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Zack Zero Review

Problematic platforming and awkward action add up to crummy adventures for Zack Zero.

The Good

  • Outdoor areas can be visually appealing.

The Bad

  • 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.

Aliens have the worst security systems.

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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.

Don't let those flying drones stop you from your crucial mission of collecting green gems.

Don’t let those flying drones stop you from your crucial mission of collecting green gems.

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.

It's just you, the monster, and lady eira's high score.

It’s just you, the monster, and lady eira’s high score.

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.

By Chris Watters

Just Dance 3 Review

The series is still as shallow as ever, but hilarious routines and a great selection of songs make Just Dance 3 heaps of fun that no party should be without.

The Good

  • Great selection of songs
  • Inspired choreography
  • Sharp visuals make it easy to follow dancers
  • Can’t create your own routines.

The Bad

  • No career mode or unlockables.

Letting go of your inhibitions can often be difficult–just ask a sober person at a karaoke bar–but doing so is a requisite for getting the most out of Just Dance 3. Its hilarious and often downright insane routines have you doing the jive bunny, playing air guitar, and jumping around like a complete loon to an eclectic selection of songs that are guaranteed to get you dancing. Though Just Dance 3 still lacks a career mode or even a set of simple unlockables, there’s plenty of fun to be had performing the visually striking and silly routines with a group of friends. It isn’t the game to go for if you’re after a technically challenging dancing experience, but if it’s a silly, energetic, and accessible dancing game you’re after, it’s unmatched.

Take on ’80s sensation A-ha with Just Dance 3.

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The Just Dance series has never been difficult to pick up and play: you pick a song to dance to, hold the Wii Remote in your right hand, and mimic the actions of a virtual dancer onscreen. You’re awarded points based on your movements, which are tracked by the Wii Remote, with each being scored as bad, OK, good, or perfect. No matter how many points you rack up, though, it’s impossible to fail out of a song. While this makes the game much more accessible for casual players, it removes much of the challenge, which makes playing on your own a dull experience for all but the most dedicated dance fiends.

Get three of your friends together, though, and you’ll have a lot more fun. Any song can be played with up to four players, and there are specific songs that have been designed with more dancers in mind. These include a bouncy duet to Girls Aloud’s “Jump” and a rock-and-roll duet to Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” It’s the four-player dances that are the most fun, though, with choreography that’s clearly designed to cause as much embarrassment for the participants as possible. Highlights include the Power Rangers-inspired “Spectronizer,” complete with multiple superhero poses, and Kiss’ “I Was Made for Loving You,” which features a full four-piece air band and the most unexpected dancing twist in the game.

The choreography is excellent throughout, striking a fine balance between fun, skill requirement, and suitability to the song. Play an early ’90s hit like “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now),” for instance, and you’re asked to perform the running man, while more modern songs like Duck Sauce’s “Barbra Streisand” and Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” feature sexy twists and twirls that wouldn’t look out of place onstage today. Even if you’re not participating, it’s hilarious to watch your friends perform, with onscreen lyrics that let you sing along too. While the excellent tracklist caters to most tastes, other songs are available to download from the in-game store, such as Anja’s “Baby Don’t Stop Now” and Groove Century’s “Soul Searchin,” for 250 Wii points each.

Strike a pose!

Strike a pose!

Matching the excellent choreography are the visuals. The bright neon dancers with their stark white outlines look better than ever and are still modelled after video footage of real-life performances, making them natural and easy to follow against the bright backgrounds. The artwork has seen an overhaul too, with improved detail and animations that fit within the theme of each song. Highlights include the ’70s disco lights and Afros in Earth Wind & Fire’s “Boogie Wonderland”; the electronics-infused circuit boards and robot costumes in Daft Punk’s “Da Funk”; and the floating price tags and cash symbols in Jessie J’s “Price Tag.”

Aside from the standard Dance mode, there are different playlists to play through, coming under the banner of Sweat mode. You can jump straight into a playlist, or take part in a seven-day challenge, which does a great job of keeping track of your dancing and how many calories you’re burning over the course of the week. Unfortunately, that’s the only other mode to play through in Just Dance 3, with the Dance Battle mode of its predecessor going the way of the Dodo. Combined with the lack of a career mode or rewards, this makes Just Dance 3 a lightweight experience, and not much fun on your own. Playing with friends is key to getting the most out of the game’s routines, and when you do so, it’s hilarious. Each routine has been expertly choreographed, not to be technically impressive, but to be as much fun as possible. Even the most cynical of players should give Just Dance 3 a try–you might come away a little embarrassed, maybe even a little sweaty, but you’ll have a huge smile afterward.

By Mark Walton

Under Siege Review

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.

The Good

  • 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.

The Bad

  • 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.

Small-scale battles serve as the main focus of Under Siege.

Small-scale battles serve as the main focus of Under Siege.

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.

Units are recruited before battle and then sent into the fray during a deployment phase.

Units are recruited before battle and then sent into the fray during a deployment phase.

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.

Both the Move and regular control options work well.

Both the Move and regular control options work well.

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

Def Jam Rapstar Review

Though it lacks the rich community features of other versions, Def Jam Rapstar still has enough great songs to get your living room bumpin’.

The Good

  • Diverse songs represent different decades and styles
  • Freestyle mode offers a unique creative outlet.

The Bad

  • Some phrase-mapping issues
  • Bouncing ball not terribly helpful.

