Problematic platforming and awkward action add up to crummy adventures for Zack Zero.
- Outdoor areas can be visually appealing.
- Rough movement mechanics
- Flawed environmental design
- Unbalanced combat
- Banal story and awful voice acting
- Constant, intrusive pop-ups.
You may not have heard of Zack Zero, but you know the type: a hard-working space ranger who defends his planet against hostile aliens using his powerful supersuit and likes to take his lady on vacation. After an unusually bad voice actor describes the abduction of said lady by said aliens, our typical hero embarks on a bland adventure packed with clunky platforming action. Zack’s herky-jerky jumps make it a chore to navigate the perilous levels where legitimate hazards and design flaws are equally threatening. His suite of elemental abilities fuel some flashy combat and light puzzles, but both are burdened by problems that keep either from being entertaining. While the environmental design makes some levels pleasant to explore, Zack Zero is too fraught with shortcomings to make it worth the trip.
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After thwarting an alien conquest attempt and causing the untimely death of the alien leader’s brother, Zack Zero and his beloved Marlene have made themselves a target. Zulrog wants to time travel and regain his lost sibling, which involves kidnapping Marlene for some reason. So Zack sets off to rescue her and, as a secondary objective, save the universe. Zack’s progress is depicted in minimally animated cartoon cutscenes that are narrated in storybook fashion. Unfortunately, the drawings are simplistic and the voice actor is awful, so what might have been a nice treat between missions comes off as a hackneyed mess.
With the aesthetic bar set low, you embark on your travels through alien landscapes. Colorful flora and some good environmental detail make the outdoor areas appealing, though the same can’t be said for the stock sci-fi interiors, which are full of shiny metal and neon lights. Some areas benefit from a nice sense of depth, and the two-dimensional path you walk occasionally winds into the foreground or background, further enriching the environment.
Unfortunately, Zack Zero takes this effect one step too far. In some areas, you can jump into the background to traverse platforms, as you can in Little Big Planet 2. Yet that game had a distinct sense of switching between two planes, whereas Zack Zero’s maneuvering is much more muddled. You might fail to shift position sufficiently despite inclining the analog stick properly, turning your jump to a recessed platform into a fall to your doom. The visual cues that signal such jumps are inconsistent and the separation between planes is not clean, so you may think a hazard has moved safely into the foreground when in fact it can still damage you. Though it sometimes looks pretty, visual depth fails to translate into a coherent gameplay mechanic, and the action suffers for it.
Not that the action does well on its own. Zack can jump and double-jump, but he is a graceless fellow. He shoots into the air abruptly, but his trajectory plunges sharply about three-quarters of the way through, which can cause some frustrating deaths until you get the hang of it. Furthermore, the double-jump timing is inconsistent; sometimes you can initiate his second jump at or after the apex of his leap, sometimes not. This makes negotiating hazards more difficult than it should be, a problem that is exacerbated by intermittent visual bugs (strong updrafts that shoot you into the air may not appear but can still fling you sky-high).
In addition to environmental hazards, Zack must fight his way through various enemies using the powers of his suit. The four states of his suit (normal, fire, ice, stone) each offer different abilities that can be used to destroy enemies and better navigate environments. Fireballs and heavy stone punches are good for destroying enemies, while the freezing tornado and blinding explosion can help you manage crowds. Fire-surfing through the air and slowing down time with your ice power are essential navigational tools, but almost every elemental action drains power from your suit. You have to watch your automatically regenerating bar to make sure you don’t run out of juice at an inopportune moment, though the normal attack ensures you are never without a weapon.
Though you can always attack, you are likely to wish for more defensive options. Zack is not a very durable hero, and a few hits from your enemies are enough to send you back to a previous checkpoint. There is no way to block or deflect enemy attacks, so evasion and attack are your only tools. You have to be extra diligent about dodging, though, because the hit detection is such that even if there is a visible distance between you and your enemy’s weapon, you can still take damage. The visual-depth confusion also becomes an issue in combat because enemies coming in from the foreground or background can target you. Zack will sometimes automatically target them, sometimes not. Additionally, attacks that deal area damage may kill enemies on one plane but not the others that are adjacent on another plane. Inconsistent mechanics put an extra strain on Zack’s fragility, making combat doubly frustrating.
Assiduous use of your varying abilities is the best way to survive in a fight, and you can combine certain effects, like blowing up a frozen soldier with a fireball. These attacks still have the same basic effect, and it’s a shame that they aren’t used more cleverly, but combo attacks will net you a neat little point bonus. Online leaderboards offer an outlet for competition, but Zack Zero implements them in a glaringly intrusive way. While playing, pop-up messages frequently notify you of the score leader on your current level, as well as the overall score leader. These messages pop up roughly once every 60 seconds. When you add in separate notifications for your friends list, not a minute goes by without some kind of score popping up onscreen. The only way to disable these constant intrusions is to sign out of the PlayStation Network.
There are other problems that plague Zack Zero, such as invisible walls and a level-up screen that interrupts whatever is going on onscreen, regardless of the danger you might encounter. There are precious few elements in the game that are not hindered by flaws, which make it more difficult to play and enjoy. Yet even without these problems, Zack Zero lacks the appeal and ingenuity found in many other downloadable platformers. At $12.99, Zack Zero is overpriced, underdeveloped, and outclassed.
Under Siege provides quick real-time strategy battles, but overly tough difficulty and a lack of depth prevent the game from being a complete success.
- Quick pace in the challenging campaign levels
- Nice unit balance and smart use of the rock-paper-scissors formula
- Great RTS control schemes for both gamepad and Move
- Good range of extras like multiplayer and a level editor.
- Not a great deal of strategic depth
- Campaign levels can be a little too difficult, even on the easiest setting
- Just a handful of unit types.
When is a real-time strategy game not a real-time strategy game? When it’s Under Siege, a PSN exclusive that provides enough of the genre’s flavor to draw in fans, but not enough of the unit variety and tactical depth that usually come with these sorts of games. Portuguese developer Seed Studios has done some very good things with this freshman effort when it comes to dishing out some quick, tough battles and providing a great control scheme, but the result isn’t all that it could be because it’s light on strategizing and heavy on difficulty.
