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May 21, 2008

Gaming Steve Review: Keep on the Shadowfell

keepontheshadowfell.jpg

Normally I don’t venture outside of the realm of video games, but with the upcoming release of Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition and its many “video game type elements” incorporated into the new version (online play, set party roles, quicker combat, and so forth) I thought I would check out the first official 4th Edition product released this week, the adventure module entitled Keep on the Shadowfell.

This module was designed to work as both a “regular” adventure that could be played as you would any other D&D adventure as well as a introductory module to 4th Edition D&D. In theory all you need to start playing D&D is Keep, some friends, and you’re ready to go. At least that’s the theory. But how does it work in practice? We will see…

Before we delve into the adventure and its contents I have to comment on the quality of the printed module itself. At first glance it’s pretty impressive. Inside a full-color binder you’ll find a 16-page quick-start rules as well five pre-made character sheets, three double-sided full-color battle maps, and a full-color 80-page adventure booklet. Wizards has decided to use the same encounter layout that they started to use in their adventure products last year where nearly all encounters are laid out on two pages (with larger battles spread over three pages). This two-page layout format has further been refined works really well. Each encounter was extremely simple to follow, even in the thick of battle with multiple groups of monsters fighting.

And the battlemaps, although completely unnecessary to the overall game experience, my playtest group really enjoyed using them. It’s a small and simple addition, but something as simple as few battlemaps made the DMs life that much easier while greatly enhancing the enjoyment for the players.

However, I do have some issues with presentation of the module – the paper used for the two booklets is very thin and prone to smudges and that there are small typos throughout the book (i.e. the words "attack of opportunity", which is no longer used in 4th Edition, was seen in more than one location). Another issue is that there is no cover on the adventure book and the back cover of the book contains several details about a key encounter. I found this a rather odd layout decision considering that your players will probably see the back of the adventure booklet, even by accident. Hopefully with the future modules Wizards will fix this issue and put a cover on the adventure booklet. But these really are small issues and the layout and design of the books are expertly done.

As for playing the game itself … well the first thing my group needed to do was learn the new 4th Edition rules! I ran my regular group of D&D players through this adventure last Wednesday night, all of which were familiar with the rules to the original game but were still new to the 4th Edition. Most likely this will be a similar setup for others trying out this adventure in the near future and I can say that learning the new rules is frighteningly easy. Everything is new but yet familiar and based on the current 3.5 Edition of D&D.

The module comes with a comprehensive set of quick-start rules for both the players as well as the DM (the DM rules are more comprehensive and cover more topics, as you would expect with a ruleset for DMs). If you are familiar with D&D and the rules to 3.5, then picking up 4th Edition should be a piece of cake. The quick-rules are very clear and concise, and mostly center around the new combat system. I would say that you could play this module with just the quick-start rules and a very sharp DM. However, if you wanted to play a more “complete” D&D game with nothing but the quick-start rules you’ll probably have a hard time.

For example, in our first session my group went to town and wanted to buy new equipment and sell some monster loot … something you would think any party of adventurers would want to do, no matter their experience level with D&D. However, there were no rules or even simple notes on how to handle this sort of transaction within the game. Instead it noted that I had to refer to 4th Edition Players Handbook in order to accomplish these actions and to find price lists for the store items.

I can understand not including rules on how to handle the creation of magic items or other complex topics within the quick-start rules, but a small chart of items for sale within the local store would have been appreciated. Of course I realize that Wizards want people to purchase the module and then purchase the 4th Edition rulebooks for the “full” experience, but at the same time they should probably have called it the “quick-start combat rules” instead as that would have been more accurate.

Perhaps my favor aspect of the quick-start rules were the five pre-made characters included with the adventure. Unlike the standard cookie cutter pre-gens I’ve seen in so many adventures, Keep on the Shadowfell included a really nice mix – a Dwarven Fighter, Human Wizard, Half-Elf Cleric, Halfling Rogue, and Dragonborn Paladin. Out of all the new rules and features the pre-made characters probably show off the 4th Edition enhancements better than anything else included.

Gone are the 3.5 rules where the difference between a Paladin and a Fighter are simply attitude a few hit points. Each character type is truly unique with no two characters playing alike.

In 4th Edition a Paladin feels like a Paladin should, they constantly challenge and hunt down evil creatures while empowering fellow party members with heals and enhanced attacks. While a Fighter is devastating force on the battlefield, continuously attacking and punishing any enemies that dare to come near him. Character classes are no longer different in just name only, each character class is completely unique in abilities and attitude.

I’ve seen and played seven of the eight classes (the Warlord is the only missing link) and I can say that each class plays unlike any other. And then when you mix in the various unique racial abilities – Dragonborn can breath fire, Halflings can reroll an attack that hits them, and so forth – and you can see that no two characters will ever be like another.

In a strange way I feel like I’m playing City of Heroes when I’m playing 4th Edition … each character has a set role and abilities, but your mixing and matching of these abilities turns your character into something completely unique. If you try the adventure and like the new character system then it almost begs you to go out and buy the new Players Handbook just to see what other cool things you can do.

As for the adventure itself (don’t worry no big spoilers here) it’s surprisingly “old school” with a lot of good old fashioned fighting and killing of roomfuls of monsters. There is more than enough here to keep your gaming group going for at least half a dozen gaming sessions with the adventure building and becoming more interesting as you progress. Plus the wide variety of monsters is quite nice and will keep the players on their toes, especially the larger solo monsters which are designed to take on an entire party of five on their own. These solo fights are truly epic battles that are fun not only for the players but the DM as well (word of advice, in 4th Edition if you see a monster all by itself get ready for a monumental fight).

Again, it’s hard to go into much detail without spoiling the adventure but my favorite new addition to the game for DMs is that each monster now has a number of unique abilities, allowing them to play almost like a player character. This is probably the biggest change you’ll notice in 4th Edition, and it’s probably the best. Monsters are no longer meat shields that follow the same script over and over again – move, attack, repeat until death. Now each monster has its own unique abilities which allow them to “feel” and fight in a unique manner. (Minor spoiler warning.) In 4th Edition Kobolds are quick and agile, always sifting around the battlefield making you hunt them down. Zombies are strong and slow and will try to bring you down with sheer numbers. And Gnomes are pain, always disappearing with their illusion magic.

In 4th Edition combat has become a true tactical exercise for both the players and the DM and every fight will feel totally unique.

I can say that after playing the 4th Edition monsters I’ll probably have a hard time ever going back to any previous edition. 4th Edition has finally made combat a fun, and challenging, experience for both the DM as well as the players. Even running a group of lowly 1st level Kobolds becomes a fun tactical experience for everyone involved. I can’t wait to get the Monster Manual just to read all the new abilities for each monster type (and to try them out as well, of course!).

