Monday, August 27, 2012

Dust: An Elysian Tail Review - Way of the Samurai

Score : 8.5 / 10
Dust: An Elysian Tail
Xbox 360 Arcade
Developer: Humble Hearts
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Release Date: August 15th, 2012

  • Captivating art style
  • Simple, fast hitting gameplay
  • Plethora of collectibles and sidequests
  • Boss encounters feel lacking
  • Enemy variety grows stale until the latter half of the game

You cannot judge a book by its cover, but it never hurts to have an eye-catching one. With the slew of downloadable titles on the market, having a unique art style can go a long way in grabbing a consumer's attention. Games like LIMBO and Journey did just that, complimenting their simple gameplay with captivating visual appeal. Dust: An Elysian Tail's unique aesthetic brought it to the forefront of the Summer of Arcade, and the fast-paced side scrolling combat instantly caught my eye. Dust lives up the expectancy, providing a memorable journey with a distinctive personality.

"I wonder if the armpit is just as pretty"

Dust follows the tale of an unknown warrior who awakens in the forest with no memory of who he is or how he arrived there. He is quickly intercepted by a talking sword (can not make this up) and the sword's energetic guardian, Fidget. Following blindly to uncover his past, Dust is led by the Blade of Ahrah to piece together his identity. Story is heavily emphasized, an unusual move for a 2-D side scroller. Numerous conversations between the characters act as the bulk source of information, with the occasional rendered cinematic. The cast proves intriguing, and the light hearted banter and self-referential remarks keep the dialogue lively. It may start off slow, but soon the plot gains ground to keep you invested in the turnout.

The visual and audible brilliance of Dust is what draws players in and keeps them captivated to the very last chapter. The anime influence is obvious in all aspects of the game; ranging from character design to the beautifully crafted original soundtrack. Vibrant background elements and animation give the game a certain allure, enticing you to continue forward to see what else it has in store. Voicework accompanies every line of dialogue, and the spot on delivery by your companion Fidget never fails to entertain. Pieced together, Dust is a game that can catch your attention and keep it on screen.

"Of course, I have no water magic"

Side scrolling progression should be no stranger to many these days, and Dust sticks close to a pattern than works. There is an overworld to choose different areas, and you gradually unlock new abilities and regions with the continuation of the story. Boss fights usually cue up this unlock, but they are unfortunately bland in design and feel like much healthier base enemies. It is a steady pattern that does not overstay its welcome too long in one environment.

Assuming the role of a mysterious, samurai warrior leaves the expectancy of becoming an unstoppable machine; and in this respect Dust delivers. Combat is fast and fluid, as you ascend from simple four button combinations to juggling dozens of enemies in the air at one time. Encouraging players to work for triple digit combos, Dust has a slew of abilities to rack up his meter. In addition to the basic air grabs and parry counters, Dust Storm is the key to maintaining a high number of hits. Fidget has the ability to send out a spark of magic, that can be boosted further with Dust's assistance. The result is a flurry of attacks taking up the whole of the screen, and sending most enemies airborne. New powers are gained as you progress, and changing on the fly is as simple as a press of a button.

Fans of pursuing elements off the beaten path are healthily rewarded with multiple collectibles and sidequests. Villagers in local towns can offer up numerous tasks, mostly evolving into gathering materials or fetch quests. Every area has a platform out of reach or locked door, giving the game a Metroid-esque feel of continuing the main path or revisiting previous areas for additional experience and treasure. In addition to merchants offering the expected buying and selling of equipment, the biggest appeal remains in the item crafting. Blueprints can be found in chests or dropped off of enemies to yield more powerful armor, and the materials to craft them are dropped off of the multitude of bodies you leave in your wake. The elements entice you to explore every nook and cranny of an area to further your arsenal.

"If your feet touch the're doing it wrong."

