Outland Hands-On

We play with the powers of light and dark in this mesmerizing 2D platformer.

Outland initially grabbed our attention at PAX, where we saw a demo of Housemarque’s artistic upcoming puzzle platformer, which uses a light-dark gameplay mechanic similar to Ikaruga. A similar demo was present at Ubisoft’s Digital Day event, where we were able to go hands-on and play through the jungle level that was shown at PAX. At this point, it feels more like an action platformer than a puzzle game, but your critical thinking skills will be put to the test along with your catlike reflexes.

Come watch the demo!

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We glossed over the initial cutscene and story, but the general idea is that you play as someone who has strange visions and you set off to discover the meaning behind them. As you progress through the dreamlike levels, large hieroglyphics provide a hint at what’s coming next–in our case, a giant boss fight–but we were told that the arcane drawings also help explain the world’s mysteries.

Your character is a dark silhouette, accented by scarves that are either light blue or fiery red. This indicates what kind of power you’re aligned with; blue for light and red for dark. With a push of the right bumper, you can easily and quickly switch between the two, depending on the circumstances. Light enemies, which include giant spiders and other buglike creatures with similar blue accents, can only be destroyed if you’re currently handling the dark power. You’ll have to constantly look ahead to see what you’re up against and switch quickly, especially when a never-ending wave of red and blue beams are firing at you.

Navigating through the level can involve some backtracking and puzzle-solving. Certain platforms will only move when your powers are matched up, or they’ll disappear when you’re not. Your character is nimble and can gracefully leap over spiked-filled chasms. The A button is used to jump, the X button acts as your sword, and the B button replenishes a heart in your health meter once you’ve gathered enough energy.

After making our way through the jungle-themed level, we quickly walked through an area that looked like a dungeon or some kind of underground network. The cooler color tones here were a contrast to the warmer hues of the previous level. We eventually made it to our first boss battle, a hulking stone creature that would pound the ground with its massive stone arm, sending a wave of fire in our direction. The fight came in several phases and became more and more chaotic. Not only are you dodging the creature’s attacks, but you’ll also have to fend off bugs, as well as dodge a shower of red and blue pellets all the while trying to focus on your goal of slashing away at the boss’s head. It certainly isn’t easy, but after a few tries, you’ll understand the pattern; then, it’s a matter of being patient and quick.

We’re curious to see what other levels and boss battles are in store, as Outland looks to provide a solid challenge. Look for the game sometime in 2011 on Xbox Live Arcade and the PlayStation Network.

By Sophia Tong

Hydrophobia Hands-On

We dive into this futuristic survival-adventure game and use the environment in clever ways to stay alive.

A sinking ship would definitely rank up there as one of the worst places to be left in and have to fight for survival. Usually if you’re fighting aliens, zombies, or ghosts, you have some sort of weapon or at least an open area to keep your back against. However, in Hydrophobia, we started out with having to scramble to another level just to ensure we had enough air, and when we were faced with terrorists, all we were given was a tiny stun gun. Thankfully, you’re not limited to the stun gun for the rest of the game, but with limited weaponry, you are forced to use the environment to your advantage, which is the purpose of Hydrophobia.

See the game in action!

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Who’s Making It: The game is being developed by Dark Energy, located in Manchester, and Microsoft is publishing the title.

What It Looks Like: Hydrophobia is set 30 years into the future aboard a giant vessel called Queen of the World. It’s like the Titanic of the future (after it hit the iceberg), and you are walking around metal corridors and winding staircases and swimming up elevator shafts that are not usually flooded with water. What’s interesting is that you can control how much water you want in your area by keeping certain doors closed, or to make things more interesting, you can open up the floodgates.

What You Do: As the reluctant heroine Kate, you are a systems engineer who is on board when the terrorists attack. Your goal is to survive and take out the enemy, but you’re not exactly a fighter. The game is designed to highlight more exploration than combat. The ship is massive, and you’ll encounter obstacles that you’ll need to find a way to get past, because your world is crumbling down around you. When you are eventually armed with a weapon, the game plays like a third-person shooter with a cover system. We were told that there would be semiautomatic weapons later, but with the stun gun, it was difficult to keep enemies down unless we used the environment to properly dispose of them.

