Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Top 11 Games of 2011 (Because 10 is not enough!)

It's becoming something of a cliche to say that 2011 has been a terrific year for gaming since almost every prior year boasted a terrific roster of both AAA releases and hidden gems that make our love of video games worthwhile. This has been mainly a console year for me, since I did not purchase a 3DS and I have barely touched my existing handhelds, so the majority of the games on my list were played on either the Xbox 360 or the Playstation 3. Either way, with the steady stream of quality games and the deluge of "must-have" titles that landed later in the year, having to select only a few games as my favorites was very difficult. I feel this list properly represents the best gaming moments of 2011 for me, but I am cognizant of the fact that some great titles have been left out.

Before I get into my list, a few things need to be mentioned. As with any such list, this is subjectively based on the games that I had the most enjoyment out of in 2011. It's not a list made to please the masses and accordingly there are some of the "usual suspect" games that will not be appearing here. Games like Saint's Row: The Third, Catherine, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword and Battlefield 3 are not here because I haven't purchased them yet. Gears of War 3, Portal 2 and Dark Souls also fall into this category. Other games I do own, like Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, are not on the list because I haven't played them enough to properly assess, or I didn't enjoy them as much as other games. Such is the peril of having to limit your choice to only a small selection of games.

Anyway, without further ado, I give you my Top Eleven Games of 2011.

11. Bulletstorm

The first-person shooter genre has gone well beyond being saturated and it's refreshing to see a game that provides some unique twists on a now-tired formula. Bulletstorm combines classic FPS mechanics with a "kill with skill" focus in the gameplay. Rather than the traditional "run and gun" approach, you are rewarded for finding the most creative ways to kill your enemies and I had hours of fun combining my skills to pull of some incredibly awesome, and gruesome, kills. Fast, furious and dripping with attitude and sexual innuendo, this is the game that those disappointed by Duke Nukem: Forever should be checking out.

Available On: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC

10. Dragon Age II

While fans of Dragon Age: Origins haven't warmed to the more streamlined approach that the sequel takes, I personally found Dragon Age II to be an engaging and highly enjoyable action RPG experience. The main character Hawke, who rises to fame and power throughout the course of the game, is a more interesting protagonist than in the previous game and I found myself caring more about the outcome than I have with most RPGs of late. The open-world feel and other intricacies may have been dumbed down in order to make the game appeal to a mainstream audience, but the fascinating story and stellar battle mechanics in Dragon Age II more than make up for this.

Available On: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC
9. Shadows of the Damned

You have to admire a game that makes no apologies for it's crassness, so it goes without saying that I had a fantastic time playing Shadows of the Damned. The product of the minds behind Resident Evil and No More Heroes, this is a third person shooter that involves a protagonist descending into the depths of hell in order to rescue his nearly-dead girlfriend. Hell has never looked or sounded this absurd. The solid shooting and fun variety of weapons is complemented by a constant stream of profanity, toilet humor and sexual innuendos. Not every joke hits the mark, but anyone with a sense of humor along these lines will get a kick out of the game. There are few games I enjoyed more this past year, so it's place on this list is well deserved.

Available On: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC
8. Crysis 2

With other first-person shooters already appearing in this list, and other high-profile ones being absent altogether, my selection of Crysis 2 might seem somewhat illogical...unless you have played it. Simply put, this is one of the best looking and smoothest FPS titles I have ever played, with graphics and animation that pushes the limits of the current generation consoles. Crysis 2 isn't all flash, since it boasts a meaty and satisfying 10 to 12 hour campaign and a focus on tactical gunplay. The addition of the "Nanosuit", an augmented suit that grants you certain powers and tactical advantages, adds another layer of intricacy to the beautifully created set piece battles. This is yet another game that went unnoticed in 2011, however it's one that is definitely worth playing if you're looking for something a different and unique.

Available On: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC

7. F.E.A.R. 3 (F3AR)

Being a fan of the first two F.E.A.R. games, my anticipation for the third installment was very high. Despite some shortcomings including a shorter campaign, streamlined level design and overuse of screams and squeals, it delivered on most fronts, provided you are familiar with the story of the first two games. The standard-but-serviceable first-person shooter mechanics are complemented by classic "freak out" moments and panic-inducing moments where the infected run at you with alarming speed. The ability to play co-op with the game's antagonist, who boasts his own special powers, breathes fresh life into the series. F3AR is not the best or brightest of the FPS genre, but it succeeds in what it seeks to accomplish - to provide an unsettling gaming experience.

Available On: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC

6. Rage

A Bethesda game in which you play a survivor in a post-apocalyptic wasteland and you must help people, join factions and kill roaming nasties. Sound familiar? While it may share some aesthetic similarities to the Fallout series, Rage has far more in common with games like Borderlands and Bioshock. The quest-based storyline is littered with interesting objectives and a fair few fetch quests, however the combat and corridor shooting is among the best in class for the genre.  The other central focus of Rage is vehicular combat and this provides some of the most intense and satisfying moments in the game, especially in the area battles, races and the online multiplayer. Rage is a game that many people overlooked but one that I highly recommend trying out.

Available On: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC

5. Dead Island

At first glance, Dead Island seems deceptively like Left 4 Dead transplanted on a tropical island with the guns traded in for wooden planks. In truth, Dead Island is a stellar first-person action/survival game that combines plentiful zombie-killing action with a Borderlands-style questing system. The focus on melee combat and the tendency for the zombies to gang up on you really makes this a tense and frantic experience, one that is unmatched by other games in the genre. The long and satisfying campaign is accented with a strong emphasis on co-operative gameplay, and it goes without saying that Dead Island is best enjoyed with a few friends playing along for the ride.

Available On: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC

4. L.A. Noire

In the months leading up to it's release, I openly stated that I had very little interest in playing L.A. Noire, mainly because I have not been a fan of Rockstar's offerings of late. Come launch day, I took the plunge on impulse and was very glad I did. This is not a 40's-era GTA clone, rather a deeply involved crime saga that boasts an immersive story, rich characters and some impressive facial capture technology that is pivotal in successfully interrogating a suspect or a witness. It's a different kind of game than some expected, one that makes you use your head and powers of deductive reasoning, and many people didn't like it for that reason. However, it hit all the right notes for me.

