Aqua Moto Racing Utopia Review (PS4/PC) – “Refreshing Ride”

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Extreme sports racing games are a dime a dozen nowadays, but there are some developers trying to rekindle relatable experiences, while also aiming for a new market. Swedish developer Zordix has been establishing themselves with a series that started on the iOS/Android called Aqua Moto Racing. In years to come, they brought their series to the 3DS, and now, they’re bringing the series to home consoles for the first time ever. Aqua Moto Racing Utopia is the latest installment in the series, available on Steam and PS4 (with a Wii U release in the near future). Is this worth braving the waves of the ocean, or is it stuck in open-waters?

Aqua Moto Racing Utopia is essentially a racing game that most closely resembles Nintendo’s “Wave Race” series. You will race through a series of championship events, each with different CC engine speeds, as well as jet-ski types (sit-down and stand-up models). The sit-down jet-skis are much more speed-focused, whereas the stand-up ones excel in stunt flexibility. Before hitting the waters though, you will start off by creating your own character. This is a nice way to kick things off by giving the player a bit of customization. There are a decent amount of options to tinker with to ensure not everyone looks similar out on the waters.

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Races rely on racing alongside the buoys in place on each track. You’ll be bobbing-and-weaving your way on the water to ensure you’re on the right side of the buoy you need to pass. If you miss three of these in a race, you’re disqualified. As you progress, you will earn cash based on your placement (as well as some to earn out on the track). This can be used to purchase newer and better jet-skis, with multiple attributes that are affected. Each jet-ski can be customized with a variety of colors, whether it’s the body or decals.

Each environment has a distinct feel, with multiple variation tracks to tackle throughout the game’s championship mode. Whether it’s the lush jungles, a water filled town in China, the open-ocean around tanker ships and oil rigs, or tropical paradises (to name a few), all of these locales are as fun to ride as they are unique. Another cool aspect is the option to race in first-person mode. The way the camera handles in this really adds to the immersion, whether you’re whipping around turns or doing flips in the air.

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Any game revolving around water is reliant on its physics, and honestly, the physics in place are quite good. The jet-skis handle more or less like they should on both calm and intense waves, with an arcade-style feel to it. It may be a little less interactive than Wave Race’s water physics, but what’s in place here works great. When going off of jumps and high waves, you’ll be able to pull off tricks as well. Doing so will allow you to gain boost. You can also pull off specific tricks while on water. The tricks are fairly simple to pull off, with some more advanced ones that take some time to master. There were some instances though (more evident during trick events) when the trick inputs didn’t respond, or the trick name was displayed but the animation kicked in after releasing the buttons. It worked well enough for the most part, but this particular instance is something that could be patched.

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There are plenty of modes to explore as well. Aside from the game’s core championship mode, there are time trial and free roam modes. Time trial is standard fare, except you’re provided times to beat to go for a gold medal in each track (aside from beating your own times). Free roam has you go around any of the game’s environments, but with a twist. There are “Z Balls” to collect in each environment, as well as a hidden collectible to find. Also, there are interactive events that can be triggered in each area, which is a great little feature to incorporate here. Then there’s the multiplayer modes. The game supports both local and online multiplayer. Local multiplayer has 4-player split-screen action, whether you’re racing against each other or tackling the party games together. The party games are a blast, whether it be Aqua Moto Hockey, King of the Hill, Capture the Flag, or our personal favorite here, Duckling Mama (think Super Rub-a-Dub from the PS3 launch days…if you ever played that). The online multiplayer strangely only consists of racing against others, with no party games to be found. While the party games are tailored more for the couch multiplayer, it would be nice to get friends together online to do this as well. That being said though, we were able to test out the online amongst staff members here and can say it ran quite smooth. Oh, and there’s a fairly attainable Platinum trophy to be found in this game as well.

I think we're going to need a bigger jet-ski...

I think we’re going to need a bigger jet-ski…

Visually, Aqua Moto Racing Utopia is an incredibly clean and vibrant looking game. Environments look great, with some nice texture work and immensely inviting water. The objects and jet-skis are also well-detailed and appropriately scaled. Characters on the other hand are a bit lacking detail-wise, and have some stilted animations. There’s one odd animation too when landing from a trick. If you’re not fully complete with the trick, the animation doesn’t finish and goes right to the rider and his jet-ski being perfectly leveled with the water. Is it immersion-breaking? Not entirely, but it’s noticeable. On the flip-side, the game runs at a smooth 60 frames-per-second, which is a huge feat. The audio in AMRU is also right-on. Each environment has music that matches the locale very well, and the audio effects do a good job capturing the arcade-style feel to the game. The announcer on the other hand sounds mundane and unnecessary. Honestly, just going to the options and shutting him off makes it better.

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All-in-all, Aqua Moto Racing Utopia is a great game that can easily be recommended to fans of arcade-style racers, and more so, fans of Nintendo’s Wave Race series (since Nintendo still has yet to return to the series within the past 15 years). Zordix has really evolved this series since its conception on iOS, and continues to get better each time. While the $30 price tag may be a bit steep for those on the fence, it’s certainly a worthy game to add to your collection. Between its vibrant visuals, addictive gameplay, and strong local party games, Aqua Moto Racing Utopia is one wave you’ll want to ride.

Overall Score: 8.0 out of 10

A special thank you to the publisher for providing us a review copy for Aqua Moto Racing Utopia! Copy reviewed on PS4.

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Duke Nukem 3D: 20th Anniversary World Tour Review (PS4/X1/PC): “Come Get Some”

In 1996, Duke Nukem 3D splashed onto the scene of PC and console gaming like a megaton. The brash, X-rated humor was breaking down the walls of traditional gaming narratives. Duke was in a class of his own with dialogue and gameplay that blasted through the standards of yesterday. Twenty years later, Gearbox Software has decided to release Duke’s best known adventure once again. The epic Duke Nukem 3D: 20th Anniversary Edition World Tour is intended to appeal to both new comers of 3D Realms’ hero from the 90’s, as well as fans of old. Originally when it was released back in 1996, Duke Nukem 3D was one of the most significant titles in the FPS genre’s history. Its intricate level designs set it apart from its contemporaries back in 1996. What exactly makes the 20th Anniversary Edition worth trying out? Let’s dive in to find out!The great thing about this anniversary edition is that the original designers, Allen Blum III and Richard “Levelord” Gray, have returned to craft eight brand new levels for Duke Nukem 3D. The new episode takes Duke everywhere from the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco, to Moscow, and finally to Hollywood for a final boss battle. However, rather than use current design technology, the pair decided to design each of these levels the exact way they would have done in ‘96. The result is amazing, playing these levels feels like they were always part of the original game. Nerve Software’s team understood what made the levels of the original game so entertaining. While these levels are not as large as the true original levels, they are still pretty large considering. Duke 3D famously had huge maze-like levels and made you want to explore each section of the map.

The gameplay holds up pretty well considering it has now been 20 years since its original launch. I feel part of the magic that kept this game’s gameplay current and not dated was its simplicity. 3D Realms created such a well put-together shooter that 20 years could not dilute it. I recently got to co-op a sizeable chunk of the game with Marcello (which can be viewed here for some good laughs). We were both reminded of how detailed and labyrinth-like the levels were. These twisty, but carefully crafted stages are not found often in today’s gaming. Too many modern day games simply create big levels, but overlook that larger does not necessarily equal a better level.

In addition to the single-player campaign, this release also features some good multiplayer action. You can face-off with others online in a mode called Dukematch, or you can team up with some friends to engage in online co-op. Much like the single-player campaign, these selections feel like a remnant from the old days of gaming mode choices. Duke’s simplistic gameplay is fun for playing single player, and is just as pleasing on the multiplayer side. The idea of playing 8-player co-op online with friends from a game released over 20 years ago is neat, and certainly adds longevity.

For the Anniversary Edition, Gearbox has given the original Duke Nukem 3D a minor restoration. Gearbox created a True3D Rendering mode specifically for Duke. The title still runs on the same game engine from ’96, however several visual aspects have been improved. The lighting has been considerably upgraded, and textures are just cleaner to look at now with my 2016 eyes. Instead of looking like a game from 1996, it can maybe pass for a game a few years newer. A feature that I love is the ability to toggle between the original’s visuals and the remastered’s visuals. Videophiles who want the original visuals can switch between the two modes with a press of a button.

The audio factor of the game also received several tweaks. Gearbox has brought the original voice actor of Duke, Jon St. John, to re-record his original dialogue, as well as record some new lines too. Even if the series of famous one-liners begin to dull after a while, St. John’s distinct voice is seamlessly right for the character of Duke. There is new music composed by Lee Jackson, which fits the heavy action that is constantly happening around you.

Another great feature added into this edition is developer commentary that has been placed in various points throughout the game. Several members of the Duke team recorded their views on it. It’s pretty interesting to hear some of their thoughts two decades later with a retrospect from the people who actually created Duke and launched him into gaming history. You will find some funny stories in these commentaries as well. Whether they’re discussing the making of it or the game’s impact, these little bits of commentary are fascinating. For those looking for a lengthy commentary spanning the entire single player adventure, you will be disappointed. Unfortunately, these audio logs are only found in a few levels. I am by no means expecting all the levels to have commentary, but it would have been great to have more great stories from the developing pioneers of 90’s gaming to listen to.

While today’s gamers may be turned off by the very basic gameplay Duke provides, they need to remember that this title is part of the forces that ushered in today’s modern day shooters. Duke Nukem 3D: 20th Anniversary Edition World Tour is a nostalgia trip that recalls many memories for gamers that were around when this hit the stores. The fast-paced, crazy shooting is as strong as ever, and the extensive level design is still exceptional. For those that have never experienced the classy charm-filled Duke “sarcasm”, this is a tour worth experiencing.

Overall Score: 7.5 out of 10

A special thank you to the publisher for providing us a review copy for Duke Nukem 3D: 20th Anniversary World Tour! Copy reviewed on PS4.

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Resident Evil Revelations 2 Review – “Back on the Right Track”

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The Resident Evil franchise has been around for approximately 2 decades and we have seen the series blossom into some of the most memorable games, giving you the feel of scavenging for items, weapons and ammo. However, we have also seen the series recently take a turn for the worse, with the horrendous spin-off, Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City, and the absolute mess known as Resident Evil 6. It has been roughly 2 and a half years since a new Resident Evil has released to the market, and with Resident Evil Revelations 2, the team over at Capcom is trying to appease fans like it did with the first Revelations. Does it bring the franchise back to its roots or does it continue to slap fans in the face with obnoxious helicopter piloting and tank chasing sequences?

Story: 4/5

Resident Evil Revelations 2 takes place between the events of Resident Evil 5 and 6. A special unit known as Terrasave is formed, which acts similar to the BSAA except that they’re more about curing the viruses rather than being a special military unit. While at a company party, Claire Redfield (who is now part of Terrasave) is seen entering and looking to meet the new recruit, Moira Burton. However, the party is suddenly crashed by a mysterious group and knocks everyone out by injecting them with a tranquilizer. Claire suddenly wakes up in a prison cell of some sort, finds Moira locked in another cell, and together they must find out where they are, what’s going on and how to escape this nightmare. Claire and Moira have a fairly believable bond interacting with each other. Moira as a character though has some of the most forced swearing ever in gaming history. Seriously Moira, what the f*** is with you and f***ing technology? See how forced and pointless the swearing was there? That’s how she speaks in-game.

At the halfway point of an episode, the plot will switch over to another series’ veteran, Barry Burton. Here we see Barry heading to the last known location of his daughter Moira and upon arrival, partners up with an unexpected little girl named Natalia, who’s origins are unknown. Throughout their segments of the campaign, you will see how everyone’s paths cross into each other, while solving the mystery occurring on the island. The story is told through an episodic format much like the original Revelations, but with more effect, as the cliffhangers at the end of an episode are quite strong. The story is certainly intriguing and kept me engaged through to the end with a few twists in store (as well as two different endings depending on a specific decision you make). Also, fans of the series will appreciate the continuity brought up from various RE installments. All in all, the storyline is one of the better written ones in quite some time, rekindling the classic, mysterious feel of Resident Evil.

