Author - Mike Lisenberry

Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor 2016 Review

For the past few years the Queen Mary has set sail for Halloween with a sizable event to compete with local heavyweights Halloween Horror Nights and Knott’s Scary Farm. 2016 is no different and California’s most legitimately haunted Halloween event welcomed fans aboard yet again.

Full disclosure before we get into our review; I did serve as talent at a competing Halloween attraction for over a decade. Those days are long behind me now as I turn my enthusiasm towards a critical eye for the haunt industry.

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Dark Harbor at the Queen Mary has long been one of my favorite Southern California haunts. The design team knows full well the massive benefit that their host location serves them and they play directly to its strengths year after year. The Queen Mary has a long history as one of the world’s most haunted places and the team at Dark Harbor takes this opportunity to throw you right into the middle of those hauntings, sending you through the cramped bowels of the ship, diverting you to some of the most notorious locations like the ship’s pool and boiler room, and bringing you face to face with some of the more recognizable ghosts at the center of the ship’s stories.

The mazes at Dark Harbor, for the most part, have character and it shows. One consistent that I enjoyed tremendously is that almost every maze starts with a private moment with a character that brings you into the world of what you’re about to see. Take Lullaby for example. Lullaby is centered around the ghost of ‘Scary Mary,’ a little girl who long ago drowned in the Queen Mary’s pool (true story). Guests are staggered and sent through in smaller groups and are sent down the dark stairs into the lower decks of the ship by themselves so that they can start their experience by coming face to face with the clergyman presiding over Mary’s funeral. He welcomes you, says prayers for Mary, and warns you of what lies ahead. In fact, every maze is built around the concept of a singular character. The aforementioned Lullaby with Scary Mary, Dead Rise featuring the Captain, or Intrepid with the all new Iron Master.

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Dark Harbor breaks down like this; Three mazes aboard the ship, two mazes inside the nearby dome, one maze outside in the midway and a handful of upcharge attractions. Of all of the attractions, I would have to say Circus was my personal favorite. Circus features a new layout versus previous years and feels like an all new maze. Circus begins with a pair of clowns guiding your group into fake hallways and dead ends before allowing you into the maze proper which is full of interactive rooms like a knee deep ball pit to crawl through or a hallway full of moving floors. Circus is located inside of the dome right next to the all new Intrepid which has the distinction of being one of the biggest disappointments of the night.

Intrepid tells the story of the Iron Master, the man in charge of building the Queen Mary. You are invited aboard his train to take a journey to his scrapyards where demonic steel workers slave away over molten iron. Unfortunately a majority of this maze felt unfinished as we were walking past unpainted walls and barely decorated scenes. What did work, however, was the wide open spaces utilized in the maze to allow their sliding talent some room to breathe and do their thing.

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As far as the up-charges go, they can be skipped over for the most part. Hex is a paintball shooting gallery, nothing more, nothing less. Panic 4D is a short animated film with in theater effects like smell and water featuring CGI ripped straight out of 1998 and an over use of a poking effect that left the center of my back sore after the film was done.

Some quick takes:

  • Intrepid: An underwhelming and bare bones maze, especially considering the theming found in the other attractions. C
  • Dead Rise: Loud and aggressive. Avoid if you don’t want to get wet. Otherwise a very fun outdoor maze to cool off in. B
  • Soulmate: As good as it ever was, although an odd choice to change up its always reliable ending scene. A-
  • Circus Big Top Terror: Highlight of the night. Excellent new layout and use of interactivity. A+
  • Lullaby: Classic Dark Harbor, even if its only in its second year. Excellent use of the ship. A+
  • B340: More great use of the interiors of the ship. A
  • Hex: Avoid. Instead, go shoot paintballs at a human at a real field. F
  • Panic 4-D: Avoid. F

Overall, Dark Harbor at the Queen Mary continues to be a standout Southern California halloween attraction. Its a great, and cheaper, alternative to other local Halloween theme park attractions and shouldn’t be missed, especially as it hits its stride in its seventh year

Rob Zombie’s Great American Nightmare Review

The Lords of Salem Facade

In Southern California, Halloween has become a very big deal. Orange County is home to Knott’s Berry Farm, the originators of the modern haunted event with their annual Knott’s Scary Farm Halloween Haunt. Just north of that in Los Angeles County, you can find Universal Studios Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights as well as Six Flags Magic Mountain’s Fright Fest. Additionally, a huge number of smaller scale pro-haunts can be found sprinkled throughout. When you’ve exhausted all those options, and your wallet, you can typically find homegrown amateur events in residential neighborhoods for miles in any direction. This all can make it rather hard to find enough elbow room to launch a new event. Leave it to someone as audacious as Rob Zombie to give it a go with his Rob Zombie’s Great American Nightmare.

