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Sin and Punishment: Successor of the Skies Review

This satisfying and energetic on-rails shooter impresses with its relentless variety.

The Good

  • Striking, imaginative design
  • Satisfying and varied action
  • Always challenging, never cheap
  • Frequent, standout boss fights.

The Bad

  • Weak two-player mode.

UK REVIEW– For those who enjoyed the N64′s Sin and Punishment, either on import or later via Virtual Console download, this glorious Wii follow-up, also an on-rails shooter, is a no-brainer. Sin and Punishment: Successor of the Skies (known as Sin and Punishment: Star Successor in North America) improves on its predecessor in every respect. For everyone else, this game’s nonstop creativity will be a treat, too.

To master dodging and attacking at once is tricky but satisfying.

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Successor of the Skies is set years after the first game and follows two kids called Isa and Kachi as they do battle with military types, mechs, and outlandish animals. It all takes place in, around, and far above a future Japan. Isa is the son of the original game’s main characters. Kachi appears to be, but isn’t, a young girl. The plot, such as it is, may seem like nonsense, and there’s not much more to it than laid out here. But that’s no complaint. This is a game about spectacle and action, not story, and it manages both very well.

You play from a third-person perspective, pointing and shooting with the Wii Remote and using the nunchuk to dodge around the screen while you’re scrolled through the game’s seven stages. The Classic Controller and GameCube Controller are also supported, but the motion-control shooting works so well these are hardly called for. Kachi and Isa each have a melee attack for hitting enemies who get up close and a charged shot for doing massive, explosive damage. Unlike in the original game, you can fly–using a jetpack if you’ve picked Isa or a hoverboard if you’re playing as Kachi. This gives Kachi or Isa full roam of the screen where you traverse with the analog stick and perform a quick dodge manoeuvre via the Z button.

The game’s abundance of ideas and variety of action is admirable. Sometimes the camera will swing to one side, turning it into a side-scrolling or vertically scrolling shooter. At another point, the game briefly becomes a side-on brawler, giving a twist to the finale of one boss fight. The quality and variety of visual design is likewise dazzling, to the point where the sometimes less-than-pretty textures are eclipsed. The on-rails experience takes in sky fortresses, space stations, lava submarines, haunted forests, and underwater tunnels. These are variously populated with soldiers, elaborate robots, chimera-like beasts, bioluminescent fish, and screen-filling bosses. You encounter bosses and minibosses frequently and, like the environments and ordinary enemies, they are hugely, gratifyingly inventive. A voodoo-styled boss with a bird skull on her head fires exploding lotuses and time-bending ravens at you. Another boss transforms into a colossal manta ray and then into a school of flipping, laser-equipped dolphins. Each boss is uniquely memorable and, happily, tough enough to make each encounter feel epic.

Each screen-filling boss is unique, memorable, and suitably tough.

Each screen-filling boss is unique, memorable, and suitably tough.

As is traditional, the boss battles are multistage affairs in which you chip away at a vast health bar that passes through all the colours of the rainbow on its way down to zero. In the absence of checkpoints during these battles (elsewhere, checkpoints are generously doled out), the game is at its most brutally challenging but it never quite strays into frustrating difficulty. That said, the ability to switch between difficulty modes on the fly would still be welcome. As it is, the only way to switch among easy, normal, and hard is to start again or to have already unlocked that stage at that difficulty on a previous play-through. An experienced player on a high-score (that is, no-death) run might manage one of these in just three or four hours, but the average player should expect up to six hours for a single play-through. Though it’s not an especially long game (it doesn’t need to be), its replay value is high, with online leaderboards for players to compete on and personal records to beat.

Scoring is based on a multiplier system that rewards stringing together kills without getting hit, so dodging is crucial. There’s often a single, small safe patch on the screen, with the rest filled with lasers, fire, floating mines, boulders, missiles, and other glowing, exploding, or destructive items. This leaves you navigating a hazard-filled screen with one hand and shooting with the other. Doing both at once, with one eye on a distant enemy’s movement and another on the shifting pattern of deadly things in the foreground, is key, and there’s a great deal of satisfaction to be had in mastering it.

The two-player mode is a letdown. Rather than putting a second character on the (admittedly crowded) screen, the mode adds a second targeting reticle. The second player becomes not much more than an assistant; he or she may be good for a little extra damage, picking up some extra points, and clearing the screen of hazards but has no special attacks. With nothing to do but paint targets with the Wii Remote, the second player’s experience is diluted beyond recognition. The weak co-op offering aside, Sin and Punishment: Successor of the Skies impresses with its gratifying action and wealth of ideas. Wii owners owe it to themselves to experience a high-energy on-rails shooter with this diverse and fresh-feeling game.

By Jane Douglas

Total War Battles: Shogun Review

The thought of taking the Total War experience and cramming it into a downloadable title must have seemed a little like trying to condense a whale into a single sushi roll, but Creative Assembly managed to somewhat successfully do it for iOS and Android early this year with Total War Battles: Shogun. Now it’s out for the PC on Steam, revealing an increasingly common trend for mobile games to work their way to the PC instead of the other way around. Make no mistake –Total War Battles: Shogun has very little in common with the mainstream entries of the franchise, but it does a commendable, if qualified, job of playing wakizashi to Shogun 2’s katana.

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You could be forgiven for thinking this isn’t Total War at first glance. Total War Battles: Shogun basically comes down to constructing a base on the left side of the screen and sending out various soldiers in a roughly straight line to wipe out the general on the right. It never really gets more complex aside from considering each unit’s abilities, and thus it shares more in common with Plants vs. Zombies than last year’s masterful Shogun 2. It’s a good decision for the format, for the most part. It embraces players who’ve been frightened away by the main series’ boggling cascades of statistics by even stripping combat units of health bars, and it sweeps aside the daunting blank slate of Total Wars’ open battlefields for structured hexagonal grids.

Indeed, it’s not so much of a war simulator as a puzzle. That emphasis reveals itself from the moment you start setting down your buildings for resources and troop production, as each possesses a unique footprint that must be paired with another for maximum efficiency within a limited space. Thus your mines and marketplace need to be close to your headquarters (as well as positioned to take advantage of any resource deposit bonuses), and you need to position your monasteries away from the mines because the monk units can’t meditate with all that racket going on. Botch up the placement, though, and you’ll be forced to finish the match without some of the more advanced buildings since you don’t have anywhere to put them. It’s generally a nice touch that helps season the entire experience with a hefty dose of strategy (but also a dash of frustration), particularly since you’ll need to get much of this puzzling out of the way before the enemy’s troops start marching into view.

But even if you do fall behind, Shogun offers a decent amount of freedom for troop placement and allows you to worm your way out of tight situations with its intuitive rock, paper, scissors combat system. Archers soften up incoming infantrymen, for instance, pikemen counter incoming cavalry, and riflemen make quick work of archers. The main challenge springs from their inability to retreat from their relentless forward march (a nod to the Japanese code of Bushido, we’re told), so if you’ve been overbold in rushing your troops to the opposing side, it’s possible for the enemy to spawn troops behind your main force and march on your general with impunity. Further nods to strategy arise from a timer that keeps troops from switching to higher or lower rows on the grid to a minimum, and numerous chunks of terrain allow you to take advantage of bottlenecks and the like. In time, these miniature struggles become so challenging that they sweep away most doubts that Shogun is enjoyable as a strategy game in its own right.

