REVIEW: Natural Selection 2 (PC)

If you’re a fan of online, competitive, team-based First-Person Shooter games but you’ve become a little bored with the oversaturation of the same basic formulas, Natural Selection 2 from Unknown Worlds Entertainment might be a welcome change of pace for you. Even more so if you’re a fan of Sci-Fi, and the Alien Quadrilogy in particular. Natural Selection 2’s aliens, the Kharaa, are not exactly xenomorphs, but the overall atmosphere seems heavily inspired by those films. And I mean that in the best possible way. Playing as a Marine, you feel like you’re clearing out the colony on LV-426—sorry if you don’t get the reference. On the Kharaa side, you spend much of your time creeping around, trying to catch Marines out of position, and feeling very xenomorphy.

Hybridizing FPS & RTS

The Real-Time Strategy elements add another, unique aspect to the experience. If you ever played the original Natural Selection (a Half-Life mod), or the recent online FPS/RTS hybrid Nuclear Dawn, the theory is basically the same. One member of your team takes the role of Commander, directing the flow of battle, building structures, and researching upgrades for your team to make use of. For example, a Marine commander can up his soldiers’ armor and weapons, and eventually provide jetpacks and hulking, Avatar-style exosuits loaded with gatling guns. On the Kharaa, the Commander researches abilities for the different alien forms, and ubiquitous skills which allow each player to customize their little monster based on their playstyle. For instance, once they’re both researched you can choose between Celerity to move faster, or Adrenaline to increase your energy pool for extended ability use, but not both. It probably goes without saying that your Commander can make or break any given round.

Marines in the Dark

On the Marine side, you will frequently find yourself in pitch black rooms with nothing but a flashlight—and maybe a few more erratic flashlight beams from your freaked-the-hell-out teammates—to light your way. Then a skittering form creeps along the wall just outside your beam, but you lose it and its gone. You call out to your teammates, “We’re not alone in here,” and all hell breaks loose. A pack of quadrupedal, zergling-like Skulks drop off the ceiling, they start biting at your ankles and scurrying around faster than you can track; a pterodactyl-esque flying Lerk swoops through the room dropping poisonous gas on you and your squad. You try to fall back, but when you turn to flee, a bipedal Fade with blades for arms appears out of a cloud of mist and cuts down your last remaining squadmate. The last thing you see is an elephant-sized Onos charging toward you.

“That’s it! Game over, man! Game over!”

Hopefully you can use your imagination to see that scenario from the other side, too. (The Kharaa have a toggle to switch between normal and a pseudo-infrared/thermal vision, which means zero-light conditions are beneficial for them.) You should know, going into this game, there is a bit of a learning curve for the aliens. It’s a different type of gameplay than you’re probably used to (unless you played a lot of Aliens vs. Predator back in the day). Once you’ve gotten the hang of it though, playing the Kharaa skillfully can be an extraordinarily rewarding experience—not to mention exciting to the point of adrenaline-pumping. Marine-side, things are pretty straight-forward but still very enjoyable and occasionally terrifying: shoot guns, follow orders, build the structures your Commander throws down, and try not to die.

Commanding an Army of Monsters! Or Marines.

There is a lot for a Commander to keep track of, and unlike normal RTS games, if you screw up in this one, your units will probably start trash-talking you. So it’s a bit of a stressful position for someone without a fairly deep understanding of the game on both the ground- and meta-level. I wouldn’t advise hopping into the Commander seat for a while, since there is a surprising amount of depth to this game which only reveals itself to you over time. Luckily, all these elements are pretty well streamlined for the Commander. Instead of name-specific hotkeys—like “A” for “[A]rmory”—all the Commander hotkeys are arrayed in a consistent, four-wide/three-tall grid on the left side of your keyboard (from “QWER” down). So once you get the hang of each building or ability’s location in the menu, your left hand will barely move, allowing you focus on the battle.

Graphics, Sound, and Level Design

Besides being fun as hell, the game is very nice to look at too. The Kharaa models are unique and just the right blend of kinda-gross and fully-rad. Overall, the player models are good but nothing you’re going to be raving about. The real shine here is in the level designs. These are some incredible maps: strategically interesting and well-designed; beautiful and atmospheric; very complex, but each room is memorable enough that you’ll learn them well after you put some time in. Adding to the impressiveness, the levels also work really well in multiple states, such as: infested and non-infested, full-light, low-light, and pitch-black/powered-down. Map knowledge is a big part of the skill curve here—and its even harder to get a really good feel for the levels when you are sprinting through them as a Celerity-enhanced Skulk. But each significant room on the mini-map is clearly named and labeled, and there is a HUD element that keeps you informed of what room you are in at all times.

Sound plays a big part in the strategy and skill here, so it’s to Unknown Worlds Entertainment’s credit that the sound design is superb. Marine boots make an easily identifiable, metal-on-metal marching noise that echos around corners, and Skulks’ skittering, blade-like feet are equally recognizable. Marine welders produce a satisfying sizzle, while their structures and exo-suits make clangy, wonderfully metallic noises. Alien growls are fun and Zerg-like, their structures and skills make sickeningly organic little squeals and splashes and spits.

