FTL: Faster Than Light Review [PC]

“Captain!” shouted Commander Woolf through crackling of the on-board communications system. “Multiple hull breaches in the rear compartments and I think we’ve got hostiles in th–”

An explosion erupted from the communications console throwing metal bits into the cabin and interrupting the Captain’s first officer. Cursing to himself the Captain flipped a few switches in an attempt to regain access to the sensor array.

It was no use, the system was gone and he was cut off from the rest of his ship.

His environmental systems had been destroyed venting O2 into space. His weapons systems were disabled and his shield generators were fried. The captain knew his situation was grim.

He looked down at the console splayed out before him. The lights were flashing every warning available but he didn’t care about any of them save one. That particular light flashed the ominous warning that signaled the end of his mission and the end of his life.

INCOMING MISSILE

As he looked through the clouded cockpit glass at the rocket heading his way he thought that he should be seeing his life flash before his eyes. His triumphs, his failures, his loves, and his family.

Instead he only saw the future of his people. With his destruction came the demise of his mission and the only chance this intergalactic war would end.

His last thought was of a single grim reality.

There would never be peace.

The missile found its target and all became quiet in the vacuum of space.

The Mission Ends

The Mission Ends

 


 

This is how most of your playthroughs of FTL will end: the complete and utter destruction of your entire crew. Yet for some reason the game compels you to continue sending them to their doom over and over again.

The Jump Selection Screen

The Jump Selection Screen

FTL is a superb “Roguelike-like” game that puts you in command of a starship tasked with the mission to cross the interstellar expanse to deliver a message that will end the rebellion and bring peace to the Federated galaxies. Each playthrough can take anywhere from a couple minutes to about an hour and a half.

The game follows a simple pattern. You choose a star system to jump to where a wide variety of random events occur.

Some are good. You can happen across shops that will repair and upgrade your ship for a small fee or you can stumble across a civilian ship that rewards you after you rescue it from certain doom.

Many are bad. The universe of FTL is a hostile place filled with aliens that want to destroy you and pick your spaceship clean of any materials they can find. Pirates will raid you, slavers will bombard you, and aliens bent on destruction will fill your hull with holes.

Your ship is controlled by energy which you can allocate throughout the ship to power critical systems. If a section is damaged you can reroute that power to other systems while your crew work to repair the damage.

You can find new crew members along your journey to help control your ship and there are a handful of races that have unique abilities. Some have a large amount of hitpoints, some are weak, some produce an energy that charges a single system.

Engaged in Combat

Engaged in Combat. It’s more exciting than it looks!

A large part of what makes FTL so satisfying is that while you may come across similar encounters no two playthroughs are exactly the same. The combination of all the elements mentioned really give you an authentic starship command experience.

The nerve-wracking tension brought on by the “Game Over” screen that roguelikes are famous for really encourage you to try and try again until you beat the game by making it to the end of the galaxy.

TL:DR; FTL is worth the price at 10 bucks and it’s a quick download. It’s a great game you can jump into and jump out of anytime. Give it a go and send that crew to their doom again and again and again and again…

The Liberation of Roma Has Begun: Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood

How do you take a powerful character in a video game and make him weak again? The usual trope is to remove weapons (and possibly skills). Ubisoft did that with Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, but they take it one step farther. They changed the combat.

I’m going to start with what I don’t like about the third game in this excellent franchise. I have never played a game a felt so conflicted. Love it? Hate it? I wish I knew how to quit it.

Combat. The changes to the combat in the game have been getting a lot of praises in the mainstream press. They love it. Certainly, it moves quicker and the “execution” animations are very cool, but I didn’t think the changes were all that necessary. Apparently, I was one of the few who liked the combat in the first two games and was able to master it. It took me a long time to unlearn all those skills and button combinations. Instead of a counter-attack type of affair, it’s become either counter, dodge, or kick with the order of the three listed from least to greatest. You’re going to kick—a lot. “Knee to the gut. Knee to the gut. Knee to the gut. Is he weak enough yet? Nope. More knees to the gut. He’s down? Oh, now I can use my weapon.”

Story.
This is a mixed bag because Ezio’s journey is not all that epic, but Desmond’s is pretty important. If anything, it’s a heavily glorified epilogue to Ezio’s story. He was powerful at the end of AC2, but not as much as you thought. Leonardo is back and he’s pretty much regulated to strictly weapons manufacture and destruction. He’s basically a store. All that cool stuff you worked hard for in the second game? Easy pickings here. Got the moolah? Ca-ching, it’s in your inventory. As for Desmond, I cannot say much because you do play a lot more as him and I enjoyed every minute of it.

100 % synchronization. HATE. Of all the things that Ubisoft added this is the one I dislike the most. Many of the missions have an added bonus requirement that range from incredibly easy to absurd. You can still complete the mission, but you won’t get 100% synchronization (completion) of the memory. Many times I would get within seconds of completing an objective, and I would be spotted by a guard (when normally not) or run out of time. After about 1/3 of the way through the game I basically said “forget it” and just went for mission finishes. (There went hopes of 100% total completion of the game.) Totally demoralizing.

