Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Alan Wake Review: Go Towards the Light!

Score: 8.75/10

Alan Wake
Xbox 360

Developer: Remedy Entertainment
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Release Date: May 18th, 2010


  • General atmosphere is haunting and perfects the fear of the dark
  • Incredible visuals, from character models to environments
  • Plenty of moments stick with you well after you pass them
  • Array of weaponry used in unique way to fight off the dark
  • Use of "Episodes" just one example of the great presentation used in the game
  • Laughable dialogue and delivery
  • Dodging is a little "iffy" at times
  • Driving sequences feel out of place
  • Just when you have the rhythm down, it's over

The survival horror genre of gaming typically contains heart-pounding, edge of your seat intensity; where bullets are precious and safe rooms are a sigh of relief. Alan Wake takes the simplest of rational fears and turns it into one of the more unique IPs I have played this year.

Welcome to Bright Falls

Alan Wake is a successful writer that has been stuck with writer's block for the better part of 2 years. Looking to get away from it all, he agrees to an offer from his wife to get away from the city to the small town of Bright Falls. Once there, his wife is taken by a mysterious darkness, and Alan sets off to rescue her and figure out how these strange nightmares are coming to life.

The story works like a good horror/mystery should, in which you will continue guessing until the very end. Where the general presentation of the game is stunning, you occasionally get pulled out of the story by some overly ridiculous entity or dialogue (I was laughing pretty hard at the magical scuba diver...can't make this up people). The cheesy dialogue and occasional bad delivery of a line or two will make you roll your eyes, but it's compelling enough to keep you wondering until the end.

On the Next Episode of Alan Wake...

If there is one thing Alan Wake does right, it's the overall presentation of the game. Playing through you get the feeling of helplessness and desperation as you run low on bullets. The Dark Presence, as the game calls it, is signaled by a increase in fog and wind. Each time it happened I found myself panning the camera around, looking for where the shadows would attack. This constant fear of the enemy and desperate sprint from point A to point B marked the high point of the game, in making me continually guess what would be thrown in my path next.

Contributing to that element are the soundtrack, visual appeal, and episodic layout of the game. Instead of typical "Chapters" in a game, Alan Wake uses "Episodes" which contain their own cliffhanger endings. Starting the next episode brings about a recap of the previous one before moving into gameplay. This gave the game a feeling that I was playing through a Sci-Fi Original Series and not a video game.

The soundtrack accompanying the game sets the mood accordingly; giving somber anthems for the trek through the woods and a heightening tone for when The Dark Presence closed in with a few licensed tracks to round out each episode. For a game based on light and dark, the visuals are incredibly appealing. There are daylight segments in addition to the shadowy explorations you encounter. Naturally a game playing on light and dark has a lot going for it when it comes to eerie shadows with a small glimpse of light peaking through the trees.

This is my Flashlight! There are many like it, but this is my own!

Combat is not the typical run and gun. Most of the time you find yourself fighting human enemies overtaken by The Dark Presence. Light acts as your primary weapon. First you shine the flashlight at the enemy to destroy the darkness enveloping them, and plug a few rounds in them to finish them for good.

Your typical armory is in place for this setting; a revolver, hunting rifle, and shotgun act as the primary weapons. In addition to those, less harmful objects actually do much more damage. Flares drive enemies back to give you breathing room, flash grenades now act as actual grenades in turning them to dust, and the seemingly pitiful flare gun acts as a rocket launcher in destroying multiple enemies in a pretty red sparkle.

On the more difficult settings, fighting is not always the answer and you must flee to the next safe zone consisting of a generator or light source of some kind. Most of the bigger baddies take multiple rounds to take down and are relentless in pursuing you. There is a dodge button in place in case one of the entities gets too close to comfort, but I found it somewhat useless when more than 2 enemies are on you. The timing seems a bit off, but it works for the most part.

