Joe Danger 2: The Movie Review: Unstoppable Joe-mentum

Though the original Joe Danger saw its share of healthy sales and glowing reviews back in the summer of 2010, I don’t think Hello Games’ debut received the following it deserved. Falling in line with other popular downloadable titles like Geometry Wars and Super Meat Boy, the original Danger offered bite-sized levels with multiple goals that required a delicate mix of patience and skill to complete. Where Danger differed from these twitch-style games, though, could be found in its complex controls, which gave players a remarkable amount of management over Joe’s aerial acrobatics at the risk of overloading their brains with the demands of six different buttons. With the sequel, Hello Games could have broadened the appeal of Joe Danger by simplifying their control setup into something a little less touchy and technical, but thankfully, they’ve held fast to Joe’s original game play by requiring the same amount of meticulous multi-tasking from players, all in settings wildly different than the racing-related backdrops of the original.

Joe Danger 2: The Movie feels like a meaty expansion of the first game — and that’s not a backhanded compliment. Like the original, Danger 2 tasks the player with keeping themselves alive on a two-dimensional (well, 2.5-D if you want to split hairs) race track while achieving one of several objectives, like collecting all the stars in a level, picking up a sequence of letters that spell out “DANGER,” or successfully executing a string of combos all the way to the finish line. Not an easy task, since the slightest collision or botched landing will send you back to the starting line, or, in the case of longer courses, the last checkpoint. Since most of the stages require nothing short of perfection, Danger 2 lets you restart any track instantly with the push of a button, eliminating the pointless tedium of having to finish a level regardless of how many objectives you’ve missed. Like the original, Danger 2 taps into the dark, perfectionist drive of any gamer’s personality, making the 25th attempt at a level just as harrowing as the first.

Instead of the stunt show framing device from the first game, Danger 2 drops Joe into the world of Hollywood, with each set of levels acting as a series of film scenes requiring plenty of diverse action. And to be honest, though some of Joe’s vehicles differ greatly in appearance from his trusty motorcycle, these wildly different modes of transportation (like mine carts and snowmobiles) control exactly the same. The only deviations from the game’s standard action comes in the form of Joe’s new jetpack, which is just as finicky as you’d expect, and a unicycle, which adds the challenge of constantly maintaining balance. And while the sequel’s changes may appear to be mostly cosmetic, the various genres at play give each “movie” a distinct look and feel; you’ll be escaping from deadly boulders in one level, and taking out an armored car in the next. Danger 2′s cimematic setting also adds a bit of flair to some of the original’s objectives by dressing them up in over-the-top Hollywood clich├ęs; instead of landing on bullseyes and beating other racers to the finish line, Joe 2 has our hero disarming nuclear bombs and launching newspapers at rival racers in an attempt to take them down.

If Joe Danger 2′s focus on precision isn’t explicit enough, the game also offers a series of “deleted scenes”: uber-tough tracks designed to help player perfectly train specific skills. If you’re still wanting for challenge, though, the Danger 2′s track editor allows for the most devious of designs with elements straight from the campaign — and unlike Excitebike, you can save these tracks, and share them with your friends. Really, the only thing lacking in Danger 2 is online co-op, though Hello Games came up with a solution to give Danger 2 a healthy sense of competition; little beams of light with gamer tags attached cruise alongside you during each level, giving you plenty of human-based records to beat, and the end of each course sums up how well you’ve done relative to the rest of Joe’s players. Outside of providing more vehicles that control differently than Joe’s standard bike, it’s hard to ask much more from Hello Games with this sequel; and, just like their debut, Joe Danger 2 shines with an impeccable amount of polish. Blockbuster season (and Microsoft’s Summer of Arcade) might be over, but the spirit of dumb, over-the-top action lives on with Joe Danger 2′s goofball, Bruckheimery gusto.

By Bob Mackey

Dark Void Review

For a few fleeting minutes, Dark Void makes a fantastic impression. It throws you right into an airborne skirmish between pre-jet engine airplanes, classically round UFO saucers, and a dude in a jetpack. Guiding a nimble fellow between competing aircraft/UFOs, while peppering foes with machine gun fire and pulling off aerobatics like the Immelman Turn, feels positively exhilarating. But all that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, considering Dark Void’s development team is pretty much the same one that created Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge a few years back.

Then this prologue ends, and like the unfortunate fellow in the prologue, the overall game takes a significant plunge downward that it barely manages to recover from. It morphs from a refreshingly original (albeit with a bit of the obvious The Rocketeer influence) flier into a bland, cover-based third-person shooter. The story setup follows the, “give the player the full experience, then change circumstances and make the player re-earn the cool stuff from the beginning” formula; after playing the anonymous jetpack jockey, the game then puts you in Will Grey’s perspective. Will is a snarky, fast-talking pilot (voiced by Nolan “Can’t Say No” North) who flies through the Bermuda Triangle in 1938 and arrives at the alien/jetpack/butte-filled parallel world called, well, “the Void.” Will’s eight-hour journey through the Void starts with a mostly generic/occasionally painful sequence where he jetpacklessly jaunts around the mysterious jungle, all while shooting aliens and cracking wise.

Click the image above to check out all Dark Void screens.

Even when Will eventually gets past this humdrum sequence of rudimentary platforming and shooting-at-dumb-A.I.-from-behind-rocks, and finally gets a jetpack, the core gunplay remains problematic and hinders the overall experience. I don’t mind how the interface mostly apes Gears of War — what I do mind is how aiming feels borderline terrible at times. Early on, I thought that Dark Void’s framerate was just horrible at staying consistent, as the combat was repeatedly punctuated by distinct moments of choppiness.

But when I started to pay closer attention, I realized that the choppy framerate is a bizarre artifact of a couple of things. First, when aiming via the Left trigger, the movement speed of your reticule slows down (usually to provide a measure of precision). Yet, when your reticule hovers near a bad alien, the auto-aim kicks in and quickly “snaps” your aim to the foe in question. This results in a weird “somewhat floaty while aiming, then suddenly fast and snappy before going back to being floaty again” feeling to the combat — the actual culprit behind the “wow, this framerate is pretty terrible” feeling. I noticed that the weird framerate only occurred when aiming at specific foes; if I simply blindfired without aiming, the framerate stayed consistent (though, if the screen is full of action such as multiple explosions and foes firing away, the framerate still naturally dips).

All of that’s a damn shame because the generic-at-best-choppy-and-annoying-at-worst combat stands out most from the game. Even when Dark Void adds twists and tweaks to the formula, such as upgradeable weapons (sadly, most of the upgrades are the boring, “you deal more damage and carry more rounds while the weapon feels exactly the same” type), vertical cover, and open-air firefights, they are just reminders of what Dark Void should be more of, but isn’t. The vertical cover is a simple but effective mechanic: at times, Will has to either ascend or descend a tall structure, and he can jump/jet from protrusion-to-protrusion with ease. Sure, it boils down to just hitting a button when prompted, and the aiming issue still presents itself, but the sense of scale for these sequences does induce vertigo and panic.