Game progression.
Here’s a synopsis of my evolved thoughts as I played through the game: Neat -> Yes? -> Yes! -> Amazing! -> Game of the Year! -> Huh? -> WTH? -> Not again! -> No! -> Just finish the dang thing. There are a few missions towards the end of the game that take the established game rules and throw them completely out the window. Hyper-alert guards and bosses, Timed runs, and those incredibly stupid synchronization requirements. There’s an endgame weapon that should be the most amazing thing ever and ends up becoming and trial and error device. You have your other weapons on you but you are not ALLOWED TO USE them one bit. A few missteps towards the end diminished my enjoyment a little. The previous titles did rely on trial and error. Why do so now?

Even with all that, I still consider Brotherhood to be one of the better games of the year. Here’s what Iiked:

Mission variation. Even though it is set in one city, this game is HUGE and there are a large number of mission types. It’s never a dull moment traveling from place to place.

Recruiting assassins. Nothing is more pleasurable in this game than whistling while near an enemy and seeing your fellow assassins come from anywhere and stealthily take out a few adversaries. You recruit them, train them, and guide them to being a full assassin. They can die, however. Once an assassin reaches level ten there is a ceremony in your hideout. I had a problem with mine. My first one to do so, reached it during the endgame. A message constantly kept popping up saying I should go there and reward him. However, those endgame missions are closed. You play to the end. In the meantime I used him for one of those absurd missions for help and he died. No problem, I’ll just die and start over from the checkpoint. No freaking dice! I start from the beginning and he’s gone. All that work. Gone. Apparently when an assassin dies it remembers it even before a checkpoint. In the end it’s not a real biggie. Just train more. It’s fun.

Borgia towers.
Climbing towers is a a great mechanic for surveying the terrain. Ubisoft added this neat twist by having some of them be heavily guarded and with soldiers and led by a captain. You must assassinate the captain and then torch the tower to claim it. The ending animation for each one was an awesome stroke of badness as Ezio tosses a torch into the tower and jumps off the top. One caveat. The game has a tendency to show you the towers but then block you off from getting to them. You dies constantly due to going out of bounds of the play area. It’s confusing, especially when there are missions near those towers and you have to go around on an undefined map to get there.

Multiplayer. I think Ubisoft really hurt this title by focusing primarily on the online play in their marketing and interviews. It’s actually a small component of the game. The singleplayer dwarfs it by a longshot. However, In some cases Ubisoft was justified in mentioning it. It is a blast. Basically, it’s stab and be stabbed. It’s slow and methodical and a fine counter to all the twitch multiplayer titles.

Story. Even though I disliked it, I also liked it. (Figure that one out). This game does set the stage for Assassin’s Creed 3 and it’s going to be epic. Do I want to visit Ezio again. No. He’s awesome and my second favorite video game character of all time, but it’s time to move on before he becomes a caricature of himself. Desmond is going to rule.

Final thoughts.

I had more fun playing AC2 than I did this title. I was still thrilled but somewhat disappointed. However, it’s still one of the best titles that I’ve played this year. I believe it to be a must buy, but be warned—especially if you were in love with the previous titles. It is different in some ways. There is nothing like the mythos of this series in video games. It should be experienced.

I played the PS3 version to completion at just around 26 hours. This has got to be the most disjointed review I’ve ever written. My thoughts are still mixed. Awesome but flawed. Flawed but awesome.

A Shattered Experience [Silent Hill: Shattered Memories Review]

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories for the Wii is an interactive book you cannot put down. At times, it’s a book you want to throw against the wall.

A re-imagining of the original Silent Hill, Shattered Memories pits you as Harry Mason. He’s just experienced a car accident outside town and is now looking for his young daughter Cheryl.  With a flashlight and cellphone, Harry traverses the city to, well, wander. This is not a bad thing, per se, because this game is all about atmosphere. The music, graphics, and excellent voice acting add to it.

The city of Silent Hill is seemingly deserted due to an incredible snow storm that is blanketing the area. Harry runs into no one. Well, almost no one. There are a few souls stuck in the snow as well. In an almost linear fashion due to some well placed snow banks, Harry goes from building to building searching for his daughter. Along the way he comes across clues not about Cheryl’s present whereabouts, but more from her past or his past or his wife’s past or some total strangers. (Good luck figuring it all out).

All this confusion is one of the driving forces behind the game. The narrative is superb and the ways the developer used to tell it is probably the best use of the Wii controls to date. Harry’s cellphone is essentially the Wii remote. All the phone calls come through the controller’s speaker. This add an uncanny sense of realism, and just like a real cellphone, it texts, takes pictures, has a GPS, and a contacts database.

HINT: Call every number you see in the game. They are all worth it. Some are pointless to the games progression, but add a lot of life and detail to an empty town.

The remote also acts as a light for Harry. It’s so intuitive that if you can operate a flashlight, you can play this game. Point where you want him to shine the light and it literally works.

As Harry walks around the city in some places a faint trace of static will sound on the controller. Get closer and it gets stronger. Eventually it gets so loud it will squawk and a paranormal event will happen. The game calls these “echos”–traces of something important that happened in the past. On some of them, you can use the camera to take shots of the scene and a ghost will appear in the images. It’s a creepy effect that works.

what a nightmare
With a game like this, there cannot be a sense of danger and in each area Harry experiences a nightmare. The landscape changes, freezes over, and everything turns dark. Harry must then navigate his way out of the area while being chased by humanoid creatures. If they catch up with you, it’s waggle time. The player must shake the remote in the direction the creature is hanging on you.