Veterans of RTS games will find Under Siege a little light when it comes to story, feature set, and tactical demands. The story behind the campaign is a poorly told saga about a steampunk-ish fantasy land in the midst of a civil war and a monster invasion. You take the side of rebels battling the nasty totalitarians running the Citadel, but everything gets mashed up when mysterious creatures enter the picture and start killing both factions. Most of this potboiler is told comic style with a bit of a kid-friendly anime vibe in the brief cutscenes between levels. There’s a girl who yells a lot, some baby-faced guys who talk about the upcoming fight, and that’s about it. This cliched approach makes the story a bit annoying, although you can skip the dialogue sequences and get right into battles (well, after waiting through some fairly lengthy load times).
Battles are mostly short and brutal. In general, the campaign plays out a bit more like a hack-and-slash role-playing game with a few tactical elements than a hardcore RTS. The focus is on straightforward trudges from start to finish with a limited number units, killing everything you encounter. There is no resource management or base building. Each level starts off with you filling up a handful of deployment points with units. Some, such as basic human soldiers and archers, come in squads of three, while more powerful units like the gunner step into scraps solo. Everything depends on the gold in your coffers. If you’re coming off a big victory, you have plenty of loot to use for recruiting new units and bolstering the strength of combat veterans. If not, you might have to struggle through with few reinforcements. This can lead to real problems as you go through the chapters in the campaign, because early unit losses and the high cost of replacements can combine to send you into levels with too few troops to have a chance of winning.
There are just nine unit types available in Under Siege. These range from basic archers and sword-wielding soldiers to those aforementioned weird giant frog things and mages who can project giant shields. Each unit comes with a special ability, such as mass healing. Unit balance is great, however. Nothing here is overpowered, and an impressive rock-paper-scissors formula is in full effect. There are just enough different units present to give the game a sliver of tactical depth, although this usually means that you need to do something relatively rudimentary, such as kill an enemy gunner who is tearing up your troops from a distance with his mortar-like cannon. Troops stay with you until they die, gaining experience all the while, so you have a sense of building a real army over the course of the campaign. Specific unit progression is not emphasized, however, aside from “Level Up” notices during battle.
Extreme challenge even on the easiest difficulty setting is probably the most noteworthy aspect of the campaign. You can, and probably will, lose each level numerous times before finally emerging victorious. Generally, you get overwhelmed by the sheer number of enemies that you have to face, or you are surprised later in a level by a foe or group of foes that you can’t defeat without deploying units of a specific type. In the last moments of the last level of the first chapter, for instance, you have to suddenly take on a giant robot boss that makes mincemeat of the usual unit mix you’ve deployed to this point in the game.
With that said, the difficulty isn’t so extreme that you’ll give up. If anything, it pushes you to keep trying and serves as a fairly effective way of drawing you into the campaign. The lack of a proper save-anywhere feature adds frustration, though. The game doesn’t save at checkpoints, even in lengthy levels with multiple troop deployment stages. If you lose, you go right back to the very start of the level to do everything all over again. Because you generally don’t get killed until the last stages of a level, this leads to a lot of unnecessary repetition. A midlevel save option would definitely have been welcome.
Fortunately, the sting of repetition is lessened by the superb controls. Seed does a great job with both gamepad and Move control schemes. With the gamepad, you can do just about everything with three buttons, the D pad, and the left stick. Units can be grouped, assigned to the directional arrows of the D pad, and hurled into battle with ease. You have to fuss around a bit with individual units, although you are dealing with such limited numbers that this never seems like any sort of onerous micromanagement. The Move controller can be used in the much the same way as a mouse, and lets you control the game much like you would a PC RTS. It works very well but is a bit more tiring and involved to use than the gamepad because you have to wave it in the air. It isn’t in any way necessary to get the most out of the game. You aren’t missing anything by sticking with a good old DualShock 3.
Visuals are good for the most part. The campaign runs through most of the usual earthly terrain features, from snowy mountains to swampy lowlands to empty deserts. Most come with nifty little tricks and secrets, such as ways to do heavy damage to baddies before tackling them head-on. Even though you can beat levels by simply going from point A to point B, a little exploration is usually rewarded with some sort of goodie. The main drawbacks of the presentation are the presence of regular frame-rate hitches that last just long enough to be noticeable (and annoying), and a far-away default camera position that makes it tough to see details, especially on units. Audio is unremarkable. The music is composed of generic martial gaming tunes that you won’t remember a minute after shutting down your PlayStation 3, and there are no voice samples to speak of.
Multiplayer (online and on the same system via split-screen play) comes with a range of game types, such as deathmatch, arena, and co-op. As in the campaign, battles are quick and explosive, with limited numbers of troops in clashes that really ramp up the rock-paper-scissors formula. Units smash into one another almost immediately, making it vital to go into the fray with a smart selection of troops. Field the wrong guys, or just fail to anticipate what your enemy will be using, and the fight will be over quickly. And the game comes with a level editor that wouldn’t be out of place as part of the package in a PC RTS. It is a bit cumbersome to use, but it’s an impressive piece of tech with more than enough features to make the community stand up and take notice. Under Siege is a good game that provides a few quick battles and some very tough challenges. It has some off-putting quirks, but Under Siege can still be a captivating game.
By Brett Todd
Gnarly deaths and cute aliens make for a fun combo in this challenging action game.
- Lots of creative maneuvers to pull off
- Clever rewards for killing swarmites
- High-score hunting is addictive.
- Occasionally brutal difficulty
- Short length.
Considering the objective of most games is to keep the main characters alive, it’s rather entertaining when one comes along that makes intentional death an integral element of the gameplay. While Swarm is a clever action platformer that revolves around sacrificing the few for the good of the many, it takes things a step further by actually rewarding you for killing off the adorable alien protagonists in inventive ways. The bulk of the poor little blue fellows wind up burnt, skewered, asphyxiated, dismembered, and vaporized so that a few of their lucky brethren can make it to the end of each obstacle-filled stage alive with the highest score multiplier possible. Maneuvering a gaggle of 50 little critters through a gauntlet of doom is messy business. It’s a premise that yields both fun and frustration, but the punishment isn’t always unwelcome.