Rob Zombie’s Great American Nightmare is an all new haunted event debuting at the Pomona Fairplex for 2013. Pomona has hosted an event like this before, the “Pomona Fearplex”, which ran until 2008 – but nothing on the scale of what Zombie and event producer Steve Kopelman have in store for SoCal residents. In just ten short days (after waiting for the LA County Fair to close up shop) Kopelman’s team managed to create three mazes based on Zombie’s films: ‘The Lords of Salem’, ‘The Haunted World of El Superbeasto’, and ‘House of 1000 Corpses’. This was a huge undertaking and we got the chance to experience the final product on its opening night/media event last week.

Great American Nightmare takes place across two hangars of the fairground as well as the midway between them. All three mazes are packed into one hangar with the queue lines daisy-chained together. You’ll experience all three attractions in rapid succession. The other hangar is reserved for performance space for the various headlining bands that perform each night of the event. Between the two hangars, you’ll find vendor tents, food, alcohol, and some very impressive talent bringing various creatures to life outside of the mazes. This all lends to a very concert-like atmosphere with some Halloween tricks and treats thrown in for good measure.

The Lords of Salem is an Adult Maze

The Lords of Salem is an Adult Maze

Upon first entering the hangar housing the mazes was ‘The Lords of Salem in Total Blackout,’ where we were greeted by an impressive facade that spanned almost the entire width of the room. Bathed in red light on a raised altar was a woman playing Sherri Moon’s main character from the film which inspired the maze. She was struggling to free herself and asking for help while to the left a giant demonic skull protruded over the line of guests waiting to enter the maze. This did a great job of setting an exciting tone for the first maze.

Once we made it through the queue line, we entered a holding pen where two men in robes and skull like face-paint placed a black sack over each of our heads, insulting us and telling us that we were never going to make it through alive. This does a great job of building suspense and excitement as they shove you into the maze to navigate your way through without the luxury of sight.

Lords of Salem challenges you to navigate while almost completely blind. Feeling your way through the darkness proves to be very disorienting at first which can give way to a feeling of anxiety, but after a few minutes of walking down empty hallways plus the fact that some light bleeds from above the maze walls allowing you to navigate, the intensity quickly wore off. At that point, the hood seemed like more of an annoyance than anything scary. The maze features gags such as a short stretch of shifting fun house floors and wall panels that would give a small shock if touched, but they were rare and didn’t seem to relate to the maze’s theme. The talent was also sparse and seem to be going for scares as much as they were aggressively grunting ushers pushing you in the right direction. This maze would have greatly benefited from more texture on the walls, a shorter maze length, or perhaps low lit scenes that would be slightly visible through the hood to connect a story to the maze. As it is, the only connection I could find to The Lords of Salem is the maze’s facade. Unfortunately, this one fell very flat after the opening moments.

Winds of Plague Front Man Jon Cooke

Winds of Plague Front Man Jon Cooke

As we rounded the corner, after having our hoods removed, we were greeted by a neon mural announcing ‘The Haunted World of El Superbeasto – 3D’. 3D glasses were passed out and we quickly headed into the most adult-themed claustrophobia hallway I have ever experienced, a reverse-birth if you will, which is the perfect way to start off this homage to the raunchy film of the same name.

If it wasn’t made clear before reaching this maze there is no doubt that this is absolutely an adult event and is not meant for children. Sexual innuendos abound and some scenes are very forthcoming in their filth. If you are a fan of the El Superbeasto film, then you will be happy to see that this maze is not watered down in the slightest.

Just as in the film, the maze follows El Superbeasto, an exploitation film director/actor/masked wrestler and his sidekick Suzi-X in their quest to prevent world domination by the evil Dr. Satan. Many citizens of Monsterland make cameos throughout the attraction. There is an impressive level of detail in the many custom made latex masks and some of the best 3-D work we have ever seen in a haunted attraction. It truly feels like you are in the middle of an animated film brought to life.

This maze was alive with energy and captured the essence of the film. The talent was outstanding in their performances and, although not overly-scary, the maze was definitely a mature, manic good time.

Last up was ‘Haunt of 1000 Corpses.’ The maze deviates slightly from the standard route of re-telling the story of the movie it’s based on. Instead, you’ll find yourself walking through the infamous ‘Murder Ride’ staffed by Capt. Spaulding and the Firefly family.

This maze boasts absolutely the best visual design of any of the three attractions, and some of the best design of any haunted attractions we’ve visited this season. Scenes flow seamlessly from one to the next, even though they’re not necessarily completely related. You’ll find yourself visiting vignettes of some of the most storied serial killers of history, from H.H. Holmes to the Manson Family all ending with a face to face meeting with Capt. Spaulding and Dr. Satan himself.

Rob Zombie and Sheri Moon Zombie

Rob Zombie and Sheri Moon Zombie

Each and every talent in the maze was fully committed to their roles. We saw inbred maniacs humping away at anything they could get their pelvises close to. We saw cannibals doing less than moral things to female corpses. We saw Capt. Spaulding berating passersby while threatening them with phallic balloons. Once again, just like El Superbeasto, this is a very mature maze and definitely not suitable for kids. It, in a very unapologetic way, hits a very hard R-rating and it couldn’t have pleased us more.