One of Shogun’s greatest strengths is that these little battles are worth watching, which plays nicely into Creative Assembly’s decision to strip units of any visible statistics. Troops deploy in groups of four or less on the grid, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that a lone surviving ronin doesn’t have a chance against four incoming pikemen. Just when you’re sure your little swordsman’s going to die, he’ll thrust forward and take out one of the pikemen with a direct stab to the chest. He’ll then whittle one of the others to death with a few slashes before the others finally kill him, thus rendering them a lesser threat than they were. It’s enough to add a welcome dash of unpredictability to every encounter, which makes the gameplay a little more challenging than its basic mechanics would imply. Even better, this all takes place against the backdrop of a richly stylized Japanese landscape, and in its best moments, it’s reminiscent of playing in a colorful ukiyo-e woodcut.

There’s also a stereotypical story about clan betrayal and blackmail wedged in between the 23 missions of the campaign, and while it benefits from some competent voice work, it never achieves any greater meaning aside from justifying the arrival of a new unit or weapon. Still, the pacing is impeccable for the most part, allowing you to master the strengths and weaknesses of each unit and to improve your skills at laying out your buildings before the battles become punishingly difficult about halfway through. You’ll find yourself better prepared for these later missions if you tackle the numerous side missions for extra experience points, but you’ll also discover that they don’t cover everything if you play long enough. For that, you’ll eventually have to head to the cash shop, which has experience packages ranging from $.49 to $9.99. The side themselves are usually enjoyable affair, focused as they are on specific objectives such as building a set amount of buildings or killing a certain number of enemies, but many suffer from plodding pacing and exceptionally challenging situations that seem designed to nudge you to throw in the towel and fork out some more cash.

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Unfortunately, its mobile pedigree also shows all too well, particularly in Shogun’s odd insistence on holding down the left mouse button on a unit’s icon for a couple of seconds before a tooltip pops up with some information. On the PC, a simple right click or a mouse over would have sufficed. It also suffers from the lack of any kind of online multiplayer mode, which seems all but unthinkable for an entry in the Total War franchise, and more so since the iPad version at least had a local multiplayer option. Instead, its replay value rests on six short skirmish maps and their three difficulty settings, which seems adequate for a mobile release but not for the PC.

The Verdict

Total War Battles: Shogun might be an entirely different game from to its legendarily robust relatives, but it nevertheless manages to provide some semblance of the depth and strategy the series is known for while extending an open hand to newcomers. Yet that was also true of the mobile version, too, and considering this release’s omission of a multiplayer mode and its puzzling reluctance to fully adapt touchscreen controls for the PC port, this version limps a few steps behind. That’s not to say that there’s not plenty of fun in store here, though, and its story, 10-hour campaign, and numerous challenges combine to justify its $7.99 price tag despite its comparative shortcomings.

By Leif Johnson

Hoodwink Review

Hoodwink image

A dystopian world where gun-toting anthropomorphs, recycled human brains plunked down onto metal robot bodies, and hippy rebels all co-exist under the oppressive thumb of a trigger-happy pharmaceutical company sounds like a neat setting to dig into. It could be, really, except Hoodwink totally botches its inherent potential from the get-go. Almost every major step of the way in this insipid, barely hour-long point-and-click adventure feels like a lesson in how not to design a game.

Navigating Hoodwink’s story might be a lot more enjoyable if it made some modicum of sense. Roguish protagonist Michael Bezzle (M. Bezzle)’s adventure kicks off with a night out on the town to pilfer the items he needs to propose to his girlfriend Francesca. Most of your time spent fiddling around with rote fetch quests in the dirty slums of Global-1 is dedicated to this seemingly mundane quest, yet sporadic encounters with a cat-detective and the comically oafish UniCorp troops hint at bigger matters afoot. Wisps of frayed plot threads pop-up along the way, but none of them really come together to explain or intrigue. This total lack of cohesiveness comes to a head at the awkwardly-placed cliffhanger ending that does precious little to inspire me to play a sequel in order to find out what the heck is going on, assuming one ever gets made.

It doesn’t help that things get off to a rough start. The impact of the clever narrative slight-of-hand that unfolds in the opening scene introducing Michael is lost amidst some of the most unwieldy point-and-click controls I’ve encountered in a long time. Simply moving around to access specific areas of the screen and interacting with objects is a constant wrestling match. Changing the camera angle and transitioning between areas is triggered by clicking vague hotspots around the environment, rather than walking over to where you want to go. While this will sound familiar to adventure gaming vets, the way its implemented here just doesn’t work that well.

After I accidentally walked past a crucial puzzle hotspot sitting on the back wall following a brief cinematic, it took me several minutes of cursing and frantic trial-and-error clicking to figure how to get back there. I knew what I needed to do. The game just wouldn’t let get there without a fight. This particular issue is less prevalent in the open areas found further along in the trek, but most forms of movement and interaction throughout Hoodwink’s brief jaunt are awkward and sluggish at best — and that’s when they’re not glitching out.

In several instances, using a staircase caused the camera to get stuck on the wrong floor, forcing me to restart the game from scratch. Wonky pathfinding also occasionally made Michael walk in the opposite direction of where I intended him to go before looping around to his destination in a bizarre roundabout way. These funky moments stand out among the more general feelings of frustration that set in when trying to get around.

Hoodwink’s poorly conceived puzzles are far from inventive, and most boil down to fetching objects and bringing them to the obvious spot where they’re needed. Some puzzle solutions are absurdly disconnected from their objective, like one early-on that has you hunting down matches, smoking a cigar, and cranking a machine on the wall to reveal the item you’re hunting for. Others are either too basic to begin with or are ruined by the erratic hint system, which alternately tells you exactly what you need to do next or spits out vague leads. There’s a rare instance or two where interactive mini-games have you turning cranks or catching bugs, but these tasks are tackled within seconds and add very little to the experience. It’s not terribly hard to figure out what to do simple because there’s barely anything to interact with in the environments to begin with.

The lack of puzzle creativity carries over into the one-dimensional characters that they frequently hinge upon too. Playful stereotypes abound, from the flower child hippie spouting “stick it to The Man” rhetoric to the agitated Asian food vendor peddling rat burgers in bad English, but they’re more hokey than humorous. Dialogue alternates between cheesy and obnoxious too, and while some of the voice work is well done, most of it is overdone. All of this is a shame, because the cel-shaded artwork is really quite good, and the setting itself is an interesting place to explore. Unfortunately, everything else is pretty weak.

The Verdict

The cool art direction and quirky sci-fi world get squandered on some truly uninspired adventure gaming drudgery. The best part about a game shouldn’t be the fact that it’s over quickly. With an hour or so of dull, confusing point-and-click frustration that resembles an expensive tech demo rather than a full release, Hoodwink definitely lives up to its name.

By Nathan Meunier

Bright Fuzzy Goomba?

Few games in history were so saddled with unreachable expectations as Doom 3. With a huge pair of decade-old shoes to fill, and the hungry eyes of PC gamers everywhere fixed on them, id Software had undertaken mission: impossible – to create a Doom game honoring the series’ traditions while keeping in step with an FPS landscape transforming rapidly in the wake of Half-Life. While a quick glance at old reviews would seem to indicate an unqualified success, you don’t have to look far to find fans who were less than pleased with the results. After all, Doom 3 is about as much of a traditional FPS as Resident Evil 6 is traditional survival-horror, and sometimes change simply isn’t what players want.

Dead Space before Dead Space?

