The Walking Dead – Episode 2: Starved For Help (XBLA Review)

December 23, 2012 Leave a comment

The Walking Dead Ep 2 Screen 1

With the first episode of The Walking Dead, Telltale Games gave us something very special. It was a game with a compelling story in which choice mattered. You cared enough about the believable characters and world they had created that the decisions were never easy.

We thought Episode 1 was pretty amazing so Episode 2, Starved For Help, had a lot to live up to. If you’re reading this then you probably already played the first episode, and you will have to own it to play this one. You’ll be pleased to know Telltale has not only met the expectations set by the first episode but easily exceeded them.

Here’s what we liked:

Simple but effective gameplay – As is to be expected, the core mechanics of The Walking Dead remain the same. You have control over Lee’s movement as well as an onscreen context-sensitive cursor. There are less puzzles this time round, and certainly no bafflingly stupid battery incidents, instead there’s a bigger focus on action. This means more quick-time-event sequences, which are used in increasingly smart methods. One extended sequence near the end of the game perfectly illustrates this, connecting you with the action in a very physical way.

Harrowing – The Walking Dead is about as adult as video games get, and Starved For Help takes that idea to new, horrifying places. This is not a game for the faint of heart. In addition to the agonizing choices you’ll make, there are scenes of graphic violence that will have you averting your eyes. This all adds up to give this episode an incredibly tense and paranoia-fueled atmosphere that makes you think twice about continuing.

Unpredictable – You may have finished the first episode and thought “yeah I can see where the next episode is going”, well we can almost guarantee you won’t have expected this. The main plot thread does become obvious after a while, or at least it did to us. But even then the game is littered with shocking and unpredictable moments. It makes every decision you make feel all the more important because you just don’t know what will happen next. What might have seemed like the safest option may lead to you fighting for your life, or put someone else in danger.

Fantastic writing – Once again the writing here is outstanding, though there are still a few inconsistencies present. We wish the writers didn’t feel the need to have characters tell you to “come see me when you’re ready”. But we’re nitpicking, this is still one of the best written games around, with believable characters that are just getting richer with each episode.

The Walking Dead Ep 2 Screen 2

Here’s what we didn’t like:

Technical issues – We critiqued the first episode, A New Day, for showing the limitations of Telltale’s engine. Sadly Starved For Help does nothing to fix these issues, in fact they seem to be getting worse. As Telltale tries to do more elaborate things with their engine, it shows the strain even more prevalently. The brief pauses and hitches when transitioning between action scenes are still there and now there are also numerous audio anomalies, including syncing issues and stuttering. While these issues are definitely a problem worth noting, it speaks to the quality of the rest of the game that they detract very little from the experience.

Some choices don’t matter – As impressive as it is that big decisions you make, like who lived or died, carry over we can’t help being disappointed that some things happen no matter what. There are a few examples of this in Starved For Help, choices you are presented with that don’t change the outcome. If you only play through the game once you’ll never know, it’s just a shame that those replaying to see other outcomes will be left wanting.

The Walking Dead Ep 2 Screen 3

With this series Telltale set out to make a zombie game that was more about people than the undead monsters they’re running from. We’re now two episodes in to this five episode season and we’d say they’ve executed on that idea almost perfectly.

Games are meant to be fun, sure, but they are also meant to elicit an emotional response. The Walking Dead Episode 2: Starved for Help will take your emotions for quite a ride; you may not enjoy yourself during certain parts of that ride, but you’ll be glad you took it. We can’t wait to play the other episodes, but we must express some trepidation towards what heinous things Telltale have in store.

Score: Buy It

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The Walking Dead – Episode 3: Long Road Ahead (XBLA Review)

December 23, 2012 Leave a comment

The Walking Dead Ep 3 Screen 1

Episode 3 of The Walking Dead is not fun, you will not enjoy the experience. You’ll walk away from it with a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach, and possibly tears in your eyes. It is a harrowing, depressing and almost hopeless tale, even more so than the two episodes preceding it.

The worst part of all that? It is an experience you absolute must take part in, this is a game that will make you feel and think things you’d never have considered a game could. In three short episodes Telltale Games have become masters of the zombie apocalypse, telling horribly believable, shocking stories through an interactive medium.

Here’s what we liked:

Time investment put to good use – By now if you’ve played through each episode at least once, you’ve spent a good five or six hours with this group of characters. It might not sound like much but you’ll be surprised how attached you are. Telltale knows exactly what to do with that information, they’re going to use it to hurt you. Those characters you care about? They’re going to suffer, it makes for a difficult game to sit through but the sheer power of the emotions you’ll experience make it worth playing.

