Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II Review

Fluid combat and great art lift this Force-powered sequel above its flaws.

The Good

  • Excellent art design makes each environment stand out
  • Fun and flashy combat makes good use of motion controls
  • Great cutscenes and voice acting give the story emotional heft
  • Good boss fights ramp up the action.

The Bad

  • Too many cheap deaths
  • Lacks enemy variety
  • Unspectacular multiplayer.

The original Star Wars: The Force Unleashed buzzed with potential, but poor production values and the madness of random remote waggling muted the glow. With Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II, the power of the Force has finally begun to manifest itself on the Nintendo Wii. Where the original struggled with combat momentum, The Force Unleashed II is smooth and satisfying; where the first game’s visuals were jagged and jittery, the follow-up’s are rich and varied. The gameplay is somewhat hobbled by a lack of enemy variety, among a few other flaws. However, not only is this version longer and more exciting than its high-definition counterparts, it moves along at a better pace and fills in an important story-related crevasse left gaping in the other versions. None of that matters if this is the only iteration of The Force Unleashed II you plan on picking up; what matters is that this is a good (and good-looking) action game that makes it a pleasure to slash up stormtroopers and fling them off walkways into the abyss beneath.

Starkiller must have a really high midichlorian count.

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The story is not as impressive as that of the original, but it is notable nonetheless. On the watery planet of Kamino, Darth Vader hovers over a familiar figure. It looks to be Starkiller, the original game’s leading man and Vader’s unauthorized apprentice. But is it really Starkiller–the one said to have sacrificed himself for the Rebellion? Thus, you step into this man’s shoes and begin your search for the truth, not to mention the search for Juno Eclipse, Starkiller’s former pilot and lover. Excellent voice acting and facial animations give cutscenes emotional impact, and a sequence on the planet of Dagobah melds gameplay and storytelling in a wonderful and unexpected way. It’s unfortunate that a lengthy central stretch that focuses on the combat needs of the Rebellion brings the narrative to a halt. In general, you spend less time getting to know Starkiller (or is it Starkiller?) and the supporting cast this time around, so the story arc isn’t as fulfilling as it might have been. Yet while the sequel may not boast a story as substantial as The Force Unleashed’s, it’s both fitting and fulfilling.

The Force Unleashed II features numerous prerendered cutscenes (the same scenes used in other versions of the game), but it also includes scenes of its own rendered within the game engine, and these are much improved over the glitchy and low-resolution cinematics of the original. The cutscenes are not the most impressive aspect of the production, however: the art design deserves the greatest kudos. Including the sojourn to Dagobah, you traverse four main environments, which isn’t as many as in the original, but your eclectic surroundings do a good job of providing visual variety. When you return to Kamino, for example, you start not on a rainy dais surrounded by the circular structures you would expect, but rather in natural corridors rich with red and gold hues. It would have been nice to explore a greater array of locations, but a talented team of artists clearly put a lot of work into making each of these areas distinct and diverse.

If you're arachnophobic, this battle is sure to give you an adrenaline rush.

If you’re arachnophobic, this battle is sure to give you an adrenaline rush.

Unfortunately, you won’t encounter a good variety of enemies during your adventure. Stormtroopers, mechanical spiders, and big robots with big shields make up the bulk of your battles. The good news is that the action is fun and sometimes even challenging, despite your ability to regenerate health by avoiding attacks for a short while. In the original, to swing your saber, you waved around the remote, which was both imprecise and unappealing. Now, you slash by tapping the A button, and motions are reserved for your most powerful moves. If you string together enough combos, you can slash the remote to perform a flashy saber attack. Thrusting the nunchuk forward Force-pushes enemies out of your way. Intuitive combinations of buttons and motions allow you to zap your foes with Force lightning, use Force grip to toss foes into the abyss beneath, and repel nearby ugnaughts with a shock wave. The camera, a major annoyance in the original, rarely gets in the way in the sequel, and responsive controls allow you to smoothly string moves together. An abundance of special effects and destructible environments further enhance the excitement of slicing and zapping jumptroopers–as does a move you earn later in the game that allows you to annihilate multiple enemies in slow motion.

Some noncombat activities mix up the pace, though these aren’t wholly successful. The occasional puzzle sequences are easy but offer a pleasant breather in the midst of the action. The platforming, on the other hand, isn’t consistently rewarding. A jumping puzzle in which you must pay attention to your mirror image is a clever detour. On the other hand, an early platforming sequence in which the camera constantly shifts positions mid-jump is infuriating. In one level, you must dash across a walkway, but if you enter the bridge in the middle of a jump, the floor will crumble away beneath you without warning, sentencing you to a painful death. There are a number of similar “gotcha” moments, so you may find yourself running into a deadly laser beam due to the game’s failure to communicate. Happily, the creative boss fights help pick up the slack. A battle against an oversized metal arachnid is one such encounter; it requires you to use Force grip to rotate giant rings and, later, to manipulate a set of switches before you can damage it using your slow-motion rage. The fights are a good length but are never tedious, and they keep the tempo moving by changing camera angles, requiring you to influence the environment in various ways, and generally keeping you on the move.

Tatooine plays host to dual suns and dual sabers.

Tatooine plays host to dual suns and dual sabers.

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II also features local multiplayer ripped right from the Super Smash Bros. playbook. It isn’t bad as unoriginal recipes go, letting each of four players select a character and leap around and duke it out in two dimensions. Each character possesses his or her own strengths and weaknesses, as you might expect. Darth Vader’s saber slashes are powerful, but he’s not very agile; Starkiller is a good all-rounder but not strong in one particular area; and Proxy can transform into any other character, but he’s incredibly weak in his conventional form. In addition, you can perform a couple of different special moves, one of which is activated by flinging the nunchuk. Environmental hazards, such as the giant creature called the gorog waving his arms about, lend a touch of unpredictability to battle, though none of these hazards have the cleverness of Smash Bros.’ best levels–nor are the animations and collision detection very tight. Attacks often appear to go right through your opponent without doing any damage, for example.

Multiplayer balancing and other issues aside, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II is a good step forward for a series that didn’t shine in its previous outing. It’s a shame the adventure doesn’t last; while it’s lengthier than the other versions, you will still finish in around six hours. Nevertheless, the snazzy swashbuckling can be electrifying, due in part to a responsive control scheme that utilizes motion in obvious but gratifying ways, making you feel like a mighty Jedi Knight. The clumsy moments prove that this franchise still has plenty of room to grow, but that shouldn’t keep you from giving yourself over to the power of the Force.

By Kevin VanOrd

Rocketbirds: Hardboiled Chicken Review

Overly basic combat and puzzles keep Rocketbirds: Hardboiled Chicken from taking flight.

The Good

  • Mixes combat and puzzles constantly
  • Darkly humorous
  • Jetpack sections are a nice change of pace.

The Bad

  • Combat and puzzles are too basic
  • Co-op mode strips out the most interesting elements.

The land of Albatropolis is not graced with the sounds of birds chirping happily. Under the penguin regime, life for the feathery folks of this realm is grim. But there is hope. As the heroic one-bird army known as Hardboiled Chicken, you must fight your way deep into the penguin stronghold and eliminate their leaders, overthrowing the oppressive government once and for all. Rocketbirds: Hardboiled Chicken is a mixture of 2D shooting and puzzle-solving with enough variety to hold your attention, but it doesn’t make enough of its scrambled ingredients to do its unusual hero and humorous premise justice.

Now these are what I call some real angry birds.

