’d love to get to know more developers. I think we should all stick together as much as possible.

Read on to find out what piles of cardboard, Japanese puzzle games, and books on cats have in common with Epic’s third-person shooter.

GS AU: Gears stands on its own merits as a game, but do you attribute any of the success of the franchise to your social media initiative?

CB: Knowing how to use it is useful, and I think it has probably helped a lot, but I think in some cases it can hurt. I’ve been polarizing to certain gamers in the past because the way I dressed was goofy…and the hair and the earrings. And I have said my share of stupid things, but I’ve had quotes that were misquoted. So, if you’re Peter Molyneux or John Carmack, you get a lot of that respected nerd cred, and I’ve had to fight and continue to fight and work on and make great games in order to make my nerd cred.

GS AU: Looking back, there has to be a lot of 20/20 vision hindsight after you ship a game. Tell us about the lessons learned between each iteration of the Gears of War franchise.

CB: The lesson I learned I like to call “I did not sign up for this.” A recent example of a game I had played was…well, they didn’t do it in Dead Space 2 but in Dead Space…was that asteroid sequence. I signed up to kill necromorphs and be scared; I didn’t sign up to play Asteroids [laughs]. The same thing applied to Gears 2 with the damn tank on the lake. Most Gears fans signed up to hear the story of Marcus, Dom, Cole, Locust…and chainsawing, cool weapons, and awesome set pieces. They didn’t sign up to drive a tank over slippery ice that breaks [laugh]. That’s one of the very important lessons we learned. So there are sequences in Gears 3 where you are on the back of a truck or in a submarine, but they’re not ones where you’re piloting the darn things because we realized we should put the vehicles on ice [Ed note: metaphorically speaking] for a while and let those sequences be their own co-op rail-shooter sections.

GS AU: How do you juggle fan feedback of what the audience wants and still forge ahead to include elements you think would be good new additions?

CB: We use a multitiered system. The first thing we do is always pay attention to forums, Twitter, and social networking; that’s a good temperature check. That said, you have to be careful with that because there are a lot of super diehard fans, and sometimes they’re the most vocal people speaking, as opposed to the casual gamer who buys a few games per year and wouldn’t go on a forum. The second thing we use is metrics; we’ve found sometimes there’s a difference between what people are saying in the forums and what’s actually going on in the wild. For instance, there was a big perception when the [Gears of War 3] beta came up that the sawed-off shotgun was the best weapon ever, but then, we looked at the backend and found that four times as many kills were being had by the gnasher shotgun as opposed to the sawed-off shotgun. It’s just the fact that those guys who were used to getting through a match without dying once because of their shotgun proficiency were occasionally getting killed by the digger launcher or the sawed-off shotgun. And I was saying, “Good, they should be able to get killed once in a while!” We added a big, old emissive dot on the tip of the sawed-off shotgun so you could see the guy coming a mile away, and then, the final thing we use is our gut. If we can’t trust that, we might as well pack it in.

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GS AU: You mentioned Dead Space and Catherine. How much of the game design that you do comes from correcting the things you think other developers are doing badly?

CB: Visual language is a big thing for me. When you work in an industry, it can ruin the product, which you experience. Eric Holmes, one of our designers, convinced everyone to read this book series called Save the Cat!, which breaks down the beats of story writing for film…which has kind of ruined movies for me because [the author] has these terms for these things that make a good movie. There’s always the dark night of the soul or when the character is worse off than he was at the beginning of the film and usually has a rainy dark night, and we transition into the next act. I find myself turning to my fiancee in the movie theatre anytime it happens and whispering “Dark night of the soul!” And she’s like “Shut up!” And that’s what it is. The same thing happens with games, and one of my big things is visual language. On Gears, we’ve had to continually remind people that if it’s wood, it’s usually breakable; if a door doesn’t have any metal strapping over it, you can usually go through it. If you’re in a high-tech environment, a green or a blue dot means a door is open; a red dot means you can’t go through it. And this is something the earlier Halo games were great at. Playing certain other games, I notice that I can break this barrel in front of me, but there are three other barrels next to me that look exactly the same that I can’t break, and I’m like “What the hell?” Or what I call lazy barriers. You come to the end of a hallway, and there’s an invisible blocking wall and two pieces of cardboard stopping you, and I’m like “Dude, why can’t I go through this?” Put a giant pile of rubble there; obviously, I can’t climb over that. A lot of those little things I’m a nitpicker about when it comes to design.