If there’s any drawback to the way the event is organized it would be the daisy chaining of the mazes. All three are in the same hangar and lead right into each other with no breaks. There were no restrooms along the queues so if you have to pee definitely do so before entering. Because of the layout of the attractions, all guests are limited to one trip through. To avoid having a massive pile-up at the entrance the event is using a number system. Wait until your number is called to get in line, but while doing so you can shop the vendor tents, catch a classic horror movie on their outdoor projector screen, and watch the talent outside go to work. The outdoor talent was incredibly active, imaginative, and we never saw them drop character once. From the carny who let guests use real staples to pin dollar bills to his torso to the creepy undead children, the outside talent never disappointed.

Overall, Rob Zombie’s Great American Nightmare was very impressive – especially for its first year. While a little annoying, the queue system makes sense due to needing to move guests through the attraction and on to the concert venue. ‘The Lords of Salem’ has a lot of work cut out for it if it is to return for a second year but the other two mazes do a lot to make up for what the first one lacks. Also, with bands like Reel Big Fish, Goldfinger, Winds of Plague, and Rob Zombie himself performing, if you pick a night where an act you care about is onstage you really can’t beat the $30 entry price for a concert plus an impressive freshman haunt attraction. If you live in the SoCal area this is one haunt to definitely keep your eye on.

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Genius GX Gaming Maurus X Mouse Review

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Genius has released their Maurus X gaming mouse and we were lucky enough to check one out. The Maurus X was designed with first-person shooter gamers in mind, and says so right on the packaging. Genius has clad the Maurus X mostly in black plastic with red accents and the mouse features a nice, rubberized sides to hold on to. Genius GX Gaming has also given the Maurus X some red lighting to accent the overall look of the mouse, and the pulsation and intensity of this lighting can be adjusted in the included software.

The mouse has a moderately-sized footprint and ambidextrous layout, and I found that “palm” PC gamers should have no problem using it. “Claw” gamers will have to work a bit to get used to the added weight of the mouse, but I digress… Speaking of weight, the Maurus X is hefty, with an additional 50G of metal weight built into it. The nice thing about this weight is that it makes the Maurus X very precise and stable. It smooths out the mouse’s movements and won’t jump around as much as lighter mice do when the player does things like breathe or cough.

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Official Specifications

  • Professional 6-button FPS gaming mouse
  • Over-clocking SGCi: dpi in 800/1600/2400/3200/4000
  • Instant DPI switch button with minor adjuster function
  • Response within 1ms; 8-times quicker than standard response
  • Scorpion Gaming User Interface with five profile settings
  • Metal weight to enhance hand grip and feel
  • Onboard memory to prevent game block
  • 1.8 meter braided cable with gold-plated USB connector
  • Enlarged length and rubber finish grip for total control

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The Maurus X also features six mouse buttons which can be programmed and assigned macros via the included Genius GX Gaming control software. Additional accessories include another set of mouse feet to replace the existing ones on the mouse when they get worn out. It is a nice bit of added value that will extend the lifespan of the Maurus X quite a bit. At the heart of the Maurus X is an Avago ADNS3090 optical sensor capable of up to 4000DPI in 800DPI increments and a 32-bit processor.

Using the Maurus X, I was continually impressed by how precise it was. Moving and shooting in games like Battlefield 3 and Arma 3, I found the mouse to definitely enhance the overall experience. Some reviews have claimed that the Maurus X felt rough when sliding across a mouse pad. I did not find this to be the case. It should be noted that the packaging also claims that the Maurus X was designed with MMOs in mind. With its macro capabilities and precise movement, I can see why and had no problems using the Maurus X in EverQuest (it’s the only free to play MMO I have on my PC right now).

The biggest detriment to choosing the Maurus X is that, for slightly more than its $61 dollar price point, there are more robust mousing options on the market. Features like lift-off height, more or less than 800DPI increments of adjustment, etc are not to be found on this mouse and more advanced players may want them.

Overall, the Genius GX Gaming Maurus X gaming mouse is a fine choice for fragging your enemies with. If I were a pro RTS or FPS player seeking additional customization and sensitivity options, I would probably select a different mousing solution. However, for the casual to mid-level FPS or MMO players, you will be very happy with the Maurus X. The Genius GX Gaming Maurus X mouse retails for about $61 dollars and is available at online retailers now.

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State of Decay Review (Xbox 360)

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A feral zombie had been sighted near my base camp. A series of choices open up in front of me; Take a car or head out on foot? Machete or shotgun? Stock up on painkillers or travel light in case I find prize loot? Every option must be carefully weighed, lest I find myself unprepared should my car attract a horde or my weapon break at the least opportune moment. This is the balancing act that State of Decay walks masterfully.

State of Decay, premiere effort of newcomers Undead Labs, offers a different gaming take on the zombie apocalypse. Yes, we’ve had zombie games come before. Left 4 Dead got our adrenaline pumping with its run and gun blood fest. Dead Rising gave us a playground of insanity in which to wear cheerleader outfits and wield electrified chainsaws. The Walking Dead wrought tears as we risked it all to protect Clementine in one of 2012’s best gaming story lines. None of these, however brilliant they are in their own light, has come close to evoking the terror of barely surviving to see the next day of undead hell in the way that State of Decay presents.

