Saturday, 31 December 2011

Preparing for a new Elder Scrolls game is like preparing to die. One must ensure they get all their worldly affairs in order, speak with the people who mean everything to them, and have a final meal. After all, once that disc goes in, the user may as well have departed from our mortal world.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a game that will murder you, for the time it steals from your life could rightfully be considered criminal. It is a game that will literally never end while simultaneously bringing you closer to your own end.
This is all before the dragons show up.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [reviewed], PC)
Developer: Bethesda Softworks
Publisher: Bethesda Game Studios
Released: November 11, 2011
MSRP: $59.99
The mountains of Skyrim are beautiful to behold, truly breathtaking in scale and bursting at the seams with things to see and do. Not all is well in the shadow of the snow-capped rocks, however. It has been two centuries since the Oblivion Crisis changed Tamriel forever, but the resulting peace couldn't last for eternity. Cyrodiil's expansive Empire has laid claim to Skyrim and abolished the traditional customs of its people, the Nords. An inauspicious threat of civil war hangs over the people as rebellious Stormcloaks plot to drive Imperial forces from the region and gain popular favor amongst the local Nordic Jarls. Though common folk strive to keep to themselves, events have taken their toll on every citizen.
Inevitably, it is the player's destiny to become deeply embroiled in these events, as well as many more. Yet again, The Elder Scrolls casts its adventurers into the role of a mysterious prisoner, this time due for the chopping block. However, a stay of execution is granted by the sudden appearance of apocalyptic dragons -- once thought to be creatures of mere legend. The first of these scaly monstrosities is but one of an army, as the mythical creatures reawaken all over Skyrim, and the player -- soon to realize his destiny as a dragon-slaying Dovahkiin (Dragonborn) -- must confront the beasts and save the world.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim can take a handful of hours to beat. That is, if you consider wrapping up the official story quest as "beating" an Elder Scrolls game. Nobody should, however, for the main plot is but a mere morsel of what Skyrim has to offer, to the point where it isn't even the most sprawling and epic quest on the menu. To focus only on the main narrative would be to ignore the deliciously macabre Dark Brotherhood resurrection, the various twisted meetings with capricious Daedric Princes, or the vengeful tale of The Companions and their grim secret.

Bethesda's games have always felt like online encyclopedia browsing, where one opens a page, finds more interesting ones within, and ends up with twenty unread articles open before long. In Skyrim, this approach is taken to extremes, with opportunities for adventure found in every city, cave, farm and forest hideout. Thanks to the "Radiant" storytelling system, these adventures can be procedurally generated as well. While there are fully scripted quests boasting their own characters and narrative threads, there is an infinite amount of miscellaneous objectives that can appear at any point. These range from simple tasks (such as collecting a bounty note in a tavern and slaying the target) to more intricate missions (like pulling off a successful burglary for the Thieves Guild). The game is also smart enough to place objective locations in unexplored areas of the gargantuan map, improvising in order to encourage further exploration.
At the time of writing, I have put over fifty hours into the game, and my journal menu still lists more thanforty unfinished jobs. These are just the tasks I've found, and I doubt I've scratched the surface as I am willing to bet there are many finely layered quests that I still have not stumbled across.
Of course, all this content would be meaningless if the game itself were no fun, but Skyrim is perhaps the most encouraging, rewarding and downright indulging Western role-playing game I have ever played. That sounds hyperbolic, and perhaps it is, but it's something I truly feel in my bones. With Skyrim, Bethesda has taken everything successful from previous Elder Scrolls games and mixed it with the best elements of recent Fallout installments, all while leaving behind the chaff. The result is a game as deep and flexible asOblivion but as accessible and intuitive as Fallout 3. More importantly, it's better than both.

Before our budding hero can embark on his or her quest, one must first work out if it's a he or a she. The in-depth character creator from Oblivion is back, offering a wealth of options to spawn warriors as handsome or ugly as desired. Every race has been given a significant visual overhaul, with Orcs looking tougher, Elves gaining harsher features, and humans receiving far more believable, subtle faces. Tamriel's exotic races -- the Khajiit and Argonians -- have benefited the most from Skyrim's fresh visuals, earning richly detailed animalistic features that cause them to look less like vaguely re-skinned humans. Each race possesses a predetermined aptitude for certain talents alongside unique special abilities (Argonians once again breathe underwater while Imperials can access the calming "Voice of the Emperor" power), but every race will be able to make use of whatever skills the player ends up choosing.
Skyrim gives starting players all the tools they need to test every type of hero they could potentially become. Armed with rudimentary stealth, weaponry and alchemy skills, as well as a few weak spells, one's fresh-faced avatar serves as a fertile testing ground that can be specialized in many directions to suit the needs of every individual. As with previous Elder Scrolls games, there is no traditional experience system. Instead, skills gain levels with repeated use, and contribute toward a rank meter that determines the player's overall level. This creates a natural progression in which characters evolve based entirely on how one wants to enjoy the game. If a player tends to sneak around a lot, the character will become increasingly stealthy. If the player likes to swing two-handed axes around, the character becomes more proficient at wielding heavy melee equipment. The only stats you'll have to worry about are Health, Magicka and Stamina, one of which can be upgraded with each successful level gain.
Every time a level is earned, a skill point is also awarded. Skill points are invested into various perks arranged on individual skill trees. There are trees for each school of magic, as well as light armor, heavy armor, sneaking, lock-picking, alchemy and other familiar Elder Scrolls abilities. As players become more experienced in various skills, new paths on the tree will unlock, allowing points to be sunk into ever more useful abilities. For example, the Speechcraft skill tree has perks that make it easier to intimidate people in conversations, or cause items to be sold at cheaper prices in stores. Heavy Armor has perks that grant additional defense bonuses if the character is wearing a matching set of armor pieces, while spell perks can reduce Magicka costs or even dual-cast incantations to make them stronger. Although these perks aren't quite as obvious and game-changing as those found in Fallout, they are nonetheless crucial in creating a powerful Dovahkiin.

The natural way in which characters are built ensures a huge variety of potential warriors. My own character is a battlemage who specializes in Conjuration and Destruction magic, backing up his spellcasting with a measure of sword-wielding experience. Sword in one hand, magic spell readied in the other, I'm able to summon a daemon from the Oblivion plane and send it to charge ahead while I throw fireballs and soften up the target. Once the enemy is weak enough, I can charge in and finish it off with the sword -- which can often be accompanied by a brutal execution animation. What's great about my character is how I was able to incrementally tweak it to maximize strengths and limit weaknesses. For example, my hero was a bit of a glass cannon at first: able to dish out punishment but prone to getting slaughtered if enemies could close in. I therefore spent some time focusing on Heavy Armor, using just enough skill points to give me a defensive edge. Now I have a character that feels like a battle tank. He's slow and and has very poor stamina (you can't have everything), but he will soak up plenty of damage while devastating all but the hardiest of foes.
This is just one potential build of many. I could have had a lightning-quick scout, or a character with Illusion magic that renders him invisible and causes enemies to furiously attack one another. The possibilities aren't endless, but they may as well be. Furthermore, dedicated players who reach the pinnacle of their talents will enjoy power equal to a demigod. By the time the character is sufficiently leveled, there's no reason not to feel on top of the world and downright almighty. That isn't to say the game becomes a complete cakewalk -- tougher enemies will rise to the challenge -- but players aren't punished for leveling up, as often felt like the case in Oblivion.
Another change from Oblivion is the in-game menu. The menu screen features crossroad-style navigation that points to skill trees, available magic, items and the map. Simply moving in the right direction fluidly opens up the corresponding menu, allowing for easy and swift access. Unlike the clutter seen in previousElder Scrolls interfaces, these screens are clear and clean, sacrificing pompous stylishness for pure functionality. The item menu is particularly cool, with each item fully viewable in 3D within the screen -- you can even zoom in and rotate anything in the inventory, which comes in handy for a few quests.

