Ys: Memories of Celceta Review (PS Vita) – “Fond Memories”

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I first caught a glimpse of Ys: Memories of Celceta at New York Comic Con 2013, the upcoming game’s vibrant intro cinematic playing on loop on a giant screen overhead. While it didn’t give much indication of the gameplay to be experienced, it certainly showed off the artistic talent Namco-Bandai had brought on board for Ys. Given the Ys series’ long-running success in the Action RPG genre, it stood to reason that Ys: Memories of Celceta was a highly-anticipated title. Nearly a year after my first encounter with Ys: MoC, it’s made its way to the Vita. So after spending some time with it, the question to answer is: is it a memorable adventure, or better left forgotten?

Story: 3/5

Ys: Memory of Celceta is actually a modernized re-imagining of Ys IV. The central elelement to its story is a core JPG trope: Adol Christin, the series’ central protagonist, is suffering from Amnesia and finds himself wandering the city streets while the game uses nearby NPCs to fill the player in on some general background information about the city, its nearby mine, and the escalating disparity between the government and its citizens. A chance encounter with an old acquaintance helps to begin jogging Adol’s memory, and when trouble begins to rear its head, Adol feels compelled to act. A couple of heroic exploits later, Adol finds recognition with the city’s lordship and is granted the task of charting the mysterious forest regions around the city, where explorers are said to enter but never return.

This forms the core of Ys’s story, leading Adol and his companions to new locations and challenges to overcome. This fits in well with Adol’s personality in earlier installments of the Ys series: a young man with a thirst for adventure and exploration, and he begins to come into his own as the game progresses. A colorful cast of characters waits to be met throughout the story, with some of them willing to join your party. This leads a large part of Ys: MoC’s experience to dialogs between Adol and other characters; from a story-telling standpoint, it’s a thorough method to keep the player up to date with the game’s story, though has a slightly adverse effect on the gameplay experience; see below for more. When it comes down to it, Ys: MoC’s story supports the gameplay, not the other way around; its characters are where the game’s colorful writing shines through, but otherwise the story elements of the game aren’t anything special. Players also have the opportunity to choose dialog options at times, but these don’t really do much to offer branching story paths or shaping character decisions, they just spice up the dialog a bit.

Overall Ys: Memories of Celceta’s story isn’t anything memorable, but it’ll provide the contrast needed between the game’s exciting action sequences.

Gameplay: 4/5

Speaking of action, this has always been the story’s hallmark, and it’s certainly the focal point of Memories of Celceta. The game’s combat is open a free-flow, not instanced or turn-based. Enemies simply present themselves in the game’s environment, just waiting to be battled. In order to carry out said combat, Adol and his party have a couple of means of attack. The central combat mechanic is a sort of push-and-pull between using special attacks to exhaust your special meter, then chaining together basic strikes to fill it back up. Indeed, only one of the Vita’s four face buttons are dedicated to single strikes; the other three can be allocated to a character’s special moves. There’s a large variety to choose from, and you’ll be able to expand your list of specials as your characters gain experience. You can also dodge enemy attacks to keep your health high.

Each of Adol’s party members have their own strengths and tactics that they lean on in combat; while Adol is skilled with a blade and has many special attacks to make use of it, your earliest companion prefers to jump in and pummel enemies with his fists. You only control one character at a time, but can switch between party members at any time. While you’re controlling one character, the game’s AI does a fairly decent job of managing the rest of your party – they’ll attack enemies while you focus is elsewhere, but one area where this AI falls short is in dodging attacks. At the game’s first major boss fight, my companion seemed to content to face-tank the boss’s hardest-hitting special moves while I dodged out of the way. At times like this, it’s good to have healing items on hand to recover your party’s strength.

Overall, the combat system is simplistic and accessible to new players, but rewards practice and is extremely satisfying. The wide range of party members available means you’ll be able to build a party to your specifications, and even choose a character whose fighting style you enjoy using yourself. Don’t be afraid to delegate Adol to the AI if swords aren’t your thing. You’ll be itching to find enemies to fight, unlike turn-based RPGs where random encounters can be tedious and avoided whenever possible.

The high-octane action of the game’s combat sequences is intensely juxtaposed against the much slower, duller pace set by the game’s dialog sequences, however. It can be a bit jarring to come off of a set of intense combat, only to be exposition-dumped by an NPC for minutes on end, followed by even more intense combat right after. This is understandable, as frequent dialog is a central hallmark of JRPGs in general, but it doesn’t work in Ys: Memories of Celceta’s favor. You might find yourself trudging through dialog sequences, anxiously mashing on the X button to get past it and move on to the game’s next fight sequence.

