Xbox 360 Reviews
Written by Jason Trent Friday, 19 November 2010 05:00
3D Castlevania games have always been the black sheep of the family. When most of us think of Castlevania, our minds immediately go to Symphony of the Night or Castlevania IV, and so we've come to expect similar experiences from our Castlevania games. Many fans of the series were taken by surprise when they learned that Castlevania: Lords of Shadow would again take the franchise into the third dimension, and this skepticism continues even after the game's release. Though Lords of Shadow may not be what many would consider a traditional Castlevania experience, it's a game that's incredibly successful on its own merits.
It's hard to discuss Castlevania: Lords of Shadow without talking about the God of War series. Castlevania includes many of the same things that fans of God of War enjoy, namely huge set pieces, massive boss fights, and brutal action; but it largely improves on these things in many ways. Combat is fast, unforgiving, and technical. Replacing the traditional whip from earlier Castlevania games, your character, Gabriel Belmont, wields a cross that contains an extendable chain used to grapple and pummel enemies. Eventually, both light and shadow magic is introduced, which is when combat moves from the norm to something else entirely.
Defeating enemies, landing consecutive attacks without being hit, and parrying all result in orbs being dropped. From there, you can decide to put these orbs into your light or shadow magic reserves, which leads to a struggle of balance as you try to find the perfect combination of magic to compliment your play style. Using shadow magic causes extra damage being dealt, while using light magic recovers life, so you'll have to be quick on your toes and know enemies' attack patterns to survive. Magic also changes how certain items work, for example, using shadow magic while throwing a daggar will make the dagger catch on fire and deal more damage. Using holy water with light magic grants you a shield, which can help asorb damage. There are many combinations to discover. Being smart in combat rewards the player with a steady stream of magic which is a must in the game's later levels.
The game may be difficult, but it's not cheap. Combat is further customized by granting experience points for each enemy you defeat, and using these points you'll unlock new abilities, which cater to different play styles. Should you run out of abilities to purchase, you can then pony up your points towards the game's many extras. As is the case with many third person action games, you'll also find pickups to increase health and magic throughout the game, traditionally hidden in the more offbeat parts of each level.
There are many reasons to return to Castlevania once the main quest is complete. Areas once inaccessible are now available with new abilities and there are a lot of extra pickups to search for.
Though Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a 3D game, the progression through the game is quite linear. Most levels involve going from point to point, from battle to battle, and from puzzle to puzzle. You're never weighed down with wondering where to go next, or what to do, and the pacing of the game's levels is done very well, with nary a dull moment to be had.
As is has always been the case with Castlevania games, Lords of Shadow not only features combat, but it also challenges the player with platforming segments. The game has a lot of them, but they're always accompanied by breath taking spectacles of scenery and action. A couple of levels are actually giant boss fights in which you'll fight a handful of titans, which combine platforming elements with action that is much like Shadow of the Colossus. They're truly a site to behold.
If I have one negative thing to say about the Lords of Shadow experience, it's the game's puzzles. They're too often far too obtuse and obscure for their own good and lead to frustration instead of fun. I was able to get through all puzzles without help with only one exception: a puzzle focusing on a time and date riddle with a main clue being a Zodiac sign. I had to look that one up as I had no idea what the symbol I was looking at meant. I should be able to use information in the game to solve its puzzles, but this wasn't the case. There were some clever puzzles that were fun, but unfortunately they were the exception to the rule.
From a technical perspective, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow excels. Graphics are extremely detailed, with especially great care put into the variety of environments. Though there is an issue with slowdown throughout a good chunk of the game, I never found it to be distracting, and felt that everything else more than made up for this shortcoming. The audio too is done great. This game has a fantastic soundtrack, one that fits the mood of the game perfectly and works to create a feeling of excitement and peril.
The story is probably where some of the greatest departures from the series lie. First of all, you're not tasked with killing Dracula. Your character does have the last name of Belmont, but that's pretty much the only ties to the stories previously told. The story is one of revenge: Gabriel sets out to avenge his wife's death as well as stop the evil from overcoming the world. It's a pretty standard story, and not the game's strongest point, but I will say this: Dracula does show up and does so in a great and unexpected way. The ending of the game left me craving the next entry in this rebooted series, and will almost certainly make you feel the same way. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a top-notch third person action game that all hard-core gamers need to check out. Forget what you already know about Castlevania and embrace the changes that succeed on nearly every level. You'll be hard pressed to find a better game this holiday season, and considering that it's easily a 15+ hour experience, you'll get plenty of content for your dollar.