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Gameplay: 4/5

Resident Evil Revelations 2 (much like the first Revelations), ditches the full-blown action with minimal scares and provides a much more refined style to its predecessor. The partner system is still in place (whether you like it or not) but works in an unexpected way that works very well. Gameplay still remains over-the-shoulder, with fluid move and strafe controls that may very well be the series’ best control scheme since RE4. Throughout the game’s four episodes, players will switch between Claire and Moira’s scenario and Barry and Natalia’s scenario, each with supporting character’s changing the dynamic a bit. For example, Moira is petrified to use a gun (even despite the fact that there are murderous creatures attacking her) due to having a certain “past”. Instead, she will provide Claire with lighting support and she’ll wield a crowbar in her defense. There are times where she may have to pry a barricaded door open while Claire will have to provide gun support against any creatures coming after both of you. With Natalia, a page was borrowed from The Last of Us where she has a keen sense of hearing and can detect where enemies are through walls. Adding another element to it, she can spot out enemy weaknesses, as well as hidden items in the area.

When taking control of the main leads (Claire and Barry), they will play as you’d expect from traditional Resident Evils. You’ll be able to wield up to four weapons to switch amongst on the D-Pad, while carefully managing your inventory like the classic installments. Ammo is certainly scarce in this game, so don’t expect to wage an all-out war with all the enemies. You will have to be careful and considerate with how to handle situations. Also, unlike previous iterations (except RE6), there will be no Item Box to actually store your items in, so you will have to make decisions on what items you’ll want to carry more of and drop on the ground. A handy element is to let your partner carry some of the supplies. For example, Moira and Natalia would be better at carrying more of the health supplies and misc. items so that Claire and Barry can focus on carrying more of the ammo. How you manage the items though is ultimately up to you. One of the biggest gripes that’s not in place here though is commanding your partner to pick up the items. Instead, if your inventory is full, you will have to switch to the character and then pick up the object. It may not sound too bad written down, but it becomes tedious to do so during the entire campaign. In RE5 for example, you could simply command your partner to pick up the items if you did not want to carry it or couldn’t. Why they haven’t implemented that here is questionable and impacts the flow at times.

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As mentioned earlier, the controls are incredibly smooth and fluid. Shooting also feels pretty solid and reminiscent a bit to Dead Space. Whereas RE6’s shooting felt too loose and janky, this one certainly feels tighter. The evade mechanic returns from the first Revelations but now isn’t about simply timing when to press up on the analog stick. Instead, you can control the dodge with the circle button and pressing any direction you wish to evade to. Timing your dodge is still important, as you can still take damage should you dodge too early or too late. At the end of each character’s segment in an episode, you will be able to use the BP you’ve earned and collected to upgrade skills. The skill upgrades are fairly similar to those found in Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D, except you actually can utilize all your upgrades, not just equip three of them. Some of these vary from farther dodging radius, better firepower when crouching, sprinting and knifing at the same time, increased health, etc. There are a ton of skills to upgrade, as well as upgrading the levels of those skills to better them. Also, returning from the first Revelations is the weapon upgrade system. You will collect parts to attach to your weapons at a workbench that can increase the firepower, fire rate, reload speed, etc. Mixing and matching the parts with certain guns is a rewarding experiment, and trying to find as many parts to really make your weapon a beast is part of the fun.

When it comes to survival horror, the atmosphere and setting lend a dramatic amount to the experience. Capcom has done their homework and provided a creepy, and at times unsettling, environment that really can be twisted at times. No corner is safe and diabolical traps await you as you try to escape the demented facilities that accompany this island. Switching between Claire and Moira, and Barry and Natalia changes up the pacing of the game a decent amount. While it kept me thoroughly engaged most of the time, the very final chapter for Barry is far too slow paced to make it feel climatic until the last 10 minutes, whereas Claire’s final chapter feels much like it should (without spoiling anything). To make Barry’s final episode more of an issue, is that there’s a certain moment in the campaign where one of your decisions will greatly affect the ending. And I’m not talking about seeing an additional minute or so to the ending or a slight variation…this decision will add an additional 15 minutes of gameplay and story to resolve everything. Unfortunately, many people may not see this if they don’t make that specific decision and it’s a shame since it is much more gratifying.

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Aside from the main campaign, that sits anywhere between 7-10 hours roughly, there is a ton of replay value. First off, you can replay the game in New Game +, replaying the game with all your earned skills and upgrades. Secondly, you can tackle two new modes for each episode. The first is called Countdown, where you’ll have to speed run through the episode and can earn time back by taking down enemies and collecting clocks. The second is Invisible, where it harkens back to the Invisible Enemy mode found in the RE Remake. All enemies will be invisible and your partner can temporarily spot them. Both modes provide quite the extra challenge for purists. However, the main extra mode where people will clock in countless hours will be the infamous Raid mode.

This installment’s Raid mode is vastly improved from the original. In this installment, we start off in the Red Queen’s Chamber as a network code character (think the green coding from the Matrix). You will be able to choose which character you would like to play as (including some iconic characters like Wesker, HUNK and Leon), as well as choose what weapons to bring with you and attributes to equip. The attributes allow you to either increase your health, allow more melee damage, survive an instakill attack with a single HP left, etc. All the attributes can be leveled up with the Skill Points you’ll earn from leveling up, so upgrading these and choosing the right ones will help tremendously as you progress. The levels are broken up into gauntlets, each carrying approximately 6 stages. Each stage will have you ultimately taking out as many enemies as possible before the exit medal appears, however it can be trickier than that. When you complete a level, there are five types of medals to earn: finishing the level, killing all enemies, using no green herbs, clearing a mission within the recommended level, and completionist. Earning a completionist medal (which is earned by getting the other four medals in a single run) will prove to be quite the challenge. Luckily, just like its predecessor, Raid mode can be tackled in co-op (local and online) and it is best to play this with a friend. There are roughly 9 gauntlets and 3 difficulties. Overall, Resident Evil Revelations 2 plays great and has plenty of replay value.

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Graphics: 3/5

Resident Evil has, more or less, been a series we’ve seen some seriously strong visuals. From the Resident Evil Remake, to Resident Evil 4, to then Resident Evil 5 (I won’t even include 6 with the inconsistencies I spotted visually there), it has usually wowed us from trailers leading up to gameplay. When Revelations 1 was released on the 3DS, it was mind-blowing to see that the handheld platform could produce visuals so close to that of a console. To this day, that is still one of, if not, the best looking game on that platform. Revelations 2, on the other hand, went a different route. Due to cutting back on budget costs, it plays it safe and brings the game over to current-gen and last-gen consoles (PS4/X1/PS3/360) with solid visuals. The main difference between the platforms are that PS4 and X1 run at 1080p and 60 fps (which may drop a bit surprisingly on PS4 but nowhere near the point where it’s as noticeable as some people have blown it up to be), whereas the PS3 and 360 versions are 720p and 30 fps. There are texture differences naturally between current and last-gen editions, but as far as how the game looks on current-gen, it never looks “great”. Not often was I impressed with the visuals, with some dull looking indoor environments at times. Some areas look neat and nail the atmosphere, but it rarely ever stood out tremendously. Character models are detailed nicely, but they don’t appear to show anything that would classify it as a generational jump up. Enemy death animations also appear a bit disjointed and choppy at times, looking almost low quality. Gripes aside, it still looks good for the most part, with some solid lighting and again, terrific atmosphere. However, it just never reaches the point of “greatness”, which is odd for an RE title.

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One of the better looking, and honestly best played, scenes in the game.

Sound: 4/5

Resident Evil Revelations 2’s audio is quite good, with enemy screams sounding vicious and creepy, which will keep you on your toes to keep moving. Gun effects all sound appropriate and effective, while ambiance help keep that unsettling feeling in check. Voice acting is quite solid, even if Claire’s iconic voice actress (Alyson Court) is no longer onboard. Thankfully, the new VA that stepped in for her role does a good job of making her feel like the Claire Redfield we’ve come to know over the years. Barry’s and Natalia’s VAs also help breathe life into the characters and make it enjoyable hearing their dialogues amongst each other. Moira on the other hand…well, while I didn’t mind her delivery at times, it was every time she threw an F-bomb or some other swear word that just…doesn’t…fit…period. Seriously, no one would swear just to swear in the middle of talking. When someone swears, it usually adds emphasis to the situation. When you swear every 4-6 words, it’s downright obnoxious and irritating. On the flipside, the soundtrack accompanies the game very well, with music picking up when enemies appear and low-key ambiance music playing as you explore this demented island. Even the Raid mode remixes the Mercenaries theme from RE6 (the only good thing I can think of from that installment) for some of the missions you’ll do.

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Overall Score: 15/20 = 7.5 out of 10

Resident Evil Revelations 2 is a game that no one really saw coming, as it was thought to be a single spin-off for the series. Instead, Capcom aimed to bring back core fans of the series by sticking more to the survival horror roots, rather than the helicopter-fighting, tank-chasing, motorcycle-riding, Ace Combat flying, full-blown action non-sense that was RE6. Ultimately though, Capcom really did a great job with Revelations 2. While the visuals are a bit rough, and Moira’s excessive and constant swearing is downright stupid, Resident Evil Revelations 2 truly is a very good game, and a great Resident Evil game. The strong and engaging story, the eerie atmosphere, the environment exploring, the tight controls and combat, plus the return of the addictive Raid mode all couple to provide a robust package. Resident Evil fans have much reason to return to the series with this latest installment. Here’s hoping Capcom sticks closer to this route with Resident Evil 7…

Pros:

+ Strong story with series continuity

+ Tight controls

+ Creepy atmosphere

+ Solid soundtrack

+ Engaging gameplay

+ Raid mode is back

Cons:

– Having to switch to your partner all the time if you want them to pick up items

– Moira’s downright stupid swearing

– Barry’s slow final chapter

– Visuals don’t do anything special and just plays it safe

– Have I mentioned how irritating Moira’s swearing is…?

Resident Evil Revelations 2 was purchased by the reviewer and tested for the PlayStation 4 system.

Enjoy our review? Be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter: @GamersXTREME for the latest in gaming news and reviews.

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The Amazing Spider-Man 2 Review (PS4/PS3/360/X1/WiiU): “Losing some of its webbing”

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“With great power comes great responsibility”, or in this case, with a new movie comes a new game. Activision and developer Beenox had released a movie tie-in release for the Amazing Spider-Man back in 2012, which not only was a great movie-based game, but a great game in itself. With the sequel to Amazing Spider-Man now in theaters, Beenox put out a sequel to their predecessor, aiming to improve on various elements. Is this installment worth swinging a web at or should your spider-sense be warning you to avoid it?

Story: 3/5

Taking place after the events of the first Amazing Spider-Man game, regarding the cross-species incident, we find Peter Parker reliving his past and witnessing his Uncle Ben’s death. It’s from this point where we fast forward to present day and Peter is trying to make amends for his uncle’s death by tracking down the killer as his priority. Throughout the story, Peter will soon find out that there’s more going on that’s connected to Uncle Ben’s death. Peter will face his greatest threat yet as he comes across Wilson Fisk (aka “The Kingpin)”, Green Goblin, Electro, Shocker, Kraven, Black Cat and Carnage. The story is pretty solid and engaging enough to keep you interested. However, there are times where cutscenes feel rushed, showing Spider-Man in one location and transitioning to gameplay completely elsewhere. There are also moments where you’ll be given dialogue options to choose what Spider-Man can say during cutscenes. Unfortunately, this doesn’t have any alternate effect on the storyline. Ultimately, while the story wasn’t as strong as its predecessor’s, what’s here is still fun, especially for Spider-Man fans to see the villains in place. Oh, and be sure to watch the cutscene after the end credits of the game (much like the Marvel films themselves).