The peculiar blend of morbid and charming action fires up when a giant blue alien organism crashes onto the surface of a mysterious world, extends a vile tentacle orifice, and belches out a gaggle of 50 little swarmites. Controlling all of these squirming buggers at once, you head off into imminent peril to collect DNA to feed “Mama” and make her grow big and strong. Your task is to get as much of your swarm safely to the end of each stage as possible while collecting DNA strands along the way. That’s not easy because every level is bristling with spikes, saws, pits, explosives, unfriendly creatures, fire, lasers, and other traps designed to whittle down your brood. As long as there’s at least one alien left in your group, fallen comrades can be replenished at sporadic swarmite generator stations that are found at strategic spots along the path, but the long stretches in between present numerous opportunities to perish.
Making it to the finish line alive and being reabsorbed by your pulsing parental blob isn’t sufficient on its own; you have to rack up a high enough score to unlock subsequent stages, which is where Swarm’s challenge quickly ramps up. Collecting glowing orbs littered around each course boosts your score, but the multiplier resets if you wait too long in between orbs. While grabbing more orbs before the multiplier meter runs out keeps the chain going, you can also do so by intentionally killing off a few of your swarmites. This creates a precarious balance that has to be maintained because losing too many swarmites can be just as catastrophic as playing too cautiously. It also forces you to keep moving even when the action and danger build to a crescendo. Without the multiplier, it’s impossible to unlock a new stage using the limited orbs available because dying in the middle of a killer run often means having to restart a level from scratch. This can be particularly infuriating when it happens a dozen times in a row, and harder levels will really test your patience. Though the going is often tough, retrying levels again and again until you’ve mastered the tricks needed to overcome them does become addictive.
Despite their tiny girth and large numbers, the swarmites are resourceful creatures capable of performing a few helpful tricks to overcome obstacles and aid in their survival. Holding the L2 button makes the swarm scatter into a larger formation that’s useful for collecting orbs. Holding R2 makes them huddle, and releasing it gives the group a short burst of speed. This is crucial for getting a running start to launch the gang across gaps and over certain traps. When huddled, they can also charge into objects and smash them or climb on top of one another to form a moveable tower. By tapping the circle button, the group can grab objects like explosives or light bulbs and interact with them as well. Altogether, there are a lot of maneuvers to memorize, and it takes some practice to be able to pull them off when you’re charging through a level at high speed.
Swarm’s high replay value and hefty difficulty stretch the adventure out a little further. Online leaderboards for each stage show your score ranking, and there’s some value in returning to previously beaten stages to push for a mega high score and collect any leftover DNA you missed. Then, there are the silly death medals to work for, which are comical awards doled out for killing off your swarmites in different ways as you play.
With only 10 main levels and two wild boss battles, it only takes a few hours to plow through most of what Swarm’s harsh alien realm has to offer in return for your $14.99. The insidious environments are creatively designed for maximum sadistic potential, and the stark visual contrast between the playful blue swarmites and the twisted, dark world they’re barreling through gives the game a fun, warped vibe. The unforgiving level of challenge found woven throughout the game’s most brutal stretches is a turnoff at times, but Swarm still manages to win you over with its dynamic gameplay and the humorous way it delivers on its twisted concept.
Crysis comes to consoles, and four years after its release on the PC, there’s still nothing quite like it.
- Vast, beautiful environments give the action lots of flexibility
- Nanosuit powers make the shooting even more fun
- Lots of enjoyable vehicles to drive
- Great visuals and sound effects.
- Linear, more predictable final hours
- Frustrating checkpoints.
Any discussion of 2007′s PC shooter Crysis inevitably turns to its graphics. It was–is–a beautiful game, boasting incredible technology that makes it one of the most lifelike adventures to date. For some, its excellence as a shooter is secondary, which is too bad: Crysis is a fun and challenging game that doesn’t rely on its technological wonders to make an impact. Now, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 owners get to experience these wonders for themselves, and they should be pleased to learn that the game holds up well, due in part to some interface tweaks pulled directly from Crysis 2. The console Crysis isn’t as beautiful as the PC original, or even this year’s sequel, which may be why its flaws seem more readily apparent than before. Don’t take that to mean that Crysis isn’t a looker, though: It’s absolutely attractive on its new platforms. More importantly, shooting humans and aliens amid lush jungle foliage and frigid ravines is as entertaining as ever.
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Crysis tells an alien invasion story, though it’s hours before you tackle the extraterrestrials head on. It’s clear from the initial moments, however, that something’s not quite right. You play as Nomad, a member of a special forces team dispatched to a verdant island in the Pacific, where North Korean troops have captured a group of scientists who stumbled upon something–important. Crysis isn’t big on storytelling, but it makes effective use of its mysteries to keep you wondering. And when the moments of discovery arrive, they subvert your expectations. Entering an alien vessel doesn’t provoke the sci-fi shoot-out you may have envisioned but a prolonged weightless reverie that is thick with atmosphere and conservative with action. Some defied expectations aren’t as welcome: The final linear hours turn Crysis into a more typical sci-fi shooter than the first hours indicate, which isn’t to say that the later levels are mediocre–they’re just not as special as the early, expansive ones.
The first half is where Crysis makes its mark. The island is thick with foliage and dotted with outposts, where rickety structures and military depots might hide ammo and weapons. The environments are huge by shooter standards, allowing you multiple methods of approach. You could try a direct route, hopping into one of the game’s many vehicles and zooming forth to unleash gunfire from the top-mounted turret. Or you could be surreptitious and snipe your North Korean foes one by one. However you proceed, you rely on your nanosuit to support your style. Thanks to this fine bit of technology, you can leap great heights, sprint at high speed, improve your armor, and cloak yourself. On the PC, you must activate these abilities separately. The console version takes a cue from Crysis 2 by smartly integrating speed and strength modes into its running and jumping mechanics. The nanosuit abilities and spacious levels lead to impressive flexibility, which is further enhanced by weapon mods. You can equip silencers, assault scopes, flashlights, and even special ammo, which allows you to further specialize your skills as you make your way from one objective to the next.