Eight years later and sans expectations, Doom 3: BFG Edition feels like it’s arrived at the perfect time. You get the best looking version of Doom 3 ever presented on consoles, the Resurrection of Evil expansion, a solid new 8 level mini-campaign, plus Doom 1 and 2 with most of their expansions. Though certain elements of this re-release feel dialed in, and some of its visuals and mechanics date it pretty clearly, the quality of the game itself shines through in a way it couldn’t have for players with a Doom 2 sized chip on their shoulder.

Doom 3 casts you as the newest transfer to a civilian research outpost on Mars, where the Union Aerospace Corporation has begun analyzing artifacts excavated from a recent archeological dig. As anyone who’s watched any movie ever could probably have predicted, things take a turn for the demonic pretty quickly, and before long Hell is both figuratively and literally breaking loose all over Mars City.

In 2012, Doom 3: BFG Edition feels like it’s arrived at the perfect time.


Many games drop players into a world on the verge of going awry, but few ever do it as compellingly as Doom 3. Corporate propaganda disguised as public service announcements spews forth from information kiosks as overstressed employees toil at their workstations. You can zip through to make with the shooty-shooty if you like, but taking the time to read in-office correspondences and listen to the well-voiced audio logs invokes a Weyland-Yutani vibe that makes Mars City feel truly doomed before you so much as fire a shot. Doom 3 uses this strong sense of location to get your buy-in early, which makes its sudden decent into madness believable and frightening.

Intelligent (if slightly aggressive) lighting helps thicken the atmosphere, lending the complex an appropriate sense of soulless sterility before the inevitable demonic invasion, and a macabre, horror film menace afterwards. While it isn’t technically impressive by today’s standards, it’s applied artfully, elevating simple monster appearances to the kind of jump scares Resident Evil used to care about delivering. Anyone with a godly gaming PC experienced this back in ’04, but for those who only experienced Doom 3 as a watered-down console release on the original Xbox, BFG Edition is a real treat. Even some PC owners couldn’t have run it on the highest resolution at a blazing 60 frames per second as it’s presented here.

Doom 3 is, in every way, a post-Half Life FPS. It’s impossible to ignore the influence Valve’s opus had on id’s big sequel. The slower pace, the added emphasis on story, and the inclusion of light adventure elements were all radical departures for the franchise. Where Doom 1 and 2 were all about circle strafing while unloading hundreds of rounds into a swarm of imps, Doom 3 is about managing your ammo as you fight one or two at a time. That might sound a bit underwhelming, but the tight quarters and myriad ways in which your foes can ambush you makes it anything but. Enemies lurk behind dense shadows, jump down out of ceiling vents, and crawl through mangled pipelines in every room, keeping you from ever feeling safe.

WHY AREN'T YOU SHOOTING YOUR GUN?

Adding to this air of desperation is the way Doom 3 adheres to the old tenets of FPS gameplay. Health doesn’t regenerate, and hell knights don’t exactly drop shotgun ammo, so every time you eat a fireball to the face, or hit nothing but air with a volley of plasma bolts, it really hurts. You know that’s another health pack or ammo pickup wasted – consequently, each one of those feels earned. While there’s just enough munitions to scrape by on in plain sight, exploration is handsomely rewarded. Heading down a dimly lit corridor feels terrifying, but knowing there could be a shiny new plasma rifle at the other end of it makes facing the darkness feel entirely worthwhile.

Doom 3 keeps you from ever feeling safe.


This same sense of urgency and risk/reward carries over nicely to the newly added “Lost Missions”. While it’s only a short stint following a member of the ill-fated Bravo team from the main story, it still adds a few more hours of satisfying carnage to an already lengthy campaign.

Unfortunately, for all its merit, BFG Edition fumbles the ball in a number of baffling ways. Load times are atrocious, (particularly on PS3), mandatory auto-saves interrupt gameplay, and there’s absolutely no way to customize your control settings.

The BFG Edition also packs a few bells and whistles in the form of additional content and gameplay tweaks, but it seems like for every step forward, another gets taken back. An option for 3D displays is present, though setups prone to ghosting will suffer from it greatly. Doom 1 and 2 are playable, along with the bulk of their additional campaigns (including Thy Flesh Consumed), but their presentation makes them feel like a bit of an afterthought. Plain, ugly menus sit between thick black bars due to the 4:3 aspect ratio, and there’s no way to return to the title select screen from either, forcing you to quit out and restart BFG entirely. You’ll be thankful that the flashlight in Doom 3 is now a toggle instead of a separate weapon you need to equip, but it no longer casts dynamic shadows, even in the PC version. These are minor issues, but they represent missed opportunities to make BFG Edition the ultimate Doom showcase it rightfully ought to have been.

The Verdict

Doom 3 is a very good game, probably better than you remember. For PS3 owners who’ve never gotten any of this content, it’s a particularly great deal. BFG Edition is a tough sell for the PC crowd, but console jockeys who missed it when it was the next big thing should dive on in. While several nagging issues can make it feel more like a rushed port rather than the definitive director’s cut it should be, there’s no denying that Doom 3 has improved with age.

By Vincent Ingenito

Castlevania: Harmony of Despair Review

It doesn’t give a good first impression, but Harmony of Despair delivers new and exciting gameplay opportunities for an old series.

The Good

  • Cooperative gameplay is fun online
  • Grinding is addictive
  • Offers a good challenge.

The Bad

  • Instructions are terrible
  • Some areas are too focused on multiplayer.

Cooperative play probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when reflecting on the Castlevania series, which built an identity around solitary adventures through a single, massive castle. Some ardent fans may even consider the major integration of such a feature sacrilegious, as in something that breaks Castlevania’s fundamental appeal. But, like it or not, cooperative play (supporting up to six players online and four through local play) is the crux of Castlevania: Harmony of Despair. There’s not much evidence to suggest that the formula should work or provide any semblance of entertainment beyond that of staring at a train wreck, but Harmony of Despair delivers a fun, new, and interesting approach to a franchise that has largely followed the same rubric for years.

It may not look like much, but Harmony of Despair has an addictive quality to it.

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That’s not to say that much of the game won’t feel immediately familiar to those who have played the last few Nintendo DS games or the PlayStation classic, Symphony of the Night. In fact, much of Harmony of Despair–from the characters to the maps–is a Frankenstein monster of sorts. It selects various visual and gameplay elements from those games and melds them into a cohesive experience. Accordingly, you have the option to select from seven characters from previous Castlevania outings: Soma Cruz, Alucard, Jonathan Morris, Shanoa, Charlotte Aulin, Julius Belmont, and Yoko Belnades. The last two characters were downloadable content in the Xbox Live version of the game but are included as a part of the package in the PlayStation Network version. These characters have skills and abilities unique to the games in which they appeared.

Alucard can still change forms and find spells to complement his strong melee attacks; Shanoa relies heavily on magic attacks that she can steal from enemies by absorbing their glyphs; Charlotte can learn new spells by blocking enemy projectiles with her special shield; and Jonathan Morris can learn new martial arts skills that are dropped by enemies upon defeat, which also applies to the traditional Castlevania subweapons he can use. What’s great about these characters is that they all have distinct strengths and weaknesses that balance out when you’re playing cooperatively. Alucard may have strong melee attacks, but his magic attacks are relatively weak, so he’s not that effective at a distance. But when he’s partnered up with characters that are more proficient with magic, the combination is devastating. Still, don’t expect to just waltz through Harmony of Despair’s seven levels, even when playing cooperatively. The game is hard, and it knows it’s hard.

