Tag Archives: Justin Joseph

N.O.V.A. 3 Review

N.O.V.A. 3 (Android/iOS)
Players: 1-12
Genre: FPS
Developer: Gameloft
Marketplace/Apple Store Price: $6.99 ($4.99 through Gameloft’s website)
Release Date: May 31, 2012

Played on ASUS Transformer Pad TF300 w/Android 4.0.4 (Ice Cream Sandwich)
Sampled on HTC Rezound running Android 2.3.4 (Gingerbread)

Parent Talk: N.O.V.A. 3, with its technical polish, is unsurprisingly the most explicit installment of Gameloft’s sci-fi franchise. Kal Wardin swears, the combat is more visceral, and there are suggestive themes. The game overall is the most ‘mature’ of the series.

Review Basis: Finished campaign on Normal; participated in several online (wi-fi) competitive matches.

Our old A.I. friend Yelena has beckoned N.O.V.A. hero Kal Wardin back to Earth. He doesn’t know what for on the way in, but it doesn’t take long for him to discover that Volterites have assaulted his home planet. Why? There’s supposed to be a ceasefire between humanity and the alien race. That matters not however, as Kal quickly joins a ragtag N.O.V.A. team working to repel the invasion. He ultimately learns that the humans have done something very foolish, and Prometheus steps in to force our hero into his final mission. Let’s just say things don’t look good for humans or Volterites.

The Great:

Eye-popping! When N.O.V.A. 3’s teaser trailers emerged, everyone agreed that Gameloft was once again raising the bar for visual polish in a mobile game. That’s what N3 has done. Our Executive Director Jarrod and I agree that the game could easily pass as a first-generation Xbox 360 or PS3 title. It’s not exactly shocking given the ongoing technological evolution of mobile devices, but I don’t think anyone anticipated a game like N3 arriving so soon. I can only imagine what it looks like first-hand on the iPad’s retina display. Yet no matter your device, the N.O.V.A. and Volterite models, environments, and effects are second-to-none. N.O.V.A. 3 is in the top three prettiest mobile games.

The Good:

+ The cast. Kal Wardin, Yelena, Prometheus, and a couple newcomers come together to deliver the most enjoyable and emotional plot in this sci-fi series. I cared more about each than in the previous two installments. That’s always good.

+ The weapons. Kal’s arsenal is fun to play with. I’m sad that the dual-wield pistols and auto-shotgun were given the boot, but the rest of Wardin’s toys are entertaining.

+ More skills, again. Melee has been inexplicably removed, but at least replaced and supplemented with ‘slow motion’ and ‘repel’ abilities. Thus, you can either send enemies flying (a la Jean Grey), or enter what is unaffectionately known as bullet time. Both are fun and useful, along with the mainstay freeze power.

+ Piloting a mech. It’s more or less identical to doing so in N.O.V.A. 2, except flashier.

+ Grenades. I’m often unimpressed with the results of explosives in games, especially shooters. Yet N.O.V.A. 3 makes every grenade toss a wonderful anticipation of a loud and pretty boom, not to mention a dramatic scattering of any Volterites caught in the blast.

+ Flamethrower! OK, I suppose I can forgive the omission of an auto-shotgun. It may not arrive until later in the campaign, but you can’t help but smile while burning Volterites to a crisp.

The So-So:

+/- Gyroscope controls. N.O.V.A. 3 is the first mobile game where I’ve given gyro control a spin. It’s an aid and a pain at the same time. Gyro doesn’t replace a second analog stick, but still allows you to not have to swipe across the screen to aim in battle. However, it can easily disorient you when enemies move around around a lot. You can only twist a tablet so far, thus trying to move, fire and use the gyro function in a way that feels natural is next to impossible. Where’s my Android gamepad?

+/- Voice acting. The voices sound great; the script is written well, and the dialogue is convincing. It’s too bad then, that the mouth syncing is hit-or-miss. You should never see a character’s mouth still moving when his/her lines are finished being spoken.

+/- Multiplayer. The overall structure is very well-done. There’s a healthy selection of enjoyable maps; you can customize your warrior to a great degree; you can participate in tournaments; the modes you expect are there, etc. The big problems are lag and players infrequently joining matches in progress. Lag isn’t prevalent in every match I’ve played, but very noticeable when it occurs. I wish that those who pay for 3G or 4G service could take advantage of that for online play. It’s also not fun to be consistently outnumbered…

The Bad:

–  Let me customize! I don’t understand why Gameloft’s older Modern Combat 3 allows you to choose where to place every input icon, and choose the size of each, but N.O.V.A. 3 doesn’t. You can shift everything but the reload function, which is the most important to be able to! This isn’t so bad for smartphone users, but you must completely move your hand on a 10.1″ tablet to manually replenish your weapon’s magazine. That’s unintuitive.

– Ending. I’m disappointed with how lazy Gameloft is with concluding its games. After a brief final scene after defeating the last boss, N3 abruptly ends. No closing cutscene that clarifies plot elements, nothing. I’m interested in knowing what happened to these characters, and likely never will. This is worse than the pre-DLC Mass Effect 3!

– Renting weapons, seriously? It’s very strange that the sci-fi weapons are only accessible from the in-game store. You can’t acquire them by eliminating enemies. It’s further disconcerting that it isn’t a permanent purchase. I bought a fun, new gun the moment I had a chance, and it was gone the following mission. Eh?…

– Aiming on a jeep. I thought there was something horribly wrong with my game while manning a jeep during the second mission. I even restarted it multiple times. Several minutes later, I finally discovered that shifting your reticule around normally requires swiping from one side of the screen to the other. Well, that’s plain stupid. Does this affect phones too? I don’t know.

The Ugly:

Bugs galore! It’s very unfortunate that N3 looks so good and is fun, but filled to the brim with bugs. You name a glitch, and it’s probably able to happen. I fell through floors. Key game events failed to trigger. The game force-closed. The Volterites would stop moving. I would stop being able to move. And I’m sure others encountered glitches that I haven’t. I don’t know who was responsible for the game’s testing, but I strongly question the job they did for this experience. I hope Gameloft releases a big patch job soon.

The Lowdown:

Since its teaser trailers released, I rooted for N.O.V.A. 3 to be the best of the best in mobile gaming. In the looks department, Gameloft’s product has virtually no equal. Yet in so many areas, N3 reminds you that videogames will always be imperfect. To what extent is up to the developer and its QA staff, and the extent to which this title takes you out of the experience is discouraging. Of course Gameloft can issue updates in the future, and I believe they will. For now, Kal Wardin’s final mission may be fun romp, but it may leave you feeling a tad irked when all is said and done.

Final Score: 7/10

N.O.V.A. 2 Review

N.O.V.A. 2 (Android/iOS)
Players: 1-8
Genre: FPS
Developer: Gameloft
Marketplace/Apple Store Price: $6.99 ($4.99 through Gameloft’s website)
Release Date: December 16, 2010

Game played on HTC Thunderbolt running Android 2.3.4 (Gingerbread)

Parent Talk: If your child plays Halo, there’s no reason he/she can’t play N.O.V.A. as well. The violence and content overall is much milder.