As for the adventure itself it’s fun and varied adventure with a huge emphasis on fighting. This is understandable since the adventure is designed to bring a party of 1st level characters all the way up to 4th level (which works out to approximately 30 encounters in total) and was designed to show off the 4th Edition rules (which mostly center around combat in the quick-start rules). That’s not to say that there isn’t room for role-playing in this adventure, but I was finding that the majority of the role playing was coming from the players interacting with each rather than with NPCs.

Perhaps my biggest issue with the adventure overall is that it’s a bit uneven. (Minor spoiler warning.) The adventure starts out with a series of little fights and little adventures, with the real “meat” of the adventure starting around the second or third gaming session. Of course as the DM you can always choose to ignore these first few fights if you wish as they appear to be inserted to help you get familiar with the rules and introduce yourself and your players to the environment. I understand the point of these smaller fights from a design point of view, and I’m sure your players will have such a good time trying out the new rules and tactical combat opportunities that they won’t even care, but still I wish that main part of the adventure began sooner than it does.

So in the end after running this adventure I have to ask the most basic of questions… Can you start playing with only the quick-start rules and pre-made characters? Does the module show off the new features of 4th Edition? Did everyone have fun? Yes, yes, and yes. I went back to my 3.5 regular game this week and I have to say that it was hard to try out some of the new 4th Edition features within my 3.5 campaign.

If you already know how to play D&D and are excited about 4th Edition then it’s hard not to recommend this module. You can easily pick up this adventure in the morning and start playing later that night.

However if you are new to D&D or inexperienced with pen and paper role-playing games, I would say wait until the new 4th Edition rulebooks come out in a few weeks and then give this adventure a try. Overall it’s an excellent start to the next chapter in the Dungeons and Dragons experience.

Posted by Gaming Steve at 12:00 PM | Posted to Review |  Add this story to del.icio.us  Stumble It!  Submit this story to Digg!

April 22, 2008

Gaming Steve Review: Mario Kart Wii

Mario Kart Wii

Mario Kart Wii
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Price: $49.99
Platform: Wii
Category: Racing Action
Rating: E for Everyone
Release Date: April 27, 2008 (US), April 10, 2008 (Japan), April 11, 2008 (Europe), April 24, 2008 (Australia)

Out in Europe for a fair few weeks now – and uncharacteristically late reaching US shores – I thought it only fair to spill a few beans on Mario Kart Wii, thus letting our American siblings know just what they're in for regarding the mustached one's latest at the end of the month.

There's both good and bad to report, so buckle in and take note.

First, let's talk single player. 32 courses – 16 of which are new – 25 characters, and a good gazillion vehicles round-off the features list, most of which require unlocking as you progress through its four different classes of increasingly (and surprisingly) punishing difficulty. Sure, the setup's undeniably familiar to vets of the series, but make no mistake, Mario Kart Wii boasts some neat new additions to this now-aging formula well worth bearing in mind.

Bikes would be the biggest of which, and it's all done a bit of a PGR4 in that regard. A little nippier, easier to knock around, and capable of some fab tricks, they're a blast to wield I'm pleased to say, and prove my personal weapon of choice 90% of the time.

Then there's the wheel; the freebie add-on contraption that Nintendo throw into the box as a bonus. While you play with the standard "hands out in front" Wii-mote pose seen in previous racing games on this system, clipping on this optional plastic shell gives it a far more tactile feel, not to mention one immeasurably more fun to boot. It certainly works in that regard, yet I couldn't help but notice that in terms of raw performance, my lap times shrunk the second I ditched the waggle controls entirely and opted for something more traditional.

Mario Kart WiiGamecube and Classic Controllers are fully supported here you see, as is a "half-way" choice that still involves some minor waggle, yet uses the nun-chuck for steering. While the casual gamer'll enjoy the wheel to no end then, no doubt these additional options will prove more ideal for the hardcore.

I call the formula aging, yet 16 years on there's still something undeniably brilliant about Mario Kart as a concept. Blazing around brightly colored cartoony worlds, blowing away pursuers with green shells while knocking friends to their death in fiery lava pits proves just as much a blast as it did back on the SNES, and will certainly see you smiling through this latest installment's opening hours as those timeless memories come flooding back.

It's a looker too, right up there with Super Mario Galaxy as one of the Wii's finest. New tracks like Mushroom Gorge and Maple Treeway – with their glowy underground caverns and beautiful orange foliage – stand out in particular, as do the pleasing wealth of more sinister Bowser-themed circuits in the latter cups of the game. It'll blaze along at 60fps just fine too, until you start splitting the screen up 3 or 4 ways, while fab lighting and pleasing bloom effects round the game off with a sensual smoothness that hides many of the jaggies. The retro tracks are noticeably worse off compared to the newcomers, that said – lacking their width and gigantic scope in particular – but never the less inspire a nostalgic grin as they always do.

Mario Kart WiiIn terms of pure gameplay, I should mention that MK Wii has swung drastically away from simple racing, and somewhat bizarrely off into the realms of performing tricks and boosts this time around. Pulling off any kinda stunt in this game – from drifts, to wheelies, to half-pipe jumps – endows the player with a jolt of speed you see, so races in turn become less about figuring out the perfect racing line and handling corners tightly, and instead about stringing together as rapid a series of boosts as humanly possible. It'll sure take some adjusting to for the long-time fan, but does add a nice new dimension to the proceedings that you'll certainly grow to appreciate. And for those Mario Kart DS fans with worry lines plastered across their faces at the mere mention of all this; "snaking" is all but a thing of a past I'm pleased to say.

Of course, amidst all this chaos are the various power-ups that you love to hate, helping out those lesser skilled, while forever hindering those up front. Additions to the age old favorites vary in quality – from the super cool new Mega Mushroom that doubles your size while you go flattening your way across the course, to the frustrating albatross around your neck that is the Thunder Cloud (which speeds you up temporarily, then annoyingly shrinks you) – and on the whole the sheer power of these items may prove a point of contention for some.

Which in turn leads us onto the fundamental, yet arguably only real flaw with Mario Kart Wii. For some, it's a minor niggle, but for many it'll prove a deal breaker. And that would be the fact that ... due to the sheer brutality of these power-ups, you really don't have much influence over whether you win or lose in this game. It's sad, but boy is it true. Items have such a ridiculous impact on race outcomes, you can easily go from placing first in one, to 12th in the next, based solely on the luck of the draw. And there's literally nothing you can do about it.

Mario Kart WiiOn the plus side, I really didn't care much. There are two types of Mario Kart players you see; those who can simply laugh it off and smile their way through such sadistic twists of fate, content in the fact that it's still flat-out fun, regardless of the star-wielding NPC who just clipped 'em off a bend on Rainbow Road while they were patiently minding their own business. But there are also those who'll kick up a tantrum, throw toys outta their pram, and swear at every red shell cast their way. They'll fling that Wii-wheel against the wall quicker than a Frisbee each and every time they hear stupid frakkin' Toad's pathetic yelp of victory as he banana skins them into last place on the home straight yet AGAIN.