I'm Picking Out a Thermos for You

One thing you notice going through the game is the insane amount of collectibles. Manuscript pages act as "fortune tellers" depicting scenes yet to come and events occuring in other places. The other bulk of collectibles are the numerous coffee thermoses. Counting just these two items, that's well over 220+ of the items available...

In addition to coffee and pages there are history markers, pyramids of cans, radio shows, and even television shows. Needless to say you won't catch them all in one playthrough, offering a sense of replay value in finding them all. Still...one has to wonder why the thermos is so popular.

And Then it Hit Me

Right when you start to enjoy the game...it's over. Clocking in at six episodes, most taking an 1hr to 2hrs depending on your play style, it's no full season of a show. Though two DLC episodes have been released to continue past the cliffhanger ending, it left a little to be desired.

Another issue that popped up for me was being hit and not even seeing it coming. Though I admit some were my fault, many of the hits felt like cheap shots. The game tended to focus in a chainsaw enemy crashing through a wall, naturally making me assume, "Hey...watch out for that guy." The game did little to focus in on the tiny dude with knives that spawned right behind me and ended my life in two quick stabs on Nightmare difficulty. The checkpoints are lenient enough for me to overlook this, but I still scratched my head at how easy it is to be attacked behind my back; as the camera does little to assist in this matter. Occasionally it would pan out to show an enemy nearby, but in a hectic fight already in progress you are on your own.

When you are not fighting off baddies, solving simple puzzles we've seen before, or looking for another thermos; you are driving. Driving feels unnatural, as every car I picked up had zero traction to the road. I think the roads in Bright Falls are constructed of dirt and butter. While I get they were trying to mix up gameplay a bit, they were never my favorite segments of traversal, but only popped up a few times.


Alan Wake marks itself as one of the more unique IP this year, satiating anyone's thirst for a solid survival horror game. You will be quick to pick out favorite moments you will want to see again as well as play on a more difficult setting to truly get the best out of the game. Regardless, the game suggests a possible franchise, and it's one I would happily recommend.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood Review: Power in Numbers

Score: 9.25/10

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood
Developer: Ubisoft
Publisher: Ubisoft
Release Date: November 16th, 2010

  • Fast-travel points help ease the distance of most objectives
  • New finishers are quite satisfying
  • Calling in Assassins to do your work for you never gets old
  • Large amount of content to explore
  • More polished look makes Rome really stand out
  • Multiplayer is an enjoyable addition
  • New Sync system varies up gameplay in missions

  • Combat still proves too easy, only made difficult by the camera
  • Multiplayer is not for the "hardcore gotta win" crowd
  • Occasional frame rate drop and screen tearing

Assassin's Creed has accrued quite the following in its time. The first installment amazed everyone with its unique style of gameplay, but stuck close to repetitive missions. The second improved upon much of the first, deepening the complexity of the game with an economic system, varying weapons, and larger variety of missions. With so much in place, it is hard to imagine much else holding our attention. Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood takes that challenge up, and delivers a perfected system fans and noobs alike can enjoy.

Double Vision

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood picks up right where the last game stopped. As Ezio, you will take control immediately following the abrupt ending of AC2, soon seeing your villa under attack by the Borgia. You must reunite the assassins and liberate Rome. Along the way familiar faces come into play along with a few new ones. Though most of the names get lost in translation and leave you scratching your head as to who they could be referring to, the story is enough to push you forward.

At the same time, you will be thrown out of the Animus to follow Desmond. Though a little less interesting and a little more "Saturday Morning Cartoonish" feeling, it is nice to get out of the animus and reproduce the techniques you learned as Ezio and Altair through Desmond. You set up camp at the old villa, now complete with lights, cars, and other modern decorations. It is interesting to see it in a modern setting compared to the 16th century version.

Intro to History 101

Following past installments, the one thing AC is consistent in providing is a perfect artistic representation of the city. Rome is incredible. There are large plains, cramped city streets, and breathtaking landmarks that all combine to provide a perfected simulation of actually being in Rome. One of the highlights of the game was climbing to the viewpoint for the Colosseum and looking out over the horizon.