For years, people have gathered around the television, USB-powered microphones in hand, to test their singing prowess across a wide variety of musical genres. Karaoke games like Karaoke Revolution track pitch and timing to rate how a singer is doing, but because rap songs involve more rhythmic speaking than tuneful singing, the genre has been underrepresented in such games. Enter Def Jam Rapstar. As the instantly recognizable name suggests, the game features songs from some of the most famous rap acts in the world, both past and present. The songlist is impressive, and the added dimension of lyric tracking allows the game to reward you for singing the right words. However, without the video recording and community-sharing features of the other console versions, the Wii version is merely a straightforward karaoke game. This makes some of the game’s flaws more apparent, like the imperfect display and some questionable choices when it comes to what parts you do or don’t sing on a given song. Def Jam Rapstar isn’t the best karaoke game around, but its unique songlist still delivers a lot of entertainment.

Fortunately, your performances won’t have this kind of vocal lag if you use the handy auto-calibration tool.

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Any self-respecting karaoke game lets you get straight to singing from the get-go, and Def Jam Rapstar does just that. In any mode, one player can sing solo, or two players can either sing a duet or battle each other for a high score. Party mode offers most of the robust songlist right away, from old-school tracks like Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” to recent hits like “Live Your Life” by T.I. feat. Rihanna. Lyrics range from tongue-twisting (Busta Rhymes’ “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See”) to mind-numbing (Soulja Boy Tell’em’s “Turn My Swag On”). And though there are some notable omissions, Def Jam Rapstar covers an impressive cross section of the genre. The game is, however, rated T for Teen, so some of your favorites may have gaping holes where lyrics should be (especially if you’re a Lil’ Kim fan), though you can fill them in without penalty. Seeing the references to older songs in more recent songs helps cultivate a neat sense of continuity across the 45-song catalog, though it’s a shame there is no online store from which to download more tracks.

There are two types of judging mechanics at work in Def Jam Rapstar. Melodic sections are represented by bars that indicate the relative length and pitch of each note in a phrase, as is the standard in karaoke games. Rap sections display a dot over each syllable, and a bouncing ball indicates when you should speak each one. The pace of the ball is meant to dictate your cadence, but it is small and moves quickly, so it doesn’t make a very good guide. While it’s possible to use the pitch bars to guess what the pitch and duration of a given note are, players who are unfamiliar with a song will likely have a harder time picking out the rap sections. If you’re braving an unfamiliar track, your best bet is to listen to the rapper and try to follow his or her cadence, though some artists make that easier than others. Some tracks can also cause problems for solo players because of odd phrasing that, for example, makes you sing the lead vocals and the chorus in rapid succession (like “Put On” by Young Jeezy feat. Kanye West). Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” has you sing both the male and female parts of the call-and-answer chorus, while other melodic sections have you sing a pitch that isn’t the obvious choice. Finding a spare moment to breathe and pick out the right pitch can occasionally be challenging, but on the whole, Def Jam Rapstar does a solid job of presenting the songs and tracking your performance.

Not so lil anymore, are you Wayne?

Not so lil anymore, are you Wayne?

Nailing the lyrics gives you big bonus points, but even if you just manage to mumble along to the beat, you can still get a reasonably good rating on most songs. Doing well fills a multiplier meter that boosts your score and rewards you for chaining successful phrases together. The difficulty levels are forgiving and allow players of all skill levels to progress through the five-stage career mode. Success in this mode unlocks a few new songs, as well as new tracks for Freestyle mode. Songs in Freestyle mode don’t have any lyrics; they just provide a background track with which you can experiment. Whether you thoughtfully compose your own verses or just let loose some freestyle flow, this mode is a unique opportunity for creativity that most rhythm games don’t offer.

Unfortunately, that is the extent of what Def Jam Rapstar does offer. On the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, players can record performance videos, add visual effects, and upload videos to the community website for other players to rate and share. Although Wii owners (and anyone else with a Web browser) are free to peruse the online community, the game doesn’t connect to these features at all. Without this social outlet, Rapstar is just another rhythm game, and though there are some rough spots in the game’s execution, it stands firm as a solid karaoke experience. The songlist is unlike any other on the market, and whether you prefer the smooth Slick Rick or the manic Beastie Boys, anyone with even a passing interest in rap is likely to find something to enjoy here. Def Jam Rapstar confidently captures this underrepresented genre in a unique way, giving you an entertaining new way to rock your living room mic.

By Chris Watters

Anna Review

I like the exhilaration that comes from being chased; the tension and rise of adrenaline that comes in the moments where my character is hiding from a stalking enemy; the way my hands shake as I let out a stifled breath upon reaching safety. Whereas so many games make you feel like you’re untouchable, horror games often strip you down to the most basic fight-or-flight impulse, stoking your primal instinct to run the hell away.

Anna doesn’t give much of an introduction. Your character simply starts out at an abandoned house, solving puzzles in a serene garden in order to gain entry into a twisted home that holds a key to the bizarre dreams you’ve been having. Something is wrong with this house, and you need to find out how you’re connected or, at the very least, escape.

It starts off scary. You wander around the environment in a first-person perspective looking for interactive objects to pick up, examine and sometimes combine with inventory items to create new things. Performing these actions triggers events within the house: spirits throw objects, random apparitions appear to startle you as you turn a corner and voices call out from the shadows. It’s unsettling to say the least, and if, like me, you scare easily, you’ll probably need breaks to dry your sweaty palms.