Combat is dramatically improved. Magic spells are similar to the Plasmids found in BioShock, equipped to one of the Dovahkiin's hands and readied for use whenever weapons are drawn. Players can choose to have a sword in one hand with a spell in the other, or even have two spells at once. Some spells issue a constant spray of damage, while others are projectile-based; some have instant effects, and others take a moment to charge up. As with everything in Skyrim, flexibility is the essence of the experience, and players can tailor their combat to suit any preference. A large number of "Favorites" can also be mapped to a special menu that's brought up at the touch of a button, allowing heroes to change weapons and spells and use potions on the fly.
For those not magically inclined, there's a huge variety of weapons with which to dispense death. One-handed and two-handed melee weapons are joined by bows and staves to create a healthy and versatile arsenal. Although combat retains the unwieldy hack-n'-slash flavor of prior games, things are slightly more refined, with blocking and counter-attacking given a greater focus. Fights feel so much more involved than they did in previous Elder Scrolls games, especially since every blow feels like it connects with a mighty impact. Those looking for intricate and graceful melee will be disappointed, but those who want brutal, manic, in-your-face engagements have come to the right game.
What else is there to say? What about the crafting, smithing and enchanting? You can make your own weapons with materials found around the world, becoming an alchemist and create new potions, or imbue weapons with powerful sorcery. These systems are simple, yet require practice and dedication from those players looking to make their own gear. Even then, they don't have to if they don't want to, and can rely on shops when they get new stock. It's all up to you.
As a Dragonborn, the hero will gain access to Thu'ums, or Shouts. These shouts are spoken in the language of dragons, and their words invoke powerful effects. As players discover Thu'ums written on walls around Skyrim, they absorb their power and gain new skills. These range from simple Shouts that blast out fire or ice to more unique skills, such as surging forward at super speed or summoning a lightning storm. Once learned, a Shout needs to be unlocked with a Dragon Soul, but to win a Dragon Soul, one needs to fight a dragon.

Dragons are not merely scripted boss battles that have been set to occur at a few predetermined points. In Skyrim, these living legends can come at any time and launch an attack upon any location. These randomly generated creatures will start appearing in the world once a certain point in the main story has been reached, and their regular appearances dominate everything. The best time to meet a dragon is undoubtedly in a city, as guards will leave their posts to join in the fight and turn what is already a huge encounter into something truly epic.
The winged lizards swoop across the sky, raining down fire or frost on everything in their wake. They'll land on buildings, smash into the ground and provide truly memorable battles every time they show up. As a choral rendition of the Elder Scrolls theme strikes up and players struggle valiantly to bring their reptilian foe to the ground, only a heart of stone could fail to be roused. Once the dragon finally draws its last breath and begins to burn away, leaving behind only its huge skeleton, most players would be hard-pressed to not just stand there silently for a few moments, taking in everything that just happened. The surrounding NPCs will be doing the same thing, too, making these reflectively calm moments almost as engaging as the fights themselves.
Skyrim can do epic, that's a given. It is, however, the little things that make The Elder Scrolls V what it is. The game is stuffed to its brim with tiny flourishes that seem so insignificant yet make the world of difference between a game that feels like a game, and a game that feels like it's alive. Swimming in a river to catch some fish, dropping an unwanted item on the floor and having an NPC "helpfully" return it to you, gaining a trusty follower who comments on your actions and surrounding locations -- these are the things that really place Skyrim a cut above the rest. Long after gamers have stopped recounting grand scrimmages against tribes of giants, talk will persist of that time an elf tried to sell a player some drugs outside of town, or the bandits that attempted to scare the hero away rather than blindly attack. To talk of such tiny details in a game where storm clouds can be summoned at will sounds silly, but without these minor touches, the overall ambitious scale would mean much less.

Providing the backbone for all this content is a brand-new iteration of the Gamebryo Engine, dubbed Creation. The difference this makes is huge, permeating every facet of the experience from graphics to glitches. Skyrim's huge open world looks inspiring: cities and caves appear to be unique, while character models are detailed and finally resemble human beings -- or their Orc/Elf/Khajiit/Argonian equivalent.
The game's lavish sound design seals the deal and adds that final breath of life to the production. Voice acting is fairly varied as far as Bethesda games go, though certain ones are reused a lot. Still, the acting is commendable and the affected Scandinavian accents used by many of the local Nords is quite endearing. The music is absolutely sublime -- quiet and atmospheric when it needs to be, but stirringly evocative at just the right moment.
As far as bugs go, some are bound to exist in a world so large, but I am yet to find anything game-breaking. The only persisting issue is with NPC allies, who can sometimes get lost and fail to return to their default locations. Some will get stuck attempting to perform an action, and if the player doesn't notice they're missing, they could be lost forever in the sprawling world. Other potential allies will still recognize the player as having someone with them, meaning lost comrades won't be replaced until a quest calls for a specific follower, automatically dismissing the lost one (though he/she will still remain lost). I've also had the game freeze once or twice, but one can never be sure if that's a fault of the game or the console trying to run it. Compared to previous games, however, bugs are essentially negligible, and while I'm sure the coming months will find plenty of problems, I can notice nothing so far that ruins what is an absolutely captivating experience.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is every single reason to love a Western role-playing game, condensed into a single comprehensive experience with nothing lost in the conversion process. It is a game that will drown those who step into its absorbing, overwhelmingly detailed world, a game that will bury you and refuse to let go. Yet your submergence will be agreeable, your burial ecstatic, and the hands placed around your throat welcomed like those of a lover's. To play Skyrim is to enter into a relationship, one that provides feelings of empowerment, yet demands total submission.
Submit you will, for The Elder Scrolls V is the new zenith of role-playing games and it commands you to look up.

Final Verdict:

Flawless Victory: A 10/10 is close to perfect as you will get in this *genre*. Pure, untarnished videogame ecstasy.