This really stinks. Many times a player can be overwhelmed by the creatures or end up running in circles by taking numerous dead end paths. Harry never dies, but the sequence starts all over. Get ready for replay city. There were two times in the game I had to walk away from playing for a day or so because it was too much. I was so wrapped up in the narrative that I wanted to get going. I hardly ever consult a walkthrough, but I ended up doing it on both those nightmare sequences. It’s a huge narrative-breaking bummer. The developer should have chosen to continue the narrative with the consequences of being caught in the nightmare as part of the game play. (See Heavy Rain.) They did with every other choice Harry made.

NOTE: The last nightmare sequence is brilliant and what all of them should have been.

this game will profile you–seriously
The major scenes of the game are introduced by the player meeting with a therapist. He’ll ask you questions about violence, sex, gender issues, integrity, and other such areas. This allows the game to profile you and actually changes parts of the game based upon your personality. It also effects a lot of details in the end of the game. (There is one main ending with four minor results–and a traditional Silent Hill goofy ending.) The game even warns you of this at the beginning. It adds a foreboding touch that’s unparalleled in gaming.

It works really well, and I’ve got to admit my ending was really satisfying. A lot of critics lauded this as one of the best endings in a game for 2009. I’d have to agree. Saying anything more would spoil it.

Final Word
This is a game you should play. However, some of the nightmare sequences were almost deal-breakers. Fortunately, if it wasn’t for a walkthrough, I would have never finished it. If this had been played it in 2009 (its release), it would have been in one of my top five titles for that year.

2 Minute Review:Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 (Xbox 360)

DO: Smash mindless peons faces’ as just about any of the Marvel universe’s characters.

TYPE: Action RPG

PLATFORM: PS3, PS2, DS, Wii, PSP

PRICE: (was) $60, now…$27.99

MEAT: (Sorry, for the delay) I posted earlier about picking up this game and, I did. Most of the game is basically repeatedly hitting the same buttons over and over in order to get through a level and in that respect, it doesn’t diverge too much from the first in the series. This time around though there are fusion abilities between the characters which change depending on the character that you are using. The main story is that all of the superheroes are being forced to register their real identities with the government or be imprisoned. Most of the plot follows along those lines and the cutscenes are shown with that theme in mind. Something that I couldn’t decide if it was a plus or a minus to the game was that once I got the character I wanted to use (Thor) I basically was playing the game in easy mode and was able to destroy everybody/everything and wasn’t challenged at all. Now this was towards the end of the game but, I couldn’t help but feel like I should have at least gotten the character earlier in order to enjoy it more.

PERKS: The story starts off pretty good with you having to make a choice which side in the “war” you will join and that choice will impact the rest of the game(for example, you will not be able to play certain characters for most of the game). The cutscenes were just as good in this game as the first which is a big bonus for me because I enjoy a good cutscene. Graphics have leveled up!

SCREAMS: Something that wasn’t the greatest idea but, fit the story, was that you had limited options for which characters you could play because of the side you choose to be on. There were characters on both sides that I wanted to play and I had to play through the story until I could get those characters unlocked. More variety of choices in regards to the story line would have been nice and made the game more varied and not so linear after the initial choice.

VERDICT: Rent. I played through the game once and was working on going through it again but decided not to and just traded it in. The graphics definitely have been upgraded from the first and are done really well but, the long distance that the camera gets from the characters really diminishes the detail and doesn’t do the work justice. This game didn’t hold me as much as the first and I honestly can’t say why. Maybe it was because I didn’t have any friends that had a copy too, which, I feel would have made the game more fun.

[2 Minute Review] Puzzle Agent

Chewing gum is good for you!

Now, I know why they didn’t let you chew it in school.

DO: Fargo meets Professor Layton meets an incredible illustrator

TYPE: puzzle adventure

PLATFORM: PC (Steam version reviewed), Mac, and iPhone (coming soon)

PRICE: $10

MEAT: You are Nelson Tethers, FBI agent with the U.S. Department of Puzzle Research. You solve crimes by solving puzzles. Strangely, the puzzles are not what make this game special. It’s the incredible art style, characterization, and wonderful humor. It’s also backed up with an appropriate soundtrack. The gum? Chewing it helps you solve puzzles. The catch? you have to find some. It’s a rather funny deus ex machina.

PERKS: wonderful 2D animation; great voice acting; compelling story; character depth conveyed in something as little as eye motions; humor; price; creepy atmosphere; excellent pacing; great framing of shots; funny use for bubble gum

SCREAMS: to be a full point-n-click adventure game or better puzzles; to not be so wordy with puzzle descriptions; more puzzle variety; a little longer length than 3 hours; ending? (let’s hope not); make the gum game a hidden picture game; to be a little more difficult;

VERDICT: Buy. Get it now on Steam while it’s discounted for 10%. The title is part of TellTale Games pilot program. If it has a good response, they’ll make seasons of it. Do it. I want more of them!