Review Basis: Finished campaign onNormal; participated in an online (wi-fi) competitive match.

N.O.V.A. 2 is a sequel to N.O.V.A., or Near Orbit Vanguard Alliance. Six years have passed since Kal Wardin faced off with the Xenos aliens and encountered the Judges, and now humanity is at each other’s throats in a bloody civil war. You have the Terran Orbitals on one side, and the Human-Volterite Alliance on the other. Wardin tried to leave his N.O.V.A. service [again], but is thrust into the middle of this conflict when the peaceful planet of Scorpius that he retired to is attacked by the Volterites.

The Great:

Combat variety. Wardin of course fights most of this war on-foot, but also mans a jeep turret, pilots a giant mech, drives a speed bike (a la Star Wars), and has access to much more weaponry than the original N.O.V.A. provided. Kal has dual-wield pistols, a submachine gun, pump-action and auto-shotguns, grenade and rocket launchers, a slew of Volterite weapons, and explosives. You really can’t be bored using N.O.V.A. 2’s toys. Of course I’m partial to the auto-shotgun and always will be, and Kal’s didn’t disappoint.

The Good:

+ Much-improved visuals. Like the transition from Modern Combat: Sandstorm to Black Pegasus, N2’s improvement over N.O.V.A. is striking with its jump in polygons and overall greater detail.

+ The cast. I appreciated Kal’s personality much more than last time. His lines before sounded awkward, as though his voice actor was altogether uninterested. He offers more emotion and substance here, and it helps his relationship with Yelena. Neither is perfect, but the communication isn’t ever really annoying.

+ Upgrades. It’s pitiful how few hidden credits I found in the campaign, but I enjoyed using them nonetheless to improve Kal’s abilities and weapon attributes.

+ More skills. The freeze ability returns, but the same icon on the touch screen eventually can be switched to a disc attack. It’s fun to get up-close-and-personal to your enemies and issue an insta-kill. You simply have to be careful the opposite doesn’t happen.

+ Piloting a mech. (I wanted to offer more detail.) One mission places you in the body of a metal beast, sort of like an AT-AT. You get to fire a chain gun, let rockets loose, and cause a mess of chaos. Destroy the environment, other mechs, and a bunch of hostile ground troops. Very enjoyable!

+ Enemy AI. It’s fascinating, and somewhat sad, that N.O.V.A. offers fairly intelligent enemies. This is a mobile game with much more limited technology mind you. They try to dodge when it makes sense, band together, and use cover in a moderately wise fashion. I’m quite impressed.

The So-So:

+-  Music. It does the job, but is forgettable. The main menu theme is catchy though.

+- Multiplayer. Accuse me of not experiencing it enough by participating in only one match, but I could do nothing more. Just a few people were online, as obviously fans are playing N.O.V.A. 3 now, and I was lucky to even do that. It was a decent match. Nothing exciting, but I managed to land some kills.

The Bad:

–  Poor optimization. N.O.V.A 2 never played smoothly for me. I’m again sure iDevice users don’t experience this, and I still don’t know if other Android gamers do, but the game lagged and stuttered considerably across the board. It wasn’t enough to ruin the experience, but it certainly doesn’t add to it.

– Driving a speed bike. (I wanted to offer more detail.) A number of times you drive a speed bike. That’s not so bad; you tilt your mobile device to steer, and it works well enough. What I hated was shooting a gun at the same time. Why they decided to place the fire icon squarely in front of your view is beyond me. Plus, it’s not automatic, so you have to tap a million times. I died quite a bit. Not enjoyable…

– No level select? It’s not unreasonable to expect access to each level individually as you finish them, right? Apparently N.O.V.A. 2 thinks it is. After I finished the campaign, only starting a new game altogether was available.

– Too much! A virtual stick, fire icon, reload, weapon-switch, special ability, grenade, jump, pause; all these inputs are on your screen simultaneously. I don’t care if you’re playing on a smartphone or tablet; that’s a little much to keep track of all at once.

The Ugly:

Kill that b******! You hear this line over and over from the enemy. I was tired of it after a handful of times, and it didn’t stop there. Videogame dialogue overkill, to say the least.

The Lowdown:

It’s nice to see N.O.V.A. take on more of its own personality with this sequel, despite how obvious the franchise mimics Halo. Kal and Yelena are more enjoyable, and the offensive arsenal is exquisite. The story isn’t exactly riveting, but Gameloft has quite the above average shooter here. That’s impressive considering their AAA Modern Combat series. Maintaining two quality 3D FPS properties at once can’t be easy.

Final Score: 8/10

 

And while you wait for Justin to finish N.O.V.A. 3 on his Android tablet, please enjoy the trailers below for the game, straight from Gameloft!

Shadowgun: The Leftover Review

Shadowgun: The Leftover (v1.1) (Android/iOS)
Players: 1
Genre: Shooter
Developer: Madfinger
[Apple] Release Date: December 21, 2011
[Android] Release Date: January 30, 2012

Game played on HTC Thunderbolt running Android 2.3.4 (Gingerbread)

Note: Please read our full review for the original Shadowgun to learn the core details of the game. This follow-up covers the enhancements featured in The Leftover expansion.

Review Basis: Finished on Normal difficulty.

If you haven’t played or finished Shadowgun, don’t worry I won’t spoil anything. Just don’t take that to mean that the game’s story is some Pulitzer work. The Leftover picks up exactly where Shadowgun ends, seeing as Mr. Slade isn’t quite done with his mission. John has to…you know, leave? Trusty S.A.R.A. is fully aware of our bald friend’s situation, and most happy to lead him to the exit.

The Great:

Better than Shadowgun. The Leftover isn’t a giant improvement over the main campaign, but brings upgrades to the table. Four additional levels, a new weapon, original enemy type, fresh environment interaction, and soundtrack come with Madfinger’s. It’s also more fun, and I wish Shadowgun played this way in the first place.

The Good:

+ Affects Shadowgun campaign. I didn’t play Shadowgun before The Leftover was released for Android, and that’s probably a good thing. TL adds a roll function, camera shaking and bullet trails that wouldn’t have been there to spice up the action had I been an earlier customer. Where’s the ability to run though?

+ Over or under. Madfinger added finger-swiping to slide under and hop over obstacles in the environment.

+ New riffs. The music is the same rock motif, but it’s nice to hear new stuff.

+ Ends quicker. TL is a better experience than Shadowgun, but I’m glad it didn’t last longer. I was bored with the main game by the time I finished it, and I didn’t want that to be how I felt in the end about The Leftover.

+ Still fantastic visuals. Subtle improvements all-around make an already-impressive looker even better-looking.

The So-So:

+- Not exactly devastating. The plasma rifle is a neat toy; it looks and sounds cool. However, it doesn’t rip enemies apart like you’d hope. So much for that technology.