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Written by Ryan Johnson Sunday, 14 November 2010 12:00
In the latest installment of the Bond franchise, 007 finds himself in a strangely satisfying niche smack dab between Bruce Wayne and Dirk the Daring.
Welcome to the second article in the Month of Bond. If you’re curious about Goldeneye for the Wii, you can check out my first impressions. Keep an eye out as the month winds down for a more in-depth comparison of Goldeneye to the original, as well as a Blood Stone vs. Goldeneye article: Which game comes out on top?
I am a big James Bond fan, but I had no idea what to expect upon booting up Blood Stone for the first time. Honestly, the Hype Machine was in such overdrive for Goldeneye that I was genuinely surprised that another Bond title was in fact coming out on the same day. I have always enjoyed these “extra stories” in the Bond canon (well, minus the LAST attempt at resurrecting Goldeneye), with Everything or Nothing being my second favorite Bond game. The series has varied through the years. As they all tried to bring back the magic that was Goldeneye, Bond has gone from full FPS to full 3rd person action and points in between (with Quantum of Solace). While many reviewers are complaining about the brevity of the game, I have to say that the developers have taken many modern gaming elements that have been praised recently and polished them to a fine sheen.
If you are looking for a Bond movie this year, this is it. With the series finally looking as if it may produce a new film in 2012, all we have are the games this year. The story creators for Blood Stone truly respected the series, getting the gritty feel of Craig’s Bond down pat. It is a homage to the brand name akin to the dedication seen in Batman: Arkham Asylum. My main reference point comparing these games, however, is Detective Mode. I feel Bond’s creators did a great job in limiting this “analyzation time”. Bond whips out his cell phone, which puts a greenish digital haze over the environment. It isn’t a perfect system, though, and distorts the image when running, and when Bond does anything interactive, it turns itself off. If one critique of Arkham was made, it was that the Detective Mode was too helpful, and that players would actually miss the gorgeous graphics of the game because they just spent the entire time in Detective mode. Bond’s game is graphically brilliant, and thanks to the limitations of his cellular gadget, you can still see everything.
My second comparison is to Dirk the Daring from Dragon’s Lair. In both a negative and a positive point, this game at times feels like one huge Quick Time Event. Action happens, and Bond must deal with it. In a particular scene where a huge machine is bearing down on Bond, he must jump between platforms or die. In car chases, you must keep up with the enemy down a specific road with exact things happening each time, or lose the mission. Some of these require crystal-perfect timing. Miss a turn, and start over. What is good about this is that the more scripted a game is, the more cinematic it can be. Without drowning us in movies and dialog, the producers of this game have immersed you in the Bond experience. It feels like quite a feat to pull off these Bond moments.
Other parts of the game allow for a variety in Bond's attitude as well. I felt like Rikimaru from the Tenchu series as I went through a mansion, deftly taking out a guard here, freaking out another guard there just to take him out when his buddies weren’t looking, then busting into a room and dashing through a hail of bullets to physically takedown a deadly enemy to gain a Focus Shot (a one-hit guaranteed kill point) and turning to finish off another with that Focus Shot before ducking behind cover. All aspects of the Bond Combat are present, and are more visceral outside of Goldeneye’s First Person perspective.
The game is set with a wonderful mesh of keeping the story alive and the gamer engaged. If the story were real, Bond would have to go through a lot of briefing before a mission to know where objectives are, the layout of the area, and what he’s supposed to do. He also has an intuition of how to get out of a 3D space that we are not able to see as he does, since we are not physically in the game. Instead of forcing us through memorization and a tutorial, Bond’s smartphone adds a layer of easy-to-follow waypoints. No matter where you are, if you are unsure of where to go, pop out your cellphone, and there’s bound to be a little orange dot within a few hundred meters of you to point you in the direction of your objective. On the gaming end, these waypoints also serve as checkpoints, keeping the game together in manageable chunks. Another very addictive part of the gamer end is progressive achievements. If an achievement requires you to, say, silently disable 40 enemies, each one you take down pops up an “X/40” mini-achievement notification, making the little “bloop” all the more satisfying as you watch yourself work toward it.