When It Rains, It Pours [Heavy Rain Review]

Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain for the Playstation 3 is a title that tends to have a polarizing effect on gamers. Love it or hate it, it has generated a lot of discussion. Some deride it as a waste of time–a game that holds your hands with a long cutscene advanced by button presses. Others consider it to be an experience–a game that holds you in its hands through gripping interaction experienced through button presses.

It is the latter view that this gamer holds.

To me, there seems to be at least eight reasons good and bad why this game goes beyond a choose-your-own adventure, beyond the mindless action of popular selling games, and beyond just an interactive movie. Many of these reasons may overlap, but I think, to many, they stand on their own.

First, Heavy Rain is not a game but an experience. The deeper I got into the title, I began to realize that I was not playing the game. I was getting wrapped up in the four protagonists lives, making decisions on not what I think they would make, but more on what I would make if I were them. If you look at the title as a traditional game, you’ll be sorely disappointed. A better approach would be to ask, “What is Quantic Dream trying to get me to do?” Of course, a big question the game asks is, “How far would you go to save someone you love?”

Emotions are conveyed through button presses. This is the convention that sells the title. If your character is expected to do something difficult expect difficult controls. It’s a beautiful thing. Finding the controls frustrating conveys that emotion to you, the player. You feel what that character is feeling. Many critics of the game express that this is horrible controls hurting the gameplay. I don’t agree. This is for the simple reason, that it’s very easy to do the mundane things. Open a fridge door? One simple analog swipe. Climbing through a narrow window while someone is chasing you? Get ready for a lot of button presses.

Sixaxis controls are finally justified. I don’t believe that any other game comes close to the level of playability that Quantic Dream has introduced through the game using motion. Lifting, pulling, and shaking off are wonderfully executed motions. In many instances, these motions happen during a fight or during an intense situation. I caught myself many times grunting at actions and moving the control as if it had weight behind it. It was a weird immersion, but it was immersion.

Character movement is brutal. The game is not totally immerse, however. While many of the actions of the characters are lifelike, walking is disjointed. The control scheme of holding a button to walk is not bad, but the characters tend to move around stiff and erect occasionally turning their heads to look at something. In a lot of cases, their head turning is not humanly possible. Chins going past shoulders when turning and walking up steps is weird.

The narrative is full of cliches, but it is engrossing. There is nothing new here. It’s all been done before. I really cannot say much about this topic without giving anything away. However, Quantic Dream is able to use a mundane beginning that ramps up almost straight up at hour two or three into the title. I “finished” (more on that later) this game in three sittings roughly over ten hours. I think I’ve discussed and thought about it more. This works on a level of fiction that I’ve never experienced before. I felt like I was a part of the game. I was an overseer that lived four different lives.

On another note, I found that I lived my morality through many of the characters. When put in a situation where there were a lot of choices for a character to make I would take the moral high ground. This cost me in some areas in the game, but upon discussing with some other gamers, maybe it didn’t. The game really shines where there is no clear cut area of selection. What do I pick? Which option? If you wait to long to decide, the game picks an option for you or, better yet, you face a difference consequence for not deciding. This forces you to make snap judgments like a real person would. This hurt me in one part of the game because a character did something I did not want them to do. Did I go back and load a previous save?

The save system is for preserving the experience not the gameplay. The answer to my previous question is no. Not ever. There is something about Heavy Rain that causes you to play the title and “damn the consequences.” How many times in real life do we get to go back and remove the bullet (uh…), rewind and say something different, or choose a totally different response to something we decided? I think the same should be true here as well. In the particular instance I accidentally killed a person. I was devastated that I had done that with one of my favorite protagonists. However, it was neat to see that character deal with the guilt. It was more amazing to realize that I empathized with him. In discussing this with many friends who have played the title, not a single one went back when making a mistake. Just as an aside, it was easy for me to make that mistake because all the options where floating around on the screen, they were shaking (to convey the character’s fear) and the option that stuck out was the one big negative choice. This just didn’t happen once in that situation. It happened three times.

Intensity is done right. I’ve played a lot of action and racing games. Although they can be intense, I’ve never had a game get me on the edge of my seat like Heavy Rain. Literally. In two instances, I was standing and my wife had to notify me of it. The visual action, quick time events, music (really superb), sound design (like rain in your house), and narrative combine to make this explosive adrenaline rush.  This happens quite often and in situations that you would not expect.  Many times, I caught myself holding my breath (a big “heh” for those you have played it) or sitting back in my chair feeling my heart race.

Finally, every game is (almost) different. As of this writing, I have five close friends who have completed the game. Each and every experience was different. Each person connected to a different character. Being a father, I felt like I had a strong connection to Ethan, the character who’s son is kidnapped. I also felt a strong bond to the FBI agent. I wish I could explain what I felt about their respective endings in my gameplay, but I wouldn’t want to spoil anything. There are many different endings to this title and many different ways to get there. Even with just five people, I don’t think we’ve done them all. I would venture to play the game again and make different choices and actions, but I’m afraid that the second run through would be marred because of the emotions, joys, and pitfalls I have associated with the characters now.

Is Heavy Rain a revolutionary game? I don’t know. To me it is. However, it’s not a game but an experience to behold. Time will tell if the world catches on. The first round of DLC certainly kept things going. I’ll continue to follow the rest of the new experiences the game has to offer.