Saints Row 2 is one of my favorite games of this generation. Taking the silly violence of "Grand Theft Auto III trilogy" and ramping it up to near-farcical degrees, Volition created a game that was like nothing else out there, despite resembling every other sandbox game on the surface.
One of its most compelling aspects was the playable role of an irredeemable villain whose sociopathic treatment of others made for a truly vile character. A real scumbag, yet one that we couldn't help rooting for due to the sheer magnificence of his or her bloodthirsty antics. It was a game about being evil, and not in the pussyfooted way that other games present playable villainy. It was pure, malevolent, all-encompassing turpitude, and it was spitefully good fun.
Saints Row: The Third aims to top the outrageous behavior of the last game, and it certainly manages that in several ways. In a few others, however, it seems to have taken a drastic step back.

Saints Row: The Third (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [reviewed], PC)
Developer: Volition, Inc.
Publisher: THQ
Released: November 15, 2011
MSRP: $59.99
Saints Row: The Third is a game about extremes. It starts with a bank robbery gone wrong, its opening mission concluding with a one-man war against an entire SWAT team while swinging from a hijacked bank vault winched several hundred feet in the air. Soon after, players meet the sinister Syndicate crime ring and fight their way through a crashing airplane before blasting away criminals in the free-falling wreckage. All this happens before the player nabs a parachute and lands in the new city of Steelport. This slice of glorious stupidity is but an opening gambit to a game with one objective -- to constantly outdo itself.
From giant dildo baseball bats to choking fart grenades, Volition has dedicated itself to creating a game that shamelessly treads a line between videogame and cartoon. Sometimes bordering on sci-fi as much as it does on gang-culture parody, Saints Row: The Third is a farce that never allows itself to be serious and boasts an attitude that must be applauded. The game can be genuinely hilarious at times, if only due to the increasingly absurd situations that The Saints find themselves in -- situations delivered with such confidence (and amazingly well-placed backing music) that players will find themselves accepting the most ridiculous nonsense as perfectly reasonable.
Speaking of ridiculous, the character creation has mutated into a thing of pure madness. Players can craft all sorts of physical freaks, with oversized body parts, strange colored skin, and a variety of inane hairstyles. As usual, crossdressing and transgenderism is happily allowed, and creations can even be shared online via Saints Row's new online community hub. Uploaded characters can be downloaded and utilized by any user, adding an intriguing social element to the experience.
Gameplay-wise, very little has changed outside of the variety of new and preposterous weaponry. As always, players embark on a range of missions in an open world, taking out gangsters, stealing things, and orchestrating mighty explosions. The mission structure has been streamlined, however, with stages now activated via a cellphone rather than manually opened on the map. Furthermore, players no longer need to replay "Activity" side-missions in order to open up the campaign. Story quests will be available as older ones are completed, with Activities now existing solely as a means to earn more cash and respect.

The "respect" meter that used to act as a barrier to story missions has transformed into a full-fledged experience system. As players rank up their respect, they will gain the opportunity to buy new upgrades for their character, gang, and vehicles. Such upgrades include increased health, more NPC allies, and more hourly income earned from purchased properties. It's nice to see the respect system get a more engrossing overhaul, one that no longer annoys players by forcing them to indulge in mini-games.
However, the streamlining of the gameplay exposes one of The Third's biggest weakness: there's really not a lot there -- far less than the game tries to make one believe. With missions now easily accessible by phone and Activities no longer mandatory, the main campaign can be cleared in a matter of hours, and there's really not a lot else going on in Steelport to draw attention away from the story. While there are optional missions such as assassinations and vehicle thefts (also activated on the cellphone), they tend to grow rather repetitive and uninteresting. Same goes for the Activities, which are mostly taken from previous games and thus feel a little tame by the standards the game itself attempts to set.
In fairness, there are some delightful new distractions. Tiger escort is an obvious standout, as players need to drive carefully around town while a wild tiger sits in the passenger seat. Driving too recklessly causes the animal to become angry and attack, which is extra challenging thanks to the unwieldy feline's own clawing behavior. A new variant of Trailblazing is also tossed in, in which players ride Tron-inspired motorbikes across a virtual track, avoiding firewalls and collecting data dumps. These new Activities are fun, but not quite as inspired as previous ones, and quickly get old along with everything else.
Furthermore -- and I hate to say this -- Saints Row: The Third really isn't as over-the-top and exciting as the last game was. Not at heart, anyway. While fart jars and fighter jets have forged a game that aestheticallyappears crazier, the game's overall attitude, narrative and atmosphere is practically neutered compared toSaints Row's last outing. The Boss of the Saints is no longer a psychotic villain, having been softened up and turned into a lame antihero who fights against characters far more despicable than he is. The rival gangs lack much in the way of defining personality, and once you get over the initial brief shock of seeing a man holding a giant purple penis, one realizes just how shallow and insincere the outrageousness actually is. Without the attitude to back it up, The Third's attempts at ludicrousness come off as cynical and forced, a far cry from the effortless inanity of the previous chapter.

One of the best elements of Saints Row was watching the rival gangs slowly disintegrate thanks to the player's vicious machinations, but that doesn't happen in The Third. In fact, rival gangs barely factor into the game. Characters set up to be major villains are removed from the equation almost as quickly as they arrive, interesting factions such as the cyberpunk Deckers are dealt with in a handful of missions before quietly slinking off, and the urban warfare aspect is soon replaced by a borderline generic plot in which the Saints fight a boring military stereotype known as STAG. While players can perform wrestling moves on NPCs and summon air strikes, the environment in which all this madness takes place is mundane and bereft of the hyperactive atmosphere that The Third frantically attempts to manufacture.
The fun is damaged further by a range of increasingly irritating new enemies. Oversized Brute opponents constantly harass players with unstoppable charges and frequently intrude into otherwise intense combat situations, as do their flamethrower-wielding counterparts. Then there are the zombies that appear later in the game and constantly cause boring quick-time events to spawn over and over again -- when they're not simply swarming the player and impeding any sort of movement. These new enemies all look impressive, but they never positively reinforce the gameplay; they serve only to get in the way.
It doesn't help that the game is incredibly disjointed, with a narrative that seems rushed and missions that barely have any rhyme or reason. One particular sequence in which the player is supposedly sold at a sex auction doesn't feature the sex auction at all. The mission starts with a character telling us what is going to happen, then immediately cuts to the player character naked and drowsy on some sort of drug. There's no explanation as to how the situation got this way. Apparently the mere concept was supposed to be entertaining enough.