The Bad:

Overlapping inputs. With the plasma rifle providing a fifth weapon, it was occasionally a pain to select it. This probably doesn’t apply to tablet users, but I shouldn’t be compelled to move the action inputs around just because I’m playing on a phone. I liked where my main functions were, and shouldn’t be punished for that.

Why bother asking? You make a seemingly important decision after defeating the final boss of Shadowgun. Yet I think all it affects is the very brief conversation that ensues. When The Leftover ends, I couldn’t tell you what else that choice may have influenced.

The Ugly:

Still lags… I no longer expect the more sophisticated Android games to perform well on my Thunderbolt, which is sad. It’s a powerful device, so I don’t understand this problem.

The Lowdown:

It’s great that Android and iOS make it so easy for app developers to push out updates to their paying customers, but why not release Shadowgun without the need for a Leftover? I think it would’ve been a better product overall. I do understand Deadzone, the game’s upcoming multiplayer component, being released independently, but perhaps I’m alone here. Still, I don’t want to come off as having hated John Slade’s adventure; I didn’t. It’s a quality game that demolishes most efforts out there for Android and iOS gaming. If you’re a shooter aficionado, Shadowgun and its expansion would be a great investment.

Average Score Scale: 7.5 (+/- 0.5) out of 10

Personal Final Score: 8/10 (Inflated)

Reason for +0.5 Inflation: It’s better than Shadowgun.

Reason for -0.5 Deflation: It may be better, but it’s not that exciting either.

Shadowgun Review

Shadowgun (v1.1) (Android/iOS)
Players: 1
Genre: Shooter
Developer: Madfinger
Google Play Price: $5.25
Apple Store Price: $2.99
[Apple] Release Date: September 28, 2011
[Android] Release Date: October 26, 2011

Game played on HTC Thunderbolt running Android 2.3.4 (Gingerbread)

Parent Talk: Shadowgun stars a sarcastic and occasionally potty-mouthed galactic bounty hunter. You shoot to kill genetically-engineered enemies in this third-person shooter, but the violence isn’t as pronounced as Gears of War or Call of Duty. Shadowgun is relatively mild compared to most of today’s popular shooters.

Plays Like: Gears of War, and any other third-person shooter that features cover.

Review Basis: Finished the game on Normal difficulty.

It’s a good thing Shadowgun is playable now, because none of us will be around in its year 2350 era of evil governments ruling the denizens of space and terrestrial bodies. John Slade, a galactic mercenary and protagonist of epic baldness, is contracted by the shady Toltech Corporation to capture one Dr. Edgar Simon. The former employee of the trans-galactic entity and renowned geneticist is wanted. Why? Well you’re not told of course, but Slade doesn’t care about anything but payday. Kindly bring the mad scientist out of hiding, and nevermind that the gentleman hiring you looks like a cross between Shredder and Baraka.

The Great:

This looks….great! If Modern Combat 3 is the visual benchmark for FPS titles, and Infinity Blade for RPGs on mobile devices, then Shadowgun is the same for third-person shooters. Powered by the Unity engine on iOS and Android platforms, Madfinger put together an amazing-looking product. John Slade looks like a perfect fit for the COGs, if you ignore his lack of tank armor, and the environments overflow with detail. The opening cinematic is especially striking, reminding me of the quality of Dead Space. If you like games that show off your phone or tablet’s horsepower, Shadowgun will do that.

The Good:

+ Set-piece bosses. You face off against a number of giant mechanical bosses. They’re appropriately challenging (meaning they hurt), and fun to eliminate.

+ Boomstick. Forget realism; whacking foes from yards away with your auto-shotty is a plus in my book.

+ S.A.R.A. Finish the analogy: Master Chief is to Cortana, as John Slade is to _____. If you answered S.A.R.A., have yourself a cookie. Anyway, I can’t believe Slade’s robotic mission support never annoyed me. She doesn’t speak too much or too little, and actually has a cool personality, occasionally even mimicking Slade’s wit. Madfinger designed a great companion for this ride.

+ Interaction. Piggy-backing the previous item, though Slade and S.A.R.A.’s relationship doesn’t avoid missteps, I thoroughly enjoyed their back-and-forth banter.

+ Hacking. Various weapon crates and locked door panels require you to watch the game highlight any of nine symbols in a random order and length on the input pad. You repeat it, and move on. It’s nothing extravagant, but a healthy distraction from all the fighting.

+ Cover. It works mostly well. When Slade approaches a barrier designated for cover, he auto-snaps to it. You can then pop out for some shots, or slide along left or right. Some cover degrades from enemy fire as well, forcing you to make another move.

+ Hidden cards. Shadowgun tucks away over 20 symbols that resemble the game’s app icon. Each unlocks relevant information about the campaign, which is interesting to glance at.

The So-So:

+- Music. Madfinger employs a handful of guitar-laden tracks to attempt to keep the action entertaining. It’s successful initially, but I was sick of hearing the same material the further I progressed.

+- No melee? Gears of War fans I’m sure would agree that the chainsaw bayonet spoils gamers. Such fun… With Shadowgun being so similar, it’s somewhat disappointing that you can’t even whack a guy with your gun.

+- Controls. They generally work well, but sometimes you’ll fumble looking around or something when your finger slips or is on the wrong part of the screen. Thankfully your gun always shoots, and shooting is fun.

+- Enemy tactics. At the beginning it appears that Slade’s opposition works to flank and out-muscle you, but it’s clear over time that Simon’s minions rely on generic path-finding that at times provokes odd decision-making. Why would a guy I’m shooting from a distance suddenly run right up to the other side of the barrier I’m using? They’re not completely stupid, but not smart either.

The Bad:

– Stuttering. I’ve learned it’s not necessarily your device’s fault when a game doesn’t run smoothly on it. I’ll probably never know for sure, but sadly Shadowgun was never silky on my Thunderbolt when blasting away Dr. Simon’s legion. Hiccups even occurred moving around. This tends to be discouraging, but I still enjoyed the game in spite.

– We meet again… Maybe I’m picky, but I think Shadowgun could’ve spared more enemy types, or at least balanced the encounter frequency. It wasn’t long before I started to wonder if our mad scientist’s army enlisted mostly Psycho Mantis wannabes, and I think it did. Yes you also battle tickers, grenade-launching space suits, and others, but they’re uncommon in comparison.

– Return to sender, please! Shadowgun didn’t seem interested in weapon variety. You start with a standard-issue SMG, and eventually acquire a shotgun, grenade launcher and rocket launcher. These instruments reside in distinct treasure chest-looking crates too, and the number of duplicates made me sad. Why bother leaving these all over the place when ammo is already aplenty? Think of it like opening one of your most anticipated games as a present on your birthday, only to do it again at Christmas. Um…

– Take a bullet, will ya?! It’s stupid that Shadowgun requires your targeting reticule to be red before an enemy receives damage. In other words, if you point at a creep and the reticule isn’t red, cover or no cover, damage won’t be done. Stupid, no? And worse, often half or more of your SMG clip is needed to down a single enemy.

