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My name is Wayne Chamberlain and I'm a geek daddy who is into Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, books, movies, video games and talking to creative people about their work in these mediums. And that's what you'll find here, along with news, previews and reviews. I'm a journalist, an editor and co-host of the Star Wars Book Report podcast. So come on in and feel free to geek out in a fun, friendly environment.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Hey, Sony fanboys, lighten up already.

Sony is about to go a whiter shade of pale, offering gamers a chance to truly lighten up. 
OK, forgive me. I enjoy tweaking the noses of both Sony and Nintendo fanboys. Old habits die hard.
But I digress. Starting January 27th, Sony’s gaming division will debut a new slim Classic White PlayStation 3 system in the United States and Canada. It will sport the same sleek, curved design of the PS3 slim system (I still have my original, Day 1 machine, complete with the backward compatibility hardware, which I love), just in a white case rather than the traditional black.
For those who haven’t dove into Sony’s pool just yet (yes, I’m looking at you 360 users who might enjoy some of the PS3 exclusives that make it a worthy investment), the Classic White console is being bundled with some extra gaming goodness. For $299.99, you’ll get the console (with its 500GB hard drive), a white controller and a one-year membership to PlayStation Plus.
PS Plus is an online service that offers gamers access to a library of a dozen PS3 games each month. The service refreshes its lineup of free games regularly. Some of the more popular titles that have been available via PS Plus include The Walking Dead Episode 1 – A New Day, Uncharted: Golden Abyss, BioShock 2, LittleBigPlanet 2, Resident Evil 5, Saints Row 2, Borderlands, inFAMOUS 2 and Gotham City Impostors.
And for those of you who have a PlayStation Vita, Sony’s versatile handheld platform, the PS Plus service also offers access to six titles each month.
According to Sony, PS Plus members had access to more than 50 free and 270 discounted PS3 games in 2012, as well as more than 90 add-ons for PS3 titles and 8 free PS Vita games.
PS Plus also offers members discounts on games and downloadable content, early beta access, automatic game and system software updates, as well as 2GB of online storage for PS3 and Vita game saves.
When all is said and done, Sony feels this new bundle is quite an attractive opportunity at a decent price point.
“We’re excited to give PlayStation fans what they’ve been asking for - a colored PS3 and access to a library of games for them to download and play instantly,” John Koller, Sony’s vice-president of platforms marketing, said in a press release.
So, is this new price and the new slick look enough to entice you to dive into the PS3 pool?

Wayne Chamberlain has covered the gaming industry since 2002. He is a contributor, filing under the name Strider-bot, at BigShinyRobot.com. And he is also the co-host of the Star Wars Book Report podcast, available on iTunes. He can be reached at chamberlain.wayne@yahoo.com.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Bethesda gives gamers double dip of fun with Dishonored, Doom 3: BFG Edition

Bethesda has become an industry darling and fan favourite in recent years, thanks in large part to its open world role-playing games, such as Fallout 3 and the Oblivion and Skyrim Elder Scrolls titles.
And gamers can enjoy a double-dip of Bethesda fun at the moment, as the publisher has released a pair of titles: Dishonored and Doom 3: BFG Edition.
Dishonored is a fantastic steampunk romp through a dystopian world in which you play as Corvo, a former bodyguard of the Empress of Dunwall. You stand falsely accused of her murder and the kidnapping of her sole daughter and the legitimate heir to the throne.
On the eve before your date with the state executioner, you are given means to escape prison and meet up with a group of loyalists. These men and women, a diverse group that includes former military and political heavyweights and a somewhat demented scientist, offer you a chance to restore your name by turning assassin. You are tasked with eliminating military and political targets in an effort to find the young heir to the throne.
The streets of Dunwall are filled with death. A plague spread by rats is killing the citizens and the military has instituted martial law. Under these grim circumstances, you must find a way to sneak into heavily guarded areas, deal with a ruthless street gang and dispatch the traitors who were responsible for the assassination of the Empress.
The story is first rate, with twists and turns worthy of a novel treatment. And thankfully the action matches it. At first glance, Dishonored looked to be an Assassin’s Creed clone. But it’s more than that. There’s a supernatural element at play, as well as a type of internal scoring system that judges you based on how little or how much blood and chaos you create. The story and its epilogue change to reflect your actions and overall approach, giving gamers a reason to dive back into this engaging world.
Doom 3: BFG Edition (which stands for Big – shut your mouth – Gun) is a retooled, overhauled version of its predecessor, timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the release of the original Doom on PC. It also contains the first and second Doom games.
Id, the creators of Doom, have upgraded the visuals for Doom 3, tweaked some of the controls to make them more console friendly and added in a ‘lost mission’ that adds eight new single-player levels to the overall experience, giving franchise fans a reason to dive into an eight-year-old title.
Is it a wise investment? Well, the gameplay is largely unchanged. While the visuals are indeed enhanced, the game’s overall creepiness factor, a combination of lighting and chilling sound design, remains the same. Shooters have changed dramatically since Doom 3 launched in 2004. And there’s none of those major advancements on display here. So, the teenaged Call of Duty, Battleground and Halo fans may find the survival horror hook an interesting concept for a while, but there’s little reason to keep them engaged beyond the campaign’s final curtain.
That’s a missed opportunity to build on the brand and position it to compete in the shooter genre going forward.
The score: Dishonored earns 4 stars, Doom 3: BFG Edition gets 3.
Both titles are rated M.