How It Plays: When in combat, you use the right bumper to draw your weapon and the right trigger to fire. A white dot onscreen is used to aim, and a red target reticle will appear when there is something that can be shot at, whether it be another person or a box or explosive barrel. What’s convenient is that while you’re maneuvering through water that is almost waist high, there are plenty of barrels to aim your stun gun at to cause an explosion to finish off the terrorists, as well as create a mini tidal wave in a cramped corridor. There is never really a swarm of enemies coming at you from what we’ve seen, but carefully placed oil barrels can easily dispose of a group after they explode.

The cover system allows you to press A to hug one of the nearby walls. It’s not the kind of game in which you’ll want to run out with guns blazing. Instead, you need to sit back and carefully think about how you want to proceed. To knock out an enemy, you have to charge your gun first before firing; otherwise, you’re only sending mini shock waves with the stun gun, which doesn’t seem to do much except annoy the enemy. Once you do get them on their backs (we were hoping that they’d drown), they get right back up again after a few moments, so you have to either fire at some oil barrels or shoot the electrical switches on the wall to send sparks flying.

In our demo we were given mission objectives, such as tracking down a key to progress to the next area. It seemed simple enough, but we had to swim through flooded chambers to get to it. You are given a map to help you navigate the enormous ship, and as you’re exploring, you’re playing with the constant flow of water that is spilling in from just about everywhere. You can fire at windows to let more water in, or leave it the way it is and try to handle the situation with the current water level. There are situations where you’ll be swimming through completely flooded halls, so you’ll need to look for patches of light and head up for some air.

What They Say: Hydrophobia is the first game developed using Dark Energy’s revolutionary HydroEngine, the world’s only full computation fluid dynamics engine for games. This incredible technology allows water and other liquids to flow and behave realistically, resulting in the most dynamic and dramatic gameplay you’ve ever seen.

Take cover when you need to.

Take cover when you need to.

What We Say: Because of our own fear of drowning, Hydrophobia was an intense experience (and yes, we know it’s called aquaphobia). Between looking for pockets of air to make sure we could make it to the next door, Kate had to keep an eye out for terrorists, who were armed with much better weapons than we were. The constant flow of water and the changing environment were impressive. It forces you to rethink your strategy, because you may have fired at an oil barrel and caused it to explode, but now the burning oil is heading toward you. It’s good to see some variety when it comes to survival games, so look for Hydrophobia when it’s released on September 29.

By Sophia Tong

Halo: Reach Defiant Map Pack Preview

We get our boots on the ground in the first downloadable Firefight map and then sling some grenades in two new multiplayer maps in this hands-on preview.

Condemned. Highlands. Unearthed. These are the names of the three maps that comprise the Defiant Map Pack, the second serving of downloadable content for Halo: Reach. Arriving March 15, Defiant features the first downloadable Firefight map along with an orbital combat arena and a vast training facility set in the wooded highlands of Reach, all for 800 Microsoft points ($10). At the Microsoft February Games Showcase, we spent some time talking with Frank O’Connor from 343 Industries about the new maps and then grabbed a controller to test them out for ourselves. Read on for more on the vehicular combat, low-gravity shootouts, and stunning vistas that the Defiant Map Pack aims to deliver.

The first map we tried was Unearthed. This Firefight map takes place at the site of a mine and refinery on the surface of Reach. The dusty ground and metallic industrial structures were a bit reminiscent of the Holdout map, but that map’s tumultuous clouds are a far cry from Unearthed’s blue skies. Though it is also poised on a hillside, Unearthed has a lot more open, flat ground than Holdout. Two-story structures jut out of the mountainside, forming a network of walkways and garages that extend out to a much taller building that towers over the lowland area. Crisscrossing the entire map are tire tracks that point to Unearthed’s focus on vehicles. Human players can find a Warthog armed with a missile launcher turret that, according to O’Connor, acts as a real force multiplier for the Spartans. We found those words rang true time and time again as we used the emergency brake to slide through crowds of Grunts while our gunner rained fiery vengeance down on the evading Elites. The Covenant brought its own vehicles into the fray before too long, challenging us to navigate in and around the structures to dodge enemy fire and better position ourselves for an assault. Those who like their Firefight matches fast and vehicle friendly should get excited for Unearthed, as should anyone else looking for a new battleground on which to fight the Covenant.