Available On: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC
3. Assassin's Creed: Revelations

The yearly release of a new Assassin's Creed title may have diluted the appeal of the franchise to some, however the titles have been nothing if not consistent in their quality. Assassin's Creed: Revelations is a wonderful bookend to the current saga, wrapping up the storyline of Ezio Auditore, the protagonist from the previous two games, and connecting it with that of Altair, the central character in the first game. The new setting of sixteenth-century Constantinople provides a fresh environment, while the open-world gameplay that the series is best known for is still intact and as enjoyable as ever. Some may bemoan the lack of innovation between installments, however there is still something comfortable and satisfying about playing an Assassin's Creed game and Revelations is a fitting installment and a satisfying (albeit bittersweet) conclusion.

Available On: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC
2. Dead Space 2 

The first Dead Space is considered by many to be one of the best games of this console generation, and definitely a landmark game in the survival horror genre. The sequel kicks things up a notch by giving you a more diverse (and creepy) setting and fleshed out story for the unfortunate protagonist Isaac Clark. While the first game took place on a deserted spaceship, the sequel gives you an entire space station to navigate, offering some genuinely inventive and creepy locales. However, the limb-severing Necromorph genocide you commit is still king. Dead Space 2 is everything a sequel should be, and even the addition of a superfluous and totally forgettable multiplayer doesn't bringing it down.

Available On: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC

1. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

If this list of games could be likened to a baseball team, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is the bench-warmer who goes on to hit a grand slam at the World Series. Not being a fan of Bethesda's earlier offerings, I didn't approach Skyrim with the highest of expectations, however it completely blew away all of my preconceptions. Skyrim is a wonderfully realized world filled with an engaging story, interesting characters, challenging enemy battles, plentiful missions and gorgeous scenery. It would be hyperbole to say that it's the best RPG of all time, but it can be said that this is one of the best RPGs of this console generation and easily my favorite game of 2011.

Available On: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC

Looking ahead to 2012, the confirmed titles such as Bioshock: Infinite and Mass Effect 3 are already on my radar, and the rumored titles such as a third Dead Space, another Assassin's Creed, the yearly release of another Call of Duty and a host of other goodies will no doubt lead to plenty of late nights and wallet-emptying excursions to my local game shop. Needless to say, there is plenty to look forward to.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Review: RAGE (Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC)

Bethesda Game Studios has been one of the critical darlings of the gaming industry, with landmark franchises such as Fallout and The Elder Scrolls under their belt, however I have never been particularly fond of their offerings. Save for the recently released Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, their games have not moved or engrossed me in any meaningful way and I have often considered them to be overrated. Rage treads familiar territory with it's combination of first-person shooter mechanics and RPG questing and exploration, and despite a few noticeable drawbacks, it has enough strengths to appeal to fans of both gameplay styles.

Rage takes place in a world that has been ravaged by an asteroid blast, rendering the terrain a post-apocalyptic wasteland in which pockets of survivors have formed factions in order to survive and control the flow of scarce resources. You play as someone known only as The Ark Survivor who, after emerging from an underground settlement, is rescued from a bandit attack by a friendly settler and then the game begins in earnest. After a few simple fetch quests, you learn that a hostile faction called The Authority is looking for you and they are known for performing a variety of bizarre experiments on other survivors. The plot goes into further detail as the game progresses, however your sense of purpose comes in the missions you do for various people in towns and the surrounding wastelands. The plot goes into further detail with conspiracies and weird science, but the "meat" of the story is really resisting factions fighting back against The Authority. The plot is neither deep or original, but in the context of a game like this, it's serviceable. All told, you should expect about 20 hours from the main single-player campaign and variable mileage in the multiplayer.

Given the focus on questing and helping others out, you might expect Rage to be an RPG in the style of Fallout, however the focus is on first-person corridor shooting and vehicle combat. The core weapons are the usual assortment of pistols, shotguns, assault rifles and explosives, however there is some variety in the unique weapons you are given. You have a crossbow that allows for stealth kills, remote controlled RC cars that explode, and my personal favorite, the Wingstick. This boomerang-like blade propeller deals instant death to all but the toughest enemies and is easily one of the best weapons in the game. The combat experience is characterized by waves of enemies and the occasional boss battle, both of which provide only fleeting challenges. Since the wastelands are expansive and patrolled by roaming bandits, vehicles play an important part in your travels and they can be customized with better parts and more powerful weapons. In addition to combat, your vehicles are used for winning races and completing challenges scattered throughout the game. The controls in both the shooting and vehicle handling are as tight and responsive as you would expect, however the game's default sensitivity is extremely high and some tweaking may be required depending on your preferences.

Despite the post-apocalyptic setting and emphasis on questing, Rage has very little in common with the Fallout series. Character customization and levelling up is virtually non-existent and the linear path the game follows inhibits any meaningful exploration. As such, the first-person shooter and vehicular combat hybrid puts Rage more in line with games like Bioshock and Borderlands. Rewards come in the form of money and new missions being unlocked, the former being used to buying new weapons and supplies and the latter progressing the plot. Those who enjoy levelling, customization and assorted perks will probably find Rage to be a shallow experience, especially by Bethesda's standards, however I feel the action and thrilling combat makes up for these shortcomings.

In addition to the single-player experience, there are two multiplayer modes that may feel limited to most FPS fans, however I found them to be enjoyable for the time spent. The better of the two is called Road Rage, which is a vehicle-based and offers a few different modes that include checkpoint-races, demolition races and an area battle that functions as a team deathmatch of sorts. You earn points and level up based your skill and accuracy, and this levelling unlocks perks such as vehicle upgrades and more powerful weapons. The second is called Legends of the Wastelands, a surprisingly fun two player co-op experience that has you playing through missions similar to those found in the single-player campaign. The focus is achieving high scores and completing challenges with a limited arsenal of weapons,which provides some of the more frantic and intense moments in the game. Both multiplayer are fun, however they lack the variety and lasting appeal of other games in the genre, therefore it is doubtful that it will sustain an active online community. Having said that, Bethesda is usually generous with the DLC and the experience may be expanded in the future.

The Xbox 360 version is spread over a whopping three discs, two for the main game and the third being exclusively for the multiplayer. Given the smooth framerate and polished graphics, it is clear that Rage is more than the aging console can handle at times. However, the game looks fantastic, from the detailed wastelands to the unsettling indoor environments, and the framerate never stutters even during the most hectic of battles. Unlike the muddy and murky environments in Fallout, the wastelands you frequent are more along the lines of the arid deserts and rocky terrain of Borderlands. Having said that, Rage is not exactly a best-in-class shooter since other games like Crysis 2 look far better. The sound in Rage is also decent but unexceptional, with a practically muted soundtrack undermining the intense action. However, the sound during battles, from the gunshots to the squishy sounds of enemy limbs being severed, are particularly well done.