Ys: MoC doesn’t just offer up a linear story – bounty boards present around the game world allow you to undertake sidequests for extra rewards, or just to blow off some steam between story segments. While it’s a nice feature in theory, the quests are often insultingly simple, or offer dull fetch quests that really take a back-seat to the idea of going to a new location and fighting new baddies. Still, much like the story, the sidequest system of Ys: MoC is a vehicle for the game’s excellent combat and exploration opportunities.

Adol and Duren’s expressions sum up the side-quests pretty well.

Graphics: 4/5

Graphics are yet another mixed bag with Ys; as previously-mentioned concerning the game’s intro movie, the hand-drawn art, including the menu and character sprites, are absolutely gorgeous, boasting incredible levels of detail. Given that the Ys series has had several animated movies created for it, it’d be a fair comparison to say that the in-game sprites are on the level of an animated motion picture. However, when making the shift to 3D, Ys: MoC stumbles quite a bit. While character and creature models boast a decent amount of polygons, textures on models and the environment are quite blurry for a Vita game. Special effects during combat are competent, but nothing special. Character animations during dialog tend to be somewhat limited as well, with Adol visualizing his dialog responses with stiff head nods and other simplistic actions. If the game’s 3D graphics had been bumped up to the same standard as the hand-drawn art in the game, Ys: MoC would have easily gotten a perfect score. The game’s downright last-gen graphics keep it just shy of perfection, however.

Even up-close, the 3D graphics lack polish, especially when juxtaposed against the game’s beautiful 2D images.

Sound: 4/5

Ys: Memories of Celceta boasts an aboslutely astounding soundtrack, with engaging tunes that play at just the right time during gameplay. I consistently found myself re-playing some songs in the game in my head, and that’s a hallmark of an excellent game soundtrack. Combat audio effects are decent, and are certainly functional for keeping you aware of when you land hits or take your lumps yourself. The area in the audio department where Ys: MoC falls flat, however, is the voice acting. While the talent is there, and all characters are voiced competently for a JRPG, you simply don’t hear enough of it. Most character speech in dialog consist of grunts or one-word responses, and you’ll find that not much chatter goes down in combat either. For a game with such a vibrant cast of characters, it really takes away from their personality to have them speak so infrequently. Not unlike the game’s graphics, the audio is of an excellent grade, but is flawed in some small but significant way to keep it just shy of perfection.

Overall Score: 15/20 = 7.5 out of 10

Ys: Memories of Celceta stands as an excellent example of beautifully-crafted gameplay. The game’s combat systems are simple and accessible, yet fun and challenging to explore and master. The multitude of characters you’ll meet and join forces with in the story are vibrant and colorful, and each of them brings their own unique twist to battle, ensuring there’s a character for just about every playstyle. The hand-drawn art and soundtrack are absolutely gorgeous too. While a couple of caveats keep the game’s overall quality from reaching stellar heights, Ys: MoC is a great addition to the Vita’s game library and a good buy for any owner looking for an action RPG on the go.

PROs

+ Combat is tight and fun

+ Gorgeous hand-drawn artwork

+ Memorable soundtrack

CONs

– Story merely drives the gameplay

– Side-quest system is tedious

– 3D graphics look last-gen

– Voice acting is light

A special thank you to XSEED Games for providing us with a review copy of “Ys: Memories of Celceta”!

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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?

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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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Wii Sports Club: Tennis Review (Wii U eShop) – “Ace”

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The “#1 best-selling Wii game of all time”, Wii Sports, was a selling point for many to spring to Nintendo’s innovative console. With motion controls being at the heart of the Wii’s experience, Wii Sports enabled a fairly-accurate simulation of a selection of physical activities, including Bowling, Tennis, Baseball, Boxing, and Golf. It was a real hit, and encouraged a lot of gamers to get off the couch and get active. No doubt many were clamoring to have this experience on the Wii U, and after long last, Nintendo have delivered. Dubbed “Wii Sports Club”, the original Wii title’s revival features HD graphics, integrated social features, and online play. Players can even try it free for 24 hours before committing. The question is, is Wii Sports Club worth your time (and money)?

At the time of writing, Wii Sports Club currently features access to Tennis and Bowling. This review will cover Tennis exclusively. Downloading the game will grant you a one-time 24 hour pass for free, allowing you to experience both games for a full day without restriction. After this trial period, players can purchase another 24-hour pass whenever they’re in the mood to play, or can acquire permanent access to any one sport for a more premium fee (about $10). It’s interesting to see Nintendo take this approach, and does provide gamers an option based on how often they plan to play.