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Hardboiled is the kind of avian supersoldier you might produce if you spliced chicken DNA with that of Rambo. He may be the only bird who’s up to the task of defeating the penguins, but unfortunately, his stiff movement keeps him from being all that fun to control. The rigid controls rarely interfere with your progress, though, because the combat is so simple. Unlike in most 2D shooters, you don’t actually see the bullets as they fly through the air. If an enemy is in your line of fire when you pull the trigger, he will get hit, the tremendous force of your bullets levitating him off of the ground as his blood splatters on the wall. The surprising juxtaposition of such violent imagery with anthropomorphic birds is grimly humorous at first. But soon the surprise wears off, and the gunplay is worn down by its own simplicity. Just point your gun at a bad guy and hold the button down until you see the burst of feathers that tells you that penguin has seen his last march. You eventually encounter shielded foes who can be hurt only from behind, but having to run or roll past an enemy before you can kill him doesn’t do much to make the shooting more exciting.

It’s a good thing, then, that the shooting doesn’t have to stand on its own. It’s interwoven with environmental puzzles you frequently need to solve in order to proceed. Many of these are simple puzzles that just require you to collect keycards, use elevators, and push boxes to certain spots so that you can reach high ledges. More interesting are those puzzles that require you to use brain bugs. These little critters can be tossed through tiny spaces Hardboiled himself may not be able to fit through, and let you take control of any enemy soldier unfortunate enough to get his head caught in the green gas the bug exudes. As the enemy soldier, you can do things like push buttons that open doors so that Hardboiled can advance, and you can use the element of surprise to your advantage, gunning down groups of penguin soldiers who think you’re their friend before they have a chance to respond. Like the shooting, the puzzles are basic, but the game alternates between these elements so frequently that you rarely have time to get tired of one before you’re back to doing the other.

The third and least frequent element of Rocketbirds is what Hardboiled likes to call “jetpaction.” Occasionally he straps on a jetpack and takes to the skies to destroy penguin zeppelins or other flying machines. As he zooms through the air, this normally flightless bird leaves the stiffness of his ground movement behind, and for a little while, the simple freedom to zip across the screen in any direction is enjoyable in and of itself. Because you can actually attempt to avoid enemy fire in the air, the combat here is a bit more exciting than the shooting you engage in while on your feet. It sometimes requires some fancy flying to shake off homing missiles (or to lead them into a crash course with a bad guy), and this evasive element helps to make these brief interludes a pleasant change from the action that makes up the majority of the game.

In the jetpack sections, you can move around as freely as a bird.

In the jetpack sections, you can move around as freely as a bird.

Rocketbirds doesn’t do much traditional storytelling. A few scenes establish the characters of Putzki, the “fearless leader” of the penguins, and his dual-Uzi-wielding enforcer, Brno. But most cinematics in the game are wordless scenes set to songs by the rock band New World Revolution. There’s not much of a plot here, but these musical scenes effectively use imagery to illuminate Hardboiled’s troubled past and to examine the emotional toll of the war. The characters are visually distinctive; you’ve never seen a gun-toting chicken supersoldier who looks quite like Hardboiled. And the environments are pleasantly varied. You make your way through drab bunkers, sunny city streets, lavish museums, and other locales. Propaganda posters, humorous signs, and other details give these places personality, but in a few spots it’s difficult to distinguish the background from the foreground, and you may leap for a ledge that isn’t actually a ledge.

In addition to the single-player adventure, Rocketbirds includes a two-player local cooperative mode. Here, each player chooses from an assortment of budgies that specialize in various weapons; Chief uses a light machine gun, for instance, while Mutt employs a shotgun. Unlike Hardboiled, who can switch among any of the weapons he collects, these budgies are stuck with their weapon of choice. The environments are the same ones that show up in the single-player game, but the level design is changed to create situations that require you and your partner to work together to advance. Most commonly, this means that one budgie must hop on the other budgie’s shoulders so that the duo can get to otherwise out-of-reach places. The budgies control as stiffly as Hardboiled does, and although the joy of camaraderie makes collaborating to advance pleasant, two of the most interesting aspects of the single-player game are absent. Without brain bug puzzles and jetpack sequences to mix up the rigid movement and simple shooting, the gameplay wears thin more quickly in co-op.

Birds of a feather fight together.

Birds of a feather fight together.

Rocketbirds: Hardboiled Chicken combines simple action and simple puzzles, and the result is a simple game. It changes up its various elements frequently enough to remain an entertaining diversion, but it never becomes more than that. And although the combination of cartoon birds and violent imagery is shocking and funny at first, it’s not enough to sustain the game, even for its roughly five-hour running time. Your $11.99 can get you into much more memorable battles than this one.

By Carolyn Petit

RE: Operation Raccoon City Review: A City Worth Saving

When I put out the call for help with 1UP’s Resident Evil Operation Raccoon City review, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The idea seemed simple enough in theory: 1UP would give this multiplayer-heavy game a fair shake by inviting fans and members of our community to play along and help shape the site’s review. Review together or die alone, and stuff like that.

I was happy to see our community participate and share their opinions and unique perspectives with us. While a few entries didn’t make the final cut, I appreciate the effort and contributions made by all. Honorable mention goes out to 1UP user dayeight, someone who chose not to participate in our multiplayer sessions but offered this surprisingly succinct take on ORC: “Moving parts create a puppet menagerie of pain, online is fun-ish but isn’t it always.” Nicely put, dayeight. And with that, let’s kick off our first community review and see what our panel had to say about ORC’s strengths and weaknesses.

Click the image above to check out all Resident Evil ORC screens.


Oscar Reynoso, 1UP Member: I think ORC sticks to the story pretty well, and all of the characters seem really balanced. The assortment of weapons isn’t that bad, and it’s pretty cool to experience a story from Umbrella’s perspective during the G-Virus outbreak of Resident Evil 2 and 3.

Jose Ybarra, 1UP Members: ORC is a decent game if you already like this series, but annoying glitches get in the way — like trying to pick up items as an on-screen prompt disappears, for example.

Navin Mistry, 1UP Member: I was a little bothered by how ORC begins like a cover-based Spec Ops versus Spec Ops third-person shooter interspersed with RE references, but I let out a sigh of relief once zombies and other bio-terrors started to make their appearances.

Brandon Stennis, 1UP Member: After playing hours of ORC, I still don’t know how I feel about it. The game is a different perspective on Resident Evil 2 and 3, and while that concept has managed to keep me interested, certain creative liberties have been taken with the material since this game was created by a different company outside of Capcom.

Jose Otero, 1UP Associate Editor: I agree that Raccoon City isn’t a terrible game, just a flawed one whose sloppy execution undermines the overall product. The act of shooting anything feels too unpredictable, as constant gun recoil rocks my weapons far off their intended targets. The sniper rifle is practically unusable due to the inhuman level of precision required to make it work. I’d give anything at this point to see a patch clear up some of these aim-related issues, but as of this writing ORC fumbles its core mechanic: Tactical third-person shooting. Its not the worst TPS ever made, but Slant Six’s efforts appear average at best and don’t really get any better.

Oscar: I thought the levels were really dark, so I kicked up the gamma and still had trouble seeing things. I also found the cover system — a technique that’s initiated by holding the analog stick forward to slide into a wall or piece of cover — a bit irritating since it would trigger itself when I didn’t need it. I’d be checking for doors to open so I could find helpful items and my character would attach themselves to the wall for cover.