For those who prefer to focus on competitive multiplayer, the Defiant Map Pack has two offerings in store. With only eight stations set up at the event, we were only able to play the smaller of the two, Condemned. Set on a UNSC space station in orbit above Reach, Condemned hosts matches for six to 12 players (primarily Team Slayer, Team Objective, and Free-for-All) and is reminiscent of the Anchor 9 map that came with the Noble Map Pack. Aside from the obvious architectural similarities, both involve a low-gravity area where players can duke it out while floating whimsically through the air. Yet while Anchor 9′s low-G area was outside the ship and presented the peril of flying off into space, Condemned’s low-G area is located right at the heart of the map, a tall multistory chamber with some sort of turbine located in the center. Players can enter this area from multiple points on two different floors, and the ramps and walkways surrounding the turbine can help you get around faster or evade an enemy’s bullets. Jetpackers beware: If you fly too vigorously, you’ll zoom up into the domed ceiling area. With no place to hide and not much gravity to pull you down, it’s like shooting astronaut fish in a space barrel (OK, maybe some phrases weren’t meant for the future).

The rest of Condemned is a warren of interweaving decks, corridors, and platforms that seem like some of the most intriguing new battle spaces we’ve seen for Reach. It will likely take players a while to get the lay of the land, though it’s definitely worth seeking out the ship’s windows. As glimpsed in the trailer below, there is a fierce battle playing out between the UNSC and Covenant ships. Even more chilling is the view of the planet’s surface, which radiates with horrific fires caused by relentless Covenant bombardment. O’Connor told us that the map earned its name by actually being condemned–so damaged in battle that it will eventually crash to the planet’s surface. “This won’t happen during gameplay,” noted O’Connor, citing the separation between the campaign narrative and the multiplayer component that has long been Halo policy. However, 343 Industries (and codevelopers Certain Affinity) wanted to imbue each map with some of the dramatic scope of Halo: Reach.

The third multiplayer map strives to accomplish this as well. Back on the surface of Reach, Covenant ships loom alarmingly close in the turbulent skies, blasting the planet mercilessly. Set in a remote training facility, Highlands is the third and largest of the maps, accommodating eight to 16 players for matches of Big Team Battle, Team Slayer, and Team Objective. The hilly terrain and rocky outcroppings will be familiar to anyone who has spent some time in Forge World, but the large fir trees and military installations look to give this map a feel all its own. With vehicles zooming over the ground and filling the skies, the canyonlike spaces on Highlands are reminiscent of your first steps on Halo in Halo: CE, according to O’Connor. While the appeal of big team clashes is obvious, O’Connor and another 343 Industries employee mentioned a few custom games that folks had been enjoying in the studio. One type favored dramatic hunts (one-on-one matches in the cavernous levels with infinite radar enabled), while the other favored the manic mayhem of a world with adjustable rules (“Hamster Crack” – 300 percent speed, low gravity, and Gravity Hammers).

The three maps offer distinctly different flavors of combat, and while they may have similarities to previous arenas, we found that the two maps we played still created that electric air of excitement that the best Halo maps have the power to create. Though it seems that Highlands might be big enough, no one mentioned the Invasion game types during our interview and demo, meaning that fans of Invasion will likely be kept waiting. Firefight fanatics won’t, however, and anyone else looking for new places to flex their armor abilities need look no further than the Defiant Map Pack, due out March 15 on Xbox Live Marketplace.

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By Chris Watters, Editor

Breach Hands-On

From the makers of the ill-fated Six Days in Fallujah, Breach pairs a sim-like military shooter with realistically destructible environments.

Breach developer Atomic specialises in realistic first-person shooters–a speciality born of its experience with creating simulation-like shooters for military types. This is the studio that would have brought us the controversial Six Days in Fallujah, before prospective publisher Konami got cold feet. In Breach, though, Atomic is preparing a download-only, multiplayer-only PC and Xbox 360 military shooter that takes place in a “standard hostile environment”: a generic semi-urban setting that might be the Middle East, but might just as easily be Eastern Europe.

A hole lot of trouble.

A hole lot of trouble.

The deliberately generic location puts Breach in contrast with a game that would have re-created a specific battle, in a specific time and place, but it does have something in common with Six Days in Fallujah: Atomic’s Hydrogen engine, which underpins the game’s extensively destructible environments. Breach aims at a realistic, brick-by-brick simulation of battlefield destruction, rather than “choreographed” destruction, in which a certain kind of building is triggered to always collapse a certain way.