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So what do you get for your money? On the whole, Wii Sports Club’s rendition of Tennis doesn’t leave anything behind. Players can choose to play singles or doubles, by themselves or with a friend, and will duke it out on the court until one team reaches 7 points. Wii Sports provided a simple presentation that belied the incredible depth of play, but Wii Sports Club takes this all to the next level. Controls are as slick and responsive as ever, and still allow for ball control and rapid spikes when performed correctly. However, there were times when my WiiMote was just a tad too responsive – my Mii would sometimes take a flying leap and swing at the air when I slowly raised my WiiMote to prepare for a return volley. A quick calibration will fix this though – just place the WiiMote face-down on a flat surface for a few seconds.

Players can now learn the ropes of the game without the trial-and-error approach of the original Wii Sports. A new training mode allows players to practice maneuvers and hone their skills in pre-set scenarios. There’s even a multi-player version of this, allowing you and a few friends or family members to improve your skills together. And once you feel your skills are up to the task, you can choose to undertake a series of trials that will really have you proving your tennis prowess.

One welcome addition is the inclusion of multiplayer. Players can choose to join a “club”, a sort of social team tied to their home region (or any they choose). From here, players can socialize with others and join games against players from any region they choose. The game chooses a random club to be the “rival of the day”, which keeps things fresh. As for entering a match, wait times are extremely short. The game lets you practice hitting tennis balls at targets while you wait, but matchmaking is so quick that I barely had any time to take part in it before being thrust into a game. This is hardly a bad thing, though.

In-game, matches are generally lag-free and perform excellently. Players can choose 3 pre-set messages to assign to the D-Pad, which allows for limited chatting in-game. There’s also the option to choose your greeting at the start of a game, either as text or a hand-drawn image using the Wii U’s GamePad. Players are given 20 seconds to serve when it’s their turn to do so, and letting this timer expire will disqualify the offender. This was a nice forethought, but I got into several matches where the other player would purposely let the clock run down before hitting the ball. Some would argue it’s a legitimate strategy, but I believe a shorter serve timer would have been a good idea. Otherwise, playing online is identical to the Tennis experience present in the original Wii Sports. WiiMote movements are generally very responsive, and the ball will go where you expect it to if you hit it right. Hitting the serve at just the right moment will send the ball blazing towards your opponent, and switching up your serve speed can do a lot to throw your opponent off their game.

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Wii Sports Club: Tennis is more than just a faithful revival of the Wii Sports fave; updated graphics and gameplay features are certainly welcome, but it’s the additional social features and multiplayer options that make the game well worth its price tag. Those looking to relive their Wii glory days, scratch a casual tennis itch, or get into better shape with motion control gaming will find a lot to love in Wii Sports Club: Tennis.

 

Overall Score: 9.0 out of 10 = BUY IT!

DualShock 4 Controller Hands-On Preview

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Several retailers, such as Amazon and Best Buy, are beginning to sell the PlayStation 4’s DualShock 4 controller nearly two weeks ahead of the console’s release. This might seem like a strange move, but it’s been confirmed that the new controller is, in fact, compatible (at least in the most essential capacities) with many current PS3 games, such as Call of Duty. Some, like myself, also wanted to make sure we have an extra controller handy on release day so our friends can get in on the multiplayer action with us on day one.

A controller is one of the most essential pieces of a great gaming experience with a console. Sony’s always managed to make waves with their line of DualShock controllers, released as far back as for the original PlayStation. Every iteration has seen streamlines and improvements on the core design while still maintaining the originality that makes the DualShock line one of the most preferred controllers in gaming. With that in mind, I was excited to get my hands around a DualShock 4 of my own, and for those of you who are still wondering how it stacks up, read on; I’ll get into the form and function, the good and the bad, and even a little hands-on time with the DualShock 4 during a few games of Call of Duty: Black Ops 2.

First Impressions

The first thing you’ll notice after picking up the DualShock 4 is that it feels much more solidly built than the DualShock 3. While both controllers’ internals are contained in a plastic chassis, the DualShock 4 feels much sturdier and less cheaply-built. The controller also seems a tad bit bigger than its last-gen cousin, which might throw some die-hards off at first, but adjustment comes quickly. It’s also pretty hard not to notice the new design of the control sticks, and it’s an excellent modification from the previous line. The raised lip around the edges of the top make it much harder for your thumbs to slip off when doing constant rotations and split-second flicks. The D-Pad has been improved upon too, in spite of its previous excellence. Each cardinal direction is a bit more spaced from the others, and the entire D-Pad is a bit larger overall. I’m very happy with this change – it’s a great boon for fighting fans, where the slightest false read from a controller can mean the difference between a Hadouken and a Shoryuken, and nobody wants to lose a close match over using the wrong move.