Weird things happen in ORC, too. I played part of the campaign solo and the A.I.-controlled players would run into fire instead trying to find ways around it. I’d lose my teammates often and watch them die without using their special abilities. This really made playing alone difficult since I found myself having to rescue them all the time. Once I started playing with buddies, the game got a lot better.

Navin: The campaign is fairly short but it seems designed to be played through more than once. The teammate AI isn’t great, but the game is vastly improved when playing with human players, which is great if they’re available and unfortunate for fans of traditional single-player.

Jose O.: I agree. Luckily, single- and multiplayer progress come together through the player progression system, and that’s a smart move on Slant Six’s part. It rewards players with experience that can be used to buy weapons, abilities, and customize how each character plays. Some of the special abilities work better in a competitive multiplayer environment, but the amount of options they lend ORC is enough to keep you hooked.


continued, (page 2 of 2)

Jose Y.: I can’t say I love the voice acting, but I did like the story. The single-player AI is not that smart either, but that’s where playing cooperatively with friends comes in, and it helps this game in a big way.

Jose O: I have to admit that playing through ORC with a bunch of strangers proved more entertaining than I expected. Of course, part of the joy came from the snickers and verbal jabs at ORC’s sub-par presentation. But working together yielded some pretty cool results, and on a whole the multiplayer mechanics found here work. You just have to prepare yourself and come to terms with the lack of polish.

It helps that revisiting key faces and places in the RE 2 and 3 timeline was the goal, but ORC almost retcons a lot of story in order to shove in Slant Six’s take on the timeline. The idea of Leon being a primary target seems like a good idea, but I could’t help but question the execution. Movies like Back to the Future 2 weave new plot points between existing fiction, but ORC doesn’t come handle them quite as gracefully. That said, the last scenario is probably the most ambitious campaign idea ORC has up its sleeve, but the execution still feels really random and shoddy. Thankfully, competitive multiplayer comes to this game’s rescue and helps breathe life into ORC’s slightly rotting corpse.

Navin: The competitive multiplayer modes are few, but they can be a lot of fun. It’s here that I feel the most unique aspect of the game presents itself. The constant presence of the infected forces players to abandon more traditional shooter tactics and play conservatively. Sadly, the implementation is a bit clumsy. If you’re anything like us you will find yourself pointing out little things that would have made a big difference, such as tightening up the sloppy gunplay.

If, like me, you are the kind of fan that will buy pretty much any game (or film) with Resident Evil on it, there are enough knowing winks throughout to provide satisfaction, but I’m curious to know how others feel. Good or bad, the fact stands that I had an extremely fun time playing with people online, so I see myself coming back for multiplayer, but neglecting single-player — until that inevitable run to grab all the hidden in-game collectables, that is.

Brandon: The gameplay is pretty standard but has some added elements in the action. But there is a lot of pop-in of enemies at points and sometimes there are some glitchy parts which sometimes affects the combat. My biggest compliment so far is the fact that the weapon/ammo situation is very bad. I don’t like the fact that you have to switch guns so often because you are out of ammo. Ammo runs out very fast in situations where you actually need to kill an enemy and there are no ammo boxes nearby. I have tried to get myself in the mindset that this isn’t a typical Resident Evil game and try to think of it as a very different spin of the series, which I’m assuming was the creators’ goal.

Click the image above to check out all Resident Evil ORC screens.


Jose O.: It’s true that ammo is in short supply, and in a sense that could be the only gameplay connection that ORC has with the original RE trilogy, but I still can’t get over the ridiculous mishandling of the viral infection idea in ORC. The concept of infecting a player in a town full of zombie-making bacteria is fine, but if your partner joins the undead, a quick bullet to the head will solve all your problems. Then you can quickly help revive your formerly undead partner and continue going about your business. Why did it have to be this way? I have no idea, but this silly approach makes it hard to take the idea as more than a minor inconvenience.

Oscar: The multiplayer is decent, and I found it fun to battle against others in the competitive modes while you’re simultaneously fending off zombie foes. ORC is worth playing, but it would be an even greater game if they fixed the sloppy controls.

Jose O.: I think Slant Six’s expertise as a developer of TPS-style games definitely shines in ORC’s competitive multiplayer. Team Attack mode takes the vanilla concept of Team Death Match and throws a bunch of zombies between the Umbrella Special Forces and the Spec Ops, and the ensuing chaos makes even simple modes like this more interesting. Biohazard mode offers a fun twist on ideas from objective-based multiplayer games. But of them all, Survivor and Heroes offer the most fun.

In Heroes, each player picks an RE all-star — from Leon and Claire to Ada and Hunk — and gets access to special bonuses and abilities. When a hero is killed on the field, the player respawns as a regular solider. The first team that burn through all four of their Heroes loses the match. Survivor mode takes the obvious survival concept and forces eight players fight over four seats on an incoming escape helicopter. The action on the field escalates as the chopper closes, unleashing deadly monsters like the Tyrant creature or Hunters. Each time you lose a life, your respawn timer is extended a little longer, forcing you to be conservative or risk losing your ride out of the ensuing chaos.

Jose Y.: While it’s neither the best nor the worst in the series, if you like Resident Evil and like games that rely on co-op multiplayer, then this game would be worth checking out. If you prefer to tackle your campaigns solo, then you might find this game quite frustrating.

By Jose Otero

LittleBigPlanet Karting Review: Stifled Creativity


karting

When Mario
Kart 7 released last
year to a
largely lukewarm response,
one fact became clear: the kart-racing genre was in dire need of a new
hero. The throne has been vacant, just waiting for a title with the
fortitude to claim its place as the rightful heir. So it is that United
Front Games and Media Molecule deliver LittleBigPlanet
Karting, a
would-be king with the idea of creation on the mind. Sadly, this bumpy
reign lacks the technical adeptness and design ingenuity to be anything
more than an average entry in a still-leaderless genre.

In a racing game with a
well-designed single-player component,
players should find themselves
just barely squeaking out a victory in a majority of the challenges. A
win without friction awards no sense of accomplishment. Likewise,
if I do end up losing a race, you want to feel like it was your fault, not
because of some deus ex machina that just happened to award first place
based on a digital whim. The most chronic offender in these arbitrary
tide-shifts is always the game’s arsenal of weapons, which is
predictably where a wealth of Karting’s frustrations stem from. The
weapons available to you are in LPB are as unbalanced and arbitrary as the
genre has ever seen. Mario Kart’s infamous Lightning Bolts and Blue
Shells have nothing on the WMDs that will undoubtedly make you want to
rip a Sackboy apart in frustration. Boxing Gloves appear that take control away from the player and oftentimes lead you right off a cliff. Rockets will oftentimes fail to lock on to a target, or even worse, turn around and hit the player instead. But the worst of all is the
Fast Forward power up, which ostensibly just warps you ahead about half
a lap. But the feature that really compounds this problem is the
frequency at which you can suffer at the hands of these obstacles. On
countless occasions, I found myself in spawn loops where I’d get hit by
an item, then before I could regain control of my kart, I’d be
bombarded by another.

Some of these balancing
problems could’ve been alleviated had Karting delivered a suite of
levels and challenges that inspired confidence in the game’s future
content. Sadly, this installment in the LBP series is entirely missing
the magic found in previous entries. The lack of creativity in the
levels included on the disc is disappointing when you consider how
great Double Eleven’s content in LBP
Vita was. The handheld
platformer contained some really interesting internal ideas that made
use of the Vita’s inherent strengths, whereas Karting comes packed
with a generic set of tracks and obstacles. Karting’s
races are largely banal affairs, with the occasional arena battle
thrown in as an attempt to mix things up. But regardless of how a
challenge is presented, they all come across as flat, uninspired
tasks. As is always the case with the series, the hope here is that
the community picks up the slack by using the game’s creation tools to
craft a fountain of interesting content. This makes sense in the
context of previous LBP titles, but how will audiences make the move
from 2D platformer to 3D racer?