Additionally, while the combat feels generic and choppy when it has you running down bland corridors, it also puts you in the open outdoors for some firefights. Again, the aiming is aggravating, and there’s also the learning curve of transitioning between ground and air. The default control scheme has your ground-aiming as not-inverted (up is up), while during flight, your aim is inverted (down, or “pull back,” to go up). Individually, I agree with those, as it feels natural for me to “look up” when I’m on the ground, and to “pull up” when in a vehicle. But together, that scheme takes getting used to, as you could easily be in the middle of looking upward on the ground, then choose to activate your jetpack and find yourself crashing downward now that your view is flipped. You can, of course, toggle the inversion for either ground or air, but that still takes getting used to. But when you do get used to the shifting perspective, then these open-air firefights almost compensate for the aim issue and the learning curve by letting you jump up, rocket over to a vantage point, shoot down some baddies, and then hover overhead while raining bullets downward.

Sure, the flight stuff still has some minor issues (aircraft variety, both friend and foe, is a bit lacking), yet even as such, it feels wholly original and interesting. Heck, I hate escort missions as much as anyone else, but flying around while spraying machinegun and rocket fire provides enough thrills to overcome the banal nature of an escort mission. It’s just a shame that there’s about a 70/30 split between ground and aerial combat (in ground’s favor); if my math is factually wrong, well, that’s how Dark Void feels. Sequences like a fantastic setpiece where you fly around while defending the Ark (an important flying fortress) against a massive offensive, or take down multiple Archons (an alien bipedal robo-tank), or an honestly amazing boss fight between you and an alien battlecruiser, are few and far between. I like the flight stuff so much that Dark Void feels like a great flight game handicapped by mediocre ground.

Click the image above to check out all Dark Void screens.

If anything, the very beginning and the end are good illustrations of what is great and terrible about Dark Void. It begins with a fantastic introduction to flight, and ends with an all-out aerial dogfight followed by a suitably epic boss battle. But what do I actually remember more? The boring on-ground combat immediately following the prologue, and the terrible “you’ve been captured and have to fight out of a corridor-filled base without a jetpack” sequence right before the flight-filled endgame. It’s just a damn shame that the nigh-amazing “The Rocketeer versus UFOs” premise crashes hard into “tepid Gears of Uncharted knock-off” ground.

By Thierry Nguyen

Review: Choplifter Appeals to Your Inner-Masochist

With the industry’s seemingly never-ending desire to churn out games for a franchise until it drains every bit of life left in a series, it seems strange that we had to wait so long for a new Choplifter game. Originally published for the Apple II in 1982, ports of Choplifter appeared as late as 1986 for the Sega Master System and NES. The series fell dormant for a period of time, despite periodic waves of nostalgia for early ’80s classics that have given us atrocious remakes of other once beloved games. It’s fitting then that inXile — the studio that brought The Bard’s Tale back from the dead — brings us Choplifter HDon XBLA, PSN, and PC.

The new game sticks closely to the original’s premise: fly a helicopter and rescue people while shooting stuff. Most missions will require you to rescue individuals trapped in warzones around the world, and the campaign does a nice job of changing up environments to keep things from becoming too familiar or boring. Some of the stranded will start the level injured, and you’ll have to rescue them within a time limit. Depending on which helicopter you fly, you’ll have to worry about killing passengers and innocents on the ground with reckless flying or taking too much enemy fire. Other missions task you with blowing up enemy targets or simply escaping the level alive.

While performing all these good deeds, you’ll have to navigate enemy fire — which often comes as thick as in a bullet hell shooter. As if that wasn’t enough, you have to refuel your chopper a few times each level at recharge stations throughout the stage. If your brain still has time to think about anything else while balancing fuel, passengers, and ground-and-air fire, you can keep an eye out for hidden passengers.

You can play each level multiple times, but the game will limit you to the default chopper on your first playthrough. More often than not, the mandatory vehicle proved capable of completing the level only in the most pathetic way possible — earning me two out of five stars for the level. You can choose your helicopter in subsequent playthroughs, and more stars will earn you access to better aircraft.

On paper it sounds like the recipe for an amazingly addictive action experience, and it can be. Especially when a hero from another recently revived franchise in the game (unfortunately, an unskippable copyright splash in the opening spoils this surprise). But you’re going to have to invest hours of time upfront to master piloting before the rewards become apparent. The controls respond quickly, but they’re prone to sending the chopper out of control if you don’t take care. By the campaign’s midpoint, levels will demand you precisely control your position along both the X and Y axes, aim your guns carefully, and alternate that with missiles — which tend to fly in wildly different directions than you thought they would. While I wouldn’t say the helicopter steers poorly, its steep learning curve clashes with the game’s own, which ramps up the difficulty very quickly.

No doubt some of you read the above paragraphs and salivated at the idea of a game that refuses to hold your hand, demands precision, and punishes failure at every turn. If you?re the kind of player who loves to dedicate hours to perfecting the way you play a single level in pursuit of high score or even just survival, you’ll love Choplifter HD. Just don’t go in expecting something that’s as focused or plays as well as Super Meat Boy. The controls are a serious roadblock to enjoying the game. However, with sufficient practice it’s possible to get a handle on your helicopter, and once you do you’ll find yourself pulling off cool maneuvers with ease: blasting enemy ground troops, and stopping just inches short of a devastating rocket blast while simultaneously bringing your vehicle down to rescue friendly soldiers pinned down by an enemy fire and a zombie horde.

As rewarding as Choplifter HD can be, it demanded a few too many hours of trial and error for me to enjoy the game past the introductory levels, but the more masochistic amongst you will undoubtedly find something to love.

By Ryan Winterhalter

Crysis 2 Review

Originally a PC-only game, Crysis set high expectations for future games in the series by providing a flexible empowering experience. Though it seemed unlikely an equally impressive follow-up could be created on console, developer Crytek has delivered a sequel that captures many ideas of the original game, and implements a few new ones as well. But most importantly, Crysis 2 is just as visually impressive as its predecessor, even on PS3 and 360.

As hyped as the original game was, playing it is not a prerequisite for enjoying Crysis 2. Most of the controls have been changed completely, and this new chapter in the Crysis trilogy introduces a new protagonist (while short recaps fill in any story gaps you might’ve missed). None of those revisions, however, disrupt the creative gameplay moments or lush environment design that made so many people fall in love with Crysis.

Click the image above to check out all Crysis 2 screens.

The biggest change from Crysis to Crysis 2 are the controls; more specifically the tailoring of every action in the game to craft a simpler, console-friendly setup. The previous game implemented a control wheel to let you quickly switch between the parameters of Stealth, Power, Speed, and Armor in your Nanosuit — a powerful piece of combat armor designed to help you develop your own play style and creatively dispatch enemies. Although this worked great on PC, it was scrapped and retooled for the sequel.