Against this destruction-ready backdrop Breach stages 16-player shoot-outs, across three maps, in four modes, with the points-based progression and weapon upgrades we’ve come to expect of a multiplayer FPS. The modes comprise Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch, plus Infiltration, a capture-and-hold territories mode, and Convoy, in which one team has to attack and the other has to defend a convoy of vehicles as it makes its way to an objective point on the map. The two maps we sampled were based on uneven rocky terrain sloping down to roads with abandoned vehicles and scattered with plain one- and two-storey buildings, networked with tunnels and raised wooden walkways.

Three of the game’s five classes were available to us: rifleman, support, and gunner. Sniper and recon classes will also feature in the finished game. As a rifleman, we started out with a basic assault rifle with an underslung grenade launcher. In accordance with Atomic’s simulation approach, the guns felt heavy and solid, as did the player character. Similarly, it didn’t take much to kill or be killed. There’s an active cover system, with which you can enter into “sticky” cover and then pop over it and into iron sights. Munitions crates placed around the map give access to heavier gear, including the RPG–limited to one rocket per pickup, since it causes such massive destruction.

Splintered cell.

Splintered cell.

Though the graphics appeared workmanlike in our hands-on, the destruction element was entertaining. Single bricks can be shot out of walls, from inside or outside a building, and single floorboards out of floors. Shooting sturdier concrete walls produced clouds of dust, and taking out the wooden supports of a scaffolding-like walkway triggered a feasible plank-by-plank collapse, with the debris sliding down a steep slope into the road below. There was the odd visual glitch, and some abandoned vehicles appeared impervious, but if the wrinkles are ironed out by release, this could be a technologically advanced download-only release.

As a straight military FPS without the clout of a franchise behind it, Breach has its work cut out competing with the genre’s big guns–even with its intended sub-£20 price tag. But as a showcase for Atomic’s destruction engine, Breach has at least something novel to bring to the console download marketplace when it’s launcheds in early 2011.

By Jane Douglas, Section Editor

E3 2011: The War of the Worlds Demo Preview

Cruise through a global apocalypse while fanning past alien invaders.

For more than a century, The War of the Worlds has made an impact on the sci-fi community. Starting as a novel, the tale of Martians invading London has spawned movies and television shows. The franchise is also no stranger to video games, although it has been more than a decade since one was produced. Dark Void Zero creators Other Ocean Interactive seeks to bring its highly regarded platform adventuring to the H.G. Wells classic. We took a look at one of these levels created and played by the designers.

The first noticeable aspect of the game is its atmosphere. The two dimensional side-scroller was layered with independently moving backgrounds and foregrounds, creating a three dimensional effect akin to older Disney films. The humanoid characters were clearly roto-scoped actors, painted over with high-definition graphics; this created an eerie and surreal nostalgia akin to Out of This World and Prince of Persia. The setting was further enhanced by the brilliant narrator of Patrick Stewart. The story the acclaimed actor told was not 100 percent faithful to the original novel but was so perfectly written and spoken that many would swear it was penned by Wells. The developers confirmed that a modern-day writer was hired to mimic Wells’ style.

War of the Worlds gameplay is difficult and stressful. The main character is an everyday man, weak enough to die in one hit or long fall, and he starts with no form of attack. However, the checkpoints are very close, allowing quick resapwns after every death. For this first stage, the main tactic was stealth, timed movement, and puzzles. The Martian enemies consisted of flying drones that used their lights to spot targets. Once in sights, the machines would quickly fire out lasers that would instantly fry any human in their path. We witnessed as non-player character soldiers moved through (or unsuccessfully attempted) the war-torn battlefield. By copying the soldier’s timing, our hero was able to dodge through the alien blasts.

The adventure spanned from Hyde Park, into a dank sewer, and out to a flaming wasteland. The protagonist pushed down crates from a steep ledge into the fires below, forming a path to the next danger: the Martian fighting machine. The gargantuan monstrosity was too busy with the military, providing a distraction for our hero. He snuck up across one of its massive grounded legs. This wasn’t without danger: Shield disruptors were sprawled throughout the machine. Contact with one of these shield beams would disintegrate a human just like a drone laser. The main character stealthily moved through these hazards and climbed up to the head of the Martian. This allowed him to disable the machine and end the immediate threat on Hyde Park. However, the demo concluded before we could glimpse the remaining chaos plaguing London.