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Gameplay: 3/5

When playing as Spider-Man, one loves to have the feel of what it would be like to web swing through New York City. The first Amazing Spider-Man game was Beenox’s first attempt at bringing the open-world aspect in and did a great job of doing it. In this sequel, Beenox wanted to bring out a more fleshed out, lively city. Additionally, the main core mechanics they aimed to touch on was the web swinging. In the predecessor, Spidey would stick his webs to anything in the air, no matter where he was. In the sequel, you use the L2 and R2 buttons to swing with the left and right hands respectively as the webs attach to the buildings now. He can even swing faster holding down both the L2 and R2 buttons together once latching a web onto a building. Physics-wise, this changes the swinging mechanic a good amount and actually feels reminiscent to Treyarch’s Spider-Man 2 back in 2003. There’s even a neat slingshot move where Spidey can attach webs between buildings and pull himself back to launch through the city. The web rush mechanic is still in place and has been refined a bit, allowing for a smoother flow and momentum by hold up on the analog stick. The issue with this new web swinging mechanic is that you’ll find yourself swinging into building corners that stick out and you’ll get stuck transitioning to a crawling animation. This tends to get frustrating when Spidey has a bomb he needs to toss in the river and time is of the essence.

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Additional in this installment is the Hero or Menace feature. Now there will be a variety of side-missions that appears on the map where civilians or cops are in need of assistance. Choosing to save them will increase your “heroic” meter, with the press and civilians standing up for Spider-Man in the streets. Ignoring the missions over a period of time will decrease your hero meter and continuing to do so will progressively shift over to the “menace” side of the meter. At this point, civilians will trash talk Spider-Man, the Daily Bugle will badger Spidey and the task force around the city will be on you like white-on-rice trying to dispose of you. Beenox also focused on an increase in suits you can switch between. Each suit contains specific traits that pertain to various scenarios, whether it be for defensive purposes, stronger attacks or better stealth. The more you use a suit, the more it will level up (can reach up to level 10 as the max). Also, depending on your hero or menace rank, the attributes will either increase or decrease respectively. This time around, Spider-Man has a health bar again (as opposed to the no HUD, flashing red screen warning you of death). However, to regenerate health, you’ll hold down on the D-Pad and he’ll patch himself up with webbing within 3-5 seconds. Careful though, as enemies will find this opportunity to gang up on you.

Throughout the game’s 14 story missions, Spidey will mix up missions between outdoors and indoors. The first game focused more on indoor locations but this installment tries to flesh out the environment a bit more. Like the predecessor, the game blends a variety of protection, combat and stealth mechanics, while also throwing in a slew of boss battles. Boss battles were a highlight in the first game, in particular with the mammoth-sized mechs or flying mechs that terrorized the city. In this one, epic scale boss battles are completely removed unfortunately and we’re left with more “traditional” battles. Each boss fight tries to change up the method/strategy of approaching it, whether it be trying to sneak up on Black Cat, tricking Kingpin into stunning himself, or webbing Electro so that you can safely attack him. The bosses are pretty well done for what they are, but rarely had a “wow” factor like its predecessor.

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Combat and stealth have been tinkered with a bit as well. Combat is built upon the rhythm formula found in the predecessor that’s akin to the Batman Arkham series. However, it feels like the combat isn’t as polished as it was originally. Dodging multiple attacks is frustrating as you have less than a split-second to dodge those, as opposed to single attacks giving you about half-a-second to react. Also, pulling off signature moves seems less common to do than the predecessor, leaving you pummeling an enemy a bit longer than necessary. Webbing takes more of the front seat now with Ionic Webs and Seismic Blast. Ionic Webs deteriorate heavy armor and metal brittle enough to break, while Seismic Blast lets you charge up your webs and blast people back. Stealth has been tinkered a bit, where you can now rappel from ledges and do a stealth takedown from a distance without enemies noticing as quickly. Enemies will notice if a comrade is webbed on the ground, which can lead to you going in for another takedown as well. Also, Spider-Sense has been enhanced this time around. Now, Spider-Man can see the visibility angle (with the proper upgrade) of an enemy on patrol, as well as highlights all items and objects in an environment.

Amazing Spider-Man 2 has a good amount to do upon completing the story (which takes roughly 4-6 hours). There are races you can take on in the city, photos to be taken, 300 comic book pages to be found, hideouts to sneak into and acquire new suits, and an endless amount of crime to stop. You can even revisit all the missions to go back and find audio logs, or just replay them for fun. Then there’s also the fact that you can replay missions with alternate suits to level those up. You will even play certain segments as Peter Parker himself, which is a nice touch. The game’s pacing felt a bit off though, with the first half of missions being nothing more than “ok”, and then the second half consisting of building on the villains and facing off against each one at the end of a chapter. When it reaches this point, it feels like the enemies are rushed into the story to make an appearance, face off against them and move on. Overall, the gameplay is still solid and enjoyable, but couldn’t help but feel like it was less polished than its predecessor.

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Graphics: 3/5

There’s no question that the team over at Beenox has shown off some impressive visuals throughout their history of handling Spider-Man titles. It’s unfortunate to say though that this installment was barely touched-up for the next-gen platforms. Reviewed on the PS4, the visuals looked exactly the same as its predecessor on the PS3 in 2012. The only difference in the next-gen version is that instead of running at 720p, it runs at 1080p (which is nice). However, aside from that, the visuals were still a bit uneven. Spider-Man himself, as well as all the main villains, are very well detailed (especially Spider-Man who appears very photorealistic). On the flipside, NPCs in the environment look very dated and lack any of the fine details, making conversations between NPCs and Spider-Man look…well, like Spider-Man is from another console generation. Also, textures in the environment tended to load up during action on-screen or during cutscenes. Spider-Man’s animations were mostly fluid and detailed (even when web swinging alongside a building and he runs along it while still in mid-swing) but during cutscenes, some of his movements seemed wonky and awkward. One of the cutscenes early on made me think Spider-Man was the “UPS Guy” from MadTV back in the day (90s reference), just constantly moving around and flailing his arms around while talking.

Hiccups aside, the game’s frame rate ran at 30 fps without issue and occasionally hit a higher rate during indoor scenes. Also, the city has been redesigned to be properly scaled and given more “life”. Buildings are more detailed and less blocky, while there are more cars on the streets as you swing by. However, the draw distance isn’t very strong and objects tend to fade in at a viewable range. The visuals are mixed overall, some things look quite good, with the city more detailed and Spider-Man himself looking impressive, while oddity issues arise that hurt it. It doesn’t help that for the PS4 version of the game, it barely improved the performance of the issues.

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Sound: 3/5

Spider-Man games have genuinely had some strong audio, whether it be the soundtrack, sound effects and voice acting. In terms of voice acting, Sam Riegel returns to reprise his role as Spider-Man and does a great job much like he did in the first game. All the other characters are also brought to life from a mostly solid voice cast. Sound effects are also quite strong, with webbing sounding precisely as it should, combat sounding effective and the ambiance of the city (in particular when swinging at street level with the cars) drawing you into the experience. Unfortunately, the soundtrack is the weakest element here. The music found in the game (aside from maybe one or two tracks) is completely unmemorable. Unlike the first game which had catchy and memorable tracks to swing around the city to, this one’s soundtrack was on the verge of me having to breakdown and use a custom soundtrack. It’s unfortunate because I always look forward to a game’s soundtrack (especially Spider-Man games) and this one was just very underwhelming. Thankfully, the sound effects and voice acting are what redeemed the audio overall.

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Overall Score: 12/20 = 6.0 out of 10

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is far from a bad game, but as a sequel to a great game, it’s nowhere near as impressive as its predecessor. Visuals are a mixed bag, the story (while interesting) feels like it cuts corners a bit, the soundtrack is underwhelming and the mechanics aren’t as polished as they should be. The enhanced swinging mechanic is certainly a highlight here, but it feels like that was the only main element they focused on improving. What is here is still an enjoyable experience for Spider-Man fans, but it’s less imaginative and inventive than the first game.

Pros:

+ Swinging through the city is a lot of fun
+ The roster of villains is solid
+ Some boss fights are pretty cool
+ Story is decent
+ Great voice acting and sound effect

Cons:

– Combat mechanics feel less polished
– Most boss battles lack “wow” factor
– Soundtrack is very unmemorable
– Visuals are completely mixed

A special thank you to the publisher for providing us a review copy for The Amazing Spider-Man 2! Copy reviewed on PlayStation 4.

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Thief Review (PS4/X1): “Something lurks in the shadows, perhaps it should stay there”

Thief Wallpaper

Thief launches the series into a next-gen experience; adding to its quiver everything that goes along with a complete rejuvenation of a series: new graphics, a fresh story, clever designs and a whole new world to call your own. But just because something is new doesn’t always mean it’s better – does this new Thief properly pay tribute to the past entries in the ever popular series? Or should it just cower in the shadows, dwelling in the shame of being “just another game”?

Story: 1/5

Instead of reviving an old storyline from previous entries in the series, Eidos Montreal took a classic move and started from scratch; giving main character Garrett a new background with a new reason to be the master thief (as well as a killer new look). Thief takes place in a busy setting simply called “The City”: an almost middle-aged, steampunk, “we just discovered electricity” kind of place. This means that modern-day locks, contraptions and security systems haven’t been invented yet, which is all the better for us. It’s also around the time where sorcery and a hint of mysticism can viably make an appearance. For an agile spirit in both mind and body, this makes for a pretty attractive place to set up camp and reap the benefits of the ever abundant shadows.

At the start, the city is booming, meaning plenty of heists to pull off with a plethora of back alley deals going on. Garrett accepts a job working with an old student of his and you both head out to steal a valuable artifact. However, when things don’t seem quite right, Garrett has the smarts to turn away; but an overzealous “co-worker” thinks she has what it takes. A few miscalculations and an interruption or two and we wake up a year later with no idea what happened to her or what happened to our beloved City. What once was thriving with markets and healthy people has now descended into the depth of purgatory, with sick filling the streets and an overruling government squeezing the City into submission with a clenched fist.

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Garrett decides he needs to figure out what’s been going on for the past year and what happened that fateful night. What starts as a few simple inquisitory jobs evolves into something much deeper… and darker. Garrett soon finds out that he may be the only one with the ability to save the City he calls home.

Thief takes off with a pretty rough start. With what can only be described as a pre-rendered unsynced mess of a first cutscene, it’s pretty hard to get involved in the story. To be completely honest, every cutscene is this way, and to truly enjoy and take the story for what it is, you’ll need to distance yourself from the quality and focus on the hard facts. Sadly, that still won’t do you much good. While the story seems to make sense in the end, it relies on what I like to call “accept-a-scene’s”. These are events that take place without any previous or further explanation, forcing the player to just accept what has happened as practical and move on. While some games may have one or two of these events, Thief will have about one major event a chapter, really adding some suspicious loopholes to the story as well as incomplete connections, leaving you with a cheated feeling.

The story takes a few winding turns in an attempt to make it more interesting, but in the end with only one decent (though poorly followed through) twist, you won’t end up remembering much of what happened.

Thief Gameplay 1

Gameplay: 3/5

If you can get past the choppy cutscenes and poorly strewn together storyline, you can find a mildly addictive game to enjoy for a while. The City is a large arena filled with loot for you to steal. Sadly, many of the areas are patched together with loading screens, making the game feel unconnected and as choppy as the cutscenes. Luckily, none of the chapter missions will put you through this waiting period, allowing you to roam free and interact with the world as you like… well sort of. While the game originally boasted near-absolute freedom, you’re really quite limited. You have a clever arsenal of arrows at your disposal, but really only a handful of ways to use them. Wander through an area in a mission and you can clearly see how the developers wanted you to play it, which honestly makes you feel like some entity is watching you play, constantly forcing your hand to interact with the world the way it has intended you to.

Nevertheless, there is still a large amount of satisfaction in uncovering hidden passageways and alternate routes, and that’s really where the game earns its keep. Unlike many other stealth games, Garrett is not a force to be reckoned with. Facing one guard is challenging enough but when you’re pit against multiple enemies, your best bet is to run, hide, and survive. You have a small amount of self-defense, with the ability to dodge and weaken enemies enough to a finishing blow, but this takes time and will definitely cause attention! This is something that is highly appreciated, really capturing the feeling of being an actual thief, and it will make you play the game that much more skillfully. Utilizing no real powers or abilities other than a swoop action that dashes you forward a few meters, you’re left to use your wits.

