Author - Jennifer Paxton

Batman: Arkham City Review

Let’s face it, now is an excellent time to be a fan of the Caped Crusader. Between Christopher Nolan’s films, direct-to-DVD features like “Batman: Year One,” and Rocksteady’s critically-acclaimed mega-blockbuster “Batman: Arkham Asylum” there has never been more quality Batman media to feast upon. Rocksteady has come along once again to add to that list with “Batman: Arkham City,” undoubtedly poised to rise to the top of many of this year’s Game of the Year lists.

2009’s Arkham Asylum offered gamers a chance to feel what it’s like to be the Batman. With a quality story drawing upon a decent selection of one of the better rogue’s galleries in the comic world, Arkham Asylum gave you the toys you’ve always wanted to play with and a chance to take down the villains you’ve always dreamed of fighting. You progressed through the Asylum unravelling Joker’s plot and experiencing a game largely influenced by Metroid. Often times there would be a puzzle to solve or an area to reach that wouldn’t be possible until later in the game with the help of new and more amazing gadgets.

The story picks up a year or so after the conclusion of Arkham Asylum. Warden Quincy Sharp is now Mayor of Gotham and has cordoned off a large section of the city to house the inmates of Arkham Asylum. Christening this borough “Arkham City”, the criminal element is left to it’s own devices as long as it doesn’t try to breach the outside world. Suspecting foul play and corruption at the heart of this program, Bruce Wayne allows himself to become incarcerated as a political prisoner so Batman can investigate the inner workings of the penal colony.

This year’s model blows the door wide open on the formula. You’ll still find yourself using a variety of wonderful gadgets, you’ll still do a lot of back tracking throughout the world, and you’ll still be treated to one of the most wonderful pieces of fan service I can direct you to. Only this time you’re doing it in an open world setting. Arkham City is a massive and gorgeous place. A multi-leveled gothic industrial wonderland, Arkham City gives you the chance to really inhabit Batman’s place in the world. At one moment you may be descending upon a fire-damaged courthouse to rescue Catwoman only to find yourself racing to a bombed out freeway over pass to save a downed news-copter moments later. There is a ton to do in this world and you will savor every moment of it.

One significant addition is the ability to play as Catwoman. Catwoman has a handful of her own missions peppered in throughout the story. She serves, as always, as a romantic foil and equal to the Caped Crusader. Playing as Catwoman, you’ll face down Poison Ivy and have your own batch of Riddler puzzles to solve. Catwoman handles much differently than Batman so don’t think that this is a simple re-skin. Her moves are quicker and much more fluid. There are areas that only she can access and weapons that only she can use. While her story is brief, it is a great diversion from an already fantastic game.

Arkham City isn’t as much of an open world as you’ve seen in recent games like Red Dead Redemption or Saint’s Row, but it functions much more like a hub world in the style of the Legend of Zelda games. Arkham City is your Hyrule and the Courthouse, Steel Mill, and Museum are all dungeons to explore. Moving around Arkham City is a blast and you can typically make it from one end of the map to the other in about two or three minutes. Gliding with your cape and firing off your grappling gun make for some of the most satisfying locomotion in today’s gaming landscape. (Make sure you complete the first round of Augmented Reality training to really enhance the way you travel around Arkham.)

The story moves at a brisk pace, even considering the ten to fifteen hours it will take to complete just the main quest line. Buffering this out, however, are a host of side quests. Should you allow yourself to you’ll find yourself doing everything from solving the over 400 puzzles left behind by The Riddler to tracking down Mr. Zsasz before he can kill again. Add it all up and well, I’ve beat the main quest and I’m at hour 21 of my play through and I’m still only at 54% completion. There is a lot to do here.

Once you’re done with the main story, you can jump back in to a fantastic New Game+ mode. New Game+ starts you off with all of your experience, upgrades and your progression through the Riddler’s puzzles intact. From there you are introduced to a difficulty spike in the enemies, more challenging boss battles, and a lack of alert when an enemy is about to attack. But hey, you beat the game already. At this point, you are Batman. New Game+ is all about taking everything you’ve learned through one play of the game and putting it into practice without the game holding your hand. Once you’re done with New Game+, you can jump into the Riddler’s Revenge lobby. In Riddler’s Revenge you’ll find challenge maps like the first game plus all new campaigns which serve as sort of a best-of mix-tape of the standard challenge maps. Campaigns match three challenge maps together and give you a handful of game modifiers like tougher enemies and time limits that you must put into play. A robust leaderboard system will help you keep track of your progress against your friends and all challenges are playable as Catwoman as well.

