Tag Archives: Video Games

Lara Croft’s Therapy Session Isn’t A Sign Of Weakness, It’s A Sign Of Strength

When I saw the teaser trailer during Microsoft’s E3 press conference for Rise of the Tomb Raider, I was excited. I thought it was one of the better game trailers I’ve seen in a long time. It had a great sense of momentum, a wonderful aura of suspense, and a fantastic musical score that had me excited for the future of the franchise. It helped that it was also a complete surprise.

If you haven’t seen the trailer, it shows a hooded woman, later revealed to be Lara Croft, in a therapy session with an older white man. As her therapist speaks to Lara about the trauma she sustained after the events of the previous game and her mental condition, Lara can be seen visibly shaking. Her therapist worries she’s fallen into a “mental trap” that she may never escape from. But there is another possibility — Lara could become who she was meant to be.

I was impressed and excited to see Lara’s return. So when I went online later that day, I was a little confused by some of the reactions I saw. Some shouted “How dare the developers make Lara Croft seek help from a man!” or highlighted the idea that Lara receiving therapy somehow made her weak. They claimed developers were once again stripping a powerful female protagonist of her strength, similar to how Metroid: Other M transformed Samus into a character completely dependent on her male supporting cast.

For me, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Lara Croft is a gaming icon, though probably for all the wrong reasons. She’s starred in her fair share of great action titles and a few poor ones as well, but she isn’t recognized the world over because of her brains, skills, or the quality of her games. She is remembered because she is a female protagonist sporting tight shorts, a small waist, and huge breasts at a time when most gamers were still teenage boys. If you don’t believe me, look no further than the above promotional image. The fact that she is a strong, independent woman is secondary to her sex appeal, at least where the old games are concerned.

I can’t say I was ever a fan of the old franchise for basically that reason. So with no history with the franchise I went into the recent Tomb Raider reboot with an open mind, and what I found impressed me.Tomb Raider is by no means a perfect game, but it does plenty right. Unique puzzles, solid shooting, good platforming, beautiful scenery, great voice acting and good writing. The story left a little to be desired, but after finishing the game and putting down the controller I can safely say that my favorite part of Tomb Raider is, well, the Tomb Raider herself.

It’s brilliant really. Crystal Dynamics managed to transform a character that existed first and foremost as a sex icon into a strong, smart, and believable heroine. She doesn’t begin as a hardened killer or expert explorer. She starts as a very intelligent woman in a deadly situation, who is forced to rely on herself to see that she and her friends make it to safety.The Lara of the the rebooted Tomb Raider has a powerful will to endure, and a desire to protect those she cares about that allows her to do the impossible.

The trailer for Rise of the Tomb Raider looks to build upon this idea by looking at Lara and the events she survived with a level of attention rarely seen in games. On that island Lara killed for the first time, lost loved ones, suffered unimaginable pain and survived near unbearable conditions. But she survived, though surviving in the world of the new Tomb Raider, just as in the real world, doesn’t mean emerging unscathed.

I’ve written about this before. Though by no means the only entertainment medium guilty of this, video games seem to have a knack for completely disregarding the repercussions of a life of violence. Game action heroes kill thousands of people on screen, and then act like completely regular Joes at the end of the game. As a lover of narrative, it’s always been a disconnect that has bothered me.

Which is why I enjoyed the latest Tomb Raider and the new trailer for it’s sequel so much. The developers look to be actually acknowledging that what Lara went through isn’t normal, isn’t something that you can just shrug off. It has to be overcome.

We sadly live in a society where to accept help is viewed as weak. Lara, to some, is showing weakness by seeking help in the new trailer. It is because she is a woman, some say, that the developers are choosing to show her seeking help, reinforcing an absurd idea that women aren’t as strong as men and somehow butchering her character in the process. If Lara was instead a man, they say, he wouldn’t seek counseling. That last bit is correct, and is exactly the problem.

I hear stories every day of veterans coming home from war who are too afraid or too ashamed to seek help for their Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Instead they bottle it up and keep it inside, often with dangerous consequences for both themselves and those around them. The truth is this — men and women are equally weak. Nobody goes through traumatic events like seeing friends killed or killing others and is completely, 100 percent okay afterwards.