It took me three installments,
but by the time the Vita version of LBP rolled around, I felt versed
enough in the grammar of the level editor to make my own stages.
Granted, those stages were by and large pretty awful, but I could
definitely see some players with a lot more talent and a lot more time
make some really amazing content. Hell, 1UP’s own Dub
Z was able to
crank out Emotionally
Unstable, a really great project
that feels more complete and fleshed
out than half of the Minis on PSN. But after watching hours of
tutorials on the nuances of building the next great race track, I felt
like a caveman staring at a wall of HTML. Seriously, learning how to
create a track in Karting feels like I’m back in college, minus the
massive debt and post-graduation unemployment. And without the
intuitive touch-screen functionality of the Vita, you’re left pecking
around the screen with your analog stick in a dire attempt to create
some semblance of meaning from the track editor.

karting

If by some miracle you manage
to gain comprehension of the editor, I applaud you. For those
well versed and somehow still entertained, plenty of time can be wasted
in LBPK. Completionists will find enough content littered throughout
the Karting world to occupy their obsession for quite a bit of time.
Tracks are littered with the series’ iconic bubbles containing various
elements for you adorn your character and kart with, but oddly enough,
all of these changes are aesthetic. No matter if you’re driving a
hovercraft or a monster truck, they all handle the same and have the
exact same stats. Developers claimed this was in the interest of
maintaining a fair and balanced game, which seems a bit silly
considering how wildly inconsistent the game’s AI and weapon structure
is.

Someday down the road, a game
will come along that reminds
us why we fell in love with these digital
soapbox derbies in the first place. Whether its from Nintendo in the inevitable Mario
Kart U, Sega in the upcoming Sonic
All-Stars, or a new challenger,
it’s
bound to happen. LittleBigPlanet Karting had the potential to deliver a
solid single-player challenge with a deep and intuitive system of
creative tools, but all of that was squandered by inconsistent design
and a wildly steep learning curve. I would love nothing more than to be
proven wrong by players who are able to make sense of Karting’s
hieroglyphics and craft a wealth of racing experiences that I could
only dream of. But until that dream becomes a reality, gamers will have
to come to terms with the fact that the kart-racing throne is still
looking for its rightful heir.

By Marty Sliva

Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment Review

Out of all the Konami franchises to resurrect, Vandal Hearts feels like a somewhat random and inexplicable choice. The first two games, released in the late ’90s for the original PlayStation, weren’t met with much fanfare upon release, even at a time when RPG fans would play anything and everything from Japan for the sake of novelty value alone. In fact, most only know this strategy-RPG series for the fountains of arterial spray that would gush forth from its little warriors after the slightest nick of a dagger.

And now, more than a decade since the last Vandal Hearts installment, things haven’t changed a bit in the downloadable-only title Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment; the characters’ penchant for emitting torrents of fire hose-pressure blood marks one of the few memorable elements of a mostly unremarkable game.

Click the image above to check out all Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment screens.

If you’ve played any of the Tactics Ogre-inspired Japanese strategy RPGs of the past decade, nothing in Flames of Judgment should surprise you. All the fundamental trappings are here: turn-based progression, tile-by-tile movement, area of effect spells — all in all, pretty standard. Though it’s important to note that developer Hijinx Studios excised the expected RPG character levels and classes in favor of a SaGa-inspired growth system where party members become stronger in regards to the weapons and magic they equip and use. Since every character can equip almost ever weapon, Flames of Judgment initially seems to provide a lot of options for character customization.

But in the end, your individual choices don’t matter much; while the game gives you an abundance of character statistics to build, it’s easy to go on auto-pilot and choose the most obvious and practical set of equipment upgrades for your party. Sure, you could attempt to make your wimpy mage a hammer-wielding force of nature on the front lines, but why do this when the enemy will inevitably cut through him like tissue paper at their first chance?

Thankfully, the battles themselves don’t suffer from this same level of simplicity; like the first Vandal Hearts, your missions involve a bit more than simply slaying everything in your path. Most battles feature some sort of puzzle element to make things more interesting, and you’ll usually find yourself pondering how to shove boulders, throw switches, escort the weak, and/or chase down enemy leaders, all while taking on the hordes of goons swarming your party. Ultimately, Vandal Hearts’ battles aren’t very difficult, though they are varied and, at times, unpredictable. And since most levels are littered with treasures and maps to secret areas, it’s often necessary to break up your party in the midst of added enemy reinforcements and changing objectives. Strategizing in Flames of Judgment doesn’t require nearly as much anal-retentive precision as something like Fire Emblem, but the game succeeds in throwing a few curveballs into a thoroughly bland battle system.

While strategy RPG veterans will inevitably sleepwalk through most of Flames of Judgment, it isn’t hard to see how someone new to the genre could find a lot more to like. Still, with a little searching, it’s not hard to find a far better take on turn-based strategy for far less than fifteen dollars — and one that isn’t so nightmarishly ugly. Vandal Hearts may be competent at what it does, but its derivative throwback nature doesn’t do much for a genre that’s in desperate need of innovation.

By Bob Mackey

Sound Shapes Review: Brilliant, Yet Barely Hinting at Its Own Greatness

1UP COVER STORY

Header

1UP COVER STORY | WEEK OF AUGUST 6 | DARING GAMES AND DESIGNERS

Sound Shapes Review: Brilliant, Yet Barely Hinting at Its Own Greatness

Cover Story: Queasy Games has built a dazzling framework, but fans will have to do the heavy lifting.

Y

ou could almost be forgiven for writing off Sound Shapes as “just another psuedo-intellectual indie title.” At first glance, it bears all the hallmarks of your stereotypical “hipster game.” Simple play mechanics? Check. Sound Shapes controls with only the D-pad and two buttons. Minimalist visuals? Definitely. Its worlds are built on simple, hand-drawn and pixel and retro-vector graphics. A slick interface and decidedly un-corporate sense of identity? Absolutely. Not that polish and personality represent negative traits, of course.

Fortunately, you only need a few minutes with the game to realize it’s anything but a lazy or cynical attempt to ride the coattails of the retro-cool trend. Sound Shapes’ distinctive aesthetics serve a definite purpose. The game is simple for a reason. Two reasons, actually: One, the level designs and game mechanics have been wed carefully to its music, which builds, Rez-like, as you complete each stage. And — more importantly — two, the real purpose of the game is for players to take up the reins and create their own Sound Shapes puzzles, so it needs to be approachable and uncluttered at every level.

Musical compositions weave their way into the design of each stage; beneath the entire game lurks a grid that describes not only the form of a given stage but also the tunes that play behind it. The coins you collect as you make your way through a level don’t appear haphazardly. Their position on the screen corresponds to both their pitch and when in the stage’s (user-composed) background theme they play. Sound Shapes offers a wealth of level design components to drop into a stage, but the shape and flow of a given level is defined to some degree by the notes you need to collect as well. Creating a level to upload and share — again, the real point of Sound Shapes — isn’t entirely unlike drawing a little world around the notes on a staff on a piece of sheet music. Band class doodles brought to life.