The resulting action is a blast, and the variety of environments and possible approaches keeps you on your toes. Helicopters hover ahead, forcing you to lay low or scavenge for missiles so you can bring the bird to the ground. Hop in a speedy all-terrain vehicle and zip past your attackers–or hop out and face them head-on. Your walking speed seems a mite slow, but the gunplay translates well to a controller. The autotargeting is not overdone as it so often is in other shooters, meaning you have to earn your victories with skillful shooting. Enemy AI occasionally undercuts the excitement, however. For example, drivers may stay seated when you approach, allowing you to blast them in the face with a shotgun. But your armored foes generally put up a good fight, and cloaked operatives further amp up the challenge in certain locales. Ironically, alien enemies aren’t so tough, in part because you face them mostly in linear environments. Nevertheless, several battles against these hovering tentacled monsters are still enjoyable because you have to pay attention not just to the ground, but also to the sky above.
Crysis may last you 9 hours or more, depending on how much time you spend exploring and taking on side missions. While most games include harder difficulty levels, the higher levels here do more than just make enemies harder to kill. On hard, you can no longer fire a vehicle’s mounted gun while driving; on delta difficulty, you get no crosshairs, no grenade indicator, and enemies speak Korean. This is as it was on the PC, though a few elements have been removed. One is the oft-maligned Ascension level, in which you shoot down ETs as an aircraft pilot; another is the online multiplayer. More importantly, the ability to quicksave has been removed. Checkpoints are often far apart, so expect to replay healthy chunks of action should you die at an inopportune time.
Then there are the visuals. They’re beautiful, of course. The rays of the sun provide a luminous glow where they shine through gaps between trees. The ocean water ripples and flows realistically under boats and against docks, and destructible environments contribute to the authenticity. A well-tossed grenade might have the walls of a cabin falling to the ground, which is not only great to look at, but it’s also a tactical consideration, especially if you are standing in that same cabin. That said, there has been some expected loss in fidelity over the PC version. Many textures–particularly those on vehicles, rocks, and buildings–don’t look that great up close. Some objects shimmer into view, most noticeably in the later levels. Crysis looks impressive nonetheless, with countless shadows spreading across the forest floor so convincingly that you expect to feel a low-hanging branch brush across your cheek.
Crysis has stood the test of time, even if its faults are more apparent in retrospect. Parts of the campaign drag (a trek through a dark mine), while the final stretch sacrifices flexibility for scripted battles. But this first-person shooter’s excellence is inescapable. Four years later, as more shooters embrace corridor shoot-outs and scripted set pieces, the expansive jungles in Crysis are as refreshing as ever. If you’ve grown tired of the same old turkey shoots and have yet to indulge yourself in the PC version’s pleasures, now’s a good time to take a tropical adventure. At $20, this downloadable island getaway is a real deal.
By Kevin VanOrd
It’s a lightweight package, but UEFA Euro 2012′s great presentation captures the grand atmosphere of the tournament.
- New tournament-focused commentary is excellent
- Captures the Euro 2012 atmosphere thanks to sharp presentation
- Still plays a great game of football.
- Expedition mode is dull and unrewarding
- Adds little to the core FIFA experience.
UK REVIEW–UEFA Euro 2012 marks the first time EA has released a FIFA tournament tie-in as downloadable content. Finally, there’s no need to get gouged on another full-priced boxed product just so you can see England actually win something for once. It’s just as well, too, since Euro 2012′s content is rather thin on the ground. The usual array of licensed stadiums, kits, and new commentary certainly capture the atmosphere of the tournament, but there’s little else to do outside of chasing silverware or playing the mind-numbingly dull Expedition mode.
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The centrepiece of Euro 2012 is, of course, the tournament itself. You pick one of the officially licensed teams, get drawn into a group, and then jump straight into a game. All the setup options in FIFA 12 are present, so you can manage your lineup, formation, and tactics with ease before each match. An assortment of nicely detailed new stadiums decked out in UEFA purple along with excellent new commentary from FIFA stalwarts Clive Tyldesley and Andy Townsend also lend an atmospheric touch to the action.
The feel of that action remains identical, so there are no new tweaks to get to grips with. The great strategic play of the tactical defending system, the smooth animation from the physics-powered Player Impact Engine, and the subtleties of precision dribbling from FIFA 12 keep each match fast-paced and full of drama–it’s a satisfying and fun game to play. It’s disappointing, then, that after making your way through to the finals and taking your chosen team to glory that the trophy celebrations are somewhat anticlimactic. Sure, there are fireworks and a bit of trophy kissing, but it’s all rather brief. You can’t help but feel that after all your hard work, you and your team deserve a little bit more before being thrown back to the main menu.
Aside from the main tournament, Euro 2012 features a brand-new mode called Expedition: a cross between football, Risk, and a card collecting game, if each of those things suddenly became incredibly boring and unrewarding. You start off by picking a star player from a country of your choice, with the rest of your squad made up of random reserve players. That squad then sets off on a journey across Europe, hoping to beat numerous home nations along the way. But you can’t just challenge anybody you like. To challenge teams, you must build roads, which are awarded only after beating your first team.
Also awarded to you is a player from the opposing team, whom you can use to replace one of your own players or reject entirely. Beat that team again, and you’re awarded a player ranked slightly higher. Beat them yet again, and you’re awarded a star player. It’s a repetitive way to build up your squad–and it’s also the only way, given that your players don’t improve over time. Your final reward for beating a team is a piece of mosaic. Beat all 53 nations three times each and, joy of joys, you have a completed picture. It’s hardly the best incentive for playing through so many matches, and it doesn’t take long before your brain has turned to mush due to the banality of it all.
More compelling are the online modes, which come in the form of challenges and an online tournament. Challenges work just as they do in FIFA 12, where different match types and rivalries are fed through to a central hub for you to play through, albeit with a Euro twist. The hub is sparsely populated at the moment, but expect a lot more content to filter through once the tournament gets started in the real world. There’s also standard online play, which lets you take the Euro tournament online or play friendly exhibition matches. They add little to the standard online modes of FIFA 12, but they are enjoyable nonetheless.
And really, that’s all the Euro 2012 DLC is: a fun, well-presented FIFA skin that adds little to the core experience. If this were a full-priced retail release, there’d be hell to pay for EA, but as it stands, this isn’t a bad way to spend your cash (1800 Microsoft Points on Xbox Live or £15.99 on PlayStation Network), particularly if you’re eager to take your team to glory in Europe. Just, for the love of God, don’t try to do so in Expedition mode.