The Source be Open

As a final note for those interested in game development: Unknown Worlds Entertainment provides their entire game source for your use or perusal. They’re calling it the “Spark Engine.” There is a file in your Natural Selection 2 directory called “LaunchPad.exe” which opens up a link-bar with all the tools currently provided by UWE, as well as a couple guides and tutorial links. Of particular interest to budding level designers, the “Mapping Guidelines” lays out some really interesting tips on how the UWE crew thinks about their level design process. There is a 3D modeling program provided, but it is currently in pre-alpha state, and at present can’t hold a candle to the free-to-use Blender 3D, which has been in development for ages. Luckily you can import models from other 3D programs. They also included Decoda, a Lua code editor, a model-viewer (similar to Source’s Hammer tools), and a Cinematic creator. UWE has promised that they will continue working on these secondary products going forward.

Conclusion

Natural Selection 2 is an entertaining, novel experience with a rewarding skill curve, excellent level design, surprising depth, and an open source development model. All those things add up to a definite-buy if any of the above sounds appealing to you—especially since its only $25 USD.

REVIEW: Soul Calibur V

[This is a Video Game Review originally published on GameShark.com. The site was eventually shut down, and since these no longer appear anywhere online, I wanted to archive them here.]

Overall Grade: B+­

Game: Soul Calibur 5

Platform: Xbox 360, PS3

Developer: Project Soul

Publisher: Namco Bandai

ESRB: T

Genre: Fighting

Players: 1-2

What’s Hot: Fantastic fighting; interesting new mechanics that fit organically with the Soul Calibur style; great sound and graphics; character creation is pretty fun; Ezio fits right in; online play is solid and responsive.

What’s Not: Story mode is pretty awful; besides the weak story mode, single player content is almost nonexistent; arbitrary character replacements and losses.

——

Phenomenal fighting, but a serious lack of content.

When it comes to the actual fighting, Soul Calibur V knocks it out of the park. Unfortunately, nearly every other part of the game is stunted and poorly executed. Soul Calbur V steps up and delivers where it really counts, but the single player content is a big step down from what we’ve come to expect from the series. Unless you plan on playing with friends, or making use of the online features, don’t count on getting your money’s worth. But it should be noted that longtime fans are guaranteed to enjoy the direction Project Soul has taken the fighting mechanics.

Until now, the series has failed to top its excellent second installment. But this time Project Soul took the fans’ wishes to heart and played to their unique strengths, emphasizing the things that set Soul Calibur apart, those things you can’t get from the other guys in the fighting game world. The battles are incredibly fast and fluid. Each character’s fighting style is entirely unique. The balance of reach, power, and speed across such widely different fighters is really impressive. And as we’ve come to expect, it’s a very approachable game for newcomers as well as being deeply strategic at higher skill levels.

Each fighter’s move list is a little different from their incarnations in previous games, but the overall feel of each returning style will still be familiar and easy to pick up for veterans. Continuing the long-standing tradition of guest stars, Ezio Auditore of Assassin’s Creed fame and Devil Jin of Tekken both make appearances and fit right in with the rest of the crew. A new emphasis on projectile attacks adds a new strategic level to some fights, but does so without ruining the melee weapon system at the core of the franchise: Ezio’s crossbow, Devil Jin’s laserbeam, Cervantes’s pistol-sword, Z.W.E.I.’s wolf-spirit, and Viola’s weird… magic… ball-thing. Soul Calibur has always had an anime-inspired aesthetic, but the character designs in V seem more Final-Fantasy-ized (Nomura-ized?) than they ever have before. Which can be good or bad depending on where you’re standing.

After repeatedly failing to incorporate a special-gauge in any practical, relevant way, Soul Calibur V’s Critical Gauge/Brave Edge system finally manages to organically integrate itself into the fight. A handful of moves for each character can be bolstered into more powerful versions with a well-timed tap of the Brave Edge button; these are unique to each character though, so there is an aspect of move memorization that should appeal to certain audiences. Each character also has unique and cinematic Critical Edge special moves that act a bit like a Marvel vs. Capcom’s super-crazy-seizure moves in that many of them can be thwarted by a simple guard—so they have to be timed just right—and that they use up a portion of the Critical Gauge—so they have to be rationed as well. There’s some bad news though, in a really poor decision Guard Impacts have also been linked the Critical Gauge. These parry moves used to be an integral part of Soul Calibur strategy, but their current implementation makes them so clunky and unreliable as to be almost pointless in many circumstances. On the other hand, some characters have dedicated parry moves not linked to the Critical Gauge which can be incredibly powerful if mastered.