Sound Shapes’ stage editor manages the rare feat of being both incredibly flexible yet incredibly easy to use. Because of the cooperative nature of level design and music, you’re able to create both platforming challenges and cool (or not) beats at the same time, from the same interface, and watch them evolve together. You can mix and match both audio and visual elements from any stage you’ve mastered, which leaves you with a ridiculous wealth of design options once you clear the game’s 20-odd levels. While there are practical limits to what you can do with a Sound Shapes level, it offers impressive depth and ease of use. Its one real drawback — at least in the Vita version reviewed here — comes in its use of rear touch for scaling and rotating objects. As with any back-panel Vita functionality more complex than simple tapping, this proves in practice to be clumsy, frustrating, and ill-conceived.

Spot Art

That’s no big deal, really. The greater issue with Sound Shapes is that the package as it’s sold feels somewhat incomplete. Each of its two dozen stages can be cleared in the space of about two hours, and while you can go back and attempt to top the leaderboards or master the unlockable ultra-challenge mode, the simple fact is that there’s not much in the way of content here. The levels seem to exist less as content in and of themselves and more as vehicles for providing the player with new objects to play with in edit mode.

The bundled stages offer interesting examples of what a creative designer can do with the game, but few of them really capture the true potential inherent in Sound Shapes’ unification of music and platforming. Of note, Jim Guthrie and Superbrothers’ stages unfold in a sort of 8-bit Office Space hell, which is interesting but becomes a bit repetitive by the end. The PixelJam-designed levels featuring Deadmau5 tunes (“D-Cade”) offer the game’s most devastating platforming challenges paired with nods to classic arcade titles Galaxian, Breakout, and Space Invaders, but they also demonstrate the potential for annoyance inherent in Sound Shapes’ mechanics — the player’s avatar constantly sticks to walls at the least opportune moments.

Perhaps surprisingly, it’s the Pyramid Attack-designed levels featuring music by Beck (“Cities”) that best embody the real potential of Sound Shapes — “surprisingly,” because for once the content by a famous contributor isn’t simply an attempt to grab headlines. Rather, these stages beautifully combine the building layers of tunes with play elements that operate in time to the beat, reflect the lyrics in interesting ways, and also create a sort of self-contained narrative packed with unique hazards and challenges. Deadly bombs shuffle across the sky in sync with the rhythm track; explosions slowly fill the screen one pulse at a time; special platforms made of word blocks morph to reflect not only the current lyrics but also the meaning of those words. At “hurt,” it sprouts deadly spikes; at “turn” it rotates to pitch the players in an unexpected direction. Meanwhile, deadly objects fill the screens in patterns reminiscent of a bullet curtain shooter. The brilliance present in these precious few stages easily justify the price of Sound Shapes; they’re some of the most brilliant examples of gaming’s potential for audio-visual synthesis you’ll ever see.

Spot Art

Unfortunately, that’s only two or three levels out of an already meager two dozen. Sound Shapes gives you a dazzling taste of its potential, but then it just as quickly comes to an end, handing players the keys and letting them do as they will. As such, Sound Shapes right now, at launch, feels incomplete. I see the potential for some truly incredible experiences emerging from the Sound Shapes player community in the coming months, but at the moment that’s all it is: Potential. Queasy Games has sketched the outlines of something truly extraordinary here, a game that could well define the Vita… but until players start coloring in the lines, Sound Shapes offers only a tantalizing hint of what it might be.

I’ve reviewed a handful of games over the years that I feel everyone needs to play, and Sound Shapes belongs among those rare ranks. Like those elite peers, it brings a fresh, new experience to the table and defines the creative and collaborative concepts that make video games such a unique medium. What’s different about Sound Shapes is that everyone needs to play it for a second but perhaps more important reason: Until you do and unlock the promise hidden in its level editor, the game simply isn’t complete. It’s a single-player game, yet its future rests in the hands of its community.

Author

Jeremy Parish

Jeremy Parish

In reviewing this game, 1UP editor Jeremy Parish designed a few levels. However, they’re not available to play lest he end up on trial in the Hague for inflicting terrible war crimes upon humanity. Learn more of his nefarious ways by following him on Twitter, or Tumblr, or Pinterest.


By Jeremy Parish

Batman: Arkham City Reaffirms Itself as The Best Superhero Game

Despite this review’s headline, Batman: Arkham City confirms a train of thought that originated when I saw Batman Begins: It’s not just a superhero action game, it’s also an inverse-horror game. Consider this situation: Four buddies hanging out in what can be considered a haunted steel mill. They talk about mundane things like what they did earlier that day, or their bets on which local community leader-type person will ultimately gain control of the area. In the tradition of horror movies, they stupidly split up. One of them hears a strange whooshing noise and runs off to investigate. One glimpses the quick movement of shadow around the corner. Then things get weirder.

At this point, random machines start turning; their guns suddenly jam up for no apparent reason; mines prematurely detonate; and walls suddenly explode. Amid all of these jump scares, the guys start disappearing. The one who ran to investigate the random sound gets found strung up above. The one who walked too close to a weak wall gets caught in said wall’s explosive collapse. The third one panics, fires his gun only to see it has been rendered ineffective, and while running to get a new firearm, finds himself locked in a sleeper hold. The last fellow thinks he’s clever by using his thermal imaging goggles to look up and around, but even he succumbs to sheer terror when he sees a man-sized bat in front — followed by smoke appearing all around him, his gun getting yanked away. And when the smoke clears, he doesn’t see that the shadowy man is about to land on him feet-first with full force.

Click the image above to check out all Batman Arkham City screens.

The terror of the Batman isn’t confined to moments of stealthy predation; simple and straightforward melee combat also displays just how scary he is to other people. Arkham City lets you create the sort of whispered urban legend that starts with, “Remember when twelve guys tried to take down the Batman?” You can then embellish that tale with descriptions of how freakin’ fast Batman is — that is, how he seems to effortlessly vault from victim to victim. How he can be in the middle of delivering a savage beatdown to an armored foe, and still quickly counter someone attempting a cheap shot from behind. Or how he tases the one guy with the sledgehammer who then wildly swings it around as a reflex to hit everyone else. It’s you, the player, who makes it so that when some thug tosses a chair towards Batman, he simply swats it away before turning his attention to someone else.

Okay, okay, Arkham City isn’t just about controlling Batman to scare a bunch of convicts. Like Batman: Arkham Asylum before it, it’s a season’s worth of Batman: The Animated Series pressed into a nine-to-20-hour story (other reviewers who only followed the story from point A-to-B-to-C without side missions have finished in eight or nine hours; I finished the story plus some of the sidequests in about 15 myself). This time, the confines of the Asylum have been expanded to some slums that are renovated into a closed off miniature city — think Vatican City within Rome — and is populated with criminals and mercenaries who keep said criminals in check. Batman enters Arkham City with a little over 10 hours before the activation of something called “Protocol 10″ and has to figure out what Protocol 10 is while dealing with the various villains who are engaged in an open turf war. Like its predecessor, the game’s story unfolds over a single night and manages to utilize a whole lot of Batman villains in a mostly logical — rather than fan-servicey — manner. Leave it to Batman: The Animated Series guru Paul Dini to provide a script that smoothly integrates the likes of Joker, Two-Face, and Hugo Strange into the main script, along with some crazy twists and turns that eclipse those of the previous game. The only real fault in the story comes from a really random digression into a mysterious underground city that feels a bit too BioShock-y for my tastes.

Click the image above to check out all Batman Arkham City screens.

