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Assassin's Creed Unity - PlayStation 4
Assassin's Creed Unity - PlayStation 4
Offered by Holiday Delivery before Christmas
Price: $56.50
79 used & new from $41.01

532 of 592 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Unified Failure, November 11, 2014
EA and Activision get a lot of hatred for their corporate practices, and for good reason most of the time, especially in the case of the former. But to me, no publisher has earned a right to be loathed more than Ubisoft. The French corporation routinely shows off doctored footage at gaming conventions, forces players to install their third-rate Steam knock-off to play PC games, releases broken products that require numerous patches, and worst of all? They publicly defend themselves. On more than a few occasions, higher-ups have come out and defended glitches and low frame rates, trashed consoles because they allegedly couldn't handle their games, called their products "too innovative," said that female animations in games were too expensive... the list goes on. No other game company has dared to defend their own B.S. so loudly, so blatantly, so obnoxiously.

And now, after months of trying to defend various issues with it, trying to explain away potential issues, they've released a game that stands a testament to their practices. "Assassin's Creed Unity" is a glitchy, broken game with fundamentally awful design choices, tied together with a contrived story that goes nowhere and does nothing. In a year of hyped games failing to deliver, "Unity" not only fails, but doesn't even try. At no point in this game does it feel like anyone actually cared about it during the development cycle. Instead, it feels hobbled together and rushed out to turn a profit, complete with several, several options for micro-transactions. Honestly? It's absolutely disgusting, and has further convinced me that the AAA industry is continuing to dig its own grave.

The first warning sign? "Unity" has a plot that could be called uninspired at best, shallow at worst, and a lazy joke if I was feeling particularly mean, which I am considering people have been duped into spending sixty bucks on this turkey. Arno is a Frenchman whose father dies, has a tragic love interest, is motivated by revenge, must become an assassin, blah, blah, blah. Look, you've played this game before. "Black Flag" took some incredibly savvy and innovative steps towards a new direction for the franchise, but this? This is the same gunk you've been fed from the first moment you took control of Altair. It's the same cocky, sarcastic lead we've seen in Ezio, the same supporting cast we've seen in most other games... it's all the same. It ignores the fact that this franchise has housed Aveline Du Grandpre and Edward Kenway, two of my favorite protagonists in recent memories, and gives us a boring, stale, stubble-faced white dude with no original personality. Yes, there are the token historical figures thrown in, but they're just... there. Just another box to be checked.

So, yes, the narrative here is an abysmal failure. All of the intrigue built up by the exhilarating climax of "Black Flag" has been thrown out in favor of a more streamlined, more casual direction, and the whole experience is worse off for it. The sci-fi sub-plot is worse than it has been in quite some time. The excuse for why we're playing yet another white guy is lazy and hokey. Everything here is just present to give us a reason to go kill people and explore another period of time in the past. It's not substantial. It doesn't matter. It's irrelevant drivel, and honestly, you could do yourself a favor and skip most of the cutscenes.

What do you have to look forward to, though, after said cutscenes? After the disgustingly long load times? Well, you have some of the most egregiously broken controls this side of... actually, there's no comparison. As far as top-tier, big-name titles go, this takes the cake for terrible design and unresponsive control. Arno handles like an erratic child covered in some hybrid of both molasses and olive oil. That is to say, he sometimes sticks to things and refuses to move, but will also slip right off the side of a building and plummet to his death. He'll take a huge leap when all that's needed is a tiny jump. He'll clip right into scenery and refuse to move. This is a character who is actively a chore to control, and even when you can manage it, you'll never feel truly in control. Part of this is the unpredictable nature of his movements, part of it is the camera that will get stuck in the worst possible positions and get you killed repeatedly.

That last problem is painfully obvious in the combat which, by the way, is uniformly awful. Sneaking around and killing people is a miserable experience, thanks to aforementioned broken climbing mechanics, erratic enemy AI and inaccurate targeting. Getting in sword fights is truly unpleasant, as Arno's swings constantly miss, his parries barely work, his finishing animations trigger while five feet away from an enemy that has already dodged... the list goes on. And the ranged combat? Well, I mean, it works. You point, you shoot, people die. But it lacks panache or maneuverability, and thanks to the artificial difficulty of large enemy encounters, you'll probably want steer clear of using guns altogether.

But say you really want to keep playing this game, you cheeky masochist, and you're having a hard time. Then, boy, does Ubisoft ever have the perfect solution for you! DLC is available right in the pause menu, because they care so much about making it a fun experience! And not just any DLC, no, they're too far gone for that. At any point, you can buy both in-game currency and "time-saver packs." In-game currency lets you buy stronger weapons and gear, and you'll need it, because you don't get nearly enough to get some of the better in-game stuff by completing missions and side activities. On the same token, "time-saver packs" let you upgrade Arno faster, get more resources, and other things that should be able to be accomplished entirely without the usage of your wallet... considering, you know, you just spent sixty bucks on this and everything.

Yes, folks, this is it. This is what Ubisoft has been working towards. Purposefully underpowering your character, in your single-player game, with their seeming intent to make you pay more money to make your experience less painful. It's a disgusting, cynical move, one that undermines whatever credibility they had to begin with. Frankly, any self-respecting consumer should boycott this company for this game alone. They release a broken game, then expect you to pay more money to have more fun with it? No, I'm sorry. That's not how that works. You're supposed to give me a game that stands alone, and then, later down the line, I'll give you more money for thoughtful supplementary content. This? This is reprehensible to its very core. This is taking the model of a "freemium" mobile game and applying it to a full-price console game. It's what outspoken critic and personal role model, Jim Sterling, calls "fee-to-pay." As in, you've already paid money, and they want more because, hey, why not? Why not? Because it's sick. And gamers deserve better.

And when I say this game is broken, like I have several times, I'm not just talking about the gameplay or the micro-transactions. This game looks like trash. Occasionally, there are some pretty lighting effects, and the main character animations admittedly have a surprising level of expressiveness... in cutscenes. But for the most part, Paris looks like a muddy, muddled mess of repeated textures and jittery animations. Nothing more than 20 to 30 feet in front of Arno is rendered right, and even then, it will routinely flicker in and out of existence. Clothing and scenery pop in at random, groups of the same NPC walk together in droves, grass and water look flat and colorless. Oh, yeah, and that 30 FPS frame rate Ubisoft was so proud of? Practically non-existent. The frame rate is sometimes so appalling that the whole world will freeze for a few seconds, even in places where there's barely anything on the screen. It's wildly inconsistent, and sometimes makes the whole thing downright unplayable when coupled with the bad controls.

I don't have much else to say about "Assassins Creed Unity," other than that I'm disappointed. I'm disappointed that anybody looked at this game and decided that it was functional and ready for store shelves. It needs at least another year of work done on it, and even then, the abysmal plot and immoral DLC options would still hamstring the entire experience. In 2014, I'm confused how a buggy piece of garbage like this got shoved out the door and put into people's consoles and PCs. I'm confused that Ubisoft thinks they can keep doing stuff like this and expect to keep customers. I'm just... confused. Confused and very, very angry.

Almost anything would be a better use of money than this. Don't make the same mistake I did.

Pros:
- Story has potential
- Paris is a neat setting

Cons:
- Gameplay is broken
- Narrative is broken
- Graphics are broken
- Physics are broken
- DLC practices are broken
- Virtually everything is broken

Score: 3 (Offensive To The Senses)
Comment Comments (32) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 16, 2014 4:00 PM PST


Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare Day Zero Edition - PlayStation 4
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare Day Zero Edition - PlayStation 4
Offered by VGCJ Sales
Price: $44.99
48 used & new from $44.99

8 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Hold X To Pay Respects, November 4, 2014
Reviewing a Call of Duty game is a slippery slope these days, more so for high-profile critics than independent bloggers like myself. Still, though, your opinion about an entry in Activision's unstoppable juggernaut of a franchise will earn you the damnation of one crowd and the adoration of another. It's become such a stigmatized series. If you like it, you're a "casual" or a "dudebro" or a "fake gamer girl" or a this or a that. If you hate it, you're a "snob" or an "elitist," so on, so forth. There's barely any in-between, I've noticed, which is really sad. A first-person shooter franchise with some genuinely good games in it has become an example of exactly what's wrong with the gaming community. That is to say, a lot of anonymous people on the internet shouting their opinions at one another as if they are objective facts.

And with another year comes another entry. The proverbial wheel keeps on turning.