The story of Soul Calibur and its characters has always been pretty difficult to keep up with. Unless you took the time to read every character bio, you had to infer everything from vague blurbs at the beginning and end of an arcade mode pretending to be a story mode. This time there’s a distinct, linear storyline that specifically incorporates a couple of the new characters and is revealed through occasionally cool illustrations and decent voice overs. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the story is awful, the writing is eye roll inducing—“How many times do you think we can say the made up word ‘Malfested’ in one playthrough?”—and the worst part is you don’t get to choose your character. The majority of the story mode is spent playing as Patroklos, and if you don’t like his fighting style? Well, tough noogies. There are no towers, no world maps, no dungeon exploration, no special-challenge matches. Frankly, this is a massive disappointment, and it makes me wonder if paying full price is justifiable. Besides the story mode, there’s a classic Arcade mode, the Legendary Souls mode is basically arcade set on ultra-hard, and Quick Battle is (I guess?) an attempt to simulate online play in offline mode.

Character creation is more fun than ever. And even though there seem to be less creation items overall than the last game, between colors and decals the customization level is fantastic. Being able to play your fully customized character in online matches is an added bonus. I’ve seen some really creative uses of the creation system battling online. Besides invented characters, I’ve run into Hulk, She-Hulk, Raiden (Mortal Kombat), and even a Leela. There are also blogs online that show you how to make Dovahkiin, Zero-suit Samus, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, etc.

Online play is really solid, most of the time anyway. Maybe 1 out of 10 fights have lost connection and dropped while playing online, but there’s a helpful little connection-status icon that tells you how good a connection your potential opponent has before you accept the fight—avoid anyone who’s connection is less than a three. It’s still early, but it looks like the serious players will use Ranked Matches to self-sort to higher tier opponents and leave the casual gamers—who don’t engage in the ranked matches—to battle amongst themselves in the low-E ranks. Players can also create their own lobbies inside the larger, regional ones and weed out the smurfers to play with people around their skill level.

Project Soul made some downright bizarre decisions with their character roster. Soul Calibur V takes place seventeen years after IV and a few franchise veterans are gone, replaced by irritatingly cutesy, younger characters. For example, Taki, Xianghua, and Kilik have been replaced by Happy-Ninja-Girl Natsu, Fighting-is-Fun-Kawaii-Girl Leixia, and Always-Talks-About-Food-Dude Xiba, respectively. Also, there are no replacements for now-absent Talim and a few others who’ve been around since III. But then characters like Maxi, Ivy, Voldo, Asteroth, Lizardman, etc. are still around? The inclusion of three separate random-weapon characters is just strange, eeven though the three Edge Masters pull from different weapon sets—Male weapons, Female weapons, and All weapons. The replacements and absences seem entirely arbitrary, and run contrary to fan expectations.

Versus mode (local player vs. player) lacks some really basic options; there is no infinite round timer option (max is 60 seconds), and there are no handicap options—which were great for leveling the playing field when fighting with friends way above or below you in skill. And yet again, Team Versus mode fails to make an appearance.

The single player and local multiplayer content issues smack of sheer laziness, and go a long way toward bringing down the game’s overall rating. But they also don’t change the fact that based on fighting merit alone, Soul Calibur V might finally oust Soul Calibur II as the best in the series.

REVIEW: Lord of the Rings: War in the North

[This is a Video Game Review originally published on GameShark.com. The site was eventually shut down, and since these no longer appear anywhere online, I wanted to archive them here.]

Overall Grade: C+

Platform: Xbox 360, PS3, PC

Developer: Snowblind Studios

Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

ESRB: M

Genre: Action-RPG

Players: 1-3 Co-op

What’s Hot: Chock full of lore, enjoyable storyline, dismembering monsters is a pleasure, its the first M-rated LOTR game, environments are beautiful, great textures, nice set pieces, fun co-op experience, nice soundtrack.

What’s Not: Mediocre gameplay, battles become repetitive, wooden dialog scenes, cumbersome UI can be baffling; it is so close to being great, but falls short of its potential.

——

Fan service. No, not that kind.

Are you itching to hear every single line of dialog this game has to offer? Are you going to “squee” at the chance to chat with Bilbo Baggins and run around in Rivendell? Then this might be the game for you, even more so if you have a friend or two that feel the same way. Here’s the thing: War in the North can’t really stand on its gameplay alone, it relies heavily on the players being LOTR fans. If this was ‘Generic Fantasy Title: War in the North’ it would probably be dead in the water. Don’t misunderstand though, this isn’t some lazy cash-in on a franchise, it is a Lord of the Rings game through and through.

I have coined what I believe to be a new term to accurate convey what this game is: “Lore Porn” (don’t Google it). The writing team clearly did their homework and if, like me, you’re a bit LOTR-obsessive you’ll love the absurd amount of lore jammed into this title. (I should mention that true LOTR aficionados may scoff at inconsistencies that I wouldn’t have noticed.) There is a ton of content to absorb if you’re so inclined, but if you’re not then you can probably pass on this game altogether. For fanfolks, being able to do things like fight wights in the Barrow-Downs and creep through Mirkwood almost makes up for the mediocre gameplay. Even then, it might not be enough to keep you playing.

An emphasis on co-op can add a lot to a game, and it’s fitting that a LOTR game should do this, unfortunately in this case the single-player experience suffers for that emphasis. An important word of caution if you take on a co-op campaign: Make sure everyone agrees ahead of time whether they want to explore every dialog option or just skip through to the next fight. Every player has to watch every conversation with an NPC, so a lack of consensus on this point could lead to some very irritated allies.