So desperate is The Third to get to its explosive setpieces that it forgot to pace itself, and that leads to a game that shoots its load before players are even warmed up. Mission objectives aren't too varied and get infuriating once the STAG stereotypes appear with their irritating laser jets and tanks. Even worse is the fact that the majority of missions require players to keep various NPCs alive while contending with some of the worst AI seen this generation. Having to escort a character that doesn't know how to walk around a fallen bit of debris is an incredibly common scenario, and one that gets no more pleasurable with repeated occurrences.
Competitive multiplayer has been axed in favor of focusing purely on co-op. Co-op has its own specific content although it's really just more of the same with players able to wreak dual havoc in Steelport on a drop-in/drop-out basis. There's also a standalone "Whored Mode" in which up to four players survive against waves of scantily clad women and other enemies. Each round has its own set of rules and restrictions, and while the mode is a decent distraction for a few minutes, it gets very old very quickly.
Make no mistake: when it wants to be, Saints Row: The Third is incredible. Parachuting into a penthouse party and committing a mass slaughter while Kanye West's "Power" provides the backing track is one of the most empowering experiences I've had in a videogame. An inspiring wrestling boss battle -- complete with ten-count corner punches and affected pain selling -- is priceless. Unlocking new weapons and playing around with them is a great laugh until one gets tired of them. There's a lot of merit to The Third, and its potential to inspire giggles is huge. Still, it strikes me as a game that doesn't quite "get" what made Saints Row 2 so enjoyable, choosing to ramp up the extremity in the wrong areas and thus ignore those elements that truly needed attention.
Even worse, I fear the brevity of the campaign is a direct result of content being withheld so that the publisher can sell it digitally after the fact. THQ has made no secret that a year of DLC is in the works, and with three mission packages already in the works, it's rather galling to think that the base product spits players out so swiftly. It just seems suspicious that the game is this depthless when compared to its previous installment, yet so much more DLC is at the ready.

As a huge fan of the last game, I want to shout this sequel's merits from the rooftops, but while the experience is often amusing and littered with some remarkable moments, I cannot help but feel a little let down by the final product. It's still a good game at its core, but it's not a patch on its predecessor, as it seems to have forgotten about Saints Row 2's achievements in its blinkered pursuit of extremity. It took me over two weeks to beat Saints Row 2, and I still wanted to stay in Stilwater. I concluded Saints Row: The Third in less than two days and feel no compulsion to return to Steelport anytime soon.
So it is that a game that aimed to be the most outrageous chapter of the series has ended up, if anything, as the least remarkable.
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Final Verdict:
Very Good: 7s are well-above average games that definitely have an enthusiastic audience within their *genre*. Some might lack replay value, could be too short, or has are some hard-to-ignore faults. Nevertheless, the experience is still very fun.
While I prefer racing sims, sometimes it's nice to not have to worry about technical details like race formation, proper lines and vehicle specifications. Sometimes you just want to go fast. EA's Need for Speed has always served as the other side of racing for me -- that fast and fun escape. And by now, 18 games in, they should know exactly how to make racing fun. 
Their latest, Need for Speed: The Run, is definitely fun. In The Run the entire country is the racetrack, and any vehicle you come across is your race car. Nothing matters but getting to New York. You're free to drive on the sidewalk, run through barriers and crash into on-coming traffic. Starting positions? License tests?Pssssh. 
Need for Speed The Run (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [reviewed])
Developer: Black Box
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Released: November 15, 2011 (PS3, 360) 
MSRP: $59.99
In Need for Speed: The Run you play as Jack Rourke (played by actor Sean Faris), a guy in a really bad financial place. His debts have piled up so high that the Mob is out to get him. He finds a potential solution to his problem with a cross-country race from San Francisco to New York. A first-place finish will give him more than enough money to get the mob off his back. All he has to do is make it across America, speeding all 3,000 miles to beat about 200 of the best drivers ever assembled. Easy, right?
Early on, a pretty redhead, a sort of handler and navigator named Sam Harper (played by lovely Mad Menstar Christina Hendricks), tells Jack that the purse for first place is 25 million. She aims to take most of that cash in exchange for facilitating and putting up the cars, but the left over money will easily save Jack's ass.
In the beginning, hopping in a BMW M3 GTS, the money was my prime motivation. That quickly changed as the racing got underway, though. From the get-go, racing from Nob Hill to Las Vegas, dodging cops and hopping barriers, Need for Speed: The Run was already a blast. The game kicks off with an explosive start, with flaming explosions, wrecked cars and near-misses with speeding trains. Between these cinematic elements and the first races' tight turns, close passes and near collisions, I was hooked. 
While it's always pedal to the medal in The Run, you're presented with a variety of race types to keep things interesting as you speed your way across the country. Many segments require gaining a certain number of positions to proceed. For example, early in the run, on Alamont Pass road, California, going to Interstate 580, I was required to pass 10 cars before reaching a goal line to move onto the next area. Other segments have you racing time instead of opponents; you'll work to beat the clock to make up for lost race time after certain cinematic elements. 
The Battle Race segment type has you racing the clock while working to overtake other drivers. These bits are like a series of individual opponent battles, and they're a hell of a lot of fun. The game keeps the tension on with countdown timers that appear as you encounter racers. You'll have to be in the lead position when the timer ends on these encounters, so you'll have to use every trick in the book to move past these aggressive drivers and stay ahead. The first race of this type takes place on windy, ice-covered mountains where you'll have to work through three opponents in a row. It was intense, but really fun.
Finally, Rival Races take place when you meet a more advanced racer on the run. This is a straight head-to-head race to the finish, where rivals will do everything possible to have you run off the road. Some challengers would pull evil tricks, like quickly steering to the side to have me run directly to on-coming traffic. All of these sections were tough, but they paid off as winning let me add my rival's car to my garage. 
Of course, as in other series games, all of these race types are peppered with traffic cop chases. The real fun hits in these action-movie-turned-videogame sections as rival racers are pushing you into sharp turns on high mountain highways while super-aggressive police cars are on your tail. The pressure is always on, so there's never a dull moment in The Run.
For all race types you'll earn experience (XP) to gain levels and earn new and better racing abilities. For example, a new level might give you the ability to refill your nitro by passing cars. Eventually you'll open up the ability to draft, make jumps and high higher speeds to earn more XP. When faster times and more tricks earn you more experience, you'll find yourself balancing the race, the cops and the push to the next level. All of this together makes the standard sim racer seem a bit boring!
The Autolog networking system of the past NFS games system returns with The Run, and it's fully integrated into the single-player experience to even more racing elements to the mix. As I was playing, completing stages, Autolog was giving me the finish times of my friends, comparing their results to mine. Segments where I thought I had an untouchable score showed that someone else on my friends list finished 6 seconds faster before, making the stage restart option a bit more attractive. After each race Autolog tells you where you stand among your friends while also tracking your total Run time. This system's constant feedback lets you and your friends challenge each other in any way that you'd like, jumping right into competition with the given data. 
The varied roads of USA make for a fine setting for this cross-country race. I got a real sense of being out on the America road system in The Run, and that was a nice break from the standard city setting of other arcade racers. Weaving in and out of cars on the interstate at 160 MPH is always something I wished I could do. Locations like the Yosemite approach, going through a natural park, or hitting Death Valley leading into Las Vegas, added a some adventure to the cross-country race. I drove through dust storms in the desert, snow in Colorado, saw nature at Zion National Park in Utah, and through Las Vegas Boulevard at dusk. The varied settings are almost as thrilling as the race itself.
It's not just flat, pretty scenery backdrops, like you'd see in the latest sim racers. Black Box has packed in plenty of surprises in each of the locations across America. They're fun surprises; over-the-top surprises. I won't ruin any of the fun, but know there are lots of amazing set pieces to thrill you. I still remember all of the holy shit moments. It all leads up to one hell of a grand finale. 
The Frostbite 2 engine makes its debut in this racer, and it gives Need for Speed The Run some really nice visuals overall. All of the cars look great, though they might just miss the polish of the latest sim racers on the market. To be fair, though, there's a lot less going on in a sim racer, and The Run is packed with visual elements. The locales are all fantastic, with enough detail to me have me pointing at the screen saying, "Hey, I've been there before." The close-up shots of characters' faces in cinematics are impressive, though the movement of their mouths and eyes are a bit stiff. There's some strange reflections and lower resolution textures in places in some cutscenes, but overall the look is nice, and at times very pretty. 
While they looked great, the content of cutscenes were a mixed bag. The important story segments are mostly good, but the shorter flavor bits sometimes missed the mark. One particular scene was probably supposed to be sexy, as it featured leggy virtual versions of Sports Illustrated models Irina Shayk and Chrissy Teigen slowly coming out of a car, and then later bending over it, but it ended up being funny instead. The main character was supposed to be making a face of pleasure or enjoyments, but stiff movements made him look perverted and strange. The whole thing ended up being unintentionally funny. 
Need for Speed The Run adds quick time elements to the cinematics, with timed button presses required to work through action elements. For the first time in the franchise you'll get out of the car and run on foot. Expect to mash buttons to do things like dodge cops and snarling pit bulls in short story scenes.  The QTEs seem to be unnecessary at first, especially with the game's opening scenes, but they get better as the game progresses, and end up being pretty fun. There's not a lot of them, though,  so don't expect to be bogged down with endless QTE prompts. There's just enough here to mix things up, and they're entertaining enough that you won't mind them.
The race feels a bit unfair at times when you're up against the course, 200 pro rivals and what seems like every police car in America. While I enjoyed The Run, sometimes the super fast opponents, super sharp turns and super aggressive police would grate on my nerves and patience. At some points I felt that there was too much focus on turning and dodging while navigating weather hazards. Mix these with cheap and frequent police road blocks and tricky local traffic and you have a good recipe for rage quitting. One mid-game segment had me retrying over a dozen times to complete it. Thankfully the game's difficulty can be adjusted at any time. Easy mode permits more retries for these tougher sections. 
My only other major complaint centers around in-race cinematics. In several instances the game's camera is suddenly forced from the drive view to a first-person camera that pans without warning to highlight the action. It felt like someone taking your head in their hands and forcing you to look out the passenger side window. These instances were always highly disorienting and sometimes confusing, as they would often interrupt the race.
If you want to take a break from The Run and just race you can jump into the Challenge Series mode. This mode is all about testing your driving skill and hitting medal times, with the goal of setting the fastest times to compare with your friends via Autolog. This fight for position has you taking challenges pulled from The Run, like beating the clock or taking on a rival. As you complete these challenges and post times, more are unlocked in themed sets. One had me fighting through traffic on San Francisco's Bay Bridge to beat a time. They're all bite-sized races for quick fun, and are a good way to increase driver level and unlock bonuses and other items. 
Need for Speed The Run's multiplayer features themed playlists have you going up against online opponents in set challenges that will give top finishers points and rewards. Online permits pairing up with other players to form playgroups to access challenges that will have them working together. You'll be able to jump in at any time and join any game, and the experience system ties in with the other game modes, letting you take experience back to the single-player game and increase your abilities.
A lot of my driving fantasies were realized in this game. I found myself grinning the whole time, gripping the hell out of the controller, leaning into turns with my body, gritting my teeth as I mashed on the nitro button to boost past rivals. If you've ever found yourself daydreaming about whipping past slow cars on the highway, passing on the sidewalk, or bashing police cars off the road, you're going to love this game. Need for Speed: The Run still has its roots firmly founded in series traditions, but its new look and focus on story make it one of the best of the franchise. Get in and have fun.