The unique look and visual brilliance of Dust is what you will remember most in the end. The conventional gameplay holds its own, but the stunning animation and vibrant environments you explore are the heart of what makes the game memorable.There is enough content offered to justify the price tag, or at the very least a trial download considering the number of sidequests and multiple difficulties. In the end, Dust is a powerful tail that has more going for it than just stunning good looks.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Good Vibrations

It is an all too familiar feeling in gaming these days. It remains the only amount of tangible feedback a player can get from the action unfolding on screen; the response to a weapon kickback, chaotic explosion, or hit from an enemy; your controller gives a sudden shake. Lasting through previous console generations and looking to continue in future additions, the controller vibration has become a standard in modern console gaming.

Yet, I find myself growing numb to the sensation. I cannot even name off the top of my head with absolute certainty the recent games that utilize the tech. Perhaps it's the years of playing games that has attributed to the oversight or the feature being used as a default setting, but I never really notice the controller reverberation nearly as much as I did when the tech was brought to light.

It makes me think back to when the technology first amazed me on the Nintendo 64, with the release of the Rumble Pack. I still remember the excitement I had in watching this video I received as part of my Nintendo Power subscription:

Packaged with Star Fox 64, this little device snapped into the back of the controller, giving off a sensation with each hit. Despite giving the controller an additional three pounds and hunting endlessly for triple A batteries (thanks for that, Nintendo), it was something interesting to experience at home. Here was this sudden jolt of the controller with each action on screen, something that I usually had to travel to an arcade to obtain. It added a small dose of realism to an unrealistic game, and as a kid it was a fantastic novelty to enhance my games.

Not far behind, the Dualshock put the same technology inside the actual controller itself, which continues to be the preferred method to this day. No longer relying on batteries (and saving so many remote controls in the process), it would give the feedback at no expense to size. Open up your current console controller, and you will find two small motors on the inside of the controller handles. The way it works is simple: the flywheel motor has a weight attached to one side, when the motor turns it throws it off balance and produces a wobble which in turns gives your controller a nice shake.

Needless to say, the technology took off and was adapted into a number of games to better immerse the player. Shooters had the noticeably larger impact, in allowing players to get a feel of a weapon they were wielding with each shot. Explosions and impacts had an immediate response with a more violent shake, better attuning players to the intensity of the moment. Even subtle vibrations would give way to signal notifications of important items nearby or tipping off the best time to dodge. There were numerous avenues possible, and video games were exploring them all.

The technology is simple to add into a game, but it's the titles that utilize it in the most effective manner that really help in that overall goal of immersing a player in the game. One of the more memorable moments has to be from Metal Gear Solid in the Psycho Mantis fight. His request to set the controller down and use of the vibrating tech to "move" it along floor was a great way to break the fourth wall, being as captivating as it was entertaining. In Halo, the slight rumble given when driving a Warthog across rough terrain adds to the immersion of being behind the wheel of the vehicle, and the sudden impact from hitting a tree due to my incredible driving skills were rewarded with a big jolt.

Several years later you have to wonder if the tech is being overused. I started drafting this blog in the middle of playing Darksiders, and despite playing it a mere five to ten minutes before writing up a general outline, I completely forgot if the controller rumbled at all during the game (for the record, it did). The excessive use is even part of an app on the Xbox Live Marketplace, with a Rumble Massage app for 80 Microsoft points to turn your controller into a massage device. There is even potential for it to become a hazard for the excessive gamer. In an ABC news story, a 15 year old British boy was diagnosed with HAVS (hand-arm vibration syndrome) for his excessive seven hour a day play sessions, a problem usually reserved for construction workers familiar with a jackhammer.

Perhaps the fact that I have become jaded to the technology could be perceived in two different ways. Maybe games these days are utilizing the tech so subtly and well placed that I am completely immersed in the experience, with expectancy for the controller to shake. On the other hand the tech could be used so much that I have become numb to the sensation. Still, I feel like it adds that "je ne sais quoi" to a game, backing each movement to enhance the overall experience. While I remain hopeful that the tech will soon be better utilized, the question of what other physical responses could be pursued remains. The Kinect is already utilizing voice to illicit response in game, which means Smell-O-Vision must be right around the corner! Now I wonder what Mario smells like after traveling through all of those pipes....