Before I go any further, let me make this perfectly clear: BUY. THIS. GAME.

State of Decay packs more ambition than any game I can think of in recent memory and by and large it pulls it off. If there’s one secret to State of Decay, it’s this: State of Decay is an RPG. Microsoft Studios certainly has been burying the lead there, with a trailer that sets it up as more of GTA: Zombies. Make no mistake, there is definitely a right way and a wrong way to play this game. Choosing your favorite gun and setting out on the open road to be a one man slaying machine? Enjoy not having any fun at all. State of Decay is about the choices that come with the risk and reward inherent in every single decision you make, and boldly going forward as a one man army is about the worst decision you can make in this game.

Everything in this game has its pros and cons, the likes of which lead to a very interesting emergent storytelling. The loud stopping power of a gunshot versus getting in close with a silent melee weapon or risking the noise of driving a car versus the vulnerable stealth of moving on foot, everything is a careful choice to be made. Sure, Fallout and your Mass Effect present a series of options leading to a choose-your-own-adventure style of storytelling, but the Mass Effect and Fallout games have never made me consider things like packing for my trip. If I have to travel across the map to an unexplored area I might do things like pack extra health, bring a gun, or choose a quieter car. The last thing I want to do is try to find supplies if I get overwhelmed, have a weapon break on me, or attract a horde of zombies with the loud rumble of a truck, especially being miles away from any safe zones.

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These choices are important due to the overwhelming fear of death in this game. Dead Rising and Left 4 Dead never really left me feeling threatened by the undead and The Walking Dead didn’t kill anybody unless they had to die for the story to progress. State of Decay features permanent death for your characters. That means that if Marcus, my heavy weapon expert with the cardio of a marathon runner, goes down in the middle of a fight, there are no reloads, no extra lives, no do-overs unless I start the game over again. Marcus is dead, along with all of his skills and experience. The game will instantly save and drop you behind the controls of another survivor in your group. Now, hopefully this survivor won’t be woefully under-powered as the game does encourage the development of everyone in your party. While you only control one survivor at a time, that survivor will eventually fatigue, forcing you to choose the danger of continuing in their shoes or letting somebody else take over for a while.

[quote_left]…overwhelming fear of death…[/quote_left]

Danger lies around every corner in this game. Almost every building, save for some smaller shacks and trailers that cannot accommodate the camera, can be entered. There is always something to explore and loot, and that being said, can be a potential death trap. Scouting a building before entering and having an escape route pre-planned takes importance above all and no matter what you do, never ever call a scout out to loot a building far away from home as they travel on foot and can fall victim to a horde without you there to protect them.

While there is much to be excited for, there are some shortcomings. The game suffers from frequent screen tearing and clipping issues. Zombies get stuck in fences, or worse, occasionally teleport through doors. The frame-rate is capable of dropping during heavy action and there is a noticeable amount of draw distance fog and pop in textures; I once crashed my car directly into a firetruck that hadn’t visually rendered in time for me to avoid it. That being said, this is a $20 downloadable title, a measly 1.6 GB in size, and Undead Labs submitted title update 1.1 within days of the game’s release.

[quote_right]Danger lies around every corner…[/quote_right]

State of Decay is one of the most ambitious titles I have ever played. There are some graphical issues and the story and voice work leave a little to be desired. But absolutely none of this gets in the way of the immersion and fun you’ll find once you start playing. I should have had this review done days ago but I couldn’t, in good faith, leave my survivors to their own devices. I want these people to live to see another day and I can’t wait to get home each night to jump back into the fight with them as I sneak around town finding those rare stashes of medicine so I don’t have to euthanize any more friends who have succumbed to the Black Fever.

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TES V: Skyrim – Dragonborn Review (Xbox 360)

Over encumbered and unable to run having run Warmaiden’s dry of gold after selling unwanted goods. As I stepped out of the blacksmith’s shop intending to head to Breezehome and lighten myself a bit, I was attacked!

Two squid-masked cultists stood in the road, yammering on about me being an imposter. As they unleashed their magic attacks the guards of Whiterun tried to come to my defense but could not withstand the cultists’ barrage. Thus ensued the slowest chase of my life. I cautiously waddled closer, as not to collapse under my own weight. They ran away. Five minutes later and eventually catching both of them under the force of a firebreath shout, they lay dead on the steps of Breezehome. How poetic. Doing a search of their bodies I found a note detailing orders from a “Miraak” and an island called “Solstheim.”

Dragonborn, the third piece of DLC for Skyrim, brings old-school Elder Scrolls fans back to Morrowind and introduces the newbies to what it’s like to live in a giant mushroom. The cultists hail from Solstheim, an island given to the elves of Morrowind by Skyrim ages ago. Solstheim is a wholly different landscape than Skyrim proper. Featuring ashen fields beneath an eternally erupting volcano, homegrown fungal elf villages, and new creatures like the goblin-like Rieklings and Cthulhu-faced Lurkers the island is a welcome vacation from the evergreen forests and tall mountains of Skyrim. Vacations don’t last forever, though, and eventually you’ll have to get to work.