A lot of Arkham City can be summarized as, “like Arkham Asylum, but better.” The overall structure still switches back and forth between stealthily taking out a roomful of guys and flat-out melee combat. The game world is bigger, and to compensate, the gliding mechanic has also been improved. The world feels a bit less Metroid and more like Zelda in that there is a large world full of enemies and dungeons to adventure in. There are still combat challenge maps to test your melee knowhow, but there are now additional challenge modes that allow for special modifiers to increase your score, as well as a flat-out custom combat challenge mode.

Batman’s trademark gadgets have been tweaked. The remote-controlled batarang can slow down and can also maintain an electric charge; not only can you change direction when using the line launcher, but you can also deploy it and treat it like a makeshift tightrope as well, and so on. Then there are wholly new gadgets, like a disruptor that can jam weapons and detonate mines, or the Remote Electric Charge that can tase foes and activate unpowered machinery for puzzles. In a refreshing change of pace for the genre, not only does Batman start out with access to most of his gear, it’s never taken away.


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The combat is still based around a few simple button presses — attack, stun, counter — but through a combination of things like unlockable button combos, quick-use inventory items, and distinct enemy types that require varied tactics, the combat blossoms from simple button-masher into a deep system with a lot of subtle tools and mechanics. I had quite the epiphany about the depth of this mechanic as I played: while the game trains you to use a certain type of attack for guys brandishing shields, I decided to try using my “disarm and destroy weapons” skill. Said skill appears to be meant for guns or blunt objects, but to my surprise, when I tried it on a shielded dude, Batman punched his fist through the shield’s view hole, grabbed the whole thing, and crumpled it altogether. So, a ProTip: A shield counts as a weapon that can be disarmed and destroyed.

Arkham City remedies one of Arkham Asylum’s few weaknesses, the bosses, at least for the most part. Arkham Asylum established the villain Bane as a boss battle and proceeded to copy that formula through several successive encounters that differed mostly through palette-swapping. While there were some other boss fights, they didn’t offer nearly enough variety; even the final showdown against the Joker borrowed from the Bane/Titan playbook. It’s therefore refreshing how the boss fights in Arkham City actually have variety. Some are pure combat trials, while others pull from the Zelda playbook in utilizing a recently acquired gadget. And while I won’t spoil who it’s against, there is one fantastic boss battle that calls for Batman to continually adjust tactics and use nearly every gadget and stealth maneuver in his arsenal — I actually wish that all of Arkham City’s boss battles called for such imaginative use of your tools and abilities. My main quibble is with the choice of last boss; it’s an improvement over Titan Joker, but upon completion, I feel as though I lived through a boss fight, but not the boss fight. That is, I’m honestly surprised when the ending cinematic starts playing, as the boss was not what I expected as the final encounter.

Click the image above to check out all Batman Arkham City screens.

However, the most noteworthy addition to Arkham City is the wealth of side missions. While the game still offers Riddler-themed collectibles, there are now multi-stage side missions focused on specific characters that each utilize different gameplay mechanics. One mission has you racing towards ringing telephones to then trace a call via the Batcomputer. Another has you examining crime scenes via Detective Vision to reconstruct a contract hit. Yet another calls for tracking down a kidnap victim. While not all of these side missions are winners (the “beat up criminals who are beating up political prisoners” type seems a bit too mission-by-assembly-line, while the augmented reality training missions lose their effectiveness and motivation once you collect the initial completion reward), the majority of them are great enough for me to tell other developers, “this is how you do side activities in a game.”

I’m also not the biggest fan of how the game handles Catwoman. As a playable character, she’s actually quite excellent: She has her own moveset, combat mechanics, and a separate storyline that complements the main game. She provides an interesting perspective on the campaign. My complaint is that she’s locked behind a sort of Online Pass addition, where new Arkham City purchases come with a one-use token to download the Catwoman gameplay. The game works perfectly fine without her (she still appears in cut-scenes, and I finished the game the first time without redeeming the token), but it was also annoying to see “Play Catwoman” prominently on my main menu; and to see either Catwoman-specific collectibles, or opportunities to switch to Catwoman for a change of pace without actually being able to use them. Once I redeemed the token, I saw that her gameplay had been integrated into the storytelling as well — having the Catwoman content active actually changes the beginning of the game. Again, while the game and story is fully “complete” without Catwoman, it still irks me to see how well integrated she is but that an obstacle (paywall when buying used, or even lack of Internet so that you can’t activate her) prevents every Arkham City player from experiencing it.

Arkham City has some slight imperfections; besides the aforementioned issues, I have other minor complaints like the way Detective Vision remains necessary for stealth sequences because the enemies tend to blend into the dark color palette, as well as the questionable character design (poor Harley Quinn), and the somewhat drab visual design of Arkham City itself. Nevertheless, it remains a superlative superhero game overall. The richness of content — by which I mean the campaign, the challenge maps, the Catwoman episodes, and the New Game Plus which offers an extra-hard difficulty that lets you guide your upgraded Batman through a re-balanced version of the campaign — along with the general improvements already puts Arkham City on my short list. The experience of having Batman glide through the air; seeing the screen light up with incidental and contextual dialogue, multiple objective markers, and trophies to collect; and then finally diving into a pack of schmucks is a simple yet enjoyable experience. Controlling Batman as he completely terrorizes his victims, whether via the invisible predator gameplay or the brutal combat, is an experience rivaled by few others. From its memorable Bourne Identity-esque opening to its shocking ending, Batman: Arkham City secures its place as my favorite superhero game since Freedom Force.

By Thierry Nguyen

TNT Racers Review

Crazy power-ups, and a variety of exciting tracks make TNT Racers a shallow good time.

The Good

  • Power-ups add goofy chaos to the racing
  • Wide variety of tracks packed with hazards
  • Attractive cartoon visuals
  • Jazzy soundtrack with lots of entertaining chase music.

The Bad

  • Camera issues
  • Very few online players.

Funny cars are the big draw in TNT Racers, an arcade racing game as much about walloping rivals with giant cartoon hammers as it is about crossing the finish line in first place. Developer Keen Games has stocked this $10 effort for the PlayStation Network with plenty of hot rides, power-ups from the Hanna-Barbera school of racing, and 18 zippy courses that boast attractive scenery covered with deadly hazards. All that is missing is a good multiplayer scene, because virtually nobody is playing this fun party racer online at the moment.

Don’t lag too far behind, or you might get knocked out before the race kicks into high gear.

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If you have logged any time behind the wheel of a traditional arcade kart racer, you will come into TNT Racers knowing exactly what to expect. This is a zany game where crashes are common, track physics are stolid, and you take your finger off the gas only to laugh at the pileup you just caused. Nothing is taken the slightest bit seriously. Vehicles are like something out of a cartoon Cannonball Run, with your options ranging from ancient jalopies to Japanese burners to one entry that looks like a cross between a flying saucer and a hovercraft. None of the cars have anything like authentic handling or even seriously varying abilities; all of them grip the track and accelerate almost identically. Forget about any real-life racing concerns, such as drafting or trying not to smash into opponents all that often. You just floor it and try to get from start to finish as quickly as possible, which makes the game a great pick-up-and-play option, especially when you have friends over and a couple of spare controllers available.

Solo modes of play are split into Challenge, Time Trial, and Custom race options. You can also take on these options in multiplayer, both online and off, although as mentioned above, online players seem to be nonexistent at present. Challenge mode is where you find most of the game’s content. It consists of three different series of 12 races in normal, fast, and turbo difficulties. New cars, tracks, and levels are unlocked with almost every victory. Individual races have differing goals that keep things interesting. There are four primary racing modes: Knock Out, Score, Time, and Lap. They have varying victory conditions, such as being the first to make it to the finish line, scoring the most points in a set number of laps or before a timer expires, or simply smashing your rivals up enough times to earn a win. Other variants are also tossed in and have you racing solo against the clock, zipping around trying to avoid explosive mines, and smashing into a specific number of obstacles before a clock ticks down to zero. You can also collect coins in some races, which earn you valuable points that go toward meeting the victory condition.