Therefore, death is an intentionally common occurrence, but it’s not an entirely frustrating one, thanks to the surprisingly addictive way Harmony of Despair handles character growth. To put it simply, it’s all about grinding, but you’re not doing it in the traditional sense of defeating enemies and earning experience points to level up. Characters do have individual stats, but these can only be changed by purchasing weapons, items, or armor from the store or finding them in treasure chests scattered throughout a level (special items can also be found by simply defeating enemies). Because the money you earn in a level carries over even after death, you can grind for additional funds and then use them to procure stronger items that help you get through a level. You can do the same for items not found in the store, like new martial arts skills or subweapons for Jonathan, more magic spells for Charlotte and Shanoa, or more souls for Soma.

Some DLC that was in the XBLA version is playable from the get-go.

Some DLC that was in the XBLA version is playable from the get-go.

This might all seem like a supremely tedious experience, but there are a few things at work in Harmony of Despair that counterbalance the repetition. The first is that the grinding provides an immediate payoff, at least in terms of money. Purchasing new armor or weapons (for those who can equip weapons) is a quick way to beef up your character enough to take on the boss of a level. Magic users aren’t quite as fortunate because their spells are typically limited to the enemies they have access to, but even then, finding a new spell in a level can make all the difference in a fight. The second is the way the levels are structured. Because these aren’t the same huge castles from previous Castlevania games (they’re more like mini-castles), it’s a bit easier to entertain the idea of playing through an entire level again. Plus, it’s also worth mentioning that you can easily plot an initial course to the boss by viewing the entire map (performed by clicking the right analog stick), and once you’ve found an easy route, it takes very little time to get from the start to the end.

It doesn’t give a good first impression, but Harmony of Despair delivers new and exciting gameplay opportunities for an old series.

The Good

  • Cooperative gameplay is fun online
  • Grinding is addictive
  • Offers a good challenge.

The Bad

  • Instructions are terrible
  • Some areas are too focused on multiplayer.

Time is another important component of Harmony of Despair, as well as another affront to the Castlevania games of the past few years. You have 30 minutes to complete each level. If your teammates happen to die, they transform into skeletons, which allows them to move around and continue attacking. But if they die while in skeleton form, the countdown goes even faster. Teammates can revive fallen comrades by using the water of life, but sometimes that’s easier said than done when players are scattered across the map or if there is no water of life to be found in a level. Moreover, pausing the game doesn’t stop the clock or the equip screen that you can access through special books placed at various points in a level. At any rate, when the clock hits zero, the game ends. However, the bite-sized nature of the levels do not make it as frustrating as it sounds, and time hardly factors into the equation when you know the correct route.

Local co-op isn’t the best way to experience some Castlevania teamwork.

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There are some areas where Harmony of Despair falters. Some of the visual elements used in this game are well over 10 years old, and the attempt to shoehorn the visual style of numerous Castlevania games into one package enhances its Frankenstein-monster-like nature, particularly when it comes to the level of detail (or lack thereof) in the characters. The environments look fine, but absolutely nothing was built from the ground up for the PlayStation 3 version, so everything generally has a gritty, pixelated look that can make things difficult to see unless you’re sitting close to the TV. The four-player local cooperative mode also magnifies how bad that look gets. All players share the same screen real estate, forcing the game to zoom farther and farther out as players drift apart. Unless you already know the level very well, it can be incredibly difficult to fight enemies or search for treasures as they become miniscule specs. Online multiplayer is a better option, if not for the simple fact that it prevents some serious eye strain because players have their own screens. The music is passable guitar-heavy stuff–with some remixed Castlevania tunes included–but there’s nothing that really stands out. Controls feel a bit too loose at times with jumps, attacks, or spells not coming out when you want them to work. They feel friendlier as you progress through the game, but the controls aren’t as razor sharp as those found in the previous incarnations of the series.

Even with these complaints, Despair’s most egregious failure is the way it presents information on how to play the game properly and what different things mean in context of gameplay. There is an in-game manual that gives basic information, but neither it nor the character equip menus go into enough detail to explain how certain things work. Or, they’re simply not clear enough. How long does it take to capture spells? Can this character use different weapons? Is that spell really leveling up? These are questions you might often ask yourself. Of course, if you’ve played the past few Castlevania games, you should have no problem. But if you’ve been out of the loop since Symphony of the Night, you may find yourself tinkering with characters for quite some time in an attempt to learn on your own. The game’s Survival mode, which pits you against other players in a deathmatch arena of sorts, is a good place to see how your skills stack up and if you’re missing anything particularly noteworthy about your character. But overall, the game is in dire need of some proper documentation.

Racing against the clock provides some dramatic urgency.

Racing against the clock provides some dramatic urgency.

There are many smaller things that seem initially frustrating but make more sense the more you play the game. For example, not having access to your health items at all times; they can be accessed only before you start the level or by finding an equip point, and even then, you can equip only one type. But if you were able to use them at any time without equipping them, Harmony of Despair would be a much easier game. Along those same lines, other multiplayer grinding tropes–such as sharing items, weapons, and armor–would also make the game far easier because stronger players could simply give their best equipment to a teammate. Part of this game’s charm lies in building up your character and handily beating the boss, only to move to the next level to be thoroughly beaten down by a new boss.

Of course, there are some instances where Harmony of Despair caters more to the multiplayer cooperative experience than the single-player. For instance, most of the secret areas can be accessed only with other players, but in reality, that’s the best way to experience this new Castlevania. And it’s the optimal way to experience what may be a new and fun potential direction for the series to take.

By Giancarlo Varanini

Monopoly Streets Review

Monopoly Streets admirably brings the famed board game to life, but annoying characters and poor pacing keep this outing from rolling doubles.

The Good

  • Seeing your property develop is a nice visual treat
  • Entertaining minigame auctions
  • Plenty of options for custom play
  • Classic boards available
  • You can play as your Mii.

The Bad

  • Some character voices quickly grow annoying
  • Poor pacing
  • Only includes two cities.

For the greater part of a century, Monopoly has done just fine for itself as a game of abstractions, skillfully avoiding any questions of how a thimble and a howitzer can lead to rubbing shoulders with John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie. Even its Atlantic City locales have long eluded easy recognition in its native country, and key names like Pacific Avenue and Ventnor Avenue regularly conjure images of yellow-and-green cards instead of key streets on New Jersey’s Absecon Island. Monopoly Streets boldly backs away from this abstract tradition, allowing up to four contemporary players to see their properties develop in real time on a real city block. It’s a logical and welcome step for today’s consoles and a somewhat successful one, minus a few unfortunate flaws that spring from pacing, characterization, and a lack of choices among city-based boards.

Only in Monopoly can you be charged money to park a battleship at a train station.

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For the few uninitiated, Monopoly challenges players to build monopolies by acquiring up to three properties of the same color, whether by lucky dice rolls or trades with fellow players. Once you’ve acquired every property of a certain color, you’re free to improve the sites with houses and eventually hotels, forcing players who land on the spots to pay you rent. Eventually, your rent payments climb too high for other players to pay, which forces them into bankruptcy and hopefully leaves you the sole owner of the entire board.

Monopoly Streets takes this winning concept and places the familiar board spots on a gigantic block in Monopoly City, which features three-dimensional structures replacing the simple virtual boards of previous outings. None of the models are particularly memorable and all three consoles are harried by rough graphical edges in a few minor spots, but there are small surprises. For example, you encounter Monopoly’s familiar austere railroads brought to life as elevated train stations, Free Parking as a multilevel parking garage (bearing an amusing resemblance to New York’s Guggenheim Museum), and the dreary and decaying lots that signify mortgaged properties. Elsewhere, however, the concept fails to follow its own lead. Random non-player characters shamble through the streets, but they never acknowledge you or gawk at your property. New buildings lack any kind of staff, such as doormen at Park Place who could have taken your rent and turned up their noses. Thus, the charm is sporadic at best, and key structures, such as the prosaic income tax building, scream with untapped comedic potential.