As with most of Bethesda's titles, the problems with the game become apparent early on and some are definitely more of a hindrance than others. By far the biggest issue is the broken save system, which makes auto-saving infrequent and manual saving an absolutely necessity, lest you lost significant progress when you die. The manual save does allow you to save wherever you like and pick up from exactly that point, however this is still unacceptable when regular auto-saving is the standard in most other games. The technical demands of the game also incur lengthy load times that will test your patience after a while, and there is even an in-game prompt that recommends installing the game on your hard drive for the "optimum experience". However, I did not deem it worth the aggravation given the amount of space the game takes up and the length of time it would take to install it. The third issue is more of an all-round lack of investment that you will feel in the story. There are few memorable characters, the plot is convoluted and the missions rarely rise above area-clearing and fetch quests. Even the more dramatic story missions fail to make you feel that you're accomplishing something great, and the boss battles are unchallenging and more a test of patience than skill. Having said all of that, these are not issues that entirely killed the experience for me, however they might for you depending on what kind of experience you hope to get out of the game.

When all is said and done, the main indicator of a game's quality is how much fun the player has with it. I certainly did. Rage is a solid action game that combines some of the best elements of the first-person shooter and vehicular combat genres, however it doesn't prove to be a landmark for either due to a lackluster plot and a lack of any emotional investment you'll feel in how events play out. It should be taken as an action game and enjoyed as such, so in that respect, Rage is a great title to have in your collection. Fans of the aforementioned Bioshock and Borderlands will probably enjoy Rage the most, however fans of Bethesda's other games are best advised to rent this game before paying full retail. Regardless, this is my kind of action game and anyone who enjoys shooters and/or vehicle combat games will enjoy the experience it has to offer.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Gentlemen's Agreement

For almost three years, I have been an active member and moderator of Pete's Game Room Forum, a video game-related forum created by Pete Dorr, Youtube gaming guru and current co-host of the All Gen Gamers podcast. It's a nice forum that started as a meeting ground for other gamers who run a Youtube channel but has since blossomed into a large community of video game enthusiasts from all corners of the globe. We meet, we chat about games and we generally have a good time. As a moderator, I am one of a few people tasked with keeping the forums free of trolls and spammers, which can sometimes be a hectic task but one that ultimately feels very rewarding.

Anyway, one brilliant idea thought up by forum member and Twitter rascal Andsy was the idea of a "Gentlemen's Club", a fun little endeavor in which the entry requirements are very simple. You must submit a list of unstarted or unfinished games and you are paired up with another member, who has also submitted a list. You then select a game from the other person's list and task them with the duty of completing said game within the next two months. This is a great idea because not only is it a fun and friendly competition, but it also encourages you to go back and play a game you might have otherwise kept shelved. The fun part comes with the choice of games, since you can either pick a great game you know the person will like, or if you're feeling impish, a terrible or overly difficult game that could send them into fits of rage. Cruelty of this nature is not only allowed but it's encouraged. Anyone entering into such an agreement does so with a certain amount of risk, but given that the game selection is limited to what's on your list, you can leave out anything you seriously don't wish to play.

For my agreement, fellow member and Twitter buddy Mike Dunbar has assigned me The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion on the Xbox 360. This is a game that I have tried no fewer than three times to get into but I have yet to find enjoyment with it. I have found the game to be glitchy and plodding, coupled with the clunky combat and abysmal inventory management system, have made me give up on all three occasions. Having said that, the game has a strong following and has received almost endless acclaim, so I suspect it's a game I will grow to enjoy if given the time. Hence, I am delving into it on Mike's recommendation as he thoroughly enjoyed it, and it seemed appropriate given the hype that currently surrounds The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. For his end of the bargain, I have tasked him to complete L.A. Noire, one of my favorite games to be released this year and one of the better Rockstar games to come along. It's not for everyone, but I personally loved the 40's setting as well as the emphasis on finding clues and interrogating suspects. In addition to completing said games, we both have an additional task that must be fulfilled. On my end, I must complete the "Hackdirt" side-quest that you come across at some point in the game, while Mike has to complete all cases with a 5-star rating. This is going to be interesting to say the last.

                    My typical "nerd rage" reaction to playing Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

So what is the prize if you complete your challenge? Nothing, except for the satisfaction of having completed a game and succeeded in a challenge, which is really the essence of why we play video games. On the forum, you can brag about being part of the Gentlemen's Club and joke about donning your smoking jacket and monocle and twiddling your fine moustache with price. It's a good time had by all. If you don't succeed, in the words of Andsy, you will be declared a rascal forevermore and thus not a fine gentleman. At the end of the day, it's a fun, free and fiercely competitive challenge that definitely gives us incentive to game harder.

Both Mike and I will have until January 31, 2012 to complete our respective games and secure our high-backed plushy chairs in the gentlemen's lounge. Personally, I think Mike got the better end of the deal since his game can be beaten in about 15 to 20 hours, while Oblivion can easily take dozens more. Either way, I have accepted the challenge and will give it my best. Who knows? I might actually find something in this game that I finally enjoy.

Click here to view the official thread in the forums and see what other participants have chosen for each other.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Review: Assassin's Creed: Revelations (Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC)

The Assassin's Creed series has been one of the benchmarks of this current gaming generation, combining an innovative parkour-style gameplay and stunning open-world gameplay. Yearly releases may have dulled the sense of wonder and discovery, but fans of the series have consistently been treated to a strong, story-driven experience that has remained consistently strong over four games. Assassin's Creed: Revelations attempts to bring the characters and events of the first three games full circle. Does this conclusion to the Assassin's Creed storyline do the series justice, or is an ending on a low note? Read on. 

The plot in Revelations brings together all three main characters from the series; Ezio Auditore De Firenze, Altair La-Ahad and Desmond Miles, the modern-day protagonist whose ancestral memories you have explored in the previous games. Taking place immediately after the events of Brotherhood, Desmond is trapped in limbo in the Animus where his conscious mind has crumbled and left him in a comatose state. In this nebulous state, he must find keys to link memories of both Ezio and Altair and attempt to return himself to a conscious state. The Ezio storyline make up the bulk of the game and this time we see him in sixteenth century Constantinople (now known as Istanbul, Turkey) during the rise of the Ottomans. Ezio, three decades older and infinitely wiser, is drawn into the war between the Assassin's and the Templars and attempts to end it by unearthing a powerful artifact hidden by Altair. Throughout the course of the game, Ezio must unearth artifacts that unlock Altair's memories in order to find this artifact. In all the flip-flopping between different storylines, the plot does get somewhat muddled and you will find yourself confused at various points. However, it is not so obtuse that it detracts from the enjoyment the game provides. 