While we saw no weapons or items during this demo, Other Ocean informed us that there are several creative means of fighting back. These included manipulating the light generators within some levels, crushing aliens under heavy boxes, and using gas masks to become immune to deadly black smoke. There are even chances later on to wield Martian technology and weapons. We look forward to trying these features out when The War of the Worlds is released later this year for Xbox Live Arcade and the PlayStation Network.

By Kurtis Seid, Game Guides Editor

E3 2011: Fruit Ninja Kinect Hands-On Preview

We make fruit salad with our fists as this mobile game phenomenon makes its way to the Xbox.

Microsoft announced this week that popular Aussie-developed mobile phone and tablet game Fruit Ninja will be making the transition from fingers to arms, launching later this year on the Kinect. As a refresher for those who haven’t been keeping up, Fruit Ninja puts you in the role of a produce assassin, drawing lines on touch screens to bifurcate apples, oranges, pineapples, and other fruit. Bonus bananas fly across the screen at random intervals, slowing down time and causing a fruit frenzy to spit extra fruit from the edges of the screen and onto the playfield at a higher rate than normal, temporarily increasing your score multiplier. The game’s simple rules and controls have made it popular with non-gamers, and it stokes the competitive fires of core gamers looking to best their stats with one more turn.

It’s a no-brainer then to bring the franchise to the Kinect, where instead of drawing your path of juicy destruction with a finger or three, all you need to do is wave your arms in front of the Kinect camera’s sensor to register fruit genocide. All the modes you’ve come to know are here. Classic mode lets you chop fruit and avoid making contact with purple bombs for as long as possible, and Zen mode, the simplest form of the game, strips out things to avoid cutting, instead focusing on getting right down to business racing the 90-second timer as you try to boost your score as high as possible. Arcade mode is one minute of bomb flinging and fruit cutting, but it also receives a new type of fruit with pomegranate thrown into the mix. Provided you land an initial blow when it appears onscreen, swinging furiously continues to make cuts. It works a bit like the big finish free-play section at the end of some Rock Band songs. We managed to land more than 30 hits before the timer ran out, all with a series of flailing karate chops.

Multiplayer matches can be played either cooperatively or competitively, and the Kinect version of the game will support two players swinging onscreen at once to either reach a common goal of slicing everything that appears or to cut only the blue or red outlined fruit that corresponds to your team. Like in all Kinect games, once the action gets heated, you’re going to want to ensure you have plenty of space. We hit our partner once or twice during our demo, so you’ll want to leave adequate room for you and your buddy to thrash. Though we were initially concerned that we wouldn’t know where we were cutting, a shadow of our form superimposed over the background made it a snap to find our bearings. Once the fruit started flying, the hardest part was remembering that we could use both hands simultaneously.

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While the iPhone and Android versions have built a loyal fan base with regular, free updates, Developer Halfbrick has confirmed that the Xbox version–which will be an Xbox Live Arcade game rather than a full retail release–will offer a mix of free and paid DLC. Fruit Ninja Kinect will be making its debut as part of Microsoft’s Summer of Arcade promotion and will cost 800 Microsoft points when it goes on sale. Stay tuned for more details.

By Dan Chiappini, Editor of GameSpot AU

Trenched First Look Preview

What happens when you mix mech combat, strategy defense, and an off-kilter sense of humor? Double Fine’s latest game, that’s what.

If there’s been one immediate benefit to Double Fine’s recent shift toward downloadable games, it’s been the developer’s newfound freedom to toy around with lots of different genres. Costume Quest showed what the studio could do with a turn-based role-playing game, while Stacking followed that up with something that offered more traditional adventure-game leanings. And now we have Double Fine’s latest downloadable offering: Trenched. Revealed last week, Trenched is a hybrid between tower-defense strategy and third-person mech warfare. Having had the chance to check out Trenched last night, we came away impressed with just how well this game hit the sweet spot between blowing stuff up and cerebral tactics.