Not only have the vistas been upgraded, but character models seem much smoother. Kristin Bell no longer looks like a weird fish lady, she looks like Kristin Bell. The streets are littered with dozens of repeating NPCs, each more unique than the last. Though the occasional screen tear and frame rate drop can occur, the visuals are truly a high point.

You do it...I'm your Boss Now

Once you unlock the ability to summon an assassin, you will use it time and time again. With a simple tap of the Left Bar, you summon an assassin to take an enemy out for you. This is balanced accordingly, with the bar being taken out on some missions and requiring a recharge before they can be called again. Additionally, summoning a Level 1 Assassin to take on foes with you, usually ends up with them dead; but summoning them to take out an archer or two works well.

To keep your assassins at their best, you must send them on contracts to other countries. Doing so disables the summon bar until they return, but successful missions yield items and cash. They also give your assassins experience, upgrading their armor and weapons, eventually giving them access to guns and smoke bombs to use in fights. This micromanaging works well, and almost becomes as addictive as the gameplay itself.

Alright, Next Storyline Que...Ooooo, What's That?

There are a ton of things you can do in the game. The economic system, assassination contracts, and even faction missions add in to events that make you trail off the beaten bath. One of the highlights of new content is the Leonardo missions, where you must destroy Da Vinci's latest creation for the Borgia....but not before you get to use them. Though the typical moving turret game is what you would expect, there are some exceptionally enjoyable moments in these missions.

In addition to the typical routine is exploration of the new content. Borgia Towers are a much more enjoyable way to get a Viewpoint, having you kill the captain and burn the tower as you dive away from an explosion. Horseback combat has been completely redone, feeling much easier and including assassinations by horseback. The Crossbow is a welcome addition, with the same feeling as the hidden gun but much quieter.

There are even new "VR" Rooms to hone your skills at free-running or combat, awarding medals for fast, efficient runs. Collectors still have plenty of flags to collect in addition to feathers, keeping you always on the lookout. It would take a few more pages to list all the new content out, but there is plenty of incentive to trail away from the main storyline and just explore Rome.

Headshots and Hidden Blades

Initially, I was concerned the multiplayer would be tacked on; but the result is truly one of the more enjoyable multiplayer experiences you can have. The game works like this: You are given a photo of a target and must follow a compass that gets bigger as they get closer. You must take that target out with an assassination. Doing it quietly gets you more points, running in flailing your arms does not; encouraging you to take it slow and treat it like single player.

At the same time, someone is given a contract against you and are hunting you. If they are quiet, they can pop in and take you down quickly. However if they run at you, an icon will appear and show the person chasing you. You can escape them by using "chase gates" that close behind you or simply "out-parkour" your opponent. Either way, the game continues and whoever has the most points at the end wins.

The game adds a Mario Kart approach in that even if you are in dead last, perks are given to you to give you an edge. In the same manner, the player in first place can have up to 3 contracts on him at a time, making it much more difficult to find your target and eliminate them without constantly looking over your shoulder.

The result is a fast-paced, insanely fun multiplayer, where you strive for the perfect kill and laugh when you die. The game does have an essence of "luck" in being in the right place at the right time, or spawning close to your target. The typical "Call of Duty every weekend, I play for keeps!" player may not find much here, but it's incredibly addictive. Tack on a typical perks and loadout leveling system, and you have incentive to keep coming back for more.


Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood improves much of the typical formula, even if they left a few flawed items out. With a strong single player and multiplayer component, it's a welcome addition to the series and one of the best titles of the year.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Dance Central Review - And it Goes a Little Something like this!