No doubt one of the most controversial changes to the DualShock 4 will be the new L2 and R2 triggers. Now, they seem to deserve the name much more than they used to, as they sport a concave curve (like an actual trigger on a firearm) rather than the convex curves of old. It’s true that the DualShock 4 may be losing a bit of its originality by making its triggers more like the ones found on an Xbox 360 controller, but coming from someone whose fingers would sometimes slip off the triggers when in use, this is a welcome change. Interestingly enough, this could change the dynamic of the default controller configuration in shooters on the PS4; whereas games previously used L1 and R1 for aiming and shooting, respectively, the new upgrades to L2 and R2 could very well make them the standard. So long as they provide the option to switch between the two setups, though, everyone should be happy.

The newer additions to the DualShock 4 – the Share button, touch pad, and light bar – are certain to make a real splash once the PS4 is released. Naturally, as of yet they have no functionality, not even the light bar (which, theoretically, should be compatible with the PS3’s existing Move system). Speaking for their position, however, everything sits right where it should. The Share button is accessible without getting in the way, and it’s unlikely you’ll accidently post a video of your most humiliating defeat unless you intend to. The light bar remains completely unobstructed when holding the controller, even if you put a finger on each of the L and R buttons simultaneously (as I’ve known some players to do). It’s safe to say that its functionality will work smoothly during even the most intense gameplay session. As for the touch pad, while it may seem out of place at first, it’s clear that it isn’t meant to be used alongside the more typical gamepad buttons. It is, however, a pleasure to interact with. The entire touch pad clicks in when pressed, not unlike the touch pads featured on many laptops today. Also of note are the inclusion of a speaker and audio-in jack on the front and bottom of the controller face, respectively, with an add-on port next to the audio jack. This is no doubt to accommodate the upcoming PS4 wired headset, but it would seem the inclusion of a speaker also expands on the audio output options available to PS4 developers, much like the WiiMote’s speaker did for its games. It may also give us an option for listening to voice chat without the need for an attached headset. Overall, these wildcards are sure to make a real splash once the PS4 makes it proper release.

There’s another quirk here that DualShock veterans may notice right away – while the familiar PS button is present in the bottom-middle of the controller face, the start and select buttons are nowhere to be found. The lone “Options” button, present opposite the Share button on the right of the controller face, seems to have replaced these two individual buttons, and it’s probably safe to say that this button will roll the functionality of the Start and Select buttons into one. If it works, I’m all for this streamlining, though it’s possible some finagling might have to happen for users who are going to subscribe to the PS4’s upcoming Gaikai service for backlogged games. Clicking in the added touchpad certainly seems like a possible replacement.

Other than these specific points, I’ve got to say that overall, the controller just sports a really solid feel. From the chassis itself to each and every button, the DualShock 4 feels like it’s built to last. Button presses are easy, yet sport an impact you can feel. The overall bigger shape and added spacing between buttons means it’s much easier to avoid pressing extra buttons by accident. And it really has to be said what a welcome improvement the new L2 and R2 triggers are.

Field Tests

In order to test the DualShock 4’s new build, I decided to play a few rounds of Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 using the new controller. A few notes about this if you’re looking to try it yourself:

  • The DualShock 4 will only work when plugged in with a USB cable. The PS3 can’t pick up the DualShock 4 over Bluetooth.
  • The PS button will not work on the DualShock 4. You’ll need a PS3 controller to access the PS button’s functionality, like quitting a game.
  • The Select and Start buttons’ functionality is replicated with the Share and Option buttons, respectively.

With all of that in mind, I booted up BLOPS 2 and went into a multiplayer match. Though I hadn’t played for a month or two, I was able to quickly adjust to the new feel of the DualShock 4. To really put the controller through its paces, I played my LMG class – one of the slower, more lumbering and deliberate weapon classes in the game.

However, once I got to lining up my shots and opening fire, I was amazed by how accurate and responsive the new R stick is. Sony have really tweaked the sensitivity from the DualShock 3, and the new level of control and accuracy was impressive. Whereas I would sometimes aim too far and miss my mark with the DS3, my shots landed dead-center every time with the DS4. I also elected to switch the assignments of the L and R buttons, such that L2 and R2 are used for aiming and shooting, respectively. Though I’m still a big fan of the instant responsiveness of L1 and R1 for FPS games, I have to say that the triggers on the DualShock 4 just feel right, and are extremely responsive. There was a familiar yet fresh feeling to these triggers, and it was extremely satisfying to squeeze them and unload a hail of lead on my opponents. The switch brought back a nostalgic feel from my days with the Xbox 360 controller, and aside from accidently firing off a shot instead of throwing a grenade, the switched control setup was extremely intuitive and didn’t take long to get back into.

I made a very subtle discovery while playing with this setup – the DualShock 4 seems ergonomically designed for this sort of control setup with shooters. After a couple of games, I noticed that my hands fit more comfortably around the controller with my index fingers on the 2 triggers, while my thumbs were more relaxed on the control sticks. While I’m sure old-school fans will be just fine using the classic PS shooter setup, it seems the controller is built for this new  intended use of the triggers.

