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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.
Writer: Steven Hansen
Released: November 4, 2008
Ignoring whatever confused abomination (or occasional 2D gem) Sonic Team cobbles together, SEGA has done some interesting things both as developers and publishers; particularly, fostering new IPs. With one game alone, SEGA has built up a couple of banks worth of credit with me. That game is Valkyria Chronicles.
This artful strategy-RPG focuses on one Welkin Gunther, the well-educated and intellectual son of a legendary war hero, who lives in Europa, a surrogate, alternate, and warring 1930’s Europe. The narrative of Valkyria Chronicles is presented through a fictional book, “On the Gallian Front,” which acts as the central hub and menu for all of the events in the game world; there is no overworld to explore. With two large factions warring over a powerful, dwindling resource, Welkin and his small, sovereign nation of Gallia are swept into battle as Welkin, in his father’s old tank, assumes leadership over a militia squad.
While the storybook presentation is novel, it’s also a treasure trove of information, with tabs that allow access to all the details and back stories that help to solidify and give weight to the world of Valkyria Chronicles, acting as an encyclopedia for people, events, weapons, and other things in the world as you progress. The game is presented in chapters, each containing a few cutscenes, some dialogue exchanges, and missions to be completed. While thumbing through the chapters via the book hub, all other options are opened up, including the Headquarters menu.
Writer: Ishak Ferdjani
Most video games begin their life as a tiny spark of an idea. A developer has a gameplay mechanic in mind, a financial goal or simply an interesting story to tell. These are all noble goals in their own ways, but they only scratch the surface of the medium. What makes us truly resonate with any creative work is emotion. The feelings and connections provided by our experiences.
Which is why I wasn’t surprised when Jenova Chen, co-founder and creative director of thatgamecompany, told me that emotion was at the core of all their games.
“In music, novels, TV, movies, there is so much variety in terms of the feelings that the different genres provide. The emotions […] are somewhat limited. That’s why some people stop playing games when they grow up.
“Our goal,” says Chen, “is to push the boundary of the emotional potential of games. Every game we make we want to create a new type of feeling for the player, opposite of the norm.”
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: Oct 5 2010 US, Oct 8 2010 EU
Developer: Ninja Theory
Publisher: Namco Bandai
I let Enslaved: Odyssey to the West slip by when it first released. I hear tell it released smack dab in the middle of a busy fall brimming with big name titles, and that’s why it didn’t make much of a splash, but I knew what it was at the time and was pretty sure I wanted it. Alas, I can’t remember why I didn’t buy it then, but I’m glad that its fluctuating 10 to 20 dollar price tag spent months insisting that I didn’t have a good reason for not playing it, because it was right.
Enslaved has a wonderful main menu. Yes, the place where you click options to get you to things you’re more interested in. It’s a screen within your screen. In the foreground, there is part of the side of a girl’s face, looking at the screen, much like you are. Through the reflection of the screen, you can see her face fully. Her eyes occasionally dart to the side. Sometimes she blinks. When you select an option, her hand appears from off screen and familiarly brushes the touch screen, navigating to a different page. Coupled with the overlaid ambient track, the scene is arresting, pensive.
Released: Nov 1 2012 US, Nov 2 2012 EU
Developer: Naughty Dog
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
I’m uneasy. Uncharted 3 lies on my floor, bloodied and beaten. I scaled the side of an ancient home and exited at speed when it was set ablaze by evil dudes. I ran through market streets in pursuit of a man with seemingly magical powers. After being kidnapped, I escaped from a rotting shipyard festering with pirates. I killed a hundred thousand men, most of whom were probably bad guys. Probably. But I feel empty. Something is very wrong.
Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception once again follows the world’s most poorly tucked treasure hunter, Nathan Drake, on another quest to steal priceless artifacts from exotic locations. Sorry, find. Find artifacts. New big bad Katherine Marlowe is after Sir Francis Drake’s ring - conveniently kept around Nathan Drake’s neck - so that she can find a special thing that leads her to another thing for very important reasons. Drake and perpetual father figure Sully need to stop them because of other important reasons. Like money. Honestly, the plot is a huge mess of chase scenes and blatant plot holes that feels more like an excuse to make pretty levels and cool action sequences than ever.
Writer: Liam Fisher
Released: January 26 2012 US, February 03 2012 EU
Developer: Namco Bandai
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Let’s get this out of the way: I still play SoulCalibur II. I’ve tried other, later iterations of the series but they - or any other fighter for that matter - have never managed to capture my attention in the same way. With that in mind, it’s a bit surprising for me to admit that SoulCalibur V will soon be replacing its great-grandfather as my go-to fighter; it’s not, however, without flaws.
The Story Mode is easily the weakest aspect of the package. I wish I could say that the paltry two hours of content were at least expertly crafted, that story was surprisingly well done and engaging, but in the end it’s just not up to expectations. They’ve obviously taken cues from Mortal Kombat’s narrative focus, restricting you to specific characters to push their story forward, but it’s when SoulCalibur V is compared to Mortal Kombat that the Story Mode seems especially weak. That is something that I never, EVER thought I’d say.