That is until you realize you really have nothing to worry about. You see, while a few big scares occur throughout the short story, the fear-inducing moments become neutered when you realize you can’t die, lose or otherwise find yourself in an irreparable situation. Suddenly the unknown spirits that taunted me went from beings of unknown and frightening power to uninteresting annoyances; spirits who were just out to slow me down rather than do me any actual harm. As the umpteenth can raised into the air and slammed into my head my adrenaline continued to pump, but only out of frustration with Anna’s anger-inducing puzzles.

OK, not all of Anna’s puzzles are unnecessarily confusing or frustrating, but the ones that are drag down the entire experience. Regularly your character encounters “puzzles” that are really just trial and error situations. Just like classic point-and-click adventure games of yesteryear, Anna often puts you in places where all you can really do is start combining unlikely items until you figure out the baffling combination the designers intended.

Bizarre polish issues and poor interface don’t help here, either. Opening up your inventory, clicking use on an item and then closing your inventory before trying to combine it with something in the environment is tedious. Now imagine doing this time and time again as you start randomly combining things in a fit of desperation after you encounter yet another obtusely designed puzzle – it’s maddening how clumsy and unintuitive it feels. Times when you know a puzzle’s solution, but you aren’t combining items in the exact order or way Anna intends are even more excruciating; combine A with B to get C and you win, but combine B with A and you get something unusable. Pixel hunting for the exact spot you can click to do something “right” isn’t rewarding, and makes the relatively short story of Anna drag unnecessarily.

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Anna is billed as an experience that adapts to what you do, and that, “features three ending according to how much the character has gone deep into madness,” but that description is a bit misleading. Really what the team means is that if you interact with certain doors at specific times then Anna will end. If you want to get the ending where the credits actually scroll, the one with the most fulfilling (and least confusing) narrative, then you’ll either need to randomly make the right decisions or read a guide.

The Verdict

Anna manages to create a few blood-chilling moments throughout its story, but most of the fear factor is neutered after you realize nothing can harm you. Alongside its sub-par interface and relative lack of polish it becomes harder and harder to find admirable qualities in Anna. What’s here boils down to a relatively mediocre adventure game that’s far more frustrating than it is frightening.

By Anthony Gallegos

Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition Review

Dark Souls image

Praise the sun! A Souls game has arrived on PC. It is surely weary. We’ll let it rest, and get to the new edition’s bonus content and the quality of the port in a moment. On the off chance you’ve been off collecting beetles for the last three years and missed Dark Souls entirely, here’s a recap of why to be excited.

On consoles, this began with 2009′s Demon’s Souls, a sleeper hit that offered a quest so hard, so hefty, so immaculately crafted that developer From Software might have hewn it from rock. It and sequel Dark Souls summoned staggering review scores, gifting a generation of jaded gamers with a cocktail of fear and self-respect.

You’re best off not taking your cues from Dark Souls’ charming marketing slogan of “YOU WILL DIE.” While it’s best known for being nipple-rippingly difficult, ultimately, it’s all about the weight I was talking about earlier. That dark heft. First and foremost, this is the physical weight of your character, and the foreboding atmosphere of From Software’s stunning world.

Dark Souls tells the story of your hero trying to save an intriguing world which, by every possible metric, fell long ago. Abominations make their homes in the forgotten nooks of a lost civilisation. A handful of enigmatic survivors are all that’s left, but you’re as free to talk to them as kill them, and they’re as liable to help you as to lie. Best of all, the game literally kills you off somewhere between character creation and the first cut-scene. Above all, Dark Souls seems to thrill at escaping expectations.

Dark Souls can happily scare the crap out of you in broad daylight, with something as simple as a giant insect dive-bombing your head as you cross a narrow walkway.

An example is how your character controls. Just to swing a sword sees your avatar putting their back, shoulder and wrist into the blow, leaving you to wince at the weapon’s weight. Hit attack again, and you’ll roll the weapon around down, up and around, maintaining its momentum to strike once more, quicker this time. But every single attack, every block with your shield, every panicked evasive roll, takes a fat bite out of your endurance meter. Never mind whatever action games you’ve played before, you have to learn to fight all over again because, simply put, you’re only human.

That might not sound so bad when you’re gleefully taking apart a zombie with a mace. How are you going to deal with a pack of feral dogs? Or a rat as big as a Land Rover? These are the questions Dark Souls asks you, before leaning back in its high-backed leather chair to light a cigarette. It never rushes you. It never needs to. It simply tells you, to your face, that certain death lies this way. And then it tells you to walk.

Which brings us to the radioactive feather in Dark Souls’ cap. Death is something you fear. If you die, you don’t just get cast back to the nearest waypoint. You run the risk of losing any unspent XP or precious humanity points. Never mind fleeing from ghosts in brooding catacombs. Dark Souls can happily scare the crap out of you in broad daylight, with something as simple as a giant insect dive-bombing your head as you cross a narrow walkway.

All of which is why Dark Souls has a reputation of being a colossal beast, but also so addictive. If a game’s capable of making you grin with each new item you furtively recover, imagine how it feels to stand over a slain boss. On a minute to minute level, though, what makes Dark Souls moreish is its suffocating consistency. That down-to-earth, tactile combat is a reason to play Dark Souls in and of itself, but it also functions to immerse you in the game’s similarly plausible world.

What defines Dark Souls is the moment you decide you’re literally out of your depth, and turn the hell around, with all your precious XP intact, to go explore somewhere else. But for the most part, you won’t do that. You Will Die.