Red is cocky now but that lead won't last.

Red is cocky now but that lead won’t last.

Power-ups are as big a part of the action in TNT Racers as the actual racing. You can collect more than a dozen different special abilities that let you smash up rivals with an earthquake-causing cartoon mallet, kick in a nitro-style speed burst, shoot candy out of rooftop cannons, lay down carpets of confetti mines, and even slow opponents in the lead by hitting them with a plunger that comes complete with an attached anvil. All are well balanced. None are game killers. And they each have tactical applications that help you when you’re playing catch-up (fire an anvil or the candy cannon) or when you’re trying to pad a lead (drop those confetti mines). AI drivers also know how to use the power-ups, so you always have to keep an eye on your opponents when they have some devastating piece of hardware mounted on their rides. They seem to focus on human drivers ahead of their other AI opposition, so you always have a lot to contend with in solo races.

Races are fast, in terms of both how quickly cars move and how quickly the races can end. The experience is shallow, but it’s quick enough and has enough varied objectives that you rarely get bored. Courses feature a wide variety of terrain, including desert, arctic, and jungle routes. All come with weather effects like blowing sand and treacherous snow, which make it likely that your race will come to a premature end as you fly off the road into frigid waters or careen over the edge of a rickety jungle bridge. Any car caught off the bottom of the screen instantly explodes, which can see you knocked out of some races in the opening seconds if you’re unlucky enough to get tangled up with an opponent right off the starting line. Many race types feature a shadow car mode, however, which instantly resurrects you after death. You can’t win races as a shadow, but you can make life hell for your opponents and collect those valuable coins.

Ghost cars haunt you long after they've been exterminated.

Ghost cars haunt you long after they’ve been exterminated.

For the reasonable price of $10, TNT Racers throws in a lot of frills. Cars and tracks have a great deal of Saturday-morning cartoon charm. Maps are dotted with extra touches, such as fluttering palm trees, blowing desert sand, and colorful parrots. Some of these additions are a bit much, though, and can be a touch distracting. The game itself moves at a good clip, so you can’t take your eyes off your opponents for a second, lest you curse those parrots instead of praising them. The camera isn’t perfectly positioned, either, being a little too close to the action for comfort. It also moves in and out at inopportune times, occasionally twitching just enough to kill you when you’re near the bottom of the screen. Lastly, the light and bouncy musical score is a highlight. The game has been dressed up with extravagant cartoon chase music straight out of an old movie. Granted, these tunes might be better placed in a Jazz Age speakeasy than in an arcade racing game. But you can’t help but appreciate the songs for their great entertainment value.

TNT Racers may come with little in the way of originality, but the charming visuals and music and the varied courses and objectives make for an enjoyable racing game with a personality of its own. The lack of an online multiplayer audience is the primary disappointment, because this is a game that really shines when playing against other human opponents.

By Brett Todd

Renegade Ops Review

Explosive combat and terrific controls make Renegade Ops a great vehicular dual-stick shooter.

The Good

  • Excellent controls make driving around fun
  • Combat is fast paced and exciting
  • Upgrade system offers nice rewards for your progress
  • Great visuals create impressive sense of movement and scale.

The Bad

  • Minor technical issues interfere with online multiplayer
  • Not much variety.

Sometimes, doing what’s right means breaking the rules. Nobody understands this better than the members of Renegade Ops, a four-person squad of drivers who use their heavily armed vehicles to battle the forces of evil when the world’s superpowers fail to do so. In Renegade Ops, you do what needs to be done, meting out explosive justice to the armies of a terrorist named Inferno. Vehicular dual-stick shooters are nothing new, and the multiplayer options are affected by some unfortunate technical issues, but terrific controls and a rewarding leveling system ensure that driving around killing bad guys and blowing stuff to kingdom come has rarely felt better.

It’s almost as if Inferno’s vehicles are designed to explode in spectacular fashion.

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Some men just want to watch the world burn, and as his name suggests, Inferno is one such man. As Renegade Ops begins, Inferno has all but destroyed one of the world’s largest cities, making him a villain you love to hate from the first moment. When the leaders of a global council lean toward negotiating with the madman rather than retaliating against him, the bold General Bryant tears off his insignias, storms out, and vows to put a stop to Inferno by any means necessary. His solution is the Renegade Ops team. The orders he barks over the radio make him a constant presence, and his gruff charisma makes him a welcome one. The tale here is a simple one of heroes fighting against impossible odds to defeat absolute evil, and though you see its few plot twists coming from miles away, the comic book presentation and larger-than-life heroes and villains make it cheesy fun.

Before you can take the fight to Inferno, you must choose which Renegade Ops vehicle you want to drive. Each one has its own special ability: Armand’s vehicle has a shield; Diz’s vanlike ride has an EMP; Roxy’s buggy can call in an air strike; and Gunnar’s 4×4, appropriately enough, has a heavy gun. The vehicles of Renegade Ops are all capable, but they’re not created equal. Roxy’s air strike is the most useful and satisfying of all the powers. Diz’s EMP temporarily disables enemy weapons, making it particularly useful as a support power in multiplayer games. Armand’s shield can be leveled up so that it eventually reflects projectiles back at the enemy and lets you destroy small enemy vehicles by ramming them, but in the early going, its lack of offensive application makes it a less enjoyable option. Gunnar’s heavy gun is devastating, but it’s also tricky to use effectively because you can’t move and fire it at the same time, and sitting still often means signing your own death warrant.

Regardless of which vehicle you choose, speeding along the atmospheric South American trails, misty mountain pathways, and other roads your adventure takes you to is a joy. The sense of momentum in the vehicles as you travel on and off-road feels just right, and it’s a kick to hit the turbo and go skidding around turns as you leave a trail of dust in your wake. Though the camera floats some distance above the action, the visuals enhance the sense of traversing rugged terrain as you see your vehicle bounce believably with every bump in the road, and the removed perspective allows for an impressive sense of scale. At one point, for instance, you drive on a bridge over a river, and Inferno’s ship sailing below is hundreds of times larger than your tiny vehicle.

Those red streaks used to be a few of Inferno's goons. Serves 'em right.

Those red streaks used to be a few of Inferno’s goons. Serves ‘em right.

In addition to their special abilities, the vehicles all come equipped with machine guns, which you fire with the right stick. You can also pick up secondary weapons, including rocket launchers, flamethrowers, and rail guns. This ordnance comes in handy because Inferno has a seemingly endless supply of goons to man his seemingly endless supply of vehicles: buggies, trucks, tanks, helicopters, and more. Battling Inferno’s army is a blast; your vehicle can withstand some damage, but you’re far from invincible, so you need to stay on the move, evading enemy fire and scrambling to snag health pick-ups. As you destroy enemies in rapid succession, you build up a score multiplier, and because your score doubles as earned experience points that periodically level up your vehicle, there’s a real incentive to wipe out as many of Inferno’s henchmen as possible as quickly as possible. Not that you need more incentive; seeing Inferno’s forces explode is its own reward.