Everything you do is now mapped to the controller, and switching between suit abilities is no longer required because the armor abilities are automated. Clicking the Left stick makes you sprint, but also automatically engages maximum speed, something you previously had to activate separately. Clicking Right stick deploys a quick melee strike, but clicking and holding it will charge up your attack for more powerful punches or car kicks. Stealth and armor functions are now bound to the bumper buttons 360 (or triggers on PS3) and there are two new options: Nanovision, which helps you spot trouble in low-light conditions, and the Tactical Visor. The Visor works like a pair of binoculars, but it also allows you to zoom in and out to highlight and locate enemy units, armor resupply locations, and other tools you’ll use within the game. Anything you see in the Tactical mode can be marked, making it easier to find, and the game clues you in with an auditory cue when you need to scan the area before proceeding.

The new simplified controls of Crysis 2 are an elegant solution to the slightly complex setup of the first game, and surprisingly nothing is lost in the transition. Instead, the streamlined features of the Nanosuit make more sense, and every suit ability is conveniently tied to offensive/defensive options making Crysis 2 much easier to pick up and play. You might argue that the previous PC controls cultivated more creativity in battle, but the combat sandbox in the sequel still offers plenty of impressive moments.

And having so many tactical options at your disposal is one of the things that separates Crysis 2 from the many other shooters on the market. Unlike most titles in the genre that funnel you down a rabbit hole of close-quarters, scripted combat experiences, Crysis 2 frames everything in an action movie-style lens while still encouraging you to play the game your own way. Stealthy types can sneak around and create diversions, stalking enemies and luring them into different situations, while more impatient types can run around and tackle obstacles head on. In Crysis 2 enemies are dumped into an urban playground, and pretty much any way you want to engage them is a viable choice.

This illusion doesn’t hold up well indoors or in some of the more linear parts of the game, but when Crysis 2 opens up there’s this process of discovery that’s truly impressive. I played through levels multiple times and still found new pathways and tactical options I hadn’t noticed before.

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Visually, Cyrsis 2 still manages to show improvement as well. The setting shifts to the urban jungle of an abandoned New York City. A viral outbreak and alien invasion have turned the island of Manhattan into a crippled warzone, with trees that sway in the breeze and far off buildings that crumble during earthquakes. Switching locations does have its downside, though — the environments aren’t quite as destructible as the locations in the original game.

Still, it’s hard not be impressed by the visual detail, and most of the settings are based off of actual locations in downtown Manhattan. You’ll cruise along familiar areas like the FDR Drive, or stomp around the financial district and other tourist hot-spots battling your pursuers. Taking place on an island jungle made the original Crysis the console equivalent of the movie Predator. The sequel’s change of setting follows Predator‘s example, but Crysis 2 never follows the downward spiral of Predator 2, even if the impressive A.I. occasionally goes brain dead.

The A.I in Crysis 2 is at its best when you’re facing human soldiers. While it’s not much of a spoiler to reveal that you’ll eventually fight aliens as well, and that they’re closer to your equal in combat abilities, they just aren’t as fun to fight. The C.E.L.L. Soldiers bark commands back and forth and relay your position during combat, reacting to your actions, calling in reinforcements, and seeking cover. Occasionally you’ll find one or two soldiers sitting in the corner awkwardly unsure of what to do, or just walking forward aimlessly into a wall, but not too often. The aliens (called Ceph) are much more challenging, but they don’t sell the A.I. of Crysis 2 as well. They’re just as reactive and also call in assistance, but they’re just not as fun to vex with your Nanosuit abilities. More powerful, yes, but most of the time they just blindly charge forward and soak up bullet damage like a sponge.

Multiplayer in Crysis 2 receives a huge upgrade with player progression along the lines of Call of Duty. You can unlock and customize different weapon loadouts and suit modules (a la Call of Duty’s perks), and a you unlock more modules, weapons, and attachments as you level up your character in multiplayer. Each round earns you experience across six game modes (mostly variants of Team Deathmatch, Capture and Hold, and CTF), and while you can’t visually customize your Crysis 2 Nanosuit, you can set it up to play very differently from your competitors. If you’re a fan of Call of Duty multiplayer, you won’t be disappointed here.

Crysis 2 is a beautifully realized game that delivers impressive environments, simplified controls, and a plethora of tactical combat options. The game empowers you to make gameplay choices that complement your play style both in single- and mulitplayer. Unfortunately the visually strong presentation and gameplay can’t hide the mediocre setup for Crysis 3; for most of the game you play a silent protagonist who goes from mission to mission, following instructions as ordered. Then, when you reach the end of the campaign your character suddenly starts talking and you learn that this entire conflict is just a small part of something much bigger. Acid-trip style memories, reflections, and final recaps try to tie the plot together, but it still leaves you feeling a bit unfulfilled with just a flat, to-be-continued cliffhanger. But the ride there is still thrilling, even if the payoff is mediocre. Yet despite any story hiccups, I can’t stress how incredible it all looks.

The PC Difference

by Mike Nelson, Senior Editor


System Specs:

Processor: AMD Phenom II x6 1055T 2.8 Ghz

RAM: 6 Gig

Operating System: Windows 7 64 bit


Motherboard: ASUS M4A785-M

I had a chance to play a retail version of Crysis 2 on PC with the above specs on my personal machine. The game runs fine between 30 to 40 FPS at 1920 x 1080 at the “Extreme” graphics setting. However, unless you’re comfortable with console commands (“~” key) you won’t have access to the hidden graphic settings like anti-aliasing or the ability to turn off motion blur among others (you can find a list of commands here).

Other strange omissions that are standard-fare in many PC games (and in the original Crysis), like the ability to save at any point while in-game (Crysis 2 uses an auto-checkpoint system) and no advanced settings for audio hardware setup, are also curiously absent from the game’s main menu. Gameplay-wise the radial wheel from Crysis can still be accessed by holding down the middle mouse button, and movement options like speed and jump are now streamlined into the gameplay itself (like Jose’s review indicates above).

By Jose Otero

Sonic CD Review

More than just a classic action game, Sonic CD is an exemplary port of a retro game to a modern platform.

The Good

  • A lot of fun platforming at a very good price
  • Faithfully converts the pixel look of the original to high-res, widescreen displays
  • Includes a huge variety of old and new unlockable extras
  • Offers a unique take on the classic Sonic formula.

The Bad

  • A few noticeable changes to core gameplay may annoy some
  • Some vocals removed due to licensing reasons
  • Wacky Workbench level isn’t fun.

History has not been kind to the Sega CD add-on, which has largely been regarded as a failure. Still, the console did have several excellent exclusives, among which was an ambitious time-hopping adventure in its most popular franchise. Sonic CD was one of the games that made a Sega CD worth owning. While its cartridge-based brothers saw frequent rereleases, Sonic CD’s reissues on the PC and GameCube (via the Sonic Gems Collection) were clunky and inaccurate, as well as missing features. So it is with great celebration among Sonic series fans that Sega has rereleased Sonic CD on modern platforms as a download game, but what makes it even sweeter is the care and effort that has gone into the conversion.

You'd move quickly too if your legs could morph into a Mobius strip.