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Different environments make sneaking around more difficult. For example: carpet will mask your footsteps, but be careful on wood, and God forbid you happen to step on any perfectly placed broken glass! This concept is strung about through the entire game as the AI is keenly aware of what happens around them. Sure, you can distract a guard with a broken bottle to make them wander over, but land that bottle too close and they’re on full alert, quickly searching every nook and cranny! Your only option is to stick to the over-protective shadows as much as possible. You can put out candles (when no one’s looking) or swoop across lighted areas to avoid detection, but you still need to be aware of everything that is going on in your surroundings. You may not have noticed the traps set up in that hallway, or the guard on patrol around the corner. It’s best to take it slow, using the incredibly smooth peak/lean function or utilizing your mystic focus ability to highlight objects of note. Sticking to your skills and being alert will allow you to cruise through the missions with ease; pulling off huge heists without anyone even knowing you’re there.

While story missions are long and well-thought out, it’s good to get some diversity in the game. That’s where miscellaneous jobs and client jobs come in. In between story missions, you can peruse the town in search of specific loot to steal. Most of the time this involves a drawn out and repetitive sequence to open a window and pick a lock with no threats around, but once in a while you will have to avoid a resident or guard. The real challenge is usually finding how to get to the said window, as the city can be a tempting puzzle. The client missions are a little different however. Locate the specific waypoint in the City and you’ll be ported to a small section to carry out your mission. These are a pleasant change of pace as the venues are small enough to tackle quickly, but complex enough to take your time and practice to perfection. It’s a shame there aren’t more of these as it would really add to the game’s replay value. Much like each story mission, there are collectibles to find, loot to steal and threats to avoid. At the end you’ll get a nice report screen detailing your actions and how you performed and what you should do to improve. These, combined with the story missions, will give you plenty of time playing to become the master thief. However, if that’s not enough for you, there is a challenge mode which puts you in a map (albeit a small number to choose from) and gives you new objects to steal. You can choose to alter how the game is played, possibly giving you more points when the job is completed, and then you can compare to your friends’ scores on the leaderboards. While these challenges will take some time to master, the real meat lies back within the City.

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Graphics: 4/5

It’s a rare occurrence when cutscenes are the weakest point of a game visually. However, Thief really showcases this conundrum well. Luckily, that means that the rest of the game looks stunning. During gameplay, you’ll constantly find yourself stopping to appreciate the textures and lighting effects, and how those light effects affect the textures and how the textures texturize the lighting effects! With a game almost entirely set at night, it’s an impressive feat that Eidos has been able to make the world stand out visually. Fog and visibility has been expertly created to make you feel like you truly can hide in the shadows, if only the same effort was put into the dreadful, yet somewhat infrequent game events.

Thief Gameplay 5

Sound: 4/5

Thief knows you need to concentrate, and that means silence. You won’t often notice music or background ambience unless it’s absolutely needed. One of the things Thief helps you with is knowing when you’re being spotted. An eerie atmosphere of voices will kick on when someone is contemplating if they see you or not, and music will drastically appear if they decide that you’re not actually a shadow. This allows to you focus on the environment as a whole when planning your next move. Realize that your footsteps aren’t so silent? Probably shouldn’t swoop then. Hear a guard walking around the corner? Maybe he’s sleeping quietly – best to peek and check it out. Thief also takes a new approach to sounds alerting threats by adding birds and dogs. Move too fast by a bird and they’ll act like an alarm. Dogs will smell and see you in the shadows so you need to consider your routes carefully! Sadly, not everything is balanced in the world. People talking will carry without drop off for a long distance! This truly creates a poor experience when you’re trying to sneak around a 3rd story building but you head the guards on the 1st floor by the gate as clear as day as if they were in the next room! Not to mention that in the City you’re constantly barraged by a mess of different people talking, it’s almost enough to make you want to sit through an unsynced audio session in the cutscenes!

Thief Gameplay 3

Overall Score: 12/20 = 6.0 out of 10

Overall, Thief is a rather unpolished attempt at a next-gen revitalization of a classic stealth game. Freedom isn’t truly free and while the in-game graphics will keep you mesmerized, the repetitive nature of the in-City jobs can feel like a chore after a short while. The City itself has some addictive puzzles and alternate paths if you can get past the loading screens, and the gameplay can be highly rewarding if you let yourself get into the mindset of a shadow-walker. However, in the end, if you’re looking for a stealth game, you should probably purchase Dishonored.

Pros:

+ Some pretty neat and clever paths in/out of missions

+ Awesome in-game graphics

+ Clever strategies to progressing in missions

Cons:

– CUTSCENES?!

– Loading screens all over the place

– Story is filled with “accept-a-scene’s”

– Same cool paths feel like you’re simply being guided

– Repetitive nature of out of mission heists

Thief was purchased by the reviewer and tested for the PlayStation 4 system.

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Call of Duty: Ghosts Review (PS4 / Xbox One / PS3 / Xbox 360 / Wii U / PC): “Not Giving Up the Ghost Yet”

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Call of Duty: Ghosts marks the second generation leap in the series’ history, making expectations for the newest iteration even higher than usual. Ghosts was released for the 7th generation consoles ahead of the next-gen versions, with the PS4 version now out and the Xbox One version serving as a launch title. Ghosts takes a trip back to Infinity Ward’s more current-day time period seen in the Modern Warfare series, but with a major twist: playing the losing side. Being a Call of Duty title, a high-budget campaign experience, riveting and addictive competitive multiplayer, and a co-op mode are assumed to be the standard fare. But is Call of Duty: Ghosts an exceptional entry in the series, or just a ghost of its former self?

graphics

Story: 3/5 

The first step to answering that question would be to tackle the game’s single-player campaign mode. Despite its title, Call of Duty: Ghosts has nothing to do with Modern Warfare 2’s Simon “Ghost” Riley or its storyline; instead, Ghosts takes place in an alternate timeline in a similar time period as the Modern Warfare series. The campaign starts out with the Walker family, consisting of Logan (you), his brother David “Hesh” Walker, and their father Elias taking some R&R on the San Diego coast. A series of tremors cause the Walker family to head back home; however, to their horror, they find the streets and homes along the way being torn apart, with the pavement being shifted into rough crags and homes being tossed about like toys. A quick flashback to 15 minutes prior shows that an earthquake wasn’t the cause of the destruction, but rather a hostile takeover of the U.S.’s ODIN Satellite, loaded with deadly tungsten rods designed to level any threat on the ground on a massive scale. A couple of NASA-trained American soldiers are able to call off the attack and destroy the ODIN, but not before several major American cities are utterly destroyed. Back on the ground, Logan and Hesh link back up with Elias and evacuate the town on a truck, but not before seeing the results of the ODIN strike below, leaving several gigantic craters in the ground.

From here, the game skips forward 10 years and involves America’s war with the South American Federation, a coalition of countries responsible for the ODIN attack. American is battered and broken, but not beaten, as you and Hesh work with Elias to commence surgical strikes against the Federation forces occupying the U.S. You’re joined by your Army-trained German Shepard, Riley (likely a homage to Ghost himself), and through a series of circumstances and missions gone sideways, meet up with the titular Ghosts themselves; a cadre of elite, special-forces-trained soldiers, and work to take your place amongst them.

While Ghosts’ story certainly sets a good enough stage within the first 30 minutes of play, there really isn’t the personal connection that was present in previous titles, like Black Ops 2. Raul Menendez is a constant thorn in your side, and makes it clear he has a personal vendetta with the Masons and Frank Woods. His followers play mostly a supporting role; the whole time, your mission is to take Menendez down. That sort of connection is lacking in Ghosts. For the majority of the game, you’ll find yourself facing a faceless enemy in the Federation, pulling off surgical strikes that seemingly lack any sort of overarching goal or reason; it’s just taking what you can, where you can. While this certainly fits the scenario of the game – placing players in the losing position from the get-go – it really has a negative impact on the game’s story and makes it hard to care about the missions you’re carrying out. It’s also jarring that the story simply skips forward 10 years after the first level, with you and Hesh suddenly committing surgical strikes against the Federation occupation forces, along with your dog Riley in tow; it’s all very sudden. When did Logan and Hesh join up? Where did Riley come from? These are simply questions you’ll have to leave on the back burner.

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Call of Duty finally makes its way to space.

Character development is another mixed bag with Ghosts. The Walker brothers – yourself and Hesh – have a constant and unbreakable bond throughout the game, and this really does come through a lot of the time. Whatever happens, you can count on Hesh being there to support you. The father, Elias, is another story – while he talks about his pride in his sons and how much he cares about their training and development, he comes off as a rather cold character in spite of what he tells his sons. It feels odd to have Hesh refer to Elias by rank one minute, then segue immediately to calling him “Dad” when there isn’t any warmth to warrant it. Then there are the Ghosts themselves, Merrick and Keegan being your most constant companions. Early on in the story, they come off as condescending and superior, basically telling you that you can tag along if you do “what I say, when I say it”. Over time, however, they learn to respect you and Hesh, until an eventual camaraderie builds. Other than their titles, however, I didn’t feel particularly moved or awed by their skills or behavior. Ghosts are near-legendary in the game’s universe, but to me, they felt like just any other soldier you’d find in a Call of Duty game. Perhaps that speaks to the strengths of the series’ characters, but I expected a little bit more from them.

The linchpin that brings the squad together is, without a doubt, your dog Riley. You learn to work with him very early on, and he proves an invaluable ally throughout the campaign. More than just an extra soldier in the squad though, it’s clear that he shares an extremely personal bond with you and Hesh. Logan is there with a quick pat on the head for a job well done, and Riley returns this affection by remaining faithful and loyal to you and your squad, ready to attack anyone who poses a threat. Riley’s welfare was constantly in the back of my mind, even when we were separated between missions, and when Riley was in danger, I found myself getting increasingly anxious, even being pushed to anger against his attackers whenever he got wounded. I even found myself emptying entire magazines into his attackers, more than enough to put them down, after Riley was attacked. It really speaks volumes about Riley’s design and integration into the story when you can say that he has a profound emotional reaction on you, and without him, Ghosts would have been a vastly different and shallower experience.

Of course, no modern Call of Duty game would be complete without a face for your enemy, and Ghosts has one in Gabriel Rorke. A former Ghost himself, he now finds himself working with the Federation, and a big part of the story involves you trying to find out why. I know I mentioned before that the Federation is a faceless enemy, and that still holds true – while it’s clear Rorke is meant to be the big bad of the story, he’s not really around enough to reinforce this fact. After encountering him early in the story, you spend a good half of it trying to track him down, and he really doesn’t take a personal stake in the campaign until later, towards the end. Most of the time before this is fighting hordes of nameless, uninteresting Federation soldiers. When he does appear, though, he makes for a stellar antagonist. He’s voiced extremely well, has all the snide confidence of an enemy who always thinks he has one over you, and knows exactly where to hurt his victims the most. If the story had involved him more, it would have made for a more accurate depiction of the situation you find yourself in, with the Federation working for him, not the other way around.

Overall, the game’s story comes up a bit short compared to games of Call of Duty’s past. It starts off sufficiently, and ramps up towards the end, but there’s a large swath of the middle of the campaign that will be an absolute drag, making missions feel hollow and pointless without a gripping story to motivate you. There’s also just too many questions left unanswered.  The campaign should take around 5-6 hours to complete on normal difficulty, making the story small enough to digest while still having some depth to it, but those of us used to the blockbuster thrill rides of Black Ops I & II and Modern Warfare 3 may feel a bit cheated this time around.

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Underwater too.

Gameplay: 4/5 

At this stage of the game – no pun intended – most of us know what to expect from a Call of Duty game. The mechanics have remained largely the same from year to year, and most could say that the series is afraid to take risks, but the mantra Infinity Ward and Treyarch seem to embrace is, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Yet again, this stance seems to have been mostly successful in Call of Duty: Ghosts.

Solid, fast-paced gunplay is at the center of the Ghosts experience, as it has been in all Call of Duty games. Aiming down your sights and taking shots at enemies downrange is extremely fast-paced and responsive. Infinity Ward have replaced the “dolphin dive” mechanic – sprinting to prone – with a new sliding maneuver, where your character will slide for a few meters into a crouched position if you go prone while sprinting, or straight to prone if you hold the button down. This feels like a nice change, and makes dashing into cover much easier than in games past. It’s also now possible to lean around corners when aiming down your sights. A yellow arrow will show up on your crosshairs when this is possible. Infinity Ward have expanded our options a bit in terms of weapon variety, now introducing a new weapon category, Marksman Rifles. These weapons aren’t totally new to the series, as many long-range single-shot assault rifles and semi-automatic sniper rifles (such as the M23 EBR) have been present in games before. However, they now get their own category, and perform largely similar to each other, bridging the gap between the balanced performance of Assault Rifles and the long-range per-shot killing power of Sniper Rifles. Each come fitted with a scope and usually fire semi-auto, but other options exist. Players will also find that many weapons feature unique qualities built into the gun, like the Honey Badger’s integrated silencer or the bolt-action Sniper Rifles’ recoil compensators, which reduce kick after each kill.