Breathe ... slowly....

If you frustrate easily then, hate to lose, and can't stand a huge dollop o' randomness in your games, quite simply, this isn't for you. These are traits that have haunted Mario Kart since the dawn of time in varying amounts, but it's most definitely far more pronounced this time around than ever before. It makes 150cc and Mirror Cup modes a serious pain in particular, and is something you should most definitely know going in.

Regardless of the single player's serious balancing, uh, "issues", online multiplayer alone propels this latest addition up into the realms of must-have status however. Zero lag? A whopping great 12 players? Team games? The ability to race as your Mii!? All present and correct, sir! In fact, the online functionality is so well done here, that it's set a new standard for Wii titles as a whole in my opinion, not to mention shattered Nintendo's spotty track-record in that department almost completely.

That's not to say it's perfect, of course. While you can race strangers at random, full-on Grand Prix cups are limited to private games amidst those on your friend's list, which is a serious downer in particular. The Battle Mode is mildly rubbish too, due to the enforcement of teams and no lone-wolf option. Plus after all this time? We're still stuck with those good old ruddy friend codes as well.

Mario Kart WiiThe first time you witness the fabulous lobby system though, that introduces each of your rivals one by one in Mii form – while a spinning globe showcases where they're all from – you'll appreciate the time and sheer love poured into this thing. I almost don't wanna ruin the surprise by detailing its every fantastic feature and nuance, as it's oh so wondrous discovering it all for yourself, but sending ghosts to your friends, comparing times on the truly inspired graphical leader boards, not to mention the ace new dashboard features that MK Wii installs all prove fab, much appreciated upgrades that are about as good as anything seen on fellow console racing games in recent times. Friends lists accessible from the main Wii menu for example!? Holy hell!

Then there are the races themselves. So much fun. So much laughter. You've never flat-out creased up in fact, as much as you will the first time you sucker-punch a buddy on the home straight to secure your first win. For all the randomness of the power-ups, and the teeth-grinding inability to just disable the suckers when playing over the net, the sheer underlying stubbornness of how bloody brilliant this game is with a group of pals renders pretty much all your whinings invisible. So share them annoying friend codes. Type those endless streams of numbers in. 'Cos I'm telling ya; with a jam packed buddy list and a race full o' Miis? Mario Kart Wii reaches just about the pinnacle of online fun. I exaggerate not.

Say what you will about the Wii's software line-up thus far, but Nintendo's first party titles have been just as good as ever, and here's yet another to chuck on that pile. Now how about F-Zero and Starfox sequels to round it off in style?

PLUSES: Hints back to earlier Mario Karts, while adding neat new features like stunts and gesture control to (mostly) fantastic effect. Gorgeous graphics rank up there among the system's finest. Boasts an online mode to die for, that'll keep you coming back for many, many months, and sets a new standard for this system as a whole.

MINUSES: Single player mode proves endlessly frustrating in later levels. Item imbalances make you wish the damn things were stripped out completely. Music is uncharacteristically forgettable. Online Grand Prix cups disappointingly limited to just those on your friends list.

FINAL VERDICT: 8.0 BUY IT!

Posted by Matt Robinson at 5:00 PM | Comments (4) | Posted to Review | Wii |  Add this story to del.icio.us  Stumble It!  Submit this story to Digg!

April 2, 2008

Gaming Steve Review: Rainbow Six Vegas 2

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Rainbow Six Vegas 2
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher: Ubisoft
Price: $59.99
Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC
Category: Third-Person Shooter
Rating: M for Mature
Release Date: March 18 2008 (US), March 20 2008 (Europe); PC Version: April 15, 2008

These days, everyone loves a good tactical shooting, taking down tangos in an overly planned manner. Games in the Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon series' have advanced from being completely hardcore titles to become somewhat more accessible, letting players ease in with slicker controls and cover points, as well as giving them a bit more health and power. The introduction of cinematic cutscenes that take full advantage of the new generation of hardware has also helped the helped the genre, as well as the fact that the Tom Clancy brand has been thrusted upon gamers everywhere.

If you haven't played a recent Rainbow Six game, they are basically tactical FPS with a story. Rainbow Six "mixes it up" by giving you indirect control of two equally skilled NPCs fighting at your side. You can order them to move to a certain position, blow up doors and clear rooms, as well as making them cover you when you're trying a particular maneuver and they do their jobs pretty darn well.

Overall it's a nice change to command a small squad rather playing yet another "uber killing machine". However, unlike your standard FPS your character is quite vulnerable – even a few shots are more than enough to take you out – so you have to play carefully and artistically. Vegas 2 follows this same basic pattern, with a story that involves Las Vegas, funnily enough...

82166-rainbowscreenfull10.jpgThe single player game as a whole is fairly short, but it is a solid and enjoyable experience, and given the XP system (more on that later), it's quite replayable. The AI offers a decent challenge, and you always have to be aware of their positions, plotting a set course through a particular level to dispatch of the terrorists quickly and efficiently. The game is very satisfying if you digest it all at once, like a movie, as you race through the levels for no particular reason apart from testing your skills as a trained operative and master tactician.

The original Rainbow Six Vegas was good; it brought the age-old tactical shooter to a new generation, showing people the power of their new hardware, and became an Xbox Live favorite. It was fun, had a large story mode, and also featured some nice set-pieces. However, it was flawed by the randomly spawning AI, the lack of a coherent friend invite system in the online multiplayer, spotty team and enemy AI, and some rough graphical finishes. Well, I'm not happy to report that its sequel doesn't improve on much of these at all, and instead chooses to add different things.

Yes, the rough graphics are back, as is the invisible tripwire spawning AI, and the team and enemy NPCs are still fascinatingly glitchy. The ranked multiplayer now has friend slots, but after a game you are not returned to the lobby with all of your friends, but are literally thrown back to the main menu. Why Ubisoft Montreal can't get it right is beyond me, but perhaps looking at the release date can give us a clue. This game has arrived approximately 1 year and 4 months after the original appeared on the 360. Therefore, it's fair to say that Vegas 2 had a rushed development, with the developers just delivering the smallest amount they could get away with to make a quick profit, somewhat akin to GRAW2's rapid arrival last year.

82177-rainbowscreenfull7.jpgHowever, this is Rainbow Six we are talking about, which revels in its punishing gameplay, multiplayer modes, and a maddeningly large collection of guns. Vegas 2 continues in the same stead as the other titles in the series and delivers a very solid experience despite its inability to evolve into something better. The novelty of ordering your team to different objectives and making them do all the hard work for you still hasn't worn off after all this time, and darting through levels, using fast ropes and rappel points still works delightfully well too.

The multiplayer side of the game has seen little change from the original Vegas, but there are one or two new modes and a few new maps which are pretty much copied from the single player mode. The game will keep you hooked just like its predecessor though, because the gameplay is fast, frantic, and tense, and winding up your friends with mad camo combos and customized characters is still fun. Terrorist Hunt still rules the roost though, which now can be played on your own with your own squad, and the online component finally has options such as respawning for weaker players.