You’d move quickly too if your legs could morph into a Mobius strip.

Sonic CD is very much a game in the classic Sonic vein. As Sonic, you run, spin, and jump around colorful, themed areas; you collect rings, smash enemies, and interact with varied environmental gimmicks. Whereas Sonic 2 and Sonic 3 favored more open stages with lots of speed-boosting contraptions, Sonic CD’s stages reflect the more cluttered feel of the original game, with elaborately designed backgrounds and decorations littering the landscape. It’s incredibly difficult to simply speed directly through a level in Sonic CD because various traps, enemies, and deviously placed obstacles can send a careless hedgehog reeling.

This approach to stage design has its advantages because Sonic CD is laden with odd little one-off gimmicks and hidden surprises (see if you can find the hidden goddess statue–it even gives you an achievement!). It also influences the overall stage design in interesting ways: Collision Chaos is filled with more high-speed springs and bumpers than any other Sonic zone, while Metallic Madness is a maze that can loop endlessly if you don’t pay attention to where you go. Some of the stages, however, have experimental elements that prove to be more frustrating than fun. The much-despised Wacky Workbench level features a magnetized floor that sends Sonic soaring up to the stage’s ceiling at the slightest touch, which practically destroys his ability to run for long distances.

In fact, running long distances anywhere in Sonic CD is quite challenging, but there’s a design reason behind it. Sonic CD’s major selling point in its day was its time-travel feature, which greatly increased the size and scope of the game. Each stage has four variations: a past, present, a good future, and a bad future. And each one has different graphics, music, stage elements, and designs. Travelling through time is accomplished by touching a specially marked “Past” or “Future” signpost and then keeping up a consistent high speed for about five seconds to initiate a time warp. This is often easier said than done. Though some stages have areas well suited to time travel, others require careful obstacle dodging and knowledge of level layout to maintain a consistent speed. Figuring out where and how to initiate time warps is part of the game’s challenge.

If Sonic knew what the future held for him he might not be so eager to get there.

If Sonic knew what the future held for him he might not be so eager to get there.

Time travel yields many benefits. Going into the future, for example, means that enemies will be worn down from years of use and less of a threat to Sonic. However, by default, the future is ruined by Dr. Eggman’s pollution and incredibly unappealing from a visual standpoint, with broken and malfunctioning machinery spoiling the landscape. To fix the future, Sonic can instead travel to the past, where Eggman has set up a robotic control machine. The past is often the most difficult of the level variations, but destroying the machine in the past changes the default future into a good future, which is bright and colorful, entirely free of enemies, and often features fewer traps and obstacles. Running through the default future might be the fastest way to finish the game, but taking full advantage of the time-travel system to restore the future is the more satisfying way to play.

The interesting level design and the time-travelling gameplay have long made Sonic CD a fan favorite, but the superb port of the game to the Xbox 360 makes an already excellent game even better. The port has been codeveloped with longtime Sonic fan Christian Whitehead, and it’s a fine showcase for his custom Retro Engine. The game supports full widescreen display on HDTVs, and a variety of filters allow you to choose between smoother, modern-looking 2D visuals or authentic-looking pixel art that looks practically flawless in high resolution. Other varied visual enhancements show up throughout, ranging from the smoother scrolling of the once notoriously choppy special stages to cleaned-up and polished background elements and enemy motions. You can also select between the original Sonic CD spin-dash (which increases Sonic’s speed based on time spent holding the buttons down) and the Sonic 2 and Sonic 3 spin-dash (where rapid button presses increase speed).

Hang on tight, it's gonna be a twisty ride!

Hang on tight, it’s gonna be a twisty ride!

What makes the package even sweeter are the copious extras included. You can freely choose between the Japanese and US soundtracks to the game, though a few of the vocal songs have sadly excised the lyrics due to rights reasons. The original Sega CD edition of Sonic CD offered a host of hidden goodies and unlockable bonuses, such as staff artwork and sound tests. These are all present in the port, along with a major new feature: After completing the game once, the ability to play as Tails is unlocked. Tails’ flight ability adds a wholly new element of exploration to the stages, allowing easier access to difficult-to-reach spaces.

While Sonic CD is an amazing conversion, there are a few minor issues that keep it away from port perfection. Some rare bugs rear their heads here and there, leading to odd camera shifts and occasionally falling through solid objects. Most players will not encounter these issues in a typical playthrough, however. A few areas where Sonic is forced to travel at high speeds for a lengthy period of time have also been altered so that they no longer trigger time travel to prevent players from warping by accident. While it’s nice to not have to worry about inadvertently warping, experienced players may be angered that these places are no longer usable when an easy time warp is desired. Finally, a feature of the Sega CD original that allowed you to restart at the beginning of the current time zone at the expense of one life is completely missing. Because certain areas in some levels become blocked off after proceeding past them (and Sonic CD has next to no instant-death pits to voluntarily kill oneself with), the lack of this feature makes it hard to reach and see certain portions of levels.

Despite a few minor issues, Sonic CD is among the more impressive retro ports seen on modern platforms. Not only is the game faithful to the original, but it’s also just plain better in many ways. And at a mere $4.99, it’s a tremendous value to boot. If you remember Sonic CD fondly, there’s no better way to enjoy one of the most treasured games in the series. And if you missed out on this one entirely before now, this is a superlative way to experience a beloved classic for the very first time.

By Heidi Kemps

Start The Party! Review

To this day, a derisive descriptor for most Wii titles would be, “it’s like Game X, but with waggle!” It’s pretty stupid and lazy, and definitely fits the “snarky forum quip” category more than the “reasonable critique” one, but on occasion, it’s brutally accurate. And so shall I appropriate that forumism for Sony’s Start The Party!, which can be described as, “It’s EyeToy: Play, but with waggle!”

Like EyeToy: Play, Start The Party! is a compilation of simple little minigames that each feature a camera or motion-control-specific game. There’s Group Play (hotseat-style multiplayer where up to four players pass the Move Controller around for various challenges) divided into Party (a pretty standardized list of minigames divided into quirky game-like rounds) and Party Mix (a more randomized array of minigames); and there’s Solo Play which further divides into either Free Play (choose among nine minigames) or Survival (where you progress through a randomized array of minigames until you fail). One goofy aspect to the party gameplay that uses both the Move Controller and the PlayStation Eye’s microphone is that, on occasion, you can draw or record over your opponent’s current avatar.

Click the image above to check out all Start The Party! screens.

Most of these minigames are straightforward; there’s the expected “hit things” genre with Bug Bashin’ (just swat at insects in the jungle) and Poppin’ (use a harpoon to poke a bunch of floating fish) and there are some Move-specific games like Cut’N'Color (where you use the Move controller like a barber’s multi-tool to shave and dye hair) and Rooftop Rescue (where you guide a helicopter via the Move controller to pick up passengers and drop them off at a hospital during a monster rampage). There’s also a WarioWare-style set of games where you do a series of extremely simple activities as fast as you can — these range from brushing alligator teeth to using magnifying glasses to find tiny ladybugs.