You’re not completing levels, or even doubling back in the Metroidvania style. You’re just exploring, taking step after nervous step through a foul wonderland that oscillates between great cruelty, and moments of sweet relief. Its great achievement is in not feeling like a game world at all, much as Minecraft didn’t, and it’s a similar joy to explore. This simply feels like a place where you really, really shouldn’t be, where every step is heavy with dread.

Let’s put it this way – it’s not the petrifying Capra Demon boss that defines Dark Souls. It’s not the key he drops, that leads you to a room where you fight a disgusting, cannibalistic chef. It’s not the labyrinthine sewer that the chef guards, or the village you find beneath the sewer, or the putrid moat the village is built above. It’s not the nauseating creatures that live in the moat, nor is it the terrible beast that lays its eggs in them. It’s not the staircase you find behind her, leading you down still further. What defines Dark Souls is the moment you decide you’re literally out of your depth, and turn the hell around, with all your precious XP intact, to go explore somewhere else. But for the most part, you won’t do that. You Will Die.

Saving Dark Souls from the loneliness that haunted the open worlds of say, Metroid, is its online functionality, which was designed with the same blend of accuracy and fearless creativity that defines the rest of the game. Players can scratch messages into the ground, which are pulled at random into your own world. Watch Out For Wizard, you’ll find, lying ominously before a closed door. Or more dubious stuff still – Step Off, written over a chasm into blackest darkness.

More traditional multiplayer is limited to blue and black phantoms – other players invading your world, to help or assassinate you, for their own selfish aims. Offering some of those moments of relief are the game’s bloodstains. Touch one, and you’ll see the final seconds of a real-life player, which is a bit like opening a present. Perhaps you’ll get a poignant warning, as they flee from something you didn’t spot, or you’ll just laugh as they go cartwheeling lackadaisically off a ledge.

The mouse and keyboard controls in the Prepare to Die edition are a war crime. Losing the gentle acceleration of analog movement would have been bad enough, but the mouse doesn’t control the camera so much as wrestle it around on a rubber leash.

All of this survives, totally intact, in the PC port, with a single caveat – you must own a Xbox 360 pad, or suitable equivalent.

The mouse and keyboard controls in the Prepare to Die edition are a war crime. Losing the gentle acceleration of analog movement would have been bad enough, but the mouse doesn’t control the camera so much as wrestle it around on a rubber leash. Meanwhile, the GUI’s adaption to the keyboard is just awkward. All told, you could be playing on an emulator. If you don’t own a pad but somehow end up with Dark Souls running on your PC, remove the power cable from the back with a barge pole.

But if you do own a pad, and quickly grab this 80Kb fan hotpix, which unlocks the game’s resolution from 1024×720, you’ll be able to enjoy the definitive edition of Dark Souls until the Artorias of the Abyss DLC arrives for consoles this winter. That content’s packed in the PC version for free, and we’re pleased to announce that it’s… fine. It’s just fine.

The best thing we can say is that it’s not ungenerous. It’s three whole new areas for you to plunge through like a nervous knife, each packed with the epic bosses, new items, new spells and unsettling NPCs that you’ve come to expect during the rest of the game (Artorias of the Abyss is, sadly, squirreled away towards very end of Dark Souls).

You’ll cut off the tail of a chimera to use as a whip. You’ll descend deeper than you’ve ever been before. But throughout, there’s the niggling sense that this wasn’t the work of the entire From Software team.

This being DLC that’s basically a given, but it shouldn’t feel that way. The first new area, Royal Woods, repurposes a ton of art assets from Dark Souls’ other trembling forest of Darkroot Garden. The next area, Oolacile Township, is a definite high point – a cluster of slumped towers you have to pick your way down – but it fails to surprise in the way that Dark Souls’ best areas do. Finally, the Chasm of the Abyss itself is as barren, rather than as bleak, as the name implies. All of that said, of the four new bosses, the duel with the disturbingly fast Knight Artorias is my new favourite of any Souls game. Good luck with that.

The Verdict

The need for a pad mires an otherwise perfect port. This is Dark Souls, coming at us larger and more intimidating than ever. A dungeon crawler that understands that the crawling, the exploration, is as important as the combat. An action game that dares to teach us patience, and caution. A video game with respect for the player, that dares us to be an actual hero. Not once when you die does Dark Souls help you back up, not once does it let up in its astonishing quality or turn to padding, and not once do the ideas stop coming. Buy it.

By Quintin Smith

Lego Star Wars III: The Clone Wars Review

The Clone Wars offers an ambitious step up from previous games in the series, but a ton of small issues across the board lead to boredom and frustration.

The Good

  • Bold artistic design
  • Drop in/drop out cooperative play is a hoot.

The Bad

  • Few clear objectives and awful visual feedback
  • Exhausting bouts against respawning enemies
  • Lots of small control issues
  • Space combat is way too confining
  • No online option.

Lego Star Wars III: The Clone Wars encapsulates the far-reaching breadth of war. Space assaults pit plucky fighter crafts against monstrous battle cruisers; on land, a battalion of rocket-wielding clones take on a six-legged tank; and the entire affair is tied together with a sweeping story that includes dozens of characters from across the universe. This game is absolutely bursting with content, and the variety and scope of battles separates it from its much more restrictive forebearers. But all is not well in this far-away galaxy. Obtuse puzzles and directionless objectives force you to frequently stop your lightsaber-swinging fun to figure out what the heck you have to do next, and an assortment of control quirks have you fighting the game as often as you’re fighting the empire. These problems pervade every inch of this epic adventure, overshadowing improvements in other areas. The Clone Wars contains the lighthearted fun the series is known for, but frustration bubbles just below the surface in this uneven sequel.