The gameplay in Assassin's Creed: Revelations is virtually unchanged from the previous two games. Like Rome, Florence and Venice before it, Constantinople is a huge city filled with plenty of rooftops, tall structures and faithful recreations of real-life architecture, most of which can climbed. Ezio, despite his advancing age, is still as agile as ever and the free-running parkour is still the game's highlight. The notable addition to Revelations is a new gadget called the Hookblade, which allows for Ezio to both zipline across strategically-placed ropes that connect fooftops, plus it provides a few extra inches of reach that allows for longer jumps. This is a welcome addition because it helps prevent falling to your death if you misjudge a jump or fall short on reaching a target. The economy also plays a pivotal role, as buying shops not only unlocks new items but also increases the amount of money that you earn, which is accrued and deposited into your bank every 20 minutes. With enough shops purchased, you will quickly find yourself with more money than you can spend. The missions you undertake are also identical to the previous games in the series. The bulk of the assignments involve finding and killing a target, sneaking into an area occupied by the Templars and steal something, or run through setpiece action segments that usually tie into a big event in the game. 

One of the most common complaints about the Assassin's Creed series is that there is little innovation between installments, and the same can be said about Revelations. The same elements introduced in the second game, such as an economy, guilds and tomb-raiding for artifacts are still intact. Key features introduced in Brotherhood, such as the ability to recruit assassins and taking over parts of the city, are also present here and they serve more or less the same function. In Brotherhood, you were responsible for burning down Borgia towers and overthrowing their control over a district. In Revelations, you must take over Templar dens and drive them out in order to claim their land for the assassin's guilds. The twist is that the Templars are stubborn and will attack your dens, requiring you to engage in a tower defense-style game in order to protect your strongholds. Another new addition is the ability to craft various bombs that can aid you during missions. You will acquire various recipe items throughout the game and the function and purpose of the bombs you craft will depend on which combination of ingredients you use. Another twist is the levels in which you play as Desomd trapped in the wastelands of the Animus. By collecting data fragments, you unlike levels in which you play as Desmond in a first-person puzzle platforming game. These segments will remind you of a less puzzle-focused Portal and they are surprisingly enjoyable, plus you will get more exposition on Desmond and his life. 

The single player experience can easily consume 20 hours, possibly more if you're a completionist or achievement/trophy hunter.  Whether you liked it or not in Brotherhood, the multiplayer has returned in Revelations and a few changes that are largely cosmetic. Once again, you are tasked with assassinating an assigned target, while at the same time another player has been assigned to kill you. The frantic cat-and-mouse chases can be tense and exhilarating, and those who found Brotherhood's multiplayer limited will like the expanded maps, game modes, class customization and ability to create guilds. Despite the improvements, the multiplayer does have some issues such as slow pacing and unbalanced player match-ups. The benefits and perks are definitely slanted in favor of high-level players, so new players will find themselves getting killed quickly and often. The multiplayer in Assassin's Creed was a novel idea in Brotherhood and it provided a few hours of enjoyment, but it gets stale rather quickly and it is questionable if it will sustain a solid online community. It should also be noted that the "Uplay Passport", Ubisoft's answer to the online pass, is required to access online multiplayer and this comes included when you purchase the game new. Despite the novelty and the fact that it's something different, the multiplayer still feels somewhat tacked on. If I was required to pay extra for this mode, I would pass.

As fans of the series have come to expect, Assassin's Creed: Revelations is a fantastic looking game. Constantinople is a culturally rich city and the game developers have done an excellent job in bringing it to life. The crowds of people going about their business, the day-night cycle and the little touches such as birds flying around and leaves blowing through the air give the game a sense of immersion that is rarely seen in video games. The character animation is fantastic, and while the combat is virtually unchanged, the ways in which you kill enemies are a grisly treat to enjoy. Special mention also needs to be made of the music and voice acting, all of which is up to the standard that the series has set. The subtle, Middle Eastern-themed soundtrack is fantastic and it sets the right mood, and the voice acting is first rate. With four games under their belt, the developers of the Assassin's Creed series have remained consistent in giving us a stunning world in which to do our killing. 

For all the things that Assassin's Creed does right, there are still a number of missteps that can range from minor quibbles to severe annoyances. As great as the game looks overall, it is riddled with visual quirks included people and sometimes entire buildings popping in, sketchy facial animation and noticeable screen tearing during cutscenes. Given the size and scope of the game, this can be forgiven, however there are some issues with the controls that are harder to ignore. Having Ezio free-run across rooftops and through tombs is generally fluid and rather enjoyable, however this does not always hold true when precise platforming is required. There were many occasions where Ezio missed a ledge he was clearly running towards, he jumped in the opposite direction that I had intended and when I missed a ledge when chasing someone. Most of the time, you will be able to rebound and get back on track, but there were a few occasions where the controls didn't work and a mission desynchronized. Another issue is with the gameplay additions specific to Revelations. As novel as the idea of playing tower defense and being able to craft over 300 different kinds of bombs might be in theory, they are rather boring and time consuming in practice. 

While Assassin's Creed 2 was the home-run success for the series and it remains the best in my opinion, the subsequent games have done a great job of fleshing out the plot and delivering a consistently engrossing and enthralling gaming experience. Revelations is the conclusion to the current storyline and also the last one to be set in the Renaissance era, so it will be interesting to see what the future holds for the series. As a swan-song, Revelations delivers in more areas than it stumbles, and while not every addition is a good one and some lingering issues abound, there is still no other game series like this. If you're a fan, your time spent delving back into the fray will be very well spent indeed.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Monday, October 24, 2011

Retro Review: Super Castlevania IV (Super Nintendo)

The original Castlevania series has long been regarded as one of the strongest franchises in Nintendo's cannon and deservedly so; beautifully designed platforming action, a gothic horror setting and perhaps the best balance of challenge and reward ever seen in a video game series. The Castlevania games have since strayed from their platforming roots and settled into an RPG format that fans have grown to love, however the games from the 8-Bit and 16-Bit Nintendo era still reign supreme in my mind. From the time I played the first game in 1988 to that pivotal moment when Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse won my heart in 1989, these games were the benchmark of my gaming youth and the arrival of a fourth installment on the new 16-Bit Super Nintendo was something I eagerly anticipated. Needless to say, I was not disappointed and Super Castlevania IV remains not only one of the best games on the SNES, but one of the best platforming games of all time.