Ladies. Gentlemen. Everyone else. I present to you "Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare," what feels like the 3,857th entry in the span of less than a decade. But as we saw with last year's Ghosts, which was a festering heap of generic garbage masquerading as a video game, not all COD entries are made the same. Something about that game cemented many people's beliefs, myself included, that it was time to throw in the towel. Everything, from top to bottom, reeked of desperation, of a cynical attempt to churn out a product in order to satisfy a sales quota. But the problem, it seems, was not with the franchise itself, but the developer. As time has shown, Infinity Ward is a developer that only knows one or two notes, lacking any sort of vision or creativity. Leave it to new blood Sledgehammer Games to return the series to a standard that, I would hazard to say, can compete with the big-league AAA titles. In fact, I'd go a step further and call this one a genuinely good game, if not a great one.

As you're probably aware of by now, "Advanced Warfare" takes place in the future and has Kevin Spacey in it. That's pretty much the only look at it we've gotten from commercials, on top of some robots and drones and other futuristic stuff that the franchise has implemented before. The thing is? This is the first entry that everything fits together. There are no oddly outdated things standing in stark contrast to these shiny new toys. Miraculously, everything fits together to form a coherent, cohesive future, one that feels consistent in its presentation throughout the entire experience. From the multiplayer to the surprisingly entertaining campaign, everything feels like it has genuinely been ramped up to the next level, perhaps in fear of falling to other big sci-fi shooters, like Titanfall and the other big 2014 Activision shooter, Destiny.

But "Advanced Warfare" actually has a massive edge on both of those titles. How? Because it actually feels like somebody cared about this game as both a standalone product and as an ongoing online title. See, "Titanfall" and "Destiny" failed because they didn't seem to have a firm grasp on the idea that, hey, maybe people don't want to spend sixty bucks for an online-only game with no substantial single-player content. Now, I'm not saying that this title's campaign, as good as it is, is ideal single player content. It's not. It can be cleared in 6-8 hours, if even that. But in that 6-8 hours, there's variety. There are new ideas. There are interesting characters, despite the glut of walking cliches still present. It's the video game equivalent to a blockbuster Hollywood film, but one of the good ones. If you're not into the multiplayer side of things, there is something on this disc that will still be good four, five, six years from now. That's more than I can say about the other two "competitors."

And to be fair, some real effort went into this campaign, especially the performances. Kevin Spacey is wonderfully hammy as a mysterious head of a sinister corporation. His mocap performance is quite good, and avoids any of the creepy, uncanny valley aspects that are present in a game like Beyond: Two Souls. The other actors, including Troy "I'm taking over video games" Baker, are also pretty fantastic, their delivery impeccable, their facial expressions distinctly human in their variety and complexity. Also, there's a franchise first in Ilona, an ex-Spetznaz woman who you partner up with in a few missions. Yeah, Advanced Warfare is still very much a male-driven game, but it's nice to see a lady who isn't sexualized get in on the action and be an important character based on her own autonomous decisions. Kudos to the writers for doing something a little different there.

The story itself, carrying you a wide variety of locales to partake in different tasks, is interesting but flawed. For my purposes, the vision of the future was convincing, and the dynamic between a large private military versus a national army that occurs was relatively compelling. There are some intriguing geopolitical questions that get raised in the narrative... and then either dropped or hamfisted away by grating patriotism. Despite all the attempts at trying new stuff, the narrative still falls into the trappings of "gruff man who loses a best friend," or "war isn't pretty but we need it," or "questioning the status quo leads to evil." It feels like the writers wanted to flex their muscles, but Activision came down hard and neutered what could have been a complex, thought-provoking title. The final result is an engrossing world with a flimsy structure, primarily populated by stock characters that are still somehow compelling. Again, very much a traditional Hollywood type of story.

But for those of you who don't care about the campaign (your loss,) the signature multiplayer returns. It's... well, it's largely the same kind of game we've been playing since 2007, but I guess if it isn't broken, don't fix it? To be fair, though, the tweaks added help make it something that I find myself drawn to, more than I have since the original Black Ops. I may go one step further and say this is the multiplayer at its finest, and even if it won't win over many longtime naysayers, people who like this sort of affair will come away pleasantly surprised, and might even keep their copy around for some time to come.

This is where it really comes up to a matter of personal taste. Having already sunk a good deal of time into the multiplayer within a day or two, I can see myself playing this well into next year, maybe even paying for new maps as they become available to me, and (in an extreme case) until the next entry comes out. This is a rarity in a game, considering I almost never buy DLC of any sort, including the story-based variety. That being said, I understand some people won't be impressed by the changes. Yes, you can use your Exo Suit to boost around the map or double jump, but it is still very much the same type of game consumers have gotten used to. And if you're looking for something different in that regard, then, well, wait for the next Battlefield or something. "Advanced Warefare," as stated above, isn't going to bring in a ton of longtime detractors (who have legitimate reasons for disliking the series,) but it sure is a blast for fans of fast, frantic shooters.

Whether you like the series or not, though, you have to marvel at the technical side of things. This is one of the most beautiful games I've played so far in this console generation, so if you have a PS4, Xbox One (or, y'know, a good PC,) you won't be disappointed in the graphics department. The character animations are excellent, the environments are lush and brimming with life, the weapons are ornately detailed. Everything has minimal aliasing, and despite the occasional area with glaring texturing laziness, generally places where we're obviously not supposed to be looking, it all looks fantastic. Perhaps it's not as top-notch as "Tomb Raider," or as imaginative as "Bayonetta 2" or "Super Mario 3D World," but it's still nothing to sneeze at.

"Nothing to sneeze at" might be the best way I could describe "Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare." It's a fast, furious, futuristic shooter with tight gameplay and some nifty technical bells and whistles. Sledgehammer Games (along with the two other co-developers working on multiplayer) remembers how to make a compelling, addictive shooter with substantial content both online and off. While it might not be the absolute best shooter this year, or even remotely close to the best game this year, it's enough to keep me snared in the multiplayer for some time to come... which is more than I could say for Destiny.

It's a fun game that represents the best Call of Duty has been in years, and for many, that'll be enough reason to put forward their sixty bucks. Well, that, or Kevin Spacey's performance that's great for all the wrong reasons.

Pros:
- Tight gameplay
- Pretty graphics
- Campaign isn't trash
- Multiplayer is addictive, rich in content
- Kevin Spacey plays Kevin Spacey

Cons:
- It's still Call of Duty
- The soundtrack is garbage
- Narrative hiccups stunt the story
- Zombies being cut off for DLC is sleazy... just saying

Score: 8.0 (Groovy)
Comment Comments (7) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 8, 2014 10:57 AM PST


Bayonetta 2 - Nintendo Wii U
Bayonetta 2 - Nintendo Wii U
Price: $58.44
32 used & new from $44.99

48 of 51 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fly Me to the Moon All Over Again, October 27, 2014
It was somewhere between riding a flaming unicorn through the underworld and surfing on a jet through hoards of angels and demons that something hit me. Throughout my entire playthrough of Platinum's much-anticipated "Bayonetta 2," there was not an instance in which I felt the game peaked. Most good modern games have a peak moment, a moment where everything works and the experience is a breathless, exhilarating thrill ride. Everything after that, nothing is quite the same. Yeah, the rest of the game is good and all, but it never reaches the crescendo that one moment managed to hit. It's unreasonable to expect that most games would be good throughout the entire thing, though. After all, barely anything can be entirely good, through-and-through, right?

That's what I thought, anyway. But Hideki Kamiya and company have proved that assumption wrong for the first time in many, many a year. There is no downward spiral in "Bayonetta 2," no definitive "this is it moment." That sensation of peaking, of a dramatic climax, begins when the first cutscene appears, and only lets up when the last credit rolls. The whole game is a non-stop thrill ride that constantly trumps itself, what with the ridiculous set pieces, gawdy comedy, flawless controls, fantastic aesthetics... the list goes on. The point is, Nintendo has put out not only put out my top contender for Game of the Year, but perhaps a modern classic as well.

You would be fooled to think that by the plot. Not that it's bad, per se, but like everything else on display here it is a display of utter ridiculousness. Bayonetta's former rival and now bestie Jeanne has her soul dragged to the depths of the underworld, and the titular witch has to go all "Dante's Inferno" and rescue her. But there are complications, like a Yugi Motoh wannabe complete with a pyramid necklace and magical cards, and the fact that both demons and angels are now attacking the stylish witch. Within the first few chapters, everything about the narrative goes completely off the rails (if there were any rails to begin with) in the best ways possible, and the player is just supposed to accept the insanity inherent in the narrative and roll with it.

They'd be behooved to do that, because once you accept Kamiya's unique brand of madness, you're in for a real treat. The narrative might not win any awards or be lauded for its emotional resonance, but boy, it sure is a good time. Part dimension-bending epic, part farce, "Bayonetta 2" is a game that isn't concerned with consistency of tone or tasteful subject matter. Instead, it's a delightful carnival of unfettered violence and sexuality, reveling in its own farcical nature. It's the antithesis to every grim, brooding game with gritty, gruff white dudes spouting generic tough-guy dialogue. Good-natured and earnest in its attempts to stay "over-the-top" at all times, this game is one that I would fervently recommend to anybody looking for one of the most genuine, anti-"big box game" experiences out there.