In going into any review, You always find yourself looking for something negative about the game. Something to poke holes in whatever argument you’re making for the game. There’s not a lot I could find for Arkham City. If anything, it would be the controversial decision to require a download voucher for the Catwoman content. While I can agree on the need for an online pass in today’s used game market, I don’t agree with having that online pass activate something that rightfully is part of the main single-player story. I didn’t play any of the Catwoman content until after I had completed the game and I was shocked at just what I was missing. Catwoman completely changes the opening to the game and later on there is a very specific plot point that became a bit muddy for me and wasn’t cleared up until I saw it from Catwoman’s point of view. That being said, buy the game new. Install the Catwoman content right away. I can’t slight the game for this, only the publisher for making a poor last minute decision.

Overall, Batman: Arkham City is definitely worth a purchase – especially for Batman fans. For sixty dollars you’re getting not only one of the best games of the last five years, but also a game full of nods to Batman’s rich history (No Man’s Land, anyone?) and the privilege of witnessing Mark Hamill’s swan song as the definitive actor to portray the Joker. Batman: Arkham City isn’t just a worthy sequel to Arkham Asylum, but it’s better than practically everything else on the market.

Dark Souls Review (PS3)

“Seriously!?!” That was the first thought that echoed through my head as I began my journey through the underworld in FromSoftware’s newest next-gen punishment-dealer, Dark Souls. A spiritual successor to 2009’s critically acclaimed Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls once again finds you as a recently deceased warrior/knight/rogue/wizard/naked dude with a wooden plank who is on a horrendous journey through purgatory to kill dragons and do… stuff.

Dark Souls starts you out in a well rounded character creation lobby. A full host of sliders exist to change everything about your characters colors to their height and build. From there you are tasked with choosing your character class and starting gifts. Class mostly determines some of your starting weapon choices and stat levels and gifts are a minor perk that sticks with you throughout the game. Once you have built your character, the real fun begins.

You wake up to find yourself in a dungeon for the undead. You are given a key to your cell by a mysterious benefactor and sent into the world proper. You’re given a broken sword, a wooden shield, no direction whatsoever and are left to fend for yourself.

“Enjoy your broken gear. Go f**k yourself.”

“Seriously!?!”

Make no mistake, that seems to be the true sentiment FromSoftware wants to impart on you. You will die. You will die a lot. You will die in horrible ways. There is no way around that simple fact. There is no difficulty setting to change if the game gets too tough. There are no hints to guide you on your way and barely even a story to hitch an objective to. You start at point A, will eventually find point B, and you’re going to die a whole hell of a lot on the way. There is no princess to save, no invasion to fend off. Your only goal in this game is to survive.

Survival comes in the form of souls. As you slay your enemies, you absorb their souls. Souls can be used to purchase upgrades at bonfires but souls can be lost very easily. Should you die (and, again, you will), you leave all of your souls behind. You re-spawn at the last bonfire you came across and should you manage to make it back to where you died in one piece, you can reclaim your lost souls. If not, it sucks to be you. Die and all of your souls are lost.

In addition to leveling up, bonfires serve one other important purpose: Safety. You cannot pause this game and bonfires serve as the only place where your enemies can’t touch you . Beware, however, because sitting at a bonfire will re-spawn every enemy in the area.

Dark Souls is a game that benefits heavily from an always online status. While traveling through the game you will often see the ghosts of other players or bloodstains in the spots where other players died. You can leave notes for other players to help guide them along and you can even jump into their game for better or for worse. (ed. note: That is an awesome feature)

Everything in this game is designed to be extraordinarily lethal and seeing where other players bit the bullet can be a tremendous blessing. The open world level design is full of twists, turns, and passages that you may never notice. Dark Souls has some of the most twisted and creative design I have seen in a game in a very long time. The environments vary, from the rotted Undead Burg to the hauntingly beautiful and foul swamps encountered later in the game. Equally impressive are the creature designs. Gigantic dragons, hook-armed ghosts, gargoyles with axes at the ends of their tails, killer demon butterflies; you will not see imagination on display like this in any other title this year.

This is a game that brings a ton of assets to the table and lets you fill in the blanks. The story is intentionally sparse and the game never forces you in to one particular style of play. You can hot swap abilities at a whim and go from a hulking tank to a nimble mage at your choosing. Your abilities are all tied to the equipment you are carrying, as long as you have that stats to use it efficiently. Music and dialogue are mostly absent, leaving you to create a mood for yourself. Dark Souls refuses to hold your hand at any point and it leaves you with one of the most hardcore gaming experiences found on the market today.