Blood Stone definitely holds your hand and leads you through the game. But if you want a true theatrical experience, that’s the only way to get there. I thought of it as a 3D scroller where you go into the screen, kind of like old Crash Bandicoot. You were going somewhere, but it was the only way to go. This does, however, keep the necessary tight scripting, which feels so much more right the second and third times through a level, as you are, in a sense, “directing” Bond. A true Bond aficionado looking to get their cinematic fix this November will not be disappointed. Blood Stone keeps me up at night with that “one more level” itch done so well with the cinematics that don’t even recognize a level change, they just push through. What I thought was 11:30….ended up being almost 2AM. The game has a gripping and interesting story, a variety of driving and shooting gameplay, options on how to progress in parts and full-throttle cinematic events that place you on the edge of your seat.
I’m sure, however, that the thought going through your mind is, “but it’s the holiday season! I can only buy/get one of these games!!!!! Which one? Goldeneye or Blood Stone?” That answer is next up in the Month of Bond! If you aren’t following us on Facebook or Twitter yet, do so now, and report back in for the next article in the Month of Bond!
Written by James Anderson Friday, 12 November 2010 11:32
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 was loved and hated. Loved enough to score 4.7 million sales in its first 24 hours. Following in its footsteps, and leaving just a wee bit bigger footprint, Black Ops smashed last year’s numbers by almost a million - 5.6 million total sales. While promising a great story and redefined multiplayer options, it looks as if this year’s iteration is going to be just as loved - and hated.
Black Ops gets you going right away. A few bits and pieces of the story are dangled and the action fills in the rest. Through series of flashbacks and game play, a well developed story is laid out before the player. Quite simply, the story is done so well, it makes Modern Warfare 2 look like a joke. No more of this zoom out to a satellite link crap to deliver the story. One of my biggest complaints about Modern Warfare 2 was that feeling of being disconnected from the story every time a sat link transition scene popped up. In Black Ops, the in-between dialogue is interesting and it is easy to see how the pieces fit together. Puzzles are great in games - as long as it isn't trying to figure out what the hell the storyline is trying to get across to you. If something is lost in translation during a poorly done cut scene - or throughout the campaign altogether - the story is gone.
Throughout the campaign, there are more of the same great environments and solid effects. "Just one more mission" was said under my breath more than a few times. Explosions and slow motion mini cut scenes were dramatic and effective. Though it is worth pointing out a player is much more likely to have bugs with a jump or some other environment anomaly (falling through small cracks on a roof) during a slow motion scene. Playing a slow motion scene over and over and over without progressing could get old real fast. They "look" awesome, but feel ... too scripted and easy perhaps.
The online choices themselves are not too much different than last year’s offering. Expect to see the same type of modes - Team Deathmatch, Free for All and Domination - to name a few. Wager matches are new to the game and an absolute crazy twist on your usual online play. Feel you are one of the best? Give Wager matches a try. Take some of your hard earned CoD currency and put your money where your mouth is. Two of the options are "One in the Chamber" and "Gun Game." One in the Chamber offers a very strategic option to players looking for a challenge. As the title implies, you have one bullet in your gun and your knife. Make the shot count! If you miss, you are left with just your knife. While it's possible to get another bullet by killing another player, it's still a pretty smart idea to make sure your bullet hits its mark. You get three lives. Make them count. Gun Game is another Wager option. The player starts with a basic weapon and immediately upgrades when killing another player. The first player to get a kill with each weapon wins. Pretty slick. Since this is called "Wager" there has to be some risk, right? It's simple, finish in the top three to score CoD currency or kiss it goodbye.
What's this about currency? It's the new way to unlock stuff in online play of course! After each non-Wager match, the player is awarded currency based on performance. This currency is used to unlock gear. Weapons, scopes, larger magazines and more are available. While there may be level requirements to unlock certain gear, the progression path is almost entirely up to the player. Don't care for shotguns? Then don't drop your cash to unlock them. Primary and secondary weapons, equipment and perks are up to you to unlock.