The Ugly:

Final boss. If you learn the quick way to kill him like I did, after several tries that is, it’s not so frustrating. Otherwise, the battle is frustrating. The ending is also a purposeful cliffhanger that encourages you to play The Leftover expansion included, and plain uninteresting altogether. After about four or five hours, I was ready to put the game away.

The Lowdown:

Shadowgun’s problems damage the experience for me; I won’t lie. Of course you may not encounter everything I did either, which I would be happy for. Yet regardless of what issues affect who, Madfinger still produced a very good third-person shooter for phones and tablets that probably knows no equal right now. The action maintains your attention well enough, and Unity really makes the game beautiful on whatever your screen may be. The price is acceptable on both platforms, so by all means invest on the one you have.

Average Score Scale: 7.5 (+/- 0.5) out of 10

Personal Final Score: 7.5/10 (Neutral)

Reason for +0.5 Inflation: Shadowgun doesn’t lag on your device.

AirAttack HD Review

AirAttack HD (v1.3) (Android/iOS)
Players: 1
Genre: Shooter (plane)
Developer: Art In Games
Google Play Price: $2.99
Apple Store Price: $.99
[Apple] Update Date: November 30, 2011
[Android] Update Date: July 28, 2011

Game played on HTC Thunderbolt running Android 2.3.4 (Gingerbread)

Parent Talk: AirAttack HD is a fighter plane shooter that tasks you with destroying aerial and terrestrial targets. You witness explosions left and right, but nothing that should harm a child.

Plays Like: Other plane/space shooters.

 

Review Basis: Finished the game on Easy andNormal difficulties.

AirAttack HD sounds awfully generic, but don’t let its unexciting name fool you. AA HD is one of the most polished, frantically fun and memorable smartphone/tablet plane shooters. Despite a completely non-existent story, you battle sky and land enemies in a fictional Nazi Germany WWII era, and the action happily keeps you on your toes.

The Great:

The orchestrated music. It isn’t often that a game’s sole standout attribute is its music, but I was enthralled by AirAttack HD’s the moments the menu theme began to play. The sound quality is amazing, and to this day I’m dumbfounded that a mobile game can bring audio like it to the table. The track list isn’t extensive, but what pours in through your earbuds as you’re playing sticks in the mind. The material is exactly fitting for an action game or movie. Art in Games’ efforts are commendable.

The Good:

+ Very challenging. No gamer wants to see ‘Game Over’ on his/her screen, but to avoid that here you must focus on hostiles in the air and on the ground across the eight missions that span four sets of ‘Operations’ (Green Fox, White Storm, Dark Sand, and Red Sea). Numerous enemy projectile types and the ominous bodies of unfriendly vessels constantly threaten your well-being, and dodging both is a must. You’ll pay the price for carelessness.

+ Work of art. Art In Games lives up to its group’s name with the visual presentation AirAttack HD brings. The action never slowed on my phone, a pleasant surprise, and I’ve no complains about what I saw. The environment terrain varies across the different missions; there are many enemy plane types; every boss is unique; the physics are perfectly convincing; there’s real-time shadowing; etc. This mobile title serves the eye candy.

+ Boss fights. Each stage sends you a unique major foe, and they’re all fun to fight. It’s a mix of logical and bizarre. You start off destroying a castle stronghold, and meet others later on such as a gigantic destroyer boat, a secret mech, and more.

+ Constant fire. The game fires your main weapon constantly; I appreciate that.

+ Two planes. Before each mission begins, you choose between the standard fighter and one that can switch between bullet fire and using a flamethrower. That’s quite a startling difference, but the options are welcome and shake up the gameplay a little bit.

+ Interesting upgrades. At pre-determined points of each mission, a giant aerial store swoops in to sell weapon upgrades and specials. You can soup up your main gun(s), purchase an auto-turret, equip a lightning beam, and more. It all costs money that can be tough to acquire, but it’s a guilty pleasure to possess a fully tricked-out fighter plane.

+ New Game+. AirAttack HD strangely doesn’t tell you that it can be replayed with all your purchased upgrades. Yet I figured out that if you play again on the same difficulty that you just finished, your upgrades and high score are preserved. It’s pretty sweet because the enemy basically takes a pounding at that point.

The So-So:

+- Finger obstruction. This may not be an issue if you play AA HD on a tablet, but I think it’s cheap to lose a life simply because you couldn’t see an enemy projectile or craft about to hit because your finger was in the way.

+- Distinguishing pickups. A Help section educates you about the different facets of the action, and the different pickups that appear after creating chaos. However, not only do most people not bother with those things, but its organization doesn’t encourage a proper study of the information. Why not give just a simple tutorial mission that explains the money, weapon upgrade and other awards left behind?

+- Dropping bombs. You can drop a bomb by double-tapping the screen, but it’s not consistent. There’s an independent icon in the bottom-left that’s specifically for it, but that amounts to nothing more than a distraction. Given that the majority of your cash is acquired by exploding ground structures, you’d want a reliable input method while still concentrating upon dodging enemies and attacking them.

The Bad:

– Too short! You might encounter a handful of Game Over screens because games like AirAttack HD don’t highlight your skills. However, that’s no substitute for a game to have an appropriate length. You can finish all four Operations within two or three hours, and less than an hour on New Game+. Art In Games didn’t commit a egregious offense with this, but an additional Operation or two, or even another mode would’ve been nice.

The Lowdown:

Regardless of your platform and associated cost, you can enjoy a very well-put-together plane shooter on your iOS or Android phone/tablet. I think the effort we see that AIG put into AirAttack HD is a step or two above most mobile games. Sure, it’s not very long and you can struggle controlling the game a bit, but those flaws are bunk considering the grand scheme. So if you’re tired of all the first-person shooters this generation, why don’t you hop into the cockpit of AirAttack HD and blow something up?

Average Score Scale: 8.5 (+/- 0.5) out of 10

Personal Final Score: 9.0/10 (Inflated)

Reason for +0.5 Inflation: It’s short, lacks a story, and not always easy to handle. Regardless, AirAttack HD is great fun.

Alan Wake Review

Alan Wake (Available on Xbox 360 & PC)
ESRB Rating: T
Number of Players: 1
Genre: Action
Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Remedy
Release Date: May 18th, 2010

Parent Talk: Compared to most other games that require the player to fire a gun [like Remedy’s own Max Payne], Alan Wake (T for Teen) is relatively tame.  This horror-style adventure is more concerned with the psychological rather than shoving entrails and red liquid pools in your face.  This gives Remedy’s latest a pass for violence, but there’s no ignoring the coarse language and substance use.  If you’re a parent that doesn’t want his/her child to be exposed to such, it’s advisable to avoid AW.  For everyone else, game on.