Halo 4 plays it safe, but still innovates with story, weapons

The Master Chief not only lives, but lays to rest any doubts about his future in Halo 4, which released this week exclusively on Xbox 360.
But is the iconic character thriving in the latest first-person shooter extravaganza? Well, to a degree … which will ensure gamers keep a close eye on the franchise as Halo’s story continues through another two future installments.
Some background: This is the first original Halo game developed by 343 Industries – Microsoft’s in-house studio. It’s their second game (they oversaw the updating of last year’s Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary edition, which was a glorified polishing job), but the first time they’ve taken over the storytelling and overall production of the franchise made famous by Bungie. And in that regard, it’s clear that 343, knowing so many critics’ eyes were upon them, didn’t stray far from what made Halo such a successful entertainment tentpole.
The Master Chief takes over the starring role once again (it’s surprising to say he hasn’t been the hero of a Halo release since Halo 3 came out in late 2007). When last we left him, the green-armoured marine with the gold face shield was drifting through space with his computer AI gal pal Cortana. Thanks to his efforts, humanity had defeated the alien Covenant forces and the parasitic Flood. But humanity thought it had lost its last super soldier.
Fast forward four years and Cortana has put the chief into hibernation. She awakens him when a new threat appears ... the Covenant and a new enemy, the Forerunners – an ancient, technologically advanced race long thought dead.
It’s up to the Master Chief to discover what the Covenant wants with the Forerunners and to deal with this new race.
Halo 4 is the first of a planned trilogy of games (Halos 5 and 6 are rumoured to be destined for the next Xbox console). And for true die-hard Halo geeks, if you want to know more about the Forerunners, be sure to read Greg Bear’s two Forerunner novels, which lay out the history of the race (with a third novel still to come).
Regardless, Halo 4 does tell a rich story in between the action sequences gamers have come to expect in this universe. The campaign’s story does a decent job of informing you about the basics of the Forerunners and their ancient battle against the Flood.
As for the campaign, 343 has clearly played it safe. The game doesn’t deviate far from what Halo fans are used to. The game has pick-up-and-play familiarity to it, although the visuals are stunning, the environments vast, colourful and engaging. And the Forerunner weapons and tech are a nice addition to the Halo arsenal of guns and grenades, many of which will prove popular in the multiplayer environment.
Multiplayer features the standard modes, all of which are delivered in crisp detail, sure to please legions of fans. The addition of a co-op and solo special ops section that allows you to further the story and build experience for your personal Spartan warrior is a nice bonus, although it’s clearly following in the footsteps of the Call of Duty games in this regard.
Overall, there’s nothing overly surprising about Halo 4. But there’s nothing overly disappointing either. 343 Industries has proven itself capable of delivering an original Halo game. Now, can they up their game with Halo 5? That’s the next big question for Microsoft’s premier franchise.
The score: 4 stars.
Rated M.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Assassin's Creed, Lego Lord of the Rings highlight Sony's holiday preview show