GS AU: Cliff, thanks for your time.

By Dan Chiappini

Batman vs. Superman: Who Wins?

Epic comic book battles are coming to consoles courtesy of Injustice: Gods Among Us.

Who do you think would win in a fight, Superman or Batman? The answer to that question isn’t nearly as obvious as you might think, and while online forums are a great place to debate such things, wouldn’t it be great if there was a game in which you could put your theories to the test? Enter NetherRealm Studios’ Injustice: Gods Among Us. That’s right, Ed Boon–working alongside other evil geniuses responsible for 2008′s Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, as well as the dynamic comic book writing duo of Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti–has once again devised a plan worthy of Lex Luthor to render the Man of Steel vulnerable to fisticuffs.

The Flash looks on as Superman charges up a seemingly less-than-troubling attack.

The Flash looks on as Superman charges up a seemingly less-than-troubling attack.

NetherRealm’s plan involves a one-on-one fighting game in which superheroes and villains do battle with each other. Batman and Wonder Woman went toe-to-toe at a recent press event, as did Superman and Solomon Grundy, and in many ways the fights that ensued wouldn’t have looked out of place in a comic book. Not only are the combatants’ respective moves very much in keeping with their characters, but environments like the Batcave and what we assumed was Metropolis (but were later told is “just a big-ass city”) were impressively interactive and destructible.

How you interact with these environments will vary depending on what kind of character you’re playing as. Batman is a “gadget” character, while Wonder Woman is a “power” character, so when the fight between the two of them ended up close to a parked car, they were able to bring it into play in very different ways. Batman simply grabbed his opponent and slammed her face down onto the hood, but when Wonder Woman retaliated, she was able to pick up the car and swing it down onto Batman’s head.

Harley Quinn hits Batman with a cheap shot from the hip.

Harley Quinn hits Batman with a cheap shot from the hip.

When they’re not weaponizing automobiles, characters will, of course, all have distinctive repertoires. Batman has access to an arsenal of gadgets that includes batarangs and a grapple gun (among many more, presumably); Wonder Woman can switch between multiple fighting styles depending on the weapon she’s using (wielding the lasso of truth will be very different from using a sword and shield, for example); Solomon Grundy is able to pull knives from his back and put them to good use; and Superman has his heat vision. Superman also has an impressive supermove with which he can uppercut opponents into orbit before flying up there to smack them back down to Earth. How many characters on the game’s roster will have comparable supermoves remains to be seen, but even those heroes and villains whose punches are never going to interfere with NASA launches are still capable of smacking their opponents between multiple arenas.

Fighting in the aforementioned city, you can send your opponents not only flying through the air, but also crashing through skyscrapers until they ultimately land on the roof of one. And then, while fighting on the roof, you can slam them down with so much force that when the fight resumes, you’re both 30 stories down. Similarly, in The Bat Cave the fight can move from the main level where the Batmobile (armed with rockets that can be fired via a control panel at one end of the cave) is parked, down to the lower level where the Batboat can be seen in an underground stream. And after that, you can even fight in the elevator as you ride it back up.

Wonder Woman contemplates a kick to Solomon Grundy's love spuds.

Wonder Woman contemplates a kick to Solomon Grundy’s love spuds.

Interactive environments, improvised weapons, and a distinct lack of decapitations aside, Injustice: Gods Among Us looks to be a fighting game very much in the vein of last year’s Mortal Kombat. Impressively, when it’s released sometime in 2013, the game will purportedly have a roster of “at least as many” characters as Mortal Kombat, which shipped with 28 on the disc. We’ve seen Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Solomon Grundy. Harley Quinn and The Flash have been confirmed. If you pay close attention to today’s launch trailer, you can also spot a character who appears to be Lex Luthor in his Brainiac Suit doing battle with Superman. That still leaves more than 20 spots on the roster unaccounted for. Who will the rest of them be? Leave your guesses and wish lists in the comments below, especially if–like us–you’re rooting for a scrappy underdog. The Ventriloquist, for example.