That leads us to contracts. Another brilliant addition to this year’s Call of Duty multiplayer experience. Three types of contracts are available - Mercenary, Operations and Specialist. Mercenary contracts involve killing a certain number of players with a particular weapon. Operations contracts have the player accomplishing a goal in a particular type of match. Specialist contracts require well, specialist activities like a number of headshots with a particular category of weapon. This ties in well to the idea of unlocking weapons in the order you choose. Brutal with an M60? Pick up the contract and get 75 kills for currency and XP rewards. Do pay attention to contract timers though. Fail to complete a contract within the expiration time period and you get to start over. The expiration is measured in "time alive in game" and you can check your contract status from the Player Match screen. Contracts let the player focus on a set of goals that are different, but are not separate from the rest of the multiplayer game. They add a nice "mini game" feel without detracting from the rest of the experience.
While in the player match screen and in between matches, kill time with the Counters on screen. Real time stats scroll across the bottom of the screen showing things like "Executions: 4,134,568 players shot in the head while in Second Chance" or "Medieval: Laid end to end 17,588 miles of crossbow bolts have been fired." Nice touch guys, nice touch.
Written by Michael Rohde Thursday, 11 November 2010 22:05
The UnderGarden and Limbo are both essentially puzzle solving games in which you travel a set path, clear obstacles and make wondrous discoveries along your adventures in these alien worlds. But that’s where the similarities end. Limbo’s color scheme is set in a stark black and white world where death lurks around every corner. The UnderGarden splashes vibrant colors mixed with soft translucent water in which movement is depicted in effortless movement in an ocean where not even explosive mines cause your death.
In fact, after playing the first few levels of the game, I have not discovered a means in which to die yet.
The UnderGarden is the type of game that you want to play with your kids. The gameplay consists of gently floating and darting about the ocean, collecting pollen, and then disseminating the pollen to grow all sorts of flowers to create a living underwater garden full of life. The first level, or hub, starts off basic enough; with each new level increasing in tougher puzzles. Although, I haven’t been stuck on any of the puzzles yet, as they are pretty simple; at least so far. Keep in mind that I’m the type of person that got stuck early and often while playing Limbo and had to consult walk-through sites to get past many of the puzzles. In The UnderGarden, that hasn’t been necessary so far. And I’m thankful for that. There’s nothing more maddening then not being able to advance to the next level. The UnderGarden allows you to move on to the next hub, even if you haven’t found all of the special flowers. The manner in which the caverns sprawl before you, you can easily float from the portal to back into the maze to try and finish solving how to get that last flower.
As you complete each hub, you are transported back to a main screen, where you can float over to the next hub. The UnderGarden does steer you towards the hub it wants you to play in that certain hubs are locked until you unlock the other hubs first. After a hub is unlocked, you can go back and revisit that hub at any time to try and beat your speed time, the number of flora pollinated and the number of special objects that you found.
The UnderGarden does have a certain sense of humor about it when it comes to the Achievements. There was this one time, I placed a mine and a musician next to each other. Well, I quickly learned that when you drop the mine, you set a timer for it to explode... Because there is no death in The UnderGarden, the musician didn’t die, but he is silenced for a bit and *DING* Achievement Unlocked.
As for the audio, this is another stark contrast from Limbo. Limbo had no soundtrack. It was just you in the dark and wild. The UnderGarden boasts a soundtrack of mystic proportions, which at times, certain passages might remind you of Mass Effect 2’s soundtrack; that is not a bad comparison but rather complimentary. If you want to enhance the basic keyboard tones, you can pick up musicians that you find along the way. You can pick up several at once. Each time you pick up another musician, it’s like adding another instrument to the band and suddenly you’re hearing more advanced percussion and bass. You’ll want to carry the musicians with you just for the music factor. Plus, if you carry at least three musicians with you while re-pollinating some flora then *DING* Achievement Unlocked.
The UnderGarden is an Xbox 360 Arcade game (also available on the PSN and PC) that I’ll go back and finish. Unlike Limbo, which I left twisting in the wind as it became too frustrating for me. It’s also a game that I’m sure my kids will request over and over. They found it great fun to tell me which direction to swim and they always wanted to know, “What’s next, Dad?”
While Limbo and The UnderGarden couldn’t be more different, they compliment each other very nicely. They are two opposites that go well together. Just like peanut butter and jelly.
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