Well, Jedi Aragorn is finally settled into his new digs in The Hammer, better known as Hamilton, Ontario, and the hut is coming along slowly but surely.
Working for a new newspaper company has meant some major changes and the past 8 weeks have been, well, bat-shit crazy.
That said, I’m back and expect to see gaming features, reviews and opinions, as well as some DVD work when I can since most of the companies have axed me until I get a more ‘impressive’ gig (meaning a newspaper column again … heathens don’t understand the importance of an audience and a multi-media guy like me, with the podcast, website, etc. … but that’s another bitch for another day). So, I’m looking forward to getting back into writing and sharing some looks at some cool games out there or ones that are forthcoming.
I just got back from the Palais Royale in Toronto, where Sony held its annual holiday preview show. And while there were some impressive fall and spring titles available for hands-on demos, there were four that really caught my eye and I thought I’d share.
Ol’ Jedi Aragorn took the hood down off his robe long enough to have a great chat with Jeyson Acevedo, the public relations manager for Ubisoft Montreal, about the studio’s upcoming Assassin’s Creed III game, which is slated for an Oct. 30 release on Sony’s PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.
Ubisoft Montreal has been a pioneer in the Canadian gaming development scene and one of its brightest stars over the years, launching such major franchises as Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six and Splinter Cell, as well as Assassin’s Creed, Prince of Persia and Far Cry.
And with more than 2,000 employees, the studio doesn’t look to be slowing down despite the financial instability that has shaken the global economy the past few years. The company recently launched a studio in Toronto, which is now handling the Splinter Cell franchise.
“The more creative minds we can get to the studio, the better the quality games we’ll be able to (deliver),” Acevedo said. “The studio is celebrating its 15th anniversary. Looking back at all the franchises that have come out of Montreal, it’s quite an accomplishment and we’re looking forward to 15 more.
Asked what people can expect from AC3, Acevedo said the key word is novelty. That’s in large part due to a new graphics engine called Anvil Next, which makes its debut in AC3. That system will play a key role in the large-scale naval battles that unfold on the open sea, as well as the detailed landscapes and buildings that fans have come to expect since the franchise first bowed on the PS3 and 360 in 2007.
“We have set it during the American Revolution,” Acevedo said. “Our main character is an assassin named Connor. He’s a new protagonist in the Assassin’s Creed universe. He’s part-British and part-Native American.
“He’s battling for his people, obviously, but he’s also fighting Templars, who can either be a Red Coat, a Blue Coat or a Native American.  It’s a very polarizing story and very interesting, as well.
“We have a brand new battle system for hand-to-hand combat. He has tomahawks and a bow and arrow for hunting.”
Desmond Miles, the ‘present day’ character whose DNA holds the history of the assassins that preceded him and is the entry into the different eras the franchise explores, also returns.
But most of the game centres on playing during the revolution and like the other AC titles, there are some familiar names that come to the fore.
“We’re introducing new historical figures, like George Washington … major players in the American Revolution,” Acevedo said, without divulging just how these NPCs will play into the story, except to say that it’s “historically accurate.”
The game will also feature multiplayer modes, an economic system similar to that in Assassin’s Creed 2, as well as the aforementioned naval battles, which were on display during a hands-on demo at the Sony holiday preview bash.
The sequence sees you playing on a British warship trying to catch American ships and blast them out of the water. You can also get close enough to attempt to board them.
“The American Revolution was also fought on the sea, as well, so there’s another side of the American Revolution that you’re off to play,” he said.
Overall, Acevedo said the game is a “humongous project – the biggest Ubisoft Montreal has ever produced and one of the biggest ever done at Ubisoft itself.”
“It’s an open world, so you have main missions, but also lots of side missions,” he said. “It’s a hefty single-player campaign. We’re talking a minimum of 40 to 50 hours. Our testers have also been going in to see how far they can go into the game without even finishing it. It’s a massive game, that’s what gamers are looking for and that’s what the team has been striving for for the past two and a half years.”
As with the previous AC games, which have walked a pretty fine line in terms of potentially alienating certain ethnic and religious groups – remember that there was a screen that appeared during the first AC title that proclaimed the game, which featured battles among Christians, Muslims and Jews in and around the Holy Land, had been crafted by people of all faiths.
And goodness knows American politics, especially with the rise of the Tea Party and people who want the United States to more reflect the policies enshrined in the Declaration of Independence that arose out of the revolution could certainly be divisive if not handled with a deft touch.
Of course, working in a market such as Montreal, Quebec, where the two solitudes of anglos and francophones find a peaceful way to co-exist, certainly helps the developers and writers understand the importance of cultural sensitivity.
“We’ve always worked close to historical fact and bring in historians and consultants. In the case of Assassin’s Creed III, we have historians and Native American consultants, as well. Everything that has been created in the game is real. It happened. One of the reasons the Assassin’s Creed franchise has been such as success is because we are an authentic experience.
“There are always touchy subjects … but as long as we work with consultants and get their facts, both positive and negative, and portray them in the games, gamers appreciate that.”
He added that the historical elements attract some non-traditional gamers because the titles can be educational.
“It’s about showing the facts,” Acevedo said. “It’s easier to incorporate a fictional story around historical fact.
“But, you know, haters gonna hate, but we’re looking forward and always want to be as real and accurate as we can.”
As for AC3, it’s nearly ready for retail shipment.
“The game went gold two weeks ago, so it’s into mass production and we’re looking forward to putting it in people’s hands on Oct. 30.”
And there are many gamers, this Jedi included, who can’t wait to get his hands on the full version after the smooth-playing demo on display today.
The were three other titles that caught my eye, the first of which was Warner Bros. Interactive’s Lego Lord of the Rings game, which featured a hands-on demo of the battle at Helm’s Deep, featured in the second Peter Jackson film, The Two Towers.
What’s cool about this game, besides the epic battles and the enormous scale is that it features the actual dialogue spoken by the cinematic actors. So expect to hear Viggo Mortensen delivering Aragorn’s lines, as well as Sir Ian MacKellan shouting “You shall not pass” to the flaming Balrog.
This being a Lego game, though, the sense of humour that has defined the franchises previous titles – including jaunts into the world of Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Harry Potter – is also present. After Gandalf yells at the Balrog, the fiery beast belches in his face, causing the wizard to take a flustered step back.
The game is slated to ship on all platforms and consoles later this month.
God of War: Ascension was also on display and it looked buttery smooth. The gameplay looks fantastic and includes a new twist in which protagonist Kratos can stop, rewind and fast-forward time, so that he can rebuild items destroyed in battle.
There are still many quick-time events in major battles, but the game plays faster and smoother and looks more gorgeous than any of the previous GoW games. This one is a Sony exclusive for the PS3.
And finally, for younger fans, watch for a Sony exclusive called Wonderbook: Book of Spells, from a London-based studio. The game uses the Eye camera peripheral, as well as the Move wand motion controller.
You sit in front of the camera with the Playbook open before you on the floor. The camera will show you on your TV, but rather than a flat piece of tech lying before you, on the screen you will see a living book come to life.
This particular game focuses on the world of Harry Potter. You will learn and practise casting spells and then after you’ve mastered the basics of each lesson, you will find yourself sent into a story-based scenario in which you call upon your spells to defeat dark wizards and such.
And when you defeat these scenarios, you’ll be treated to poems penned by Potter author J.K. Rowling.
The beauty is that the controller transforms into a wand on the screen, which is sure to please young Potter fans.
According to Sony Computer Entertainment America rep David Alonzo, the Playbook will also feature in future releases. He said there’s a project in development with the BBC tied to its Walking with Dinosaurs franchise that will allow people to raise baby dinosaurs from eggs and interact with them.
Sounds cool.
And with that, Jedi Aragorn must head back to the hut to get some work done. I hope you enjoyed this look at a couple titles coming soon for consoles and handhelds.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Left 4 Dead 2 gets another DLC drop

The Left 4 Dead 2 "Cold Stream" DLC for the Xbox 360 is now out. It's the third DLC for L4D2 and became available on August 3 for 560 MSP.
Cold Stream itself is a community-made campaign from the same creator of the 2 Evil Eyes community campaign. It features four chapters, Alpine Creek, South Pine Stream, Memorial Bridge, and Cut-throat Creek, which all end with a guantlet even leading in to the safe room. The DLC will also come with ports of the Death Toll, Dead Air, Blood Harvest, and Crash Course campaigns.