Super Castlevania IV landed under my Christmas tree, along with the console itself, back in 1992 and I remember the feeling of euphoria when I unwrapped this beast and saw the screenshots on the back of the box. Keep in mind that this was an era before the internet, so there were no gameplay videos we could turn to and we had to rely on small pictures of the gameplay on the box and in video game magazines. Playing a game sight-unseen was part of the risk and reward that we had to contend with, but I was confident that I would love Castlevania IV without having even laid eyes on the gameplay. When everything was hooked up and I started the game, I was immediately blown away by the graphics and the music...and this was just on the title screen. For me, this was the moment of revelation when I saw how the 8-bit era transitioned to 16-bit and just what the new technology was capable of. Given that I was such a fan of the first and third Castlevania games on the NES, being able to play a new installment with enhanced graphics and sound completely blew my 12 year old mind.

The plot essentially follows the same thread as the first game on the NES, with Simon Belmont on a quest to kill Dracula, though the world in which you play has expanded somewhat. Whereas the original game took place entirely in Dracula's castle, part IV incorporates additional stages that take place outside the castle and add some much needed variety. Unlike Castlevania III, which allowed you to play as four alternate characters and choose branching paths, part IV is a return to the linear levels and single character experience of the first title. This is not a bad thing since, like any platformer, the gameplay ultimately determines the experience and this is where Super Castlevania IV really excels. The same platforming elements of the NES titles is still intact, however many welcome refinements have been made to allow for better controls and a more even difficulty level. This incarnation of Simon Belmont is easily the most agile with his whip and is able to shoot in eight different directions, allowing you to whip diagonally to take out enemies that would have previously killed you. Every aspect of Super Castlevania IV feels like a refinement over the previous entries in the series.

This precision in the controls also extends to the jumping and platforming, allowing you to move mid-air and adjust your jumps to prevent the cheap deaths and instant kills that were the bane of my existence in previous Castlevania games. The difficulty has also been tempered to the point where it offers a challenge without feeling punishing or cheap, though you will still die often but due more to your own error than faulty design. The additional buttons on the SNES controller are also put to good use, with an intuitive button layout and the additional weapon being mapped to the right shoulder button. Anyone who has played the game knows how comfortable the controls feel and the game is still easy to pick up and remember, even if it's been years since the last time you've played. I own both versions of this game, the original SNES cartridge and the downloadable ROM on the Wii Virtual Console, and both look and play identical, though the Wii Classic Controller is a requirement if you want to play the latter version.

Discussing graphics and sound in a game that is 20 may seem pointless given how far gaming technology has come since, however it cannot be overstated how great this game looked at the time of release. Super Castlevania IV was not a launch title for the SNES, however it was released early in the system's life-cycle and it was one of the games that really showed what it was capable of. The enhanced graphics showcased a leap forward in character animation and environmental design, with lush detail and beautifully rendered scenery proving a treat for the eyes. The stereo-quality sound was also a highlight and it gave a boost to every aspect of the game, from the sound that your character and the enemies make to the beautiful music that plays throughout the levels. The music itself is a mix of new tunes and re-imagined classics from the first three Castlevania titles, making this the perfect fan-service game for those who love the old school entries in the series. As a 12 year old who was weaned on the Atari 2600, Colecovision and the NES, the impact this game had on me cannot be overstated. It was a great feeling of revelation and giddy excitement that has rarely happened since.

The Castlevania series has taken on a new life since leaving the 16-bit era, including the very good (but somewhat overrated) Symphony of the Night on the Sony Playstation and the downright abysmal 3D games on the Nintendo 64. Subsequent releases on more current generation consoles have pushed the series away from the standard "A to B" platforming of the early games, to the point where only remnants in the music and the occasional character cameo remain. For me, the original NES and SNES Castlevania games are what the series is all about and part IV is where it hit the apex, making one of the most enduring and memorable games of that era. I have fond memories of playing through it several times over and I still have fun whenever I go back to it. If you have never played this game, consider it a high recommendation from an old school gamer. The cartridge is easily obtainable and the downloadable version on the Wii Virtual Console is well worth the small investment, so there is really no reason not to give this a try. A great time for anyone with even a passing interest in the genre or retro games is guaranteed.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Games In The Pipeline - My Fall and Winter 2011 Video Game Buying Guide

For most gamers, the fall is an exciting time for new releases, one in which we see new titles coupled with returning favorites. As was the problem in previous years, deciding which games to get and which ones to pass on is rather difficult, especially in a year like 2011 in which so many A-list tiles are coming out in a relatively short period of time. Since I lack the funds and the time to play all of the games available, I have had to make a list that separates the "need to haves" from the "nice to haves". This is not meant to be an extensive list of all the new releases come out between now and the end of the year, but rather a list of the ones I am anticipating getting on release and which ones I am likely to hold off on getting until the price drops. As with any list of this kind, priority given to certain titles or titles completely omitted might offend your gamer sensibilities. Keep in mind that this is based solely on my opinion and personal taste. Anyway, here goes... 

The "Definitely Must-Buy" Titles

Below is a list of games that I definitely plan on picking up, either on release day or very shortly thereafter. Some of the titles listed have already been released and they are on my radar, while others will hit the shelves before the end of the year. To say that it's going to be a busy fall gaming-wise is perhaps an understatement.

Gears of War 3

I was not previously a fan of the Gears of War series, however my recent experiences with playing cooperatively have succeeded in winning me over. Mindless bloody action and frantic cooperative and competitive gameplay is what makes the Gears series so appealing to people, and the third installment offers a richer story that has so far been leaving fans very satisfied. My main motivation in getting this game is the numerous people online who I have to play with, since this is currently the game everyone is playing. I am also hearing that it's the best game in the series, so it's perfect for a recently-converted fan lie me to delve into.

Space Marine

I admittedly know nothing about the Warhammer 40,000 universe,  however the gameplay footage I have seen and the positive reviews have really elevated my interest in getting this game. It looks like your typical third-person action game that utilizes both melee attacks and gunplay, and the gameplay style is very similar to Gears of War minus a cover system. However, I love the futuristic style and the enemies look amazing, so this is one I'll definitely pick up once the price drops a little.