If you’re looking for a challenge, I cannot recommend Dark Souls enough. This title is a must-buy – especially for the more masochistic of our readers!

Fallout New Vegas: Old World Blues Review (XBLA)

The latest expansion to Fallout: New Vegas, Old World Blues, once again takes you far away from the expanse of the Mojave Wasteland to a secluded area known as Big Mountain, or the Big MT (get it?). Does this expansion justify the download, or does it leave you feeling empty (get it? Again?). If you’re a fan of New Vegas you may have found yourself feeling a little disappointed in Dead Money’s awkward survival horror slant and Honest Hearts felt a little too unspoiled outdoorsy for your tastes, let me introduce you to Old World Blues.

In a nutshell, if Old World Blues was a member of your family, it would be your drunk uncle: Nonsensical, rambles on a bit too long at times, gut-bustingly hilarious, and an absolute blast to hang out with.

Old World Blues finds your courier responding to an invitation to a midnight movie at the old drive in. Upon pressing play, you are whisked away to a fantastic world full of mad scientists, robot scorpions, and a talking toaster.

You wake up to find yourself sans brain, spine, and organs. Why? Why not! A victim of some heat-of-the-moment surgery by an insane group of mad scientists, you are forced to track down your brain who may or may not have grown legs of it’s own and trotted off to spend time with an even madder scientist than those who removed it in the first place.

Old World Blues earns high marks for being the most hilarious addition to any Fallout game to date. The writing is top notch and the expansion is full of unique characters, like a toaster with dreams of being a heat powered death ray.

While it is quite long for an expansion, it can get quite lonely. Unlike the previous expansions to New Vegas, you have no companions throughout the Big MT. Instead you are on your own throughout the full five hours or so of gameplay and the fetch quests can get a little repetitive. To offset this however is some fantastic voice acting as your captors will frequently spout insanities over the speakers throughout the research facilities.

Once again, the level cap is raised by five and there are a handful of new perks to choose from, including one that let’s you respec your character should you decide you want to change things up a bit.

In the end this is a must buy for any New Vegas fan. With a host of awesome loot to bring back to the Mojave Wastes and some of the funniest dialogue this side of GLADOS, you’d be hard pressed to not enjoy a vacation in the Big MT.

Dynasty Warriors: Gundam 3 Review

Oh Koei, when will you ever stop? After, to my best estimate, 438 Dynasty Warriors titles, Koei is bringing giant robot fighting to the table for the third time with the appropriately named Dynasty Warriors: Gundam 3. Does this outing prove improve on the franchise? Does it bring anything new and exciting to the world of gaming? Does it make any sense at all? Your answers are no, no, and no.

If you are unfamiliar with the Dynasty Warriors franchise, here’s a bit of a summary. You fill the shoes of a general in a sprawling battlefield, directing a war effort against the enemies of neighboring territories. You move through the map, taking strategic locations, and all around slaughtering countless enemies. After fulfilling certain level specific criteria the game will abruptly stop and announce that you’ve won the battle. Collect your rewards and carry on smartly.

For those unfamiliar with Gundam, here’s the lowdown. In the not too distant future humanity wages war against itself as we are wont to do. But this isn’t any old war… it’s future Japanese war! Giant robots! Bang! Smash! Kapow! Random philosophical musings! Wait… what? You see, Gundams, the aforementioned giant robots, are largely piloted by teenagers who spout more pretentious nonsense than your average asshole “writing” his “screenplay” at your corner coffee shop. If you were wondering how you could make giant robots boring, there you go.

Great! Now that we’re all caught up, where does that leave us? My average Dynasty Warriors: Gundam 3 experience went a little like this. Choose pilot, choose Gundam, choose mission, mash the X button a whole lot for five minutes until I won, listen to teenagers shout psycho-babble at one another, repeat ad infinitum.

Granted there are dozens of pilots to choose from, each with bountiful missions to complete and upgradeable statistics, and countless Gundams to unlock and upgrade. The overwhelming response I gave to the game was a resounding “meh.” There is a ton of content present but none of it is very deep. You can choose to play through various story missions, oftentimes seeing things from both sides of the conflict which end up feeling quite identical to one another. There are memorial missions which retell key points in the various Gundam anime series which all play and feel quite identical to the story missions. There are even friendship missions to help you gain new allies which, you guessed it, are no different from the story missions save for your reward at the end.

This game is a straightforward grinder in the most boring sense of the word. You are doing the same thing over and over and over again with your only rewards being upgrades to your mobile suit or new allies which don’t change the gameplay at all, leaving you wondering why you’re bothering in the first place.

