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XBL, PSN, PC (Reviewed)
Released: February 8 2011 (PSN), February 9 2011 (XBL), March 6 2012 (PC)
Developer: Double Fine
The idea of living dolls tends to give me the heebie geebies. Maybe it’s because I watched Child’s Play when I was a wee coward, or maybe it’s because Stephen King has taught me to be scared of inanimate objects that take on a life of their own, regardless the concept makes me uneasy. Double Fine’s delightful world of matryoshka dolls in Stacking was exactly the cure I needed.
Little Charlie Blackmore is the tiniest doll in all the world, he’s a precocious little scamp with an optimistic outlook on life. When his chimney sweep family are kidnapped by a wicked Industrialist known as the Baron, little Charlie takes his family motto to heart: “Ain’t no mess we can’t address.” The youngest Blackmore sets off on an adventure to rescue his kin; across the sea, sky and land.
Charlie may only be a wee fellow, but he has a gift that keeps him in good stead throughout his adventure. He can stack inside another doll one size larger than he and use their special abilities to overcome obstacles and solve puzzles, he can also have that doll stack in another one size larger and so on.
Writer: Steven Hansen
PS3 (reviewed), Vita, 360, PC, Wii
Released: Nov 15, 20l1 (PS3/360/Wii), Feb 15, 2012 (Vita)
Developer: Ubisoft Montpellier
I never got too into the Rayman series over the years, but when Rayman Origins caught my attention, looking that pretty, I had to take a peek. I also had to check and make sure that I still loved 2D platformers and that it isn’t just nostalgia that gives the genre its glister. Turns out, I do in fact still love 2D platformers. And I love Rayman Origins.
In Rayman Origins, some things definitely happen. Rayman, his goofy pal Globox, and friends are all chillin’ out in the Snoring Tree when their chill beats disturb an old, scary lady from down below, causing her to unleash a pox upon the world that Rayman (and company) must stop by saving sexy nymphs and doing other things. It may in fact be an origin story (as the name might imply), set in the beginning of the Rayman universe. Or it may not. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that it warms my soul.
When I first took control of my unfamiliar, limbless protagonist, I felt an innate satisfaction in simply maneuvering him around the environment. It was just like all of the great platformers in how empowering it was simply to jump, but Rayman has some modern contrivances that help elevate it, as it builds on the fundamentals of its predecessors.
Welcome back, fellow xenoarchaeologists! Last time, we were taking a look at the marvelous alien worlds of yesteryear, but this week we are rapidly approaching the present. A terrifying time, to be sure. The 21st century presented us with some fantastic tech, which allowed us to explore more believable worlds; worlds which acted much like our own. These spaces were not as limited as the ones that came before and invisible walls were far fewer. However, nonlinear, open worlds are not the only avenue for exploratory adventures. In the case of our first game, it certainly helped, though.
Back in 2002 I was given an extraordinary gift, a copy of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. I was aware of the series, but I’d never played Arena or Daggerfall. I was sick of generic fantasy races or locations and Vvardenfell offered something that felt entirely new. Keep your horses, I only want to ride a Silt Strider. Despite being a diverse place, it was consistently bleak and enigmatic.
The towering grey mountains — covered in ash — hid ferocious Cliff Racers, without a doubt the most unassuming and evil of all the province’s creatures and mysterious, haunted Dwemer ruins. Expansive wastelands and deserts could make a traveler lost and disorientated as sand and ash storms cloud their vision. The most verdant areas were marshes and swamps, where any number of bizarre beasties could attack at a moments notice. Morrowind could teach a lot of modern developers how to make an interesting, yet dour world without simply painting everything brown and calling it a day.
Released: December 20 2011
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Over the last few months, I’ve slaughtered Sith, Jedi, jawas and a couple of Hutts. I’ve brought worlds to their knees, become best buddies with a hideous force eating monstrosity and called countless people “nerf herder” (including Liam and Andy). Yes, I’ve been playing a lot of Star Wars: The Old Republic. Enough so that I have a big ol’ mean Sith Assassin sitting pretty at level 50 and fair few alts climbing their way up the leveling pole, anyway.
There’s a lot to like about BioWare’s contribution to this increasingly saturated MMO market. I’m a sucker for a good story — which makes my love of MMOs all the more bizarre — and the narrative is probably one of The Old Republic’s strongest elements. It’s no wonder that it took so long for us to get our hands on the game as it contains eight fairly well written, fully voice acted stories intertwined with the over arching tale of the conflict between the Galactic Republic and the Sith Empire.
In other MMOs my investment in my characters never goes beyond the amount of time I’ve put into them, but in this space opera my investment stemmed from the fact that my Assassin, Soluum (I was really scraping the barrel for Sith Lord names), was a campy psychopath with a fetish for electrocuting everyone. He was wonderful. He had personality, lots of it, that’s not something I ever imagined saying about a player character in an MMO.
These slow burning tales of deceit, adventure and possibly even romance feel very disconnected from the rest of the game, unfortunately. The moment you step into a story instance, signposted by a giant green forcefield, you’re playing a character with a past and his or her own motivations. Outside these instances you’re often relegated another Assassin or Bounty Hunter, spouting canned — sometimes rather amusing — phrases while participating in a boring war. There is a mind boggling amount of dialogue, however, so the canned lines are forgivable much of the time.