Solstheim is being mentally enslaved by Miraak, an ancient Dragon Priest and the first Dragonborn, who has plans on power and a bone to pick with you. Upon seeking out his temple you will learn of his ties to Hermaeus Mora, get sucked into a book and transported to a tentacle world, and meet the biggest jerk the game has to offer. Yeah, that’s right. Miraak is a jerk. Throughout your travels in Solstheim you will be attacked by dragons, as dragons are wont to do, and you will slay them because that’s how you roll. And then Miraak happens. The first time I didn’t absorb my freshly killed dragon soul I wasn’t paying complete attention and thought it was a glitch. The second time I realized what was going on. Miraak was stealing my dragon souls! That is more than reason enough to seek him out and end him, let alone his enslavement of the island or subjugation of the native Nords in the town of Skaal.

Amongst your time in Solstheim you’ll find an abundance of sidequests in addition to hunting down and murdering that soul stealing scumbag. Dealing with homeless Nords and Riekling squatters? Check. Meeting a new pack of werewolves and buying their fancy rings? Done. Following a treasure map to collect pieces of sweet, sweet pirate booty? Of course. Werebears? Werebears. Dragon mounted combat? Definitely.

Let me repeat that for you…

Dragon mounted combat.

To be honest, I probably could have started and ended this review with those three words. That alone should justify the purchase and download of Dragonborn. While it’s not a truly controllable mount like a horse and it plays more like Panzer Dragoon-lite, you can definitely tame and ride and attack things and fly around on and shoot magic from and generally do all things awesome on a dragon.

Dragonborn is a must-buy for any fan of Skyrim. Its main quest will take about ten hours or so to complete but with a vast area to explore I am now about twenty five hours in and still turning over rocks to see what I can find. New shouts, new enemies, new weapons, new armor, and a giant new area to explore makes the first true expansion to Skyrim worth the wait. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have dragons to ride…

Alan Wake’s American Nightmare Review (Xbox 360)

I am a huge fan of Alan Wake. With its near perfect narrative structure and tightly constructed Lynchian story, Alan Wake quickly became my favorite game of 2010, a go-to recommendation for anybody with an X-Box 360, and arguably one of the most unique games of this generation. With all that said, naturally I became very excited at the prospect of a sequel and have been following Alan Wake’s American Nightmare through every step of its production.

American Nightmare is not a straight up sequel to the original. It is also not a throwaway downloadable cash in. American Nightmare exists in a rarely touched space, not quite a full franchise entry but not an experience to be shied away from either.

Beware: Spoilers ahead!

When we last saw Alan Wake he was trapped beneath the waters of Cauldron Lake. Locked away in the Bird Leg Cabin, he had managed to overcome Mr. Scratch, his dark doppelganger, and break free from the confines of his own mind. As American Nightmare begins, Alan has been missing for two years. Trapped in the Dark Place at the bottom of the lake he is believed to be dead, yet haunting the town of Bright Falls. The urban legend of Wake has given power to Mr. Scratch, who has been cutting a blood trail towards Alice, Wake’s wife. Alan finds himself in the Arizona town of Night Springs where he must stop Mr. Scratch before he can do any more damage.

Those with keen eyes will recognize Night Springs as the fictional, Twilight Zone-esque setting of the TV series that started Wake’s career as a writer. As the first game found Wake living out a novel he doesn’t remember writing, American Nightmare finds Wake trapped in an episode of Night Springs he wrote in his youth.

The gameplay of American Nightmare fares better than in the first game. Alan controls much smoother than he did in the past and the focus is much heavier on action than survival. Alan no longer has to scrounge for supplies as he is almost constantly armed to the teeth. Ammo respawns in emergency boxes throughout the game and it all helps lead to a much quicker pace this time around. The Taken, enemies from the first game, are back with new types including Taken who split and multiply upon being hit with light and a Taken who can disperse into a flock of birds at any time. The enemies are much more aggressive and quick to surround you but the benefit of weapons like assault rifles and combat shotguns make enemy encounters much more fun and exciting.

The story moves at a decent pace, save for some odd writing and voice acting. New game mechanics are introduced with the manuscript pages to be found this time around. The amount of pages you’ve found allow you access to new and more powerful weapons. Manuscript pages also lead to Alan’s newfound ability to rewrite reality. By matching environmental conditions to what is found on the page, Alan trial and errors his way towards success. You’ll find yourself revisiting the same locations to get things perfect. American Nightmare, being a downloadable title, only has so much space to fill and it shows. Alan finds himself caught in a time loop and it allows for much more value to be squeezed out of what amounts to only three locations. What could get stale doesn’t, however, as the game moves quickly and you often respawn into new loops closer to objectives, preventing you from getting bored.