Jar Jar to the rescue!

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The theatrical releases of Star Wars have been tapped dry at this point, so The Clone Wars draws its inspiration from television’s well. The animated series hasn’t ingrained itself into the popular culture quite like the beloved movies, however, which means there’s a chance you may not be familiar with the plight of Commander Cody and Wag Too. It’s easy enough to understand the gist of this mostly silent story, but a lot of the more esoteric references will be lost on casual fans of the franchise. Although this tale may go over your head at times, your eyes will be captivated nonetheless by the impressive visuals. In a marked step up from previous games in the series, Lego Star Wars III has a unique style all its own that meshes realistic environments with Lego characters and ships. Foliage-dense planets teeming with miniature droids are a sight to behold, and a variety beautiful vistas ensure there’s always another piece to this delectable puzzle. The nod toward realism does remove some of the Lego personality that defined the other games in the series, but it’s ultimately a worthy trade-off for the eye-catching landscapes throughout this adventure.

There are 18 distinct missions across 13 planets in The Clone Wars, and it can take more than 20 hours to reach the ending credits. Roughly half of the game should be familiar to series veterans. You stroll through tanker ships, desert towns, and all manner of alien environs solving puzzles and cutting down foes with your crew of merry do-gooders. Each character class has its own set of powers–for instance, Jedi can move items with the Force, droids can open locked doors, and clones can grapple up ledges–and you need to switch between them on the fly to solve puzzles and take down enemies. Whacking the environment to get studs is as addictive as ever, and there’s a good mix between puzzle solving and combat to ensure you don’t get bored. It’s a fun, though somewhat predictable, jaunt, but a number of small problems continually interfere with your enjoyment.

Ride that horned beast!

Ride that horned beast!

The most pressing issue is a lack of clear objectives. The Clone Wars does a poor job of pointing you in the right direction, and lousy visual feedback further hampers your chance for success. For instance, a door may flash red when you shoot it with your blaster, which means the door is destructible, but you have to guess how to blow it up. You may need to keep shooting it with your current character or switch to someone else with a different power, and there’s a chance no one in your party can destroy it. Basic explanations of how your actions are affecting the environment are absent in The Clone Wars, and this leads to lost hours while you dumbly explore every option and hope you happen upon a solution. Fundamental problems don’t stop there. Using the Force to move objects will give you new appreciation for Luke’s struggles on Dagobah. Telepathically maneuvering items is incredibly sloppy, yet the game demands that you be ultraprecise at times. Switching between characters requires you to be standing very close together, which is a serious inconvenience when your party is split up. Respawning enemies are a tiresome annoyance that makes it difficult to focus on the puzzles blocking your path. And targeting is a complete mess. You’re just as likely to select an ally as you are the intended object in the background, and this ineptitude turns even breezy diversions into painstaking affairs.

The Clone Wars doesn’t confine itself to the narrow corridors of previous games in the series. There are large-scale battles as well, and these offer a vastly different experience. In a nod toward real-time strategy games, during some missions, you need to build up your base to overthrow the invading forces. A dozen or so small camps dot the landscape, and you control each area by clearing out your enemies. Once you’ve taken over, you build cannons, barracks, shields, and other tactical tools in an attempt to make your army strong enough to declare victory. It’s a neat concept that doesn’t quite capitalize on its promise. First of all, the levels are so large that it takes forever to jet from one place to another. There are vehicles to speed up the locomotion, but this doesn’t help matters. You spend more time schlepping from one place to another than planning assaults, and this leads to tiring monotony. Second, arbitrary camera restrictions limit your power. You need cannons to destroy some of your enemy’s structures. Once these big weapons are erected, you hop inside and point where you want to fire. But oftentimes the camera inexplicably snaps back after you’ve locked on, and the constant pull and tug with your view makes it unnecessarily difficult to launch an offensive volley.

Hey, how come he gets four lightsabers?

Hey, how come he gets four lightsabers?

The final part of the Clone Wars experience is the space battles. These are some of the most exhilarating sequences in the game. Lasers flood the screen, enemy ships scream in from all sides, and explosions dot the black sky with red flames. The uplifting score and bombastic sound effects add to the chaos, creating a volatile atmosphere that captures the galactic rush from the movies. But just like every other aspect of this disappointing game, the potential is limited by a number of festering problems. The controls are the biggest culprit here. Movement is jerky and unintuitive, so you’re frequently turning in the wrong direction or performing a barrel roll when you just wanted to cruise around like the Jedi stud that you are. And though the vast expanse of space is spread out all around you, you’re restricted to moving on a 2D plane (you can’t fly higher or lower). It feels stifling to move in such a limited space, and the hokey method of exploring other sections diminishes the immersion. You have to latch on to what looks like a satellite tow service to shoot to another plane, and having to artificially travel to higher parts of space makes you feel like a Jedi baby who still has his training saber.