I’ve asked myself and discussed with my wife, how far would I go to save someone I love? The prospects are frightening and I hope I’m never put in that situation, but this game was able to get me to think about it a little deeper. Quantic Dream succeeded in making the title compelling all the way through.

Verdict: Buy.

2 Minute Review – Guitar Hero: Van Halen

A game that needs no introduction

Do: Play as the legendary band Van Halen

Type: Music Rhythm

Platforms: Playstation 2, Playstation 3, XBox 360 (Reviewed), Wii

Price: $59.99 PS3 and XBox 360, $49.99 PS2 and Wii

Meat: Not unlike Guitar Hero: Metallica, this is yet another band specific Guitar Hero release but with the ability to play all the instruments. Although after Guitar Hero: Aerosmith I said I would stay away from band specific games I am a huge Van Halen fan and I actually didn’t pay for this game. As part of ordering Guitar Hero 5 I received this free.

For anyone familiar with the Guitar Hero formula they should be instantly familiar with the game, though in many ways this game is a throwback and feels wrong after playing Guitar Hero 5. Despite some of the improvements made in Guitar Hero 5, which were carried over into Band Hero, Van Halen is clearly using a system more akin to the earlier Guitar Hero: World Tour. This just seems odd given its release date and the improvements made to Band Hero which was also released after Guitar Hero 5.

Also disconcerting is the total lack of reference to former band members Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony, or any songs that were sung by Sammy Hagar for that matter. C’mon guys! I know that David Lee Roth’s huge ego doesn’t like to acknowledge the band was actually successful while he was gone, but “Why Can’t This Be Love?” is a Van Halen classic! 5150 was a great album and it’s total exclusion is glaring to any Van Halen fan.

In fact, that seems to be the biggest problem with the game. It seems to be focused around the egos of Eddie Van Halen and David Lee Roth without any concern over fan expectations. It’s like every distasteful thing fans have put up with who loved their music but presented in videogame form.

Perks: Overall it’s a great selection of music that covers some of the classic Van Halen hits. Without a doubt the opening song should be and is “Panama” which will thrill most fans and is the perfect introduction to Van Halen’s musical style for those that didn’t grow up with their music.

For a band that has often focused on how great a guitarist Eddie Van Halen is, the other instruments are not ignored. There are challenging drum sections, vocals, and bass chords throughout different songs. The game is very guitar focused, but that should be expected given the source material.

Screams: At this point though I am tired of the idea that the other songs have anything to do with Van Halen. After Beatles: Rock Band I think its safe to say that either a band is strong enough to represent themselves based on their own music catalog or not.

Here’s another big problem with the game. Despite the fact that Guitar Hero and Rock Band have both moved away from doing cover versions and moved on to master tracks, some of Van Halen’s songs are covers themselves. “You Really Got Me” and “Pretty Woman”, both made famous by their original artists, are presented as Van Halen’s work. Considering the nature of these games, these seem like odd additions.

Overall, the game really was released too late. Some of the better known Van Halen songs should have been released sooner when Guitar Hero was only about guitar and bass and simply included with earlier releases. Part of the problem with Guitar Hero: Van Halen, is that they may not be strong enough to carry their own game. Maybe they are, but they would have to be willing to use the whole of their music catalog instead of pretending certain events didn’t happen.

Verdict: PASS – There is not enough of a game here to justify a purchase and I wouldn’t even bother renting. Many of the stronger non Van Halen songs are available as downloads in Rock Band already. This should not have been a full game.

Requiescat in pace: Assassin’s Creed II

6a00e3982444028833012876115b64970c-800wiIn some video games there comes a time where you know that you are going to be in it for the long haul. I remember relentlessly playing Wildstar and even though Killer Guides published a Wildstar class guide, it took me a little longer than expected to find a stopping point. No other game will be played until this one is done. No TV. No Internet. Nothing.

For me it was when the protagonist of Ubisoft’s recent game, Assassin’s Creed II, stumbled while climbing up a building near the beginning of the game. With literally no weapons and assassin’s outfit, I knew that this was going to be somewhat of an evolution story. Ezio was a rookie. He didn’t even know his father’s lineage — what his father truly was in the family controlled city-states of Renaissance Italy.

In the previous game, you played as Altiar an ancestor to Ezio. However, you started that game as a complete assassin. It’s not so this time around. In what amounts to the first underpinnings of the Italian mafia (Ezio’s accent even reminds you of east coast mafia movies), you’re just nothing but a street-brawling, womanizing son of an upper-middle class family. Just what is it that daddy does?

He’s an assassin.

More importantly, he’s a protector of the “Truth” behind the Garden of Eden and its famed forbidden fruit.

Oh, from here on out I must warn you. This will not be a completely spoiler free review. I don’t give too much away like specifics, but there is a game progression.

Inconceivable…

Technically, you’re not playing the game as Ezio, but you are actually playing the game as Desmond who is in turn playing as Ezio. Confused? Baby, you’ve seen nothing yet. Desmond is also an ancestor of Altiar who lives in a very near future from our own. Apparently, a certain group of scientists (we’ll call them the evil Templars who suppress the truth and use it for their own gain) have discovered that the memories of all our ancestors reside in our DNA. They’ve created technology that lets someone “re-live” their ancestors past.