Speaking of allies, when playing a single-player campaign you have no control over your NPC allies’ equipment or skill allocations, and their AI is quite poor—don’t get me started on pathfinding. Swapping between characters is a chore, and despite having a persistent inventory it feels more like switching between three separate, parallel dimensions and less like switching roles in one consistent world. Example: Let’s say you’re playing as the Dwarf, you deck him out with certain equipment and skills, and customize his appearance. When you switch to play as the Ranger, suddenly the Dwarf will have a completely different set of equipment and skills; this is both confusing and annoying.

The combat is very brawler-esque with a variety of activated-skills unique to each character. It is fun for a while—especially dismembering orcs and goblins—but becomes repetitive. Leveling and skill systems blend mechanics of Baldur’s Gate and Borderlands, including purchasable re-spec tokens. Randomly-generated loot/equipment mechanics are reminiscent of the Diablo series, including named sets of armor that grant bonuses for wearing more pieces of the set, and gems that you can slot into weapons and armor. Equipment also changes your character’s physical appearance, which is always a nice touch. But wait, what if you need to sell off some of that vendor-trash, or get repairs? No problem! Inexplicable (and unexplained) beams of white light are scattered throughout the levels, they give you a chance to go back to town but also act as merchants for some reason.

The environments are aesthetically beautiful, the textures and lighting effects are great, but the level-design itself is pretty straightforward, strategically speaking. Enemy designs are great, but there’s only one model for each type—allowing that a heavy-armor orc is a different enemy-type than a basic grunt. The character models feel a little dated, and suffer from the same problems that face any game trying to render screen-actors as game-friendly character models. The voice-acting is generally good enough to not call attention to itself, but the dialog-animations are very wooden; I recommend keeping your eyes on the subtitles during conversations. Despite this, most of the in-game animations are smooth and appealing, if repetitive, and the slow-motion critical strikes are pretty badass. There are some nice set-pieces sprinkled in—like watching a great eagle eat the eyes out of a stone-giant—and these go a long way toward reminding you that you’re just a small part of the massive war against Mordor.

Overall, the entertainment is there, but usability is lacking. I just kept thinking, “This game could have been so great.” To conclude, I will describe the very specific people and scenario that would make this game an absolutely fantastic experience: A group of three LOTR fans that are all equally enamored with the lore and want to hear every single piece of dialog in the game, they each want to purchase their own copy and they want to play through the whole game together. For that hypothetical group of people, go ahead and pretend I gave this game a B+ instead.

REVIEW: Nuclear Dawn

[This is a Video Game Review originally published on GameShark.com. The site was eventually shut down, and since these no longer appear anywhere online, I wanted to archive them here.]

Overall Grade: B-

Game: Nuclear Dawn

Platform: PC (Online-Only)

Developer: InterWave Studios

Publisher: InterWave Studios

ESRB: M

Genre: FPS / RTS

Players: Up to 32

What’s Hot: Variety of classes/equipment load-outs. Fun rock-paper-scissor class mechanics. Interesting implementation of FPS/RTS mechanics. Every round plays out differently. Working with a good team is an absolute joy.

What’s Not: Still feels unpolished; many annoying (minor) bugs. Poor hit-boxes on map objects and horrible ladders can make navigating levels a chore. Cumbersome in-game menu system. RTS implementation is a little clunky.

——

The weakest link is between the keyboard and the chair.

At first glance, Nuclear Dawn feels like just another easily forgettable FPS, but if you fight past the fairly steep learning curve and dig a little deeper, you find a fun and surprisingly complex experience. Nuclear Dawn takes the basic “Red and Blue battle for objective points” formula and adds another layer by allowing one player on each team to take on the responsibility of Commander. While it certainly isn’t the first game to combine FPS and RTS it does have its own spin on the concept. Playing as the Commander does indeed feel like playing an RTS with a human-controlled army—which can be either extremely satisfying or unbelievably frustrating. And like many games that rely on player-based command-structures, the weakest link of Nuclear Dawn is, invariably, other players.

You choose between four classes—Assault, Exo (Heavy), Stealth, and Support—and each class has two or three different equipment load-outs. Since each class/load-out combination plays differently, there’s a lot of variety for the ground troops to play with. There is also a persistent experience system that grants access to “Gizmos” that customize your load-out further—expanded magazines, armor-piercing bullets, different gun-sights, etc. (But these don’t make Nuclear Dawn “top-heavy” and inaccessible to newbies like many games with similar systems.) The ground troops’ main goal is capturing objective-points that provide a flow of resources the Commander needs to build structures and buy upgrades.

One of the best aspects of the class system is the rock-paper-scissor relationship between the three Infantry types: An Assault can’t hold his ground in a firefight with an Exo, but the Assault’s (toggleable) thermal vision can reveal cloaked Stealthers. A quick-moving, cloaked Stealther can sneak up on a slow-moving Exo and score a one-hit-kill backstab, but won’t last long if he’s spotted by the Assault’s thermal vision. The Support class options are: Engineer, Medic, or “BBQ” flamethrowers. Teamwork is really important in Nuclear Dawn, so landing in a team that works well together is an absolute joy—but this also means the opposite is infuriating.