Cooperative play elevates every part of this adventure to a higher level. The pacing and control issues aren’t nearly as damaging with a friend by your side, and two brains can figure out the obtuse puzzles more quickly than one. If you’re feeling feisty, you can challenge your friend in head-to-head matches in the RTS mode, and that provides mild entertainment for a little while. Unfortunately, there’s no online option, so another good idea is tempered by subpar execution. And that is the theme that carries through every aspect of The Clone Wars. This game is a noteworthy leap in a number of key areas, especially visuals and gameplay diversity, but these positive steps are hindered by archaic design choices and a lack of fine-tuning. The Clone Wars proves that you need more than ambition to shine.

By Tom Mc Shea

Can the king of the dugout retain its crown?

Dust off your suit, prepare your best post-match clichés and get ready for some fallout with a nefarious agent or two, because you’re about to be flung back into the cut-and-thrust world of football management. The most successful series of football manager sims is looming on the horizon, ready to leave an array of broken relationships and destroyed social lives in its wake. While you may well be well into the second half of the 2026 season with Hereford United, having taken them from League Two to the upper echelons of the Champions League in last year’s game, the simple fact is you’re going to have to bite the bullet and upgrade to Football Manager 2013 at some point.

FM2012, quite literally, is so last year.

After promising ‘the best game we’ve ever made’ and a ‘genre-defining experience’, the team at Sports Interactive certainly had a lot to live up to heading into this release. FM2012 wasn’t a revolution, it leaned towards improving already existing elements and perhaps sought to solidify its position as the number game in the genre, which it undoubtedly is. Nothing else even comes close. The question is: has the developer been tinkering with a formula that really doesn’t need tinkering with? And more importantly, are the changes substantial enough to warrant a new purchase? After all, no-one really wants to shell out for a completely new game with minimal changes that could have been covered by simply downloading an update, and while FM2012 didn’t quite commit that sin, it certainly didn’t reinvent the wheel.

The good news is that FM2013 feels like an almost completely new gaming experience. The interface is brand spanking new, and the slick way the windows move in and out – combined with the new arrangement of icons and navigational options – is a breath of fresh air and genuinely does give the impression of a whole new game. Of course, this all takes a little getting used to, but I wouldn’t want to fall into the lazy trap of suggesting that any change is a bad thing just because I liked the last game so much. This is all progress, and more importantly it’s progress that doesn’t just see a steady increase in complexity in the game for the sake of it.

In the full game there are still issues of repetition though, as the spectre of meetings rears its head again. Press conferences before and after each game; meetings with agents for transfers; meetings with players about their general mindset / wellbeing and meetings with your staff about having more meetings with your players. More meetings than Tiger Woods going speed dating.

Yes, you can send your assistant (who now also gets more involved on match days offering his manager advice throughout the game: who to close down, how to change formation to better suit the opponent etc) to these press conferences and ask your Director of Football to take care of some of the other responsibilities (another new feature which works quite well should you wish to keep your tracksuit on at all times), and the good news is this won’t affect your chances of securing other gainful employ in the future. The type of manager you are is clearly displayed on your information page, but it’s little more than window dressing. When it comes to applying for that big international job, you’re judged on your results as all managers should be.

On the subject of tracksuits, the new and improved training feature is comprehensive to say the least, but will undoubtedly be overwhelming for newcomers to the game. It’s been completely overhauled, and is now in the shape of a calendar so a manager can plan his training regime based on the games coming up, with an added ability to adjust the focus of the training on a game-to-game basis. It is still possible to train individually and the option to train one of your players in a new position also remains. This new setup actually works quite well; over time you really do feel that your extra effort is paying off as your team starts to score more from set pieces after your work on that, for instance. Another nice new feature is the freedom to give your side a rest day after a game, which helps morale when the team’s in good nick.

It’s easy to imagine true disciples dedicating hours to how they train their charges, and for the purist this will undoubtedly make the experience all the more immersive. But for the casual player it’s far more tempting to simply brief your good old assistant again, and provided you’ve got a good’un the results shouldn’t be too different.

The good news to combat Football Manager’s almost relentless quest for realism at the behest of game-playing perfection is the introduction of the new Classic mode. It, almost unbelievably, manages to row halfway back to the boathouse without losing any of its authenticity and really does make for a hugely enjoyable, much faster-paced experience. I may be biased as I remember playing this game way back when it was possible to complete a whole season over the course of an all-nighter, lifting the FA Cup just before my first university lecture of the day. But this really is a more entertaining way to play the game. I salute Sports Interactive for realising that not everyone has huge swathes of time to dedicate to the game. This will not only attract new players but it’ll tempt back the old ones who were sadly lost along the way too.

At some point over the last few years this game became complicated. Very complicated. And it appears that Sports Interactive is now not only happy to acknowledge this fact, they’re prepared to cater for the more fly-by-night player. It’s a welcome change in perspective in what seemed at one point to be an endless quest for authenticity at the behest of pure enjoyment. This game is better simply because it is wholly flexible in letting you decide what you want it to be, and for that we can only applaud Football Manager 2013.

The Verdict

What we’re all looking for in a game of Football Manager is that almost intangible ‘just one more game’ addiction, that feeling that you need just one more game. It’s the X-factor that separates Football Manager from the rest and the good news is that this version still has it. Sure, it’s a deep and complicated beast and occasionally it’s impossible to not feel powerless when things aren’t going your way, but that happens to managers all over the world in real life too, and that’s the point. Football Manager’s relentless strive for realism is sometimes its biggest fault, but with new modes and now new ways of playing it’s also managed to get that light touch back.

By Luke Moore

Forever war.