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It’s apparent from the outset that Trenched revels in the same offbeat humor for which Double Fine is now known. The game is set in a fever dream vision of the years following World War I, a time when dough boy-piloted mech suits do battle with robotic alien beasts powered by the brainwashing powers of television…if television were invented by an evil villain years before it’s time. The game’s presentation is thoroughly inspired by the tough-guy men’s magazines of the early 20th century, giving everything an over-the-top look and feel awash in machismo. It’s there in the way you see your commanding officer defiantly waving an American flag as his legs are crushed by a tank in the opening cutscene; it’s also there in the way you see yourself light a cigar using a handgun when celebrating a victory. But in true Double Fine style, it’s all done with a wink and a nod, never taking itself too seriously.

In terms of gameplay, Trenched project lead Brad Muir described the game as an homage to the great mech games of recent years, such as Chrome Hounds and Mech Assault, but with an added layer of tower-defense strategy driving it all. Essentially, you pilot a highly customizable mech suit around a battlefield, keeping an eye out for waves of enemies coming out from a small handful of spawn points spread across the outskirts of the map. Depending on how you have your mech set up, you can take these glowing robotic insectoid beasts by using your standard machine gun or with a higher-powered gun, such as a cannon. The mech we played was set up so that the left trigger fired the machine gun while right trigger fired the cannon, giving us the chance to really unload on enemy waves.

These nasty guys are called monovisions, and they're basically evil alien robots made of TVs. Still, shoot them in the face

These nasty guys are called monovisions, and they’re basically evil alien robots made of TVs. Still, shoot them in the face

As you destroy enemies, you can hold the right bumper to magnetically draw in the scrap metal bits that these enemies leave on the ground after dying (which are actually little television sets). This is the currency you use to place auto turrets on the battlefield to aid you and your team of up to four cooperative players. There are a number of different turrets you can place, including the standard machine gun guy, the dampening generator that slows down any enemies within a certain radius, and the sniper turret that fires more slowly but works great against distant targets. You can also upgrade existing turrets using scrap, though no matter whether you choose a new one or an upgraded one, you’ll always see new turrets land from the sky with a devastating thud as though they were just dropped from space. We really enjoyed the balance between frantically shooting enemies and running around to pick up scrap, like a chicken with its head cut off, mixed with the more tactical process behind deciding which turret would work best in a certain location on the map.

Your mech suit is also quite customizable. You can unlock new robo-legs that offer unique abilities, such as sprinting and going stationary to boost your defenses. You can unlock new types of guns to mount onto either side of your mech, using a slot-based system to decide whether you want one giant gun or several smaller ones. And, finally, you can outfit your tiny little solider with a bunch of different hats that affect the type of salute you give when running around base between missions. We didn’t get a chance to see the customization options, but Double Fine assured us that the customization options are very extensive, and it seemed rather proud of the number of hats you can unlock. Oh, the hats!

You can customize the paint job on your mech, like this flashy number right here.

You can customize the paint job on your mech, like this flashy number right here.

What we played of Trenched was a fun romp through a silly world of hyperadvanced World War I technology and the robo smashing that goes with it. It seemed to hit a good balance between what makes blowing stuff up so much fun and the type of strategy that a quality tower-defense game can offer. The big question going forward is just how much depth the game can offer to keep players invested during the course of the campaign. Hopefully, we’ll get a better idea as we check out the customization system and some of the later levels. Until then, you can expect to see Trenched arrive sometime later this year on Xbox Live Arcade.

By Shaun McInnis, Editor

Moon Diver Hands-On Preview

The director of Strider tries his hand at a new downloadable multiplayer action game.

You might not immediately recognize the name Kouichi Yotsui, but if you’ve been playing video games for a while, you probably know some of his work–most notably Capcom’s popular action game, Strider. Not surprisingly, Yotsui’s newest project, Moon Diver, bears some resemblance to the arcade classic in fundamental ways. Each of the four playable characters is equipped with a melee weapon that functions not unlike Strider Hiryu’s scythe in that attacks are rapid, but they have relatively short range. Additionally, each of these four characters can also cling to walls and other surfaces to attack enemies or to just generally avoid danger.

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Indeed, Moon Diver’s core gameplay feels very Strider-like, but there are some key differences that give Moon Diver the depth its arcade ancestor lacks. Each character starts with varying stats for health, magic, and power–the kind of stats you start out with will be determined by the character you choose. For example, if you select Seyfert, you’ll have balanced stats, whereas if you select the beefy Ourion, then you’ll have more power than the other characters. This means that your strategy, at least early on in Moon Diver, will be largely dictated by your character’s strengths. But, as you kill enemies, you gain experience and eventually level up. At the end of each stage (or restarting one after death), you have the opportunity to put extra points into individual stats, so if you find that your character isn’t strong enough or you’re running out of magic power too quickly, then you can increase your stats in those areas to compensate.