Final Verdict:
Great: 8.5s are very impressive efforts in their *genre* with a few noticeable problems holding them back. Won't astound the most discerning players, but is worth everyone's time and cash.
Last year, James Bond returned to videogames in both GoldenEye 007 for the Wii and Blood Stone for the PS3 and 360. In a change from the standard outcome when a franchise hits multiple platforms, the Wii game was the one that was more polished and more fun to play. Even more surprising is the fact thatGoldenEye 007 was a perfectly satisfactory follow-up to its namesake and by far one of the best FPS experiences on the Wii.
Of course, even before GoldenEye 007 came out, people were crying foul that it was a Wii exclusive, mostly because people like to cry fowl whenever they get the chance. All those fowl criers can stop now that the game has come to both the PS3 and the 360 in glorious hi-def with a new engine, extra content, and a more robust online component.
Is it worth picking up if you've played the Wii version? Or if you didn't, is it worth picking up in a holiday market crowded with other shooters?

GoldenEye 007: Reloaded (PlayStation 3 [reviewed], Xbox 360)
Developer: Eurocom
Publisher: Activision
Released: November 1, 2011
MSRP: $59.99
This review is going to feel a little bit like a DLC review; in all honesty, the single-player aspect of this game is exactly the same except for the graphical improvements and new hidden medallions to collect. The new stuff, the MI6 challenge mode and multiplayer content, could easily be considered robust DLC if they were delivered digitally post release. That explained, if you really want to read a full review on the single-player, just head on over to my original Wii because most of what is in there still stands. This is the exact same game reworked for more powerful systems.
There are, obviously, some changes in the single-player experience. This isn't just a straight port with "upgraded" graphics that don't actually look any better, but the same game based on a much more powerful game engine. While I thought the game looked perfectly fine on the Wii, and I'm no graphics whore, I must say that playing through the exact same only much prettier levels is not something I'm going to complain about. The new engine and more powerful platforms not only make the graphics more "hi-defier," but also make the levels feel more alive. Details like rain, water effects, and improved lighting just make levels pop in ways they couldn't on the Wii. In fact, the night club section I raved about in the Wii's review looks absolutely fantastic thanks to the fact that the engine can handle more things on screen at once. So when the entire scene slows down and the debris starts flying like in a John Woo action scene, it looks really, really good.
Compared to the Wii, that is. Graphically, the game is no slump, but it isn't stand-out either. As I said, this isn't a Wii game polished up, but that doesn't mean it's one of the best looking games out now. The graphics are definitely middle of the road overall, and while they look fine, you won't be blown away by anything. This is especially apparent in the textures, which don't seem to have gotten as much love as the lighting and other aspects.