Lego Batman 2 a fun superhero ride through Gotham

Growth and innovation is something that gamers expect when a franchise puts out a sequel.
Tt Games has carved out a niche thanks to its Lego license. And they have continued to grow and show promise with each new title. And they`ve had rich material to work with over the years: The complete Star Wars saga, The Clone Wars, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, Batman and the upcoming Lord of the Rings game.
Each game has added small new wrinkles, but the core components were a tongue-in-cheek storyline filled with bits of humour, large destructible worlds built with Lego pieces that could be smashed apart and reassembled, as well as replayability thanks to the use of multiple characters once the main story quest had been completed.
With Lego Batman 2: DC Super Heroes, from WB Games for the 360, PlayStation 3, Wii, 3DS, DS and PlayStation Vita, Tt Games has upped the ante further and this bodes well, especially if what they`ve established here carries over to the upcoming Lord of the Rings game.
And that major change is dialogue. Yes, no more mime motions and simple comic gestures to get points across. These characters can all talk and that makes the game play out like a Lego movie. It`s not as minor a move as you might think. In fact, it`s a monumental improvement as it adds more story and depth to a game that both kids and adults alike can dig into.
Lego Batman 2 centres on an initial battle between the Dark Knight and his nemesis The Joker. When the Joker crashes a Gotham City award show that is a man of the year celebration, between Bruce Wayne and Lex Luther, he unleashes havoc as usual. Bruce slips into his Batman cowl and cape and begins to do battle with some of the usual rogue`s gallery, including Harley Quinn and The Riddler.
But Lex sees an ally in The Joker and the duo soon team up. So, that necessitates the introduction of the Justice League into the fray. Suddenly, Superman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern and others are fighting alongside Batman and Robin and that, my friends, is simply awesome.
Unconstrained by a movie tie-in, Tt Games treats us to an original storyline that, for a Lego game, is epic. Large levels that feature save points are a big improvement. The ability to use a wide variety of vehicles is a blast. Soaring above Gotham as Superman or flying around in the BatWing is a geek dream come true, no matter how old a gamer you are.
Having said all that, the battles are pretty typical of the previous Lego efforts, as is the usual collection of studs as you destroy and rebuild environments. But as tedious as that may sound, fans of this franchise know it`s a lot of fun in the beginning and the use of other characters to access various parts of the levels that you can`t get to during the story quest make it worth the grind.
The game certainly has replayability because of this and allows you to pit any number of superheroes against a great lineup of DC Comics villains, including the Penguin, Catwoman, Bane, Poison Ivy and others.
I hope this is a good sign going forward. I want to hear Aragorn, Frodo and Gandalf speak in the upcoming Lord of the Rings game. And I want to see original works featuring the likes of Indy, the Star Wars crew and, dare I say, some kind of deal with Marvel so we can see a Lego Spider-man, X-Men, Fantastic Four and Avengers game.
Oh, the possibilities.
And on one final note, the game does fall back to use Danny Elfman`s Batman scores from the 1990s. I played mine with Hans Zimmer`s excellent Dark Knight and Dark Knight Rises scores playing on my iPod. It adds a much darker tone to the game, which I highly recommend trying for older fans of the Caped Crusader.

Rating: 5 stars out of 5. Rated E10+

Xenoblade: Chronicles a wild Wii game

Sometimes it takes a while for me to write a review if you compare my column’s publish date to the game’s actual release date.
Sometimes that’s because I have a lot of games on the go. Other times it’s because I’m trying to time my column with an event or the release of a similar title. And sometimes it’s because a game requires more attention than others.
In the case of Xenoblade Chronicles, from Nintendo for the Wii, it’s that last one.
Xenoblade hit stores way back in April. This Japanese role-playing game has captivated and confounded me at times. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. I’d get into it for a bit and then get frustrated and put it down. But invariably I’d go back for more. That’s the sign of a compelling, but flawed game. And that’s exactly what Nintendo has offered up here.
The story centres on a sword that offers its owner the ability to see into the future. This is a useful tool in that it helps you change events and remake the world in a more just fashion.
Japanese RPGs have taken a hard rap, especially from North American fans in recent years. And I’ll admit, I’m not always the biggest fan of them. I tend to prefer North American RPGs, like Mass Effect, or Elder Scrolls. The North American games tend to offer gamers huge worlds to explore, extra side quests to explore if you wish, and a story that unfolds as you venture wherever you choose to go.
JRPGs, by comparison, have become extremely linear, often feeling like you’re playing the role-playing equivalent of a shooter on rails.
But not this one. Xenoblade Chronicles is downright North American in its number of options. It offers an impressive world to explore at your own pace. You won’t be guided through the story by the hand. You truly can go where you want whenever you want to. And there are optional side quests to tackle. Plus loads of customization when it comes to the characters.
And that’s commendable. Japanese developers have been fighting for relevance in recent years, as western gamers and their tastes have become the driving force of the industry.
This title proves that, in this case at least, the land of the rising sun still has something to offer the larger world of video gamers.
That said, there are still issues that will frustrate (and occasionally infuriate) gamers. The gameplay choices give you at least 80 hours of story to explore – more if you want to truly try to tackle everything that’s offered up. But some are unbearably tedious. I’m not a big fan of having to collect or kill a certain number of objects or beasts in order to get essential help from a non-player controlled character (NPC). And when these types of ‘missions’ keep cropping up deep into the main plot, the lack of pacing gets more than a little frustrating. The main quest certainly could have used a little more streamlining.
The AI is also questionable at times. Your NPC teammates behave erratically at times during a fight. And this can get really, really annoying.
Thankfully, you have the option of saving at any point, which is a plus for RPGs, especially one with the scope of Xenoblade: Chronicles.
Overall, this is an impressive effort. It represents a good step forward for the Japanese development system and a solid mesh of eastern and western philosophies. But there are some bumps to smooth out.
Rating: 3.5 stars. Rated T.