While a lot of these minigames seem to feature straightforward motion-control tweaks, there are some that feature the Move Controller in neat ways. I particularly like Robot Rumble — where robots march towards you and you knock them down by aiming for a red reticule on each — for its use of both the camera and the Move Controller. Aiming towards a robot’s vulnerable spot is easy at first, but then the reticule shows up rotated 90-degrees (so move your arm to the left to aim upwards on the screen) or mirrored (move left to aim right). That’s a minor thing, but a clever use of both the PlayStation Eye and the Move controller. Or Spooky Shootout, where you use the Move controller like a flashlight to highlight and shoot ghosts in the dark — when a certain big ghost appears, you actually physically cover the little glowball on your Move controller in order to “hide the flashlight” in the game.

Ultimately, Start The Party! is an inoffensive suite of party-centric minigames; they range from amusing distractions to boring EyeToy Play rehashes. This kind of game is par for the course when it comes to introducing new motion-centric hardware, and it is exactly as you’d expect. While some of the games do a better job of showcasing the capabilities of PlayStation Move than others, it’s still pretty much just, “EyeToy: Play, but with waggle.”

By Thierry Nguyen

Karateka Review: Kung-Fu Floundering

Karateka may operate under the dustiest premise known to video games — “dude saves princess” — but, even in 2012, there’s something refreshing about its immediacy. In direct defiance to its cinematic aspirations, Jordan Mechner’s remake of his career-creating Apple II hit doesn’t concern itself with dialogue or lengthy cutscenes, nor does it require its hero to embark on an epic quest to reach the Big Bad’s HQ. Instead, after a single paragraph of context-establishing text, the protagonist’s destination sits just a few miles away, as well as the final foe that dwells within. Though Karateka comes nearly 30 years after the original, it still takes just half an hour to cruise through the game — now a much easier task thanks to significant advances in user-friendliness over the years. And rather than presenting this remake as a one-and-done semi-lengthy adventure, Mechner’s 2012 Karateka takes the form of a brief experience meant to be played multiple times until the player achieves perfection; a novel idea, but one hampered by a few decisions that make replays less enjoyable than intended.

As with the original, Karateka’s 2012 remake concerns itself with nothing but fighting; regardless of which direction the control stick moves, your character will only press forward. The game boils down to a few dozen one-on-one encounters that rely on a fighting system not unlike Punch-Out!! with a little bit of Rhythm Heaven thrown in for good measure. You can’t attack opponents directly; rather, to gain an opening, you first have to block their incoming blows. And to figure out a successful defensive strategy, you’ll have to listen closely to the musical sting (with era-appropriate instruments) that plays right before an enemy attack; a string of three notes means you’ll have to block three times, while a musical flourish indicates a mega-combo headed in your direction. It’s not as simple as just mashing the button the appropriate amount of times, though, since making it through a fight also requires careful judgment your opponents’ tempo. With its focus on defense and reliance on visual and audio cues, Karateka’s fighting system offers a unique take on what could otherwise be a straightforward and uninspired brawler.

Enemies in Karateka start off rather simple — as you would expect — but soon amp up the speed and frequency of their attacks, which at times require the player to strike first and immediately block an incoming offensive flurry. To add a bit of variety to the player’s fighting options, the hero slowly builds up chi as he pulls off successful attacks, which can then be used to execute a stun move that allows for an effort-free combo on a dazed opponent. Karateka takes a score-based approach to analyzing your skills, with the ultimate goal of making it to the end without taking a single hit. And unlike its 1984 predecessor, Karateka gives the player three lives in the form of three different player characters: the True Love, the Monk, and the Brute, who each have a progressively easier time fighting incoming foes. Lose your last scrap of health with the True Love, and the Monk will immediately take his place — and if the Monk keels over, the Brute will appear to plow through any remaining enemies. While just about anyone can finish the game with the overpowered third character, Karateka’s true challenge lies in getting to the end with a single “life –” and, refreshingly, the princess’ compatibility with her rescuer determines the happiness of your ending. Needless to say, she’s not very excited about a future domestic existence with a hulking, brainless mass of muscle.

While the fighting system works well and feels responsive, Karateka barely develops the many possible options of a rhythm-based brawler; later enemy attacks may demand a bit more of your reflexes, but even the final boss doesn’t offer any surprises. Your character has the option to punch and kick, but no meaningful difference separates the two, making the controls feel like they’ve been tailored more towards iOS and other touch-friendly mobile devices than the XBox 360 controller. And for a game that places an emphasis on replays, those early, tutorial-heavy minutes do their best to make starting over more annoying than it should be, especially when the game repeatedly freezes the action to teach you the basic skills of fighting and blocking — strange that there’s no way to skip past these moments after your initial playthrough. Late-game pacing issues also take a little of the fun out of playing through Karateka’s 30 minutes, especially during a fight with the antagonist’s feathered friend, who can only be defeated by slowly batting away his incoming divebomb attacks over the course of minutes.

It’s to the credit of Karateka’s excellent rhythm fighting system that the final product feels so lacking. While this remake remains extremely faithful to Mechner’s original work, the half-hour of gameplay present could easily act as the opening stage for a slightly larger adventure, and one that fully develops its unique mechanics. But even in the span of 30 minutes, Karateka could stand to be a little more inventive; by the halfway point, you really start to feel like you’ve seen it all. The expressive characters, context-sensitive music, and surprisingly tolerable Jeff Matsuda art help carry the underdeveloped gameplay, but they can only carry it so far. Karateka contains a collection of interesting and unique ideas straight from the forward-thinking mind of Jordan Mechner, but they’d be better served in a game that paid them proper attention.

By Bob Mackey

Dead Rising 2 Review

If you had told me about a Canadian version of a Japanese take on a popular American genre, I would have cynically assumed that such a product would result in a sloppy mess of too many cultures clashing with each other over the same idea. Yet, this combination actually works in Dead Rising 2. While the first Dead Rising was a fresh “Groundhog Day of the Dead” type experience, it also was a deeply flawed one. Sure, it was cool to fight lots of zombies, and mess with a system that lets you restart the story repeatedly while preserving your character’s levels, experience points, and stats. Yet that experience was hampered by several factors: It was an early Xbox 360 title with crude graphics and cruder-looking characters (the main protagonist, Frank West, looked positively Cro-Magnon at times). It featured a save system that added both tension and sheer frustration. It used a counterintuitive control scheme where Right trigger aimed instead of shot. Much of the game consisted of infuriating escort missions where your escortees got lost or killed way too easily. In short, it was a mishmash that couldn’t decide whether it was a Japanese or an American game. So while it would be easy to assume that having a Canadian studio develop the sequel would result in another culture clash, it ends up creating the very game that we should have had in the first place.