Nuclear Dawn’s RTS aspect wouldn’t be able to stand on its own, but in tandem with the interesting ground-war and the difficulties inherent in issuing commands to actual people, it becomes a fast-paced, twitch-decision balancing act that is great fun. The RTS interface is pretty clunky, but you get used to it. Don’t expect to jump into the hot-seat right off the bat though; to be an effective commander requires an intimate understanding of each map, and an understanding of defensible structure placement, both of which can only be obtained through experience as a soldier. Commanders also need to spend their resources effectively to balance troop supplies, forward spawn points, equipment upgrades and power management. Orders issued by the Commander, when followed, also grant bonus experience to the troops.

Even something as simple as a well-placed supply-station can change the entire momentum of a battle, so it probably goes without saying that a good Commander is a prerequisite for winning. Luckily there is a “Mutiny” system that lets the team give ineffective leaders the boot. Another brilliant little feature is the “Surrender” option; if your team is being beaten against the wall with no hope of a comeback, Nuclear Dawn gives your Commander the option to mercifully put an end to the slaughter by Surrendering.

It’s far from the best-looking game on the market, but it’s also far from the worst, and the gameplay makes up for it anyway. The levels are all inspired by specific locations—like New York, and London—which is a nice touch, and the scraps of an apocalyptic war are littered throughout the levels. Most importantly, though, the level designs offer a wide variety of strategic options, so every battle plays out a little differently. It’s this kind of variety that will keep you coming back for more.

As of this writing (10-30-2011), the game lacks a level of polish that I would have liked to see. But a steady stream of patches gives me faith that the development team is working diligently to give Nuclear Dawn the attention it deserves.

REVIEW: MDK2 HD

[This is a Video Game Review originally published on GameShark.com. The site was eventually shut down, and since these no longer appear anywhere online, I wanted to archive them here.]

Overall grade: C

Platform: PC (Beamdog Exclusive)

Publisher: Beamdog

Developer: Overhaul Games

ESRB: Teen

Genre: Third-Person Action-Platformer

Players: 1

What’s Hot: The main cast looks great. Sound quality is impressive. Classic, nostalgia-inducing gameplay. Still hilarious.

What’s Not: Choppy gameplay at high resolution. Very glitchy. Inconsistent visual quality. Shows its age.

——

Close, but no (six-armed robot-dog smoking a) cigar.

You heard it through the grapevine: MDK2 would be updated and re-released. Could it be true? Oh, joy! That’s what I thought anyway. Unfortunately, MDK2 HD is rather disappointing. Nostalgia-junkies will love the mostly-unaltered gameplay, the still-hilarious atmosphere, and the re-created cast. But whether or not the game will run smoothly on your gaming rig might be a bit of a crap-shoot.

If you never got a chance to play the original, its a bit of a cult-classic. MDK2 is a third-person action-platformer originally released in 2000. Each level you switch between one of three different protagonists who each have their own unique play-styles. Kurt Hectic is a janitor-turned-action-hero wearing an advanced combat exoskeleton called the coil suit; his levels emphasize sniping, sneaking, and gliding around. Dr. Fluke Hawkins can MacGuyver various items together into weapons and gadgets like the atomic toaster or the fishbowl-space-suit; his levels involve a lot of creative problem solving. Lastly, Max is a six-legged robot-dog with a taste for fine cigars and finer weaponry; he can equip up to four guns at once and—as you may have guessed—his levels involve a lot of shooting everything everywhere all the time.

My personal experience with this game was rather maddening. However, if it weren’t for these performance problems, I imagine I would have sailed through the game with a satisfied grin firmly plastered across my face. Unfortunately, due to the potential idiosyncrasies of PC gaming, there’s no way to know whether MDK2 HD will run well on your system or not without access to a playable demo—which is currently not an option. Overall, it feels like a nice paint job on a car that hasn’t been maintained.

Even though my computer’s specs far exceed the suggested system requirements, I experienced severe performance issues at any decent resolution—which seems to defeat the purpose of an “HD” remake. Even at the lowest possible resolution, I’d hit serious chop any time anything remotely interesting happened—as in, fighting or platforming. This made the game just shy of unplayable.

While the main characters and bosses have all been re-modeled beautifully, with high polygon-counts and high-res textures, almost everything else still looks straight out of the late nineties or early aughts. While this juxtaposition serves to make the updated models look great, it also makes the rest of the game really show its age. In fairness to the “HD” claim, MDK2 HD’s sound quality is fantastic—that is, when it’s not glitching.

After communicating with the development team, they seem very attentive and are actively patching the game. (As of this writing, Oct 23, 2011, it has already been patched twice since launching a week and a half ago.) So maybe in the near future the above-mentioned problems won’t be an issue. Until that time, I can’t recommend picking this one up. If the news of the HD release has got you itching for MDK2 again, think about hunting down a copy of the original.