Movie tie-in games back for summer season

The summer season is upon us, which means gamers once again have a choice of titles based on big screen flicks showing at the local multiplex.
As most seasoned gamers know, movie-based video games have a tendency to fall well short of expectations, typically because they’re under tight time restrictions in order to come out at or around the same time as the film’s release date.
One notable exception this year is an Avengers game. The film has done astounding business at the box office, but developer Ubisoft is planning to release a game – Marvel Avengers: Battle for Earth – either later this year or in 2013. Ubisoft has said it is not based on the movie, but rather the comic series ‘Secret Invasion’ and will feature more than a dozen Marvel characters.
That said, there are titles currently available based on flicks you can see either at the first- or second-run theatres in your city. Here are a few that I’ve taken for a spin:
* The Amazing Spider-Man (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii, 3DS, DS; Activision): I played the 360 version and two things immediately jumped out at me. First, this game is surprisingly fun. Second, it’s clearly been influenced by the Batman Arkham games.
The game is set after the events of the film, allowing you to battle more of Spidey’s rogue’s gallery of villains. You also are free to swing through Manhattan and tackle main missions and side quests at your pleasure. The elements of stealth attacks, bullet time action and increased, specialized attacks are familiar and executed well. Cynics may decry the influence of other popular titles, but the fact is they work and they make this game entertaining.
And in the end, that’s what you’re looking for when you plunk down your money.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5. Rated T.
* Brave (360, PS3, Wii, DS; Disney): I played the 360 version of this game, which is based on but also expands on the Pixar movie. You play as Merida, the red-headed heroine of the film, as well as other characters, doing battle with swords and bow and arrows (Kinect support for Xbox lets you shoot and slash with arm movements).
The game offers a decent mix of solving puzzles and battling various creatures. It lacks the heart of the movie and as a game, it suffers from the usual tie-in issues of being rather thin. This is a game that won’t take long to finish and has limited replayability.
But youngsters who adore the movie will enjoy it before tiring of it.
Rating: 3 stars. Rated E10+
* Madagascar 3 (360, PS3, Wii, 3DS, DS; D3 Publisher): I went all Nintendo for this review, playing the Wii, 3DS and DS versions and basically my reaction to them was all the same … indifference.
I have enjoyed the films, but as most film franchises peter out by the third movie, this game suffers from a real lack of inspiration. Basically, you undertake a series of missions and play a bunch of repetitive mini-games as you try to help the characters get back home.
Kids may enjoy the mini-games, but I think the repetition and the occasional control issues will turn them off rather quickly.
Rating: 2 stars. Rated E.
*Men In Black: Alien Crisis (360, PS3, Wii; Activision): Back to the 360 on this one, which is not based on the rather lackluster Men In Black III film. You play as a trainee, assigned to help protect the Earth from all manner of alien threats.
The game offers some occasionally interesting gunplay thanks to some unique weapons, as well as multiplayer split-screen action. But overall, it lacks inspiration. Given the fact you play as a guy named Delacoeur, it’s disappointing to find the only heart in this game is in the character’s name.
Rating: 2 stars. Rated T.
*Coming soon in future columns, watch for reviews of Dragon’s Dogma, Xenoblade Chronicles, Dirt Showdown, London 2012, NCAA Football 13, Lego Batman 2 and more.

DLC worth taking a look at

Downloadable content has certainly become prevalent in the gaming world in the past couple years and we’re seeing more and more use of it by publishers every day.
While some may look at DLC as a means of companies taking money from gamers for content that should already be included in the game you purchased, writing off all of it would be wrong. There are some excellent add-ons out there, including the much ballyhooed Mass Effect 3 extended cut ending for all those who complained about not liking how Canadian studio BioWare wrapped up the trilogy earlier this year.
But there are also some good games out there in DLC land to download. Here are some you may want to invest in:
* Fable Heroes (Xbox Live Arcade): This colourful, more animated take on the Fable role-playing game universe is aimed at attracting a younger audience. It’s a good primer for kids who might be wanting to dip their toes into the RPG waters, although the combat is a little wanting no matter how old you are.
* Euro 2012 ( XBLA, PlayStation Network): A downloadable only addition to Electronic Arts FIFA 12 game, this DLC features all the stadiums and teams from the recently wrapped up European soccer championship. So take heart, Italian fans, maybe you can capture the title on this virtual pitch.
* Batman: Arkham City: Harley Quinn’s Revenge (XBLA, PSN): If you love the Dark Knight’s two Arkham adventures, this is a must-play for fans.
The sexy and deadly Harley Quinn, also known as the Joker’s evil sidekick, has gathered a gang of baddies and put Batman firmly in her sights as she seeks to avenge the events of the main game.
Hey, any extra time spent in the awesome Arkham City universe is well worth the time, effort and expense.
* Jeremy McGrath’s Offroad (XBLA, PSN): A decent arcade-inspired racing game with loads of different modes to play with. The graphics aren’t anything to write home about, but that’s beside the point when you and a pal are tearing across various landscapes in all manner of offroad racing machines, or if you opt to do battle with online opponents. Thankfully, it’s pretty fairly priced for what you get, so the lack of ‘realism’ compared to some other racing titles where you can see every pristine reflection on the surface of your ride shouldn’t really deter you.
* Mass Effect 3: Extended Cut (XBLA, PSN): Personally, I don’t think BioWare had anything to apologize for when it came to how they opted to wrap up the game the way they did earlier this year (and I got the worst possible ending of all of them). But you have to give the Edmonton doctors, Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk, credit for not only responding to the criticisms of ticked off gamers, but offering it online for free.
Not going to ruin how it now ends, but there’s another option available to you and it should satisfy the crybabies out there.
* The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim: Dawnguard (XBLA): The first official DLC for the outstanding role-playing game adds an interesting dimension to Bethesda’s signature title. The plot sees the Vampire Lord Harkon trying to destroy the sun in order to usher in an age where vampires can roam the world free from the ravages of those nasty ultra-violet rays. Standing in the way is the Dawnguard. Will you defend the sun and humanity or join the vampires and attempt to take over the world? The choice is up to you.
Other recently titles that popped up online include Dragon’s Lair, the second chapter of The Walking Dead game and, of course, the crazy popular Minecraft game, which my children are completely addicted to. I’ve now become one of those parents who looks at a popular game (with horrible graphics) and says, what the heck do you like about this so much? All you do is build stuff, dig holes and kill pigs and sheep? Apparently I’m not as cool as I used to be.
Maybe someone will let me download something to up my cool quotient again.