Perhaps one of the biggest changes to the Multiplayer formula this year is Infinity Ward’s take on the Pick-10 system. However, rather than letting you spend points on every piece of gear and perk in your loadout, players have access to a primary weapon with two attachments, a secondary with a single attachment, a lethal grenade, and a tactical device for free, along with 8 “perk points” by default. This makes sense, as the game is extremely perk-focused this time around – there are 35 to choose from in all, from 7 unique categories. Some are returning favorites, others are weapon attachments seen in Black Ops 2 in perk form, while yet others provide completely new benefits, such as providing extra lethal or tactical grenades or providing a random extra perk at spawn. Each of these perks has a point cost in line with their power, and players can earn extra perk points by removing a secondary weapon, lethal, and/or tactical grenades from their loadout. This new system is an interesting take on the now tried-and-true Pick-10, but it can’t help but feel a little overwhelming at first. 35 perks in all is a lot to choose from, and using squad points – the new unlocking currency present in Ghosts – can feel risky when you’re not sure where to go first. Luckily, the game gives you a strong head-start by letting you pick a pre-set package when you first create a soldier. Whether it’s a weapon-focused Assault or Rush build, a stealthy silencer build, or a long-range Marksman Rifle package that you pick, the game will start you off with a weapon, two attachments, a secondary, lethals and tactical devices, and a selection of perks to compliment the playstyle you choose.

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The game’s new-found complexity really comes through when considering that weapons are no longer unlocked as you rank up anymore; squad points need to be spent to unlock them, but on the plus side, you can unlock them in any order you like, with some weapons costing more than others. You can also elect to use squad points to unlock perks early, otherwise a new one will be unlocked every other level or so. Finally, these squad points can be used to unlock additional members of your Squad – more on this below.  It’s definitely a less accessible system than Pick-10 was, but with some practice, players can come up with interesting loadout choices that make use of a variety of perks and equipment choices. Squad Points are also awarded at a more rapid clip than Black Ops 2’s unlock tokens, given that there are a variety of ways to earn them, including ranking up, completing assignments, and achieving field orders. In this way, it doesn’t hurt so much to drop 6 points into unlocking a new weapon to try when you can easily earn them back in just a couple of games.

Ghosts brings back the “Strike Package” feature present in Modern Warfare 3, allowing players to choose from an Assault or Support strike chain of killstreaks, or the Specialist package to earn more perks as they achieve more kills. Thankfully, taking an objective counts towards earning killstreak rewards, as with Modern Warfare 3’s Hardline Pro perk, but now available to everyone in the baseline. This was a huge plus for me in Black Ops 2; making killstreaks based on score, not number of kills, encouraged more objective play, and bringing this sort of reward system into what was already present in Modern Warfare 3 helped to keep this team-based feel intact. As in Infinity Ward’s last game, Assault streaks are designed to kill or hamper your enemies, while Support streaks are meant to support and strengthen your own team. Newer players who don’t feel confident in their skills may want to stick to the Support streaks at first, since your progress up the strike chain doesn’t reset on death. There are fewer lethal options in Support this time around, though, so players will want to commit to a team-player mindset when choosing this strike chain.

Speaking of strike chains, two very large changes have made their way into Ghosts. First, the fan-favorite  UAV has been replaced by a killstreak called the SAT COM. Rather than launching them in the sky, SAT COMS are placed on the ground, and function a bit differently from their last-gen cousins. SAT COMs provide stronger and better effects the more that are simultaneously deployed on the field at once. With one SAT COM up, enemies will only appear on your team’s mini-map when within line-of-sight of a teammate. With two, your team gets the traditional sweeping UAV scan. With three out at once, the sweeps occur more frequently. Finally, if you can manage to deploy four SAT COMs at once,  the sweeps will occur extremely quickly, and enemies’ directions will be displayed on the map as well. They still last for a limited time like UAVs, so it’s now extremely important to communicate with your team and ensure you’re getting the biggest benefit from your SAT COMs. Additionally, you’ll find that the Care Package is no longer a selectable killstreak; these are instead earned by a new gameplay mechanic called Field Orders. Enemies will sometimes drop light blue briefcases when they die; pick these Field Orders up, and you’ll be given a challenge to complete, such as getting a kill while prone or killing someone from behind, before dying. Achieve this, and you’ll be rewarded with a care package drop marker and a squad point. Fail, and your briefcase drops for anyone else to pick up. It’s an interesting mechanic that adds a new level of complexity to the meta-game.

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Squads mode puts up to 10 AI teammates at your command.

The traditional multiplayer modes – Deathmatch, Demolition, Capture the Flag, etc. – are all present here in Ghosts, along with a few new ones. Cranked is an exciting and fast-paced Deathmatch variant where killing the lead player will earn you multiple speed benefits, like moving and reloading faster, but also start a countdown timer. Keep getting kills to keep this clock alive, but if it hits zero, you explode. Search and Rescue is like Search and Destroy, but players drop dog tags on death. Pick up a teammate’s tags, and they respawn. Pick up an enemy’s tags, and they’re out for the round. Blitz takes the concept of American Football and adapts it for an FPS – a zone activates on each team’s side, and your team needs to reach these zones before the enemy do to score a point. There are many others, including Grind, Hunted, and Infected, and the sheer number of game modes available provides a large variety of game types to play. However, the biggest, and most interesting (in my opinion), addition to Multiplayer in Ghosts is the all-new Squads mode. Players can assemble a squad of up to 10 unique soldiers, customize their appearance and outfit them however they see fit, then go into battle alongside them against other players’ squads in all of the core game types. Each squadmate unlocks gear and ranks up separately, though unlocking and outfitting your squadmates takes from your shared pool of squad points, so it’ll take some time to unlock everything you’ll need for your entire squad. However, once you’ve loaded up your squad to your exact specifications and take them into battle, it’s extremely satisfying to watch them play intelligently with the gear you’ve given them. Assault Rifle characters will play the midfield; SMG and shotgun-toting squadmates will rush into the thick of battle; characters with silenced weapons will try to flank and out-maneuver the enemy; and squadmates wielding sniper and marksman rifles will set up in a good camping spot and pick off enemies in their field of fire. The AI is complete unprecedented in a Call of Duty title, and will provide a pretty stiff challenge. Squads will likely appeal to those players who get a lot of satisfaction out of designing a plan and watching it execute flawlessly; being able to outfit your squad to your specifications makes this possible and rewarding. Your squad will even earn experience while you’re away, fighting against players who challenge them in the mode’s Squad Assault gametype. Several other gametypes exist as well, including Safeguard, a take on Modern Warfare 3’s Survival mode.

Finally, for those of us looking for a different co-op challenge, there’s the new Extinction mode. Rather than fighting the living dead in games past’s Zombies mode, players will be staving off an alien invasion just two weeks after the first ODIN strikes in the story. Like Zombies, Extinction features four unique soldiers to play as, though this time around, players are given a series of objectives to complete, rather than just trying to stay alive; for instance, protecting a drill to destroy several alien hive sites, before staving off an alien attack on your evac chopper. Currency is earned by completing objectives and damaging or destroying enemies, and these can be used not only to buy new weapons, but to activate a pre-selected group of four power-ups, such as an ammo box or a deployable sentry gun. Teamwork and tactics are key in this mode, and having several objectives to complete provides a depth of focus not present in Zombies mode. It’s a fun, fresh-yet-familiar co-op mode that players are sure to love.

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Seriously. In space.

Graphics: 4/5 

We’re entering a new era of gaming with the release of the PS4 and Xbox One, so naturally a game’s graphics quality will be a top concern. Ghosts succeeds in most regards here, but it’s not perfect. Textures have taken a marked step up from the previous generation, with surfaces looking crystal-clear at a distance, while staying sharper up-close than before. Lighting, especially, has been greatly improved on the next-gen consoles, with lighting effects on surfaces and weapons having a more realistic sheen and shadow casting. In fact, there are going to be several times in the campaign where you might actually stop and just take an awe-filled look around. Sniper fans will be especially pleased, as zooming in with your scope no longer obscures your peripheral vision. Instead, the area around the scope will be blurred out, allowing you to barely see your peripheral vision zone while scoping in on a target. When you consider the amount of power this takes – the game essential has to render your view twice – it’s impressive. On the downside, however, there are many points during play where you’ll notice a marked decrease in framerate, especially during some of the game’s larger battles or outdoor areas. This is near-blasphemous for a Call of Duty title, a franchise known for constant 60-FPS performance. I wish I could say it didn’t take away from the experience, but when it happens, it’s not pleasant. There are also several graphical glitches that may creep in – a squadmate’s gun floating in mid-air during the campaign, for instance. These little cracks keep Ghosts from graphical perfection, but it’s still a game that doesn’t take the easy route on next-gen consoles, providing a noticeable step up from the previous generation.

Sound: 4/5 

Ghosts’ soundtrack suffers from the same issue as the story – it’s competent, and the tracks are appropriate to the situations they’re played in, but it’s not the kind of soundtrack you’ll find yourself humming when away from the game. Where Ghosts’ audio direction shines is in the voice acting and weapon sound effects. All of the actors in the campaign do a good job voicing their characters, but Kevin Gage steals the show as Gabriel Rorke. Rorke’s an old soldier with a fearsome reputation and all the snide confidence of a villain who knows he has the upper hand, and Gage delivers Rorke’s dialog like a knife sticking you in the side, bringing an extremely personal touch to your (admittedly few) encounters with the antagonist. This time around, Infinity Ward’s also put some extra effort into providing a more realistic audio experience with weapon design. Guns sound appropriate to their size and what they’re firing, but perhaps the most noticeable – and appreciated – improvement is when firing silenced weapons. Guns don’t let off wimpy pops when shot, but still boast a loud sound profile when suppressed, just like firing a real weapon. Along with louder footsteps in multiplayer, this really helps to break the uselessness of sound-enhancing headphones and perks in Black Ops II and present battles like they should be – loud, dangerous affairs.

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Overall Score: 15/20 = 7.5 out of 10 

Call of Duty: Ghosts may present the weakest showing for a game in its franchise in recent history – not counting Black Ops: Declassified – but Infinity Ward have shown that they’re still capable of producing a competent Call of Duty game. The campaign may be somewhat mediocre, but will draw you in to the game’s Multiplayer, Squad, and Extinction game-types, where most of Ghosts’ longevity will take place. If Black Ops II is staring to feel a bit old, Ghosts will give you the refresher you need.

PROs: 

+ New Create-a-Soldier system provides greater variety than Pick-10

+ Larger variety of multiplayer game types to choose from

+ Squads mode is fun and rewarding

+ Extinction is a fresh take on the tried-and-true Zombies formula

CONs: 

– Flawed, lackluster campaign

– Framerate drops more frequent than they should be

– Excellent antagonist isn’t present enough to be relevant

Call of Duty: Ghosts was purchased by the reviewer for the Playstation 4 system.

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Space Hulk Review (PC/Mac): “A Tired Take on the Original”

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2013’s Space Hulk follows in the footsteps of several forms of inspiration – naturally, this includes the original board game it’s based off of, as well as the previous two Space Hulk PC games released back in the 90s. Each was a huge success, providing a tense, strategic game landscape backed by all of the lore of the Warhammer 40k universe. Now, Full Control have released what would seem to be a modern take on the originals, allowing players to control the Blood Angels chapter of Space Marines in a chilling, bloody fight against hoards of Tyranid Genestealers aboard the titular spacecraft. The 2013 version includes fully-3D graphics and voice-overs, but does the classic gameplay stand the test of time, or is it doomed to drift in the endless expanse of inadequate game remakes?