The Walking Dead Ep 3 Screen 2

Technical issues ironed out – If you’ve read our reviews of the last two episodes, you’ll recall one of the main complaints was that the Telltale engine struggles under the pressure. We’re happy to see that with this iteration those issues are all but gone. There’s still a slight, but noticeable, pause when transitioning between some scenes but unlike the past two episodes it’s never in a place that effects the pacing of a tense sequence.

Puzzling – The other episodes of Walking Dead were fairly light on puzzles and adventure game tropes.Long Road Ahead brings in some simple puzzles to engage in, they come at a pretty perfect time too. Just when you and the characters need to distract themselves from the horrible events that take place throughout this episode.

Here’s what we didn’t like:

Uneven pacing – Long Road Ahead is packed with huge, game-changing events. The landscape of Lee’s world completely changes from the start of this episode to the end. With so many significant events packed into a small time frame (though this is the longest episode so far), it’s not surprising the pacing takes a hit. Unfortunately the flow of the game suffers a bit for it, there is a point about three quarters of the way through which feels like an ending point. It isn’t though, and the game continues on for a while still. The last section does seem necessary of course, setting up events in the next episode but we feel it could’ve been handled better.

The Walking Dead Ep 3 Screen 3

As we get further into the season it becomes clear that some decisions matter more than others. Ultimately it’s not so much about how much your decisions shape the story but rather how they shape you and the characters around you.

Telltale use The Walking Dead‘s zombie backdrop perfectly, bringing the human element to the forefront in ever more tragic ways. While it may make for a very hard to stomach experience, there is no doubt that everyone should play this game.

Score: Buy It

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Mass Effect 3: Leviathan (Xbox 360 DLC Review)

December 23, 2012 Leave a comment

ME3 Leviathan

Whether you experienced the original ending, or the revamped Extended Cut, it’s hard to argue that Mass Effect 3did not, in fact, end. Commander Shepard’s story came to a blatant conclusion, presenting BioWare with the problem of what to do in terms of post-release DLC. If the developers were to add content to the end of the game, they would run into problems with linear storytelling, as each ending is drastically different from the next.  Unsurprisingly, BioWare decided to create content that slots into the regular game and can be played like any other side-mission,. This method is no doubt easier and smarter, though it is a bit limiting.

In Mass Effect 3′s first expansion,”Leviathan,” Shepard is informed of a secret research project, tasked with the investigation of something called “Leviathan,” a mysterious entity that apparently killed a Reaper. Obviously a creature as powerful as this could be a very useful ally in the war against the Reapers, so Shepard sets out to discover more about what it actually is. A large chunk of “Leviathan” involves investigation, though this aspect of the game is heavily front-loaded. Players must find clues to narrow down search parameters, which lead to a new location with clues in the quest to find out what (or who) Leviathan is.

ME3 Leviathan 2

Throughout the almost-three-hour length of “Leviathan” you will take part in small skirmishes against Reaper forces, who are themselves trying to track down Leviathan whilst stopping Shepard from doing the same. These moments bring a burst of excitement to an otherwise low-key piece of content. You’ll spend most of your time in the investigation sequences, searching offices and various complexes for clues to progress. A few sections also have a brilliantly creepy atmosphere, as you wander through dimly lit rooms and are told you shouldn’t have come by their occupants.

It’s safe to say “Leviathan” contains some fairly large revelations that give context to the Reapers and their origins. Is it necessary information? Not at all. The Reapers were fine as a seemingly ageless race whose origins were so old they could barely be comprehended. That said, having this new context does little to hurt the overall universe of Mass Effect. In fact it’s immensely interesting and has me intrigued to know more.

The revelations “Leviathan” holds are wrapped in an enjoyable piece of Mass Effect 3 content, that is sure to remind fans why they love the series. There are some truly spectacular visuals toward the end too, but overall, despite being enjoyable and building on the fiction, “Leviathan” isn’t quite a must-play.

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Yar’s Revenge (XBLA Review)

December 23, 2012 Leave a comment

Yars’ Revenge was one of the best selling games on the Atari 2600, making it somewhat of a puzzle why it has taken so long to come back. To the modern player of games it would appear very simple and, of course, being from that era it is just that, but for some reason it found an audience. The goal was to take out your enemy, an alien known as Qotile, which involved getting through its shield using the weapons at your disposal. Atari have decided to give the game the “reimagining” treatment and have put developer Killspace Entertainment at the helm.

Yar’s Revenge on XBLA sees you facing off against many Qotile, rather than just the one from the original. The game is no longer a single screen shooter either but has been transformed into an on-rails affair akin to Sin & Punishment or Rez.