You have a gun when you first spawn in PlanetSide 2, which might inspire a slight amount of confidence. Then you look outside and see a line of tanks at your base’s entrance, all frantically pummeling the exterior with glowing explosive projectiles that light up the night. The sky is a fireworks display of swooping, dodging fighters trying to puncture each other and destroy enemy turrets and transports.  On the ground your teammates run and shoot and die amidst a network of small arms fire and healing beams. It’s utter, unrelenting chaos, and for a moment you may feel a stab of panic as you consider the impossibility of ever making a difference. Yet it’s not the kind of panic that sends you screaming away in terror. It’s the kind that sparks fascination, that makes you want to rush to the front lines and pull the trigger even if you have no idea who’s attacking or why.

Play for a few hours more and you likely still won’t have a good idea of what everything is and what it all does. Developer Sony Online Entertainment isn’t interested in telling a story, and the in-game tutorial menus do a poor job of explaining PlanetSide 2’s mechanics. If you play Terran Republic, you know that the red guys are your friends, the blue guys who look almost exactly like you are trying to kill you and so are the purple guys who use way cooler energy weapons. So you fight to control the planet of Auraxis, because if you don’t, the other two teams will keep slaughtering you and your friends, blowing up your tanks and taking your land until you’re pushed into a tiny corner of PlanetSide 2’s three huge, open territories and thoroughly mocked on message boards and social networks. It’s senseless war,  yet one that all involved are heavily invested in perpetuating because it’s so much fun to wage.

PlanetSide 2's fights can involve huge numbers of players and vehicles.

PlanetSide 2’s power is that all its frenzied conflicts are player-generated. SOE provides the map, the tools and rules for capturing territory, but beyond that the direction of approach, makeup of the attack force and method of assault is entirely up to you and your squad. You could roll 30 tanks through a valley to hammer the side of an Amp Station while 20 Light Assault soldiers jetpack over the base’s outer walls. You could airdrop an attack force right behind the enemy’s front lines. You could sneak into hostile territory with cloaked Infiltrators and hack all of your foe’s vehicle spawner consoles. Or you could give up and go attack a different base. There’s so much room for creativity regarding how you assemble, attack and defend, and so many variables in every fight that keep the action from stagnating, and yet despite the constant mess of explosions and gunfire, the gameplay never feels completely out of control. Victories require not only accurate shots, but intelligent target prioritization, situational awareness and a willingness to work with others and sacrifice personal glory for the benefit of the team.

While that may sound overwhelming, SOE makes it manageable with excellent class design. The basic classes should be familiar to any shooter fan. The Medic heals and revives, the Engineer repairs machines and sets up turrets, the Heavy Assault class gets light machine guns and can use rockets to fight back against enemy vehicles. While that may not sound too exciting, each class is far more versatile than they might seem at first. The Light Assault class’ jetpack, for instance, can lift you over a rock in the landscape to escape incoming fire. It’s also useful for floating down from high ledges without taking falling damage or drifting down to safety from the pilot seat of doomed aircraft or accessing rooftops to crouch down and pick off unsuspecting enemies running around below. You feel like a capable combatant even if you’re best suited to support or snipe defenders from afar. Still, the class designs ensure you need to rely on your friends to make any significant progress, which fosters a powerful sense of camaraderie and makes victories feel all the more rewarding, and losses all the more demoralizing, because of the sheer magnitude of the combined effort required.

Enter battles on foot, in aircraft or in a tank.

Should the demands of battle shift, as they often do, it’s usually no trouble to switch roles. Weapon and vehicle stations are common on Auraxis, and by interacting with them you can spawn four-wheelers or air transports or swap your sniper rifle for a superpowered but slow MAX suit. Within minutes the style of gameplay can change from corridor-style shooting inside Tech Plants and Bio-Labs to long-distance exchanges of rockets and sniper shots as attackers are pushed back from a base and out across a nearby valley or canyon-spanning bridge. While hardly any fighting occurs in the empty, wide open spaces between bases, there’s enough diversity in landscape formations and base designs that fights around capture points never really get dull, especially because the world is open and if you need additional tanks, you and your squad can simply go back to a previously conquered base to spawn them and drive them back.

It certainly helps that PlanetSide 2 actually feels like a shooter. The raw, primal thrill of staring down iron sights and shredding an enemy with a controlled burst of raucous fire from an assault rifle is very much present. Guns sound and feel like they have weight, like they’re not just floating nothings onscreen that deal pure math damage but instead spew out superheated projectiles of sci-fi lethality. Even the Vanu’s energy weapons are exciting to fire, and benefit from an especially neat reload animation of their puck-like magazines. The visual feedback you get while peppering an adversary with gunfire until their shields shatter in a puff of polygons is just as satisfying as pulling the trigger.

Vehicles provide yet another entirely different mode of play. Multi-seat armored transports, tanks and four wheelers are all simple to control, but expect to accidentally smash into mountainsides the first few times you jump into an airborne attack craft. In the fighters you can zip around the skies and dogfight with enemy craft in high altitude chases or dive low and glide around hills, circle bases and use the terrain as a way to escape and gain an advantage. As a team you can also pile into larger aircraft to man multiple weapon systems to harass enemy ground forces or serve as part of an invasion fleet and drop passengers directly into an enemy installation. Like with the class variety, the vehicles add plenty of inventive options for organized groups of players to conquer more of Auraxis.

Despite its generic sci-fi art style, PlanetSide 2 can still look great.