By Justin Calvert

Fable III: Traitor’s Keep Preview

We go hands-on with this swashbuckling addition to Fable III at Microsoft’s February Games Showcase.

Fable III’s magical world of Albion has never had a shortage of mischievous miscreants to fight. There are plundering pirates in need of a good stabbing, howling wolves tempting your trigger finger, and ambushing outlaws desperately seeking an elemental strike. If you veer down an unrighteous path, you may even take the life of an innocent citizen and carry with you the repugnant stink of a willful murderer. But never in all of your many travels have you had an army of mechanical men to square off against. In Traitor’s Keep, Fable III’s first downloadable content offering, you finally have a chance to point your musket toward the metallic face of an evil robot. At Microsoft’s February Games Showcase, we got a chance to briefly resume our role as king in a short demonstration. The full experience is available for download on March 1 for 560 Microsoft points ($7).

With the thorny crown of absolute monarchy comes a brigade of ready enemies eager to challenge authority. That dynamic is explored in Traitor’s Keep, battling foes across the land who want nothing more than to knock you clear off your throne. The DLC picks up immediately after the events from Fable III have concluded. The monsters of pure evil have been vanquished from your peaceful cities, and you can see how the choices you made impact the world around you. If you decided that a little extra money was more important than a pristine lake, or figured a brothel could provide a better service for your citizens than an orphanage, you have to deal with those consequences.

The bulk of the experience does not force you to dwell on your previous choices, though. Rather, you venture to entirely new lands in search of adventure and a chance to finally swing the balance of power entirely in your favor. The demo placed us in a town called Clockwork Island. Ruled by a brilliant eccentric known only as the Inventor, this anarchistic village has smiling robots instead of the woebegone humans you would expect to populate any community during this era. There is a very good reason for the cutting-edge technology on display. As you open the gates to this steampunk-inspired world, you are told to behold the streets of the future. The town has been modeled on a vision of what Albion will look like 15 years in the future, a transformative leap from the modern world.

From an architectural standpoint, Clockwork Island looks like any other village in Fable III. Modest wooden homes line the streets; a pleasant grassy oasis resides in the center; and cobblestone pavement lies underfoot. It’s only when you get a close-up look at the townsfolk that you realize something is not quite right. A waving robot welcomes you, and when you click on him, you find out that just one gallon of gasoline produces 37 waves. A little rough on the environment, but it’s worth the excess pollution for the friendliness that exudes from this metallic body. Robot citizens aren’t the only things in Traitor’s Keep that have been given a technological makeover. Your furry pooch has been replaced by a steam-powered canine that happily wags alongside you as if it’s a living, breathing animal.

It’s only when you approach the fence that separates the town proper from its eccentric ruler that things turn sour. The Inventor knew you were coming all along and has equipped his malleable robots to deal with troublemakers. Waving hands are quickly replaced with punching fists, and the robots’ friendly demeanor quickly turns to one of hostility. In a flash, you’re surrounded by an army of unfeeling automatons, and they set out to attack you with an unrelenting determination. Combat hasn’t changed a peck since Fable III. Your rifle, sword, and magical powers are controlled with separate buttons, and you determine the strength of your attacks by how long you hold down each button. The enemies are much harder than those you faced in Fable III, though. No longer can you dispatch entire groups of enemies just by casting a few area-of-effect spells. These dastardly devils teleport and strike with hateful relish, and you need to roll and block just to stay alive.

By the end of this frightful encounter, the Inventor has been defeated, and you have the choice in how you want to deal with his treacherous acts. The demo ended right after we chose the evil path, but it’s clear that the same morality system from previous Fable games is in place in this newest offering. Other than that, it’s hard to say what to expect. The steam-fueled robots are a step in an unexpected direction, and there’s no telling what other crazy critters will surface during the rest of this quest. If you’re curious how this latest adventure turns out, you can download Traitor’s Keep on March 1. Keep your eyes on GameSpot for more information on this content.

By Tom Mc Shea, Editor

The Darkness II Q&A – Demonic Power

Jackie Estacado, the protagonist in The Darkness II, has a lot of nasty tricks for dealing with enemies. Producer Seth Olshfski explains.