Story: 2/5

Space Hulk sees the player controlling a squad of Space Marines, the superhuman soldiers fielded by the forces of Mankind in the Warhammer 40k universe. Representing the Blood Angels chapter, these soldiers begin a bloody campaign of vengeance aboard a Space Hulk, a massive spacecraft that has become adrift in the Warp, a terrifying, chaotic alternate dimension host to daemons and other horrible creatures. Many of the Blood Angels’ forces were slaughtered therein hundreds of years prior by hoards of Tyranid Genestealers – nightmarish, feral aliens bent on killing and consuming all organic beings.

Bulky super-soldiers in a cramped corridor. What could go wrong?

The game’s campaign consists of 12 missions of multiple varieties, and each is prefaced by a short briefing, giving you an idea of what your objective will be. A powerful, melodramatic voiceover gives a full rundown of strategic data to digest, but otherwise the game’s plot is paper-thin. This is hard to excuse, as even the board game released back in the 80s came with multiple gameplay scenarios driven by an overall story. Given the rich amount of lore available for the Warhammer 40k universe, and the high quality of games in recent years to use the license, it’s a shame there isn’t more to make you care. In short: Space Marines are the good guys, Genestealers are the bad guys. The Warhammer 40k universe makes many, many more distinctions than that, but in terms of Space Hulk, that’s all you get.

Even worse, your Space Marines, each with their own name and specialties, can die during any mission. This ought to be a huge blow, considering each death is the loss of a super-soldier, but as long as you succeed in your mission, any of your units that died previously will respawn for the next mission. It’s a case of story giving way to gameplay elements, but this would have been an easy fix – giving Space Marines a random name each game would have helped to preserve whatever element of brevity is present in the game’s story.

Gameplay: 3/5

Space Hulk’s gameplay is, for all intents and purposes, a faithful recreation of the board game that inspired it. Players move their characters through narrow corridors and cramped, intersecting rooms to make their way towards the objective. Each player’s pieces have four Action Points to carry out actions like moving, turning, shooting, opening doors, unjamming weapons, and more. Players also get a pool of Command Points which are randomly awarded each turn, and can be used by any of the player’s pieces like Action Points, but are each shared among all of their pieces. The Space Marines and Genestealers couldn’t be more contrasted from each other – Blood Angels in Terminator armor are slow and ponderous, requiring Action Points just to turn around. They do, however, have the advantage in firepower – Space Marines can wield a large variety of firearms and melee weapons, all inspired by what’s found in the Warhammer 40k universe, including Storm Bolters, Power Fists, Power Swords, and Flamers, among many other instruments of destruction. While Space Marines can tangle with Genestealers in melee combat, there’s no denying that you’ll want to use your forces at range whenever possible. Genestealers are agile and numerous, and you’ll want to use your ranged advantage to take them down before they can swarm your position. Genestealers spawn from designated areas on the board, so you’ll need to plan where to station your forces to stem the tide enough for your other soldiers to complete the objective. A neat inclusion in the game is a shoulder-mounted camera feed, which broadcasts the perspective of your currently-selected Space Marine. It’s a surprisingly nice touch and adds a sense of tension and suspense to the game’s tactical top-down display.

A lucky roll by the Space Marine. Don't count on it happening again.

A lucky roll by the Space Marine. Don’t count on it happening again.

Board game adaptations are tricky to produce on a gaming platform, since a lot of the enjoyment of a board game comes from the interactions between you and the people you play with. In the absence of that, a computer game needs to have some sort of hook to engage the player, whether it be flashy graphics or high production values. It’s obvious that Space Hulk tries to stick as closely to the principles of the board game, and in the end, it was the right decision to make. However, Full Control have taken this to the logical extreme, and presented a very bare-bones gameplay experience. There are many options present to the player, but there’s really only one clear fallback – get a Space Marine into position in a long hallway and turn on Overwatch mode, which lets the Space Marine fire at any enemies that come within range during their turn. Knowing that just one option is clearly the best for victory takes a lot away from the depth of play that is so well-known within the board game and 90s PC games. So long as you’re patient and can conserve your APs, you can have Space Marines on Overwatch stemming any Genestealers that come within range, making a practical runway to your objective. The Genestealers’ AI is somewhat inconsistent as well; sometimes, they’ll try to circle around and flank you, a surefire way to take a Space Marine down. Other times, they’ll rush headlong into your field of fire only to get easily gunned down. By the same token, for those times where you choose to take more direct action, your chances of victory are based wholly around dice rolls. Shots can miss, bolters can jam, and even attempts to bash open stuck doors can take a while to succeed. Such a huge degree of randomness makes it so that a whole scenario (which can take up to an hour to complete) can be won or lost on how lucky you are. The only time skill really comes into play is how you position your forces. Beyond that, it all comes down to chance, and can make for a very frustrating experience. What’s worse, there is no way to skip the lengthy animations of the ponderous Space Marines after giving a move order. You can give multiple orders in parallel by selecting another unit while the first carries out his orders, but each Space Marine can take anywhere from 10-20 seconds just to carry out a simple move order. This puts a real drag on the already-slow gameplay, and sometimes you’ll find yourself tapping your finger against your desk in tedium, waiting for your turn to end.

Space Hulk comes with Hotseat and Multiplayer modes, allowing one player to control the Space Marines and the other in charge of the numerous Genestealers. Hotseat play helps preserve some of the draw of gathering about a table with friends and playing through the board game, and this is really the best experience you can get. Trying to outwit another human opponent really brings the strategic play of Space Hulk into focus. However, its multiplayer showings are much more sparse – there is no server browser to speak of, and no chat functionality before entering a game. All you can do is find a random opponent, and select your desired map and faction beforehand, or allow the game to randomize these. There’s in-game text chat, but it’s not nearly as engaging as having a friend with you in Hotseat mode. Worse, as tedious as it can be playing the game solo, it becomes even more monotonous as you wait for your opponent to make their moves. All in all, the gameplay experience isn’t terrible, but it’s obvious the full effort hasn’t been given, and it’s a real shame with Warhammer 40k’s hallmark for engaging gameplay and lore.

Graphics: 2/5

A Space Hulk is, by design, a cramped, dark, confined space, and given the Warhammer 40k universe’s penchant for grim, gothic overtones, nobody is expecting to find rainbows and flowers in Space Hulk. However, the in-game graphics don’t do a lot to stand out either. While they’re certainly competent for a game released in 2013, cut corners begin to creep in at every turn. Even with the graphics turned up to the best preset, character models lack detail, and look more like plastic action figures rather than hardened combat veterans. Tyranids don’t look much better, but are certainly intimidating and gruesome enough. Animations are also sorely lacking here – the bulky Space Marines barely move at all when firing their weapons, and in general, all characters play the same animations over and over. When a Tyranid closes in on your space marine, he’ll always fend it off with a quick backhand before doing the creature in, or being felled himself. Genestealers, too, seem to recoil slightly from gunfire only to fall on their faces the next. It gets very tired, very fast.

Unfortunately, the in-game graphics can’t match the quality in this action shot.

Sound: 2/5

Another area where Warhammer 40k games are known to excel are their sound direction. From extensive voice-over work to sweeping soundtracks, they’re a big reason for the engrossing melodrama that 40k games are known for. It’s unfortunate, then, that Space Hulk contains no traces of an effective sound design. The title screen sports a dramatic, sweeping tune…and the rest of the game lacks any sort of music. Nor does Space Hulk boast a broad voice cast – in fact, there’s only two discernible voice actors lending their talents – one for the pre-mission briefings, and one for the canned phrases uttered by your Space Marines. The only thing saving Space Hulk from a critical sound score is the quality of what’s actually present. The title music is engaging, and the voice work is spoken with the same poise and deep, powerful tone as is expected from any of the Emperor’s Finest. There really isn’t much else to say – the game’s sound design is just another area where corners have been cut. It’s a real let-down.

The Space Marine "IWIN" button.

The Blood Angels call this maneuver the “I win button”.

Overall Score: 9/20 = 4.5 out of 10

Space Hulk is a game that had so much potential, both from the high quality of the board game it’s based off of as well as the source material Full Control had at its disposal. Warhammer 40k computer games are known for being dramatic, engaging, and extremely immersive. Unfortunately, Space Hulk cuts too many corners for its best aspects, few as they are, to come through. Repetitive, inconsistent gameplay, a nearly non-existent story, shoddy graphics, and a nearly non-existent sound direction make it hard to justify a purchase at $30, even for the most die-hard of 40k fans. Those looking for a grim, war-like strategic game should look to any of the Dawn of War games to get their fix instead.

Space Hulk is currently available on the Steam platform for PC and Mac, retailing at $29.99 USD.

PROs:

+ A straight adaptation of the board game stays faithful to old-school play

+ Hotseat play is the closest thing to simulating a board game session with friends

+ Shoulder-camera view adds a delightful horror factor

CONs:

– Gameplay is dull and repetitive

– Frustratingly reliant on random dice rolls

– Graphics are sub-par

– Inability to skip ponderous Space Marine animations drags each game on

– Nearly non-existent soundtrack

– Only two discernible voice actors

– Unusually thin plot for a 40k game

A special thank you to the publisher for providing us a review copy of Space Hulk! Copy reviewed based on the PC version.

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Cloudberry Kingdom Review (PS3/360/Wii U): “The Most Sadistically Awesome Platformer”

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Over the course of gaming history, 2D platformers have really become a staple genre that gamers of all kinds can enjoy. Ever since the days of Super Mario Bros. gracing the NES and Sonic the Hedgehog on the Sega Genesis, we’ve seen a plethora of platformers impact the industry. Within the last half-decade, we’ve seen some stellar 2D platformers made by indie developers, such as Braid, Limbo and Outland. Pwnee Studios, an indie developer created by childhood friends Jordan Fisher and TJ Lutz, have worked together to bring about a 2D platformer that’s for the masochist called Cloudberry Kingdom. Is this a kingdom worth venturing?

When you start off the game’s story, you’ll be treated to a cutscene of the hero, Bob, trying to rescue the princess (where have we heard this before). However, instead of the cheery tone we’re accustomed to in Super Mario, we’re seeing that Bob is a tired, frustrated hero and that the Princess could care less that she’s being rescued from the evil king. Naturally, things aren’t so simple for Bob, as he’s thrown off a cliff by the evil king and forced to continue his tireless journey of rescuing the princess. From here, the game’s story mode begins. Cloudberry Kingdom plays precisely like you would expect a 2D platformer, with a few twists. You’ll have to traverse your way through deadly obstacles to reach the next level, with each ramping up in difficulty obstacle-wise, and each level takes only 15-40 seconds to complete. Controls are standard fare and nothing complicated by any means, with the A button used for jumping and Y button to use the exit door at the end of a level. Sounds pretty simple and straightforward enough, right? Well, here’s the thing. Bob dies in a single hit and has no weaponry to defend himself. If any obstacle or enemy hits Bob, he’s dead and it’s either back to the beginning or checkpoint. Levels are all cleverly designed to have a specific line that you can do that avoids death entirely, but I’ll touch more on that in a bit.

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Over the game’s eight chapters, there will be 40 levels of hardcore platforming action in each chapter (320 levels total). The obstacles all range from spinning fireballs, swinging spike balls, spikes that pop from the ground, lasers, etc. You’ll start off simple, just acclimating to the controls and feel of the game. However, things will quickly spin out of control when you play as various phases of Bob that change the mechanics and physics entirely. Every set of 10 levels, you’ll play as a new phase of Bob, such as Wheelie, Double Jump, Jetpack, Phase Bob, Tiny Bob, Fat Bob, Gravity Bob or even a Spaceship! For example, playing as Wheelie has Bob strapped to a stone wheel and will have the physics of a heavy wheel. Tiny Bob will make Bob gain more height, while Fat Bob makes him get less height than normal and is more prone to getting hit by an obstacle. Phase Bob will actually have Bob constantly morphing from Fat to Tiny, making traversing through levels a true challenge of timing. Playing as a Spaceship is really cool too, bringing back that feeling of playing something like R-Type or Gradius (granted you can’t shoot anything, but maneuvering it is fun).