A lot of this is due, in part, to Bayonetta herself. Some people have some issues with her characterization and portrayal, and I honestly understand that. There are some points of the game in which she's blatantly sexualized, and a post-credits pole dance sequence is a bit on-the-nose and lacking the fun punch of the dance sequence in the last game. "Good" objectification is still objectification, and it should be acknowledged. But do I feel like this is a harmful depiction of a woman? No. Not in a million years. Bayonetta is actually one of the most fiercely independent, in-control leading ladies in gaming, and that sentiment is only backed up by this game. All of the men in the game are forced to play second-fiddle or fill the "support role" that women are usually relegated to in modern games, and to me, that's a pretty cool thing. On top of that, here's a woman completely in control of her sexuality, and literally wielding it as a weapon. We live in a society where women are frequently made to feel awful about displaying their sexuality, made to live in fear of expressing themselves. Bayonetta is a fictional character, but I feel portrayals of women like this are important. It can serve to remind smaller-minded men that women can be fierce, in-control, and independent. So while I acknowledge that some aspects of her portrayal can fairly be criticized, I feel that it's good to have female characters like this... just so long as there are other, non-sexualized female characters (Amanda Ripley, Noriko Rubi Malone, or the modern Lara Croft, for example,) to supplement her.

Onto the gameplay side of things, if you've played the first entry in this series, you know what you're getting into here. It's a combo-heavy action game that punishes players for mindlessly button-mashing. You're forced to learn the intricacies of the combat, get the hang of the ins and outs of how each weapon works, master the "Witch Time" dodging mechanic. Timing and precision are everything, but it never feels too daunting; once you find a few combos that work for you, you'll be able to chain them together ad naseum to slay monsters and rack up some points. Despite this being a sequel, I actually feel like this is the easier game to be introduced to the series with. It's far less punishing than its predecessor, and good deal shorter as well. Also, the difficulty is adjustable at any time, so if you're having trouble, or if you find to be a bit too easy at times, there are options.

What I think struck me most about the gameplay here is the way it feels. Recently, I played the much-lauded "Shadow of Mordor" and found it to be a boring, monotonous clone of other, better games. But the most egregious error, I felt, is that I was constantly aware that I was pressing a button. At no point did the barrier between me and the player-character break, and eventually, I gave up in frustration thanks the mindless repetition that punctuated the experience. Not so with "Bayonetta 2." Yes, you have to learn button presses and combos, but when you're executing them, you almost forget you're playing a game with a controller. It feels like you have control over Bayonetta's limbs, that you're in the game, dodging and slashing and shooting. Out of all the games I've played since I started gaming over a decade ago, I can count the ones that made me feel this in control on a few fingers. In terms of that illusive feeling of being truly immersed in a game, "Bayonetta 2" hits that perfect sweet spot.

The beautiful graphics help with that sensation of being sucked into the game world. I've said this before, and will say it so long as people denounce the Wii U as an underpowered console for kids, but this system is capable of producing some beautiful visuals. Some of the most "next-gen" experiences I've had, graphically, have come out of this system, and this is coming from somebody who owns a PS4 and a moderately powerful computer. It's not about fidelity or resolution or pixel count; it's about the imaginative landscapes rendered with bright colors and unique set pieces. "Bayonetta 2" is one of the most beautiful games I've ever played, even if it doesn't have 1,293x anti-aliasing or consistently 60 FPS, but because it actually feels like the developer put some thought into. Compare this to the supposedly "next-gen" games coming out this month that all look suspiciously like the same grey-and-brown tripe we've been getting served for the past few years. Processing power means absolutely nothing if you can't put it towards anything original and cool-looking, and "Bayonetta 2" drives this point home with gusto. It's pretty and imaginative, simply put. Enough said.

That really is enough said about this game, because I can't put into words how astounding it truly is. While playing I flashed back to years ago, when the game industry wasn't as blatantly about cash-grabs and competitor-bashing, and was more focused on unique, quality titles that were significantly different from each other. There's no DLC in "Bayonetta 2," no micro-transactions, no sleazy membership required to play. Every bonus item, every costume, every weapon is all there to be unlocked not by your money, but by your time, patience and skill. It's love letter to the way video games used to be, filled with interesting characters, tons of content, and fun gameplay taking place across numerous imaginative worlds that are unlike anything in real life.

Every moment in "Bayonetta 2" is a peak, a high note. In turn, the entire game is a high note for video games, and the only game this year that I feel is worthy of my highest, unreserved praise. It's a must-have, and with the original bundled in, it's a steal.

Pros:
- The gameplay is fantastic
- Beautiful, imaginative scenery
- A love letter to Nintendo and gaming in general
- Bayonetta is a great character
- The soundtrack is a masterpiece
- The best game I've played this year

Cons:
- A certain character's voice acting is dubious
- Bayonetta's sexualization isn't for everyone, and I respect that

Score: 10
Comment Comments (5) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 14, 2014 7:13 AM PST


Alien: Isolation - PlayStation 4
Alien: Isolation - PlayStation 4
Price: $37.49
78 used & new from $34.00

97 of 109 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "I Can't Lie to You About Your Chances, But You Have My Sympathies", October 8, 2014
Picture this. You walk into a room while a pack of murderous looters are just outside the door, ready to shoot you on site. There are two generators in this room that you have to activate, because you have to trip an emergency evacuation alarm to open the exit. But when you do this, you realize that you've also activated an android who will bash your skull open if it sees you, and attracted the attention of a vicious predator in the air vents above you. You sneak around, throwing a makeshift noisemaker to distract both your assailants, and frantically use a device to hack into the security system while they investigate the racket. Suddenly, the alarm trips. Lights flash. Everybody is aware of your presence. Frantically, you turn tail and run right into the hall full of looters. You think you're safe, that maybe they're gone. But what you didn't notice was the disgusting slime coming from a vent dead ahead. Before you know it, a Xenomorph snatches you up and everything cuts to black, all because you were too busy panicking to pay attention.

This type of experience is par for the course in "Alien: Isolation," the new survival horror game/apology for "Aliens: Colonial Marines" from Sega and Creative Assembly. There has been a lot of talk, recently, about a revival of survival horror games. But the fact of the matter is, most horror games that attempt to breathe life into the genre stumble and miss the mark way more than they succeed. They're too focused on jump scares, or letting players shoot the enemies with a huge arsenal of weapons. Even the upcoming "The Evil Within," by the prolific Shinji Mikami, looks to make concessions towards modern AAA gaming, and to not be focused on true survival and true horror. Yet I'm happy to say "Isolation," a licensed game of all things, is the first game in a long, long time that I've felt can truly be called "survival horror." As in, you're trying desperately to survive, and dear lord, is it horrific.

Part of that horror comes from the inspiration behind the game itself. It's made very clear that this game is not inspired by "Aliens," James Cameron's sequel to Ridley Scott's original "Alien", which most games in this franchise have been based upon. No, what we have instead is a quasi-sequel set after the events of the first film, when space marines weren't a thing and Xenomorphs weren't being overpowered by giant robotic suits. It's just the player, taking the role of series heroine Ellen Ripley's daughter, Amanda, one Xenomorph, and an army of assailants both human and cybernetic. She's searching for answers to her mother's disappearance after the events of the first film, and gets roped into exploring a derelict space colony formerly owned by Seegson, a second-rate corporation with big dreams and shady practices. But those answers will have to come later, with everything and seemingly everyone in the colony working together to kill her in the worst ways possible. And, y'know, the aforementioned Xenomorph doesn't help at all.

Some critics have questioned the significance of "Isolation"'s narrative, and I can't see why. I would actually say this is one of the best additions to the series canon in a long while, and certainly an improvement on the narrative roadkill that was "Colonial Marines." It expands upon the "Alien" universe in a myriad of new, intriguing ways, in my opinion. The most major of these would be the introduction of Seegson, whose turbulent history and unsavory behavior is chronicled through various logs throughout the game. Theirs is a story of corporate espionage and broken promises that helps to paint a fuller picture of the effects both space colonization and the reach of the sinister Weyland-Yutani Corporation have had on humanity. Long story short? They're the cheap knock-off of their bigger and better competitor, and throughout the game, that shows in various ways that I wouldn't dream of spoiling.

Another way that this expands on series canon in important ways is the development of Amanda as a character. Previously, she had been mentioned only as an already-deceased old woman in "Aliens" after her mother woke up from cryo-stasis, and thus, seemed like an insignificant footnote to the Ripley bloodline. But here, we get to see her as much younger, less dead entity. It's a good thing, too, because Amanda Ripley is one of the more memorable female characters I've played as in a video game, period. Much like her mother, she may be thrown into several horrifying and deadly situations, but she's never playing the victim. By her wits, determination, and physical strength, she always has the leg up on the opposition... it's just up to the player to figure out exactly how. Add on a fierce sense of dry wit and a rugged determination to get what she wants, and you've got one of the best characters of 2014 so far.