The Darkness II, which is based on the gruesome comics produced by Top Cow Productions, drags Jackie Estacado into another nightmarish adventure alongside his malevolent cohort, The Darkness. This first-person shooter mixes its gunplay with a host of demonic powers. After catching up with publisher 2K Games’ Sheldon Carter back at PAX, we tracked down producer Seth Olshfski to learn more about Jackie’s tools of destruction.

Check out the powers of quad-wielding in this GameSpot exclusive trailer for The Darkness II.

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GameSpot: Quad-wielding is certainly one of the most interesting parts of The Darkness II. Besides scooping up enemies and ripping off car doors, what other ways can we interact with our environment using the demon arms? What are the limits of what we can lift with demonic lift?

Seth Olshfski: Demonic lift is a talent that uses the power of The Darkness to keep enemies floating in the air when you slash upward. To use it, you need to purchase the talent and slash your enemies in an upward direction. Before you purchase demonic lift, enemies will fly up in the air and then fall back down; with demonic lift, enemies will fly up in the air where they will be suspended helplessly by the power of The Darkness for a short while before falling back to the ground.

It works great in conjunction with ground pound, which obliterates airborne enemies when you slash in a downward direction. Slash a guy up into the air and then down into the ground, and you see an explosion of entrails. I also like using demonic lift for some surgical dismemberment–lifting enemies up in the air and then ripping off a leg with the slashing demon arm or simply cutting them in half. I’m not sure why, but it’s really satisfying to dismember an enemy that’s helplessly floating in the air. There’s just a feeling of being powerful and awesome, looking at that poor Brotherhood soldier floating helplessly in the air waiting to die.

GS: Will we be able to use ground pound to knock around cars or otherwise deform the environment?

SO: Enemies not only explode when you slash with the ground pound, but there’s also a residual effect on the stuff nearby the explosion. So if you ground pound a Brotherhood rookie in the middle of a crowd, not only will you send his insides flying, but you’ll also send any nearby objects or other enemies airborne.

GS: From a narrative standpoint, is The Darkling always the same character or are there multiple darklings that take turns helping Jackie? From what we’ve seen, The Darkling also has a real twisted sense of humor. Is that taken straight from the comics or has your team injected some of its own material into the character?

SO: That’s definitely true; The Darkling has a great twisted sense of humor. He’s Jackie’s sidekick and has a huge role in the story. And, yes, Jackie has decided to manifest just one darkling this time around. We made that choice to focus the narrative on Jackie, but we obviously drew inspiration from a variety of sources, including the comics, to create his personality and being.

The Darkness II takes pick-pocketing to a whole new extreme.

The Darkness II takes pick-pocketing to a whole new extreme.

GS: In what ways can The Darkling assist you in combat? Will it be able to extinguish lights for you, for instance?

SO: The Darkling will disable enemies though a variety of combat mechanics; for instance jumping on their back and on their head. He’ll pull guys out from behind cover so you can get a better shot. He picks up guns and ammo from the ground and brings them to you. As an added bonus, you can pick him up with your demon arm and throw him. He explodes on impact. He doesn’t like that very much though.

GS: We’ve heard that there will be otherworldly locations to visit in The Darkness II. Care to give us any hints as to where those locations might be?

SO: Hints!? You want hints? Here’s all you’re getting: They’re not in NYC.

GS: What is the top fan-requested piece of content for The Darkness II, be it a character from the comics or a specific Darkness power?

SO: There are probably two things tied for number one. The first is Mike Patton; everybody loved his voice for The Darkness from the original game. He just sounds like The Darkness should in a game of this caliber. He’s part human, part beast. When he gets in the recording studio, it’s really amazing. We’re really glad to have him back, and the fans really appreciate it.

Tied with Patton would be requests for appearances by other characters from the Top Cow universe.

GS: In the first game, the theme of the narrative was revenge, with Jackie seeking revenge for Jenny’s death. From what we’ve seen of The Darkness II, it looks like the theme will be survival, with Jackie being hunted by The Brotherhood. Is this accurate and will the story focus primarily on this conflict?

SO: Survival. That’s a pretty good way to frame it. I think it’s definitely true for the beginning of the narrative. We have a three-act structure for the game, and act one could definitely be called survival. From Jackie’s perspective, somebody drove a van into your dinner; they sniped that stripper right in front of you; random dudes in orange jumpsuits are gunning for you; and some crippled dude keeps teleporting around and demanding The Darkness. Jackie definitely starts the story fighting for his life.