My favorite memory of Alan Wake has nothing to do having played the game.  I’ll never forget last year when our head honcho Jarrod Nichol received a related t-shirt after attending a closed-door demonstration of the product.  At least ten people over the course of two hours approached him asking if he was a developer on the project.  Talk about fifteen minutes of fame, eh?  Unfortunately, I haven’t walked away from the actual experience with anything nearly as fond.  Alan Wake is entertaining, make no mistake, but the quality presentation is undermined by combat mechanics and repetition that left me wholly aggravated.

The Great:

The plot.  Despite confusing moments, Alan Wake is a great story within a story.  Our protagonist is unsurprisingly a famous author trying to enjoy a rare vacation with his somewhat ignored wife.  Sadly, supernatural forces have taken down Wake’s number, and are out to ruin his time off.  The enemy attempts to do so through manuscript pages scattered about that Alan doesn’t recall responsibility for, in addition to TVs and radios that add to the solemn nature of the conflict.  This tale runs much deeper than simple words on virtual paper, as the game takes on a fascinating, borderline Silent Hill vibe.

The Good:

+ The voice acting.  A dialogue-heavy story requires equally talented actors and actresses to maintain the illusion.  Alan Wake succeeds with flying colors.  The characters are distinct, emotional, and manage to present a convincing account of virtual personification.  Even Barry proves that sidekicks don’t have to be overly goofy or serious to add to the equation.

+ The visuals.  Despite one of the Bad items, Alan Wake is a great-looking game.  The polish brings the environments, buildings and characters to life.  Even the lip-syncing is impressive.  Seeing Alan’s actor likeness on TV is especially surreal.

+ The manuscript.  It’s a shame that I missed some of the pick-ups, because how the various loose pages bring the whole concept together from start to finish is really cool.  Remedy did a wonderful job of offering a mix of foreshadowing, past clarification, and in-the-moment tension.

+ The music.  I’m usually not a fan of licensed soundtracks, but it’s more forgivable when paired with original compositions.  That’s what Alan Wake brings, and it’s brought well.

The Bad:

– The combat.  You’ll likely want to crucify me for this, but it doesn’t change how underwhelmed I felt eliminating the Taken.  The flashlight plus weapon mechanic is undeniably neat, but way too simple and repetitious for its own good, not to mention plain unexciting.  Alan Wake is probably the first game where you could liken enemy death animations to a pathetically amateur fireworks show.  It’s not good when flash-bang grenades are your favorite toy; this coming from a gamer who adores the boomstick.

– Forests, mountains and Taken , oh no!  Alan Wake has forever turned me off from wanting to hike through dark forests and up/across shadowy mountains in a video game.  I understand that Remedy wanted to exploit humanity’s common fear of the dark, but pushing past gloomy tree after tree came off as a sorry excuse for the darkness-consumed Taken to pop out whenever and wherever.  I often thought, “Ooo boy, here come some more…” when enemies spawned because a lack of dramatic effect killed any tension.

– Screen lag.  It’s prominent throughout most of the adventure to witness a ripple effect on the screen.  I don’t know why the rendering has such a tough time keeping up with the action, but it does.

The Ugly:

The camera.  Alan Wake frustrated me with blind-side enemy attacks and overly sensitive view rotation (especially when driving).  It’s cumbersome to keep groups of three or more Taken in plain view, and it results in one too many cheap attacks that often led to my defeat.  I’d also like to know how those sickle punks knew where to toss their blades from 20+ feet so I would dodge into them.

The Lowdown:

Every so often, I disagree completely with most other critics, contradicting the bandwagon of hype.  Alan Wake has received glowing reviews across the board, but it just isn’t from me.  That doesn’t mean the game isn’t worthwhile, because it definitely is; I simply believe that the more important elements weren’t executed well.  I think it’s a little messy where it matters most.  I recommend experiencing the intriguing story at significantly less than top dollar.


Confessions of an Editor-in-Chief V: Costly Anger

*rattle…..*

*rattle rattle…*

Do you recognize these sounds?  If not, consider yourself fortunate and likely more mentally constitute than the rest of the pathetic gaming community.  I’m not petting your more respectable self-control though, so don’t for one minute fantasy yourself perched on a high horse of sorts.

What am I talking about?  Simple, the onomatopoeia at the beginning reflects but one grave effect of a deadly sin that continues to cripple mankind.  Our failure as a corrupt society (i.e. buying into anything other than a remarkable sense of self-entitlement) is what leads to school bullying, domestic violence, military conflicts, divorce, gang wars, and a whole mess of other moral quandaries.  I speak of wrath my readers, and it happens to be breaking your controllers as well.  Gosh, how dumb and bourgeoisie are we?  Seriously?!

If it’s not our compulsive and excessive competitive nature in the online shooter scene where everyone betrays the rules for the sake of temporary leaderboard glory, it’s one of those bosses that was absolutely designed to jackhammer every button connected to your irritable impulses.

So, how much furniture…how many floors and walls…or worse, friends and relatives, have been victimized by the taste of your plastic childishness?  How many George Washingtons (dollar$ for our international audience) have been sacrificed in the name of a lack of justice for your gamer soul?  How many trips to the local gaming wares establishment have been necessary to purchase what should be participation supplements, but are instead replacements?  On a more humorous note, have any arcades actually made what should never be a dutiful decision to ban your sorry behind?

It’s bad enough that the hardcore demographic bears the stigma of being angry couch potatoes that can’t remember the last time their feet moved more than ten minutes in the great outdoors, but it only validates the stereotype when what is meant to be entertainment becomes everything but.  Friends, this isn’t just socially irresponsible, but it’s more importantly immature and opens the doors for irreversible physical and relational health trauma.  Will it take high blood pressure and an ego that’s impossible to cope with to open your eyes?  Really folks, stop throwing your toddler-esque temper tantrums for the sake of your gamepads’ integrity.  Otherwise, your hardware investment over time will embarrassingly compete with (if not succeed) your software collection, and you’ll continue drowning in foolishness that no one wants to see…all because you’re somehow being…*erm*…cheated?  Right…..

Is your anger creating a burden on this wonderful hobby?  Do feel free to discuss in the comments area below.

No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle Review

No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle (Only available for Wii)
ESRB Rating: M
Players: 1
Genre: Action
Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Grasshopper
Release Date: January 26, 2010

Parent Talk: No under-17 gamer should ever go near No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle.  Its predecessor, No More Heroes, featured intentionally over-the-top violence, innuendo and trashy language, and this sequel only compounds all of that.  You’ve been warned with a red alert of Star Trek proportions.  I frankly felt rather dirty playing it myself, but it was at least fun to mess with the new jobs and battle system, and witness more of Suda 51’s insanity.  But parents, don’t let your young ones play this.

Travis Touchdown has returned to the fictional city of Santa Destroy, only to have another string of utterly bizarre assassin challengers waiting for him.  He’s not the big dog anymore either, but more than just pursue the number one rank again, our otaku protagonist is out for some sweet payback.  His best friend murdered, affections for UAA agent Sylvia further ferociously teased, and a fat cat that’s begging for some hilarious exercise…  What has Mr. Touchdown gotten himself into this time?!