The Ico & Shadow of the Collosus HD Collection

I played Ico extensively back when it first came out on the Playstation 2 and I loved the mix of puzzles and platforming, however I never really got into Shadow of the Colossus for some reason. Most gamers nowadays would flame to back to the stone age for making such an admission of gaming guilt, but it's true. Long-delayed and eagerly-anticipated, this collection is the perfect way for veteran players and newcomers alike to discover these unique titles, especially with copies of Ico on the PS2 being rather rare and expensive. Like all of Sony's HD collections, this one comes with enhanced visuals, extras and trophy support for both games.

Forza Motorsport 4

I have never been a fan of racing simulator games, since fine-tuning my cars and building a garage full of them takes away from the enjoyment of racing on the tracks, hence why I passed on Gran Turismo 5. The Forza series, on the other hand, has struck the right balance between simulation realism and arcade-style racing and I especially enjoyed part 3 for it's excellent controls and varied tracks. The forth installment promises more variety in the tracks and the car selection while still keeping the game accessible for casual racing fans, so it's almost guaranteed that I'll love it. There is also support for the Kinect, however I cannot imagine playing a racing game without a controller. How good that feature works remains to be seen.


I have been intrigued by this game since it was announced and the comparisons to Borderlands have further piqued my interest. Rage is a first-person shooter with an equally divided emphasis on gunplay and vehicle combat, with simplified RPG elements thrown in for good measure. The post-apocalyptic wasteland setting has been overused and games like Fallout 3 have probably used it to greater effect, but this looks like my kind of game and I look forward to picking it up soon.

Batman: Arkham City

When Arkham Asylum was released in 2009, it not only exceeded everyones expectations - it blew them completely out of the water. Engrossing story, fluid and engaging combat and a host of secrets and goodies to collect, it stands as the quintessential superhero game of this generation. By all accounts, the follow-up Arkham City looks every bit as promising. Expanding from the relatively closed quarters of the asylum into a whole city is a big leap forward and one that offers a host of new possibilities, Including the ability to play as other characters including Catwoman. The abundance of side-missions available also serve to flesh out the story and extent the game's length, so this seems like an overall bigger and better package than Arkhamd Asylum offered.

Assassin's Creed: Revelations

Ubisoft has pulled a "Call of Duty" by releasing three Assassin's Creed games one year apart from each other and many are starting to feel that the series is beginning to recycle itself. Being a big fan of Assassin's Creed II and Assassin's Creed: Revelations, I don't see this as a bad thing and I am looking forward to seeing how the third game ties together all three of the main characters from the series; Altair, Ezio and Desomd. New additions will include a new hookblade that acts as a zip-line and the ability to craft bombs, and the multiplayer mode returns with new enhancements that should keep social gamers happy. All of this amounts to a new coat of paint being slapped over an old idea, but this is hardly a downside for fans of the series like myself.
Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception

The Uncharted series has kept me engaged and enthralled since the first installment, and the second game was a masterpiece by any standard. Given that this is the flagship series for the Playstation 3, it's fair to expect great things from the third installment and this is a definite day-one purchase for me.

Battlefield 3

Although the first-person shooter market is crowded with games that essentially do the same thing, I have been especially fond the the recent Battlefield games. Bad Company and Bad Company 2 offered extensive single-player campaigns and the latter offered an immersive online multiplayer component that focused more on teamwork as opposed the free-for-all that most FPS titles have. I definitely can't wait to see what Battlefield 3 has to offer.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3

Yes, it's another Call of Duty game. Yes, it will probably be the same as the last one (or three). Yes, buying it mainly for the single-player campaign because I suck at the multiplayer is not a good value. And yes, I don't care. For all the reasons people dislike the Call of Duty franchise, you are still assured a thrilling and cinematic gaming experience, which is why we play games in the first place. I have never regretted purchasing a CoD game and I don't think I will with this one either.

Need For Speed: The Run

There is no racing series that comes to mind that is more prolific that Need for Speed, now eighteen games strong with the inclusion of their newest title, The Run. With the release of 2010's Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, I felt that they finally got it right, and The Run promises the same style of gameplay but with a story to bind it all together. Admittedly, the stories that are incorporated into racing games are usually paper-thin and little more than a diversion to be enjoyed between races, however The Run puts some effort into making it interesting. We'll see how this pans out.

Metal Gear Solid: The HD Collection

The Metal Gear Solid series is another fan-favorite that I am glad to see returning in an HD collection, though the selection of games is a little strange. You have enhanced versions of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty and Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, both highly regarded PS2 games, and the formerly PSP-exclusive Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker. The first game in the series is absent, most likely due to the fact that it's available as a $10 download from the Playstation Network. No matter, this is a perfect opportunity to get re-acquainted with the earlier games in the series. It's been years since I've played the second game and I can't wait to see how the HD transfer turns out.

The "Maybe I'll Get Them" Titles

Let's face it, unless you are independently wealthy or willing to go into debt, there is no way that you can purchase all of the games that are coming out. This requires one to be selective in their purchases and unfortunately some games must fall by the wayside. This is not to say that they are bad games, however with current titles going for $60 each, some sacrifices need to be made. The games below are, at least in the short term, ones that I am less likely to get at launch unless exceptional circumstances compel me to do so. Having said that, I will very likely get them when the price drops or if they go on sale after launch. You never know.  

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Whenever I tell people that I didn't enjoy Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, their reactions range from being puzzled to being downright hostile. How dare I not like such an amazing RPG, but the truth is that I have tried several times to get into Oblivion and it has yet to click with me. Say what you will, it's just not the game for me. However, Skyrim boasts a new gameplay engine and refinements that might make it more enjoyable for me, and the gameplay footage I have seen looks fantastic. It's still going to be a massive open-world game that you can sink hours, days and even weeks at a time into. I will give this game a chance to see if it wins me over, however it's unlikely to be a full-price purchase.

Driver: San Francisco

After playing the demo and being very unimpressed, I wrote off Driver: San Francisco and didn't give it a second thought. However, a few trusted game critics have been praising the game extensively and, upon viewing more footage, my opinion has softened a little. The game has smooth driving controls and an interesting system where you can telepathically take over other drivers, so I might end up loving this game after giving it more of a chance. Definitely not a full-price pick-up, but one I'll get when the inevitable price drop comes along.

Dark Souls

Demon's Souls was a game that tormented me in ways that no video game should. Acclaimed for it's innovation and eerie gothic horror setting, this was off-set by absolutely punishing difficulty that completely turned me off. I don't mind a challenge, but Demon's Souls pushed the difficulty to the point where it became inaccessible for some and grinding for hours with almost no progress became a serious frustration. Dark Souls is, by all accounts, harder and more unforgiving, so I am passing on this for now despite how great the game looks and how glowing the reviews have been.