Score 8/10

Dance Central
Developer: Harmonix
Publisher: MTV Games
Release Date: November 4th, 2010

  • Simple, addictive gameplay
  • Difficulty can accommodate rhythmically challenged to the pop and lock specialists
  • Break-it-Down mode does a great job slowing each move down to perfect your performance
  • Great variety in track listing gives something for everyone to enjoy
  • The slight Kinect lag becomes slightly more evident on harder difficulties
  • Judging can be a bit too critical on some of the moves
  • No online battles, you are limited to two players
  • Hard to jump into Perform it mode without studying the moves
The Kinect has a good handful of titles to showcase the hardware at launch, but Dance Central acts as one of the first third-party applications. Harmonix, famous for their rhythm game Rock Band, has decided to show exactly what the Kinect is capable of with Dance Central. Ditching plastic instruments, it's now up to your own physical abilities to dance your way to the top.

Just Bust a Move

Dance Central is all about one thing, following the cue cards and avatar on screen and getting the satisfaction of pulling off a solid dance routine. There is no plot, no attempt at an upgrade system or heavy storyline, just dancing; a premise that is missed in most games these days.

Dance Central is simple enough to follow. You pick one of the 35 songs available and match the movements on screen with an avatar to guide how your moves should be performed properly. What starts out as simple child's play of sliding back and forth, soon becomes a pop and lock freestyle fest requiring timing, technique, and practice. The Kinect reads your performance by identifying your arm and leg placement. Any wrong placement, is highlighted in red on the avatar on screen, making it easy to spot and adjust.

The great thing about Dance Central is the difficulty range. If you are part of the rhythmically challenged crowd, Easy mode does a great job of repeating the same move for a good few turns to adjust you to reading the cards. As you perform more dances, you start to learn how the cards gesture and can guess what action is needed. There comes a great sense of satisfaction from successfully completing a song with 5 stars, providing incentive to keep at it.

Practice Makes Perfect

If you need additional help, there is a very handy Break-it-Down option for each difficulty. This lets you tackle each move one at a time. If you pass it flawlessly, it's given a check mark and you move on to the next one. If you perform the move sloppy, it makes you repeat the move successfully three times before moving on.

It acts as a great feature early on, but soon becomes a necessity for the tougher difficulties. You find yourself having to go through this mode before even attempting a song just to be able to do remotely good. While it would be nice to be able to fire up a song and just follow along, it sort of discourages you from just jumping right in on the latter songs.

Variety is the Spice of Life

While Dance Central has a few obvious tracks included, the variety available is impressive. There are 35 tracks available, and all are unlocked from the start. These range from Salt N Pepa's "Push It" to The Commodore's "Brick House".

With a variety of songs, comes a variety of dance moves. Rarely do you repeat the same move twice in a song, making each a unique experience. There are plenty of moves tailored directly to the song in questions, using pop and lock techniques on some of the typical hits and classic disco moves on the early 70s songs.

You will be quick to pick favorites and master their techniques to show off.

Laaaag and LAN! 

Unfortunately for Dance Central, the biggest downside lies in the Kinect's slight lag, which becomes slightly more apparent on the harder difficulties. In Break it Down mode, I found myself messing up on a few move cards. After matching it perfectly, I began to scratch my head as to what could be wrong. I tried performing it faster than the avatar on screen and ended up hitting it spot on.

For a game that measures accuracy, Dance Central seems a bit iffy. On some moves, it will be overly lenient, still accepting you hit a move even if you rotated the opposite direction. In other cases, you find it judging you far too critical; in which the slightest arm angle off will cause you to mess up a combo.

For being a game by Harmonix, I expected more in the multiplayer department. The most you can do is have a two player battle, where it stops midway through and asks Player 2 to take the stage and they compare scores. The only online component is a high score that will compare to your friends list. Considering the features Rock Band contained, I expected a lot more. Is it too much to ask for a dance troupe co-op mode?


Though the game has its share of flaws, Dance Central is a prime example of what a Kinect game should feel like. It's nice to see that through the typical software we see at launch, there is one game that truly utilizes this technology the way it needed to. Though a few additional features would be welcome, it is a great start for both Dance Central and the Kinect.