The Great: The blood-showering combat.  Whether dual-wielding or not, Travis Touchdown can once again layeth the smackdown on all the minions pitifully trying to protect his primary assassin targets in this quest for revenge.  Witnessing all the different ways to wrestle an enemy to the ground, or split him in two is surely something to behold.  Plus, Travis has also taken an obvious page out of Mortal Kombat II’s book, as he can now cause further chaos by transforming into a red liquid-thirsty tiger if the Vegas slot machine stops in your favor.  Oh yeah…

The Good: + The new jobs.  Suda 51 has clearly taken notes on the retro revival happening with Wii, as all the temporary employment opportunities for Travis are played in nostalgic 2D fashion.  Whether you’re exterminating unwanted critters or cleaning up outer space, it’s all done in 8-bit style.  The workouts to improve Travis’s health and attack damage are especially interesting and challenging.

+ Improved tech.  Despite a frame rate that is far from perfect during intense fights and gestures that aren’t always recognized, No More Heroes 2 towers over its older brother in terms of performance.  Omitting the open world aspect has done wonders for the franchise, and streamlined the overall navigation.  Desperate Struggle just oozes with more visual candy.

+ You can still ‘drop’ a nice save.  Need I say more?

The Bad: – The camera.  I’ve never cared for perspectives that you can’t directly control, and NMH2 doesn’t change my attitude.  The majority of the time, it either works or it doesn’t, and it’s quite annoying when the latter is the case.

– The jobs are static.  In other words, there are four set-in-stone stages to potentially complete for each job that Travis can undertake.  They never change, and that’s disappointing.  I think the developers could’ve at least randomized them to keep the experiences fresh.  2D nostalgia is only so sustainable I’m afraid.

– One of the other playable characters.  I won’t spoil who this mystery person is, but I didn’t enjoy controlling her one bit, let alone fight.  I can’t remember the last time I felt so frustrated trying to make a character jump for crying out loud!

The Ugly: I never felt a reason to care about Travis’s opponents.  The boss assassins are certainly unique and cool to fight, but horribly lack personality and relevancy to Touchdown’s main objective.  They come off as nothing more than a means to an end, and keeping the No More Heroes canon consistent.  I expected expansion on the conflict in Travis’s family, or at least some connection to the one responsible for his friend’s death.  Nope, sorry Charlie.

The Lowdown: It was extremely tough for me to be fair with the first No More Heroes because of its odd mix of good and bad, and sadly that same problem arises for the sequel.  I definitely enjoyed Desperate Struggle more, but I don’t think it quite delivered like it could have.  It’s wonderful that Suda was willing to take another crack at a market that hasn’t bought much outside of boxes with Nintendo franchises, Resident Evil or Guitar Hero stamped on them, but perhaps it’s time for him to move on to greener pastures.  I’m not suggesting that he stop working on the Big N’s platforms, but he could certainly achieve better elsewhere.  I don’t think NMH2 is worth the full asking price, but it’s fun and full of style like last time.  It’s your choice.

BUY IT 4 CHEAP

Battlefield: Bad Company 2 Review

Battlefield: Bad Company 2 (Available for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC)
ESRB Rating: M
Players: 1-24
Genre: FPS
Publisher: EA
Developer: DICE
Release Date: March 2, 2010

Parent Talk: It should raise a red flag any time a parent spots a game box stamped with an ‘M’.  Battlefield: Bad Company 2 is a war game…and all about filling hostile soldiers with lead, which means plenty of blood-spilling violence.  The members of Bad Company: Marlowe, Sweetwater, Haggard and Sarge, also don’t spare many expletives as they traverse the globe to stop a plot to incite World War III.  While this content is more acceptable in today’s culture, that doesn’t give younger gamers a free pass at being exposed to a product solely intended for those of at least 17 years of age.  Approach with caution.

After laughably losing out on their quest for personal fortune, the members of Bad Company have returned, only to be enlisted once again for the prevention of what could very well be World War III.  Marlowe, Sweetwater, Haggard and Sarge navigate the globe in search of important persons of interest and intelligence…but more importantly, the location of a highly classified weapon of mass destruction capable of bringing the world to its knees.  Will you help this armed and dangerous wide-cracking quartet accomplish their goal, or is Sarge’s desperation for an early retirement humorously delayed once again?

The Great: The return of Bad Company.  If not for our heroes mentioned in Parent Talk, this shooter wouldn’t have a unique leg to stand on.  Each personality is a convict that’s been enlisted to do the government’s dirty work with the promise of freedom if the job is done well.  You could imagine then how their conversations would fare.  When they’re not exchanging verbal jabs, Sweetwater and Haggard especially turn what would normally be painfully obvious observations into absolutely hilarious comedy.  Some games don’t need innovation or the latest technology to be special; Bad Company 2 is one.

The Good: + The Frostbite engine.  Bad Company 2 employs incredibly realistic particle and elemental effects and environmental destruction that no other shooter has touched.  In this Battlefield sub-series, cover is your friend, but only for as long as the enemy pleases it to be.  The campaign also has Bad Company explore several areas of the world (snowy mountains, tropical south), doing wonders for the visual variety.

+ The high-dynamic range audio.  While the volume and echoing of the gunfire strangely doesn’t sound as in-your-ears as that of the predecessor’s did, it’s still noticeable and adds to the authenticity of this virtual war.

+ The boomstick.  Need I say more?

+ Greater stability for online multiplayer.  The original Bad Company was nothing but a lag fest, but the net code here has been optimized to be more reliable.  I’ve yet to be disconnected from a match, or witness more than a few seconds’ worth of technical hiccups.

The Bad: – A function for going prone still doesn’t exist.  I don’t understand why what is one of the most common front line physical poses in the armed forces isn’t possible in Bad Company 2.  Crouching to one knee is fundamentally useless if your cranium is still ripe for bullet-chewing.

– There’s no mercy for new online multiplayer participants.  When starting, it’s inevitable for you to engage enemies of at least fifteen or higher rank.  Said adversaries are also guaranteed to be equipped with far more superior weapon loadouts.  In Squad Death Match, newbies would probably feel like target practice more so than meaningful contributors.

– Your Bad Company squad mates can’t be incapacitated, but aren’t very helpful.  When an intense gun battle is taking place, fully expect to eliminate the enemy majority by yourself (as Marlowe).  The other guys are more inclined to just shout like a drill sergeant and point out worthless details.

The Ugly: Unlocking new, better toys for your weapons, and the more powerful arsenal altogether takes absolutely forever.  Worse, many of the first weapons you gain access to never beg to be used if you’re a sane shooter fan.  There’s no reward for killing with specific loadouts or properly using gadgets; Instead, you’re forced to wait on points that accrue for using a kit, and that’s difficult for new online players.  I’m not a fan.  (That’s my Call of Duty fanaticism talking.)