With a few games down, I have to say that the DualShock 4 really did make a difference in my game. It seems like my K/D ratio was actually higher in spite of being a couple of months out of practice, and there’s no question that the new, finely-tuned DS4 is the reason why. While I don’t yet have the chance to see what the touchpad, light bar, and share button can really do, in terms of the more salient aspects of the controller, it’s safe to say that any PS4 owner is going to have an excellent, precise, and comfortable experience with the DualShock 4.

Just for bonus points, I decided to give the new D-Pad a run too, and loaded up Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition. Here’s another game that I’ve fallen out of practice with for a few months, and so I was expecting at least a little bit of a warm-up curve; yet again, however, I was pleasantly surprised. The newer, larger D-Pad really does make a difference when executing attacks, and the face buttons seem extremely responsive as well. I was pulling off combos and stringing together special moves more easily than I ever could with the DS3. The most die-hard fighting fans will no doubt be sticking with an arcade stick for the PS4 (once one is released), but the rest of us certainly have an excellent and capable control method for fighters in the DualShock 4.

Wrapping It Up

What we’ve seen of the DualShock 4 from press conferences and commercials is certainly exciting from an innovation perspective, with the new input methods and the inclusion of a share button, but when it comes to the improvements in mechanics and build quality, nobody can just tell you how it’s improved – you’ve got to get your hands on it for yourself. After hearing a lot of talk, I was extremely impressed and excited by what I got to experience in Sony’s new controller. Finely-tuned controls, ideal button placement, and solid build quality come together in a package that’s going to improve the gameplay experience over anything Sony have come out with before. If you’re already on board for getting a PS4, I’d encourage you to get yourself a spare controller early, and start to experience how much the DualShock 4 is going to up your game. If you’re still on the fence, try to get your hands on a DS4 and see how it feels to you. The controller is a central component in a console experience, and the DualShock 4 may very well win you over.

Atomic Ninjas Review (PS3/Vita): “Radiates Fun”

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You usually know what you’re getting when you go for a downloadable title, no matter the platform – bite-sized games with appropriately reduced prices. This isn’t to say that the downloadable market is bad in any way – it really stands in a league of its own right alongside the triple-A console market. However, you get what you pay for, and even the best gameplay experiences to be found in downloadable titles can be a bit light on content.

At least, that’s usually the case – unless you give Atomic Ninjas a try.  Developer (and publisher) Grip Games has come up with an engaging, exciting, and surprisingly bang-for-your-buck-worthy competitive multiplayer title. The game pits you (and your tiny acrobatic avatar) against up to three opponents, be they human or AI, in a race to complete a variety of objectives in a smattering of 2.5D arenas. Combat is a central part of the game, but rather than outright killing foes, your ninja makes use of a variety of weapons and gadgets to maneuver around the arena and knock opponents off the stage or into environmental hazards. Weapons and items are varied, from hard-hitting boxing gloves to swift and deadly shuriken, and grappling hooks to climbing claws and more. Killing an enemy gives you the chance to swap your hapless opponent’s weapon with your own, adding insult to injury while switching up your tactics in the process.

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It’s this randomness that stands as a core strength for the game’s fun factor, as so many elements of the game are switched from one round to the next, making it near-impossible to get bored. Games consist of a large variety of objectives, including Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, King of the Hill, Domination, and Treasure Hunt (a deadly take on keep-away), with free-for-all and team varieties of each present, sometimes within the same match! It’s really disorienting in the best way when you’re spending a few minutes trying to kill one player, only to be paired up with them the next. Toss-ups like this keep the gameplay extremely fresh and lend tremendous replay value to a genre that relies so heavily on it. Several game-changers come into play at the most appropriate times as well, such as entering an unstoppable “Noob Rage” mode when you’ve died several times in succession, and a “Power Play” state where for a limited time, everyone respawns instantly after death.

While these random tweaks will keep you engaged in every match, it’s the advancement options that will keep you coming back for more. Players initially start with a single character and power, but can unlock more by leveling up (with experience earned through play). Powers can be strengthened by completing Ninja Challenges, which require you to fulfill certain conditions within a game, like killing 5 opponents in a round or earning 250 points from flag captures. Combining the correct powers with the right weapons and items can really boost your effectiveness, and are great no matter what your play style is.

There’s several ways to get into the fight; Both platforms support online play with up to four players, as well as offline bot-matches, but the PS3 has the edge in its ability to field up to four players in split-screen competitive play. If a Wi-Fi connection isn’t available on your Vita, you’re stuck with bot-matches. This isn’t to say they aren’t fun, though – bots put up a good enough fight to keep things interesting, but sooner or later you’ll want to go head-to-head with other human opponents. Connecting to other players is currently a bit tricky, but will get better as the Atomic Ninjas player base grows.