By Mark Walton
Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 offers fast, fun games of Magic: the Gathering, but is hampered by a less-than-ideal control scheme and limited deck building.
- Easy to set up for quick sessions
- Several different competitive modes
- Challenge levels teach you how to take advantage of advanced mechanics
- Great fun in multiplayer with friends.
- Deck construction is extremely limited
- Dull campaign mode
- Controls are frustrating to deal with
- Bare bones presentation.
It’s hard to believe that Magic: The Gathering is almost 20 years old. The revolutionary collectible card game has had a massive influence on games, both tabletop and electronic alike, and it continues to drive at the forefront of an industry it established. For all of its popularity, however, it’s not an easy experience to translate into video game form. While Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 doesn’t offer all of the varied nuances and experiences that make the physical version of Magic so compelling, it does a serviceable job of translating the card game into a quick, easy-to-play format that casual players and veterans alike can enjoy–provided they can get past some of its caveats.
Amount of things that will soon be going down: a lot.
The rules of Magic: the Gathering involve players drawing magic power from varied sources, casting environment-altering spells, summoning creatures and fighters big and small, conjuring powerful magical artifacts, and using them to beat the crap out of each other. There’s far more nuance than that, of course; there are several different “colors” of spells with varied strengths and weaknesses, as well as numerous types of monsters and items with distinct traits and abilities. Magic is a strategic and competitive game that requires a great deal of forethought and reaction.
Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 simplifies things somewhat from the original card game by making the complex structure of Magic more palatable to newcomers and casual players. Rather than carefully choosing and constructing your deck of tricks card by card, you play one of several different preconstructed decks with distinct play styles, advantages, and drawbacks. As you play through the various single-player modes, you unlock new decks to use, as well as earn additional cards to augment each deck. Play itself is also streamlined and simplified, as DotP 2012 consolidates certain beginning and end phases of turns in the regular game into two “main” phases with a combat phase in between. While hardcore Magic players might balk at the changes–the inability to create a custom deck from scratch, in particular, will certainly turn off a few veterans–they help make the game a lot easier to dive into for a general audience.
There are numerous play modes available in DotP 2012. In Campaign mode you battle computer opponents, earning new decks and additional cards as you progress. In between matches are also optional, clever puzzle challenges that set up an established game situation–usually disadvantageous to you–that ask you to make smart use of the game rules and card abilities to turn it around. Going through the standard Campaign mode will also unlock Archenemy mode, which is new to the 2012 edition of the game. In this mode, you and two computer-controlled players take on a single, highly powered opponent who can bend certain rules and play powerful, environment-altering “scheme” cards each turn. There’s also Revenge mode, where the opponents you beat come back with bigger, more powerful decks. Unlike many other games in the card battle genre, there’s no overarching story or any sort of dialogue with characters going on during the campaign; you just beat one guy and move on to the next. It’s a bit of a disappointment because it would have been nice to interact, even superficially, with the world of Magic: the Gathering’s interesting characters and settings.
If you don’t feel like trudging through the campaign, there is a quick-play mode that will let you set up a game against up to four computer opponents in a standard winner-takes-all competition. The variant modes are more interesting, however; besides Archenemy, there’s also Two-Headed Giant, a two-versus-two team competition where you and a computer-controlled buddy (or a local player) combine forces and share a life pool while taking on an opposing two-player team. Competitive play against other human opponents is the biggest draw, however, and it’s done quite well. You can play either standard or ranked matches against friends or random players in any of the available game variants (though Archenemy, due to its nature, is unavailable for ranked play). Getting a group of friends together to play good-natured matches against each other or collaborate in one of the team play modes is tons of fun, but going up against random opponents is still something of a crapshoot. A common complaint in the last iteration was that players would disconnect if they started to lose a ranked match. “Cord pulling” out of a match in DotP 2012 is now counted as a loss toward a player who disconnects, but there are still other ways to grief an opponent, including stalling for as much time as possible. Online bugs also seemed to be present in rare cases, as we encountered a match where the game simply stalled forever as a player tried to activate a card ability, forcing us to concede.
While DotP 2012 can be a lot of fun, much of the enjoyment you potentially derive from the game comes from finding Magic: the Gathering interesting to play. The graphics are merely adequate (don’t expect any cool animations of the monsters you summon, for example) and the sound effects are nondescript and inoffensive. You also have to fight with the controls every step of the way as you attempt to enjoy the game. DotP’s control scheme feels awkward and unnatural with a controller because highlighting certain cards to zoom in and read their effect information requires choosing it like a menu selection with the analog stick–except you actually need to use the right analog stick to choose certain cards for some reason. If your opponent is casting spells, it can be extremely difficult to highlight and read the effects of the spell in the limited time before it takes effect, which leads to cases where it comes into play before you can react. Pressing buttons a split second too early or too late can lead to missed plays and annoying dialogue pop-ups.
As it stands, Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 provides a way to enjoy a simple game of Magic: the Gathering. Its limited customization options, serious control issues, and lack of extra flair keep it from being as interesting an experience as it could be, but you can still have a good time by getting a bunch of online or offline buddies together for games. And at $10, it’s certainly more affordable than going to your local card shop and buying cases of cards.
By Heidi Kemps
Despite its short length and easy puzzles, this episodic adventure still captivates with strong storytelling and compelling characters.
- Great visuals
- Expert voice acting brings characters to life
- Interesting story.
- Puzzles offer little challenge
- Only takes a few hours to finish.
Films of the ’80s are notoriously responsible for spawning a deluge of supercheesy fashion fouls, hokey acting atrocities, and cringeworthy fads. To some extent, the Back to the Future movie trilogy is guilty on all charges, but if thoughts of flaming tire tracks left by a heavily pimped-out DeLorean evoke feelings of fuzzy nostalgia, then you’ll find lots to love in this resurrection of the franchise. As an all-new episodic adventure game series, Back to the Future: The Game shows a lot of promise with its debut installment, even if the puzzle complexity and overall difficulty is dialed down a bit lower than it is in developer Telltale’s other games.