Newly added to American Nightmare is an online leaderboard based horde mode called “Fight Till Dawn.” Showcasing the refined combat of the single player campaign, Fight Till Dawn tasks you with staying alive through ten minutes of relentless onslaught while you wait for the sun to rise and vanquish the Taken. Weapons unlocked in the campaign can be used in any of the five maps of Fight Till Dawn and to succeed you must night only survive, but fight your enemies. Combat multipliers quickly rack up points and the only way to earn these mulitpliers is to seek out a fight.

Alan Wake’s American Nightmare isn’t a straight sequel. It’s a diversion that wraps up some of the loose story elements introduced in the two DLC chapters of the first game. While its writing may lack in some spots and its story may get a little hard to follow, all you need to do is collect pages. They help to clear up the story a bit and give you access to some heavy duty firepower for Fight Till Dawn, some of the most fun I’ve had in this series yet. While it may be a confusing entry point for those new to the series, American Nightmare is a rewarding experience for fans of the first game.

Gotham City Impostors Review (XBLA)

Gotham City Impostors is a rare breed. Coming along mere months after the critically acclaimed and long anticipated Batman: Arkham City, Impostors offers you a skewed look at the Batman universe through a pair of mentally imbalanced eyes. Playing as either a member of the ‘Bats’ or the ‘Jokerz,’ two street gangs taking after their favorite costumed celebrity, you will find yourself running and gunning through the streets of Gotham in an inspired and satirical FPS.

“His is the path of righteousness, ours is the path of cordite and home-brew explosives.”

The game is spawned from a four issue story from Detective Comics (#867-870) wherein the Joker drugs Gotham City, causing mass hallucinations leading to Batman inspired maniacs who protect the innocent and Joker inspired madmen who want nothing more than to cause damage to the city. Upon jumping into the game, you’re treated to a brief intro level where the leader of the Bats, known only as ‘Sir,’ and his dimwitted second-in-command Marvin welcome you to the good fight and introduce you to the game’s mechanics.

If you’ve played Call of Duty, Battlefield, Bioshock, or any of the infinite first person shooters that dominate the current generation of gaming, then you’ll be right at home with Gotham City Impostors. The controls are immediately familiar save for a brief learning curve in timing some special moves. You are privy to roller-blades, glider wings, spring shoes, and grappling hooks to help you move about the map. Weapons range from the standard shotguns and machine guns to pipe bombs and PVC rocket launchers. The game plays fast and cartoony, both due to the weapons and travel options, and there is rarely any downtime to the action.

The game plays host to five maps, all of them highly vertical and full of locations immediately recognizable to fans of the comics. Alongside five maps you get three main game types. You have your standard team deathmatch, capture the flag, and king of the hill. On top of the multiplayer there is also a challenge mode to help grind for additional experience. Get ready to spend the majority of your time in straight up death matches, however. Over the last week or so of playing the game I have had difficulty filling up a lobby in either of the other multiplayer games types.

Experience points earned throughout the game can be used for a number of different purchases. You can unlock new costume pieces for your characters, new mascots that float above your head, different load-outs, and even customizable ‘calling cards’ that pop up on the screen of anybody unlucky enough to die by your hand. In an interesting move reminiscent of mobile gaming you can unlock items both with experience earned in-game or through micro transactions, paying real world money for the right to unlock items.

Gotham City Impostors is not revolutionary by any means. But it is a whole heap of fun. It is a multiplayer game that wouldn’t fit in with any current Batman game on the market while not being robust enough to be its own full retail release. This is a prime example of what a downloadable title should be, however. It is a fun idea packed with insane humor and something you should definitely download if you’re looking for a change of pace from the more serious FPS offerings out there.

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning Review (PS3)

Okay, let me try this again…

I got most of the way through my first review of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning by the time I got a call from my editor asking for a progress update. We talked over the game for a bit and I found myself admitting to feelings that were very contrasting to the way my review was piecing together. I wanted so badly to like this game. An open world action RPG with deep customization? Right up my alley. It has everything going for it. It’s the first major release from Curt Schilling’s (yes, THAT Curt Schilling) 38 Studios. The game has a tremendous pedigree of talent. New York Times bestselling author R.A. Salvatore crafted thousands of years worth of history for the land of Amalur. Todd MacFarlane, creator of ‘Spawn,’ supervised the art department. Ken Rolston, formerly of Bethesda, served as Executive Designer. Everything was in place for this game to be astounding. Yet something fell flat…

I was having a hard time writing my review of Amalur the first time around because I simply didn’t find myself with any passion for the game. The hardest part of playing Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning,  was actually wanting to play Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning!

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning throws you head-first into a world at war. Humans are at odds with the relentless Winter Fey. Amalur is a land ruled by destiny with every man, woman, and child moving towards a predetermined fate. After dying on the battlefield your character is revived through the arcane magics of the Well of Souls, leaving you curiously without a destiny of your own and free to carve out your own fate in the world.