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It really needs to be said that while Atomic Ninjas is light on story, its whimsical writing and hilarious presentation really make for an extremely enjoyable and light-hearted experience. I was laughing out loud during the majority of the tutorial level as the NPC instructed me in the basics of Atomic Ninjas play while pelting me with outrageous criticisms and deadpan deliveries. As for the ninjas themselves, Players can choose from a quirky cast of them, from the familiar silent-but-deadly shadow warriors to a brave, stoic samurai, a wise (but senile) Kung-Fu monk, and even a zombie ninja. Each character is fully voiced and features his own unique personality quirks. Each ninja will loose his own quips during a match when killing opponents, getting hit, or meeting an early (but brief) demise. However, nothing is quite as laughable as when a player enters “Noob Rage” mode, letting loose sounds more violent and gibbering than a Call of Duty player on a death streak (sorry guys – you know who you are). Character choices aren’t just important for presentation, though – each one starts with their own weapon and item, lending to a unique gameplay style right out of the gate. These aren’t set in stone, though, and your weapons and items can be swapped on-the-fly by finding item crates in the arena and killing opponents to steal their stuff.

Atomic Ninjas features a simple but pleasant cartoon style, with bright, vibrant colors and tiny, whimsical proportions. It’s a visual treat the whole time, but at the same time, isn’t particularly jaw-dropping. That’s fine, though – less to distract you from the action. The sound is another seesaw too – the voice work, sound effects, and music are all great and really lend to the atmosphere of the game, but a couple of technical problems keep them just shy of a perfect score. While playing on the Vita, there were rare occasions where music would lose its fidelity and static would become audible, which isn’t pleasant by any means, but is thankfully rare enough, seemingly only happening at the end of a match. This seems like an issue that Grip Games can squash with a future patch. Otherwise, there really isn’t much to complain about – the game is very well-balanced, but there were a couple of occasions where a really devious player could pin me in one spot with very little I could do to retaliate. This was especially bad when an opponent caught me in a corner while in Noob Rage – I was powerless to do anything to escape until the mode wore off, and it was extremely frustrating. However, it takes a lot to get into this sort of situation, and it taught me to stay away from dead ends when an opponent starts slavering.

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Atomic Ninjas stands out as one of the most addicting, engaging, and just plain fun downloadable titles of this year. The bite-sized game sessions lend themselves perfectly to the Vita’s pick-up-and-go nature, while the randomness of each moment will hook you for hours on end. Multiplayer is this game’s watchword, and it creates an extremely fun and competitive arena for players to duke it out with each other. A couple of technical issues mar Atomic Ninjas from a perfect score, but between the solid gameplay, hilarious presentation, and pleasant visuals, Atomic Ninjas is a game you won’t want to put down.

Overall Score: 9.0 out of 10 = BUY IT!

A special thank you to the publisher for providing us a review copy for Atomic Ninjas!

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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.

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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HOLY SKAGSUCK! Borderlands 2 Coming to PlayStation Vita in 2014

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It’s confirmed, looters and shooters; Borderlands 2 is coming to the PlayStation Vita in 2014!

As announced on 2K Games’ web site, they have been working closely with Sony to bring the loot-and-shoot game to a portable platform, and it looks as if that endeavor is bearing fruit.

No details have been released as of yet, but it’s safe to assume that players will be able to join cooperatively with three other Vault Hunters over ad-hoc and WiFi. The game is also stated to take advantage of the Vita’s unique features. Given the trend in recent game ports to include released DLC out of the box, we may get to play as Gaige and Krieg on day one, as well as taking the adventure to the game’s add-on story content.

This announcement helps to bolster the other impressive offerings Sony presented at GamesCom this year. For the full run-down, be sure to check out our conference recap here.

The game is due out in 2014. Stick with us as we continue to cover this and other exciting developments!

Big Bass Arcade: No Limit Review (3DS eShop) – “A Cheap Flop”

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The Nintendo 3DS’s eShop platform seems perfect for delivering more casual, bite-sized games, and there’s certainly been no shortage of these since its inception. For those looking for a quick pick-up and play fishing game, there’s Big Bass Arcade: No Limit by Big John Games. The third in their line of fishing simulators for the Wii and DS, they’ve now taken the leap to the 3DS platform with 3D graphics and expanded gameplay mechanics. But is it worth playing, or should you throw this one back?