This becomes an increasingly important aspect of Moon Diver as you progress through increasingly difficult stages found within each level. Moon Diver can be quite punishing at times if you’re not closely paying attention to what’s happening onscreen or if you’re not using all the tools at your disposal. One such tool is the moonsault combination–a special ability that uses your magic power. What these special abilities do depends on which ones you have equipped. You can have up to four equipped at once (accessible via the D pad), but each character starts with a single default moonsault. Some of them are offensive oriented, shooting out bolts of energy or causing your character to zip around the screen to inflict damage on all enemies in the area. Others are passive, granting you some extra power for brief periods of time or even enabling stealth that momentarily prevents cannons and other such weapons from tracking you. To get these other abilities, or to use stronger versions of them, you have to find them as they’re generally placed in hard-to-reach areas within a level.

Up to four players can play at once.

Up to four players can play at once.

The dynamics of the moonsault combinations are changed somewhat when participating in a four-player multiplayer game (players can drop in and out at any time). In fact, you can actually team up with other players to use one of these abilities. If one player requests to do a moonsault with you, then you receive the benefit of not losing any magic power for doing so. This feature is especially handy with dealing with some tough bosses that are easy to waste magic on if you’re not careful. Of course, just having other players in a game to help deal out damage is pretty helpful as well.

The nice thing about Moon Diver’s leveling system and your various skills is that you do become noticeably stronger throughout the course of the game. Enemies that appeared in earlier levels are easily dispatched in later levels with a powered-up character, but Moon Diver will throw plenty of other challenges at you during the course of the game that require more than just a strong character to survive. Moon Diver is currently scheduled for release on March 29 on the PlayStation Network and sometime in April for Xbox Live Arcade.

By Giancarlo Varanini, Senior Editor

Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood – The Da Vinci Disappearance Preview

Ezio investigates another mystery in this upcoming downloadable add-on.

Leonardo da Vinci spent a lot of time in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood sitting on benches, waiting for Ezio to sit next to him. Developer Ubisoft Montreal has decided it’s time for the artist/inventor to take a more central role, hence The Da Vinci Disappearance, an upcoming add-on that sends you back to Rome to uncover more of the Renaissance’s conspiratorial secrets. At Microsoft’s 2011 February Games Showcase, we played the DLC’s first five missions, which reintroduce sexy siren Lucretia Borgia, along with a new character, da Vinci’s flamboyant assistant.

The content is integrated into the main game, so you can play the Disappearance missions anytime after Sequence 3. As Ezio, you begin the related missions with a visit to Leonardo’s workshop, where the master is researching the matter of heavenly spheres and symbols and how they may relate to the all-important Apple of Eden. Ezio’s concern is a ship captain Leonardo might introduce him to, but he has forgotten the captain’s name and suggests you speak to Salai, Leonardo’s assistant.

You find Salai in the nearby Thieves’ Guild, and he makes an immediate impression. His curled locks cascade down the sides of his face, and he suggestively remarks to Ezio that he has a special interest in men, after complimenting Ezio’s hood. You leave with Salai, and after a short battle with the guild’s guards, you follow the assistant through streets and across rooftops as he explains that Leonardo has been acting strangely, always consumed with his enigmatic new project. And it’s clear that this project concerns others as well, for when you return to the workshop, Leonardo is missing, having apparently left a short message scratched on the floor. Ezio deduces from the message that the answers lie in the paintings he thought burned in the villa’s fires. But as it turns out, they are in the Borgias’ possession–and so he makes off for Lucretia’s country manor to retrieve them.

The following sequence has you stealthily leaping across the palace’s beams and running along ropes while avoiding the guards patrolling below. As in Brotherhood’s lairs, the camera often turns to communicate the next jump in the sequence, though the second half of this mission, which takes place in a courtyard, gives you more freedom of movement. Once inside, Ezio confronts Lucretia in a sexy scene in which Ezio turns on the charm–only to leave Lucretia high and dry. The mission ends with a high-adrenaline chase sequence in which you must escape a horde of angry guards.