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Max Payne 3 Review - Stop! Bullet Time!

Score: 9.0 / 10
Max Payne 3
Xbox 360 - PS3 - PC
Developer - Rockstar Games
Publisher - Rockstar Games
Release Date: May 15th, 2012

  • Combat never disappoints with flashy, familiar gunplay
  • Solid look and style of storytelling that holds your interest
  • Sharp textures and environments
  • Surprisingly fun multiplayer
  • Cover to cover mechanic feels a bit unresponsive
  • Cut scenes put a break in the pacing
  • Multiplayer server connection can be sporadic

Like a sadistic bullet wielding ballerina, Max Payne has made its mark as a third person shooter with style since its debut on the Playstation 2. The noir style storytelling and quick draw gunplay has seen it through two installments, both received relatively well. Rockstar looks to keep the franchise alive with a refined cover system and the addition of competitive multiplayer. Despite sticking true to the formula from the previous games, the polish and overall experience with Max Payne 3 makes it a game that both newcomers and veterans alike can appreciate.

Cop Drama

The tone for Max Payne 3 is set right from the start, as we find Max drinking heavily and popping pills to cope with his dark past. Down on his luck, retired from the NYPD, and still reeling from the loss of his wife and daughter; the game flashes through both past and present to explore the series of events leading to the game's opening of a war-torn airfield. Players will bounce between his departure from New Jersey at the mercy of a local mob to his new job as a bodyguard in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Each chapter adds a piece of the puzzle together as you experience each betrayal, surprise, and turn of events. The cast of characters may not be that fleshed out aside from Max, but the plot serves its purpose and you do not need to play the first two installments to understand what is happening.

Storytelling sticks to previous installments with a noir style influence, giving off a cop drama feel that melds well with the overall somber overtone. In addition to cinematic sequences to hide load times, Max will self-narrate his thoughts as you progress to help to fill the voids between fights. Some of his one liners may feel too cheesy, but it fits perfectly with the "80s cop" shtick the game is going for. Words flash across the screen, comic panel frames overlay many segments, and seamless transitions from cinematics to gameplay are common occurrences. The story may be basic, but the presentation of it all is what is truly captivating.

The interesting style of storytelling is coupled with stellar visuals. Max Payne 3 boasts stunning textures and character models, complimented with top notch mocap to bring each character to life. You traverse through a multitude of settings ranging from vibrant nightclubs to desolate havanas, each with its own personality. Bullet time is enhanced with a bass friendly thud and each bullet that leaves the chamber makes as much of an impact on your subwoofer as it will on your intended target. With a solid voice cast backing up the dialogue, it is a game that just looks and sound great.

Dodge, Duck, Dip, Dive, and Dodge

Max Payne is all about being quick on the trigger with stylish gunplay. Sticking to the classic over the shoulder perspective you guide Max through each chapter, tackling baddy after baddy to the chapter's conclusion. An arsenal of weaponry will be at your disposal; be it classic dual wielding pistols or semi-automatic rifles. Unlike most current titles, the health system for the game is a throwback to the older generation in which Painkillers are used to restore lost health and are scattered throughout the level. Without the modern regenerative health, it will make you a bit more wary before charging headfirst into battle. This cautious feeling seems to play down the "action hero" feel and can keep you taped to the wall longer with each advance in difficulty settings.

Exploration in the game is minute in both combat and traversal. During battle you will find plenty of opportunity to grab cover, but transitioning between pieces is nonexistent and you are better off using the classic bullet dive. Once the field is clear of enemies, you are free to explore the immediate area for the numerous clues and golden weapon pieces strewn about. This is actually discouraged by Max at several points, as he continually speaks up to press the matter at hand. Despite a few scripted sequences and on-rails scenarios, much of the game involves entering a room, killing everything, and moving to the next room to repeat.