When I was growing up — a process some would suggest I never quite got the hang of — there was nothing I liked more than to lie in front of the television and watch reruns of my favourite program, Star Trek. Without a doubt, the episodes I adored the most were the ones where Kirk and company found themselves on bizarre alien worlds. At that age it didn’t bother me that the sets consisted of polystyrene rock formations, big plastic flora and blatantly fake skies. What was important to me was that many of these worlds looked nothing like Earth, that I couldn’t go outside and see the strange beings and landscapes I saw on my family’s little TV.
As wonderful as these places were to me, the episodes were always restricted to small areas and the crew frequently left the interesting outdoors to venture into mundane buildings or go back to the ship. It always left me wondering what was beyond the tiny space I got to see, what would the crew find if they ventured further into these inhospitable lands?
As a viewer, we’re always going to be stopped from truly exploring the worlds we see on our screens. I think that’s one of the reasons that video games quickly became my go to medium when it came to escapism. Not only could I be presented with new worlds to look at, I could explore them myself at my own pace. But in the late 80s and then the 90s developers had, in many ways, even more restrictions than the makers of my favourite sci-fi and fantasy shows.
PS3, Xbox 360, PC (Reviewed)
Released: March 6 2012
Publisher: Electronic Arts
It’s been just over four years since Commander Shepard became a household name, at least in my household. In that time I’ve turned away from my initial skepticism and fully embraced the Mass Effect universe, let’s just say I’ve become invested. When I discuss the series — something that happens a lot — it’s always my Shepard that I harp on about.
I honestly don’t care what happened to the countless Shepard clones that you lot play, I care about Augustus Shepard, best buddy to Garrus Vakarian and Urdnot Wrex, lover of Liara, savior of the Citadel and even the Rachni; a fine chap who just wants to save everyone even if he has to throw his life away to do so. He might sound a lot like your Shepard, but he’s not yours. So bugger off.
With Mass Effect 3, BioWare hasn’t just ended a massively popular video game trilogy, they’ve ended the story of a character I’ve been shaping for years. That’s a big deal, which should be pretty clear from all the drama that has surrounded the game since it launched. It’s hard to say goodbye, but last night I managed it. I still feel a bit sad.
PS3 (reviewed), Xbox 360
Released: February 7 2012
Developer: 38 Studios, Big Huge Games
Publisher: 38 Studios, Electronic Arts
I confess that I was not particularly excited by the prospect of playing yet another fantasy RPG. Not because I have a particular problem with the genre, far from it, it’s just that years of finely honed cynicism has made it hard for me to believe that elves and fairies are remotely interesting now. Kingdoms of Amalur’s demo did not allay any of my fears. After several sleepless nights spent unraveling the threads of fate I’ve washed the demo from my mind and this cynic stands corrected… almost.
After 15 hours — still early in the grand scheme of things — into my package holiday to magical Amalur I noticed something unusual. I was running around on autopilot, ignoring the dialogue, sprinting to quest markers without pondering the context of my adventures, mindlessly crafting and only perking up when I got loot, which was actually quite frequent; I was playing an MMO. After I spotted this I immediately put a stop to it, instead trying to give the game my full attention, but I could never shake off the feeling that at any moment other players would appear and spam an imaginary LFG channel. The elements that frustrate me about these online part time jobs are not present, however. 38 Games and Big Huge Games have managed to distill a lot of what makes players give up huge chunks of their time, without leaving the nagging doubt that they might be getting a bit ripped off.
PC, Xbox 360, PS3 (Reviewed)
Released: February 7, 2012
Developer: Digital Extremes
Publisher: 2K Games
The Darkness took me by surprise back in 2007. I had a passing familiarity with the comics, but did not have particularly high expectations for a licensed game. My, how I was wrong. I finished the campaign in one sitting, fixated on my TV, ignoring everything else. So I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the sequel, despite Starbreeze no longer being the developer. With Digital Extremes taking the mantle, I was looking forward to finding out if it was going to be more of the same or if the franchise would take a new direction.
The Darkness II takes place a couple of years after the original. Brooding mobster, Jackie Estacado has become the head of the New York mob and he’s managed to keep his monstrous passenger under control. But when you’re cursed to be a vessel for an ancient force of evil, happiness is fleeting. After an unexpected attack during a dinner date, Jackie lets The Darkness back into his life so he has the power to get his revenge.
Released: February 24, 2011
Developer: Joshua Nuernberger
Publisher: Wadjet Eye Games
An ex assassin turned cop; a blank slate of a man stuck in a prison turned sinister training facility; a tale of loss and identity; oh my, I’m in heaven.
Gemini Rue is the first adventure game from Joshua Nuernberger and is a rare example of future-noir in video games. As a fan of Westwood’s Blade Runner I found the adventure to be the perfect way to scratch an itch that’s had a long time to develop. It’s an ambitious story told through two men — Azriel Odin and Delta-Six — both who are searching for something very dear to them.
Delta-Six is a prisoner. His story starts with scientists erasing his memory after a recent escape attempt. Before you can learn anything about him, he becomes a man with no past. His routine is carefully monitored by the enigmatic and unnervingly friendly “Director”, who is heard, but never seen. His fellow Center 7 inmates are equally oblivious to their past, but that certainly doesn’t make them naive, or trustworthy. Between participating in tests for the Director, Delta-Six must make allies and escape the facility before the ominous “final exam”.