None of the important narrative choices would matter, though, if the game itself wasn't fun to play. And in some ways, it isn't... in the absolute best way possible. "Isolation" is a brutal, unforgiving game in which players need to get used to dying, restarting, and then dying shortly thereafter. Despite the way some trailers make it look, this is not a first-person shooter. There are guns, yes, and occasionally you'll have a use for them... when they're not attracting other threats which no weapon can kill. See, this is a survival/stealth game, in which players need to stick to the shadows and air vents if they want to actually get through the whole experience in one piece. Every situation is a puzzle, in a way, and using a gun (outside of certain situations) is a form of desperate resignation, because it indicates that you can't think of any other way to solve that puzzle. And in all likelihood, there's an answer that you're just overlooking.

To compensate for barely any ammo and purposefully ineffective weapons, there's a wealth of scrap materials laying around the colony to make some useful survival tools. A molotov cocktail will scare the Xenomorph back into the vents for some time, for example, and a noisemaker will make any attackers look elsewhere while you give them the slip. Scavenging for raw materials to craft new items is not a feature, it's a necessity. Having to do it in real time also adds to the tension, as you cross your fingers that won't get mauled while trying to make something to heal yourself. With severely limited slots and the requirement of total stealth to effectively craft, "Isolation" really drives home the survival aspect of survival horror, and it's a joy to experience. A tense, stressful kind of joy, yes, but a joy nonetheless.

But what about the horror side of things? The game may be hard and push a focus on terse survival situations, but is it actually scary? It would be an understatement to say "yes" to that question, because "Isolation" is downright terrifying at times, and simply mildly terrifying the rest of the time. Most horror games fail to scare me these days. "Amnesia" is more frustrating than scary, "Outlast" wore out its welcome halfway through, "Slender" is a gimmicky festival of jump scares... frankly, none of these supposedly "scary" games successfully shake me up. At most, they'll just startle me for a few moments, and then I'll just go about my merry way. Not so with "Isolation." Death is a constant threat here.

The unnerving androids dubbed "Working Joes" are what really do it for me, to be honest. Their glowing eyes, expressionless faces, and vague threats freak me out, as do their ability to pursue you while on fire and melting right before your eyes. If you get anywhere close to them, they'll lift you up and start throttling you without a moment's hesitation. Quite the disturbing experience, especially when you consider that only a few things can actually do damage to them, like a shotgun blast to the cranium. They'll grab your melee attacks, walking through your flamethrower, take five or six shots to the head with a pistol... unexpectedly, the original foes that Creative Assembly are the most interesting enemies in the game, and are sure to keep me looking over my shoulders for quite a while. Thanks, guys!

Which isn't to say that the Xenomorph itself isn't enough to make me yelp out loud, because it is. As I mentioned above, death is an ever-looming threat, and that's thanks to the creature. It will stomp around on the floor, go through the vents, rip you out of hiding places, and just about anything else in its power to end you. And rest assured, it will end you. Unlike the Working Joes, there's no chance for escaping this thing's grasp. Once it has you, it's over, and the amount of ways in which it can kill you is staggering. Walk under a vent with some weird liquid coming from it? You're dead. Try to outrun it once it's spotted you? You're really dead. Attempt to shoot it once it gets close enough to you? Completely and utterly dead. The only thing you can really do is use the flamethrower and molotovs to scare it away for a while, but ultimately, your best bet is to use your motion tracker and never let it even know you're there.

That's easier said than done, though, thanks to the fantastic AI. As you're not the only human in the colony, the Alien will sometimes drop in and kill five or six people in a matter of seconds, then finish you off... or run away... or perhaps not even show up in the first place. 90% of the time I thought I was witnessing a triggered, pre-determined event, I was triumphantly proven wrong. The Xenomorph is dynamic and constantly moving, constantly changing up its game, and it's pretty much impossible to predict what it's going to do next. You just need to prepared when it does decide to do something, unless you want to get impaled or decapitated.

These two enemy types, along with the desperate remaining humans, make the atmosphere of "Isolation" reek entirely of dread. Coupled with a ship that's always falling apart in some way, shape or form, and ominous lighting that made me genuinely afraid to go into certain rooms, the entire game is tense and terrifying, one of the scariest in years. Yet unlike most new horror games, players are actually given the chance to fight back and survive. You don't get a little lantern or camcorder, then thrown into the trenches. The controls are buttery smooth, the aforementioned crafting system works like a charm, and there's materials to be used everywhere if you look hard enough. Yes, death is a constant threat, but one that can always be avoided if you play it smart.

My concerns with the gameplay are minimal thanks to all of that good stuff, but still worth mentioning. First off, the Xenomorph's movements can be wildly inconsistent. Sometimes, it chases you at a normal pace, and others, it's able to catch up from 40-50 feet away in a matter of seconds. It reminds me of the arbitrary way in which some characters in last place can suddenly pull ahead in a game of "Mario Kart," able to somehow speed up enough to leave you in the dust thanks to video game magic. Except, in "Mario Kart," you're not going to get rammed through the gut and forced to go back to the last manual save point. So while I admire the dynamic AI present with the Xenomorph, and I enjoy the sense of tension created by having no auto-saves, there are some serious balance issues that should have been addressed.

Another major issue is the occasionally frustrating way in which players are lead through the game. Now, I hate hand-holding in most games, and love being forced to learn a map and explore. The thing is, the way in which players are lead through the story can be a bit confusing sometimes. In some instances, a player will have a clear blip on their radar, and then have to uncover the map as they go along towards said blip. That's fine. But then other times, players won't have the entire map yet and will be told to go places, yet they have no clue where they're going because there's no indicator on the map. Also, the different levels of maps aren't made clear in the interface, leaving it up to a player's guesswork as to which floor they're on. One might make the case that this lack of instruction makes for a more tense experience, and in some aspects, I can get behind that sentiment. At the same time, clearer directions and a better map system would have greatly benefited the experience as a whole.

At least wherever you stumble next will most likely look really, really good, thanks to masterful art direction and stunning lighting. Despite some occasional sameness when it comes down to some of the predominately grey and black rooms present here, most of the colony (and other places you'll set foot on) is interesting to look at, and rendered with lovely visuals. Everything has a very nice 70's sci-fi sheen to it, what with the usage of cassette tapes and the clunky, plastic-looking structures that surround you. Simply put, it looks very much like the original film and its vision of the future, and is aided by Geiger-esque design for the Xenomorph and everything related to it. While some might say that we should be aiming to create newer-looking worlds for games, I think it's admirable that Creative Assembly tried to remain as faithful to the "Alien" universe as possible. It paid off, too, because almost everything looks gorgeous here, and it's easy to stop and just take in some of the scenery when you're not being hunted down.

In the wake of the absolute disaster that was "Aliens: Colonial Marines," I didn't see this one coming from a mile away. A developer primarily responsible for strategy games trying its hand at a first-person survival horror game? I was understandably skeptical, as were most. Yet "Alien: Isolation" goes above and beyond all expectations I had set forth for it. At best, I was hoping for a mildly tense, shiny-looking game that was predominately linear and eventually turned into a form of a shooter. Instead, I got an extremely disturbing experience which is impressively open-ended and focused on stealth over brute force. For people who want to be led through a series of jump scares and then patted on the back, this is a horrible experience. But for people who want a game that demands thought and requires strategy, and features scares that will last long after the credits roll, it's a pure triumph.

"Alien: Isolation" is a new benchmark in survival horror for me, and one I doubt many games will hit or exceed for a while. Even if it does make me want to throw my controller into the TV thanks to a cheap kill sometimes.

Pros:
- A great story with a unique lead
- Absolutely terrifying, requires lots of thought
- Beautiful to look at
- The score is one of the best out there
- Stealth and crafting mechanics are perfect
- It's a licensed game that isn't terrible

Cons:
- Unbalanced Xenomorph AI
- Occasional lack of direction
- Some lazy texturing

Score: 9.75
Comment Comments (5) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 3, 2014 1:30 PM PST


Hyrule Warriors - Nintendo Wii U
Hyrule Warriors - Nintendo Wii U
Offered by TheFactoryDepot
Price: $62.40
33 used & new from $52.00

19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Dynasty of Zelda, September 28, 2014
Nintendo, as of late, has been taking some interesting risks as a company. A shooter featuring an adorable cast of squid-human hybrids? Sure! An entire game focused on Captain Toad? Why not! But to me, the most unusual announcement recently was "Hyrule Warriors," which is exactly what it sounds like. That is to say, a "Zelda" game that plays exactly like a "Warriors" title, albeit with a few tweaks. Would this be a simple reskin, a la the "Dynasty Warriors Gundam" titles, or would it bring the best of both series together in a deliciously orgasmic package? The series have very little in common, and putting them into one game sounded like the most incongruous mixture possible.