All this adds up to a game that is extremely long, just not very big. On a somewhat more positive note, the game does populate hundreds of enemies onscreen at once and the character models for the Gundam themselves are quite detailed, however none of this matters much when the enemies only AI seems to be “surround player en masse, shoot gun repeatedly.” I can think of far more interesting ways to spend sixty bucks rather than listening to a 12 year old boy hollering stuff about machines, nature, and being a father while I press the X button over and over and over and over again.

Seriously, that’s all you do: press X.

For 100 hours or so…

Transformers: Dark of the Moon Review (PS3)

In Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the latest title from Blue Moon Studios, you take the wheel as both the Autobots and Decepticons, racing toward the ultimate showdown featured in this summers big budget explosionfest courtesy of Michael Bay. Does the game live up to the thrills of the movie or is it just another in a long line of mediocre tie-in releases? Find out our review!

I’m going to get this out of the way early. Dark of the Moon is not a good game. I’ve said it and I’m not taking it back.

I grew up with the Transformers as a child of the eighties, I’m almost thirty and I still occasionally buy a Transformers toy (ssh! Don’t tell my girlfriend!), and I’ve managed to turn off most of my brain to take enjoyment out of the films. I am a die-hard Transformers fan and that made it so much harder for me to feel disappointed at this title, especially given the pedigree Blue Moon has established with the excellent Transformers: War for Cybertron.

With the roadmap laid out for them courtesy of War for Cybertron, a solid game engine and a full games worth of assets to fall back on, you’d think that Blue Moon would have a solid springboard to make a stand out movie based game. Instead what we are given is little more than the previous game’s engine wrapped up in a lackluster shell.

The story of the game follows the lead up to the events of the film. As the Autobots you are investigating the Decepticons activities on Earth, uncovering relic technology to bring forth an army to enslave humanity. As the  you are charged with tapping into human communications and guarding your plot from the Autobots. While it could have been interesting to choose a side and character to play as, instead you switch characters on a per level basis, each level taking advantage of a particular character’s strengths. Halfway through the game you change sides from Autobot to Decepticon, stripping away any chance one would have of becoming invested in the plot.

The level design is essentially a series of corridors loosely populated with generic enemies. There is little to no variation on the challenges faced which is extremely disappointing. I found myself quite bored an hour or so into the game when I realized this was going to be nothing more than running from room to room spamming enemies with missiles. No challenge, no strategy, no real hook to keep you interested in the gameplay.

It would have been interesting to be able to choose your own character since you can see that there was at least some thought put into differentiating how the different characters would play. For instance, Bumblebee is a very straightforward infantry type while Ironhide plays like a tank and Mirage is suited towards much stealthier gameplay, especially with his cloak and melee combat abilities.

What we get instead is a game that wants you, it seems, to play almost exclusively in your vehicle mode. When you shift to vehicle form you are now able to take much more damage and your unlimited artillery deals out an unbelievable amount of punishment compared to your robot form. With very few instances where you actually need to use your robot form for some mild platforming, I found this to be a game that felt almost like a cheap Twisted Metal rip off.

On top of an already broken gameplay experience, Dark of The Moon adds boring, flat textures, hokey talking head FMV cutscenes and horribly placed mid level load times. The only standout piece to this game is the multiplayer, lifted almost straight from War for Cybertron but adding nothing new to the mix.

Save your sixty dollars here. It is much better spent on taking your significant other to see the movie in some of the best 3D work since Avatar. I hate trashing a game, but there is no excuse for such a short and broken piece of work as Dark of the Moon.

L.A. Noire Review

L.A. Noire, by Australian developer Team Bondi and Rockstar Games is a refreshing breath of air in the current game marketplace. You are Detective Cole Phelps, a military man fresh from WWII, trying to make a difference in the crime ridden streets of late 1940s Los Angeles. Working your way up through four different detective assignments, Traffic, Homicide, Vice, and Arson, you will explore failed relationships, Hollywood sex cartels, the mysteries behind the Black Dahlia, and ultimately a conspiracy that reaches the highest levels of Southern California power.

What rocked:

Old Genre, New Package – Much has been made of the core gameplay being focused around the investigation of of crime scenes and subsequent questioning of suspects and witnesses. What we have here is essentially an old school point and click adventure game brought up to meet today’s gaming standards. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. The conversation mechanic and inventory come together like peanut butter and chocolate. Finding specific pieces of evidence open up interrogation options. Do you think the suspect is lying? Call him out on it… Just make sure you’ve collected the evidence to back it up. You’ll spend hours searching out every corner of a crime scene for the one missing piece that brings the whole case together and the effort is extremely rewarding when you know you’ve got your perp backed against the wall.