Nothing visually defines Monopoly so well as Mr. Moneybags and his merry band of pewter game pieces, and happily, nine pieces make an appearance here. Mr. Moneybags serves as the host, offering wordy and mildly humorous commentary on every move that quickly grows tiring. When starting a game, Moneybags also leads players through the selection of their favorite tokens along with an unalterable accompanying character that complements each piece. (As a console-specific bonus, Xbox 360 players can play as their system avatars and fill cities with their friends. The same option is available on the Wii using Miis, but only after you unlock it, which requires very little effort.) The top hat, for instance, belongs to a kid magician who follows it as it tumbles down the sidewalk on each turn. The battleship belongs to an admiral who may as well have just stepped out of a Gilbert and Sullivan production. Sadly, this potentially strong idea is hit or miss at best, thanks to cloying voice emotes and time-consuming animations, and two characters in particular can quickly ruin your enjoyment. For one, there’s the farmer, a ditzy female bumpkin in cutoff shorts who pushes the wheelbarrow token around the block to a stream of nonstop yuk-yuks and yee-haws. Elsewhere, the little girl associated with the thimble gratingly screeches and spins with glee during her entire turn. It’s enough to make you turn off the voice-overs before your first match is complete. The music is only slightly better and ends up sounding like the soundtrack to a floor-wax commercial jammed on infinite loop.

Buy a car without an engine and see what happens.

Buy a car without an engine and see what happens.

The turns themselves can drag on for ages if you leave the game to its own devices. A typical turn runs like so: You roll the dice (which takes two clicks) to the sound of your character’s whoops or hollers. Once your character has exhausted his or her excitement and stopped dancing around, he or she then mounts or follows the giant pewter token one step at a time to the appropriate spot on the board. They look at the plot being considered in awe. If it’s for sale, Mr. Moneybags slowly waddles up and eggs the character on to buy or auction the plot. By now, you’ve had your turn for more than a minute, to the likely impatience of your fellow players, and you haven’t even bought the land yet. And your fellow players’ turns can be equally as long–or longer–given the tendency of online players to abuse the build button. This is unforgivably damaging in a game that’s infamous for its epic hours-long play sessions. So sure is the game that your attention will wander during all of this that all three consoles’ controllers vibrate when it’s finally your turn again. Thankfully, you can skip most animations and speed up gameplay considerably by turning off most animations on the options menu at the expense of losing the game’s unique flavor.

Of course, the concept’s main attraction is the opportunity to see your properties develop. Upon purchase, each property features a quaintly decorated garden until you can afford to buy houses and hotels, and these, in turn, are built according to the worth of the property. For instance, the ultracheap Baltic and Mediterranean Avenue plots end up with tacky motels dominated by gargantuan flamingos, whereas the breathtakingly expensive Park Place and Boardwalk hotels become towering skyscrapers with gold trim. If this approach has a flaw, it’s that there’s no variation for each set of plots. Connecticut, Vermont, and Oriental Avenue, for example, all feature the same kitschy crown-topped brownstones when three humorously different eyesores would have been much more appealing. For added visual entertainment, you can watch your towering “corporate headquarters” rise or fall in the middle of town according to your net worth at the end of each round.

Monopoly Streets admirably brings the famed board game to life, but annoying characters and poor pacing keep this outing from rolling doubles.

The Good

  • Seeing your property develop is a nice visual treat
  • Entertaining minigame auctions
  • Plenty of options for custom play
  • Classic boards available
  • You can play as your Mii.

The Bad

  • Some character voices quickly grow annoying
  • Poor pacing
  • Only includes two cities.

At first glance, you could very easily get lost in Monopoly’s streets because each move is viewed plot by plot. If you’re not already familiar with the game board, in other words, it’s easy to lose immediate awareness of where you stand in relation to other players with all of the graphical jumble around you. Fortunately, several nonintrusive identifying markers point the way, such as appropriately colored strips on the edges of sidewalks and banners outside of each property listing how many houses or hotels are on it. Other button options also allow you to see what lies ahead of you or to see the game’s current state from above using a classic board.

Your Mii fits right in with the Monopoly crowd.

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You can also opt for a change of scenery once you amass enough Monopoly money from completing games in Landmark City, the game’s only other virtual metropolis. True to its name, Landmark City features some of the world’s most legendary tourist traps (such as London’s Big Ben), but it’s rather Disneyland-ish and lacks the visual coherence of Monopoly City. Although more cities are scheduled for release as downloadable content, it’s a shame that more weren’t included in the initial retail package. And if you still can’t get used to the alleys and buildings of Monopoly City, you can always play on seven different versions of the trusty classic Monopoly board. These come complete with very basic jungle and winter themes but no building in sight.

Monopoly Streets is designed for four players, with most boards regrettably requiring that all four slots be filled. Fortunately, the game features a decidedly fair AI system that can be set to easy, medium, or hard, and you can add two AI players if you only have two or three human players in your game. At its heart, this is pure Monopoly, and there’s virtually nothing wrong with the actual process of playing the game aside from the game’s unrelenting insistence on four players. You start the game by tossing dice to see who goes first, you trade property and build houses in intuitive menus, and you buy with the click of a button. The auction process, in fact, is positively entertaining. Here, your opponents’ bids are listed on a bar graph from left to right, and by tapping one of two buttons, you can raise or lower the bid dramatically during the course of 20 seconds. If you bid low at the very last second, it’s possible to trap your opponents into paying an unnecessarily high price for a plot. Unfortunately, there’s no option to turn auctions off if you want to avoid the minigame.

Otherwise, the gameplay is decently customizable, and if you’re used to certain nonstandard rules (such as using Free Parking to grab all the money from income tax and the like), you can usually re-create them here. You can also play by standard Monopoly rules or take up some of the game’s faster options. These include games like Speed Die, in which you play with an extra die and begin with an extra $1,000; and Short Game, in which all four players start with four random properties. Alternatively, you can play Bull Market, which limits play time to 20 rounds; or Fast Deal, which awards the first player who collects the most color groups; or Jackpot, which radically alters the rules and allows you to sell properties containing houses or hotels. Online multiplayer options for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 offer many of the same options as the offline mode while sticking to standard rules and the faster setups. This includes Bull Market and Short Game, in addition to ranked matches and the option to create custom rules. The ranked matches can be fun, but when your losing rival storms out at the sight of you adding yet another pile of deeds to your stash, the game shuts down and you receive no credit despite however many minutes you put in.

It's not every day you see a Mii skateboarding on a battleship.

It’s not every day you see a Mii skateboarding on a battleship.

Monopoly Streets’s animations may drag at times and the character voices invite the tossing of heavy objects at your screen, but basic Monopoly hasn’t felt so fresh in decades, and it’s worth wondering what Monopoly Streets may have been like with a little more attention to detail. Sadly, it doesn’t feel like a full package. With only two virtual cities in the new style in spite of a whopping seven versions of the classic board, Monopoly Streets seems to place an excessive focus on future downloadable content when it could have stunned its audiences with a packed release containing even one more city. Still, it’s saved by its decent customization options, and diverse multiplayer options on the PS3 and Xbox 360. If you’re looking for an engaging Monopoly game that doesn’t require clearing the table and spending 15 minutes dealing the pieces, then Monopoly Streets may be the game for you. Just make sure you turn off those confounded character voices.