Caveat: If you have a way to test the game on your computer and it runs great, then I do highly recommend picking it up. i.e. If Overhaul releases a playable demo, or if you have a buddy who already owns the game who can pull up his/her Beamdog account on your PC so you can test it out.

REVIEW: Orcs Must Die!

[This is a Video Game Review originally published on GameShark.com. The site was eventually shut down, and since these no longer appear anywhere online, I wanted to archive them here.]

Overall Grade: A-

Game: Orcs Must Die!

Platform: Xbox LIVE Arcade, PC

Developer: Robot Entertainment

ESRB: Teen

Genre: Action-Strategy

Players: 1

What’s Hot: Fun, unique, and constantly-evolving gameplay. Lots of variety, encourages experimentation. Great artistic style, good voice acting. (Mostly) Funny writing. Pick-up-and-playable. Great value for the price.

What’s Not: Long load times. Mini-map mechanics make it hard to keep track of what’s going on. Only a handful of orc designs. Occasional glitches.

——

War Mage, what is best in life?

To crush the orcs, to see their kobolds driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their ogres!

In Orcs Must Die! you are a War Mage defending “Rift-Fortresses” from hordes of orcs and other monsters. Hire mercenaries, use a variety of traps, weapons and spells to slaughter, burn, toss, dissolve, crush, and otherwise fatally injure orcs and their friends before they can reach the “Rift-Portals” that lead to the human world. Tower defense strategy combines with fast-paced brawling and spell-slinging so naturally that you’ll wonder why the combination hasn’t happened before. Think: the siege of Helm’s Deep crossed with DeathSpank as re-imagined by Team Meat and you start to get the idea.

One of the game’s biggest strengths is that every time you think you’ve got it all figured out, something new comes charging through the gate, rendering your previous strategy obsolete. It keeps you on your toes, to say the least. You are constantly forced to try new strategies, which means Orcs Must Die! stays consistently exciting and engaging.

The crossbow mechanics are particularly well-done. First, you can just put the trigger to the plastic for highly-inaccurate auto-fire. But to use the crossbow effectively you have to remain calm and focused in the face of a slavering orcish horde, timing and loosing your shots carefully at high-value targets. Whether it’s the quick-moving kobolds who can sprint through your choke-points, the hulking ogres that soak up absurd amounts of damage, or the flying, fireball-chucking hell-bats, you have to play assassin and crowd-control simultaneously.

You receive upgrade points (in the form of orc-skulls) based on how well and how quickly you defend each fortress, and the persistent upgrade system lets you compliment your specific play style. When you unlock a new item (by progressing through the campaign), it becomes available to you in earlier levels as well. This allows you to go back with your new bag of tricks to decimate a level that gave you trouble earlier, and to win that perfect 5-skull score that previously eluded you. Eventually, you also gain access to “Weavers” in battle who provide various single-level buffs which allow you to tailor your strategy even further.

The game isn’t the pinnacle of perfection, but its few flaws are (usually) easy to overlook. For example while it’s great that Orcs Must Die! encourages experimentation, it can also be frustrating to waste time figuring out how something works because the game didn’t explain it. Loading times are also less than optimal. Since experimentation also means restarting levels a lot, and restarting a level means completely re-loading it, you’ll spend a lot of time staring at loading screens. On the upside, each level’s loading screen has its own entertaining illustration showing how each newly-acquired trap, spell or minion works. (Although they are remarkably less entertaining the fourth and fifth time you see them.)

Enemies sometimes glitch and get stuck inside the spawn point (which prevents you from attacking them), and this will artificially increase your completion time. Luckily there are safeguards, and in most cases a stuck enemy is auto-killed after a few seconds, but in one case I had to restart a level after completing the very last wave because a glitched, stuck enemy was never auto-killed. (But this was also pre-release code, and this may be fixed.)

I also had an issue with the mini-map, which you can only toggle between two sizes: The default HUD mini-map is so small that it’s hard to keep track of what is happening elsewhere on the map, and when you’re defending multiple spawn points this is vital. You can toggle to an enlarged mini-map, but it sits directly on top of your character and completely obscures your vision. A third option, or a semi-transparent enlarged-map would have been nice. This may not sound like a big deal, but it can be. In Orcs Must Die! a split-second of inattention can mean the difference between victory and defeat—but that’s part of why it’s such an exciting game.

Heroics: Strange Tales of Absurd Superheroes

I’m very excited for this news, and I hope you’ll share in some of that excitement with me. My first short story publication, “Henchman: Origin,” is coming out on October 16th in the Boxfire Press anthology “Heroics: Strange Tales of Absurd Superheroes” edited by Brian Moll. Boxfire recently posted an excerpt—the first few paragraphs—on their blog to promote the upcoming book.

This is clearly a self-plug, but the anthology’s theme is also relevant to the interests of our readers here. So I hope you’ll check it out and I hope you’ll enjoy my story. Other authors appearing in the collection are Keith Kennedy, Glenn Yonezawa, Jason T. Lewis, Wayne Ligon, Quincy Jones, Rebecca Gale, and Stephen Graham Jones.