SOE’s excellent map system ensures finding these battles is never much of a problem. The map displays active combat zones and lets you fall via drop pod into besieged bases. Since launch there’ve been plenty of players online so finding a fight with more than 50 per side is easy, and sometimes you’re treated to truly colossal encounters as all three factions converge on a single point. Capturing territory isn’t solely for pride, either, but gives your faction benefits like additional vehicles or turret heat reduction or boosted resource allocation, so strength comes not only from having more territory, but also having the right territory.

You’ll also use the map to select a respawn point when you die, which is a critical element of any battle. It’s tough to keep the pressure on an enemy base if you have take a two minute ride back to the fight every time, so SOE provides ways to activate additional spawn markers around an active combat zone. You’ll rarely find a battle without a few parked Sunderers — transport vehicles that can be deployed as spawn points and class-switching stations. The presence of even a single deployed Sunderer can have a significant effect, and along with squad spawn beacons, is yet another way for the priorities of a fight to shift only the fly. If the defenders are paying attention they’ll emerge from hiding to blast any Sunderer in range. The opposing team’s Engineers must then dedicate their short virtual lives to blasting their repair guns at the Sunderer’s armor to ensure continued access to easy reinforcements. It’s yet another eddy within the larger maelstrom of battle that adds variety and rewards coordination.

As tends to be the case in many online shooters these days, the more you fight, the more you unlock.  PlanetSide 2’s extensive progression system lets you modify classes, weapons and even the vehicles. Though there’s always a danger free-to-play games like PlanetSide 2 could turn into aggravating pay-to-win experiences, SOE has built a system where it’s simply not possible to immediately buy the best all-around character. New guns for classes and weapons for tanks and vehicles can be purchased with real money, but are all also purchasable with virtual currency earned by playing the game. It’s going to take many, many hours of play to earn enough virtual currency to afford new weapons, but even so, the weapons available to each class for free are still extremely deadly in combat.

PlanetSide 2 features an open world and a day/night cycle.

In another smart move, the upgrades for every class and weapon are only purchasable with virtual currency, so there’s no way for a rich player to log in, drop a huge amount of cash and instantly gain access to everything. There’s also no way to directly purchase virtual currency, though there are several ways to boost the rate at which it’s earned. In this way, playing without paying doesn’t feel like you’re at an unconquerable disadvantage, and many of the upgrades force you to give up something useful in order to take advantage of them.

Though there will be statistical discrepancies across classes depending on purchasing decisions, the huge scale and scope of PlanetSide 2’s battles serve to keep the playing field level. Even a tremendously skilled and upgraded sniper isn’t going to have much luck staying alive once the opposing team counters with sustained fire from ten tanks. Individual skill will always be overruled by superior teamwork, but even so, it never feels like you’re completely worthless if you’re not part of a highly organized outfit (PlanetSide 2’s term for guild). You’re also given experience for assists, heals, repairs and captured territory so progress isn’t only possible for scoring kills, which makes teamwork feel more worthwhile even if you don’t join a squad.

In addition to continuing to unlock upgrades for your class, the sheer spectacle of the PlanetSide 2 experience is a strong incentive to keep logging in. SOE’s generic sci-fi art style isn’t going to impress anyone, but when the setting sun’s light shines across the slopes and rocks of Auraxis’ varied topography while aircraft zoom overhead and columns of tanks stream in to reinforce an attack, it instills an irresistible excitement. The swarming, exploding insanity of war is constant in PlanetSide 2, and deeply affecting because the scenes are not pre-programmed routines, but the results of unpredictable human decision-making. Moments like these make it easy to insert your own imagined stories of galactic conquest and perseverance against ruthless foes into the narrative void left by SOE, so that afterwards you’re nearly bursting with the need to share your tales of conquest with friends.

PlanetSide 2's payment system doesn't get in the way of the fun.

It’s too bad, then, that PlanetSide 2 still suffers from polish issues. Weird bugs like floating health beams and jittering player models and glitchy animations can interfere with play, and considering how fast and frantic the action is, any spikes of lag can really mess up a firefight. Though the bugs can be irritating, they never ruin the overall experience, and are certainly worth putting up to enjoy everything PlanetSide 2 does so very well. I tested PlanetSide 2 at cranked up settings using a 580 GTX and it ran at an acceptable framerate, which was surprising considering how much can be going on onscreen. It’s still not the smoothest experience, though, so hopefully SOE will push out updates to address some of these issues in the coming months.

The Verdict

The scale of PlanetSide 2’s battles is often breathtaking, as lines of tanks fire at bases while aircraft light up the sky and hundreds of players fill the scene with healing beams and lethal weapons fire. With versatile classes, deep progression systems and various styles of air and ground vehicles, there’s no shortage of ways to contribute to a fight, and on a coordinated team in PlanetSide 2’s open environments, Sony Online Entertainment’s game of nonstop war can be a truly incredible competitive experience. While there are still some polish issues to work out, PlanetSide 2 is one of the best online shooters you can play.

By Charles Onyett

Swarm Review

Gnarly deaths and cute aliens make for a fun combo in this challenging action game.

The Good

  • Lots of creative maneuvers to pull off
  • Clever rewards for killing swarmites
  • High-score hunting is addictive.

The Bad

  • 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.

Swarmites have a few cool moves at their disposal.

Swarmites have a few cool moves at their disposal.

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.

The protagonists are cute, but expendable.

The protagonists are cute, but expendable.

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.

By Nathan Meunier

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