The Visuals – Team Bondi has developed an amazing new performance capture system known as MotionScan. MotionScan afforded the developers the chance to capture not only the broad strokes of facial expressions today’s audiences are used to seeing in special effects laden summer blockbusters, but also every nervous facial twitch, shifting glance, swallowed word, and corner of the mouth smirk. While you get a subtle audio cue when you stumble across a piece of evidence in a crime scene you get no such hint when a witness is withholding the truth. You’ll need to rely on your own personal instincts and ability to read the human face and this may be the first game to allow you that unique opportunity. This game is by no means the best look game on the market, MotionScan transcends animation into the realm of pure acting.

The Cast – The cast list on this game is huge, filled out by a number of faces you’ll instantly recognize from your favorite TV show or movie. There’s not much to say here aside from the gratitude I have that each one of them brought their A game.

Pacing – L.A. Noire is an open world game, that much is (mostly) true. Rather than the typical modern game trappings of finishing a mission, wandering around until you choose to begin the next mission, and exploring along the way, L.A. Noire finds you beginning the next mission the moment the previous one ends. Once you reach the conclusion of the case you are working you are immediately introduced to a cut scene setting up the very next case. In the midst of an investigation you are given the choice of in which order to tackle important locations, but the game makes it a  priority of leading you through the proceedings, keeping you heavily immersed in the story.

What didn’t:

“Open” World – Okay, I know I might sound contradictory given the fondness I have for the game’s pacing. Bear with me. L.A. Noire is an open world in the base sense of the word. Yu have a vast map to explore with collectibles and locations to search out and discover. The problem is that the game never really encourages you to do so. There isn’t so much of a world to explore, as in the living breathing environments of GTA 4’s Liberty City or the vast western countryside of Red Dead Redemption, as there is a whole lot of streets and buildings. There are plenty of opportunities for diversions to be had outside of police work but aside from the twenty or so street crimes that get called in over the radio you’ll mostly find yourself driving from investigation to investigation. This wouldn’t have been so much of a negative had it not been for a case halfway through the game that almost punishes you for not exploring the map as it demands you decipher clues on a scavenger hunt around the greater Los Angeles area.

Repetition – In addition to the lack of a true open world experience with diversions to be had outside of the main storyline, the core gameplay mechanics of investigation and questioning can become quite repetitive, especially during longer gameplay sessions. A few hours into the game I knew that the procedure was going to be a lot of “investigate, question, investigate, question.” The game tries to offset this with car chases and shootouts, but even these start to become telegraphed and predictably within the individual cases. It’s a good thing that the story is immersive enough and gameplay interesting enough that it’s easy to ignore the repetition in favor of seeing where the story will take you next.

Delayed Story – As mentioned above, L.A. Noire sees you working four different desks within the LAPD. This roughly breaks down to five hours per assignment. The meat of the story doesn’t really pick up until you hit the vice desk, at around the halfway point of the game. This means that, while an enjoyable first half to the game, you’ll work through around ten hours of game before beginning the main storyline. You are thrown off this sensation a bit with flashbacks to Phelps’ time in WWII after the conclusion of nearly every case, but until you reach the vice desk nothing truly feels like it matters to Phelps as a character. This is further heightened by the homicide desk almost being its own self contained story and the traffic desk having little to no relation to anything else that happens in the game.

What fell flat:

Odd Choices – There are two choices made in the the game that confused me thoroughly. Platforming and dungeon crawling. You read that right. Platforming. Dungeon crawling. While both segments are extremely brief they do bring an overwhelming sense of “what the fu..?” to the game. One mission has you climbing precariously across the most dangerous parts of Los Angeles landmarks, complete with balance beam segments, only to culminate in the darkest dungeon I have ever explored in a game. I had to turn the games brightness all the way up and even at that, I found myself discharging my firearm and lighting my path via gunshots. Both segments came out of left field to never be seen again throughout the game.

Overall:

With L.A. Noire, Rockstar and Team Bondi have crafted a game that challenges you to experience a completely different style of game. Heavily story driven and saving action for choice moments, it is a refreshing answer to the Call of Duty clones that dominate much of the marketplace. Using a tried and true genre, the point and click adventure, today’s gamers have been introduced to a hallmark of video game acting and animation that demands other developers to make their own advancements in visual storytelling. The few things that fell flat for me are by no means game breaking and given the sales numbers this title is sure to achieve I am positive that Team Bondi will have the chance to improve upon them in the future. The game’s pros far outweigh its cons and it is a step in the right direction for gaming that I cannot recommend highly enough.