Moving on to one of the better additions to the franchise, the character creation aspect has certainly changed. You can now carry a persistent character across all of the game modes and you can earn experience points for just about ... well anything really. You can earn XP from kills, when your team-mates kill someone, killing someone up close, through think cover, with an explosion, with harsh language... I'm actually surprised they didn't award XP for starting the game there are so many different ways to earn XP.

82135-pecfull1.jpgBut the developers use good use of this system as you can use your XP in many ways. You can level up a few sub-classes (marksman, close quarters and assault skills) plus you can use XP to improve your character and unlock new items. The XP bar is always a part of the HUD, taking a prominent area at the bottom of the screen, and genuinely makes you think differently to how you interact with the game, forcing you to make more kills yourself if you want to level up and obtain new weapons and items. Plus it adds replay value (sort of).

In conclusion then, Vegas 2 is a very mixed bag. It is hard to review as a standalone release as in essence Vegas 2 is an expansion pack for the original game. It adds little from the original title and even takes away some elements. Most notably the story mode being smaller in general and co-op mode reduced to 2 players. But the few new features are excellent and suit the franchise amicably – even though Ubisoft Montreal should've hammered out some of the bugs in the code they (metaphorically) simply copied and pasted from the last game.

The end result is very conservative effort, feeding the fanbase of the past game and trying to appeal to many people at once. It does certainly improve on the predecessor and makes small shuffling steps in the right direction for the series as a whole, and it will definitely be a highly played title for a considerably long while.

82180-rainbowscreenfull6.jpgThis just doesn't look and feel like how a sequel should be, and if this trend continues with Ubisoft's Tom Clancy branded titles (and all signs say it will – GRAW2 being one of them), then we are in for an extremely boring and monotonous future, where mediocrity dominates.

PLUSES: Same old lovely Rainbow Six gameplay, the controls are refined further still, and the running addition is useful. Also, the increased importance of the XP system is refreshing, offering real player progression.

MINUSES: This is basically an expansion pack to the original game, and doesn't offer that many new useful additions. Furthermore, all of the old bugs and nuances from the last game are all still present and unfixed here.

FINAL VERDICT: 7.0 TRY IT!

Posted by Chris Holmes at 4:00 PM | Comments (2) | Posted to PC | PlayStation 3 | Review | Xbox |  Add this story to del.icio.us  Stumble It!  Submit this story to Digg!

March 18, 2008

Gaming Steve Review: Lost: Via Domus

Lost

Lost: Via Domus
Developer: Ubisoft
Publisher: Ubisoft Montreal
Price: $29.99
Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC
Category: Adventure
ESRB Rating: T for Teen
Release Date: February 26, 2008 (US), March 7, 2008 (Europe), February 8, 2008 (Australia)

The highest compliment I can pay Via Domus, is that despite the lack of canonization deemed worthy by the show's creators – meaning none of the game's content should be considered official events that actually take place within the confines of the show – the storyline genuinely feels as if it were concocted by the writers themselves. Playing as one of the un-named 46 survivors of Oceanic flight 815 – complete with his own back-story, secrets and flashback sequences – the pitch alone is positively gripping to the typical LOST nut like myself.

Clearly made by avid watchers of the TV program then, the look, sound and mood is faithfully represented too, through some glorious presentation and superb use of music. Exploring The Hatch for instance – keying in the numbers frantically while that dreaded alarm goes off – provides that irresistibly tense LOST buzz us long-time viewers'll positively mop up.

LostSimilarly, even though its levels are perhaps some of the worst in the game, the look and feel of the terrifying black smoke are suitably scary and incredibly evocative too.

Before all that though, you'll start the game right where the pilot episode does. Ground zero. Exploding engines and screaming passengers abound, our nameless hero has not only the recent crashing on a (not so) deserted island to contend with, but also his newfound amnesia. This setup proves ripe for a fab LOST yarn, with you slowly uncovering bits and pieces of your memory as the story progresses, forever knowing only as much (or as little) as our new found friend does. The plot's kinda great right up 'til the very end in fact, where it promptly turns ludicrous and takes a humongous dose-dive into incomprehensible LOST nonsense-ville. Oh well.

Unfortunately, this segways into my other complaints with the game; pretty much everything else. I'm afraid as an actual gameplay experience, Domus falls drastically short you see. Five seconds within firing her up, and the lack of official endorsement from the show's creators makes complete sense. While it may be kinda fun to watch – and as mentioned, the atmosphere is incredibly potent – it's a stilted, jerky and simply horrible game to actually play.

It tries to fool you into thinking you have a reasonable chunk of freedom at your disposal in the beginning. Exploring the island, conversing with familiar faces from the show and perusing quests as you so wish hints at mild promise. On further examination however, it turns startlingly linear, and you realize you're forever surrounded by cardboard sets and invisible walls.

LostThese hub-style sections aside, it's almost a poor-man's Indigo Prophecy you could say, in that it's broken up into a similar series of small mini-games and self-contained "moments", rather than a full, cohesive game. Each such moment has its own set of rules and controls, and failing to complete said scenes in the specific manner the game wants you to results in a rewinding of time 'til you get it right. Then it's on to the next.

These can range from Pipe Dream-esque puzzles, to labyrinthine mazes, to the odd shoot-out too ... not much else. Other than the admittedly exciting chase sequences, none really impress I'm sad to say, with some proving flat-out excruciating. One can't help but feel like more of an action slant – perhaps mixed with some Tomb Raider or Uncharted style platforming influences – could have turned this far more enjoyable. Alas, t'was not to be I'm afraid. A pity, to be sure.

While no Crysis, it does at least impress graphically. The amazing visuals Ubisoft have become synonymous with shine through as you'd expect, with a similar hazy, desaturated look found in the likes of GRAW and Assassin's Creed. The lighting effects and real-time shadows come across particularly lovely, really selling that desert island vibe at all times. Meanwhile, spooky interiors and recreated sets from the show appear 100% faithful and packed full o' love. Sadly, it lacks the sheer scope of the aforementioned Ubi titles, with distant mountains and gorgeous views merely that. As mentioned, constant barriers keep you forever confined to what is essentially a very tiny corridor game 100% of the time. Yikes.

Pretty much every major character from the show makes an appearance at some point – looking pleasingly similar to their real-life counter-parts at that – yet they're animated truly dreadfully, and are rockin' that "uncanny valley" look in full-force. After bathing in beautiful digital acting in the likes of Heavenly Sword and Mass Effect, LOST's love doll-esque mannequins simply don't convince as a result. If you ever wanted to watch the show reenacted by waxwork dummies, now's your chance.

LostWhile one or two of the actors proper show up to collect voice acting paychecks– Desmond and Ben for example – the majority unsurprisingly don't. The result is a severely mixed bag of good and bad on the dialogue tip, with some – like Locke – doing a reasonable impersonation, and others – like Charlie – making you cry.