The story is presented through use of cut-scenes and dialogue wheels very reminiscent of Bioware’s popular conversation system. Nearly everyone you come across has something to say or, more importantly, something to ask you to do. Through dialogue you can accept or refuse their quests and be as nice or as mean to them as you choose. Nothing really sticks, however. There never seem to be any long lasting effects of treating an NPC one way or the other and nothing is ever truly gained or lost based on your choices.

That is, of course, if you can find anybody to begin with. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning actually began life as an MMO before making the switch to a single player experience and it shows. The world is often altogether desolate, save for clusters of NPCs gathered around town squares or packed into local pubs. You may come across the odd wanderer between point A and point B but Amalur, in large part, is a very lonely place – and not in the deep and introspective way that Dark Souls is.

In between the cities of Amalur you will, of course, run into all manner of enemies that need a handy slaying. This is one point where I must say Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning shines. Being that you are left without a destiny, you are not tied down to any one character class. Any time you level up, you can choose to take on a new destiny, each with its own perks and bonuses. There are multiple weapon slots available allowing you at any time to have a mix of any of your weapons active and ready to be called upon in battle. Longbows, daggers, swords, hammers, staffs… any weapon can be placed into your primary or secondary weapon slots and used on the fly in combat in addition to any magic spells at your disposal. The combat can be fast and action packed and is a welcome challenge during the long walks between one town to the next.

The environments and character models are fine enough to look at. Everything has a colorful and less than real quality to it, much like the Fable franchise. Character models are often exaggerated and the game has a certain charm in its style. The fantasy world of Amalur separates itself by not looking like anything that would exist in our own world and given time to grow over future titles could become something awe inspiring. The sound design is workable as well. There is a varied cast of voice actors and you will listen to a lot of dialogue before you come across a recycled voice, which is much welcomed when most NPCs in other titles all seem to share a communal voice box.

Amalur does everything that a game should, just not in any stand out fashions. There is nothing inherently wrong with the game but nothing that really hooked me either. There are many fantastic RPGs based on existing licenses that I am familiar with and care about. I just found no real reason to fall in love with this game. It’s definitely worth a rental to see if it’s your cup of tea. I can easily see a first time RPG gamer getting into this title. 38 Studios has been open about their plans for the future of this series. An MMO is touted to be in the works and we’ll have to wait and see if it warrants a return trip to Amalur.

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning faces the very precarious position of launching as a brand new intellectual property directly between two of the biggest RPG releases of recent memory: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Mass Effect 3. Skyrim was released last November and still continues to dominate the hearts and minds of many gamers. Mass Effect 3 is less than a month away and will wrap up an epic trilogy that many people, myself included, have found themselves wrapped up in for countless hours and multiple play-throughs. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is a capable game and does a good job in most areas, just not good enough to get out of the shadow of the titans it’s being launched against.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Review (Xbox 360)

There are various experiences one can have while playing a game these days. You can be told an engrossing story. You can experience a roller-coaster ride of summer blockbuster proportions. You can kill hours with your friends in all-out online war. Skyrim, the latest in Bethesda Softwork’s massively successful Elder Scrolls series takes place 200 years after Oblivion (the series’ previous installment) gives you an experience wholly it’s own. Skyrim gives you the entire world. Sure, games you’ve played before have touted open world gameplay or the flexibility of user choice but you’ve never played Skyrim.

As the game opens, you find yourself in the shoes of a prisoner, as is tradition in Elder Scrolls titles. You have been arrested for illegally crossing the border of the Nordic nation of Skyrim as it teeters on the brink of civil war. Just as your execution is to be carried out a dragon descends from the sky, allowing your escape in the ensuing chaos. That’s where the hand-holding stops. After your escape, you’ve seen roughly thirty minutes of Skyrim and the game seemingly could care less where you go from there. You’re given a little nudge towards the starting point of the central quest line but, outside of that, you’re on your own. Or so you think.

This is all the doing of the Radiant Quest system, promoting NPCs to the role of quest-giver…

First and foremost, Skyrim is a game that values and encourages exploration but never forces it upon you. There are no ticking clocks to race and nothing dictating where and when to go to a far off town. The star of the show here is the game’s new ‘Radiant Quest’ system. I cannot over-emphasize the fact that you can go anywhere and do nearly anything you want – even from the first, breathtaking moments of the game. While you pursue whatever activity you like, the Radiant Quest system is in the background, chugging away. It pokes you in tiny ways, suggests places to go or landmarks to see. You may visit an inn in the city of Falkreath and meet a woman whose husband is being held captive by bandits two cities over. You may be walking down the streets of Winterhold and over hear of a dragon attack near a local farm. This is all the doing of the Radiant Quest system, promoting NPCs to the role of quest-giver in an effort to get out there and explore off the beaten path.