In the first game, these Templars have abducted Desmond (because by genetic makeup alone he is an enemy) to learn the truth behind some historical events that did not go their way. Namely, they are looking for pieces of a device that when separated are pretty powerful but combined well, it’s not pretty. They want to combine it.

This time around it’s a day later for Desmond and he’s on the run with another assassin descendant, Lucy. Conveniently, they have a portable animus with better features — literally called Animus 2.0 — and Desmond needs to jump back into another ancestor’s memory. We return to Ezio. Thank goodness — for now.

Family Ties

Ezio is a bit of an uninspiring bumbler. The second oldest of four children, he pretty much lives off his family’s wealth and has almost no ambition in life except for wine, women, and song. this is where you begin.

And the beginning may take up to four hours. In what possibly may be be the longest interactive narrative and tutorial for a game ever made we get to learn along with Ezio how to climb buildings with ease, fist fight, and equip some armor. His motivation? In a surprising turn of events dear old dad and his two brothers are arrested for treason (think only one outcome), mommy goes into a state of shock, and sis decides grow brain and become the family accountant.

Only at the end of the memory sequence (think levels) when Ezio dons the traditional assassin blade do you realize that he now has a motive, mission, and will to live. We get to follow him over the course of twenty years discovering who he was along the way all the while stabbing people. Lots and lots of people.

For someone who may be well versed in the controls and playability of the first game the opening sequences of this title may be a bit of a bore. It’s saving grace is the wonderful opening narrative that sets the tone for Ezio and his surrounding environment. By the time Leonardo da Vinci fabricates your assassin blade for Ezio and then makes another one for him you know that you want to experience the full effect of being an Italian Assassin.

Big Time BFFs

Leonardo? In one of Ubisoft’s best moves, da Vinci becomes a confidant and gadget maker for Ezio. The scenes and missions with him are truly enjoyable. Towards the end of the game, you realize that Ezio would do anything for Leo. Renaissance bosom buddies. In other words, da Vinci would be Ezios wingman, but Ezio would not be his. They do mention that little known orienttion of the Italian genius, but it’s very minor.

Over the course of the next twenty-five hours (and twenty in-game years) Ezio assassinates, races, follows, climbs, and learns more about how Italian politics is really nothing compared to the conspiracy pulling their strings. Everyone wants a piece of the take even when they don’t truly understand what that “piece” is.

It’s a fixer-upper

Ezio cannot be an assassin all the time and that’s wonderfully handled in the family villa. You restore it to its former glory by collecting items (that have meaning and worth this time around) investing in the village surrounding the city, collecting art from the various cities, and investing in new weapons and armor.

Speaking of income, Ezio is also a little bit of a thief. He can steal from almost anyone, loot dead bodies, and take money from various treasure chests all over the place. This adds so much to the character. Altiar had a sense of honor and ideals where he only stole when necessary. For Ezio, it’s more than a necessity. it’s a way of life. As a side note, there are some in the game who can steal from you.

No one ever got away with stealing from me — and they never stole again.

Anything you can do…

There are some other things that Ezio can do that Altiar couldn’t. He can blend with any crowd of two or more people not just monks. He can hire groups of people to do various tasks: thieves harass, mercenaries fight, and courtesans, well, you know, distract. Ezio can throw money on the ground as well to create a mini-riot of pheasants and guards — another excellent diversion tactic. In the areas of fighting, he can bare-knuckle almost any opponent and disarm them eventually using their own weapons against them.

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There are a lot of weapons is this game, but really only two or three matter. The rest are good for one or two fights to see what they do and and then they’re off to the weapon’s room in the villa for display. The same goes for armor.

The amazing thing about the final armor and weapon is that they have this almost epic quality in their use. The task of solving six assassin tomb riddles to acquire the gear is one of the highlights of the game — but the last tomb is one of the worst frustrations. Timed events with clunky wall — running control is not a winner.

All roads lead to…

The end of the game has you facing the most powerful person in the known world at that time. It actually was a little bit of a shock (And also relied a little too much on Hollywood end-movie cliche.) However, by this time Ezio has discovered who and what he his. His mission is in full effect. Revenge and free will preservation are his motives–even if he fully doesn’t understand a lot of the history behind it.

We do get to see the history in its full glory. There’s one line delivered by a key character in the end that’s not directed to Ezio but to someone else that has a huge impact on the future of this da Vinci-code laden universe. I suppose that I should have seen it coming but it took me by surprise. “No. Way.” is what I think I uttered.

The only problem with the narrative is that we are left with Ezio in the dark. This may not really matter because all this time the story has been about Desmond. See, there’s this bleeding effect that the Animus has: the patient starts to learn the skills of their ancestors.

Any guess as to who the next assassin in the third game may be?