Now, on to the new part. The major addition to the game is the MI6 Ops mode, which is basically a bunch of challenges for the player to try to complete in the fastest time they can. There are three types of challenges (and an extra one that unlocks): stealth, defense, and elimination. All of them take place in slightly varied sections of single-player levels or in multiplayer levels. The modes are all pretty much exactly what they sound like. "Stealth" involves getting through levels without alerting any guards. "Defense" tasks the player with downloading information from three computer terminals while waves of enemies attack; each terminal takes three minutes to download from while enemies flood in at set time intervals during. Finally, "elimination" has the player attempting to kill every bad guy in the level as quickly as possible. By completing challenges fast enough or on high enough difficulties, you're awarded with a higher score which gets you more stars which in turn unlock more challenge levels.
It's pretty standard stuff as far as challenge modes go, but what sets it apart from most others is in how adjustable the challenges are. Instead of simply having easy, medium, and hard settings, difficulty is set by a plethora of variables the player can adjust before jumping into the challenge. You can pretty much adjust everything from enemy damage to rag doll physics. Bump up the enemies strength and you'll get more points as you start the level off. Remove your radar capabilities and your score will go up. Increase your own life and your starting score will go down. Implement paintball mode and... well, nothing happens, but it's way more fun. Thus, to get the best score, you have to balance out challenge and time. Make it too hard and you won't be able to complete it in any decent amount of time, too easy and you won't start off with a high enough score.
In theory, it's a great idea, but from my play, it seemed like completion time outweighed challenge points by too much. Thus, beating the game on a really difficult collection of settings wasn't as good as speeding through it on an easier setting. There's no way of really knowing this ahead of time since it's unclear how the time scores work; believe me, it's incredibly annoying to redo a level over and over on a difficult settings just to have it not pay off in as many stars as you thought it would. I suppose the online leaderboards help to assuage this annoyance since you're competing against others, but I'd rather have a better idea of what I'm going to score ahead of time.

MI6 Ops isn't the only new stuff in the game. Multiplayer has not only gotten a graphical overhaul, but also four new maps and a plethora of new game modes have been added. Some we've seen before, like Elimination where players progress through a pre-set series of guns each time they take someone out, but with a Bond twist since slappers melee is the final weapon. Others are a bit fresher, like Data Miner, where one player has to download data while he fights off all the others, and every kill he makes increases his download speed. I have to say the online multiplayer is quite fun, and thanks to the fact that more of the random multiplayer options are present in this version, it feels a whole lot more old-school GoldenEye when you're online.
Of course, all of the random fun settings (paintball, golden gun, etc.) are back in multiplayer in this version, but Eurocom has also included some other random stuff, like a mode where Jaws' metal teeth can deflect bullets or Dr. No's metal arms prevent him from taking damage from shots to the arm. The game also features more Bond villains to choose from, including Tee Hee, Max Zorin, Auric Goldfinger, Dr. Kananga, and Hugo Drax (exclusive to the PS3). All these definitely make the game a bit more fun, but again, they can't be considered much more than DLC to an already complete game.
I should note that the PS3 version has full Move support (in fact, there's a special edition that comes with that big gun thing and all the Move accouterments) and, well, it works. I played most of the game with a standard controller since I don't own a Move and had to borrow one. Just like the Wii, though, the Move controls function and are fun to play with. So yeah, Move works.

The question then becomes (if you haven't already played the game on the Wii) why would you pick this up over the plethora of other FPS out there that are admittedly better in almost every aspect. Do me a favor and walk over to your game collection to check the back of all your FPSes for how many players can play at once on one console. I'll put good money that the majority of your FPSes don't allow you and three other friends to sit around in the same room and shoot each other. Four-player split screen just doesn't show up on the PS3 and 360 anymore, but it's here in GoldenEye 007: Reloaded; just like the Wii version, it's plain fun to play with your friends in the room. Yes, the same flaws exist in the rest of the game, but with the ability to split your screen into four equal parts and shoot your friends in the same room being such a rarity on both systems these days, I would argue that Reloaded sets itself apart from the pack in a major way by actually having what should be a standard feature.
With Reloaded, you're basically getting GoldenEye 007 plus a bit more. This leaves me in a bit of a quandary when scoring the game. Technically, it should get a higher score than its Wii counterpart since its graphics are better, it has more content, and its online is more robust. However, I can't say that any of this actually makes the game any better, it just makes for more of it. More of an 8.5 is still an 8.5.
What it comes down to is that, if you own this on the Wii, I can't really see that big a reason to pick up this version. If you don't own it, however, this will be a great acquisition to actually get some split screen action on your hi-def console while also getting a really solid game at the same time. I understand it's the holiday season and there are a plethora of other games to pick up, but if you come across GoldenEye 007: Reloaded a little down the road when the influx of games has passed, and if the price has dropped a bit, you (and your friends who can finally play videogames with you when they come over) won't regret it one bit.

Final Verdict:
Great: 8.5s are very impressive efforts in their *genre* with a few noticeable problems holding them back. Won't astound the most discerning players, but is worth everyone's time and cash.

I am Back! And So Is DICE with Battlefield 3 DLC

You may not be aware of it but EA just took a 2.7 GB dump on your hard drive. Within the latest patch forBattlefield 3 lies its first expansion Back to Karkand (B2K, brah!) Far less ambitious than the Vietnam expansions of the series’ past, B2K is an effort at mixing some old maps (all taken from Battlefield 2) with some new tech and ideas.
Battlefield 3: Back to Karkand (PC [reviewed], PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)
Developer: DICE
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Released: December 6, 2011
MSRP: $14.99 / 1200 Microsoft Points
Rig: Intel i5-2500k @3.30 GHz, 8GB of RAM, GeForce GTX 560 GPU (SLI)

Assuming you didn't receive the pack for free with your Battlefield 3 Limited Edition purchase, B2K requires an investment on your part. So, you probably want to know if it’s worth it. Well, that depends on a couple things.

I love Battlefield. I loved Battlefield 3. In fact, it’s my fourth favorite game of the year. Yet, I haven’t loaded the game up in a month because things are crazy between school and new releases. From this perspective, B2K offers a welcome reason to jump back into the game. Wake Island and Strike at Karkand are two of the best maps in the series and you won’t be let down with these reimaginings.

Wake Island remains the perfect Battlefield map. The island’s slopes and hills provide vantage points for snipers, areas for ground troops to sneak, and space for tanks to roam. Every match on the map can be tackled in a new way, unlike some of the disappointing corridor crawls that came with Battlefield 3. For all the talk EA made about improved destruction in BF3, it felt like a major step back from Bad Company 2’s destructible multiplayer maps. The maps in the B2K expansion address this issue and give players lots of trees to tear down and bunkers to explode.

Strike at Karkand is a much better close quarters map than most of what Battlefield 3 had to offer, so it’s nice to revisit it in this engine. It’s a much more versatile map that gives players lots of vertical advantages along with hiding areas. Do you take to a rooftop and fire down on a capture point or do you sneak through the alleyways and flank? The map is further improved with detailed buildings. However, I came across a pretty nasty glitch that some players were exploiting. I guess that’s par for the course, isn’t it?

Gulf of Omen feels like a weaker Wake Island. Likewise, Sharqi Peninsula feels like a weaker Strike at Karkand. Both maps are good and keep a balance between large and small scale battles in the expansion, but I’d prefer to see some Bad Company 2 favorites in their place -- perhaps, EA just doesn’t want us to realize how similar these two games really are.