“Heroics” is available for preorder right now, paperbacks are going for $16.99, and you can snag it for $5.99 for the Kindle.

Also, if you want to keep an eye on my writing going forward, you can always like me on Facebook.

REVIEW: Heavy Metal’s Helldiver: Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Book One

[Originally published July-2012 on BigShinyRobot.]

If by some strange chance you’re unfamiliar with the “Heavy Metal” brand, the first thing you should know about Helldiver is that it’s full of gore and nudity, both gratuitous and exaggerated. Let’s put it this way: this isn’t one you’re going to want to read on the bus or subway. Helldiver‘s story also rides steady in the realm of “pure badassery,” so don’t expect any revelatory literary experiences. Do expect: demons, swords, guns, and a High Archon of the Order of Solomon with a black trench coat (stylistically reminiscent of Spawn’s cape) who uses the aforementioned lethal implements to dispatch many of the aforementioned demons. It’s a fun experience, to be sure, as long as you know what you’re getting into.

Not sure if you’ve noticed this, but the new “thing” around the pop culture scene seems to be angels and demons. (I guess everyone is over Vampires? Here’s hoping, anyway. Maybe they can be cool again in another few years. Damn you Stephanie Meyer!) So the Four Horsemen books are well timed to take advantage of the new trend. Our protagonist, Adam Cahill, is a man who’s given his life to his faith as a High Archon of the secret society The Order of Solomon. The Order has protected the Seven Seals—you know, the biblical ones that, once broken, usher in the end of days—but now they’ve gone missing, and a group known as the Nicolaitans are behind it. The Order calls in Adam, their heavy hitter, to take action. Bloody, bloody action. Eventually, Adam is sent to Hell—sorry, is that a spoiler when we’re talking about a book entitled Helldiver?—where he must track down some misfit companions, damned souls to help him save the world.

Michael Mendheim’s story is very entertaining, with great pacing that moves swiftly from important scenes to set pieces with very little lag time. Mendheim clearly has a knack for Heavy Metal’s particular blend of sex, violence, and incontestable badassery. He weaves the story all over the world and to realms beyond without leaving the reader disoriented, but it’s when we get to Hell that the fun really starts. The realms of Hell are many and personal, peopled by demons in disguise, and the first soul we encounter doesn’t even know she’s dead. From there, things move into a very surreal realm that Adam calls a “patho-reactive plane,” a manifested representation of the soul’s beliefs, fears, and inner demons which she must face. Pretty cool. There are a few off-moments in the writing, like when we get a flashback to something that happened all of six pages previous, or the odd, expository line once Adam gets to Hell, “Your soul can be extinguished, so don’t die again.” This raises the stakes, sure, because otherwise the reader might wonder, “What happens if he dies in Hell? Shouldn’t he just wake up back in Hell like in South Park?” but it still feels a little forced. Luckily these are infrequent, and the majority of the script feels pretty organic.

Simon Bisley’s art is really incredible, and so gritty you won’t believe it until you see it yourself. Unfortunately, this also makes the art occasionally unreadable. Sometimes there is so much going on in a single shot, and the frame composition doesn’t always help you parse out the action very well. These issues are (again only occasionally) exacerbated by strange proportion and foreshortening issues. (The Horsemen website offers a free, seven-page preview. If you’re interested, you would do well to check it out. Especially the gateway to Hell two-page spread, which is a guest painting from Joel Boucquemont.) Those minor issues aside, the art is a pleasure to behold. Chad Fidler’s coloring is vibrant, gorgeous, a great compliment to Bisley’s work, and just excellent all around. Strong color is a huge asset here, considering how many bullets and flames are in the book. There are plenty of frames that will just grab you and force you to examine them down to every detail because they’re just breathtaking. If you’re into totally-metal depictions of Hell, complete with melting faces, crazy demonic monsters, and absurdly-proportioned naked women, you’re going to want to check this one out.

Besides Bisley’s art, the graphical elements of the book are a mixed bag. For instance, the page frames are these lovely, grungy, organic things, they set such a perfect mood against Bisley’s art. On the other hand, the lettering and typographical sensibility is just awful, and this is simply bizarre considering the high production value in every other aspect of the book. It will probably bug some less than others, but to reference the free preview again, look at the voice of God on that same two-page gateway to Hell spread. I’m pretty sure that’s Times New Roman, and the speech bubbles are these ugly blobs that look like built-in Photoshop brushes. Many of the book’s sound effects also look like Microsoft Word WordArt (there are no examples of this in the preview, though). This does not look like the work of a professional letterer, and feels very out of place in an otherwise high quality comic.

Overall, if you can avoid rolling your eyes at some of these admittedly minor flaws, you’ll find an excellent read and a visual pleasure (mostly), but you have to be in the right mood for it. If that right mood strikes, you’re not going to want to miss this book.

(One last thing: Throughout the book, random letters in dialogue are colored red, so if this is some kind of letter jumble, and you can make any sense of it, be sure to let me know.)