As you traverse each level, you’ll notice there are blue crystals that can be collected. If you collect all of them in a level, you’ll get a “Perfect” status and earn an additional 10 crystals on top of what you collected. So what are the purpose of crystals you ask? Well, by pressing the X button, you’ll open up a Powerup Menu, which allows you to purchase a specific item to help you out with completing a level. The first item, which looks like “Terminator” Bob has you watch a video of the level to see the perfect path and timing you need to complete the level. The second item (which costs the most amount of crystals) will actually show you the exact path you need to take, as well as a dark object that goes along it to show you the exact timing of the path you should take. This item proved to be immensely helpful, especially with the precision required in later levels. The last item is a time clock that enables slow-motion, making everything except Bob move at a crawl. These items definitely help in their own respects and I never felt the need to be stingy with cashing in crystals for them since you keep collecting them.

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Aside from the game’s Story Mode, you will have access to Arcade and Free Play modes as well. In Arcade, you can choose between four different modes: Escalation, Time Crisis, Hero Rush, and Hybrid Rush. Escalation is essentially endurance, where you’re given 15 lives to start with and must get through as many levels as possible. You can get extra lives by collecting set amounts of crystals during the run. Time Crisis starts you off with 15 seconds to last before Bob explodes. As you race to the exit of each level (which are much shorter than usual), you must collect crystals to add precious time to the clock. Hero Rush and Hybrid Rush are much like Time Crisis mode, but both with distinct ways to play. Hero Rush has Bob changing his phase type in every level, while Hybrid Rush has Bob shifting into a combination of phases per level (such as being Wheelie and Phase Bob at the same time).

Free Play has a more customizable aspect to it. You’ll be able to choose a location, game type, hero style, difficulty, length of the level and how many checkpoints you’d like. The difficulty can not only be adjusted for players of any level, but can be completely customized to your liking. Want an incredibly simple level that has not a single obstacle? You can do it. Want a level that has more objects on screen that seems like there’s almost no room to move through? You can most certainly have that as well. The game’s AI has been designed to randomly generate a level that’s 100% beatable, which is incredibly impressive. Another customizable feature that’s really fun to play around with is Hero Factory. Here, you will actually customize the base, jump type and shape of Bob, while also tweaking every attribute to a tee, such as the acceleration, max speed, size, gravity, falling speed, jump length, number of jumps, etc. You can even fine tune your settings by testing it before going into the actual level. The options are simply endless.

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Cloudberry Kingdom is a vicious game in terms of difficulty, but why play it alone? You can have up to 4 people playing at once, all racing their way to the exit of these challenging stages. Each player can even customize Bob the way they want him to look. Whether they change the color of his suit, what kind of beard he has, his cape color (or no cape at all), and even the lining of his cape, there’s a solid amount to customize. I came across someone’s screenshot on the Miiverse where they practically replicated the look of Dr. Robotnik (sorry, his name is not Dr. Eggman in my book) from Sonic the Hedgehog. Playing in multiplayer makes this already chaotic game even more chaotic, but is an absolute blast. There’s even a co-op mode in Free Play where all the players are tethered together and must coordinate with each other to reach the end of the level. This alone will provide plenty of good laughs amongst friends.

Visually, Cloudberry Kingdom has a “flash” look to it, with very clean and vivid colors, as well as fluid animations. Environments and characters are nicely designed and the game itself runs incredibly smooth, never dropping the frame rate at all. The only odd animation that seems unpolished was Bob’s double jump, which had zero animation to it and was simply a “standing” animation while moving up. Cutscenes have a different visual style, representing a paper mache look. It’s actually pretty cool and works quite well for the visual aesthetic. Audio wise, this game has a bumpin’ soundtrack that’ll definitely engage the player further into the game. The soundtrack was composed by Blind Digital and Peacemaker…and damn is it a sweet soundtrack. They provide techno tunes that really get you pumped for wanting to complete a level. As I type this review, I’m listening to “Evidence” by Blind Digital (my favorite track in the game)…it’s that’s good. Although, I wish there was a way to change the song with a simple button press. On the flipside, the sound effects are pretty generic, but nothing bad by any means. Oh, and voice acting wise, Kevin Sorbo plays Bob…yes, the dude from the live-action Hercules TV show back from the 90s.

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Cloudberry Kingdom is an excellent 2D platformer that’s so sadistic, it makes the hacked Mario games look easy at points. However, the game’s stages are all designed to be 100% beatable thanks to the AI designed for the game. It’s an endless platformer alright, and one that you’ll be endlessly returning to, whether by yourself or with friends. The clean visuals, bumpin’ soundtrack and just downright addictive gameplay make Cloudberry Kingdom a must-own for any platformer fan.

Overall Score: 9.0 out of 10 = BUY IT!

Copy purchased by author for review purposes. Game tested on the Wii U.

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Fast & Furious: Showdown Review (PS3/360/Wii U): “More Like ‘Slow & Infuriating: Boretown'”

Fast & Furious Showdown Wallpaper

Fast & Furious has become quite the film franchise, starting off as a focus on street racing and small truck heists, to taking on drifting in Tokyo, to full-blown warzone material that would make Michael Bay a little jealous that he wasn’t behind it. Naturally, with a movie comes a movie tie-in game, and since Fast & Furious 6 came out the end of May, Activision and Firebrand Games have brought us Fast & Furious: Showdown for the PS3, Xbox 360, Wii U, 3DS and PC. However, is this a solid movie tie-in game that evades the curse of movie-based games, or does this ride crash-and-burn to pieces?

Story: 1/5

The game’s story opens up with Monica Fuentes (Eva Mendes’ character from “2 Fast 2 Furious”) entering her office and seeing Agent Riley (Gina Carano’s character from “Fast & Furious 6”) studying information based on the variety of chaotic scenes Shaw and his crew have caused worldwide. They’ll bring up events that occurred throughout the entire movie series’ saga, but as minimalistic as possible. This is about the extent of the story to be quite honest. At the beginning of each chapter, you’ll see a cutscene with these two characters talking, exchanging literally a sentence each, and then you’ll go into gameplay. The story is told as flashbacks of missions, and each mission has an opening showing the main characters chatting with each other. However, it’s unbelievably non-sensical and downright lame dialogue, that there’s absolutely zero motivation to play the game for the story. Not to mention, the game’s ending is just awful. It serves as a way to connect into the latest movie’s intro, but it’s done so in such an amateurish way.

Fast & Furious Showdown Gameplay 5

Gameplay: 1/5

Normally, I would think that Fast & Furious would be an awesome property to make a game out of. Intense street races, in-depth car customization, adrenaline-fueled action scenes where you’re jumping out of your car onto others, and flipping cars like in the newest movie all make the soundings of what could be this great game. Everything I just mentioned is actually found here…just replace “intense” with “boring”, “in-depth” with “basic”, “adrenaline-fueled” with “ultra lame”…well, you get the point. Fast & Furious: Showdown brings a good amount of variety and ideas to the table, but unfortunately, none of them work well. As stated, you’ll partake in races, shooting and car jumping throughout the game’s 30 stages that await in the campaign. You don’t have to tackle the campaign solo, and can bring a friend in to help your through the game. For the record, playing in co-op is the way to go if you plan on getting through the game…this way you can share the laughs with a friend.

Races are done in either a checkpoint fashion or through traditional laps around the course. Problem number one here is that the vehicle handling is very shoddy to say in the least. The main reason for this issue is due to the absolutely erratic physics. You may be turning fine one moment, and the next the car will completely loose control and slam into the wall/barrier. Also, the AI is absolutely ridiculous during some races, at times making you feel like ejecting the disc and flinging it out the window. Then there are times where the AI is so freakin’ dumb, that they’ll all just veer right into a wall at the very start of a race while you take the lead, then all of a sudden they’ll be right behind you. It’s not even like the game ramps up progressively in difficulty, it’s just scattered all over throughout the campaign. Luckily, if playing in co-op, as long as either player places first, that’s all that matters. On the flipside, should either one of you wreck your car entirely, then expect to restart the race. The other biggest problem is the FF points system. FF points are earned from drifting, drafting, driving recklessly, etc. These points are not only your XP, but will fill up your meter to use NOS. Well, good luck getting this meter filled up more than a few times during an event, if even once. You can do everything possible to earn FF points and that meter will barely even fill up, making it feel much more like a chore than a reward to earn.

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Then we have missions where you’ll be riding shotgun, shooting at pretty much anything that has a health bar floating above their vehicle. You’ll use Uzis, EMP Pulse Rifles, Grenade Launchers, Turrets, Grappling Hooks, and Rocket Launchers…all with infinite ammo. You’ll look with the right analog stick, while holding down the aim button will slow down the action, giving you a chance to place your shots carefully and even try to pop their tires. Slow-mo aiming will deplete your FF meter, so knowing when to use it is key. Occasionally, you will have to get on top of your car and jump onto another vehicle. This basically turns into rapidly pressing a button to fill up your balance meter, quickly aim your jump and try jumping without falling to your death. If you don’t jump within a couple of seconds, you’ll have to rebalance again before jumping. Now imagine that you’re about to jump and your AI or co-op partner crashes into a wall or traffic. The targeted car is now way ahead and you’ll be stuck just constantly pressing the balance button to no end until you finally reach your target and jump. There’s no “cancel” button in case the situation arises and really is a frustration. Once you jump onto the target, you’ll…anyone? Anyone? Don’t be shy, that’s right. You’ll be rapidly pressing the balance button again. After balancing and balancing, you’ll have to shimmy your way to the driver or passenger seat, and hi-jack the vehicle. Or, at other times, you may have to arm or disarm a C4 charge from the vehicle. This is stuff that actually makes sense and has the makings of some intense moments in the game…but unfortunately just isn’t done right or engaging by any means.

At times, you will have special missions that may pertain to a moment from one of the movies, such as the infamous bank vault scene from Fast Five, the flip car from Fast & Furious 6, or drifting down a mountain in…Hong Kong? Wasn’t the drifting scene in Tokyo? Moving on. The bank vault scene from Fast Five is the second mission in the game, and interesting enough, there are a couple of things wrong here. Number one: Vin Diesel is replaced by Ludicrous’s character, Tej. Come to think of it, Vin Diesel’s character, Dominic Toretto, doesn’t even make any appearance in the game. Guess Vin Diesel knew better than to allow his likeness in this game. Number two: the physics for the vault is like having a beach ball attached to string, making it incredibly floaty and weightless. Nothing adds to the immersion than a vault flinging in front of your car and you ramming it to only see it weightlessly roll off your car. The flip car scenes in the game…well, remember those weightless physics I just mentioned? Yeah, the cars you ram into just weightlessly move up along your car until you press the launch button, in which then you’ll fling the car up a ridiculous height. Then there’s the drifting scene, which would be awesome if the game’s drifting mechanics were actually somewhat decent. Naturally though, it’s far from decent and just downright unreliable. Any time you try to drift, you just never know how the physics are going to act up. There are even missions where you have to tail someone as close as possible, but somehow the person you’re tailing has a more hooked up ride than you, despite the fact that you’re driving a tuned up car and they’re driving a convoy truck.

Remember that time where Brian O'Connor used an EMP Pulse Rifle in the movie? Neither do I...

Remember that time where Brian O’Connor used an EMP Pulse Rifle in the movie? Neither do I…

Aside from the campaign, there’s a Challenge mode. This contains 21 additional challenges where you’ll have to try to cause the most mayhem, control a variety of vehicles (such as a wrecking ball truck), etc. These can also be played in co-op but interestingly, these missions showed a bit more creativity than the campaign’s. The problem? Do you remember the time in the movies where they drove a wrecking ball truck in circles to take out cop cars? It just doesn’t fit in this game. Nothing about these missions made me go, “yeah, this has a Fast & Furious feel to it”. There’s car customization and perks that you can utilize for both the campaign and challenge mode. Car customization is incredibly barebones, feeling like a poor man’s Need for Speed Underground (which by the way, had an insane amount of customization and that game came out about 8 years ago). You can equip mods (up to three at once) for your vehicle, such as increased speed, double health, speed boost while drifting, double damage with guns, etc. The problem with the game though is that none of it is actually “fun”. On top of that, there are a brevity of technical issues and the game actually locked up my system numerous times during my playthrough, which was quite frustrating when I’d complete a mission and then it’d freeze, to only replay the mission again. The overall gameplay contains variety within missions, but fundamentally, it’s an absolute buggy and boring mess.