Pleasingly, "Hyrule Warriors" represents the very best of franchises in varying capacities. Koei-Tecmo brings its satisfying core formula of "press one or two buttons to kill hundreds of enemies in minutes," Team Ninja spices said formula up with gameplay mechanics that lend a distinct variety and weight to each attack, and Nintendo brings its established lore and does some really funky stuff with it, in the best way possible. These three forces collude to produce a game that is rich in content and heavy in fun, not to mention some of the most fun I've had with a co-op game in a long time.

From a narrative stand-point, this is one of the more interesting "Zelda" titles out there. A new villain, the unrealistically proportioned sorceress Cia, tears rifts between different points in Hyrulian history in an attempt to cause disorder and steal Link's soul. This is a sinister and evil plot, yes, but it's also an advantageous one for longtime fans of the franchise. The reason? It's the perfect excuse for fan-favorite characters from different games to team up and knock down evil forces side-by-side. So, aside from a patently annoying original character (Lana, a walking anime stereotype,) players will be able to get their hands on Midna, Ruto, Darunia, and many others, anachronistically teaming up to dispatch foes both fresh and familiar.

There's obviously a lot more going on in the plot, but to spoil it would be a crime. While it would be silly to say that this is one of the absolute best "Zelda" storylines, it's certainly one of the more interesting ones. It constantly undermines your expectations, despite some jaw-droppingly predictable "twists," and does away with the traditional "one villain" storyline that's made of the more recent entries a bit stale. It's also a novel concept to have three different periods in history appearing at the same time and interacting with each other, something that I've always longed to see happen. While there are no real moments of emotional resonance or significant character development going on here, there's a sense of chaotic whimsy that feels really fresh and interesting. Most importantly, it avoid the pitfalls of many crossover titles, and for that, it deserves some praise.

That sentiment can be echoed for the gameplay as well. Many crossover titles lose something in translation, favoring one franchise too much and the other too little, or doing something entirely unwelcome and feeling nothing like either franchise. But here, it truly feels like a wonderful mash-up between both franchises, much like this year's earlier "Professor Layton VS Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney." Players will hack through thousands of enemies in a fast, frantic fashion, and unleash ridiculous special moves that devastate the opposition. They'll capture bases, take on special enemies, and upgrade their gear. But on that same token, maps are sprawling and varied, peppered with hidden collectibles and chests, and many possessing a signature boss fight that can only be effectively fought with a certain item. Koei-Tecmo and Team Ninja have both brought their own things to the table, but without losing the fantastical atmosphere and sense of exploration that comes with Nintendo's flagship.

There's no hurting for both variety and depth of content here, either. On top of Legend mode, which is where the narrative unfolds, there's Free Mode (a hallmark of the Warriors series) in which players can play through any story level with any character they've unlocked thus far. There's also Adventure mode, where players progress on a charming 8-Bit recreation of the 1987 "The Legend of Zelda" map, taking on special challenges along the way. Each mode interacts with the others, too, meaning that materials collected, characters unlocked, and levels gained in one mode count towards the other two. As if this, along with the numerous collectible trinkets and healthy catalog of unlockable music, wasn't enough, everything in "Hyrule Warriors" can be tackled with two players locally (one on the TV, one on the WiiU GamePad.) Playing this with a friend or significant other comes highly recommended, as it makes tackling tasks easier by leaps and bounds. One player can conquer a base while the other hunts for a Golden Skultula, for example, and both can then come together to tackle a boss. This is one of the finer examples of local co-op I've seen in recent years, and with minimal slowdown, there's no reason not to play this with another person if you can.

There have been some reviews disparaging the visual quality of "Hyrule Warriors," and to be blunt, they can sod off. It might not have the resolution and parity of, say, a AAA title on the PS4 or One, but for what it's trying to do, it more or less hits the mark. The maps are carefully crafted and beautifully designed, taking players from a tree-top village to the depths of "Ocarina of Time"'s infamous Water Temple, among many other locales, some new, some fresh takes on old classics. Despite some occasional texturing issues, each map does a good job of pulling one in, especially with the usage of varied, vibrant colors. The real showstopper here, though, are the characters. Everybody on display looks absolutely magnificent, rendered with the utmost attention to detail and fluidly animated. While Cia's design reminds me of what a horny middle-school boy would create on DeviantArt, everyone else looks great. Again, this might not win any awards for sheer horsepower, and the camera could use a little work (it has the tendency to grow unfocused from time to time,) it makes up for it with style and variety.

"Hyrule Warriors" is a lovely bit of fan service to longtime fans of the "Zelda" franchise, packed to the brim with content (with more on the way for some time to come,) fun to play, look at, and listen to. It avoids some of the monotonous repetition that comes with certain "Warriors" games, and the plodding pace that comes with some "Zelda" titles. Without strictly being one game or the other, it somehow represents both titles at their very best, and it's quite obvious that a massive amount of effort went into making this game just right.

If you have a WiiU, love "Zelda," and like killing lots of things at once with friends, it doesn't get much better than "Hyrule Warriors." Also, you can bring down the moon from "Majora's Mask" and crash it into a dragon using hookshots that spring forth out of a magical abyss.

I rest my case.

Pros:
- Polished gameplay, tons of content
- A great balance of both franchises
- Excellent co-op
- Looks and sounds great

Cons:
- Camera can be wonky at times
- Only three or four Zelda games are pulled from
- Main campaign is a bit short

Score: 9.0
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 6, 2014 5:21 PM PDT


Destiny - PlayStation 4
Destiny - PlayStation 4
Price: $39.99
124 used & new from $27.99

6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Destined for the Bargain Bin, September 18, 2014
I have not seen everything Destiny has to offer. I know this, for a fact. And in fact, I may go one step further and say that I will, in all likelihood, never see everything this game has to offer. Of course, part of this has to do with the absolute chore it is to get this game to get connected, stay connected, and not throw about a dozen different cryptic error messages at me. But I'll save that complaint for later. Because if Bungie's overhyped exercise in the power of marketing was worth putting up with the horrible connection issues and egregious crashes was truly a great, original game, it would be worth it. But it's not. Like many dedicated video game players expected, Destiny is not particularly an original, innovative, or even a fantastic game. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is one of the most derivative, by-the-numbers experiences I've had with a piece of software this year, held together by a half-baked story and truly awful progression.

The story, what little of it is there, is a hodgepodge of cliches filled with utterly forgettable characters and needlessly convoluted terminology. What can be sussed from it is that a giant orb, known as the Traveler (it's a Bungie game, so get ready for about a zillion capitalized nouns,) appeared out of nowhere and beckoned in an era of space travel for humanity. But the Traveler itself has had enemies in its, erm, travels, and those enemies of course end up attacking humanity and ravaging Earth. What remains of humanity is on distant planets, fighting against said enemies, most of whom are comprised by the generically-named Covenent wannabes, the Darkness.

All of this exposition, and so little to care about. Honestly, you can ignore most of this story and be fine. In fact, you might be better off, because it's some of the most uninspired tripe out there, and I honestly expect more from Bungie at this point. This is a studio that's been around since the 90's, giving us the Marathon and Halo games, both series that have interesting lore and compelling narratives. But here? It's the stereotypical "humanity must survive" narrative we've seen time and time again in games, and considering this is 2014, where games have evolved to tell fantastic narratives grounded in believable yet fantastical worlds, stuff like this holds the industry back. Simply put, the narrative content of this game is bland and intellectually offensive, and not even worth trying to put thought towards. Because it feels, frankly, like no thought was put into it to begin with.

No real thought seems to have been applied to the rest of the game, either, from what I was able to play. Yes, the core gameplay is very tight, and satisfying to a degree. The gunplay is polished and snappy, the melee feels good, vehicles control like they ought to, but... something is missing. There's a certain kind of spunk the Bungie-developed Halo games had to them, a type of freshness that's almost impossible to describe unless you're actually playing it. Yet that's entirely missing here, much to my chagrin. We have a futuristic story with strange weapons, mysterious worlds, a foreboding intergalactic threat, and yet all one can muster while playing this game is a resounding "eh." There is nothing broken here, yet nothing particularly wonderful. It works, but it doesn't excel at its task. When you think of a typical, big-budget, stereotypical "AAA" shooter, well, this is it. Right here. Just with some Borderlands elements slapped onto it haphazardly.