The Lowdown: Bad Company 2 isn’t a significant improvement over its older brother, but an improvement nonetheless.  It will never overshadow Modern Warfare 2, Halo 3, and perhaps Killzone 2 for that matter, but gamers who don’t care for those titles have a great option here.  Plus, Soap/Price/Ghost simply can’t hold a candle to DICE’s Fab Four.  The follow-up campaign and all-around presentation is well-done, if not mind-blowing, and blatantly invites a Bad Company 3.  Add to that a sustainable multiplayer that should be more new player-friendly, and Bad Company 2 is a worthy pick-up.

BUY IT!

BioShock 2 Review

BioShock 2 (Available for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC)
ESRB Rating: M
Players: 1-10
Genre: Action
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: 2K Marin/Digital Extremes
Release Date: February 9, 2010

I’ve never been guiltier of enjoying the stapling of my enemies to a game world’s set pieces.  If 2010 ended right now and COE voted on a Greatest Guilty Pleasure, I think BioShock 2 would be the runaway winner.  There’s just something about firing your spear gun and watching the projectile pierce a splicer’s cranium, only to further witness it carry said victim through the air until an obstacle is met.  I’m especially thankful for such moments too, because they create a sense of originality that 2K Games’ latest foray into Rapture sadly lacks.  Fortunately, an all-too-familiar atmosphere and action doesn’t lead to a guilty verdict, but I believe that 2K was less interested in risk-taking, and more in pleasuring its wallet.

Methinks also that the seemingly inevitable BioShock 3 will have you playing as a Big Sister, perhaps Eleanor, and I prayerfully hope that doesn’t happen.  Suiting up as a Big Daddy in a decade later return to Andrew Ryan’s befallen underwater utopia never feels like it should.  The character is intimidating and powerful in the predecessor, but you take and deal damage no differently than Ryan’s prodigal son did.  For all the ammo, Eve and explosives that we expended to take down the over-sized villains last time, I expected all the pitiful splicers to have to suffer through the very same.  That isn’t the case, thus BioShock 2 comes off as nothing more than an excuse for 2K to put you in the diving gear just so both hands can be simultaneously active, not to mention make you drag your feet.

Did you know BioShock 2 is fun as well?  I figured that’s important since it probably seems like you’ve been reading a rant so far.  That’s the case though, because everything we did to dethrone Ryan and Frank Fontaine is merely carbon-copied into different areas of Rapture.  I’m surprised that the city lasted in its state for another ten years, but it’s admittedly nice to see a different side.  At the onset, a cutscene shows you (Daddy) escorting young Eleanor (a Little Sister) as she makes such a girl’s usual rounds of sucking Adam out of especially potent corpses.  Things go awry when you encounter splicers engaging her performing a harvest, and Doctor Sofia Lamb not only takes her away, but manipulates you into a less-than-beneficial act of self-violation.

Despite what appears to have been your certain death, young Eleanor manages to revive you from a semi-comatose state.  Your goal is to track her down, and obliterate anyone and anything that steps in the way.  Early on you bump into a memorable friendly face from BioShock, Brigid Tenenbaum, who puts our protagonist into contact with Augustus Sinclair, a man battling some personal demons.  The journey takes you to three significant locations in Rapture, and each has you deal with a personality linked to Sofia Lamb’s objective of using Eleanor to revive the once prosperous city.

Morality returns as well to decide what ending you’re treated to, and how you’re spoken to in general.  The Little Sisters can once again be ‘rescued’ or harvested, but it’s more advantageous to ‘adopt’ them after their current Big Daddy is removed from the equation.  You don’t have to mess with the girls at all, but most of the many entertaining plasmids and gene tonics will stay put in the Gatherer’s Garden otherwise.  Plus, the majority of the interesting action takes place when you set a Sister down to harvest Adam.  It’s another guilty pleasure to place traps that can comprise trap rivets, proximity mines, mini-turrets, and hacked health machines/turrets/security cameras to fend off the inevitable swarm of splicers.  It’s pretty wild to sit back and watch the chaos ensue, and there’s nothing stopping you from popping off a shotgun shell or two, or some machine gun rounds to especially defend the girl.  The plasmids and tonics are also helpful of course, and luckily letting some Electro Bolt, Incinerate, Winter Blast, Cyclone, etc, just doesn’t grow old.  The ability to shoot and spew at the same time makes these battles further enjoyable.  This is BioShock through and through, but with different weapons, new plasmids and tonics and a couple additional splicers.  It’s a repeated gameplay formula (no final boss either strangely enough), yet still fun.

The audio also packs a similar attitude.  I didn’t pay much attention to the music, but it carries an appropriate tone and works well, and all the effects are spot-on.  I’m glad that the developers removed the “Welcome to the Circus of Values!” tune from the various vending machines; that didn’t take long to annoy in the first game.  (Hacking them isn’t a Pipe Dream mini-game anymore either, but a better ‘land the needle’ sort of deal.)  The dialogue is also well-done, especially Eleanor’s and Sinclair’s, though I thought the splicers’ uninhibited cursing was a bit overkill.  I’m not surprised by it considering their drug-dominated minds, but the Brute splicer especially has nothing but ‘f bombs’ to drop.  The visuals exhibit the same anticipated quality, with some noticeable subtle improvements.  The splicers’ faces are particularly telling of what failed genetic engineering can do to someone, and the underwater sequences are pure eye candy.  This Rapture is the same decrepit metropolis that we remember, but no less appealing.

Finally, if you can manage to peel away from Modern Warfare 2, Halo 3/ODST, or whatever other shooter you may be addicted to online, BioShock 2’s ten-player support isn’t too shabby.  You may have heard the gaming market’s collective groans when it was revealed that Digital Extremes was contracted to design the offering, because no one thought multiplayer belonged in the franchise.  I still don’t honestly, but can’t deny that running around campaign-inspired maps with all the weapons and plasmids is an intriguing distraction.  It’s even tied to the BioShock lore.  The campaign is a sequel as already described, but the multiplayer serves as a prequel of sorts, revealing pieces about how Rapture collapsed to begin with.  You’re even assigned a personal Rapture apartment before participating in any of the modes, and it lets you customize weapon/plasmid loadouts, change your avatar and its visual appearance, and manage the unlocked plot content.  The modes range from free-for-all and the team deathmatch Civil War, to those inspired by the franchise in which teams battle for possession of a Little Sister.  The matchmaking isn’t bad either, though I spotted a couple players more than 20 ranks higher than everyone else sneaking in for their selfish ambitions.  Do those people seriously have nothing better to do with their lives?

I would categorize BioShock 2 as a good romp, yet underwhelming sequel.  It’s one of those games that I want to fault for not doing much different, but I can’t sacrifice my journalistic integrity.  BioShock laid a wonderful framework, so 2K would’ve had to be plain stupid to screw up a sequel.  Write a new story, design more toys and enemies, drag and drop it all into the engine, and include multiplayer.  That’s 2K’s latest for you: an amusing 15 hour or so campaign, and a decent multiplayer that will survive for as long as those who don’t play Call of Duty and Halo choose to remain active.  The game probably won’t blow your mind, but an excellent product is an excellent product.  Don’t think about it too much, and have fun.