Thankfully, you won't be doing a whole lot o' that though, as Domus is over before it's even started. As in, I finished the darn thing in three measly hours. For a full-priced game, that's somewhat reprehensible, and worthy of chopped off hands if you ask me, particularly amidst these here days of cheap downloadable titles and top quality budget-ware. With just a handful of concept art paintings to unlock, there's precious little to call back even the most die-hard LOST fan beyond that initial play-through too.

All in all then? Rubbish.

PLUSES: Lovely visuals and cool presentation brings the LOST universe to life pretty darn well at times. Interesting storyline keeps you wading on through hardships.

MINUSES: General roughness invades every facet of the gameplay. Monotonous fetch quests and repetitive puzzles bore quickly. Hilariously short with zero replayability.

FINAL VERDICT: 4.0 AVOID IT!

Posted by Matt Robinson at 5:00 PM | Comments (4) | Posted to PC | PlayStation 3 | Review | Xbox |  Add this story to del.icio.us  Stumble It!  Submit this story to Digg!

February 27, 2008

Gaming Steve Review: Wipeout Pulse

Wipeout Pulse Image 2.jpg

Wipeout Pulse
Developer: SCE Studios Liverpool / SCEE
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Price: $29.99
Platform: PSP
Category: Racing
ESRB Rating: E for Everyone
Release Date: February 12, 2008 (US), December 14, 2007 (Europe), December 12, 2007 (Australia)

For those of you who have not played much of the long-running Wipeout series, allow me to explain what it's all about. Basically, the series is set in the future, where F1 racing is now seen as old-hat, so the people have decided to create anti-gravity racing machines capable of achieving speeds up to 1000km/h for their racing pleasure. Not content with injecting more speed and lack of gravity into the mix, they also apparently decided to give the racers access to weapons, boost pads, and shields, as well as what can only be described as brain-bending tracks to race their little ships on. Even the most speed-loving gamers should be quaking in their boots just thinking about it.

Back when I was younger, with my little grey PS1, I had the attention span of a small fish and the gameplay experience of Jack Thompson. In essence, I was awful at games. When Wipeout came out, I played the demo, crashed a load of times, and subsequently threw it away. The series went on without me, achieving greatness in the form of various sequels across various platforms. Following a mediocre stop on the PS2, it's now becoming a nice little series on the PSP, with the prequel Wipeout Pure back in 2005. This was a good return to past form for the series, and now we pick the story up with its sequel, Wipeout Pulse.

Wipeout Pulse Image 1.jpgThe game is not easier than its predecessors, but it is a refined beast, carrying on the good standing the series has on the PSP thanks to Pure. This is a game fans of the series and those that are new to it all can enjoy, and Sony chose this specific title to bring the PlayStation Network to the PSP for the first time. It's packed full of nice little bits that add up to give a nice big result.

What's most important to the Wipeout series is its unique gameplay. Pulse doesn't disappoint in this area, it's full-on, mad, and incredibly challenging. This is all achieved by the viciously tight courses and the dangerous AI, which coupled with the new weapons, will make you feel lucky every time you finish a race.

The game modes are now built to show this off, with Eliminator returning from Wipeout 3 to truly put the cat amongst the pigeons. If you cannot remember what this one is all about, it's basically what it says on the tin, an epic battle taking place across a single course, with the first team to 10 kills winning. In short, it's not for those with a nervous disposition. Other additions include the Speed-Lap and Head-to-head, which are fairly self-explanatory but they don't add too much to the gameplay, or at least not as much as Eliminator.

Wipeout Pulse Image 4.jpgWhen information of the game was first revealed, everyone went mad about the "Mag-Strip", which basically sticks your craft to the track. This was included because it allows the player to go down straight 90 degree drops and to go through the loops. Apparently it was going to "break the gameplay", but I can assure you that it doesn't detract anything from the game, mainly because you only experience it for a few seconds as you speed straight on by. Loops are quite fun, but soon the novelty wears off when you realise it's just another distraction in the game's box of tricks to slow down the feeling of monotony so common with Wipeout games.

As is usually the case, the full game doesn't start until the Phantom Class. This is the very pinnacle of speed, where everything starts to fall into place and it all goes so fast that you are actually guaranteed to crash. That's all well, but you still have to grind through all of the other slow classes until you can get to the full meat of the experience, and that is not good at all. If there was some way to skip the slower classes, it would allow those that are fairly experienced with the game to get to the part they want.

Looking at the multiplayer features, there is obviously the traditional Ad-Hoc mode, but what I liked was the Infrastructure Mode, which actually uses the PlayStation Network, the first time it's appeared on the PSP. However, there was a few glitches signing in with the system, but once I managed to get into the server list, it was remarkably easy to join a match and get going. My in-game experience was very solid. The loading times were adequate, there was barely any lag, and it was just generally fun. Disappointingly, there is no way to communicate with your enemies, but I think a rocket up the back of their ship is all the communication that's needed in this arena.

Wipeout Pulse Image 5.jpgMusic is another key feature of the Wipeout series, and while this list could be described as being a bit too "European" for western audiences, I think it's a genuinely good playlist that sets the tone of the game nicely, with some thumping beats and electronic. The game also supports custom soundtracks so you can play your mp3's from your memory sticks if the included playlist isn't your bag. Another useful feature is the ability to take screenshots in-game, which came in rather useful for this review funnily enough.

To conclude, this is a great start to what could be a great year of releases for the PSP. Even though the system has an abundance of racing games, Pulse definitely stands out amongst the crowd despite its flaws and repetitiveness. There is quite a lot on offer here, and I think it shall keep you busy for quite a while. Besides, I don't think you're going to see that many games this year that let you travel over 900km/h, unless Fable 2 has an anti-gravity hovering vehicle mode or Wipeout HD finally arrives for PS3.

PLUSES: Great gameplay, online multiplayer, huge amount of content. Genuinely mad speeds that seem audacious even in today's fast world.

MINUSES: Slightly repetitive, real action still doesn't start until Phantom class, new modes seem tacked on.

FINAL VERDICT: 8.0 BUY IT!

Posted by Chris Holmes at 12:45 PM | Comments (7) | Posted to PSP | Review |  Add this story to del.icio.us  Stumble It!  Submit this story to Digg!

February 19, 2008

Gaming Steve Review: Devil May Cry 4

dmc4.jpg

Devil May Cry 4
Developer: Capcom Production Studio 1
Publisher: Capcom
Price: $59.99
Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC
Category: Action
ESRB Rating: M for Mature
Release Date: February 5, 2008 (US), January 31, 2008 (Japan), February 8, 2008 (Europe), February 7, 2008 (Australia)

DMC ain't normally my thing to be honest. While dabbling in past Cry titles for example, I've typically given up within the first hour or two, convinced that Team Ninja has little to worry about, and content in the fact that Ryu could throttle lady-boy Dante any day of the week. Needless to say, I'm more of a Ninja Gaiden guy.