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

The console release of a brand new Zelda game is always a big event for Nintendo fans, however I am not as hyped for this game as I initially thought I would be. Chalk it up to the fact that the game relies heavily on motion control, which I'm not a fan of, or the fact that I lost interest in modern Zelda games after Wind Waker on the Gamecube. However, it's a Zelda game and I know I will end up buying it eventually. The game looks fantastic and I'm sure I'll get used to the motion controls, though support for the classic controller would have been nice.

Goldeneye 007: Reloaded

I may be in the minority, but I actually enjoyed the release of Goldeneye on the Wii and I felt that it was a quality first-person shooter that the Wii badly needed. People expected too much and were hoping that it would either be a revelation in FPS gaming as the original N64 was, or a nostalgic trip that brings the original game into the new generation of gaming. Neither happened and people, very unfairly in my opinion, wrote this off as a failure. The "Reloaded" edition is an HD remake of the Wii game and I'll most likely buy it, but not on release. Too many other games take priority over this.

Saints Row: The Third

There have been many series that I didn't get into until a sequel came along that sparked my interest and I have the feeling that the third installment in the Saint's Row franchise might be one of them. I have yet to play the first and second games in the series, mainly due to my being tired of Grand Theft Auto-style sandbox action games, however everyone I know speaks highly of them and I have been meaning to delve more deeply into Saint's Row universe. From the coverage I have read and the footage I have seen, the third installment looks insanely fun and incredibly perverse...early previews indicate that you can use a dildo as a murder weapon, for example. With a new game on the horizon, I have at least been enticed to go back and try to first two games, if not start with the third and work backwards. Given that even non-GTA fans consider this to be a great series, I feel like I'm missing out on something.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Review: Dead Island (Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC)

For video games and anything else involving zombies, the well of creativity and originality has long since run dry. These undead monstrosities have been shoehorned into countless games and movies to the point where they feel almost stock, therefore you couldn't be blamed for not being particularly excited when Dead Island finally hit shelves. While the story ultimately feels inconsequential and technical issues abound, Dead Island is a lively, intense and additively enjoyable zombie-killing experience that benefits from an open-world design and a strong emphasis on cooperative gameplay.

While most first-person zombie-killing games take place in dark corridors and urban environments, Dead Island opts for a lush tropical island of Banoi, a fictional resort island off the coast of Papua New Guinea. It's beautiful beaches, turquoise waters and lush tropical jungles would make it an idea vacation destination, however there is a small matter of a zombie epidemic to contend with. You play as one of four survivors who wake up on the resort after a night of partying to find the resort in shambles and hordes of the undead roaming about feasting on the bodies of dead vacationers. After a brief respite to gather your bearings, you learn that you are among the small number of people immune to whatever caused the outbreak and you must spend the game finding both other survivors and a way off the island. Each of the four characters has a backstory that is fleetingly interesting, however their personalities are never fleshed out enough to make you care what ultimately happens to them. Your objective in the game is to find survivors, do quests and advance to other parts of the island and ultimately find a way out. In doing so, you must fend off a seemingly endless parade of the walking dead that get progressively harder to kill as you level up. The enemies are also varied, with the standard slow-moving and fast-running zombies being complemented with more difficult enemies that require better weapons and more tactical skill. With the fun that you can have killing them en masse, the story seems like an afterthought that barely binds the game together. It picks up steam in the latter parts of the game, however it never feels particularly interesting or dramatic.

At first glance, Dead Island might strike you as a first-person shooter in the vein of Left 4 Dead, however melee combat is the order of the day here. Firearms and ammunition are rare and expensive, so the majority of your kills will be dealt by blunt or edged instruments, with incendiary and explosive weapons occasionally coming into play. You begin the game using stocks, boat oars and pipes to fell the undead, however hammers, knives, machetes and other instruments will come in your possession and these can be upgraded and augmented as you progress in the game. The combat controls are intuitive and responsive, and the weapons are very satisfying the weird. In combat, skill must be employed to ensure you don't take critical damage, which can happen very quickly in the more difficult missions. Targeting the limbs with a blunt instrument can cause them to break, while using an edged weapon can sever them completely with a satisfying geyser of blood. Doing this is especially important when faced with a tough opponent like a "thug" or a group that swarms you all at once. Similar to Borderlands, dying carries a monetary penalty where you lose 10% of your available money, however you re-spawn close to where you died and any damage your inflicted upon enemies will still be intact. If all else fails, you can run past the zombies or get in a car and run them over, so you have plenty of options on how you want to tackle your objectives.

The gameplay consists of travelling to various parts of the island, finding survivors and completing various quests. The main objectives keep the story moving, however there are numerous side-missions that you are given by various people you meet in the island, people who seemingly lack any ability to do things for themselves. Most of these missions boil down to simple fetch-quests that can get very repetitive, however you'll want to do as many of these as possible in order to gain experience points and money, which are essential to surviving in the latter parts of the game. Despite the apocalypse, cash is still king on Banoi Island and everything you do costs money. Since your weapons take damage with each blow delivered, ultimately rendering them useless, you will need to constantly pay to repair and upgrade them if you plan on keeping them. As your loot and collect items, weapon upgrades such as weight damage, electricity charge and even explosive augments will become available for certain weapon types. Money can be obtained by looting houses, scattered luggage and even the corpses of the zombies you kill, however you will earn the bulk of your money and experience points by completing missions. Some NPC allies will also give you better weapons and weapon upgrades for completing quests, so taking some time to complete these before advancing in the main story is well worth it.

Dead Island can be played solo and it provides a fun and engrossing experience, however the game really comes alive with the online four-player cooperative mode. Three friends can join your game and play through the missions cooperatively and the enemy difficulty will scale depending on the number of players. If you don't have friends available to play with you, Dead Island integrates an interesting system in which you can drop in and out of another players game while others can do the same in yours. Whenever a player near your level is present in the same general area, you are alerted to this and given a chance to enter their game and assist them. You can opt-out of this feature if you do not wish to come into contact with random players, however this can be very useful in the more difficult missions since other players can trade weapons with you and assist in battles. Additionally, if you have the online settings on "Cooperative", other players will be unable to hurt you or steal your loot. Similar to the aforementioned Borderlands, playing cooperatively helps to increase the sense of fun and reward that the game has to offer.