By Leif Johnson

Dead Space 2: Severed Review

A focus on intense combat makes this brief return to the Sprawl a satisfying one.

The Good

  • Maintains a gripping intensity for its brief duration
  • Return of twitcher necromorphs is welcome
  • Characteristically excellent visuals and sound.

The Bad

  • Unsatisfying story
  • Uses mostly recycled locations
  • A bit overpriced at $7.

Isaac Clarke wasn’t the only person fighting for survival on the Sprawl during the horrific necromorph outbreak depicted in Dead Space 2. Severed, the game’s first downloadable add-on, returns you to the moon of Titan and puts you in the suit of security officer Gabe Weller. Gabe should be familiar to anyone who played Dead Space: Extraction, but no experience with his previous necromorph encounters is needed to jump into this intense journey through mostly familiar locations. Severed serves up more of Dead Space’s signature combat but very little else. Thankfully, that combat is thrilling enough to sustain Severed during its brief running time.

The fast-moving twitcher necromorphs from the original Dead Space make their return in Severed.

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The title of this downloadable content refers not only to the nature of the series’ dismemberment-focused combat, but also to the current state of Gabe Weller’s marriage. Since surviving the carnage of Extraction, Gabe has made the unfortunate choice to move to the Sprawl with his new wife. He’s deep in the mines when the necromorph outbreak begins, which separates Gabe from his wife who works in the Sprawl’s medical center. Desperate to get back to her and keep her safe as all hell is breaking loose, he sets off in her direction. Weller’s desire to be reunited with his wife makes it easy to invest in his struggle, but the brief journey pauses only rarely to develop the story. The climactic moments raise some intriguing questions but provide no answers, making Severed’s story a compelling but unsatisfying setup.

The focus here is on combat–and lots of it. Gabe encounters no zero-G areas, no puzzles that require the use of kinesis, or any of the other diversions that provided Isaac Clarke with the occasional respite from fighting necromorphs. And this works in Severed’s favor. The near-constant, undiluted combat makes this DLC a particularly intense slice of Dead Space action, and it’s short enough to sustain this intensity without leaving you longing for a reprieve from the carnage. A few particularly dramatic moments, like a memorable elevator ride and an encounter with a gunship, punctuate the action and prevent fighting necromorphs from becoming monotonous.

As a security officer, Gabe begins the game armed with the versatile pulse rifle and the sniper-rifle-like seeker rifle. You also find a flamethrower very early on and start with 50,000 credits to spend in stores, so you can easily outfit yourself with any other weapons from the Dead Space 2 arsenal. Explosive canisters are liberally strewn about many of the environments you fight through, which is useful because Severed often throws more necromorphs at you at one time than Dead Space 2 tended to. This results in encounters that are, for the most part, a bit more challenging than those in the main game, which makes this a satisfying progression in challenge for those who completed Isaac’s adventure.

In addition to the pack, the stalkers, and the other gruesome and terrifying enemies Isaac faced in Dead Space 2, the deeply unsettling twitcher necromorphs from Dead Space make a return here. These necromorphs move at blinding speeds that allow them to evade your attacks more effectively than other enemies and close in to strike you in the blink of an eye. The variety of necromorphs you encounter from one step of the journey to the next keeps you on your toes and helps keep the combat fresh.

Explosive canisters are your friends.

Explosive canisters are your friends.

Unfortunately, the environments are not so fresh. Although there are a handful of new areas, it’s disappointing that the overwhelming majority of your time is spent in locations that are familiar from Dead Space 2 and that nothing has been done with these places to present them in a new light. Still, the visuals are consistently great, creating a tone of oppressive dread that makes the necromorphs that much more terrifying. Impressive smoke effects contribute to the industrial mood of the metal platforms and corridors of the mining operation, and flickering lights add a haunting ambiance to the Sprawl’s medical center. In addition, the chilling audio design that has always been a hallmark of the series is in full effect here. The mingling shrieks and wails of the necromorphs may continue to echo in your psyche long after you’ve stopped playing.

Severed delivers more Dead Space combat, pure and simple, and that is no bad thing. This return to the Sprawl offers up a quick fix of action that maintains a high level of intensity and doesn’t overstay its welcome. At $7, this desperate journey, which most players will complete in well under two hours, is a bit overpriced, and the story raises questions without offering any answers. But it’s not to Severed’s story that you should look for satisfaction; it’s to the gameplay, which is sure to satiate your appetite for necromorph-fighting, limb-severing carnage, for a little while.

By Carolyn Petit

A different but enjoyable business simulation.

Farming Simulator 2013 is one of the purest and most focused business simulations I’ve ever played. You own a farm in a country town, and your only goal is to grow crops to make as money without any “final objective” to chase. There are no scores, storylines, cosmetic money sinks (such as new player skins or houses), or other long-term goals. You simply choose a crop from four possible seeds to start your career, plant it in your field, harvest it, sell it and put that cash back into the farm. It’s almost impossible to damage your crops unless you’re not paying attention, so it’s difficult to fail or find yourself in a no-win situation.

Still, you should harvest as much as you can because of the sheer number of investments you can make into your business. There are dozens of licensed vehicles, forty plots of land (of which you only start with one), and additional buildings such as solar collectors and greenhouses that you can sink your money into. As you increase the number of fields you own, it can take more than a dozen tractors and tools to coordinate all the work and minimize downtime. It could take hundreds of hours of work to afford everything, but you have complete freedom in how you accomplish your goal and what your priorities are. Livestock, more or bigger fields, and faster machines are all available, so you’ll have to think about what best suits your particular play style. More valuable crops take extra work and extra machines in order to maximize your profits, so you need to decide whether you’re willing to make the investment or stick to simple but low-value crops. The entire system gives you a tremendous amount of freedom in how to best approach your business, although that first week will be fairly slow-paced.

The most unusual aspect of Farming Simulator 2013 is the complete lack of competition. In a single-player career, there is only you, the farm, and the AI townspeople who wander around but can’t be interacted with. Even in multiplayer, all players work together on a single farm. In both modes, the game will not fail you for slow production or even no production at all. As a result the gameplay is incredibly peaceful, though possibly a bit daunting for newcomers to the series. Admittedly, the act of virtual farming doesn’t sound like it would require a complex series of steps to perform, given that most of your job involves jumping in a tractor, attaching a tool, and slowly driving in straight lines. However, there are subtleties that are under-mentioned or completely undocumented that require some practice to master. AI-controlled workers can be hired for most tasks, and watching how they perform can teach you techniques to use when you get behind the wheel. Hiring those workers is the key to running a successful and profitable farm, especially when you’re trying to manage a half-dozen fields or more at once.

The tutorials will help smooth out the learning curve, but the lessons are a mixed bag. All the tutorials focus solely on controls rather than techniques or theories. By the time you’re done, you’ll know exactly how to drive all your vehicles but not other essential tasks. For example, there are five selling points for your crops around the town, and each accepts different freight. The map doesn’t tell you what each building is, so you’ll have to drive around to learn the lay of the land. The map itself is huge, so you may get mixed up when you first start out. It’s a step backwards; the previous game in the series featured a tutorial that had you take a tour of the town and learn what exactly the buildings did, so it’s strange that it’s not included in this version.