And yes, I did say haphazardly. I'm not a big proponent of Gearbox, but with the first two Borderlands, they really nailed something special. They took the addictive qualities found in dungeon-crawling lootfests and somehow translated them successfully into an open-world shooter. There were hundreds of guns, a lively world to explore, and upgrades that packed a real punch if you knew what you were doing. Bungie, knowing that they couldn't just crank out another shooter and call it a day, looked at everything that series did right and figured they could produce a carbon copy. The problem? Borderlands takes place in a living, breathing world inhabited with memorable characters and a constant stream of new and unique weapons. Destiny, on the other hand, exists in a lifeless, dull vacuum, sprinkled with a few characters whose names you'll quickly forget, along with a few guns that wholly unremarkable. Yes, there are upgrades and perks, but why bother? Their progression is incredibly limited and stunted, and can be cheesed by exploiting the patently broken leveling system. Every similarity to that other, better game is only surface-level. It is a sociopathic imitation of an established formula, going through the same routines yet failing to truly grasp what makes it work.

But what really undoes Bungie's allegedly ambitious new game is the insistence of having the entire experience be online. For the uninformed (I don't blame you, Activision has done an awful job advertising this fact,) everything component of Destiny requires the player be constantly connected to the game's servers. Want to progress the stale story? Grind a few levels? Go solo for some loot-hunting? Too bad. Even if you have no interest in playing with anybody else, the game insists that players be connected to the thing like an MMO. The problem I have with this is that the game functions nothing like an MMO. There are a few players in your lobby, and every once in a while, you'll see them do something. Maybe kill an enemy or open a chest. For the most part, though, you'll be wandering the lifeless landscapes by yourself, with no need for any other players. Yeah, you can invite whatever player you run into to form a team, but that's about it. This is a game that could have easily been a single-player experience, and forcing an always-online system onto players just wanting to experience the world by themselves is a pretty scummy thing to do.

Aside from the vast expanse of nothingness to explore and the limp noodle of a campaign to go through, there are some other multiplayer options. There are deathmatches, which are pretty typical affairs albeit with some neat little gadgets, and Bungie promises a future of scheduled community events, such as raids. Again, everything here works as it should, I feel, but it all ultimately comes together in something that feels very undercooked. Bungie has done multiplayer before, and honestly, they've done it in some of the best ways I've ever seen accomplished. But that was with Halo, not this. This just feels a bit forced by comparison, at least for my purposes. For my money, there are better games on the market with playable deathmatch modes, and quite frankly, better games on the PS4 if you're looking for an MMO to sink some hours into.

There are very few other things I can say about Destiny without really forcing myself to try. It's pretty to look at, sure, but as I've been saying this entire write-up, there's nothing particularly engaging the aesthetic on display. There were games about space travel released several years ago with worlds that felt more like living and breathing spaces than boring plains with some stuff to jump on. Even with very polished graphics that look almost lifelike in some areas, nothing can disguise the fact that Bungie has given players a tray of plastic fruit. That is to say, it's all very pretty looking, but there's nothing to really sink your teeth into and pull you into the experience.

Writing about Destiny, I can't help but get a strange sense of deja vu. They are two entirely different games, yes, but this game reminds me very much of this year's Watch Dogs. Both experiences were built up with colossal amounts of hype, using buzzwords like "revolutionary" and "innovative" to drive preorders up. But at the end of the day, neither product was anything close to what I'd call a game-changer. They're riffs on things we've seen before, and quite honestly, seen done far better. Just because we're in a new generation of consoles doesn't mean developers get permission to just hit the "reset" button and start again from the ground up. That's not how this works. Each console generation does not exist in a vacuum, and nobody should get a free pass to just shove something we've been playing for years in our faces and call it the next big thing.

But I guess this is where my opinion of the two games differs. Watch Dogs at least tried. It was a GTA clone, yes, but it had some novel hooks and a nice world, not to mention the fact that Ubisoft has never tried their hands at an open-world crime game. But Bungie doesn't get that much lenience from me. They've been in the industry for a long time, and have been developing shooters for most of that time. They know what they're doing. And for them to put out something this poorly thought-out, this soulless? Well, it's kind of insulting. It's insulting that I ever thought that they were capable of something great beyond Halo.

Ultimately, Destiny is not a bad game. But it's certainly not a good one. It's above-average, yes, and better than the last attempts at shooters Activision has published. That being said, it's still a wholly derivative start to a series that, from first impressions, is looking to be absolutely nothing special. And from the people who crafted some of my favorite console gaming experiences to date, that's a real shame.

Pros:
- Polished gameplay
- Pretty graphics
- Good soundtrack

Cons:
- Awful plot
- Progression is uninspired, dull
- Always-online is unnecessary
- Bungie can do better

Score: 6.0
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 21, 2014 2:25 PM PDT


Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney
Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney
Price: $29.99
23 used & new from $23.65

26 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Puzzle Solvers At Law, August 30, 2014
The most recent main entry in the venerable "Ace Attorney" franchise had one phrase uttered dozens of times throughout its hit-or-miss story: "the dark age of the law." It referred to the fact that corruption in the legal system had become rampant, with forged evidence pushing forward cases in which the "ends justified the means." To a lesser extent, that's how I've felt about the game industry as of late. Giant games boasting most preorders in history or developed by some big, AAA studio who developed some other massive franchise are dominating the market. Trailers with gameplay that is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, fabricated and not indicative of the final product. The ends justify the means, just so long as the big companies get their profit. It's instilled me with a healthy dose of bitter cynicism about gaming in general, and for a while there, I felt like I wasn't going to be able to keep on reviewing games, or pursuing a career in that vein. There just wasn't enough to keep me going.

Yet there were some bastions of hope. Some of the upcoming Fall titles look engaging, the return of survival horror into the marketplace is great, and, more related to this review, Nintendo has put up its dukes again and started pounding into the competition again. Given that I love the company dearly, and that I obviously am heavily invested in the "Ace Attorney" franchise, this title was always a no-brainer purchase for me. In fact, it was one of the reasons I wanted a 3DS, when it was announced way back in 2010. I didn't know how good it would be, though. In fact, I had no idea that one game could singlehandedly restore my faith in video games, and my love of them. But that's what's happening with "Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney." It sounds hyperbolic, but this is one of the best games I've played this year.

The set-up is ridiculous and whimsical, very befitting of both franchise involved. A mysterious book owned by a girl named Espella holds the history of Labyrinthia, a sleepy town that feels straight out of a fairy tale. And indeed, Espella's book makes that seem like a likely possibility, considering it not only holds the tale of Labyrinthia's past, but of its present and future as well. In two very different capacities, Layton, Luke, Phoenix and Maya get involved with Espella, and get drawn inside of the magical tome. To their surprise, being sucked inside of the book takes them straight to Labyrinthia, which is very much a medieval joint complete with knights, cobblestone streets, and... witch trials. Yep, you see where this is going, don't you?

Four rational individuals are thrown into a wildly irrational world and expected to survive. Not only that, but they're expected to go up against widespread superstition to save innocent lives, and to try and topple a man known only as the Storyteller, who is essentially a god. Will logic prevail? Will their objections be heard? Or will the future written by the Storyteller come to fruition and foil everything our heroes are working towards? The basic conflict of this game is a top-notch "fish out of water story," and it's one of the best adventures any of the characters have ever had.

What makes the narrative work so well is not only the core conflict of "logic versus superstition," but the combination of excellent pacing and great characterization. Layton and Phoenix are entirely out of their element, and watching them try to navigate the waters of Labyrinthia's tenuous legal system is thrilling, to say the least. The horrific nature of a guilty verdict equaling instant execution is balanced out by both series' signature senses of humor, which work perfectly together. It pushes all of the characters to their logical extremes, and as somebody who enjoys both series, it's a pure joy to watch unfold. At the same time, the game's structure and excellent usage of cliffhangers makes sure that players don't get too tired of puzzle-solving or courtroom drama, breaking everything up into nice chunks that prevent tedium from setting in.

The gameplay itself is a perfect combination of both series' hallmarks. Sections in which you're pointing and clicking are now not only filled with puzzles, but with clues and evidence that can be used in court. This means that you'll see Phoenix and Maya solving puzzles in the same fashion as a Layton game, as well as Layton and Luke questioning witnesses and discussing evidence in a similar way to an Ace Attorney entry. This simultaneous combination and role-reversal is the compelling kick in the pants both franchises have needed in recent entries, in my opinion, and keeps things constantly engaging.

Long-time fans of the Ace Attorney franchise, the ones who expect each entry to have a cool new mechanic (Psyche-Locks, the Mood Matrix, and the like,) will be pleased to see two new features added here. It's a bit of a mixed bag, though, as one of them is a bit perfunctory, while the other is surprisingly novel and interesting. The useless one is the addition of a spell book, which the player can use to present different spells in court. We've been collecting and presenting evidence since 2005 (earlier in Japan,) though, and this just feels like another arsenal of evidence as opposed to a legitimate new feature. That being said, the second addition is having multiple witnesses on the stand at once, which is a healthy amount of chaotic fun. Different testimonies contradict each other and trigger other trains of thought of other witnesses, and it's up to the player to suss through all of these to get to the bottom of each case. It's a novel feature that could only really work in this setting, and while I'd like it to return, I understand that it wouldn't work using the modern legal system as a template. As it stands, I'm grateful for such a cool feature here, and appreciate the exciting twist on the formula it brings to the table.