The two easiest ways to describe Dead Rising 2 would be either, “a bigger Dead Rising 2: Case Zero” or “a better Dead Rising.” Many things that were just cited above as flaws in the previous title get smoothed over by Capcom Vancouver (see Blue Castle Games). You still need to find restrooms to save your progress, but now there are three save slots instead of just one, and you’re automatically prompted to save whenever a main event happens. Like a traditional Western game, you now aim with the Left-Trigger and shoot with the Right-Trigger. The visuals now look like they’re from a proper high-definition game. Escortees will actually live — their improved health and A.I. means that it takes a concerted effort for one to die rather than the frustrating and frequent deaths in the first game.

Click the image above to check out all Dead Rising 2 screens.

But Dead Rising 2 isn’t just a polished version of its predecessor. While it shares the same overall structure and gameplay mechanics, it also features its own distinct feel — from plot to presentation to moment-to-moment gameplay. It takes place years after the first game, and features a wholly different protagonist with a different motivation. Instead of being photojournalist Frank West investigating a mysterious outbreak, you play gameshow contestant/motocross champion Chuck Greene investigating whoever has framed him. After participating in an episode of “Terror is Reality” (an American Gladiators type of show, but with zombies), Chuck gets momentarily knocked out and wakes up to find that the formerly caged zombies have been let loose all over Fortune City. After grabbing his infected daughter Katey and arriving at a nearby safehouse, he learns that he’s been accused of freeing the zombies. So while waiting for the military to arrive in 72 in-game hours (which translates to about six real-world hours), Chuck can attempt to figure out what’s really going on while keeping Katey alive (by injecting her with Zombrex, a sort of zombification inhibitor) and rescuing other survivors who are trapped within the Las Vegas Strip-wannabe called Fortune City.

Or not, if you so choose. Dead Rising 2 still features a zombie-filled open-world location with loads to do, and multiple endings that factor in how you play. You can try to finish every story case and administer Zombrex to Katey when needed for the best ending. Or you can instead try to save every optional survivor. Or maybe take on every psychopath (boss battles against crazed humans that reinforce the zombie movie trope of “man, not zombie, is the real monster”). Even if you don’t find or administer Zombrex, you can continue playing the game (just don’t expect a good ending when you can’t save your own daughter). Dead Rising 2 still encourages multiple playthroughs, since you don’t have enough time to do everything your first time through. Time, not zombies or psychopaths, remains your ultimate foe, and you can still carry over Chuck’s stats and experience in each playthrough.

What makes Chuck feel drastically different than Frank (besides the improved controls) is how he gains Prestige Points (the experience system in the game). While Frank’s talent was in photography, where taking pictures earned PP via composition and creativity, Chuck earns PP by MacGuyvering crazy weapons. That is, he can take certain items and combine them together to create powerful combo weapons that net lots of PP per kill. These range from simply putting nails in a baseball bat to making lightsabers out of gems and flashlights to strapping chainsaws onto motorcycles. Chuck earns Combo Cards (item recipes) through leveling up, rescuing survivors, defeating psychopaths, or even by examining movie posters for inspiration. If you simply combine two items before Chuck has officially unlocked the Combo Card, you get a Scratch Card that earns you less PP. So you can freely experiment yourself and make crazy zombie-slaying gadgets, while still remaining motivated to unlock the actual Combo Card recipes. This new system makes gameplay more consistent — less pausing to take pictures and more pure action from moment-to-moment; it also makes the leveling curve more consistent, as you earn levels through natural combat progression rather than through exploits that instantly jump you up a few levels like in the first game.

Other ways that Dead Rising 2 distinguishes itself from its predecessor is through its multiplayer treatment. You can play the story in co-op, where another player takes his own Chuck into someone else’s game to help out (which makes most psychopaths incredibly easy). While only the host can progress in the storyline, the joining player still gains money and PP to take back into his own story playthrough. And while it’s initially a bit odd to have two Chucks at once, each player is likely going to have a wacky costume (Chuck can pretty much put on any outfit in the game, which leads to some hilariously inappropriate-looking cut-scenes), and it’s no odder than having two or more Master Chiefs in Halo. Besides co-op, there’s also the competitive Terror Is Reality, a sort of Mario Party/Fusion Frenzy-with-zombies experience where you play four rounds of minigames against three other players for cash to take back into your story. Neither multiplayer is particularly deep nor addictive in the same way as Call of Duty, but they’re amusing distractions that help out the main game.

It’s a bit of a downer that while Blue Castle has done so much to make Dead Rising both more accessible and enjoyable to play, it’s still ultimately hampered by some severe issues. While the game, by definition, lasts no more than six hours per playthrough, your actual game clock is going to be longer — not due to more content, but due to loadtimes. Anytime either a cut-scene plays or Chuck goes from a mall to a casino to an outdoor strip, the game takes a good thirty seconds or so to load. By itself, not too bad, but the frequency of loadtimes can get really irritating. Another technical issue is the inconsistent framerate — it’s a bit ironic that the very feature that makes Dead Rising 2 cool (tons of zombies on-screen) can also make the game chug along. Or that any time you have fire on-screen, whether via cut-scene or Molotov cocktail or flaming boxing glove, that also kills the framerate.

There are also some issues in core gameplay as well. Veterans of the first game might quibble at how much easier this one is by comparison (you can unlock Overtime mode and then the S-rank ending on your first try, and the zombies, even at night, aren’t as aggressive in this game as in the previous), but everyone will probably agree that the psychopaths are a bit of a letdown. Sure, their presentation is satirical and wacky, but their gameplay boils down to rote pattern memorization and exploiting them when they’re vulnerable. One psychopath encounter breaks this dreary pattern by being more of a rhythm game, but that kind of imaginative encounter is more the exception than the rule. And if you hated how the motorcycle handled in Case Zero, you’re still going to hate how the vehicles alternate between sluggishness and hypersensitivity in their handling.

Ultimately, sure, Dead Rising 2 has annoying technical flaws and uninteresting boss battles. But the ability to jump into a friend’s game while wearing a Borat-inspired mankini and a Servbot helmet with a lawnmower blade strapped on top help you quickly forget those problems.

By Thierry Nguyen

BlazBlue: Continuum Shift Review

BlazBlue: Continuum Shift is ARC System Works much needed revision of last year’s title, BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger. While Calamity Trigger was a fast-paced, unique, and easy-to-pick-up fighting game, the unbalanced roster resulted in only a few of the characters being viable on a competitive (or even casual) level, which led to many players dropping the game after only a short while. Continuum Shift not only addresses the balance issues of the previous game, but adds new characters and tweaks to the overall gameplay system, resulting in a far more complete package.

If you’re new to the BlazBlue universe, you’ll find the game has a small cast compared to other fighting games on the market, but makes up for it with a diverse roster. The four main attack buttons — A, B, C and D — chain together easily to form combos with each character’s Drive attack, which makes each feel immediately distinct. For instance, Arakune’s Drive Attack lets him curse his opponents, while Ragna’s can absorb his opponent’s life with each attack.

Click the image above to check out all BlazBlue: Continuum Shift screens.