Bethesda has every reason in the world to want to make you explore every inch of Skyrim. This is one gorgeous game. Running on the developer’s brand new Creation engine, Skyrim is a sight to behold. Grass gently swaying in the breeze, the dawn of the Aurora Borealis late into the night, the ripped tendons of a zombie’s neck. These are but a few of the many things to take your breath away. Everything in this game has been crafted with loving detail, from the smallest items in the environment to the architecture of the cities you’ll visit. The world has a believable weight to it and the environments all tell a story. The cities all have a very distinct look and their own identity. Whiterun, for example, is perched atop a hill in the middle of an expansive plain. The city itself escalates up the slopes until finding the majestic castle Dragonkeep at the peak. The whole city gives way to a very Lord of the Rings feel, echoing the horse-centric Edoras from The Two Towers. Other cities may find themselves carved out of a mountain or nestled in the swampland. One thing is for sure, you’ll never see two places that look anything like each other in the entire game world.

Further showcasing the outstanding design of the game are the loading screens. It seems that Bethesda is rightfully proud of the craftsmanship that has gone into creating the game world and as such has chosen to feature movable models of game assets on the loading screens to keep you busy. Most often these are related to whatever you are currently doing, but sometimes it’s just awesome to see the level of detail put into something as small as the head of a mage’s staff.

I’m pleased to report that the Creation Engine is outperforming the previous Gamebryo builds used for Oblivion…

Being that this is a Bethesda title, one might expect tedious load times and buggy gameplay. I’m pleased to report that the Creation Engine is outperforming the previous Gamebryo builds used for Oblivion, Fallout 3 and New Vegas in leaps and bounds. This is a massive game with some 300+ teased hours of gameplay, 60,000 lines of dialogue recorded, and one of the largest game worlds available with hundreds of different locations to explore. That being said, the entire game fits on one DVD. With all this data being compressed onto one disc for the XBox (compared to two discs for Dead Space 2, two discs for Mass Effect 2, and three discs for L.A. Noire) one would expect major bugs to be present, especially given Bethesda’s history. The Pitt DLC for Fallout 3 froze my XBox almost every ten minutes or so. Fallout: New Vegas was almost unplayable at launch due to the number of game crashing bugs. Skyrim doesn’t suffer from these same issues. Gameplay is smooth, in close to fifty hours of gameplay my system only froze once, textures load smoothly and with little to no pop in, and rarely did the game slow down or stutter on me. Load times were acceptable for a game of this size, most of the time clocking in at around twenty to thirty seconds. The Creation Engine is definitely a powerful one (ed.note: I cant wait to see if they are using it in Fallout 4!)

So, exploration is great and the game doesn’t freeze. What about dragons, you say? There has been a year’s worth of hype surrounding this game and most of it has been centered on the chance to fell dragons with your own two hands. Skyrim does not disappoint. Your first real battle against one of these beasts happens about two hours into the main quest line and from then on out dragons will pop up at almost any time. Some of them are tied to quests but most of them will just be found free roaming the world. These are epic battles. My average time taking a dragon down is about fifteen minutes. You’ll stay on your feet, constantly searching for cover, plucking away at the beast with your bow and arrow until it comes crashing to the ground. Once grounded, you charge in to attack and as the dragon dies its soul is released to you.

Dragon souls. Yum!

Dragon souls. Yum! These fuel one of the most exciting new aspects to Skyrim, your “Shouts”. You see, your character is known as the Dovahkiin, or Dragonborn. You have dragon blood in your veins allowing you to understand and use their language. Throughout the world there are ancient dragon words to seek out and the power behind each one is unlocked by absorbing a dragon’s soul. Put these words together and you get immensely powerful magic spells known as Shouts. Shouts offer exciting new combat options, expanding beyond the realm of dual wielding to triple wielding.

Aside from shouts, you can also map attacks to each trigger. Magic in one hand, melee in the other? Sword and shield? Bow and arrow? All powerful two handed warhammer? Any combat setup you can imagine is possible, allowing you to approach battles in the way you see fit. Doing things the way you want to is important in Skyrim, especially since that’s how you’ll level up. Leveling only happens after increasing your skills. Increasing your skills only happens by actually doing things. Put it all together and this is a game that grows around you depending on the way you choose to play it. There was no need to spend skill points to turn my character into a super awesome battle-mage ninja. All I had to do was cast fireballs, use my mace, and sneak around a lot and the game filled in the rest for me. Once leveled up, all I had to do was choose whether to buff out my Magic, Stamina, or Health and choose a new perk for an existing ability. No more stat tracking, just go out and act.

Skyrim is a massive game. The level cap has been set at 50 before any DLC. I have been at it for over 40 hours and I’m only a level 19. I’m already dreading the amount of time it’s going to take me to finish Skyrim. If you’re looking for the best bang for your buck, look no further. Skyrim is for you. Taking the award-winning gameplay of Oblivion and marrying it with a beautiful graphic overhaul and a game engine that won’t crash, Bethesda has made possibly the greatest console RPG of all time. Go buy this game now.

Note: Skyrim was provided for review on the XBox 360. The game was installed to the hard drive to best match the technical experience of playing on the PS3. In this case the XBox 360 install provided better textures, comparable to the mandatory install on the PS3. A day one patch is also available for all platforms to improve stability and performance.

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.