Act two, however, takes the story in a more proactive direction. Something (that I can’t talk about now) is revealed to Jackie and he gets really [mad]. That’s when he takes the fight to the enemy.

GS: Finally, is there anything else you’d like to add about the game?

Between the guns, the Darkness powers, and your foul-mouthed friend, you have a lot of options in combat.

Between the guns, the Darkness powers, and your foul-mouthed friend, you have a lot of options in combat.

SO: I can’t wait for everybody to start quad-wielding. I play a lot of games, and every time I play another first-person game, I miss my demon arms. They’re just really fun to use, and I think the moment-to-moment gameplay of The Darkness II will leave the fans ecstatic.

GS: Thank you for your time.

By Staff

Zeit Squared Hands-On

Traveling back in time adds an interesting twist to this shoot-’em-up.

Shoot-’em-ups will always have a special place in the hearts of many gamers who still find the time to play Gradius or R-Type. The genre that was once incredibly popular in arcades has been able to find an audience, thanks to platforms like Xbox Live Arcade. Zeit Squared is very much like the 2D side-scrolling shoot-’em-ups from the past, but it changes things up with a time travel twist.

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Like many other games of its kind, Zeit Squared is set in a futuristic environment where you move from left to right, firing at almost everything that comes at you. Instead of enemy ships, you fire at abstract organisms that look like giant squids or bacteria. We’re not really sure what they are–we were nothing but a glowing orb with a blue shield that could fire bullets–but it didn’t really matter as long as they didn’t get by us. The visuals are quite simple and elegant, at least in the early stages, so you don’t feel distracted by too many things onscreen. Boss fights are waiting for you at the end of the stages, which will require some fancy dodging on your part, but the premise is fairly straightforward once you learn all the tricks for staying alive.

In Zeit 2, you can’t just hold the fire button and fire endlessly to the right. Your health percentage in the top-left corner will decrease every time you fire. It will increase if you hit your target, though, and it is beneficial to be somewhat conservative with your fire power. Enemies that have a blue glow around them will drain your health if they get past you. There are creatures that don’t glow, so you’ll want to target the ones that would do more damage if you miss them. We also came across ghosts that glowed, but we couldn’t destroy them, making it so that we had to watch them go by as they drained our health. As your health depletes, your shield around you will also begin to shrink, giving you a visual cue that things are not looking good. Health pickups are available, though, to give you a boost, and as long as you keep killing those enemies, your health will continue to increase.

The time-travel mechanic is activated by the left trigger, which will rewind several seconds back and create a shadow clone so that you can replay those few seconds with the help of a second ship. This is particularly helpful when you’ve got a row of glowing enemies coming at you from the top of the screen and you realize a horde of them is approaching from the bottom. In this case, you can be at two places at once; so by rewinding a few seconds, you can then have your clone take out the initial top row while you handle the bottom. You can’t travel back for as long as you want, however; you need to recharge your time-travel energy, and the timer on the bottom-left-hand side of the screen will let you know how many seconds you can rewind. By shooting your clone, you can also get it to fire bullets in all directions.

You’ll gain new weapons as you go through the game to help clear out those pesky organisms. We received a beam shot after the first boss, which let us charge up a powerful ray that we could fire across the screen that basically cleared out anything in its way for a couple of seconds. It does take awhile to charge, though, which is indicated by a beam of light around your shield. Other than the Arcade mode, there are five other game modes to compete in on the leaderboards, such as Score Attack, Survival, Wave, Time, and Tactics.

Time to test your reflexes.

Time to test your reflexes.

Zeit Squared adds a new depth to the genre, so instead off firing wildly and dodging bullets, you have to think about when to fire and what position to be in to make the best use of your clone. A tutorial at the beginning of the game should gently ease in players, and while you do need to be quick with the analog stick, it’s not so difficult that it’s frustrating. If the game turns out to be too easy for you, a fast-forward button that speeds up the game are for hardcore players who want more of a challenge. Look for Zeit Squared when it is released January 5 on XBLA for 800 Microsoft points. The PC release will come shortly after for $9.99.

By Sophia Tong

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