Those aren’t the only presentation missteps. To help keep you busy during those slow early days, you’re given regular “missions” to earn you some extra cash. There is no punishment for failing a mission, and they pay really well when you’re starting out, but they’re executed poorly. There are only two types of missions that ask you to mow some grass or move heavy equipment across the town. The problem is, you don’t have the equipment to perform either mission when you start off with a new career, so you’ll be forced to decline the mission unless you spend all your first-day profits on the machines. Further, the mission types seem a little strange… no missions for delivering certain crops to certain houses? No scrambling to save a field from a pest outbreak? How about a mission where you have to drive your water trailer to assist the fire department to help extinguish a burning building? While reward money is good, mowing grass is incredibly boring, and the mission system simply doesn’t feel rewarding enough.

Harvest and profit.

Despite the documentation and information the developers failed to provide, the community is incredibly friendly and helpful. It takes a certain kind of mentality to play Farming Simulator at length, and that mentality doesn’t lend itself to griefers or trolls. As a result, you can hop into any public game or browse the forums to find dozens of people ready to help you learn the basics and answer your questions.

I’ve joined several multiplayer games of Farming Simulator 2013 blindly and never encountered any player who was unwilling to share helpful tips. Up to nine other players can join a farm that the host has taken online, and all those hands can make a serious difference in how much work gets done. Players can be instantly kicked or banned by the host, and any vehicle or tool can be reset with two clicks of the mouse in the map view, so there is simply no room for players who won’t behave. All money earned goes to the farm owner (the host of the game), so other players are there just to help out and socialize. Without competition in any form, and because any save file can be used in single- or multiplayer, all players naturally gravitate toward helping each other accomplish goals in their farms. It’s a relaxing environment that encourages teamwork and communication above all else.

Farm solo or team up online.

Graphically, Farming Simulator 2013 is quite far behind the curve, but I suspect no one is getting it for state-of-the-art beauty. All the machines look good and are fantastically animated, but the environment is full of low resolution textures and low-polygon-count objects. It looks better than the previous game in the series, but that’s not saying much. While the graphics are serviceable for the most part, there are blatant draw-in lines that make for some ugly moments. You can’t adjust your draw-in distance in the option screen, so even if you have a top of the line computer, you won’t be able to stand on a hill and watch amber waves of grain sway in the breeze. In fact, while you can usually tell what’s going on with your farm just by the textures, certain states of the land (such as whether it’s wet with fertilizer) are actually cut off with those short-distance draw-in lines. That means you won’t be able to know exactly how much a particular field has grown unless you’re practically on top of it. The map view helps offset this problem, but it’s still a problem that can’t be ignored.

There is no music to speak of, and any sounds in the game are limited to the engines of your vehicles. This helps sell the atmosphere, but your ears may be a little bored. Your best bet is to put on some music while you play.

As with previous entries in the franchise, Farming Simulator 2013 has mod support for future machines, maps, livestock, or buildings. Although mods were sorely lacking for the American release of the previous game, there were several large official DLC releases, so hopefully more content will be available in the coming months.

The Verdict

On paper, Farming Simulator 2013 doesn’t seem all that thrilling, but there’s something intangible that keeps me coming back from more. The combination of the excellent community, unwavering focus on running the business, and the simplicity of the controls and your responsibilities creates a unique business simulation that rewards you proportionally to the amount of work you put into it. I’ve genuinely enjoyed playing it, and I’ll continue to do so even after this review is posted. It’s not the prettiest or deepest business simulator, but it would be folly to just dismiss it because of its subject matter. If you are patient and interested in a relaxing game without absolute winning or losing conditions, give it a try.

By Jon Michael

NASCAR 2011: The Game Review

Pushover opponents and a stripped feature list are just two of NASCAR 2011′s unfortunate flaws.

The Good

  • At the hardest difficulty level, races can provide some excitement
  • Invitational events add welcome variety.

The Bad

  • It’s difficult to lose a race on anything but the hardest difficulty
  • Sparse package stripped of features present in the other versions
  • Stiff acceleration and braking.

Unless you count 2009′s NASCAR Kart Racing (and why would you?), NASCAR 2011 is the first NASCAR game for the Wii. That doesn’t mean, however, that it is a worthy one. This is circuit racing stripped to its bare essentials, held up only by a functional driving model that struggles to capture the tension of the real thing. Even on hard difficulty, you’ll rarely feel challenged by the other 42 drivers on the track. Beginning a race in pole position is essentially a guarantee that you’ll finish in first unless you crank the difficulty up to very hard. Off the track, Wii owners get few of the frills Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 owners enjoyed. There is no paint booth, no way to save races for sharing or later viewing, and no detailed vehicle customization. Invitational events give this sparse package some much-needed variety, but this halfhearted effort is a mere shadow of the great NASCAR games of years past.

Don't like the look of your vehicle? Oh well--you can't customize it.

Don’t like the look of your vehicle? Oh well–you can’t customize it.

Career mode drops you into the shoes of a known NASCAR driver or one of your own making and puts you through the paces, from Daytona to Homestead-Miami. You take to the circuits one at a time and make your way through a 36-race season, including the road course races on Watkins-Glen International and Infineon Raceway. The mode is functional, but it’s also dry and straightforward–no substitute for the impressive and extensive Fight to the Top modes in older NASCAR games. Even victory celebrations are subdued. Your driver dances about and breaks out the champagne while surrounded by fist-pumping fans, but this canned display gets old, and the roar of the crowd sounds more like a mild sigh. The blandness of the visuals further emphasizes the lack of excitement. The frame rate holds up nicely on the track, but jagged edges, fuzzy crowds, and drab vehicles suck the life out of crash replays.

Outside of the career mode, you can take any car to any track for a one-off race, or compete in eliminator events in which you set the number of challengers. These modes hold no surprises, so it’s up to NASCAR 2011′s invitational events to provide some diversity, and they do a decent job of it. You unlock these as you progress through your career, and they come in a few varieties. Perhaps the most interesting are legends challenges, in which you must draft other drivers to unlock collectible coins. A satisfying whoosh makes it enjoyable to draft, so an event focused on this mechanic is a good addition. Time trials, elimination events, and two-part gauntlet races round out the invitationals.

Elimination events provide some of the only occasions in which you see drivers in front of you.

Elimination events provide some of the only occasions in which you see drivers in front of you.

NASCAR 2011 makes it easy for newcomers to jump right in, and there are a number of driving assists to help you smoothly navigate the curves. Unfortunately, you can’t tweak vehicle handling any further. While the other versions let you customize minutiae like brake bias and differential ratio, NASCAR 2011 on the Wii offers no such features. In fact, Wii owners don’t get any number of features other iterations boasted–and those versions were lacking in content to begin with. There is no paint booth, so you can’t modify your car with flags, flames, and fonts of your own choosing. There is no replay feature, so you can’t save races for viewing at various camera angles, let alone share your favorite moments online. Nor is their any online racing, though you can join a friend in two-player split-screen races.

Any goodwill NASCAR 2011 earns quickly wears off when you discover that AI drivers are simply incapable of challenging you. You can smash into walls multiple times during qualification and still have no trouble taking pole, even on hard difficulty. And should you start the race in first place, you will almost always finish in first, often by an enormous margin should you play on medium difficulty. Perhaps this pitiful challenge is meant to compensate for the digital controls: if you use a classic controller or stick with a Wii Remote and Nunchuk, accelerating and braking are either/or actions. You either slam on the brake, or you stay off of it; you either accelerate at full speed, or you don’t accelerate at all. A GameCube controller’s analog triggers allow for more subtlety, though they’re still too rigid to feel totally comfortable. As a result, NASCAR 2011 feels clunky, particularly on road courses. That’s a real shame, given that steering is smooth and responsive regardless of your preferred control method.