I would argue the problem is not with how Lara is being portrayed, but rather the problem rests with how our medium instead chooses to portray its stoic, white, male action heroes, men who often kill without hesitation, thought, or remorse. We don’t see the men of countless military shooters struggle with survivors guilt or the loss of loved ones. We don’t see action heroes like Nathan Drake think twice about killing hundreds in a quest for treasure. It’s all swept under the rug, reinforcing the fantasy that men are magically stronger and better equipped to deal with the horrors of war and combat than woman and thus don’t ever have a problem with it.

The fact that we do see Lara, both in the reboot and in this trailer, struggling with what she’s lived through doesn’t make Lara weak. It’s in fact quite the opposite. It makes her stronger, much stronger than the countless, interchangeable male heroes whose developers choose to make them mentally invincible. It gives her obstacles to overcome that aren’t as primitively simple as “shoot the bad man,” or “blow up the base.”

Seeking help isn’t an act of weakness, it’s an act of strength. And this new Lara Croft has it in spades.

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League Of Legends’ Newest Champ Is A Step In The Right Direction

As a longtime player of League of Legends, I’ve always been bothered by how one of the most popular games on the planet portrays it’s women characters.

It’s sadly not anything video games haven’t seen before. The game is filled with women champions for players to play as, almost all of them boasting ridiculous breast sizes and skimpy outfits. Heck, even the most clothed women in the game, the armored Leona, is still wearing high heels.

Thankfully, developer Riot is not completely blind to criticism. The champion Sejuani upon her initial release wore a helmet, a fur bra, and a loincloth. If that sounds like a severe lack of clothing for a warrior who fights in the frozen north, where sub-zero temperatures aren’t uncommon, you are probably right. They remodeled her based on player feedback and now Sejuani is among a select few female characters in the game that isn’t overly sexualized.

Going hand in hand with the game’s sexualization of it’s female characters is one of the game’s champion roles – support. Supports in League of Legends exist almost exclusively to help their AD carry, making sure the carry gets as many kills and as much gold as possible so they can deal out heavy damage to the enemy team. The AD carry gets all the glory, but it’s the supports that are the unsung heroes of the League.

This role, defined by supporting others from the sidelines, is almost comprised exclusively of female champions, with the exception of a robot, an undead creature, and a very obviously gay man. There are women champions for every role in the game, but support limits itself to primarily women. Sure, a women can be an assassin or an AP carry just like a male character can, but women are the only ones who can support. To support is to be feminine. Perhaps it’s not such a surprise that support is the least played role in the game. Intentionally or not, Riot is sending a message.

Riot’s newest champion looks to be changing that. Recently unveiled, Braum is probably the manliest man in the entire League of Legends. He’s also a support. Bare-chested and sporting a supreme mustache, Braum protects his carry and teammates with a massive shield, taking hits so they don’t have to.

This is incredibly refreshing to see. It sounds silly, but developers should be thinking about how their game’s depict gender, race, and sexuality. Like it or not, our worldview is shaped, even if only in a tiny way, by the games we consume. Millions upon millions of gamers play League of Legends every day, viewing the splash art for the game’s sexed up girls that reinforce the idea that to support is to be feminine. If women are only there for support in game, what does that tell players about women in the real world?

Riot with Braum is showing that support is not in fact feminine in nature, and that there is no shame in a manly man protecting others instead of going for the kill. No doubt Braum players will frequently find themselves supporting female carries, intentionally sitting out the spotlight so their women partners can carve a path to victory. It’s a step in the right direction, but there is still much work to be done. I just hope Riot can continue to build on what they’ve learned so far as they move the game forward.

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Is 2014 the Year of the RPG?

Dark Souls. Elder Scrolls. Dragon Age. And of course the new (and supremely awesome) kid on the block, the Witcher. What do these four sword and sorcery franchises have in common? They all have games coming out in 2014.