The basic premise of the game is – no shocker – selecting different locations (or levels) to fish in, moving your boat to find a good fishing spot, and trying to catch the biggest fish you can. The gameplay itself is probably best described as a grab-bag of mini-game concepts, and you may feel like you’re playing several separate games during even a single round of Big Bass Arcade. First, you need to position your boat in a spot where the fish are biting – but this is done by simply moving your boat left and right along a single axis. An arrow will change color from red to yellow to indicate how the fish are biting – the yellower, the better. Once you pick a spot, you use a power meter like those found in so many golfing games to determine how far you cast your line. Pressing the A button will start the meter, which will bounce between low power and full, and another press will lock it in and cast your line. From here, you need to start reeling in your line to lure nearby fish. An audio cue from the game’s announcer will let you know when a fish is close – and once he hooks on, the most intense portion of the gameplay begins. You need to keep reeling in the fish with enough strength to fight it, but the more the fish struggles, the more your tension meter will fill up. Pull too hard, and your line will break. Give too much slack, and the fish will get away. This hectic element is further exacerbated by an overlapped quick time event element. All the while you’re trying to reel the fish in, the announcer will require you to press one of four directions on the D-pad (or swipe that direction on the screen) to keep fighting your hooked fish. Once the fish gets close enough to your boat, you can press or swipe up to capture him. If you’re successful, the game will record the weight of your fish, and the gameplay starts over.

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This is basically how the game’s Free Fish mode plays out, and while the controls aren’t bad by any means – you can use the 3DS’s buttons or the touch screen to play – the gameplay does get repetitive pretty fast; for all the variety it offers, there’s very little cohesion between the gameplay elements. It can at times feel like someone is standing nearby, throwing you some new game to play every time a new thing happens, and it’s pretty jarring. There’s no sense of accomplishment once you figure the game’s controls out, though – it’s more like a barrier for entry than an element to master, so it comes down to the game’s different play modes to keep you engaged. It’s also no contest that the Wii version in the series has the best controls – the WiiMote’s motion controls make the game much more immersive, but Big John could only do so much with the 3DS platform.

However, Big John Games placed a surprising sense of progression into the game, as you’ll need different types of lures to catch different types of fish, and you’ll unlock additional lures by completing certain challenges in the game, such as catching a certain number of fish or an especially large fish from one breed. It’s actually a nice way to promote replay value, and it’s a good addition to the game. You’ll also need to complete a specific challenge to unlock the game’s tournament mode, so if nothing else, Big John made sure to set some goal for players to reach for.

Big Bass Arcade includes several gameplay modes to keep you busy with, aside from the previously-mentioned Free Fish mode, which allows you to fish for as long as you want with no restrictions. The game includes three challenge modes, requiring you to fish under certain conditions. No Limit has you catching as many fish as you can within the time limit, Bass Only will only credit you for any Bass that you catch, and Catch ‘Em All – coincidentally sharing Pokemon’s motto – similarly has you trying to catch every type of fish present in the stage, and while Red could take his sweet time, you only have 10 minutes to accomplish the feat. Catching 20 lbs. Of Bass in the Bass Only challenge will unlock the game’s Tournament mode, which sees you trying to score higher than your AI opponents by catching bigger and more uncommon fish. Each of these modes puts a spin on the game, but it boils down to the same simple gameplay concepts in each one, so the variety present is minuscule at best.

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It’s also worth noting that the game’s tutorial would be better described as a brief, in-your-face instruction manual. Rather than introducing gameplay elements to you at a slow, comfortable pace, the tutorial throws every single control at you one after another with no chance to test it until you’ve read through the whole thing. Given how simple the game is, it’s not even like the tutorial does much for the player, but the format it’s present with serves to confuse rather than teach. It’s still worth a quick look to acclimate yourself with the controls, but aside from that, it leaves a lot to be desired.

The game’s audio-visual details are actually its best and worst qualities. The game’s graphics are surprisingly decent for a downloadable game; fish show a surprising level of detail in their movements and behaviors; your lures behave like you’d expect, even down to tassels and flyaways moving and spinning as they glide through the water. Textures and other details in the graphics are competent, and overall it’s more than you’d expect in an eShop game. The 3D is also done quite well, and gives you a real sense of depth; you’ll feel how far your cast your line, and the water has a real sense of volume when looking around. However, one area that isn’t nearly as good is the game’s audio. The game’s soundtrack consists of only a few simple tracks – a repetitive guitar ditty at the menu screen, a string-plucker while fishing, and an aggressive electric guitar track when catching a fish. All of these songs are just a few seconds in length and play on a loop, and are mind-numbingly repetitive. Then there’s the sound effects; it’s not all bad, as the splashing noises when your lure hits the water are crisp and clear. Once you get a bite, though, the game’s sound effects devolve into childish, cartoony noises that are a complete departure from the rest of the game’s tone. You’ll hear uncharacteristically-deep swooshing noises as your tiny minnow struggles in the water, silly bumper noises as the fish rebels against you, and a high-pitched sound effect straight out of Looney Toons when your line is about to break. Finally, the game’s announcer speaks in an unsettling, creepy, quiet tone, and while I’m sure Big John was going for an announcer that makes you think of a relaxing day on the lake, his tone comes off as less fishing buddy, more Jason. There’s also a lack of variety in his speech – there’s pretty much just one thing he says for each gameplay event. As soon as you hear “he’s getting close…!”, you’ll know a fish is chasing your lure, as soon as you’re over that chill going down your spine. I see what the developer was going for, but a little foresight in their audio department would have done a lot for the game, making it an upshot rather than an anchor.