I would say that my biggest qualm with the gameplay is the incongruous mixture of difficulty and mollycoddling players get. I get that hint coins are an integral part of the Layton series, but I don't really feel like they have a place in Phoenix's courtroom. It's true that Ace Attorney has always had a problem of oblique answers to vague questions, but using hint coins that either narrow the evidence you can present or straight-up tell you the answer to things is not the right way to go about fixing that. Personally, I would have preferred better lines of logic instead of a cheap tactic driven by collecting trinkets which are overly abundant in the game world. That doesn't speak to the quality of the core mechanics themselves, of course, but it is something that I really take issue with. So while everything works as well as it should, some more fine-tuning of the lines of logic and less liberal application of coins would have been nice.

There are no real complaints in the presentation department. In fact, this is one of the best looking titles on the 3DS in terms of pure aesthetics. Just to be clear, that doesn't mean it has the most polygons, or the most "realistic" appearance. Instead, its art direction can only be described as brilliant. It is a beautiful collision of both Layton and Ace Attorney's radically different styles that feels tasteful, and is aided by a fantastic presentation in the town of Labyrinthia itself. Playing video games for as long as I have, I've seen plenty of medieval villages and mysterious dungeons. Yet few of them have managed to make me feel the sense of awe and whimsy I feel while playing "Layton vs Wright." It's filled with several interesting characters of varying art styles that, somehow, never clash, and feel like living, breathing citizens of their world. This fantastical cavalcade of bright color is tied together by a fantastic use of 3D and smooth character animations, further drawing players into Labyrinthia. Oh, yes, and those animated cutscenes? They're easily the best either franchise has ever had.

Arguably, though, my favorite part of this game is the soundtrack. Layton and Ace Attorney are both scored by some of the best in business, and have distinctive tunes which franchise fans know and love. While the primary Ace Attorney composer didn't work on this, which is kind of surprising, the main Layton composer and another famed game musician teamed up for the soundtrack this time around. The results can only be described as... actually, no description does them justice. But what I can say is that this is the best soundtrack, to any game, that I have heard all year. The light yet mysterious vibe of Level-5's games is given copious amounts of punch and spice by the signature brash and bold atmosphere of Capcom's. Musical hallmarks of both series are touched upon and messed around with in new, interesting ways, which helps drive home the fact that this is a true combination of both franchises.

To me, that's what makes this a must-play. This is not a cheap crossover, an excuse to just throw a few beloved characters into a game in hopes of making a quick cash-grab, which is a shocker considering Capcom was involved. Like peanut butter and jelly, like fries and a chocolate shake (try it sometime,) this is a flavorful combination, with both tastes complementing and aiding each other to make the entire experience something that could not be replicated elsewhere. This game represents both franchises at the top of their game, no pun intended. It is both the best Ace Attorney since "Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney" and the best Layton since the early entries, mixed into 20+ hour experience.

"Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney" is not without its issues, but in my years of experience, no game is. As it stands, though, it's two fantastic franchises done right, thrown into one game and then put on the market at a budgeted price. For adventure game fans, it's a fantastic value and a great introduction to a cast of unforgettable characters. For fans of both or either franchise, it's everything you know and love, plus so much more. Either way, it's a fantastic game with very little hampering it from being one of this year's best.

At the end of the year, after the overhyped shooters and DLC cashgrabs have come and gone, I will look back on this game still, and might even still be playing downloadable puzzles and bonus episodes. I will look back on it and remember it as the game that restored my faith in games. Not bad, huh?

Pros:
- A lengthy, twisty story.
- Engaging, varied gameplay.
- Vibrant graphics.
- Beautiful, brilliant soundtrack.
- Both a great starting point and a great piece of fan service.

Cons:
- Hint coins have no place in the courtroom.
- The spell book is a useless addition.
- Ace Attorney still has some oblique lines of logic.

Score: 9.5
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 29, 2014 10:55 PM PDT


300: Rise of an Empire
300: Rise of an Empire
DVD

10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Rise of a Franchise, July 24, 2014
Personally, I went in with the lowest of expectations with "300: Rise of an Empire." The first "300" was very good for its time, an entertaining festival of unadulterated machismo and bloody carnage. Perhaps it hasn't aged very well in the seven years since its release, with its more problematic elements becoming more highlighted by the influx of action films with better female characterization, but I would still contend that it's a very entertaining, fun film. But three years shy of a decade later (god, I feel old,) why is a follow-up even remotely necessary?

For much of its 100+ minute runtime, "Rise of an Empire" desperately tries to prove its worth to skeptics like myself, and mostly succeeds. It isn't a sequel, in the strictest sense of the word, nor is it a prequel. Instead, we have a story that takes place before, during, and a bit after the events of the first film, It follows Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton,) a blue-caped Athenian crusader responsible for killing King Darius, which in turn spurs his son Xerxes into becoming the borderline iconic villain fans remember. But while Leonidas focused on direct ground confrontation, most of the action here takes place on the high seas, pitting our protagonist against the menacing navel commander Artemisia (expertly played by Eva Green.)

And when the focus is on that action, this sequel soars. The action sequences are some of the most well-choreographed I've seen all year, especially the explosive, physics-defying climax. When films have a focus on navel warfare, they often tend to drag on and becoming grandiose, budget-driven bores. But here, the script eschews typical ship battles, instead focusing on implausible yet exhilarating bits of action. Horses jump from boat to boat, ships spew oil which is of course lit ablaze, soldiers leap from masts and plunge their blades into the skulls of the opposition. If you're looking for fun swordplay and bloody chaos, few movies do it better than this.

Which makes other parts of the film feel like a thundering bore. Yes, when "Rise of an Empire" decides to focus on political intrigue or grand proclamations of battle, it falls woefully short of the heights delivered by its predecessor. There are no "tonight we dine in hell" or "this is Sparta" moments here, only cut-rate dialogue which exists only to drive the plots. That is, when we're focused on the Athenian side of things. The characters of Artemisia and Gorgo (Lena Headey reprises her role) get the best lines, ironic in a movie so blatantly pitched towards men. But when they're off camera, which is too often, the film necessitates that Stapleton steps into the spotlight, and not to be too harsh, but the guy just can't carry a whole movie.

Speaking of Gorgo and Artemisia, I have to commend Zac Snyder and Kurt Johnstead for improving the female characterization present in this series. While it's still no "Divergent" or "Hunger Games," both of these characters get to slay the opposition and remain mostly undefined by victimhood. I also have to hand it to the movie for handling the topic of sexual assault in a non-glorified, non-sexualized manner. It's portrayed not as some forbidden vice, but as a disgusting act of subjugation and domination, which is exactly how it was implemented in the time period during which this is supposed to take place. Gone are the days of the naked, dancing oracle and Gorgo's assault in the previous film, and it shows that the franchise is willing to not entirely alienate a female audience. Good stuff. Not great, but good.

What more is there to say about "300: Rise of an Empire" aside from that last sentiment, then? It's nothing groundbreaking, nor does it feel as innovative or original as the first film, but it constantly undermines the viewer's doubt in it being a worthy addition to the series canon. It may get dull at times, but the action sequences and great performances from Green and Headey, paired with Junkie XL's excellent score, manage to save the film from complete mediocrity. This won't win over people who don't like this sort of film, but for fans of the original or people looking for a high-flying action experience, it's a solid bit of entertainment that'll probably be worth your time.

Grade: B-


Appleseed: Alpha [Blu-ray]
Appleseed: Alpha [Blu-ray]
DVD ~ Luci Christian
Price: $19.96
24 used & new from $13.95

13 of 24 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Rotten Core, July 23, 2014
What happens when you give an American studio and the "God of War" writer access to a cult favorite Japanese property? I was hoping for something good, really. The first two "Appleseed" movies are much better than some people give them credit for, and I'm always sure to recommend the first one to those looking for a fun, futuristic thrill ride. It looked, from the trailers, like the prequel was on track to have an interesting set-up for the franchise coupled with some beautiful animation. Still, there were warning signs, like Deunan's absolutely moronic costume change to the unfortunate choice of generic, dated dubstep. I held out hope, and was promptly shot in the foot.

Without any exaggeration, I believe that I could fairly assert that "Appleseed: Alpha" is one of the worst things to happen to a great franchise since "Metroid" got hit by the speeding semi that was "Other M," or when George Lucas thought Jar Jar Binks would be a genuinely worthy character addition to the "Star Wars" lore. Without trying to come across as a bitter nerd here, I'll keep details on why this is a bad "Appleseed" movie to a minimum, and try to focus on why this is just a bad movie, period.