You will have to be quick on the trigger, as the enemy AI is a step above what you would typically see in a third person shooter. Enemies will flank and charge your position, in addition to being much more careful in popping out of cover predictably. The cover system and bullet dodge will have to be utilized efficiently, as even on normal mode you can drop quickly if you are not careful.

Time Bandit

The staple of Max Payne is the slow-mo Bullet Time, which makes its triumphant return. A bar next to Max's health will continuously charge as he takes fire and dishes it out. You can then slow time around you to gain a few opportune moments to line up headshots and pick your targets. It proves handy when the enemies are approaching on all sides, giving a brief moment to plan your next move.

Going hand in hand with the bullet time is the bullet dodge ability, allowing you to heroically leap into the air, popping baddies as you go. Needless to say, this is the go-to move for much of the game, as there is no rate of diminishing returns in leaping into a room and mowing down every last person before you hit the floor. Unfortunately, the leap is incredibly sensitive. Even the slightest object in his way can throw him off kilter and skew your aiming.

A new addition to the bullet time arsenal is a "last stand" mode. If you fail to pop a Painkiller in time and have one in your inventory, it acts like the fairy in a bottle from Legend of Zelda. Time slows around you, and you are given one last "revenge" shot on the enemy that caused you the inconvenience. Successfully hit him and you can get back on your feet, but fail to find him or miss the shot and its game over. It puts a forgiving touch to the non-regenerative health, and can make for some nail biting finishes for a firefight.

Bullet Buddies

New to the Max Payne franchise is a fairly fleshed out competitive multiplayer. Players can choose from a multitude of deathmatch inspired modes to battle it out with up to 16 other players online. While the standard deathmatch mode gives the expected experience, Gang War will be the mode of choice as two rival teams duke it out over five chapters with varying objectives dependent upon the match's outcome. The game can start out by trying to hold turf, and transition into a protect the VIP scenario. It keeps you guessing and provides a nice shuffle to keep modes from becoming stale.

The multiplayer is easy to get the hang of, as the same cover system and run and gun mechanics lose nothing in the translation from single player to multiplayer. The iconic bullet time is worked into the multiplayer in an interesting way; Only the players in your immediate field of vision are affected by the trigger, slowing your movement for a brief interval. It has its moments of questionable execution, but works well for the most part.

Upon completion of each match, the expected experience and leveling system will play its part. You have the ability to choose a loadout to match your preferred style of gunwielding. The more you pack on, the less stamina and health regeneration you have. This healthy balance allows a multitude of possibilities to customize your preference; be it a stealthy bullet time assassin or fully loaded soldier. With a slew of perks, challenges, wagers, and playlist options, the multiplayer ends up being so robust that it makes it hard to cast it off as another tacked on mode. The main downside lies in the huge amount of lockouts to weapons and armor, leaving the new players in that all too familiar feeling of being at the mercy of the fully loaded at-launch buyers.


Having only a brief experience with the first two games, I walked away from Max Payne 3 generally pleased. It gives the feeling of playing through a compelling action movie, and despite the loop of cleaning rooms of enemies the combat manages to entertain from start to finish. It is a complete package of a game, with plenty of content to keep you coming back for more. Max Payne 3 is a bullet diving ride, that any shooter fan can appreciate.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

August Gaming Releases - The Storm is Coming

Highlighted Release

Darksiders II
PS3 - Xbox 360 - PC
Developer: Vigil Games
Publisher: THQ
Release Date: August 14th, 2012

The first Darksiders was an interesting new IP with gameplay akin to a God of War/Zelda hybrid. Donning a stand-out art style, Vigil games looks to follow up the classic game with Darksiders II. Bringing everything together that people loved about the first game and offering grand new environments, the same standout visual art style, and gargantuan bosses; Darksiders II looks like a must-play for this month.

August 7th

August 14th

August 19th

August 28th