Let that sink in for a moment. The third Dragon Age, Inquisition, and the third Witcher game, Wild Hunt, are coming out in the same year. The sequel to Dark Souls, one of the most critically acclaimed games of 2011, is returning. And of course it is a huge occasion when any new Elder Scrolls game is released, even more so when it is in an MMO that lets players explore all of Tamriel for the first time in the franchise’s history.

It is without a doubt a great time to be an RPG fan. But let’s say, just for fun, you can only embark on one epic quest in 2014. Which will it be? Let’s break down what each game brings to the table.

Dark Souls II

Few games captured the interest of hardcore gamers in recent years like Dark Souls. With it’s refusal to hold player’s hands and it’s bone crushing difficulty, Dark Souls really showed there is a huge number of gamers who hate themselves. Which brings us to Dark Souls II. From what I can tell it will be very similar to the first Dark Souls, though larger in scope and with an easier starting zone to ease newcomers into the painful ways of the game.

Potential Pitfalls: Might be easier than the first Dark Souls, not on next-gen systems (booo)

This might be your pick if: you enjoy pain and suffering, you love the feeling of accomplishment that comes with getting knocked down only to get up once again.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

While other franchise’s on this list are trying to replicate the past, Witcher 3 is plowing forward, with the third and final entry in the series going full open-world. The game will conclude the story line of the monster-hunter Geralt of Rivia on his quest to find his long, lost love Yenneffer. He will probably kill a lot of people/monsters along the way. Geralt’s trademark moral ambiguity will be returning, and developer CDProjekt Red promises meaningful choices and consequences. This is also probably not only the best looking game on this list, but the best looking next-generation title I’ve seen so far. That alone might be reason enough to give it a play.

Potential Pitfalls: the game looks so good you might not be able to play other games without thinking they look like crap. The difficulty, much like Witcher 2, could be too much for some. Oh who am I kidding, this game looks freaking amazing.

This might be your pick if: You loved Witcher 2, you enjoy open world games, like choices that aren’t just “light side or dark.”

Dragon Age: Inquisition

After a disappointing second entry in the franchise, developer Bioware has a lot to prove with the first (and maybe last) next-gen Dragon Age. Players can once again choose their race as they take on the role of the Inquisitor and begin to rebuild an ancient order, brokering deals between various warring factions to defeat the army of demons that are pouring forth from the Fade, also known as Dragon Age’s version of the spirit world. If that storyline sounds familiar, well, that’s probably because it is almost identical to the “rebuild Grey Wardens, unite Ferelden, defeat Darkspawn,” plot of Origins. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Bioware looks like they have taken criticism of Dragon Age II to heart and are bringing the series back to it’s roots, but I have a nagging feeling it might have a “been there, done that” feeling to it.

Potential Pitfalls: Being a prettier version of Dragon Age: Origins (maybe that isn’t a bad thing?)

This might be your pick if: You loved Dragon Age: Origins, you hated Dragon Age II, aren’t cool enough to buy Witcher 3.

Elder Scrolls Online

Not only for the first time will gamers be able to explore all of everybody’s favorite fantasy playground, Tamriel, in one game, but thanks to Elder Scrolls Online, they will be able to do it with friends. Or enemies. Or both. Gameplay looks to be a mixture of Skyrim with more traditional MMO elements such as ability bars and classes, which could be interesting. Graphically Tamriel, from the deserts of Hammerfell to the snowy peaks of Skyrim, has never looked better. Throw in some intriguing pvp dynamics where actual players through their conquests can become the Emperor of the continent and Elder Scrolls Online is looking to be the next great MMO.

Potential Pitfalls: A $15 subscription fee. Really? We still are doing that? Also how the MMO mechanics in a traditionally single player game will work out is still up in the air.

This might be your pick if: you loved Skyrim, you want to rule a virtual country, enjoy social interaction.

As for me, if I absolutely had to only pick one, it would be Witcher 3 without hesitation. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of every franchise featured here. I love Dragon Age: Origins, I love me a good challenge and I played 80+ hours of Skyrim just like the next guy. But after playing Witcher 2, I just can’t shake the feeling that Wild Hunt is going to be incredible. The Witcher universe and characters are just too captivating for me to pass up. Combine that with great gameplay, unbelievable graphics and meaningful choices and you have what very likely could end up being my game of 2014.