Leveling up earns you points you can spend to upgrade your vehicle. These upgrades include defensive improvements like health increases and extra lives; secondary weapon enhancements like increased magazine size; and special ability enhancements, like making Diz’s EMP do some damage or reducing the cooldown on Roxy’s air strike. Although you can eventually unlock a total of 18 upgrades for each vehicle, you can only have a few equipped at any one time. As a result, you have to decide before each mission if you want to customize your ride for offensive power, durability, or some combination thereof. And on some of the tougher later missions, your choices can mean the difference between success and failure.

Missions keep the pressure on by giving you primary and secondary objectives to complete, as well as giving you a limited time to finish the primary goals. The levels are vast and you can move around them freely, and speeding across the map to destroy an enemy tank while the clock ticks down is a thrill. But as satisfying as it is to lay waste to Inferno’s forces, the lack of variety during the course of the game’s nine missions becomes a bit of a drag. The situations change–you drive alongside a speeding train on one mission and infiltrate a dangerous enemy compound in another–but the gameplay doesn’t evolve much or hold many surprises. The end of the first level, in which you take control of a helicopter, suggests that Renegade Ops might periodically change things up on you, but unfortunately, it doesn’t deliver on this potential.

For added intensity during the helicopter section, listen to the 'Airwolf' theme while playing.

For added intensity during the helicopter section, listen to the ‘Airwolf’ theme while playing.

Still, the action is terrific, and it’s better when you share it with friends. Two-player split-screen works fine but severely limits your view of the surrounding area. The better option is to hop online and tackle these missions with up to three other players, which is immensely enjoyable, but technical issues sometimes mar the experience. You might have to make several attempts to join a friend’s game, and the action is sometimes interrupted by gameplay hitches and buzzing noises. The gameplay is exciting enough to make putting up with these issues worthwhile, but they are a distraction.

The nine missions take about five hours to complete, but with four characters to level up and a hardcore difficulty level that increases the challenge and the scoring opportunities significantly, there are plenty of reasons to return to these exotic locales. Leaderboards encourage you to strive for high scores, and in a nice touch, if you beat a friend’s score in the middle of a mission, you’re informed of your victory with a message along the bottom of the screen. But it’s the tight controls, the joy of movement, and the satisfaction of seeing stuff blow up real good that make Renegade Ops great. Someone’s got to step up and defeat the forces of Inferno, and you won’t regret being the one to do it.

By Carolyn Petit

Mercury Hg Review

Mercury Hg is cheaper, safer and more fun than playing with real volatile chemicals, though the experience is short lived and simple.

The Good

  • Fun gameplay with tight control
  • Easy to get into
  • Great value pricing.

The Bad

  • Doesn’t last long
  • No wildly different modes
  • A little too simplistic.

There’s something timeless about those old labyrinth toys that tasked you with guiding a metal ball by tilting a maze. It’s a simple concept that has translated well to video games as most famously seen with the Super Monkey Ball series. Taking the same concept and replacing “metal ball” with “blob of mercury,” the Mercury games became favorites among puzzle game fans since the series debuted on the PSP many years ago. Mercury is about more than just hastily tilting a platform to make your blob flow from point A to point B; it forces you to think about the traps in your path and how the physics of your mercury blob can help (or hinder) your progress. This is no different for Mercury Hg, which brings a host of new levels to modern HD consoles, though it has lost some of the challenge and longevity in the transition.

 Dealing with more than one blob at a time is perilous but often required.

Dealing with more than one blob at a time is perilous but often required.

The main goal in any Mercury Hg level is to tilt a mazelike platform with the left analog stick as you guide a blob of mercury (or more than one) to the goal. The catch is that you want to do this quickly and without losing any of the mercury that makes up your blob. The blob isn’t totally cohesive, so if you get too close to an edge, you start to lose mercury as it drips down into an abyss. There are also many ways in which bits of your blob can split off from the whole, such as hitting the corner of a wall or landing from a fall with a lot of momentum. When this happens, you need to be extra careful with how you tilt the platform because it can be easy to send some bits off the stage while trying to guide other bits to the goal. In a pinch, you can hold a button to attract the blobs back together into a cohesive whole rather than try to force them back together with physics, but this ability comes at the cost of speeding up the clock, which you don’t want to do when going for a high score or trying to beat a specific time. The PlayStation 3 version of the game features a Sixaxis control scheme that allows you to tilt the PS3 controller to tilt the level instead of using the analog stick. This feels natural and can be a fun way to play, but it also feels a little touchier and less precise than the default control option, so you may not want to use it for harder levels unless you’re up for a tougher challenge.

The main game is composed of 60 discovery levels. Each of these has a total of four atoms for you to collect by fulfilling certain requirements: completing the level, finishing under the par time, finishing with 100 percent mercury, and collecting all of the pickups. These atoms go toward unlocking the later level groups, though there are far more atoms available than are required to unlock every stage, which makes collecting them less important if you merely want to complete each maze. Each stage has a par time of less than a minute or two, and some can be completed in mere seconds. But there’s an addictive quality to the gameplay that makes you eager to hit “Next Stage” over and over again.

Most of these levels are pretty easy, perhaps to a fault. Many of the hurdles from previous Mercury games are gone, such as enemies and temperature puzzles. There are obstacles, such as magnetrons and anti-magnetrons, which try to pull your blob in or push you away, but most of your peril comes from the environment in the form of hills or holes. You often come across paint shops that change your blob into another color, which you need to do to activate certain switches or pass through certain walls. This gets particularly tricky when you need a secondary color such as yellow, but you don’t have a yellow paint shop. You have to split your mercury into two blobs, paint one blob red and one blob green, and then combine them again to make yellow. It’s a neat puzzle mechanic that should have been utilized more often to create more challenging levels.

By beating levels quickly and nabbing collectables, you can unlock challenge and bonus levels, which are where the difficulty really starts to ramp up. Bonus levels are the same as their discovery counterparts but with a different objective: You can’t finish the level unless you have 100 percent of your mercury intact, and you don’t start with all of it. So you have to carefully collect vials of mercury strewn around the stage while making sure not to lose even a tiny bit of it to one of the many obstacles. Challenge mode forces you to play several levels in quick succession, fulfilling certain requirements that get tougher as you move forward. For example, stage one of a challenge may require you to finish its three levels in under 120 seconds while collecting at least 10 pickups. Stage two may pit you against the same levels, but this time you only have 90 seconds, need 15 pickups, and can’t lose a drop of mercury.

Some level environments are more inventive than others, such as ones where the floor often shifts radically.

Some level environments are more inventive than others, such as ones where the floor often shifts radically.

Mercury Hg has a nice aesthetic, with slick menus designed after the periodic table of elements and in-game graphics that feature clean designs with many vibrant colors. There are also a lot of neat stage effects like tiles that form in front of you as you move. Stage backgrounds react to the music being played as well, throbbing and pulsing with the beat. The included music is good, but you have the added bonus of playing the game with your own custom soundtrack, with the background being affected accordingly. It’s not much, but it’s a lovely touch and helps give life to the environment without getting in the way of the gameplay.

Playing through the discovery levels won’t take you long, especially if you ignore most of the secondary challenges. The entire mode can be completed in a single sitting and never gets dreadfully difficult. You can add longevity to your experience by competing for higher leaderboard scores, which is made more enjoyable by the ability to download ghost data of top players to play against. You could certainly ask for more, such as some of the party modes from earlier Mercury games or more stages with more complex puzzles, but for a mere $5, it’s hard to complain much. It may not fulfill all of its potential, but Mercury Hg is a fun game that will give you a few hours of enjoyment and can easily be picked up by anyone in the mood for a good puzzle game.

By Britton Peele