Scoreboard:

Story: 7
Gameplay: 9
Controls: 9
Graphics: 9
Sound: 9
Value: 9

Overall: 9 (not an average)

Heavy Rain Review

Heavy Rain (Only available for PS3)
ESRB Rating: M
Players: 1
Genre: Adventure
Publisher: SCEA
Developer: Quantic Dream
Release Date: February 23, 2010

A little origami birdie has been squawking around these parts lately, something about Indigo Prophecy 2.0‘s availability on gaming retail shelves everywhere.  Indeed, Heavy Rain is here and worth every minute spent with it.  I issued the initial comparison for a reason too.  Quantic Dream, responsible for the current game in question, also developed that sleeper hit which landed on PS2 and Xbox last generation.  Heavy Rain, being IP’s spiritual successor, expands upon its concepts in every expected way.  It also leaves the supernatural nonsense from before happily behind, and pushes emotional realism to unseen levels.

The premise follows Indigo’s murder mystery motif in that someone has been offing a number of young boys in the area for a couple years running.  No one knows why, but the psycho’s routine is to leave the victims out in the rain with an origami figure and orchid in their possession.  These evidences are significant as you control four characters across a 10-15 hour plot arc.  The juicy parts don’t mind sitting on the sidelines for a while, but once they finally engage the field, it’s extremely difficult to put the controller down.  I’m living proof, as I played from 6pm to 3am the night I bought the game just because I craved answers, and couldn’t be satisfied until the ending credits rolled.  Somehow I wasn’t exhausted at work the next day, but I still have five more endings to unlock (two so far), which means plenty of play time left.

If you’re well-versed in Indigo Prophecy, Heavy Rain shouldn’t prove any trouble.  I’m not a fan of the ‘hold R2 to move’ mechanic, but everything else is straightforward.  The environments are addictively interactive, observing the character relationships unfold is surreal, and witnessing the consequences of your choices is nothing short of sobering.  I would even venture to say that Heavy Rain is inspired by the Saw films because of what lead protagonist Ethan Mars must endure if you have him participate in the spine-chilling trials presented by the villain.  There’s the core plot: the Mars family is faced with a terrible tragedy at the game’s onset, and it’s only compounded when young Shaun is kidnapped by the Origami Killer.  To obtain the information necessary to save his son, Ethan is confronted with unspeakable challenges.  I’m itching to describe them, but since they’re so integral to the experience, I will refrain so you can enjoy the greatest immersion possible.  I’ll just say that it was actually tough to watch some of it happen, and all so this father can acquire Hangman-style letters that lead to Shaun’s whereabouts.

One of HR’s most redeeming qualities is an uninterrupted pace.  Indigo Prophecy featured several scenarios that afforded a possible restart if you failed to satisfy the input prompts or what have you.  That doesn’t happen in Quantic’s latest drama.  Regardless of your hand on events, the story continues.  Characters may or may not survive, bonds can be shaped differently and what occurs after the final chapter depends on all that happened in between.  Everything boils down to a choice, and each renders both subtle and major outcomes; some as simple as lines exchanged during a conversation, to whether or not Shaun is rescued at the end and by whom.  The personas are genuine too, as each could certainly be encountered in the real world.  Ethan is an architect and loving father of two, Madison is an insomniac journalist, Norman is an FBI agent drug addict, and Scott Shelby is a PI asked to personally investigate the murders by the victims’ families.  That’s diversity, though they’re hardly the only ones involved…hence why Heavy Rain is so special.  It’s Saw meets Ransom meets CSI, and the execution is sublime.

The presentation is especially intense, despite an odd quality difference between the characters’ bodies and their faces, in addition to strange frame rate and screen tearing instances.  Sony-owned Quantic Dream exploits the PS3’s technology well in light of the former.  I’ve never played a game that features more detailed faces than HR.  The realism of the eyes (the retinas particularly), hair follicles and general blemishes on a 1080p HDTV is just dumbfounding.  This not only humanizes the characters more than ever before, but it brings out the personalities in a borderline frightening fashion at times.  That’s why I’m disappointed about their bodies; they don’t look quite right.  It’s as though the faces that go above and beyond the call of duty made a lesser effort unusually noticeable.  Even the set pieces undoubtedly had exceptional talent behind them, as most objects can be toyed with, the resolution of what would typically be meaningless text makes it perfectly legible, and so much more.  The technical problems do remind that Heavy Rain is a fictional world, but it by no means takes you out of it for very long.

I have similar feelings about the audio production.  The music is thrilling to a T, even if that’s not tough to do with a murder mystery game, but it’s appreciated nonetheless of course.  The general effects are as they should be as well, which plays hand-in-hand with the immersion factor.  However, the voice work is sadly inconsistent.  The majority of the dialogue is spoken professionally (especially when you provoke the characters’ thoughts), but I noticed an uncomfortable share of moments when tone didn’t fit the bill, or the emotion wasn’t appropriate enough.  When Ethan is scrambling to find his lost son Jason in the local mall at the beginning of the adventure, hearing him shout for him sounds incredibly weak compared to how panicky I would be in such shoes.

Before concluding, I’ll briefly discuss Heavy Rain’s uncomplicated gameplay.  It’s a healthy mix of quick-time events, and circumstances that require input that convincingly matches the resulting on-screen action.  For instance, FBI agent Norman [Jayden] calls for a push and pull of the right analog stick to pull out his ARI shades.  Those bad boys are wicked too, as our own Jarrod Nichol would claim, because they not only record evidence without a hint of pen and paper, but store it all in a virtual desk of sorts.  Other moments require holding down, rapidly tapping or merely pressing a button, and some input is time-sensitive.  It’s all good fun, and depending on the difficulty you play with initially, what develops is wholly unpredictable due to not knowing what Heavy Rain will have you do.  It’s an interesting challenge the first time, but after you’ve seen it all, pursuing the remaining endings turns the game into a more player-controlled affair.  That’s really how it should be though, since we are the ones manipulating the DualShock.

Heavy Rain is the first product that our Sony rep demonstrated during COE’s booth tour at E3 last year, and I knew from that moment that I would love it once arrived.  Quantic’s labor doesn’t necessarily push the genre forward, but does bring it to the level that it needed to be at in order to be a legitimate current generation release.  After all, the value of these ‘choose your own path’ types of games only extend as far as the plot web stretches.  It’s great that QD’s writers accomplished the task of ensuring that one player’s experience could and very likely would be radically different than another’s.  Yet in the end, without redeeming characters and a story that doesn’t force mental acrobatics to understand it, it’s all for naught.  Thankfully that’s not the case with what I believe is the PS3’s most prized offering for the beginning of 2010.  It’s somewhat of a shame that younger gamers shouldn’t be exposed to the sexual and verbal content, but Heavy Rain is otherwise a title that shouldn’t be missed.

Scoreboard:

Story: 9
Gameplay: 9
Controls: 9
Graphics: 9
Sound: 9
Value: 9

Overall (Not an average): 9