Next time on in search of…

On a final note, the historical detail behind the cities and their prominent features is amazing. Every painting you collect is real and includes a description of the piece and its artist. I don’t believe that the Renaissance is an area that’s been fully explored in a game setting before. Ubisoft are truly masters of putting you in the place of interesting underused time periods when it’s late fifteenth-century Italy or the time of the crusades. The cites in Assassin’s Creed II are alive with people not just walking around but drunk, playing games, celebrating Carnivale (amazing!), painting walls, carrying all sorts of textiles and produce, and trying to hawk a few florins from you with a song (hint: steal from them instead).

After every assassination, Ezio shows the life he has just taken some respect by uttering the phrase, Requiescat in pace. It essentially means rest in peace. The story may be over for Ezio at the end of Assassin’s Creed II (actually there will be some DLC that’ll fill in some gaps in the memory timeline), but it appears to be just beginning for Desmond.

In the beginning, God…?

I played this game on the PS3 to completion eventually earning my first Platinum Trophy for getting every trophy in the game.

2 Minute Review – Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

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More Modern Warfare!

Do: Continue the story of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

Type: First Person Shooter

Platforms: XBox 360 (Reviewed), Playstation 3, Windows

Price: $59.99 all platforms

Travel to exotic locales, meet new people, and destroy all their stuff

Travel to exotic locales, meet new people, and destroy all their stuff

Meat: Until Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare came out I was not a big fan of the COD series. I won’t go into specifics, I just didn’t particularly care for it. However, Infinity Ward won me over at last with COD4 and I played through many of the single-player missions multiple times and found the multi-player to be a welcome respite from Halo 3’s infuriating design decisions. However, one observation I had about COD4 was that it was essentially two games. An excellent single-player story that had all of its art assets and underlying engine reused for the multi-player portion. This is not a complaint, as I found myself perfectly happy with each “game”, though I would like the two to have crossed a little more.

Unfortunately, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 does little to alleviate this. If you’ve played COD4, you’ve played MW2. As a bonus commentary, if you’ve played COD4 you’ve also played Call of Duty: World At War, just with a different time period and weapons. Essentially you’ve got the single-player game with a strong story focus and almost frustratingly linear level design and a strong multi-player component that practically exists as its own game. As a bonus, there are the new “Special Operations” missions that use many of the single-player and multi-player maps for specific game types, all of which can be played co-op and some can not be played single-player at all.

From a technical standpoint the game is near perfect, which is not much of a compliment since COD4 was already polished to a mirror shine. There are some graphical improvements, especially in the weapon models, but the game will feel very familiar if you’ve played its predecessor.

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Also, you can just hang out

Perks: Without a doubt this game is about as close to technical perfection as you can get in a contemporary first person shooter. I’m sure you could harp about even more photo-realistic graphics or greater audio fidelity, but in terms of how the game works it’s as good as it needs to be and that’s all I ask.

The single-player story is well designed, at least from a level perspective. They have greatly improved enemy encounters by removing the ridiculous infinite “spawn closets” that enemies used to appear from until you passed a checkpoint. Combat is frantic and remains an adrenaline fueled affair. I want desperately to enjoy the fight itself in a first person shooter, and the Modern Warfare series has yet to disappoint.

Some nice additions to the game are the new weapon attachments, like the heartbeat sensor and thermal site. Both add new tactics to the game and yet are not without their own limitations. The breaching mechanic, while simplistic, never seems to get old. When you breach a wall or door the game goes into a slow motion “bullet time” which allows you to act quickly to prevent the execution of hostages or counter-ambush enemies that were lying in wait. I think they did this just enough to keep it from getting old.

The Special Operations missions are a nice touch and add some replayability if you’re one of those people who don’t enjoy replaying their favorite single-player missions. The Special Operations range from holding off waves of enemies, vehicle chases, single-handedly wiping out enemy forces, and stealth missions. A nice co-op mission allows one player to be the AC-130 gunner while the other player coordinates on the ground.

Multi-player remains the same but with more options. At last you can use more than one weapon attachment and they’ve added additional perks and challenges to keep the on-line portion attractive to the compulsive obsessive. The underlying system remains the same so the learning curve is not steep even with new perks, attachments, and killstreaks. They have done a much better job of balancing the different options available to the players, removing the controversial juggernaut ability and limiting the use of matyrdom. In my own opinion I found the whining about these perks more annoying than their usage in COD4, but the changes have not adversely affected on-line play in the least.

Be polite. Be efficient. Have a plan to kill everyone you meet

Be polite. Be efficient. Have a plan to kill everyone you meet

Screams: Here’s where you need to hold onto your hats, kids, because I’m going to say some very bad things.

Despite my earlier comments about the “No Russian” mission, the rest of the story is a bust after that point. There is no emotional payoff and the rest of the story is more like an alternate history novel than a Tom Clancy knock-off. Despite the criticism of COD4 as a poor Clancy-esque novel, I liked it. The whole concept was plausible and barely utilized my suspension of disbelief. The new story makes some ridiculous leaps, is overly reliant on plot contriavances and macguffins, and some plot elements are relayed in the middle of firefights so you might miss them completely.

While I appreciated COD4’s careful balance between realism and playability, I always felt they kept it just realistic enough that I didn’t feel like I was in an 80’s action movie. Firing from the hip was inaccurate, I didn’t have a health bar, and everyone seemed to be using regionally appropriate weapons. All of that is out the window in MW2. Russians are using weapons that make little sense for them to have, Brazilian gang members are using primitive and oddly high tech weapons at the same time, and US forces come the closest to reality in a “future force warrior” sort of way but still possess an odd amalgation of weaponry. You now have weapons that can be dual-wielded, which might look cool throws any sense of “reality” right out the window.