Whoop. De. Doo.

Whoop. De. Doo.

On the hardest difficulty level and with assists at a minimum, races can still provide a modicum of excitement, rewarding you for sticking close to a proper racing line and requiring you to draft and pick up speed so that you might slingshot ahead. The game assigns you a rival in each race, and beating him (or her) gives you a little extra incentive to drive well, though this is a far cry from NASCAR Thunder 2004′s involved rivalry/alliance system. In NASCAR 2011, the track is your greatest rival; scraping the wall might throw you out of your rhythm, while a misconceived attempt to slide into an opening might lead to disaster. Assuming you’re racing more than a few laps and have turned on tire wear and damage, you also need to pay mind to your fuel gauge and vehicle condition. This affects your efficacy on the course, and in long races, you need to make a pit stop when necessary to replace tires and fuel up.

NASCAR 2011 is a gutted version of a game that was short on value to begin with, yet shockingly it sells at full price. This may be the only authentic NASCAR game in town, but Wii owners needing a Sprint Cup fix should avoid temptation and leave this problematic bare-bones racer on store shelves.

By Kevin VanOrd

A crucial addition.

There’s something a little intimidating about Storm Legion. It’s supposed to be an expansion to Rift, but that’s about as much of an understatement as claiming the British just got itchy feet during the 18th century. Storm Legion adds two new continents, four new souls, seven new dungeons, ten more levels and an ambitious player housing system. When you consider this in light of the fact that Rift only shipped with a single continent, suddenly ’expansion’ seems inadequate.

But there’s very good reason for it: wandering through the original continent is almost claustrophobic, with rifts, quests, and an overabundance of distractions demonstrating quite how little room Trion Wolds left themselves with. Dusken and Brevane, the two new continents, should provide some much needed breathing room for a studio that has been relentless in its content updates since release well over a year ago.

With so much on offer, to expect it all to be incredible would be fool-hardy, and while the majority impresses, there are some missteps on the new continents.

There’s a main quest structure still in place, which will be familiar to the seasoned MMO player, but Rift has moved further and further away from that over the past few months, morphing into something that has its attention fractured between a few too many pursuits. With the Instant Adventure and Looking for Group features both providing the instant gratification of achieving something quest-like at the touch of a button, along with quests that are auto-assigned just by interacting with the world, the amount of tailored experiences start to get lost in a whirlwind of activities all vying for your attention to the point of feeling overwhelming.

Kill an enemy and you start a kill-quest, and interact with any slightly-shimmering object on the floor and you’ll probably have to collect ten of them. It makes the world feel fuller, but doesn’t do much to stand out from the same tired old MMO design that has plagued the genre for years. Better are the story quests which lead you through the ascent of the giant storm dragon Crucia. Right from the off you’re placed in epic battles with giant mechanical dragons and steel constructs, and by the time you’re plumbing the depths of the Golem Foundry the presence of the Storm Legion has been such a constant that you feel as though you’ve got a personal beef with them. Better still are the artefacts; collectibles that encourage you to explore and platform your way around Storm Legion’s beautiful landscapes.

And it is beautiful. Trion’s confidence is thrust right to the forefront and demonstrated with a scale that’s regularly breathtaking. Giant vines weave through the countryside of Brevane, while a perpetual storm darkens Dusken’s barren landscape. They create a sense of place that was often not quite there in Rift’s original areas, which favored fantasy tropes rather than breaking out into something wholly unique.

That confidence extends to the new Souls, one for each of Rift’s classes. They operate like sub-classes, and each class can have three active at any one time. It creates a versatility that allows you to really create a build that suits your play style. Storm Legion’s Souls take this to an extreme, with an eye on the esoteric.

The Mage gets the Harbinger, a Soul that revolves around enhancing the Mage’s trademark staff with ethereal blades, which turns it immediately into a melee class. It’s an impressive move, as it not only completely alters the role of the Mage in groups and raids, but also alters the entire class on a far more fundamental level. Using Eldritch Armor, the majority of channeled spells can now be cast instantly, vastly increasing the damage output of the class. It’s a tradeoff for placing yourself right in harm’s way, and it feels suitably powerful.

The Rogue’s Tactician, similarly, alters the class in a hefty way, providing a unique flavor. Taking cues from the likes of Team Fortress 2’s medic gun, suddenly the Rogue can hose down an area with healing, flame or necrotic damage in a sort of directed AoE that shifts it from being all about single-target DPS to something else entirely. Throw in a bunch of traps and placed contraptions, and the Tactician becomes a pretty interesting prospect.

Less revolutionary are the Warrior and Cleric Souls, Tempest and Defiler respectively. While the Tempest gives the Warrior a little more ranged oomph, it doesn’t have nearly as drastic an effect as the Tactician or Harbinger. The Warrior is still the guy that’s going to take the hits, and deal them out. The Defiler, meanwhile, is a new kind of healing, focused on stacks and ‘links’, where you essentially attach yourself to one target. There are some nice touches like the Beacon of Despair, a placeable construct that takes your aggro and tanks damage but fundamentally you’re still a healer, still supporting.

The dungeons, too, quietly rework the formula of what came before. Complexes like the Empyrean Core go a fair way to creating the illusion of a living compound, with soldiers going about their business and the indoctrination of Storm Legion troops going on around you. It’s not just bosses sitting around waiting for you to murder them, which gives just enough personality to maintain the illusion of a living, breathing area. The fights themselves are kinetic affairs, with lots of AoE nukes to keep you on your toes and make the battles feel fluid. There’s a certain disconnect between that movement and the static nature of spell-casting, but it works to keep things tense and involved. The trash mobs hit hard, and the bosses hit like garbage trucks, as befits any high level dungeon.

And then there’s Storm Legion’s player housing. Of all the things the expansion provides, it’s the Dimensions that most impress, taking the idea of giving players somewhere to relax and instead giving them somewhere to create and show off.

You’re provided a space and then tasked with filling it, taking the bare Dimension and constructing something personal and unique with it. You get items through playing the game — tables, chairs, light fixtures, wooden planks — and then place them in your Dimension wherever you see fit. More than that, you can resize, rotate, even levitate every single one, until you’ve got things exactly as you want them.

Players have already done surprising things with them, and thanks to a rating system and leaderboards, you can visit high-ranking Dimensions right from the get-go. One player decided to turn their Dimension into a wooden maze, elevated towards the ceiling so enterprising players can’t just pan the camera upwards and cheat. Another filled the large lake in the middle of a lagoon with a giant hotel, complete with draconic egg collection in the lobby. This is all just shortly after launch, and with the versatility of the editor it won’t be surprising if truly astonishing constructions start to emerge after a month or two. Player housing is always high on community request lists, but Trion Worlds have truly outdone themselves here.

This leaves Storm Legion in the odd position of being simultaneously impervious and enticing to newcomers. It’s undoubtedly created to serve the existing player base, which it does admirably, providing the space and content they need to stay interested and entertained, but at the same time with systems like Dimensions and an ever-increasing roster of Souls, Rift is looking more and more attractive to those who aren’t already subscribed.

The Verdict

Initially overwhelming, Storm Legion becomes more attractive as you play. The scale of the new continents is impressive, and the wealth of content available means that even if there are some weak points, by and large it’s more hit than miss. But it’s with the addition of Dimensions that Trion Worlds really breaks new ground, providing players with a powerful tool to create truly unique constructions.

By Phill Cameron