At least, I was until 4 arrived. Quite simply, it won me over. It may be the fact that DMC3's insane difficulty has been replaced with a far more gradual and finely tuned learning curve (hypocritical, coming from a Gaiden fan I guess). Perhaps it's the inventive new combat system that the awe-inspiring addition known as the "Devil Bringer" affords. Or maybe it's just the swishy new next-gen visuals re-awakening the graphical harlot within me. Who knows? All I can say, is that numero quatro here has been devouring every spare hour of my life this past week. Sorry it took so long, sons of Sparda.

I therefore approach this game from far more of the perspective of the newcomer, as opposed to the devoted die-hard. Make of that what you will....

As luck would have it, DMC4 introduces a playable newbie of its own to the series; emo bad ass Nero, thus providing quite the convenient in-road for those in my shoes. Gorgeous early cut-scenes – all rendered real-time, as panning around with the right analogue stick soon proves – show Nero late for a ceremony at the local Opera House, in which his special lady friend is performing on stage for the Order of the Sword. Whoever they might be. In a minor hurry, Nero dispatches demons in the typically ludicrous DMC fashion amidst his brisk wall-run there, but you'd be forgiven for thinking you were actually watching good old Dante on first glance; bizarrely similar artistic design decisions ahoy.

dmc1.jpgNo sooner has he shown up, when a mysterious (and rope-less) abseiler – who just so happens to be Dante himself – crashes the party from above and starts with the unprovoked assassinating. Nero promptly jumps into action and fends him off, and thus our game begins ... though you might be hard pressed to figure out just who you're actually controlling at first. Where the plot heads from here, I'll let you find out for yourself, but it's surprisingly riveting stuff that kinda caught me off guard actually. Epic cheddar-tinged brilliance awaits, I assure you.

As a character, Nero's fab in particular. While imbued with the trademark sword 'n' gun combo the series is known for, he's also host to a crazy blue demon arm; the previously touched upon Devil Bringer. Seemingly invincible – regularly punching its way through solid concrete and stopping razor sharp swords dead in their tracks – the arm works its way seamlessly into his arsenal to much bone-snapping amusement. You can ram enemies into the floor with shocking power, as well as fling the suckers around as if made from cotton wool, and it's spectacular looking stuff I must say. Meandering such tomfoolery into your turbo-charged melee combos becomes quite the sight in particular, with Nero – for example – able to slice and dice enemies all over the screen, grab 'em before they fall down dead, drag 'em back kicking 'n' screaming, then continue the pummeling with nary an interruption. You will smile.

The beauty of DMC4's fighting system is how many similarly great little nuggets of brilliance there are tucked away to discover should you so wish to though. Insane amounts of combos to learn, tons of weapons to unlock, and crazy magical powers are all a given, but there's also a great little charge-up mini-game to contend with too for instance, one barely touched upon in the tutorial. Coming across like a beat 'em up twist on Gears of War's much loved "active reload" feature, "instant revving" your sword up in this manner enables it to not only fire off even more unlockable specials, but also ups your damage quota in the process, and is yet another means of sprucing up your kills and raking in the style points. Yet I doubt many even know it's there.

dmc2.jpgUnlike Ninja Gaiden, you can randomly button bash your way through Nero's various abilities to quite some success you see, pulling off some pretty damn impressive stuff, lack of dexterity be damned. Mastering them all to perfection will of course take far more perseverance though, affording Cry with however much depth you so desire. Lovely.

Yet there's more. Halfway through the game, Dante himself turns playable, giving you a whole other character to factor in on top. From what I understand, little has changed from controlling ol' white pubes since his previous outing – other than a newfangled real-time style change ability – but hey, it's still one hell of a pleasing addition that adds a ton more depth to an already insanely robust fighting system. One could never claim this game lacks stuff to do betwixt the hack 'n' slashing.

You could say DMC4's combat is what stood out to me above all else then. There are simply so many different combinations, weapons and techniques at your disposal, that each and every player essentially gets to craft their own distinct fighting style out of it. I love that. You just know a game's on to something special when every single time a wall is sealed and you're forced to bash your way through further hordes of respawning enemies in order to proceed, you get a brief surge of adrenaline and a smile creeps across your face. 4's battles just never grow old, it seems.

Of course, I have to mention how stunning the game looks too. From Lost Planet, to Dead Rising, to DMC and (one hopes) Resi 5, Capcom's ever impressive next-gen engine continues to drop jaws the more we see of it. The moody art design, Ico-esque vistas and effortlessly rich detail impress all the more when blazing along at a gloriously flawless 60 FPS, while character models and their subsequent animations are more than up to the task too. With some of the most spectacular looking bosses seen this side of God of War – many 30 times Nero's size at that – our boy's ability to then hurl such colossi around like a sack of soon-to-be-drowned kittens is the kinda giddy-infused video game experience that leaves you ready to give up on life and retire to your death bed. Resigned to the fact, that few experiences in the boring old real world will ever match up.

dmc3.jpgGushing aside, I do have some niggles, that said. As spectacular as those boss battles are – and believe me, they really bleedin' are – the game seemingly runs out of ideas in its latter half, repeating 'em on a loop. In fact, the entire second half of the game is essentially a repeat of the first, played in reverse. This is a minor let-down in and of itself, yet making it considerably worse is the introduction of a pair of god-awful new grunts around this point who will burrow away at your very soul with their sheer and utter lame-ness. I refuse to call them by their official monikers, as to me they will always be the "Flying Blue Boob" and the "Electrically Charged Spazzer". And you've never experienced frustration until you've been introduced.

A lot of the goodwill the game sets up early on goes straight outta the window as a result, knocking DMC down a peg or two from where I'd initially placed it I'm sad to say. Don't even get me started on the penultimate "dice" level.

The trademark ear-bleeding fighting music that's plagued previous DMC games returns too, although at least that's nothing a little custom soundtrack twiddling won't fix if 360-endowed. More aggravating are some middling – to downright ginormous – camera issues, whose presence in this day and age is ... somewhat perplexing, really.

dmc5.jpgDisappointments an' all though, DMC4 is quite the achievement never the less. I think it speaks volumes that despite how far the game seemingly goes out of its way to shoot itself in the foot in its latter levels, I still returned day in, day out, ready to smother it with love and huge chunks of my time.

In fact, between the depth of the combat system, the insane technical accomplishments, and just that final unlockable gun alone (details of which, I'll resist spoilerating for now), I'd even go so far as to call it the first truly great game of 2008.

The question is, can Team Ninja now recapture the throne?

PLUSES: Fantastically balanced fighting action with scale-able depth and difficulty for all types of player. Hundreds of moves to see and learn, and at 15 to 20 hours long, plenty of game to use 'em in too. Graphics impress like nothing else.