First off, the plot, or what little there is, is one of the most contrived pieces of drivel to be churned out by a writer this year. We see the world in ruins after World War III, and series protagonists Deunan and Briarios are travelling through a ruined New York, running errands for a black stereotype that also happens to be a robot with devil horns. Off to a great start, I know. They're searching for Olympus, this fabled Utopian society that viewers of the previous films will be all too familiar with. Somehow, they get embroiled in a conflict stemming between a mysterious pair of androids and a young girl who is apparently the key to some nefarious scheme they're hatching. Will our heroes save this young girl in a suit seemingly made of latex? Will Briarios get the help he needs to repair his cybernetic body? Can this movie get any more cliche?

You probably know the answer to all three of those questions. Yes, this movie is comprised of some of the worst tropes to grace science fiction since its inception, and it doesn't use them in any original way. No unique twist or spin, just regurgitated archetypes and plot points that can be and have been executed in a far more compelling fashion. None of this is aided by the positively awful script and patently bad direction, both of which work in tandem to give the film an abundance of awful tough guy dialogue and stilted scenes rife with awkward pauses. From a narrative standpoint, this movie is positively broken down its very concept, and not at a single point did I begin to think this was a story worth telling.

To add a bit of a nitpick here, the characterization of Deunan here is downright awful. Here we had a character with an excellent personality who was unafraid in the face of adversity and handy with a gun. She had practical clothing for the battlefield, and stylish clothing for going out on the town. Brash but bold, caring yet tough, she was one of the best female anime leads of the mid-2000's when the first CG "Appleseed" film hit. Here? She's the stage nag to Briarios, who is actually the lead here, spewing macho lines and talking with a grizzled voice about the war. Deunan barely does anything except for act as a caregiver, fire off a few rounds, and then become emotionally overburdened at the drop of a hat. This is not the character fans know and love, and while I wasn't expecting good female characterization from the writer who brought us the "God of War" series, this isn't mediocre. It's bad. It's flat-out bad. But hey, at least we get a scene where she cooks, and the hilarious joke is that she, in fact, is terrible at cooking! Aren't those jokes still hilarious in 2014? So fresh!

Perhaps the only thing that "saves" this movie is the animation. I'm not going to lie here, it's what prevents me from giving this movie a flat "F" and going about my merry way. Make no mistake, this is a beautiful film. The characters are expressive, and the environments are very,very pretty. And on the rare occasion there's an action sequence that isn't botched by terrible direction or pacing, it can get moderately exciting for a few moments. Unfortunately, the budget sunk into it was squandered, as even the decent action sequences are very trite and worn, nothing like the high-flying, dizzying spectacles I've come to expect from this series. It's all very pretty, but very soulless and repetitive. Oh, yes, and Deunan's new costume is utterly stupid.

Also utterly stupid is every aspect of the sound design here. I don't have very much to say about it, other than it's basically sewage. The voice acting is tepid and bland at best, atrocious and grating at worst. It's all uniformly bad, and the more minor the character, the worse it sounds. But honestly, it's nowhere nearly as atrocious as the music, which is a completely disorganized mess. One second it's awful dubstep, the next it's a symphonic score, then trance, then rap, and then... you get the picture. And while variety is the spice of life, there's something to be said for knowing how to blend different things together in a seamless fashion. This film does the polar opposite and suffers gravely for it.

Ultimately, your enjoyment of "Appleseed: Alpha" will depend on how little you care about plot-to-visuals ratio. If you're the type of person who plops down money to go see a Michael Bay movie for the technical wizardry, or buys new games based on their graphical fidelity, you might enjoy this. There's nothing wrong this. I'm not one of those people, though, and that makes me the polar opposite of the type of person Aramaki and company wanted to pull a fast one over on. Banking on franchise good will and hoping to get away with just having pretty visuals, this movie falls apart the moment one begins to try and pay attention to the garbage plot, listen to the atrocious soundscapes, or expect any sort of interesting action.

The bottom line? "Appleseed: Alpha" is a bad apple in a franchise of ripe, juicy ones, and there's no reason to give it your time. Even if it does look shiny and delicious on the surface.

Grade: D+


Robocop (2014)
Robocop (2014)
DVD
Price: $9.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars I Might Buy That For A Dollar, July 22, 2014
The original "Robocop," made by Paul Verhoeven back in 1987, was a product of its era. This was a period that I wasn't alive during, but from my understanding, was filled to the brim with violent action films that oozed testosterone and viscera in equal amounts. While some of these films have aged quite well, such as "Commando" and "Die Hard," many of them were exercises in mind-numbing repetition. But "Robocop" was the antithesis to this. It worked on several different levels. As a satire, it laid bare the societal fascination with hyper-violent entertainment. As an analogy, it told a biblical tale as filtered through a cynical, post-modern lens. And as a sci-fi action movie, it managed to excited and thrill with memorable sequences and set pieces galore. At the time of its release, the world needed it. It felt urgent.

Which is partially why this update feels so passe. The new "Robocop" is a film that can't decide what it wants to be, and frantically tries on far too many hats for its own good. One moment, the audience is given a rollicking action sequence with a pumping soundtrack, and the next, a futuristic news program hosted by Samuel L. Jackson as a far-right political pundit. This is not a film that is "one part X, one part Y"; instead, it is a film that wants to be "parts A-Z," but lacks the writing and directing chops to pull it off. The result? A film that is a frantic mixture of various things that, ultimately, feels superfluous and unnecessary in today's cinematic landscape.

Why, for example, do we really need a sob story about the lukewarm protagonist and his family? The original film left the titular robotic do-gooder, Alex Murphy, abandoned by his wife and son, the memories of his past life a cruel facade that gave him drive but could never be recreated. But here, we have an underdeveloped family who are supposed to act as the catalysts to him finding his humanity again, after an explosive attack on him leaves with only a head, a hand, and a robotic body. While this could be an okay plot device in a better movie, handled by capable writers, the fact remains that it is botched here. Watching these scenes that were so obviously attempting to be "emotional," I wished that the film would stop its cloying attempts to tug at the heartstrings and get back to the central conflict of the movie.

Which is when I remembered that there is no central conflict, yet another reason why this is a far inferior film to its predecessor. In the original, we had the menacing Clarence Boddicker, a psychotic mobster who shot up the protagonist for fun, blowing him apart limb by limb until barely anything resembling a corpse remained. To top that off, we had an entire gang of equally depraved individuals who engaged Robocop in an array of dazzling and violent action sequences. Here? We have a bloated cast of cliches parroted about like they're important or interesting. They're far from it. The bland criminal who killed Alex is barely there, and only gets brought up again in the ancillary revenge plot. There's a robot specialist cum weapons expert who also wants Alex off the streets because... he hates the idea of androids or something. And last but not least, there's Michael Keaton as the head of OmniCorp, whose character fluctuates wildly between "rogue," "greedy suit" and "sociopathic murderer," with no sense of development or rational progression of actions. There are also several sub-plots that come and go, which left me wondering which one I was supposed to really be caring about. The answer? Not many of them.

It's become a common sentiment, I feel, to lash out at critics who compare the old film and the new one. I call shenanigans with that sentiment, because "Robocop" so desperately tries to ape the original while adding completely jarring and unnecessary flourishes that do nothing but fill the story with bloated nonsense. There are little nods and references that feel wholly out of place here, and quite honestly, undermine what could have been a good film. And make no mistake, there are flashes of compelling stuff here. Gary Oldman's tortured scientist character, in particular, is fascinating. His struggle between his humanity and his desire for technological innovation is surprisingly interesting, and provides a compelling anchor to some of the more stupid bits. On top of that, the film raises some very stimulating questions about US foreign policy, and the morality of drone warfare, not to mention the caustic nature of American imperialism and unfettered patriotism. Indeed, when this movie isn't trying to focus on sappy family bits, phoned-in action, or a perfunctory revenge plot, it actually starts to work and become compelling science fiction.

That, coupled with some strong performances from Oldman, Jackson, Keaton and (shockingly) Jay Baruchel, prevent "Robocop" from becoming a truly bad movie. But while that may be the case, there's no denying that it's a mediocre one which lacks direction or a compelling central conflict. If you come in expecting a cohesive plot and exciting action, well, you're going to be disappointed. But if you can overlook these faults and take away some of the interesting things the writers are trying to accomplish, you may be pleasantly surprised by the genuinely engaging politics in this movie.

"Robocop" lacks the bite of the original, yes, but it's an entertaining little morsel that will make you think about some cool stuff, if only for five minutes or so. With some more polish, it could have been something special, but as it stands, it's simply worth a rent and a casual viewing. Nothing more, nothing less.

Grade: C+


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