London 2012 video game earns a silver

As I sit here writing this review today, Canada has two silver medals and five bronzes at the actual London 2012 Olympic Games.
Virtually, I gotta admit our country is kicking a little more butt thanks to my skills at playing London 2012, from Sega for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.
Playing the 360 version (and without the Kinect hooked up … I’m fine being a virtual athlete with my butt planted firmly on the couch, thank you very much), I’ve come away quite impressed with what Sega has managed to produce here.
Usually, tie-in games tend to be on the sucky side. Tight margins for turnaround often mean games aren’t fully polished and bug-free when they hit the market timed to coincide or capitalize on particular event.
But London 2012 is far more enjoyable than anticipated.
Growing up, way back in the 1980s when you had these things called arcades, there was a game that Konami put out called Track and Field (you can pick it up as an arcade offering these days for the consoles). I sucked at that game. It involved pounding buttons with your hands in a drumming motion and then slapping another button to jump or launch a javelin or shot put (making sure you held on long enough to get the right angle so your aerial missile would go as far as possible).
God, just thinking of that game, my wrists and palms hurt.
Not that there aren’t elements of those mechanics in play in London 2012. But it’s not to the same degree at all. Stick pushes now launch you over a hurdle, or fire your javelin or shot put.
Mostly, it’s about tapping buttons in rhythm to get your athlete to perform. Sure, you have to slap that button rapidly at times (at least with the old arcade game you could use your whole hand, in a kind of palm-drumming motion) so expect some sore digits, but there are times to rest and regain stamina before having a big go at it again.
There’s a decent number of events to play, including: 100m and 200m sprints, 100m hurdles, 400m races (the women finally get to run at 400m, they’ve been held out of the other events for some stupid reason), discus, high jump, long jump, triple jump, swimming, diving, shooting, archery, trampoline and vault, cycling, canoeing, kayaking, rowing, table tennis, weightlifting and beach volleyball (this, of course, is the women so we can amp up the spandex sex appeal).
Unfortunately, some events are missing. I’m sure the lack of basketball and soccer is due to other companies holding the rights to the pro players taking part in London.
But overall, this game does provide some nationalistic entertainment and enjoyment. It’s a nice accompaniment to the actual games.
Overall, the controls for all the sports aren’t exactly spot on, so expect some occasional frustration (as well as digit pain). But it certainly gets enough right to earn a spot on the podium.
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5. Rated E.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Game of Thrones story draws you into video game

One of the perils of working in journalism is the hours. Specifically the fact I work nights. This means, I rarely watch TV.
So, when I hear about a great TV series, I often wait to buy it on DVD. And if it’s a series with a lot of hype, I’ll often wait until there’s at least two full seasons on DVD before I dive into it.
Such is the case with Game of Thrones. I own the first season on DVD, but have yet to watch it. Waiting until Season 2 is available later this year.
So, when Atlus fired me up a copy of the Game of Thrones video game to review, I was a little concerned. I don’t want the series ruined for me. Thankfully, the game, which is available for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, tells its own unique story in George R. R. Martin’s universe.
The game was written in conjunction with the popular fantasy scribe. You play as two former soldiers from a rebellion who must unite to face a threat to the Seven Kingdoms.
The story apparently parallels the first season of the show, so while it tells a unique tale, you do interact with characters from Game of Thrones, namely Cersei Lannister, Qhorin Halfhand, Jeor Mormont, Varys and Chataya.
I can’t attest to whether those interactions are true to the show’s characters. But I can say that the journey you embark on in the game is the real highlight. The story is completely engrossing and you are tasked with making moral choices that shape your own character’s journey.
I love story-driven games, so the fact the plot of this game, advanced by character-driven cutscenes, gives you a meaty treat to gnaw on for hours, I enjoyed my virtual trip into the Song of Ice and Fire universe, as Martin’s creation is known.
Unfortunately, the actual combat and some of the NPC (non-player character) interactions are actually a little weak, especially when compared to other games in this genre, such as Elder Scrolls’ Oblivion and Skyrim franchises.
Despite the weak combat and the repetitive NPC dialogue, the story is so engrossing, the world so fully fleshed out and the cutscenes so captivating that most gamers will stick with this tale.
Rating: 3 stars out of 5. Rated M.
N n n
Here’s a quick look at another title currently available:
* Zumba Fitness Rush (Xbox 360; Majesco): Use your Kinect to turn this title into your own personal trainer. There are 42 routines, including 10 specifically for the Kinect. The music is pumping, you can play with a friend in a two-player mode, track calories burned and even create your own workouts.
As far as weight-loss games go, this one is a solid, lively entry.
Rating: 3.5 stars. Rated E-10+
* Country Dance All-Stars (Xbox 360; GameMill Entertainment): Not a big fan of loud, adrenaline-pumping, bass-thumping dance music? Well, here’s a chance for country music fans to kick up their heels and dance to more than 30 hit songs, whether you play alone or with a friend. The game supports Kinect. As for the music, you’ll find cuts by the likes of Lady Antebellum, Keith Urban, Sugarland, Johnny Cash, Miley Cyrus, Rascal Flatts, Trace Adkins, Alan Jackson, Brooks & Dunn, Miranda Lambert and more.
Rating 3 stars. Rated E-10+