Visually-speaking, B2K is about what you expect. It strips the old maps of their color -- remember when games didn’t look like dogshit? -- and fills them full of tress, buildings, and skyscrapers. Some of these buildings are stunning in their structure and height. As a result, these maps feel a bit smaller than they were in Battlefield 2.

Part of this has to do with the fact that they have so much more detail -- no longer are you looking across a long plain of nothing. Another factor is that draw distance is much improved, these days. Remember the nasty fog most players had to experience in order to run BF2? I give EA the benefit of the doubt that the maps are close to the size of their originals. Even if they aren’t, they feel well tuned for Battlefield 3’s pacing.

Along with four new maps, B2K offers a new multiplayer mode, three new vehicles, and ten new weapons. Well, new to BF3 at least; like the maps, most of this content is taken and updated from BF2.

Conquest Assault is a pretty basic modification of Conquest. The only difference is that one team starts with all the captures points and the other starts with a home base and extra tickets. It certainly makes the beginning of a match more exciting/stressful, but it’s all the same by the match’s end. This mode is only playable on Wake Island and Strike at Karkand.

The vehicles are also slight variations of ones you’ve already controlled in BF3. You get one new tank, jet, and buggy. I didn’t even notice they were new additions until somebody told me, which should tell you everything. It’s a nice addition, nevertheless. The same is true of the weapons that you have to unlock by completing assignments (for example, reviving ten comrades). The glorious PP-19 returns which makes me happy.

There is nothing about B2K that screams must buy. As a whole, this pack fails to give me nostalgia forBF2 which seems like its main purpose. BF3 looks and plays too different to do that, unfortunately. However, Wake Island and Strike at Karkand are fantastic maps for both veterans and newbies. If you want an excuse to jump back into BF3 or you want to play Wake Island again, you should pick up this expansion. You’ll have fun and you’ll give that 2.7 GB of data a purpose to exist on your hard drive.

Final Verdict:

Very Good: 7s are well-above average games that definitely have an enthusiastic audience within their *genre*. Some might lack replay value, could be too short, or has are some hard-to-ignore faults. Nevertheless, the experience is still very fun.

Saturday, 30 April 2011

Test Drive "Not So" Unlimited 2

I'm extremely happy that the racing genre seems to be picking up again.  In 2010 we had some spectacular titles like Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, and Gran Turismo 5 so I couldn't wait to see what was in store for 2011.  Well that time is now and Atari must have wanted to keep the good times rolling by releasing Test Drive Unlimited 2.  Right?  Well if that was their plan they failed miserably.
Test Drive Unlimited 2 (Xbox 360 [Reviewed], PlayStation 3, PC)
Developer: Eden Games
Publisher: Atari
Released: February 8th, 2011
MSRP: $49.99 / $39.99(PC)
You start off as a bellhop that gets his first big shot at becoming a racing superstar. With a little start up cash you pick up your first POS series sports car, roll up to your pad, (aka trailer) and begin working your way to a life of luxury. Faster cars, mansions, and fame are up for grabs if you're just willing to put the time into grinding through the same 5 races over and over with the occasional escort mission thrown in for good measure. With the money you earn by doing this you can buy clubs, clothes, cosmetic surgery and more, but make sure you focus on a pad with a big garage. A bigger garage equals more cars equals more races that you'll be able to compete in.

Though the game gives you this large world to explore, filled with locations that vary from paved areas going as far as the eye can see, to gravely mud pits found in the off-road areas, it's all built upon a product that isn't ready for the retail market.

Before I tear this game apart, let's start with a few positive points.  Yep, they did one or two things right like the "frim" system. Frim keeps you entertained by giving you points for dodging cars, driving fast, and pulling off smooth turns.  Every time that you manage to hit a new rank with the frim you have a chance to cash in, or continue for the chance at doubling your money. It only ends when you hit something, but it's a fun way to keep you engaged while on long stretches of road and I found that I would always keep a close eye on my cash when doing it.

The second positive note is the vehicles.  There's plenty of customizations available including paint, rims, stickers, one or two mechanical upgrades, and who doesn't love pimping out their ride. The vehicles look spectacular.  They're probably the prettiest thing in the game, which is a compliment to the car designers, and an insult to anyone that lives in Hawaii.

Then you go outside where you see that the environments already look drab, but add immense amounts of texture popping into the mix and you'll quickly find yourself wishing you were playing one of the greats from 2010 that I had mentioned earlier. Environments aren't the only bad part of the game as characters look stiff, unbelievable, and come completely packaged with some of the worst excuses for voice acting that I've ever heard. 

Then there's the fact that what should be the game's biggest strength is broken.  Test Drive Unlimited 2can best be described as an MMO racer without all the typical fun elements found in an MMO.  You know, like being able to play with other people.  You're supposed to be in an open world where you can race anyone at anytime. Instead the only multiplayer you're able to experience is the following notification.  "TheTest Drive Unlimited 2 server is not available at this time.  Please try again later."  This game is jacked up.
Not once was I able to join a quick match because the game either didn't work or was unable to find another player.  I did host a race that consisted of myself and one other player though. Beforehand we made gestures at each other using the games built-in emotes, and then I raced the only other player I could find. I was promptly left in the dust. At least until the very end of the race when his Dodge viper spun out and I was able to win with my Camaro ... only to watch the Viper be catapulted into the stratosphere. I'm not exaggerating, nor am I being facetious, that actually happened. I won a race and then watched a 10 cylinder, 3,000 lb Dodge Viper fly up, into the sky, and disappear.
Speaking of actual racing (which you'll do from time to time) this portion of the game is mostly intact.  I would put it into the Gran Turismo category meaning it's more realistic, something that I personally don't prefer.  Thankfully they didn't make it so rigid that any mistake will punish you.  You can mess up here and there and still come out ahead. The countdown before each race drove me nuts at first though. If you redline your RPMs it's one of those games that just kill your car instead of letting you burn out until you let off of the gas. This is one aspect isn't forgiving like other racers, actually if you're just a little bit into the red (at least with your beginner car) the game kills the engine. Once I started getting better vehicles this problem seemed to disappear, or I had just adjusted by that point, but it's very confusing as a new player. 
There's over 90 vehicles to collect in the game, and a max level cap of 60 that you can reach by playing the campaign, racing other players in multiplayer, and by finding new locations in the games humongous world. It's just a shame that the campaign consists of annoying voice actors that are almost unbearable to listen to, multiplayer is near non-existent, and finding a new location involves driving for extended periods of time through dull, boring terrain.
Test Drive Unlimited 2 isn't a horrible game. It's just surrounded by a bug filled world, glitchy gameplay, and a core mechanic that doesn't function.  Maybe with a patch the glaring faults will be corrected, but in this state I would not recommend it for racing fans.

Score: 4.0 -- Below Average (4s have some high points, but they soon give way to glaring faults. Not the worst games, but are difficult to recommend.)

Homefront "meh"

t’s a mere 16 years into our future. The nuclear-armed Greater Korean Republic has crumbled the infrastructure of the United States with a catastrophic EMP strike. The Koreans have brought the war to our doorstep, imprisoning our people and tearing down our once-great country.