Virtually every character in Continuum Shift now has a fighting chance with each of their strengths and weaknesses attuned to the rest of the cast. In Calamity Trigger, the top three most powerful characters — Arakune, v-13, and Rachel — were very strong “zoning-type” characters who could control space on the screen much more effectively than the rest of the cast. That put characters without a projectile or who had to get in close to inflict damage at a serious disadvantage. Arakune had near inescapable corner traps, while v-13 and Rachel could attack from virtually anywhere onscreen without fear of a counter attack. With changes made to Arakune’s Drive Attack, v-13 being replaced by a more refined yet versatile character (Lambda), and Rachel’s damage output decreased significantly, the end result is a much more even playing field.

Beyond the much needed adjustments made to the overpowered characters from the previous game, the rest of the cast received a few tweaks as well. Players who spent a lot of time with Calamity Trigger will find new combos and applications for attacks in Continuum Shift, providing for hours of testing and discovery.

That said, what’s a fighting game sequel without new characters? Continuum Shift adds a handful of new faces to the roster with more on the way via DLC. Hazama uses his Ouroborus to close in on the opponent from a distance and start a close-range assault, while Tsubaki can hold down her Drive Attack to power up her special attacks, increasing her effectiveness from close- to mid-range. The new characters are, of course, a welcome addition, but generally speaking they’re more advanced; don’t expect to master them quickly.

Beyond the numerous changes and additions to the characters, the gameplay system itself receives some revisions as well. Bursting — a technique that allows you to escape combos and even mount an offense — is now a little different. You can only Burst two times per match at most while in the previous game you had the ability to Burst each round. The game starts you off with one Burst and you gain another if you end up losing a round, so you have to use Bursting far more strategically in defensive and offensive situations.

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The Guard Libra system is now known as Guard Primer. Instead of a “tug-of-war” guard breaking system, characters have a set number of primers that have to be removed in order to have their guard broken. This results in new strategies for characters centered on breaking their opponent’s guard.

Another area that Continuum Shift really shines in is its Tutorial and Challenge mode, an excellent way for new players to learn the game and even help veterans learn new characters quickly. The Challenge and Tutorial modes lie somewhere between Super Street Fighter 4′s Challenge mode and Virtua Fighter 4′s robust training mode (which actually taught you how to play the game properly). Continuum Shift’s Tutorial Mode will teach you everything from basic strategies on how to use normal attacks from their most effective ranges to even more advanced mix-up strategies that can be used against other human opponents. After exploring the Tutorial Mode, you can head over to the Challenge Mode where the game runs you through many practical combos to get you ready for battle.

That said, the Challenge Mode can be somewhat frustrating when performing longer combos due to the fact that the game only displays the first part of the combo onscreen until you input some of the later commands. It is sometimes difficult to remember all the attacks and inputs required in these lengthy combo sequences, but luckily the game includes a Demonstration feature where the CPU will show you how to complete each Challenge.

One thing that hasn’t changed about BlazBlue is its excellent netcode, making it one of the most enjoyable fighting games to play online. After playing a number of online matches (even versus Japanese opponents), I didn’t experience a single moment of lag in any of my matches. Like in the previous game, each match starts off with the appearance of lag during the character intros, but once the actual round begins you will experience the smoothest online gameplay out of any fighting game to date. Beyond the excellent netplay, the game also allows you to save your online replays locally, which is critical in reviewing your performance versus human opponents.

If you somehow manage to pull yourself away from the online multi-player for a moment, you will be pleased to see that Continuum Shift contains a number of entertaining offline, single-player modes. Story Mode gives you a look at how each character fits into the BlazBlue universe, while Legion Mode — which debuted in the PSP version of Calamity Trigger — is a strategic mode where you form an army and conquer a map filled with opposing armies.

All in all, BlazBlue: Continuum Shift provides a seamless fighting game experience by offering excellent Tutorial and Training Modes to help you learn your character before testing their skills in the game’s near-flawless online mode. With a diverse and larger balanced character roster than the previous game, DLC characters, and potential balance patches on the way from ARC System Works, BlazBlue: Continuum Shift is a solid addition to the BlazBlue series.

Recent Reviews

Deadliest Warrior: The Game Review: “The most disappointing Viking/Native-American crossover since Pathfinder.” Grade: D+

Limbo Review: “A hauntingly beautiful (but ultimately anticlimactic) XBLA puzzle game.” Grade: B

By Neidel Crisan

Call of Duty Black Ops II Review: The Power of Choice

black ops

of Duty is one of our medium’s
emissaries to the outside world, whether you like it or not. It’s
annually one of the highest-selling, most outward-facing video games the industry has to offer. The national news covers it; its commercials inundate
programming every November; and I’d be willing to bet that even your
parents know its name.

But with this power comes a
heavy choice for the developers. Do they rest on their laurels and play it safe? Or do they take risks and
deliver genuinely creative mechanics and systems to as wide an
audience as exists for video games? It’s with this fundamental creative choice in mind that
we explore Black
Ops II, the sequel to the best-selling North American-developed game of all time.

While the COD series has faced criticism — and not unjustly — for presenting single-player campaigns that consist
primarily of a series of corridors that link set pieces,
there’s no denying the formula works. This is part of the reason
why I was so surprised to see Treyarch shake things up for the first
time in nearly six years. The bulk of these changes come in way BLOPS II
empowers the player with the freedom of choice. The campaign’s flow
brings ample moments of volition that each become a component of a
narrative equation. By the end of the campaign, you’ll have experienced
a story that doesn’t feel like Treyarch’s, but rather one penned by
your own hand.

The developers have done an amazing job of creating a complex web of decisions and outcomes that present
themselves to the player in a variety of ways. Some choices are obvious and binary,
like whether or not to kill a specific character. Others are much less
apparent, such as venturing off the beaten path and discovering a piece
of intel that reveals information down the road. Still others come in the form of moments where you won’t even realize you had a choice until you talk to someone else who had an entirely different outcome altogether. By the end of
the campaign, you’ll have experienced a story that feels
uniquely your own.

black ops

The choices you make
throughout the game are enhanced by
one of the most interesting and nuanced villains in the series’
history. Raul Menendez is a tragic figure who commits atrocities
because atrocities were committed to him. There can be no positive
outcome for a man whose life contains so much anger. Inevitable
comparisons will be drawn to The Dark Knight‘s
Joker, which is fitting considering David Goyer’s work on the scripts
for both. But for as much as I loved to watch Menendez’s tragic arc, I
couldn’t help but question some of Treyarch’s decisions when it came to
toying with the game’s point of view. Without giving too much away,
BLOPS II treats your perspective as a mercurial feature of the game,
allowing it to drip freely from character to character without any real
justification, other than forcing the player to commit heinous acts.