Since the game is on-rails, Killspace Entertainment always know what you’re looking at, which means they have focused a lot of effort on the art. As a result, there are plenty of very impressive (but perhaps not very varied) painted backgrounds. Lots of lovely cloudy vistas to take in as you fly through levels. The design of Yar herself is also great, a simple but interesting mixture of insectoid robot and slightly generic anime girl.

In contrast, the six or seven enemy designs in the game are dull and uninspired. Plus anything that isn’t part of the background looks plain bad. Low-res textures, poorly animated enemies (even the bosses) and visual effects lacking any flair or substance make Yar’s Revenge feel very low budget. Each enemy is constantly repeated throughout the levels with occasional colour changes to add a little variety. This wouldn’t be quite as big an issue if the unique types of enemy had differing or interesting attack patterns. While the painted backgrounds are great to look at, the same can’t be said for the rest of the game.

Yar has three main weapons: A pulse laser, railgun and missiles. The railgun has a cooldown time and the missiles have limited ammo (which can be replenished from pick-ups). Points and multipliers are what drive Yar’s Revenge; as enemies are dispatched the multiplier climbs. The strategy comes in knowing when to take out enemies. There are often brief lulls in combat which will leave just enough time for the multiplier to tick down to zero. So the battles become a balancing act of staying alive while trying not to clear the screen too quickly. When to use the game’s several power-ups also figures into this, especially the shield as using it means Yar can’t fire any weapons. All these options during combat make the gameplay a bit more interesting than it initially appears.

To beat all six of Yar’s Revenge‘s levels will take a couple of hours, max. With very few deaths and enough continues that you won’t be forced to restart the level, it doesn’t take very long to get into the rhythm of knowing which weapon to use and when. Challenge seems to have been shifted to figuring out the multiplier system with the actual combat taking a backseat.

It’s difficult to call Yar’s Revenge a bad game, it’s just very mediocre. Killspace have tried to add replay value by making the main modes all about high score. But when the gameplay is so boring and lacking in challenge, it’s hard to see anyone caring enough. The ideas behind Yar’s Revenge are good but the execution is lacking, whether that’s due to a lack of budget or some other unknown reason. While it’s cheap and easy to get hold of, there are far better examples of this type of game available elsewhere.

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Dash Race (iOS Review)

December 23, 2012 Leave a comment

Dash RaceThe App Store description for Dash Race notes that it is based on “a popular paper game that can be played everywhere at anytime”. So that begs the question, why would you bother paying for an iPhone/iPad app version of it? To save paper of course! Ok, that’s perhaps not the best way to sell a game but thankfully there are more reasons to consider giving Dash Race a go.

The premise for Dash Race is harder to explain than it is to actually understand. Your vehicle is represented by a series of lines (or dashes if you will) and crosses. The “track” is overlaid on graph paper, the game uses various rules to take in to account speed and all that jazz. You don’t have to worry too much about the background stuff but by thinking ahead you can try and determine how fast to go to take the next corner with minimal fuss. This is done by choosing how much you will extend the line representing where you will travel to next. It sounds a bit complicated but once you’ve taken your turn a couple of times the idea soon clicks.

The “rules” of Dash Race take a little time to figure out but there’s a surprising depth to them which isn’t immediately clear. They inspire a somewhat foolish overconfidence which quite easily results in many, many crashes. This is of course the likely scenario for everyone and not just the rather simple person writing this review. Ahem.

Once the games complexity reveals itself there’s a lot of enjoyment to be had from the races. Despite the fairly low-fi presentation, a close race can be just as tense to watch as the real thing, you’ll soon forget you’re just watching a few colourful lines on virtual graph paper. Up to four vehicles can be involved in a race (controlled by AI or other people) and those are usually the most exciting races to be had. It might sound crazy to say a game about graph paper can be exciting but it really can be! As two or three of you try to squeeze around one corner at a time, leaving one of you with no choice but to risk slamming into a wall by taking the turn far too wide.

Dash Race is certainly not for everyone, it’s a tactical racing game which aside from sounding a bit weird is not an idea many will want to give a go. But if you think you can use your imagination to turn those little crosses and dashes into high-speed automobiles hurtling down a racetrack then you may just want to check this one out. Don’t forget you’ll be saving on a ton of paper too, the trees will thank you for it.

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Battleheart (iOS Review)

December 23, 2012 Leave a comment

Role playing games on iOS often have trouble trying to balance the fact they are on a mobile device with the in-depth nature of the genre. Some developers disregard this concern and go all in, making an RPG much like those you would find on PC or a home console. Then there are games like Battleheart which simplify the formula while still keeping some of that much needed depth.