No joke, this car is attached to mine, going in reverse at the same exact speed I'm going while driving forward! Wow...

No joke, this car is attached to mine, going in reverse at the same exact speed I’m going while driving forward! Wow…

Graphics: 1/5

Firebrand Games develops their own game engines in-house, which is something I very much admire. However, when the last game I played of theirs, Trackmania: Build to Race for the Wii, has a better visual design than this, there’s a big problem. Nothing in this game looks remotely attractive or even equates to the bare minimum of anything we’ve seen this current generation. Car models look passable, but have ultra basic detail to them. While there is damage modeling, ugliness rears its head more when you see the completely flat, single-texture design of a car’s engine. Character models look absolutely horrid and stiff to a whole new level. Characters drive like hunched over gorillas driving a car, and those that are riding shotgun while shooting are like stiff stick-figures where their legs are holding them in the window and they seem to be sitting in the air. Even when they reload guns, they all reload the same and doesn’t even look like they’re reloading properly at all. Fire effects are also some of the worst in a game to date, looking as dated as a PS1 game from 15 years ago. Environmental textures look bland and the draw distance isn’t exactly too great either, with mountains forming as you’re driving and power lines that form parallel to your car. The frame rate is also erratic, running from somewhat smooth to a pretty rigid…and the funniest part is, there’s nothing impressive that the game is showing off, so the frame rate should not be taking a hit at all.

Fast & Furious Showdown Gameplay 2

Sound: 2/5

A Fast & Furious game featuring characters from the movie should surely have their voice actors at the very least, right? WRONG! What we get are shoed-in actors that sound very slightly like them, but offer zero emotion or care into the roles. They sound as bored delivering lines as the players will feel playing the game. Sound effects are awfully generic with car engines sounding dull and unexciting. The soundtrack ranges from godawful rap music that I can’t imagine even the most devout rap enthusiast to enjoy, to somewhat catchier tunes that play in the second half of the game (which actually helped garner that extra point for this department). Oh, and the main menu music…well that just spells generic to the max.

"It's gonna blow!" Basically the C4 charge that I should be planting on this game.

“It’s gonna blow!” Basically the C4 charge that I should be planting on this game.

Overall Score: 5/20 = 2.5 out of 10

When I heard Firebrand Games was behind this game, I was actually somewhat excited. I mean, Trackmania: Build to Race for the Wii and DS was a very under-appreciated game that introduced me to what the studio is capable of. Unfortunately, I was severely letdown with a game that had me shaking my head at how absurdly unpolished it was. Fast & Furious: Showdown is a horrid game that looks so outdated and is near unacceptable for games this far into the console generation. It reeks of low budget from the moment you’re introduced to the title screen and main menu, all the way through to the credits (if you even last that long with it). If you do plan on playing this, it’s to mainly see how to make the Fast & Furious franchise as dull as possible. Fast & Furious: Showdown? More like “Slow & Infuriating: Boretown”.

PROS:

+ The box art is pretty cool

+ Co-op = Twice the laughs

CONS:

– Graphics are more outdated than a launch PS2 game

– Gameplay is as unpolished as it gets

– AI is downright atrocious

– Voice acting and characters are a whole new level of “stiff”

– $40 price tag is as much of a laugh as the game

Copy rented by author for review purposes. Wii U version used for review.

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Cubemen 2 Review (PC): “Thinking Outside the Blocks”

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Developer 3 Sprockets released an awesome sleeper indie hit last year with their RTS / TD hybrid Cubemen. After giving the game a try and writing my review (which you can read here – if you want all the details on which Cubemen 2 was built on, give it a read!), I knew that 3 Sprockets was on to something big. Cubemen was a fresh take on the TD genre, replacing static towers with movable soldiers that can be placed around a 3D map. Cubemen also included a multitude of play modes, limiting the number of resources or soldiers you could have at a time, or even a crazy rockets vs. crossbows mode. Cubemen is great, so here we have another case of 3 Sprockets having to out-do itself with Cubemen 2. Do they succeed? Read on and find out.

Cubemen 2’s gameplay doesn’t deviate terribly from the first when it comes down to it – you and your opponents have a base from which you can spend credits – called “cubes” – to spawn soldiers to attack your enemy’s units. Depending on the game type you’re playing, you may also spawn AI-controlled mobs from your base, making their way to your enemies and taking off a life if they reach their base. Cubemen set itself apart from other TD games in several ways; first, instead of planting static towers, you purchase and deploy units with unique weapons, with the option of moving them to different locations as the situation changes. Players battle it out in fully-3D environments, and weapons obey full line of sight physics, opening up new strategies, like placing flamethrowers behind corners and perching snipers on high ground for superior offensive and defensive positioning.

All of the core gameplay has made its way into Cubemen 2, with some added tweaks and improvements. First and foremost, the list of units has been modified to replace some under-used or under-powered soldiers with more useful ones. Both games feature Grill, a speedy pistolero with low health, Flint, a short-ranged flamethrower, Moty, a fire-support unit with a long-ranged AoE attack, Ricky, armed with a heat-seeking rocket launcher, Lazlo, a laser-firing death machine, and Sid, a sniper armed with a powerful long-ranged rifle, perfect for picking off units at a distance. Two units from the original were removed – Fred, an ice-based version of Flint who deals less damage but slows units hit by its attack, and Mike, a medic who can restore the health of your units. Fred was replaced with Larry, a low-cost unit that can slow enemies in an area around him with ice lightning. Mike is no longer a unit in Cubemen 2, but his function was brought over as regen squares present on the map, which players on either side can move their units onto to heal. Cubemen 2 also sees the introduction of two new units that completely change the gameplay dynamic. Milo turns into a mine when he reaches his destination, exploding for huge damage when an enemy passes near it. Waly brings a traditional TD element to Cubemen 2, turning into an impassable wall when he reaches his destination to close off paths or create choke points. Both of these new units are single-use and will disappear when they reach their destination, but are also extremely tough to kill and cannot be removed by any means once they reach their destination. All of these units can be upgraded for a variable Cube cost, upping their damage, range, and fire rate, as well as fully restoring their health. 3 Sprockets has done a great job of streamlining the unit selection in Cubemen 2, making every purchase purposeful and allowing for a lot of strategic options.

Finally, the long-standing feud between Knights and Luchadores is settled.

Finally, the long-standing feud between Knights and Luchadores is settled.

Players can get acclimated to the game through the included Defensive Campaign, which sees the player go through traditional tower defense scenarios on 15 unique maps. Each stage records your score on a playthrough, allowing you to go back and play the campaign again if you want to try to improve on your score. However, there’s plenty of alternative content included in Cubemen 2 to keep you busy. The game comes with an additional 20 maps which can be played on a multitude of game modes. The single-player offerings include Defense (your traditional TD game type) and Rescue, which has your AI mobs trying to rescue allied NPCs from enemy bases, requiring you to build units to protect them. Three additional modes can be played single-player against bots, in multi-player against other human players, or any mix of the two, and include: Skirmish, which is similar to Defense mode but requires players to attack as well as defend, sending out units to destroy their enemies and guard their mobs toward their bases; Territories, a spin on King of the Hill which requires players to send out units to capture most of the stage for their side; and a traditional Capture the Flag mode. Skirmish and CTF are tons of fun, but Territories is definitely the most exciting addition to the game with a ton of depth. The winner is only declared once the timer runs down, so players can either expand outward early and blitz the board, or bide their time, build up their forces, and steamroll their opponents closer to the timer. All game modes are highly configurable with options such as time limit, number of waves and opponents, solo or team options, and more.

The game’s AI is certainly competent and will put up a fair fight, but even on the highest difficulty, players will eventually find their skills are no longer up to snuff, so eventually you’ll want to spend more time in Cubemen 2’s multiplayer mode. Up to six players can face off solo or in teams on any of the 3 multiplayer modes. This is truly the way the game is meant to be played, and other players will put up a nice challenge and use tactics that the AI simply can’t do. Glacier928 and I had an awesome time facing off against each other and in teams, and even though I’m more of the strategy buff (while he goes more for action games), he found Cubemen 2 to be a beginner-friendly yet exciting game. Latency wasn’t an issue and our games ran smooth as butter, even with six players throwing down in intense battles with cubes flying everywhere.

Just like in the original, Cubemen 2 features a simple yet robust level editor, though this time it’s included out of the box at launch. The editor gives players a lot of freedom to design the level of their dreams, allowing for multiple cube heights, walls, free-floating tiles, base location, and teleporter and regenerator placement. There are some constraints that the player needs to follow, such as a maximum of 1,500 tiles, placing all six bases on the map with at least 10 spaces between each other, as well as ensuring there is a path to and from each base. There’s still a lot of flexibility to be had while playing by these rules, and once finished, maps can be saved privately for testing or published to the internet on 3 Sprockets’ user map directory, where other players can download, play, and rate your map. Every map needs to be run through a rigorous test before publishing, so you can be sure that it will play in every game mode with any amount of human and bot participants. It’s pretty hard to get bored of Cubemen 2 with an endless supply of maps to play on, and you’d be surprised by some of the crazy ideas that can be had when the editor is fully-utilized.

The level editor gives players a lot of freedom, even allowing for the remake of this N64 classic.

The level editor gives players a lot of freedom and creativity, allowing for the remake of this N64 classic.

Cubemen 2 has taken cues from the original in terms of visual and sound design, and while there haven’t been any major leaps forward in the game’s engine, it still runs at a brisk pace even on more modest computers and features plenty of pleasing, block-based visual effects, including ambient lighting around players’ bases and light flashes when weapons are fired which help to spice up the action a bit. 3 Sprockets has greatly expanded on the options presented to the user to customize the game their way as well; while players could originally choose a color for the levels and Cubemen, as well as a basic skin for the latter, Cubemen 2 has greatly expanded on this, offering all of the classic color options as well as full-fledged skins for units and levels. There’s a pretty expansive offering here – from soldiers, orcs, and ninjas for Cubemen, to Minecraft, lunar, Egyptian, and a Tron Grid-like look for levels (just to name a few), it’s easy to customize the look of the game to your liking. There are many more skins to choose from through downloadable content, and 3 Sprockets intends to add even more to the game over time. The game also features a more varied soundtrack compared to the original score, sporting a different theme for the title screen and most of your units. These songs are essentially different takes on the same basic melody, but with different tonality and feel to suit each character they’re named after. Ricky’s Theme is a personal favorite of mine, but you may choose not to use it everywhere like I did and instead take advantage of the game’s sound options, letting you play a separate theme for the title screen and each gameplay mode. These songs have taken a step up since the first game too, sounding a bit more grand and dramatic, which really helps the immersion factor during a game. It’s nice to see 3 Sprockets listening to their fans and incorporating some of their suggestions into Cubemen 2’s initial release.

So, is there anywhere Cubemen 2 falls flat? Honestly, not in a lot of places. You can’t pick campaign stages to play on, requiring you to replay the whole thing if you want to get to a specific stage. The game does have a couple of minor bugs and kinks to work out as well, such as incorrect information in some in-game menus, and very rare occasions in the campaign where the next wave won’t start after finishing the current one, requiring you to restart the stage. Since most of these levels only take a few minutes to beat, it’s not a deal-breaker. It would have also been nice to be able to re-name or delete maps you’ve published online. There’s also no voice- or text-based chat in multiplayer, though this is something 3 Sprockets has said they’ll address in a future update. And of course, they’ll be looking into keeping the game balanced so that cheap strategies don’t reign supreme.

A friendly game of Territory in the medieval countryside.

A friendly game of Territory in the medieval countryside.

Cubemen 2 is another strong release for 3 Sprockets, and shows what a great developer can really do with a sequel. Cubemen 2 doesn’t do anything radical to change the formula, but instead makes the game fresh through a tweak in the gameplay dynamics, improvements to user customization, and by featuring an excellent online mode and level editor. With plenty of updates and patches in the pipe, Cubemen 2 will only get better over time, and is sure to be a long-standing member of your Steam Library’s Favorites section.

Cubemen 2 is currently available for PC on the Steam platform for $7.99, with Mac and iPad apps on the way.

Final Score: 9.0 out of 10 = BUY IT!

Special thanks to 3 Sprockets for providing us with a review copy of Cubemen 2!