MINUSES: Second half loses some of the early magic. Combat music blows, giving PS3ers major mp3 envy. Devil vets may feel déjà vu, given Dante's lack of upgrades (no skin off my back though!)

FINAL VERDICT: 8.0 BUY IT!

Posted by Matt Robinson at 9:30 AM | Comments (2) | Posted to PC | PlayStation 3 | Review | Xbox |  Add this story to del.icio.us  Stumble It!  Submit this story to Digg!

February 15, 2008

Gaming Steve Episode 69 - 02.15.2008

Spore!After years of waiting, dreaming, speculating, hoping, wishing, fantasizing, and talking about Spore, we finally get ... a release date! Sure it's still seven months away, but now we all have something to look forward to for the next seven months!

Just think, seven months of waiting, dreaming, speculating, hoping, wishing, fantasizing, and talking about Spore!

Oh yeah, and lots of other news, I prepare for next week's Game Developers Conference, and something terrible happens to my Wii ... and Spore! Enjoy the show!

Gaming Steve Episode 69 Program

  • 00:07:19 Game News:
    • Spore is coming! Spore is coming! Lots and lots of Spore-related news!
    • Blizzard surprises people by announcing their cancelled games?
    • Banjo Kazooie 3 to appear in 2008, hopefully.
    • ESRB reports lower percentage of Mature games.
    • Puzzle Quest sequel coming in 2008.
    • Ubisoft smacks Bratz for $13 million. You go girl!
    • Mass Effect PC-bound this May, nobody is surprised.
    • EA Sports extends their NFL monopoly until 2013, nobody is surprised.
    • Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 is announced for the PC, Xbox 360, PS3 and is nearly complete, everyone is surprised!
    • Cryptic Studios is bringing Champions Online to PCs and consoles, everyone is surprised!
  • 00:40:24 Review: Uncharted: Drake's Fortune for the PlayStation 3.
  • 00:47:06 Name That Game: A new contest and new rules!
  • 00:51:25 Show Mail: I answer your audio and text questions.
  • 01:23:11 Final Thoughts: I'm getting ready for next week's GDC, and the unthinkable happens to my Wii! The horror!
Download the show (90 minutes): Gaming Steve Episode 69 (MP3).

Subscribe to the Podcast directly in iTunes (MP3).
Add the Gaming Steve Podcast feed to your RSS aggregator.
Digg the show? Then Digg it!

Posted by Gaming Steve at 6:30 PM | Comments (61) | Posted to Podcast | Review | Spore |  Add this story to del.icio.us  Stumble It!  Submit this story to Digg!

February 13, 2008

Gaming Steve Review: Sam & Max Episode 203: Night of the Raving Dead

Night of the Raving Dead

Sam & Max Episode 203: Night of the Raving Dead
Developer: Telltale Games
Publisher: Telltale Games / GameTap
Price: $8.95
Platform: PC
Category: Adventure
ESRB Rating: E for Everyone
Release Date: February 12, 2008 (US)

With minimal spoilers, Sam & Max Episode 203: Night of the Raving Dead, Sam and Max have to stop a flood of zombies who are invading from the “zombie factory”, try and help Sybil get her groove on and sell their soul to mass market a new online service. In short, it’s a nice satire of various horror genres, especially the ISP-marketing-horror genre, one I certainly miss from the days when I was drowning in discs arriving in the mail.

I’ll start right off and say that I was really looking forward to reviewing this game. I had heard nothing but good things about the Sam & Max series, to the point that I’d categorize it as a “critic’s darling” for whatever that’s worth.

I realize the point of this review is what I thought of the game but I wanted to establish my mood going in which was terribly positive.

Since life is too short for negativity, I’ll start with the positives for this game and there are a lot of them.

Night of the Raving DeadThe game looks beautiful. It’s not photorealistic beautiful, more cartoon beautiful but beautiful nonetheless. The main characters are well designed and everything has a richness that just makes the game nice to look at.

In addition to being nice to look at, the characters are all well voiced, especially the main characters and those I’d guess are recurring, this being an episodic game and all. I especially like Sybil and found her story, her light-hearted search for love the most interesting storyline in the game.

Which brings me to another positive about the game: silly as it was (and again – it’s a cartoon so silly is a plus not a minus) I really wanted to see how the story ended. That’s a very nice trick for any game to pull off, since I often want less talk and more gameplay.

Speaking of gameplay, this seems like a nice place to segue into the part of the game that I did not care for. One reason I perhaps failed to resent the dialogue for getting in the way of the gameplay in Sam & Max is that I found said gameplay to be an exercise in tedium.

If your idea of a good time is mousing over every square inch of a room looking for that one item you missed, then this will be gaming nirvana for you. If your idea of the perfect evening is a glass of warm milk and a 200,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, then this will be the best game ever made.

Night of the Raving DeadIn fairness, this is not my cup of tea, puzzle games, even the venerable Myst never held a lot of appeal for me.

And so my review really comes down to one of personal tastes. If you like hunting for clues and piecing puzzles together, then I can’t recommend this game highly enough. It has great production values, is very well put together and has an engaging story.

On the other hand, if you’d like something in a game, even a single time, to be solved simply, by say, taking out your big gun and putting holes in dudes, then this is probably not the game for you.

PLUSES: Fantastic art direction, story and dialogue. Great voice acting. Genuinely funny.

MINUSES: Incredibly tedious gameplay. If you miss playing Star Trek: Judgment Rites on your 486, only with no possibility of fighting Romulans in space, this is for you.

Final Verdict: 7.0 TRY IT! (download the demo)

Posted by cwrice at 5:00 PM | Comments (3) | Posted to PC | Review |  Add this story to del.icio.us  Stumble It!  Submit this story to Digg!

February 12, 2008

Gaming Steve Review: Sins of a Solar Empire

Sins of a Solar Empire

Sins of a Solar Empire
Developer: Ironclad Games
Publisher: Stardock
Price: $39.99
Platform: PC
Category: Strategy
ESRB Rating: T for Teen
Release Date: February 4, 2008 (US)

A really simple, two-word summary of Sins of a Solar Empire would be "ridiculously epic". If you think spending 2 hours playing a single RTS game is long, then I'll tell you right now, this is not your game. My shortest game on the smallest map with one enemy clocked in at over 3 hours. But for those who love their gigantic games of galactic conquest to span multiple solar systems and hours, then this truly is a gift from the strategy-game gods.

Sins of a Solar Empire is in the simplest description an RTS set in space. You build space stations, take over planets, and command massive fleets of frigates and cruisers. But where this game differentiates itself from other space strategy games, like say Homeworld 2 , is the addition of 4X turn based strategy mainstays, like culture, trade, and long term tactics.