While the actions of running
and shooting play out similarly to any other recent Call of Duty game,
there are moments of genuine calm that show an amazing amount of
restraint on Treyarch’s part. In the midst of the game’s second act,
you partake in a quiet rendezvous in Panama during the Christmas
season. What surprised me so much about this scene was how reserved and
down-to-earth it was. A married couple
argues about who should do the
chores. Nat King Cole can be heard coming from inside the house. The
soft glow of Christmas lights is juxtaposed to the greenery of the
Caribbean climate. Three friends share a beer and, more importantly, a
moment of calm introspection in the middle of so much death. I was
taken aback by how powerful this sequence was and genuinely pleased with
the decision to let players soak in a brief reprise before loading
their guns once again.

blops 2

While the story choices and
quiet moments highlight the campaign, it’s certainly not without its
share of flaws. The largest dips in quality comes in the form of the
much-touted Strike Force Missions. These sorties allow you to scan the
map from an aerial view and direct units using some very basic, very
broken RTS functions. Units rarely do as you say, going so far as
to completely ignore your orders and walk into a group of enemies
without the slightest sense of self-preservation. Upon engaging in the
first of a handful of these missions, I was quickly decimated due to
my approaching it as I would a real RTS. The only way I was able to navigate
later challenges was by eschewing any notion of strategy and simply
gunning through the levels via a first-person perspective. By and
large, these levels were interesting in theory but inelegant in
execution. I’m glad Treyarch included missions that
deviate from the norm, but I wish these portions fully embraced the notion of

By the time the credits rolled,
I can honestly say that I was surprised and impressed by the risks Treyarch took in BLOPS II’s campaign. For the first time in the series, I felt
like my actions had consequences, and although some of the choices were
a bit too binary, it’s certainly a step in the right direction. While
it doesn’t delve into its ideas quite as deeply as Spec
Ops: The Line
did, you’ll still come across quite a bit of commentary that you wouldn’t expect from a COD game.
It’ll be quite the disappointment if next year’s inevitable Modern Warfare 4 doesn’t build upon this system of
branching paths and unique outcomes. Just a quick word of warning –
there’s a final scene at the end of the credits that left an absolutely
awful taste in my mouth. It felt pandering and completely at odds with
the narrative power that came from some of the earlier moments. It’s
obviously not canonical, but I couldn’t help but feel that its mere
presence did a disservice to the rest of the game.

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black ops

While Treyarch made the
decision to shake things up in terms of single-player design, they
played it comparatively safe with this year’s multiplayer outing. The
competitive online space still feels very similar to every installment
since the original Modern
Warfare, albeit enhanced with a few
new features. The most interesting addition is the Pick 10 system,
which allows for players to craft a character loadout truly unique unto
themselves. Want to forego abilities in favor of a powerful primary
weapon and a souped-up side arm? You can do that. Want to carry only a
simple rifle, choosing instead to allocate your points towards perks
that raise your stats? It shall be done.

Pick 10 encourages
experimentation, rewards creativity, and ultimately takes the RPG-like
systems that have been in place since the original Modern Warfare to the next level.
BLOPS II also builds upon the constant encouragements and dangling
carrots that made the multiplayer of MW into a goliath of gaming. Not a
match goes by where you aren’t ranking up, meeting optional goals, or coming
within sight of a new perk. Even in a season as busy as this one, the
multiplayer in BLOPS II demands your time, but makes you more than
happy to part with your precious hours.

While the Pick 10 system is
immediately accessible yet incredibly deep, the map selection
available at launch doesn’t quite complement the rest of the
multiplayer. While not bad by any stretch of the imagination, the
digital battlefields included here don’t pop with quite the same
intensity as many of the other social features do. Though the locations
may be memorable, ranging from Los Angeles mansions to the deck of an
aircraft carrier, their specific geography leaves a bit to be desired.
Many maps lack multiple routes and auxiliary alcoves, leading to just a
handful of crucial choke points in each level where a majority of the
action will take place. I wanted to find a level that just clicked with
me in the same way that the Complex, Dust, and Blood Gulch did in their
respective titles. Instead, we’re left with an adequate-but-uninspired
set of maps.

black ops 2

Despite the disappointment that
stems from BLOPS II’s digital battlegrounds, I found that playing countless hours of
multiplayer really highlighted just how refined the technical aspects
of the entire series have become. The sound design an the impeccable
ability to deliver information to the player on a subconscious level. With a
good sound system, you’ll be able to pinpoint exactly where in the
environment your enemies are based solely on the placement of their gunfire.
Likewise, the sound a round makes when it hits another player informs
you of your accuracy even more so than the visuals do. The entire audio
package works in cohesion with a great framerate to create as solid a
technical base as our medium has in 2012. Now if only the art direction
could catch up with what’s beneath the hood and deliver colors other
than brown and grey, we might be onto something.

As I write this review, I’m finding it difficult to talk about BLOPS II as a single package rather than a trio of distinctly different games. Alongside the campaign
and multiplayer suite you also have zombies mode, which makes its third appearance
in the series. This time around, the highlight of this mode is Tranzit,
which Treyarch has been touting as their version of an undead campaign.
While this may be a bit of a misnomer, the mode still has enough depth
and unique mechanics to hold its own in an already crowded package.

Tranzit consists of a series of
small maps connected by a bus system that ferries you from
outpost-to-outpost. The bus runs on a schedule, meaning that if you
fail to get on within a certain period of time, you’ll have to hold up
against waves of the undead until it loops back around. While it’s
possible to hoof it on foot from one area to another, you’ll quickly
find that all sorts of beasts reside in the fog between the stops. But
the main draw of this mode lies in the bond that forms between the four
human players. In zombies, teamwork is not only encouraged, but
essential. The moment there’s a lull in communication, the entire
foundation of your playthrough will inevitably crumble apart. Calling
out weapon placement, making collective decisions on when to use a
power up, and knowing when to revive a teammate and when to concentrate
on finishing the wave all make for a social experience on par with Left 4
Dead. Nothing in BLOPS II felt
more gratifying than recovering from a seemingly hopeless situation in
this undead apocalypse.

blops 2

I was shocked by how many
tense, surprising, and just straight-up entertaining moments we
experienced throughout Tranzit. The various areas are impeccably
designed as self-contained sieges, and packed with a mass of detailed
layers that slowly peel away as your team survives longer into the
game. Chances are that your first few rounds will go less-than desired.
But with each failure comes knowledge, and your team will eventually
come up with a specific game plan for each location in Tranzit. The
further you make it into the campaign, the crazier the ideas and
mini-narratives you’ll discover. I don’t want to spoil these, because
unearthing them on your own is wildly rewarding. What I will say is
that fans of one of 2012′s more creative horror films will certainly be
able to spot where some of Treyarch’s inspirations lie.

I can honestly say that I
walked away from Black Ops II completely surprised. Not because of the
variety of content — the Call of Duty titles have never skimped on
delivering an ample amount of game. Rather, I was surprised with the
risks that Treyarch took in the name of delivering a unique and
creative experience. Not all of them paid off, but knowing that the
team was willing to eschew the safe route helped ward off any
stagnation that may have begun to creep into the series as of late. The
most telling thing I can say about Black Ops II is that it made me feel
a little bit better about the fact that Call of Duty is, and will
continue to be, a major envoy of our medium.

By Marty Sliva

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