Instead of rehashing the events that played out in the films, Back to the Future: The Game explores new territory and continues the time-hopping adventures of Marty McFly and Doc Emmet Brown. It’s About Time picks up a few months after the events of the third film, and all is not well in Hill Valley. Doc has gone missing for months, and the city is determined to sell off his estate to cover his past-due financial obligations. Marty is reluctant to let the sale go through, and even more reluctant to let any of Doc’s possessions go to his nemesis, Biff Tannen. But soon the DeLorean mysteriously shows up with a recorded message from Doc who is stranded somewhere in the past, and Marty has bigger problems to deal with. Marty has to figure out a way to save his old pal, which kicks off an oddball time-traveling rescue mission set in Hill Valley’s prohibition era. The entertaining story that follows is enhanced by believable character interactions, imbuing the adventure with a great sense of authenticity.
Marty and Doc are strong and likeable lead characters, and the impressive visual designs mixed with the expertly delivered voice work make them all the more entertaining. Doc is actually voiced by Christopher Lloyd, while the other main characters are voiced by sound-alikes. The killer verbal delivery sounds spot-on, and Marty sounds especially good. Even with a cartoonish sheen, the characters and locations really come to life in the first episode. The game is one of Telltale’s best-looking efforts yet. Hill Valley offers a highly detailed and interesting streetscape to explore. However, it’s a little disappointing that the town is not more interactive. When Marty enters most buildings or storefronts, your point-of-view remains stuck out on the sidewalk. During such moments, Marty typically engages in a quick snippet of dialogue behind closed doors before being booted back to the street. There are only a handful of key indoor locales in which to venture around. They’re well developed and offer some neat puzzles, but they’re few and far between.
The PlayStation 3 control scheme works similarly to its PC counterpart, though remapped buttons make it easy to quickly access various submenus. The left thumbstick moves Marty around directly, and you can select hot spots you’re standing next to with a tap of the X button. The shoulder buttons let you cycle through available hot spots to interact with manually. It’s a nice touch that saves a little time when you don’t feel like manually walking across the screen to grab something. Moving from one area to the next often switches camera angles. This can make it awkward to get your bearings at times, but it doesn’t take long to figure out where you are or which direction you’re moving in.
A well-penned story, compelling characters, and a stellar presentation drive the game more than anything else. When it comes to the gameplay and puzzles, It’s About Time is surprisingly light on challenge and content. The flow and scope of the game is very standard adventure-gaming fare. You follow the plot cues and often find objects to interact with or items to pick up and carry around until they’re needed. Most puzzles you encounter are interesting and well thought-out. For example, trying to figure out a way to con the young version of Doc into finishing a peculiar invention to unknowingly save his older self has you running around on a cavalcade of amusing errands. The puzzles almost always skew on the easy side, so while they’re still enjoyable to solve, you shouldn’t come to It’s About Time looking for a challenge. If you do find yourself stuck, there’s a scalable hint system that you can call on to give you a nudge in the right direction.
Despite lacking some of the complexity and puzzle depth of Telltale’s other work, Back to the Future’s premiere episode still holds you pretty tightly in its grip for the few short hours it takes to plow through it. It’s a brief trek that packs plenty of plot and personality to balance out its other shortcomings. Considering the strength of the story and the fact that the plot thread runs throughout the whole series, you’re sure to be left feeling anxious to see what comes next. This series holds a lot of promise, and the taste in episode one definitely provides a strong foundation for Telltale to continue building on in upcoming episodes. The future looks bright indeed.
Mercury Hg is cheaper, safer and more fun than playing with real volatile chemicals, though the experience is short lived and simple.
- Fun gameplay with tight control
- Easy to get into
- Great value pricing.
- Doesn’t last long
- No wildly different modes
- A little too simplistic.
There’s something timeless about those old labyrinth toys that tasked you with guiding a metal ball by tilting a maze. It’s a simple concept that has translated well to video games as most famously seen with the Super Monkey Ball series. Taking the same concept and replacing “metal ball” with “blob of mercury,” the Mercury games became favorites among puzzle game fans since the series debuted on the PSP many years ago. Mercury is about more than just hastily tilting a platform to make your blob flow from point A to point B; it forces you to think about the traps in your path and how the physics of your mercury blob can help (or hinder) your progress. This is no different for Mercury Hg, which brings a host of new levels to modern HD consoles, though it has lost some of the challenge and longevity in the transition.
The main goal in any Mercury Hg level is to tilt a mazelike platform with the left analog stick as you guide a blob of mercury (or more than one) to the goal. The catch is that you want to do this quickly and without losing any of the mercury that makes up your blob. The blob isn’t totally cohesive, so if you get too close to an edge, you start to lose mercury as it drips down into an abyss. There are also many ways in which bits of your blob can split off from the whole, such as hitting the corner of a wall or landing from a fall with a lot of momentum. When this happens, you need to be extra careful with how you tilt the platform because it can be easy to send some bits off the stage while trying to guide other bits to the goal. In a pinch, you can hold a button to attract the blobs back together into a cohesive whole rather than try to force them back together with physics, but this ability comes at the cost of speeding up the clock, which you don’t want to do when going for a high score or trying to beat a specific time. The PlayStation 3 version of the game features a Sixaxis control scheme that allows you to tilt the PS3 controller to tilt the level instead of using the analog stick. This feels natural and can be a fun way to play, but it also feels a little touchier and less precise than the default control option, so you may not want to use it for harder levels unless you’re up for a tougher challenge.
The main game is composed of 60 discovery levels. Each of these has a total of four atoms for you to collect by fulfilling certain requirements: completing the level, finishing under the par time, finishing with 100 percent mercury, and collecting all of the pickups. These atoms go toward unlocking the later level groups, though there are far more atoms available than are required to unlock every stage, which makes collecting them less important if you merely want to complete each maze. Each stage has a par time of less than a minute or two, and some can be completed in mere seconds. But there’s an addictive quality to the gameplay that makes you eager to hit “Next Stage” over and over again.