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Future Soldier rises above average squad-based shooter

In the world of military fiction, you’d be hard-pressed to come up with a bigger name than Tom Clancy.
He’s the big literary dog. And Ubisoft has tried hard for more than a decade to try to use Clancy’s name to impact video gamers.
The results have been largely successful, thanks to the Splinter Cell, Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon franchises (let’s not talk about HAWX or EndWar). Splinter Cell earned its blockbuster cred, but Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon have failed to carve out a sales crater the way Call of Duty’s Modern Warfare and Black Ops series have. Battlefield 3 has also arguably made a bigger splash in the past year, elevating that franchise above the Clancy-named efforts.
And to be honest, multiplayer is why those other games have staying power. While I’m not a big fan of multiplayer, there’s no denying that today’s youth love going online to battle and trash talk one another for hours on end using the same maps and make-your-own-entertainment approach.
Given that, how does the latest Clancy-inspired title, Ghost Recon: Future Soldier (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3; Ubisoft), stack up? Time will tell, but in my books it’s right there with the big boys in terms of campaign gameplay and even this crusty old-school gamer found the multiplayer to be worth more than a passing glance.
Story-wise, Future Soldier is set in the ‘near future’ and terrorists still have a hate-on for America. A plot to unleash nukes sends a group of four Ghosts on a series of 14 missions to take out high-value, high-risk targets around the globe.
I know, the usual plot of a terrorist group trying to nuke the Yanks. Yawn. But that’s just the excuse to strap on some killer tech and guns and head into some truly intense campaign missions. With more than 50 weapons that you can strip down and customize, optical camo suits that let you blend seamlessly into the environment (think Metal Gear Solid meets Predator), drones galore and squad-based tactics that include sniping groups of enemies en masse after setting targets for your AI-controlled teammates … well, it’s pretty awesome third-person shooter action.
The various campaign missions require you to use a variety of tactical approaches in order to succeed. There are times where stealth is the best option and others where running-and-gunning rules the day. You can try to mix these approaches up and there are some trial-and-error moments as you make your way through the game. But overall, the gameplay and mission setups do a good job of hinting at the best way to approach the various scenarios.
I really enjoyed the responsive squad-based combat. When you have AI-controlled soldiers who respond intelligently and logically, it’s a real plus. You feel like the developer actually has your back and that’s a good feeling.
While the plot is clich├ęd and the scenarios are pretty cookie-cutter, the ability to attack the enemy using cool tech and different strategies elevates Future Soldier above the average squad-based shooter.
As for the multiplayer, what attracted me was that the gameplay focuses largely on a squad-based concept. Rather than a team of lone wolves just seeking to amass as many kills as possible in the hopes of winning achievements or trophies, Future Soldier wants gamers to truly gain an insight into what it means to be part of a team. And while the skill level and approaches of your teammates goes a long way to determining how much you’ll enjoy the various modes (there are 10 maps and four different game types in the initial release, with DLC coming this summer), Future Soldier had me sticking around a lot longer than I usually do.
Overall, Future Soldier won’t redefine military squad-based shooters, but it sure makes for an entertaining romp.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5. Rated M.
* Coming soon in future columns, watch for reviews of Game of Thrones, Dragon’s Dogma, Dirt Showdown and more.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Hardy, Pine outshine Witherspoon in action-comedy This Means War