In the audio-visual department, Dead Island has many strengths and more than a few wrinkles that are common in sandbox-style games. The island of Banoi looks fantastic and a lot of work has been put into selling it as a tropic paradise gone wrong. The gorgeous beaches are tainted with dead bodies, looted luggage and garbage everywhere, while the empty streets give you a sense of foreboding as you anticipate the next wave of zombies coming towards you. The character animation is plagued with doll-like facial expressions and poorly-synced voice acting, the environments have constant draw-in and screen-tearing, and the character animation of the zombies is jerky and glitchy. These happen too often to go unnoticed and they will prove distracting at times, however they are not a severe hindrance to the overall experience. Anyone who is used to playing large, open-world games knows by now to expect graphical hiccups and these are definitely present here. The best part of the game, visually speaking, is the gruesome and inventive ways you can dispatch the zombies. Bones snap out of place, limbs fly and blood flows in seemingly limitless quantities, and you'll spend hours eviscerating the undead with a big smile on your face.

Outside of the aforementioned visual bugs in the environment, the game features various glitches that can range from amusing quirks to quest-ending annoyances. Even a moderate amount of time spent on Dead Island will reveal enemies and even their body parts dangling in mid-air, loot disappearing and even instances where your character gets stuck in or even falling below the level geometry. The two biggest issues noted on my end were problems with the in-game map and with the driving controls. The mini-map is meant to act as an on-screen prompt that shows you both what's of note in your immediate area and to point you towards your next objective. Unfortunately, it doesn't always work. There were several instances where it did not register that an objective had been completed and I was left wandering aimlessly, and other times when it gave wrong directions and pointed me towards an objective in an inaccessible area. The issue with the driving in the game is a mix of stiff controls and environmental shortcomings. The narrow roads on Banoi make maneuvering your vehicle difficult and turning around almost impossible at times, while severe annoyances such as your car getting stuck in the environment and being unable to move are commonplace. The vehicles are mainly there to lessen travel time and to quickly dispatch enemies, but the controls are so haphazard that travelling on foot will often be preferred.

Whether or not Dead Island is a game worth playing depends on the type of game you are looking for. If you want a streamlined corridor shooter with defined parameters and levels that emphasize survival over story, then the free-roaming gameplay and RPG elements such as leveling and fetch-questing will likely be a turnoff. If you are able to look beyond the flaws and enjoy zombie-killing, looting and progressing through a thin story to ties it all together, then Dead Island might just be the game for you. However, the game is best enjoyed with three friends tagging along for the ride, so a rental is recommended before purchase if you plan on going solo.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Second Time's A Charm: Re-Discovering Mass Effect 2

Have you ever played a game that everyone has been raving about, only to find that it doesn't live up to your expectations and you end up shelving the game? That's been the story with many A-list titles that have come out over the past few years. For every over-hyped game like LA Noire and Dead Space 2 that I love, there are games like Red Dead Redemption and Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion that I don't. This has nothing to do with disliking mainstream or successful titles, since there are many that I have played and thoroughly enjoyed. It's more a matter of some games not clicking with me due to the frame of mind I was in at the time, what else I was playing that divided my attention or simply because I didn't enjoy them. Hey, everyone is entitled to their opinion and there is no such thing as a game that -everyone- loves. Up until this past weekend, the Mass Effect series has been the epitome of games that everyone raves about but I simply do not get. I played the first game and very quickly got bored of the slow-moving plot and clunky combat controls, and after hearing great things about part 2, I gave it a try and felt much the same way about it. Both games were shelved and subsequently forgotten amidst the numerous other games I was playing.

Fast forward to this past weekend. I was feeling under the weather and decided to randomly go back to a game that I haven't played in a long time. After staring blankly at my shelves for a while, I decided to pick Mass Effect 2 even though I haven't played it in well over a year, and even then I didn't get more than an hour into it. Good sense told me that starting with the first game would be a better idea, but remembering how much I disliked the combat controls pushed me towards the sequel. After fumbling with the learning curve for about an hour, I got more into it and I eventually hit that "eureka!" moment where I found myself thoroughly enjoying the game in ways I never did before. Every gamer knows this feeling and it's one of the main reasons why we are so passionate about this hobby. Given that I was sick and had absolutely no responsibilities to anyone that weekend, I ended up investing over 30 hours into not only the campaign but the side-quests as well. Recruiting new and interesting characters into your party, doing side-missions to gain experience and the loyalty of your crew, and mining planets for minerals became my addiction and I could spend hours just getting immersed into the Mass Effect universe.

The reasons why Mass Effect 2 reeled me in are down to simple elements that every game should have; good story-telling and great gameplay. You can't spend this length of time in the game without getting attached to your characters, and the story is progressed largely through dialogue that you select. Playing it nice with people earns their loyalty and "paragon" points, while those wishing to play it nasty can have a different experience and gain "renegade" points. How you conduct yourself and the decisions you make ultimately shape how the game plays out and it's impossible not to feel emotionally invested. The gameplay, and in particular the combat, is where Mass Effect 2 really shines. Fashioned as a third-person, cover-based shooter, the combat has been refined to make it more fast-paced and more accessible to fans of games like Gears of War and Dead Space. The controls feel natural and intuitive, and the guns feel meaty and powerful. Given that Mass Effect 2 is an RPG at heart, there are layers of complexity when it comes to developing skills, weapons and ship upgrades, however the game is more streamlined and accessible than it's contemporaries. Those wishing to micro-manage their game will not take well to this approach, but more casual RPG fans will welcome the simplicity. In short, Mass Effect 2 hit all the right notes for me and it's a classic example of how revisiting games that you -thought- you didn't like can yield unexpected rewards.

Now that I have played through and beaten Mass Effect 2, including the DLC, I feel compelled to go back and pay the first game, however I am aware that I may be spoiled by the improvements made in the sequel. In addition to that, I am also feeling inspired to re-visit some games that I previously dismissed. These games include Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Fallout 3. The latter game I revisited recently and experienced the same problems that I originally had; clunky combat system, poor controls, ammo shortages, frequent deaths and occasional freezing and crashing. I last game save also was at a point where I was down to my last two bars of health, only five bullets remaining and a bunch of enemies just outside the door. Not a good situation to find yourself in, so I am going to start a brand new game and grind away to ensure I am properly levelled. If there's anything I learned from Mass Effect 2, it's that patience can sometimes be rewarding, so I hope to continue this trend of finding new appreciation in games I had long since written-off.

Mass Effect 2 is available in Xbox 360, PC, and an enhanced version has since been released on the Playstation 3.