Most of these levels are pretty easy, perhaps to a fault. Many of the hurdles from previous Mercury games are gone, such as enemies and temperature puzzles. There are obstacles, such as magnetrons and anti-magnetrons, which try to pull your blob in or push you away, but most of your peril comes from the environment in the form of hills or holes. You often come across paint shops that change your blob into another color, which you need to do to activate certain switches or pass through certain walls. This gets particularly tricky when you need a secondary color such as yellow, but you don’t have a yellow paint shop. You have to split your mercury into two blobs, paint one blob red and one blob green, and then combine them again to make yellow. It’s a neat puzzle mechanic that should have been utilized more often to create more challenging levels.
By beating levels quickly and nabbing collectables, you can unlock challenge and bonus levels, which are where the difficulty really starts to ramp up. Bonus levels are the same as their discovery counterparts but with a different objective: You can’t finish the level unless you have 100 percent of your mercury intact, and you don’t start with all of it. So you have to carefully collect vials of mercury strewn around the stage while making sure not to lose even a tiny bit of it to one of the many obstacles. Challenge mode forces you to play several levels in quick succession, fulfilling certain requirements that get tougher as you move forward. For example, stage one of a challenge may require you to finish its three levels in under 120 seconds while collecting at least 10 pickups. Stage two may pit you against the same levels, but this time you only have 90 seconds, need 15 pickups, and can’t lose a drop of mercury.
Mercury Hg has a nice aesthetic, with slick menus designed after the periodic table of elements and in-game graphics that feature clean designs with many vibrant colors. There are also a lot of neat stage effects like tiles that form in front of you as you move. Stage backgrounds react to the music being played as well, throbbing and pulsing with the beat. The included music is good, but you have the added bonus of playing the game with your own custom soundtrack, with the background being affected accordingly. It’s not much, but it’s a lovely touch and helps give life to the environment without getting in the way of the gameplay.
Playing through the discovery levels won’t take you long, especially if you ignore most of the secondary challenges. The entire mode can be completed in a single sitting and never gets dreadfully difficult. You can add longevity to your experience by competing for higher leaderboard scores, which is made more enjoyable by the ability to download ghost data of top players to play against. You could certainly ask for more, such as some of the party modes from earlier Mercury games or more stages with more complex puzzles, but for a mere $5, it’s hard to complain much. It may not fulfill all of its potential, but Mercury Hg is a fun game that will give you a few hours of enjoyment and can easily be picked up by anyone in the mood for a good puzzle game.
The Walking Dead: Episode 1 is bloody, brutal, and hard to put down.
- Gripping storyline and first-rate characters and dialogue
- Fantastic, stylish artwork
- Panicky, crazy action sequences.
- Shallow gameplay
- Camera angle is too restrictive in many scenes.
This is not your average Telltale Games adventure. The developer best known for all-ages affairs like the Back to the Future and Tales of Monkey Island franchises has nimbly waded into the guts and gore of the zombie apocalypse with the first episode of its five-part take on The Walking Dead. A New Day is chock-full of all the bursting brains, eaten entrails, and sudden deaths of leading characters that feature prominently in both Robert Kirkman’s award-winning comic series and the freewheeling TV show adaptation. Marty McFly might not approve, but you certainly will if you have even the slightest taste for good zombie stories and a strong stomach to deal with the many gross-out moments.
What makes A New Day so compelling is its attention to appearance, plot, and character development. To help with clarity, the art sheds the black-and-white style of the comics in favor of vibrant color, though it uses similar art to that drawn by Charlie Adlard in the current issues. Fans may yearn for an option to go into a black-and-white mode, but the game art builds nicely on its paper inspiration. The PC and console versions of the game look much the same, although the PC edition is best overall with the smoothest animations. The PlayStation 3 game stutters regularly, although never for long enough that this causes any problems. The only issue is the camera, which is often too close to the action to get a good look at your surroundings. You get a good cinematic view of everything, at least, although this doesn’t help much when you’re scrounging through the drugstore for goodies or checking out nearby zombies.
The story has been crafted adroitly to weave in and out of the events told in the comics and on TV, blending the new with the familiar. So while you take on the role of the previously unseen Lee Everett, the adventure takes you through parts of rural Georgia also visited by Rick Grimes and the gang. Many of the events here fill out backstories from the comics. You visit Hershel’s farm before he started that interesting collection in his barn, for instance, and rescue Glenn when he gets trapped during one of his scavenging runs.
All of the characters are very well written and voiced as individuals (none of the TV actors reprise their roles here, though), which makes you care about whether or not they get munched on by ravenous corpses. It’s difficult to get up from the game, so expect to finish it in a two- or three-hour single sitting. Granted, there are some cliches. Lee is a stereotypical man of mystery, with a sinister past that may involve his killing the US senator messing around with his wife. His kid sidekick, Clementine, while lovable and tough in her own right, is obviously a plot device to help tragic Lee find his way again.
Actual gameplay is of a more so-so quality. Although this is a point-and-click adventure, the puzzles are few and far between. Exploration is a must in a couple of places, and there are a few spots where you need to gather items to push the plot forward. Controls are basic. On the PC, you use a mouse-and-WASD combo, occasionally resorting to the number keys to change between the standard looking, taking, talking, and using abilities. Consoles work in a similar fashion, with the left stick moving, the right stick taking care of the point of view, and the four face buttons handling character abilities. Other than the control scheme, there isn’t much to figure out. Most of the game deals with interacting with fellow survivors through dialogue.
Conversations typically give you limited time to respond to comments, forcing you to decide whether to blow somebody off or make nice. No selections are absolutely wrong. You can be tough on a coward who ran away instead of helping a friend avoid being chomped, or be kind to a sharpshooting gal in the hope that she might just save your life at some point. Key dialogue choices change how the game plays out, although not in wildly dramatic ways. You make a friend, you make an enemy, somebody notices you telling a lie, that sort of thing. The main difference between choices is the severity of the tone taken by other characters when speaking to you.
Quick-time action sequences bring up more important options. You find yourself a heartbeat away from zombie chompers on more than a few occasions during A New Day. When this happens, you’re given a few seconds to either left-click/button-mash a wavering cursor on a zombie skull or hammer some keys/button-mash to fend off the dead guy’s groping hands and snapping teeth. Miss this, and you’re a juicy burger. Nevertheless, none of this is very challenging, and the mechanics are simplistic enough to draw in casual gaming fans of the Walking Dead comics and TV show.