This nightmarish “what if?” scenario is Kaos Studios’ version of a “plausible near-future world,” as depicted in Homefront. Buy into this vision of our country’s potential fate, and you’re looking at the setup for a gripping and emotional tale.

Unfortunately, a fascinating premise can only get you so far, and the pieces of Homefront’s puzzle don’t look quite so promising when they’re pushed into place.
Homefront (Xbox 360 [reviewed], PlayStation 3, PC)
Developer: Kaos Studios
Publisher: THQ
Released: March 15, 2011
MSRP: $59.99 (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3) / $49.99 (PC)
If you’re not a fan of first-person shooters, you’d probably say that the genre hasn’t come very far over the past five years. From an outsider’s perspective, that point of view seems valid: many of the games look alike, seemingly having you doing the same things with bigger guns and flashier visuals. The truth is, developers have made great strides in these experiences, from storytelling to subtle tweaks in core mechanics.

Kaos Studios, it seems, has slept on all of this: Homefront feels like a game yanked from a time capsule, one buried around the time when people were trading in their tank-like Xbox consoles for the sleeker, more powerful Xbox 360.

Visually, the game can’t stand toe-to-toe with today’s most popular triple-A shooters, although it tries to make up for that with a chilling ambiance. Battling through American suburbs and city streets can be a tense, hair-raising experience. Plumes of smoke rise from homes and business torn apart by war, and iconic US symbols such as American flags and recognizable commercial logos lie burnt and tattered. But it’s hard to turn a blind eye to the game’s dated visuals, including muddy textures and a color palette that’s so overwhelmed by shades of greens and browns that enemies and the environment are sometimes indistinguishable from one another. Characters’ faces look dull and lifeless, whether they’re shouting orders or making vain attempts to connect with the player through dialogue.

As far as its shooting mechanics go, Homefront plays it safe through and through. It manages to skate by on adequacy while introducing nothing new for players to be truly excited about. If you’re looking for a game where you follow an NPC around for six missions, taking down enemies like you’re running through a shooting gallery, then Homefront is right up your alley. I don’t mean to imply that that’s necessarily bad, either, if it’s what you want. The game holds up well enough as an average shooter, so it certainly has that going for it. To Homefront’s credit, and without giving anything away, the campaign’s finale is easily a collection of the game’s most impressive moments. But given that you can breeze through the story in under five hours, it’s certainly a case of “too little, too late.”

Numerous other problems mar the experience. Take, for instance, the scripting of the resistance team you’re fighting alongside. Do you enjoy standing in front of a door, doing absolutely nothing in complete silence for upwards of 30 seconds, while you wait for your squad to open it? How about getting stuck on an invisible wall as you try to crawl underneath a fence, only to realize you need to stand up and move aside so your partners can go first? This kind of sloppy design feels less like something you’d see in a triple-A game from a major publisher such as THQ, and more like something you’d expect from a budget Playstation 2 title. It’s not only frustrating for the player (“Open the %#@&ing door already, guy!”); it completely breaks any sense that the world you’re fighting for is real.

Technical issues aren’t the only thing holding back the campaign, either. There’s been a lot of talk about how Apocalypse Now and Red Dawn co-writer John Milius worked on the script. That sounds impressive on paper, but in execution, you’d be hard-pressed to tell that a veteran author was involved at all.
To the game’s credit, there’s promise out of the gate. In the first moments of the game, you’ll see helpless Americans beaten by merciless Korean soldiers, and a mother and father ruthlessly executed in front of their sobbing adolescent child. The foundation of the narrative holds promise, and the idea that no punches are being pulled indicates Homefront could be a somber and even emotional action title. But the moment you get a gun in your hand, it all falls apart.

While the idea of being the catalyst for what will turn the tide of war is compelling, your character and those around him manage to be wooden throwaways. You’re barely given a single reason to care about the game’s protagonist, and your NPC sidekicks are aggravatingly trite when they’re not getting in your way.  If you’re expecting Homefront to be bursting with thoughtful dialogue and challenging narrative situations, prepare to be disappointed. The gruff, foul-mouthed Connor, whom you’ll be forced to follow around in every mission, is the worst offender. Sample dialogue: “Get the fuck down!”; “Get to cover!”; “Now that’s what I call Korean barbecue!”; and my personal favorite, “Enemies in the Hooters!”

For all of the campaign’s missteps and missed opportunities, there is a silver lining for Homefront: its multiplayer. Perhaps I jumped the gun when I suggested that Kaos was napping while the FPS genre evolved; it was simply eyeing its multiplayer competition.

At its heart is its “Battle Points” system, an in-game currency that rewards players for kills, and completing various objectives and challenges. Using points, you can purchase vehicles, upgrade items, and do more to give you an edge. (Getting your hands on the game’s assault drones -- battery-powered, remote-controlled RC cars and helicopters of doom, is a particular highlight.) Points are doled out in such a way that you’re not simply pushed to kill, kill, kill. Instead, strategic thinking is rewarded, as is helping your teammates or guarding territory. It’s not a completely new idea, but it’s well-implemented in Homefront, enough so that it’s certainly worth mentioning.

Not to be outdone by Call of Duty, Kaos has also implemented the now-expected leveling up and perks system. With over 70 ranks and close to 20 (if not more that I didn’t see) abilities, there’s a lot of content to both be explored and unlocked.

Game modes consist of the usual Team Deathmatch modes, along with “Ground Control,” which plays out similarly to the “Frontlines” multiplayer mode in Kaos’ previous shooter of the same name, with teams capturing and holding points on a map. While there are a meager seven maps that ship on the game disc, they’re all massive and well-designed around game objectives. Fans of heavy artillery will also be pleased to find an abundance of weaponry at your disposal; an American’s right to bear arms is rarely as sated as it is in Homefront, that’s for sure.

In many ways, Homefront’s multiplayer modes feel like an evolution of what Kaos offered with Frontlines. For fans of the 2008 shooter, this is exactly the game you’re looking for. It manages to stay fresh and varied with its wide variety of abilities and upgrades, and vast battlefields. Still, it's not quite as polished or full-featured as any of the recent Call of Duty games, which may be its downfall. Homefront’s multiplayer will ultimately only be as strong as the community that supports it; a few hundred Black Ops and Battlefieldgame invites will be hard to ignore.

There are some games that feel like their multiplayer experience was tacked on, a simple matter of getting on the disc and the back of the box to sell “a few” extra copies. With Homefront, it feels like the opposite is true: we’ve wound up with a solid multiplayer experience, matched with a sloppy and under-developed campaign.

If you’re looking for the total package, Homefront doesn’t even come close. Gamers wanting a fulfilling story-driven single-player campaign should take the next bus to Playing Half-Life 2 Again Town. But fans of competitive multiplayer should at least give Kaos’ latest a look, even if it’s unlikely to replace their shooter of choice.
Score: 5 -- Mediocre (5s are an exercise in apathy, neither Solid nor Liquid. Not exactly bad, but not very good either. Just a bit "meh," really.)