Also, the game is ridiculously hard. As a compensation for the removal of infinite spawn closets, enemies just start out ridiculously numerous and volleys of bullets will shred you to pieces even on the easiest of difficulty levels. Some of the Special Operation missions seem to be intently focused on being played co-op despite the ability to play them single-player. None of this is insurmountable, but the game can be needlessly frustrating at times. Especially in light of how well balanced COD4 was regardless of skill-level.

A further problem is that none of this ties into the experience you earn in multi-player. Experience points used to unlock new perks, weapons, and equipment is all kept seperate. Want to play local split-screen? Fine, but those experience points only count towards split screen play. Special Operations also does not help you advance. Wait? What? One of the driving forces behind Call of Duty multi-player is the ability to rank up and earn new stuff. Why bother playing on-line if it doesn’t help me advance? You give players the option of doing special operation missions but their is no real payoff for doing them. All you get is…more special operations missions?

I could forgive this system in COD4, but after Rainbow Six Vegas 2 allowed you to earn experience both on and offline I don’t see the point of it. The problem is I want to unlock the different weapons and I want to use them all the time. Single-player or multi-player. I don’t want to be forced to interact with foul mouthed cretins to fully play your game, Infinity Ward. The way the game is designed they have nullified the whole point of doing special operations except for a tiny subset of people who don’t want to play with aforementioned foul mouthed cretins but will still venture to do on-line multi-player with friends who don’t mind getting nothing for their efforts other than bonding time with good buds.

As for the main multi-player portion itself, while the different weapons and abilities are more finely balanced I was worried that the additional killstreak options would further tilt the game towards the more experienced players. The biggest weakness of COD4’s multiplayer was its lack of good matchmaking by skill. This becomes an even bigger problem in MW2 since additional killstreak rewards just tip the scales further towards players who are doing well. This makes MW2 the least newbie friendly game released yet.

Furthermore, Infinity Ward has disabled party chat in some game modes in order to “encourage players on the same team to work together”. This was a huge mistake, as many players relied on party chat to avoid the large number of players who tended to use racial slurs or the idiots who would sing incessantly during a match. Instead I find myself unable to play those modes with friends and when I do play I have the microphone muted and the volume turned down. Well done, Infinity Ward, instead of encouraging teamwork you’ve turned a good portion of your player base into virtual hermits. I have noticed far fewer headsets plugged in during games then before. Previously, people without headsets were the minority, now they are the norm. Clearly something is going wrong.

Verdict: RENT – Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is a well polished shooter and worth renting, if just to see the fate of the various characters from the previous game and to enjoy the combat and various “toys” available. If you’re not an existing Call of Duty fan then you will likely not feel any need to play the game beyond the single-player game and maybe a handful of Special Operation missions.

Flakwolf – Stop getting ripped off.

A while back, I was contacted by the owner of Flakwolf, a new site looking to make a name for themselves in the online game trading business.

I know there are already a lot of trading sites out there (CAG has a pretty solid system) but I never took the plunge myself into any of these services. After having been low-balled (AGAIN) by Gamestop, trying to trade in some games, I decided to give Flakwolf a try.

It’s a fairly simple trading system, with a twist. Most trading sites have you list what games your looking for and what games you have to trade, and try to facilitate the transaction. Ultimately, most of these sites leave the final details to the users, which consists of sending a game through the mail, hoping your trader reciprocates and sends you yours. With Flakwolf, they give you the added option of limiting your trading options to someone close to you, so you can facilitate the trade locally, in-person. Some may be hesitant to meet a complete stranger to perform the trade, but anyone who’s done a local transaction from eBay or Craig’s list knows it’s actually not that big of a deal.

I decided to give it a try. The system is pretty straight forward. You list a game you want to offer. Each title is assigned a “Tier” based on how popular or in-demand the game is. You can list multiple titles. Eventually someone will be interested in a game you’ve listed and request it. You send the game along and the site credits you with the trade. You can then turn that credit around and request a game of the same Tier you traded for. Pretty easy, right?

My experience was very enjoyable. I listed my copy of Chronicles of Riddick, which rated out as a “Tier 2″ game. Shortly thereafter, someone requested my game, so I exchanged emails with the requester for address info. I sent my copy of Riddick to him, and he acknowledged receipt of the game at the site. I was credited with one “Tier 2″ credit, meaning I could request any available Tier 2 titles. I decided I wanted to give Call of Duty: Modern Warfare a try, so I requested an available copy. Unfortunately, a couple days passed and the guy who offered up MW never acknowledged the trade, so I was prompted (by the site) to pick another title. I decided on Pure and promptly got an email from the owner of Pure to arrange the trade. Since we weren’t local to each other, we agreed that he would ship the game to me and a few days later Pure showed up in my mailbox. Everyone lived (and gamed) happily ever after.

You can read more about Flakwolf at GameGirl.

I highly recommend it and suggest you give it a try. And let us know if you do, we’d love to hear how it worked out for you.