The first surprise attack comes so suddenly that you barely have a chance to react before the teeth sink into your neck, but after that you can cruise through the moments of zombie mayhem, most notably a screwdriver/axe beatdown in a motel courtyard. What’s more shocking are the times when you’re forced to make the call between saving one friend in peril and giving one up to the hungry dead. These moments are unsettling and very true to the horrific nature of the comics, where beloved, long-running characters can be torn apart without notice.
Telltale’s Walking Dead series is off to a great start with A New Day. This is more story than game, so there’s little challenge in the hours you spend fleeing and fighting and talking about the zombie hordes. But that approach works here, allowing the game to build upon the cruel, character-driven comic series and stand apart from more mayhem-oriented zombie games like Left 4 Dead and Dead Island. This also lets you get to know the cast in a more intimate manner than would be possible if the episode were all about splattering zombies and solving puzzles. Although given the source material, you still probably shouldn’t get too attached to anybody.
By Brett Todd
Double Dragon Neon revitalizes the classic franchise, but a few missteps derail the silly fun.
- Goofy atmosphere with amusing jokes
- Defensive mechanics reward skilled players
- Passive and special abilities allow for smart customization.
- Tedious grinding in harder difficulties
- No online co-op.
What would a magical skeleton want with an ordinary woman? The answer isn’t important (and is most likely pretty gross), but the rescue mission that follows this kidnapping sure is fun. Double Dragon Neon is a smart update to the arcade classic from decades ago. By melding the iconic characters and traditional beat-’em-up structure from the original Double Dragon with an overhauled combat system that rewards precise defensive counters and clever skill manipulation, Neon is much more than a merry trip down nostalgia lane. Billy and Jimmy Lee do occasionally stumble on their way to vanquishing Skullmageddon, but Double Dragon Neon overcomes that clumsiness with style.
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The opening scene sends shivers down your spine. The sultry Marian walks alone down a dark alley, only to be greeted by a gang of lowly street toughs. With one punch to the stomach, she passes out in pain, and the trio of miscreants march away with their prize slung over one shoulder. A garage door opens, and out walk Billy and Jimmy Lee, searching for vengeance. For anyone who has played the original Double Dragon, this situation should be familiar, and the remixed music ties into the 1980s hit. By the time you square off against whip-wielding Linda and the abnormally large Abobo a few minutes into your adventure, you might think that you have a good idea of how this game is going to play out.
But you’d be wrong. Although Neon makes many references to the original game, it doesn’t take long for it to forge its own path. It’s a side-scrolling beat-’em-up, so the basic left-to-right kickathon is kept intact, but the combat has layers of depth that make it exciting for anyone itching for a challenge. Your basic moves are punches and kicks, and you dole out flashy combos by alternating between these standard techniques. Once you pound enemies in the head a few times, they become stunned, and their vulnerability is your gain. Toss them into a group of enemies or into a bottomless pit if you wish, or you can deliver a crushing uppercut that suspends them in midair long enough for you to juggle them like a hacky sack.
Making smart use of these core mechanics leads to satisfying encounters. A half dozen or more enemies often flood the screen, and you need to attack with precision if you’re going to keep the crowd at bay. Mashing buttons delivers jaw-breaking attacks, but you won’t get far if you ignore your defensive maneuvers. The Lee brothers have a handy duck technique that becomes the foundation for your success as the difficulty ramps up. By hitting the ground right as an enemy attacks, you avoid damage and you gain a gleam bonus. This makes you twice as strong for a few seconds. Mastering the gleam makes even the toughest bosses pushovers, but it takes practice to get the timing down. Sadly, finicky collision detection sometimes means you get hit even if you moved well in advance. Also, you earn the gleam bonus only by ducking. If you roll or jump out of the way, you still avoid pain, but there’s less incentive without the temporary strength boost.
The avoid-and-attack rhythm of combat is strengthened by perks you unlock as you play. Called songs, these add passive and special abilities to your repertoire. If you’re dying too quickly, you may want to imbue your character with more health, or you could add damage bonuses when you land successive attacks. Super attacks are just as specialized. A screen-clearing, flaming dragon deals out a ton of damage but drains your magic bar, whereas the one-inch punch doesn’t deplete as much health, but you can pull it off more often.
As rewarding as it is to mix and match the perfect abilities for your style, the leveling-up aspect drags the adventure down. Extra songs can be purchased at stores or collected from defeated enemies, and the more you have, the more potent the ability. But unlocking the full potential of these buffs demands tedious grinding. You need to kill bosses to earn the precious currency needed to raise the limit of how many songs you can carry, so you have to repeatedly play through levels to make your character strong enough to survive. This isn’t a huge problem in the default difficulty because ducking at the right time and then laying the smack down is enough to defeat anyone, but things become significantly more challenging on the harder difficulty settings. When only one or two hits can take you down, you need your abilities maxed out, and that takes hours of tedious busywork.
If you want to conquer Neon, you need to spend a lot of time punching fools, but just having fun doesn’t take any investment. The over-the-top atmosphere not only taps into your happy memories, but introduces a layer of ridiculousness that wasn’t present in the original game. Billy and Jimmy Lee are unabashedly bro, and they wear that distinction with style. They dole out manly high fives, shout outdated catchphrases like they mean them (“Tubular!”), and wear skin-tight T-shirts that accentuate their PED-defined abs. When Jimmy smacks a goon with a baseball bat, he shouts “Touchdown!” without the slightest hint of irony. Neon is consistently funny and doesn’t shy away from crazy situations. From a helicopter that hovers upside down, to the weaker enemies referred to as “cartwheeling cannon fodder,” Neon is happy to make fun of itself.
Double Dragon Neon is a good update to the arcade classic precisely because it’s not handcuffed to what the original started. By shifting the tone from serious to crazy and making the combat system rewarding for the most dedicated players, this is a beat-’em-up that fits alongside modern games. The downsides are noticeable. Grinding turns even the brightest games dull, and local-only co-op means you have to invite your friends to your house rather than partake in online shenanigans. But for the few hours it takes to reach the end, Neon is a satisfying brawler that’s as deep as it is humorous. Double Dragon Neon doesn’t quite live up to its prestigious heritage, but it’s a well-made game nonetheless.
By Tom Mc Shea