It’s been a busy few weeks, dealing with some rather nasty salmonella poisoning of me and my younglings.
But if there is any bright side to be taken from all of that blech-ness, it’s that movies and DVDs are a real life saver at times like that.
And I’ve been getting lost in a number of films lately. So here’s a look at what has captured my eye from what I’ve received the past few weeks.
The main new flick out there is from director McG, which is at times a bro-mance, an action-buddy comedy, as well as a rom-com.
This Means War stars Chris Pine, Tom Hardy and Reese Witherspoon. Now, as any good reviewer should, time to reveal my own personal biases. First, I have a man-crush on Tom Hardy. I think the guy is one of the best actors of his generation and I’ve yet to see a film with him in it where I wasn’t impressed by his performance. Second, I really don’t much care for Witherspoon. I don’t find her sexy or attractive in the least, so two guys fighting over her makes about as much sense as two guys battling over a copy of Vanity Fair.
And finally, McG … I have a love-hate thing with him. I love Supernatural, which he produces, as well as We Are Marshall and Terminator Salvation, which he directed. But I detested the two Charlie’s Angels movies and the completely unnecessary TV reboot of Nikita.
OK, there. Biases revealed.
This Means War features a pretty basic plot. Hardy plays Tuck, a divorced, absentee dad. Pine (best known for his role as Kirk in the Star Trek reboot) plays FDR, a lover of all things female. Tuck and FDR are CIA agents and best friends.
When some bad guy targets the duo, the agency tells them to take a break for a bit. Tuck decides to post a profile on a dating website, which catches the eye of Witherspoon’s Lauren. They meet, have chemistry and agree to meet again.
FDR, meanwhile, bumps into Lauren at another time and hits on her. She’s intrigued. She wants to see him again.
The boys find out they’re both after the same woman. Out of respect, they agree to let her choose. But their competitive nature drives them to start using their training and gadgets to monitor the other’s dates and sabotage him whenever possible.
And then, of course, there’s that bad person who wants them both dead.
Like I said, basic plot.
This is one of those cult of personality movies, where how much you like the characters goes a long way to determining whether you’re going to enjoy your 99 minutes with this trio. And to me, the movie works best when Hardy and Pine are working together or against one another. Thankfully, that’s a large section of the movie. The plot-necessary stuff with Witherspoon is predictable and moves by relatively quickly. Give McG credit for knowing what an audience is really interested in.
Hardy and Pine have great chemistry between them … far better than either does with Witherspoon, although Pine and Witherspoon do seem to click a little more than Hardy and the blonde actress do.
The action scenes are crisply shot and there are some fun comedic moments as the boys try to destroy one another’s date nights.
Overall, This Means War is a decent buddy flick with a little rom-com thrown in, making it a date night movie that both sexes can get beside.
* * *
Here’s a quick look at some other DVDs now available:
* The War: Ken Burns absolutely brilliant documentary about the Second World War comes to Blu-ray.
And while the film itself has been given the high-def treatment, there are no new extras and the extras that are carried over from the low-def version are all in standard 480p.
If you don’t already own this amazing 15-hour set, which features personal stories, letters and stirring voiceovers read by the likes of Keith David, Tom Hanks, Samuel L. Jackson, Josh Lucas and Bobby Cannavale, then I would say rush out and get this set if you’re at all interested in learning about the U.S. involvement in WWII.
But if you already have the standard-def set, I don’t see much reason to upgrade. It’s still the same great documentary, just at a lower resolution.
* Ray Romano: 95 Miles to Go: Part road trip, part comedy show, this documentary features a slightly stunned Romano learning that his opening act and friend, Tom Caltabiano, has hired a film student to shoot their seven-day, eight city comedy tour through the southern U.S. Caltabiano points out that Romano refused to have a big film crew shoot his tour so this was his solution.
The result is a mixed bag, with some truly hilarious bits between the buddies in the car as they banter back and forth, along with some tedious Ray’s an everyday-kinda-guy stuff.
Of course, any ‘reality’ TV or documentary always has to be viewed with some skepticism as people do play to the camera and hold back their true nature most of the time. But what film student Roger Lay Jr. captured here is more often than not funny – if you like Romano. If you’re not a fan, then there’s not much in this 79-minute doc that will convert you.
Extras include more than two hours of extra question and answer sessions, commentary tracks, Romano’s Kansas City stand-up show, as well as deleted and extended scenes.
* Breaking Bad: The Complete Fourth Season: Stars Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul take their drug-making characters through another gut-churning, intense 13 episodes that sees them dealing with a growing animosity between them, as well as issues with Walt’s (Cranston) estranged wife, his DEA Agent brother-in-law and the drug lord calling all the shots, played by the brilliant Giancarlo Esposito.
Extras include more than 15 hours of cast and crew commentaries, eight featurettes, video podcasts, five uncensored episodes, deleted and extended scenes, a gag reel and an extended version of the season finale. Available on standard def DVD and Blu-ray.
* Route 66: The Complete Series: This massive 24-disc set would be an ideal father’s day gift for the grampas out there who remember this popular series, which ran from 1960-64.
Featuring Martin Milner, George Maharis and later Glenn Corbett, the show focused on a pair of guys driving across the U.S. Route 66 in their corvette, doing good and righting wrongs wherever they stopped along the way.
The show ran for 116 episodes and featured some top-name guest stars, including Buster Keaton, Robert Duvall, Robert Redford, Martin Sheen, Boris Karloff, Burt Reynolds and Gene Hackman.
Extras include a look at vintage commercials, a documentary about the Corvette, as well as a 1990 TV panel featuring Maharis, writer/producer Herbert Leonard and directors Arthur Hiller and Elliot Silverstein.
* G.I. Joe: Renegades: Season One, Volume One: Duke, Scarlett, Roadblock, Snake Eyes and the rest of the Joes do battle against Cobra and another group called the Falcons in this 2010 animated series. The regular voice cast includes Charles Adler, David Marsden, Kevin Michael Richardson and Matthew Yan King, as well as spot performances from Clancy Brown, Peter MacNicol, Lee Majors, Nika Futterman, James Arnold Taylor, Corey Burton and Phil LaMarr.
* Transformers Super-God Masterforce: Part two of the rare Japanese TV trilogy, this five-disc set features 52 episodes of the robots in disguise wrapping up their battle on Earth against the Decepticons. A small group of Autobots remain behind to help protect the planet, while the rest of the crew head off-planet. However, a new force of Decepticons (called Destrons here) come calling, the outnumbered Autobots will need to find help if they’re to win this battle.
Extras include the original Japanese language tracks, English subtitles and an art gallery.
* Victorious: The Complete Second Season
* Cat Dog: Season Two, Part One
*Hey Dude: Season Three
* Hazel: The Complete Third Season
* The Walking Tall Trilogy: Contains all three feature films.
* Drop Dead Diva: The Complete Third Season
* * *

Next week, watch for Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance and a new Asian film called Accident.