You begin a game of Sins of a Solar Empire with a single planet and a couple of construction ships. This planet (and all other planets, stars, large asteroids, and various other space oddities) is surrounded by a "gravity well" where your buildings, spaceships, and resources (crystal and metal asteroids) are located. Your spaceships travel through warp lanes that connect these gravity wells, which makes the maps focused and strategic. By making a majority of the map that would ordinarily be empty space actually empty space the maps end up very concise and goal oriented. Claiming a resource rich planet or the only route into another solar system creates true tactical points worth fighting over. Resources are harvested in much the same way as Company of Heroes or Dawn of War – once you have built your harvesting buildings resources will automatically be gathered. The last resource, money, is gathered through taxes collected on your planets or trade routes you can set up between your colonies.

Sins of a Solar EmpireLike most RTS games a detailed research tree is included, though here it's split into two distinct trees: the resource, culture, and building upgrade-oriented "civic tree" and the spaceship upgrade-oriented "military tree". Diplomacy is also included, though with a few interesting additions: bounty missions and tribute are demanded by your opponents which gives you the chance to build up allies and resources. Another interesting addition is pirate bounties: through an auction-like bidding menu, civilizations can place a bounty on enemies (or allies!) to encourage a pirate raid. This interesting wrinkle in strategy allows an economically oriented player to keep their enemies at bay while they build up their economy.

The game includes 3 different civilizations: the Vasari (the aliens), and the TEC (the humans), and the Advent (the freaky humans). There's some fairly generic science fiction lore behind them, but without an actual story driven campaign, it's not that important. All that I've described so far is effectively universal to each race as their largest differences is in their combat abilities. As far as I can tell after playing each is that the TEC appear to have brute force on their side, utilizing powerful planet destroying bombs, armored capital ships, and nuclear missiles. The Advent focus more on lasers and shields, along with their telepathic special powers to turn battles in their favor. Finally, the Vasari are perhaps the least focused on direct combat, opting to use nanotechnologies to "poison" enemies and repair their own vessels, and using their advanced manipulation of "phase-space" to zip around the map. Each civilization is distinct enough to make for varied strategies, but don't expect Starcraft levels of variety.

Sins of a Solar Empire's combat effectively takes place on a 2D plane with 3D space, though ships can pile over each other automatically. The games combat relies on the classic "rock-paper-scissors" style countering with frigates, cruisers, and support ships all taking part in the epic battles. The more interesting feature in the combat is how the game handles capital ships. Each capitol ship has various power-ups and fight/bomber fleets that are upgraded through experience in battle, much like heroes in Warcraft III. These powers range from super powerful planet bombs to powerful reflective shields.

Sins of a Solar EmpireTogether, all these things wrap together to make Sins of a Solar Empire a refreshing, deep, and above all fun tactical experience. What I found really amazing is how well the developers integrated 4X turn-based strategy into an RTS experience. The games pacing gives you free range to actually create tactics and analyze the situation, something most "rush" oriented RTS simply don't allow. If you love turn based games, but find most RTSs to be to twitchy, I highly recommend this as a first step into the genre, and vice versa. If you find the game to be too slow, you can increase the games speed as well as resource gathering and researching.

Despite the very intricate nature of the game, the interface is surprisingly elegant and user friendly. A search option allows you to quickly find that rouge colony ship of yours or figure out just where your scouts are exploring. A useful "Empire Tree" sits on the left side of the screen, giving instant access to all your ships and buildings. The game also has a Supreme Commander like mega-zoom feature where you can zoom right up to an individual fighter all the way out to an icon represented view of you multi-solar-system galaxy. With all these incredibly useful interface innovations, I do find it odd that simple double clicking isn't in the game. This is partly remedied by the fact that you are more "fleet" oriented with your ships and assign fleets to all ten of your numerical keys with a quick Ctrl-Number, but when was the last game you played that didn't have double clicking?

Not only does the interface look great, but the game as a whole is beautiful. I'm running the game on a 2.2 Ghz Core2Duo, with 2 gigs of ram and 128 MB of video ram to fantastic effect. I only have the settings on high, but the glowing stars, the pulsing quasars, and the intense hundred plus ship battles all look fantastic and almost never stutter. The game is also purported to sun fine and even look fairly acceptable on older machines. The game is purported to run on four to five year old machines, and even some laptops.

Sins of a Solar EmpireLovers of deep strategy games should definitely consider this game, especially if they're fans of Galactic Civilizations as the game seems highly influenced by it. The game doesn't include a campaign mode, so if you enjoy this aspect of strategy games it could be a minus for you. Right now I'll say this is easily recommendable to hardcore strategy fans, and a great gateway for turn-based strategy fans to try out an RTS.

PLUSES: Incredibly deep and strategic. Deftly combines RTS and 4X Turn-based elements. Beautiful graphics, art direction, and user interface. Some unique tactical elements (pirate bidding, intricate warp lanes). Suprisingly easy to grasp, considering how complex the game is. A passionate developer that promises and delivers extra content (and no need to have the DVD in order to play). Well thought out multiplayer. The Novalith Cannon!

MINUSES: No Story driven campaign (though I know many who never bother with these anyway). The 3 races aren't all that unique, save their art direction. The huge levels also means it takes a long time to cross the map. The combat seems just a little shallow. No double-click?

FINAL VERDICT: 9.0 BUY IT!

Posted by Clayton Ashley at 12:15 AM | Comments (8) | Posted to PC | Review |  Add this story to del.icio.us  Stumble It!  Submit this story to Digg!

February 11, 2008

Gaming Steve Review: Poker Smash

Poker Smash

Poker Smash
Developer: Void Star Creations
Publisher: Void Star Creations
Price: $10.00
Platform: Xbox 360
Category: Puzzle
ESRB Rating: E for Everyone
Release Date: February 6, 2008

If you own an Xbox 360, love puzzle games, poker (or better yet both), then you owe it to yourself to try out the new Xbox Live Arcade game, Poker Smash. A deceptively simple and addicting game, you'll find it hard to put down after one try.

If you've played Planet Puzzle League, then you know the basics of Poker Smash – colored blocks scroll to the top of the screen and you need to eliminate them by matching groups. Groups can be matched horizontally or vertically, but you can only move the blocks sideways. Poker Smash adds in a few interesting twist, and obviously a poker theme.

Blocks are one of the 5 face cards in a standard playing card deck (that includes the 10) and one of the four suits. To score, you create "hands" like flushes, straights, and full houses. Other tweaks to the formula include an FPS like "slow-mo" ability and bombs to clear away unusable blocks. Challenges pop up every minute that ask you to quickly get four kings in a row or make a flush of clubs for a doubled or quadrupled score. Some fantastic presentation that includes having your score tracked with 3D poker chips and some slick, colorful graphics complete the package.

With multiplayer, timed, action, and puzzle modes, the game includes a everything you'd expect in an 800 Microsoft points Arcade game. I implore you to give the game a try and would be surprised if you aren't immediately hooked.

FINAL VERDICT: 9.0 BUY IT!

Posted by Clayton Ashley at 10:30 AM | Comments (5) | Posted to Review | Xbox |  Add this story to del.icio.us  Stumble It!  Submit this story to Digg!