[Connor Cleary is an author, video game columnist and critic, and a freelance web-slash-graphic designer. He is a reviewer at GameShark and an occasional opinion and analysis columnist at Gamasutra. His freelance design business is Four Stair Multimedia and Design. You can follow Connor @The_Blue_Key, or at fb/TheBlueKey, or check out his writing archive on tumblr, The Blue Key.]

Borderlands 2 Skill Tree Builder Now Available

[Originally published September-2012 on BigShinyRobot, just before the release of Borderlands 2.]

You know those pants you’ve got that are all soaked-through with excitement-piss because Borderlands 2 is coming out in 10 days? You may want to put those back on for a moment. I mean, there’s no sense ruining those pants you’re wearing. That is, of course, assuming you’re wearing pants at the moment. But since this is the internet, that’s probably not a safe bet.

In any case, Gearbox just released a little web app you’ll want to check out. The full skill trees for each of the four basic classes in Borderlands 2 are not only available, but usable. That’s right, you can hop onto a browser-based skill tree load-out for each class and plan out some character builds, Gearbox has given you 46 skill points to play with, which is just enough to make some interesting builds.

You can access the skill tree builder through the main site’s characters page, then click your badass of choice and look for the giant yellow “View Skill Tree” link in the bottom left. Alternatively, you can use these fancy direct links provided by me at no extra charge:

Gearbox is still working on adding more functionality to the app. Soon (hopefully) you’ll be able to share your builds with friends and right-click to remove skill points. (At present you have to use the “Reset” button if you add a skill point to the wrong place accidentally.)

And while you’re there, be sure to check out the awesome and informative new video on their media page called “Borderlands 2: An Introduction by Sir Hammerlock.”

Enjoy, fellow gaming enthusiasts. As for me, I’ve got to go put my own excitement-piss-soaked pants in the washer. Just kidding, I’m not wearing pants either.

The Border Lands (Borderlands 2 16-bit Style Demake)

[Originally published August-2012 on BigShinyRobot.]

If you’re anything like me, right about now you’re wishing you had a Futurama-style cryogenic tube so you could freeze-sleep away the remaining three weeks and change until Borderlands 2 hits the shelves.

Of course you could pop in that archaic, dusty relic of a game you call your copy of Borderlands the First*, or you could try this shiny new, super-retro style Borderlands 2 Demake created in the style of Smash TV, but with a variety of weapons and trademark Borderlands enemies like Skags, Psychos, and Bruisers. Their gimmick here is calling this “the 1989 16-bit original,” which is cute but doesn’t go beyond that.

*Kidding, of course. Pretty sure my copy of Borderlands has been in regular rotation longer than any other game I’ve ever owned.

Okay, so it won’t bring the real Borderlands 2 any closer to your disc slot—which is positively quivering with anticipation… what? yours doesn’t do that?—but it might take your mind off it for a few seconds.

It’s a ton of fun, and definitely one of the better marketing games I’ve played. You can plan on this sucking away a lot of time as you first get the hang of it and try all the different characters and weapons and firing patterns. Maybe you’ll have a different playstyle than I tend toward, but I found myself narrowing my gun choices down to a very small selection pretty quickly. Eventually I simply refused to pick up anything that wasn’t a—(minor spoiler incoming)—railgun with 2-way firing pattern because it was just so damn useful. Obviously it’s a free, tiny, in-browser marketing gimmick so it’s not a polished work of retro-gaming art, but it’s pretty damn good. I especially appreciate the enemy death sounds, they are appropriately Streets of Rage-y. It would have been really nice if they found a way to support X360 controllers but you can’t really complain.

Read on past the link for some tips and tricks I picked up along the way, or just head straight there and explore the game for yourself.

The Border Lands (Borderlands 2 Demake)

Some tips and tricks for not having a bad time:

The first thing you’ll want to know is this, and I’ve gone ahead and meme-ified it for you.

Seriously, be careful which weapons you pick up. There are some terrible guns in this game, and a single mistaken press of the right or left arrow can ruin your game. Train yourself to look at the firing-pattern stat first and avoid “random” like the plague. Because much like the plague, it will kill you. (Caveat, if you’re going with Salvador, or maybe Axton and you like getting surrounded and swarmed, random might possibly be a viable firing pattern for “Flame” and “Shotgun” weapon types.) With weapons, utility trumps stats, so find one that works and get comfortable.

Eventually you’ll find a handful of weapon-types and associated firing patterns that work for you, so once you pick up a gun that’s doing an admirable job, don’t be in any big hurry to replace it. While we’re on the topic of not hurrying, never rush a new-weapon pick. Pressing “down” to cancel weapon pickup should always be your default move. Watch out for accidentally running into chests, and don’t approach a chest unless you’ve got some hit points to spare.

Again, spoilers ahead: You can absolutely school the early stage of every level with just a decent 2-way Railgun, just keep alternating between shooting horizontally and vertically and the enemy spawners will be choked with loot chests in no time. But don’t worry about those, later on in the levels you’ll always face a bruiser wave. Since bruisers always drop a loot chest, you’ll have plenty of time to hunt for a new 2-way Railgun when the level is nearly empty.

Enjoy.