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Big Bass Arcade: No Limit tries to take the previous games in the series further, but in the end, contrary to its name, it comes off as a very limited experience. Gameplay is a repetitive jumble of mini-game concepts, the different challenge modes do little to expand on the game’s premise, and the sound effects are a major negative on the game’s experience. There are some positives to out-weigh the negatives, but the fact remains that there are better fishing games out there – even No Limit‘s predecessors. Unless you’re desperate for a 3D fishing experience on the go, it’s best to look elsewhere.

Overall Score: 5.5 out of 10 = Wait for a price drop…

A special thank you to Big John Games for providing us a review copy for Big Bass Arcade: No Limit!

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

Curious to how our review system works? Check out the About section.

Earthworm Jim 4 Teased By Creator

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A recent post on the Earthworm Jim Facebook page by its creator, Doug TenNapel, indicates (quite loosely) that an Earthworm Jim sequel might be in the works – even if it’s only in the “developmental” stages. Here’s the quote:

Everyone loves Earthworm Jim 1 and 2, and I don’t generally acknowledge EWJ 3 as a real part of the Jim universe. So if I was making another Jim game, would it be too confusing to call it Jim 3? Or would it have to be Jim 4? How about “Earthworm Jim 4 the Fans”?

Is this a real tease at an honest-to-goodness Earthworm Jim sequel, or just wishful posturing? It’s way too early to tell, but we’ll be sure to follow Doug’s comments in the future to see if any more hints surface.

Don Mattrick May Be Leaving Microsoft Today

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UPDATE: Don Mattrick’s move to Zynga is now official, with Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, temporarily taking over his duties. See the full e-mail below.

From: Steve Ballmer
Sent: Monday, July 1, 2013
To: Microsoft – All Employees
Subject: Don Mattrick’s Next Chapter

Zynga announced today that Don Mattrick would be its new CEO, effective July 8. This is a great opportunity for Don, and I wish him success. Don’s directs will report to me and will continue to drive the day-to-day business as a team, particularly focused on shipping Xbox One this holiday.

Since joining IEB more than six years ago, Don and his team have accomplished much. Xbox Live members grew from 6 million to 48 million. Xbox 360 became the No. 1 selling console in North America the past two years. We introduced Kinect and have sold more than 24 million sensors. We released fantastic games, and, most importantly, we expanded Xbox to go beyond great gaming to deliver all the entertainment people want — sports, music, movies, live television and much more.

In the past month, the IEB team showed for the first time here on our Redmond campus, and again at E3, how we are going to continue to transform entertainment with Xbox One. I am incredibly proud of the work and vision culminating in Xbox One.

I’m particularly excited about how Xbox pushes forward our devices and services transformation by bringing together the best of Microsoft. The consoles are incredible all-in-one devices with built-in services that consumers love, including Bing, Xbox Live, Internet Explorer, SkyDrive and Skype. And, just as important, Xbox Games, Xbox Video, Xbox Music and SmartGlass light up Windows PCs, tablets and phones.

Thank you, Don, for setting us on a path to completely redefine the entertainment industry. The strong leadership team at IEB and their teams are well positioned to deliver the next-generation entertainment console, as well as transformative entertainment experiences, long into the future.

Steve

ORIGINAL STORY: Don Mattrick, President of Interactive Entertainment at Microsoft and a prominent face in the Xbox One scene, may be leaving the company before the next-gen console even gets close to launch. Sources close to the issue say it may even happen as soon as later today, as well as the possibility that Mattrick may be moving to troubled mobile game developer Zynga, possibly in a high-level management role.

Mattrick has been at the head of the Xbox One reveal and the turbulent weeks that followed, largely centered around the console’s radical connection and security policies. Mattrick and Larry “Major Nelson” Hryb have even been seen contradicting one another when talking facts, leading some to question the direction of the company. The announcement of a “restructuring” by Microsoft last week may be a strong indicator that Mattrick’s move is likely.

Stay tuned as we continue to track this developing story, as well as the potential fallout.