Battleheart sets players up with a team of up to four characters who must defeat evil forces – the usual fantasy stuff. The make-up of this party is entirely up to the player. There are a handful of classes to choose from, each with their own speciality. Clerics heal, Barbarians deal damage, Wizards specialise in magic and so on. You can mix and match the classes as you see fit, and new recruits can be found at the Tavern to bolster your ranks if you fancy a change. It allows for a good bit of variety and often requires a rethinking of tactics.

Once you have your team assembled, it’s off to battle. During the game’s fights, each character is controlled directly. It’s a simple case of placing your finger over the character and dragging them to the enemy you wish to attack or the place you want them to move to. It’s an incredibly intuitive control method and allows the screen to remain relatively free of any clutter. There are some issues when characters get too close together, making it difficult for the game to determine who you are trying to control. In addition to basic attacks, each class has special abilities, which you can access by tapping on that specific character. Stronger abilities are unlocked as your characters level up, which they do individually by gaining experience points for each battle.

This is the crux of Battleheart, at certain points of the game you will come across a stage – perhaps containing a stronger boss character – which will prove more difficult than previous battles. In order to best the level, you will have to replay earlier stages to gain more experience points and improve your characters. The game is all about upgrading, whether it’s your party members or the equipment they use. It can sometimes become a grind but it’s a testament to the core gameplay that it takes a long time for that grind to set in. In fact, if played in short bursts, the grind may never set in at all.

The visuals in Battleheart are gorgeous, the art style is simple but executed perfectly. Coupled with fluid animation, it’s a wonder to look at. The entire game, from menus to characters, looks sharp and expertly crafted. They give the game a great deal of charm and personality.

Battleheart is perfect for those looking to get an RPG fix on the go, without having to worry about an intricate story or a ton of complicated gameplay systems. Even with its minor control niggles there’s plenty of fun to be had, from the battle system and the lure of one more battle to level up that Wizard.

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Deadly Premonition (Xbox 360 Review)

December 23, 2012 Leave a comment

Deadly PremonitionDeadly Premonition is an open world action-adventure with a distinctly Japanese bent. Taking control of FBI Agent Francis York Morgan, call him York, you have been sent to the rural town of Greenvale to investigate a murder. As you might imagine there’s a little more to the murder, which is why York has been called in. Agent York himself is a very odd man too, constantly talking to someone called Zack, who isn’t actually there.

Deadly Premonition is clearly a budget title: Awkward animation is bizarre and jarring in an age of motion capture and fluid, hand animated characters. That said there’s an admirable ambition behind everything in Deadly Premonition. For example you’ll get into cars often and be both amazed and amused to discover it has working indicators and window wipers which don’t have any practical use in the game.

The most fun you’ll have playing is when you’re wandering around the town of Greenvale, talking to the residents and discovering bizarre little secrets. When you won’t be having fun are the times you have to put up with the games serviceable (but lacking) shooting mechanics and some of the worst quick time events ever created.

Deadly Premonition is not a shooter, no one would ever claim it is, but the shooting sections are so long and prominent that they can’t be ignored. They just aren’t satisfying and seem to exist solely to add variety and length. It’s hard not to feel that the time that went into making these sections [and adding working window wipers – Ed] could’ve been applied to expanding on the adventure and exploration aspects of the game. Or having more ways to interact with and experience the world of Deadly Premonition would be welcome. In reality even those sections of the game are marred by a painfully methodical pace. It turns what could be an enjoyable and interesting experience into a draining grind.

If you’re someone who is partial to a bit of offbeat storytelling and like the sound of an anime version of Twin Peaks, with an extra dosing of pop culture references then you’ll probably love Deadly Premonition. But if you’re someone who would rather have a fairly straightforward narrative and doesn’t like long meandering dialogue sequences about Jaws or the merits of DVD extras, this might not be for you. To its credit the voice acting in the game is pretty good (if a bit heavy on the ham) and the dialogue is often quite funny, although it isn’t always clear if that’s the intention though.

If there’s something you’re not likely to see discussed it’s the audio mix of a game, meaning the volumes of the different audio aspects. The music in Deadly Premonition is at such a volume it overpowers everything else; make dialogue nearly impossible to hear without adjusting settings. It’s a shame because it detracts from one of the games best bits, the music itself. Perhaps those making the game realised this and decided to make sure everyone would pay it more attention, either way it is a glaring and baffling error and definitely one worth noting.

Deadly Premonition represents a problem that is far too common in games with interesting stories and concepts; the actual game part is a bit rubbish. This proves even more problematic as the story, characters, setting and general tone are only going to appeal to a niche audience to begin with. Putting that stuff behind a wall of broken game mechanics and monotony makes it’s appeal dwindle to the point of insignificance.

When it comes down to it as interesting and crazy as the story may be, it just isn’t enough to eleviate the rest of the games mediocrity.

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