This manor is one of two new environments The Da Vinci Disappearance will introduce, though Ubisoft was tight-lipped on what the second area might be. Fortunately, Assassin’s Creed fans needn’t wait long: Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood – The Da Vinci Disappearance arrives on March 8, 2011.

By Kevin VanOrd, Senior Editor

Ms. ‘Splosion Man Preview First Look

GDC 2011: We blow ourselves up in search of the perfect pair of shoes in our first look at Twisted Pixel’s upcoming girly sequel to 2009′s ‘Splosion Man.

Twisted Pixel’s upcoming Ms. ‘Splosion Man is part sequel, part Ms. Pac-Man homage. The action platformer treasures three things above all else: speed, skill, and women’s shoes. We had the chance to get our first look at the game during this year’s GDC.

Ms. ‘Splosion Man begins right where ‘Splosion Man left off: in the Big Science laboratories, where a bunch of nutty scientists are throwing a big party to celebrate the capture of ‘Splosion Man. Little do they know that Ms. ‘Splosion Man has been born, and she’s hungry for action (as well as justice, gossip, pink stuff, shoes, phones, dancing, and…exploding).

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As ‘Splosion Man did in the last game, Ms. will use her “sploding” ability to effectively triple jump and ricochet off things like walls, barrels, and the heads of confused scientists in order to solve platforming puzzles, defeat traps and enemies, and make her way through each level. The game will take the action outside the laboratory, introducing new, outside levels, one of which we will see later on. After navigating an easy escape from the lab in which she was born, Ms. comes across her first boss: the Mighty Eternal, a giant robot that made an appearance in the first game and is modelled after the game’s art director, Dave Leung (whose name apparently means “the mighty eternal” in Chinese). After saying something sarcastic about Mr. Darcy (the game’s first official movie reference, at least the first one we picked up), Ms. takes to defeating the boss with a series of well-executed explosions from barrel to wall to Mr. Eternal’s eyes, which she eventually manages to gouge out using a series of quick-time events, in which the word “splode!” flashes onscreen prompting players to explode at the right times. The sequence ends with a Predator reference.

We are then taken to the new world map screen, which has been updated from the last game to include difficulty settings. Now, there will be more than one way to complete each level of the different worlds, with the hardest way clearly marked by a skull and crossbones flag. (We were told that ‘Splosion Man’s Way of the Coward mode will make a comeback here too, but no more details on how until later on.) We make our way though the second level of World 1, where we meet our first scientists, who seem to be more aggressive towards Ms. than they were towards ‘Splosion Man–they insist on pegging a multitude of energy orbs at us (which deplete our exploding power) until we’re forced to explode on them as we make our way to the first outside section of the game, which takes place on a series of platforms in the clouds outside the lab. Here we encounter what the designers of the game refer to as “Donkey Kong barrels”: barrels that will shoot you either in whatever direction they want or in whatever direction you decide you want to be shot in, depending on which colour barrel you land on. In this level, we also encounter a new gameplay mechanic: the zip line. Suspended midair, the zip line lets Ms. effectively explode from one platform to the next without ever touching the ground, adding speed to both her vertical and her horizontal movement. Twisted Pixel has also given the game more midair checkpoints, which means if you fall to your death during a particularly difficult platforming sequence, you will no longer be required to restart from the last major checkpoint.

After a long midair sequence, we land back on the world map and into another outside level, where we get our first look at some Jetsons-inspired air cars and comical sequences of scientists flying into the camera as they fall to their death after Ms. explodes on their vehicle. We also found some collectibles: a pair of shoes for Ms., which she can collect and wear throughout the levels (although cake would have been nice too). On the world map, players will be able to access a shopping mall, where they will be able to buy unlockables.

The final stage of the demo took us inside World 2 to an outside tropical resort, which sees Ms. running away from a bunch of scientists (who are all apparently modeled on Twisted Pixel employees). After a cutscene featuring a very obvious Total Recall reference, Ms. bumps into Mandy the scientist, whom she can use as a shield against the scientists’ guns by jumping inside her body and controlling her. After a few gossip-fueled cell conversations, Ms. finishes the level (and demo) with a triumphant dance.

Ms. ‘Splosion Man is exclusive to Xbox Live Arcade and will ship sometime in 2011. We look forward to seeing more of the game ahead of its release later this year.

By Gamespot Staff