Regardless of which game is more up your alley, RPG fans of all shapes, sizes, and preferences have a lot to look forward in the coming months, so be sure to keep those swords sharp and your wits even sharper.

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My Top 5 Games of 2013

This year was a pretty huge year for gaming – it’s not every year that two next-generation gaming machines hit store shelves, and few console launch’s have been as heated or as controversial as the debate among gamers about the merits or flaws of the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One. But even though much of the news centered around Microsoft’s and Sony’s clash of the titans, this year’s best games aren’t to be found on the newest pieces of hardware. No, this year I found the best gaming experiences to be the small, short, and often thought provoking independent game titles that I could pick up for $15 or less and play in an afternoon. Below are my top five video games of the year, with number one being my Game of the Year.

5. Injustice: Gods Among Us

Fighting games have a certain affliction which seems to plague them year after year – lack of single player content. The most recent example of this is the Xbox One launch title Killer Instinct, which features absolutely no arcade or story elements. To me, a primarily single player gamer who still enjoys the skill and complexity of a good fighter, this is a problem.

Thankfully Netherrealm Studios, the makers behind the excellent 2009 Mortal Kombat, know how I feel. When I learned they would be making a fight based in the DC Comics universe, my expectations as both a comic and fighting game fan were sky high. What Netherrealm delivered was Injustice: Gods Among Us, a visually stunning fighter filled to the brim with content, both online and off. While most fighters provide bare bone single player experiences or none at all, Netherrealm delivered a full length story mode, complete with voice acting, cinematics, mini-games, and what I would call the best alternate DC universe storyline in the history of DC Comics. Coupled with the S.T.A.R. Lab challenge missions, tons of unlockables and plenty of online matchmaking options and Injustice is not only the best fighting game of the year but one of my favorite games of last year as well.

4. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

Assassin’s Creed III let me down. It really didn’t fulfill any of it’s promises. The controls were sloppy and unresponsive. The main character Connor showed no emotion or complexity. The storyline, with it’s constant shoehorning of Connor into practically every pivitol event of the American Revolution, is boring at best and cringe worthy at worst. If this was the future of the Assassin’s Creed franchise, I wanted no part of it. But among all the crap was one shining beacon of hope, the naval missions. Soon rumors began to surface that an Assassin’s Creed pirate game was in the works, drawing heavily from the naval combat of III and expanding it and perfecting it. I told myself I would come back to the franchise if the rumors were true.

The rumors were true, and I came back to the franchise with arms wide open. I don’t regret it. Black Flag is an improvement on III in just about every regard, with more precise controls, beautiful visuals and a more captivating historical background. I feel a little guilty including this on my top game list. Black Flag’s narrative isn’t very impressive. It is sometimes confusing, and for the most part doesn’t accomplish much or move the storyline of the franchise any further. What is does do however is provide the ultimate escape from reality. It is so easy to get lost in this digital version of the Caribbean, exploring every nook and cranny. Who hasn’t dreamed of sailing the high seas, free as can be, with your crew of pirates and friends, doing what you want when you want? Now after nearly 100 percenting Black Flag, I can safely say it is not only the best and most polished Assassin’s Creed game, but also the best pirate game in gaming history.

3. Bioshock Infinite

A long time in the making, Bioshock Infinite let some with too high of expectations down. Some criticized it’s violence or it’s linearity. Others compared it to it’s predecessor, saying the floating city of Columbia wasn’t as interesting or as well done as the sunken dystopia of Rapture. I beg to differ. The themes of race, American exceptionalism, and religion found in Infinite I found to be much more captivating and thought provoking than the economics of Rapture. Throw in the sci-fi element of alternate realities and the idea that one choice, one single act, can change the course of one’s life entirely and you have me hooked. The gunplay is just entertaining icing on the cake.

Infinite is on this list, despite it’s flaws, because it made me feel uncomfortable. Entering a temple dedicated to Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, made me uncomfortable. Being asked to lynch an interracial couple made me uncomfortable. The level of violence Booker directs towards his enemies, violence he can’t seem to control, makes me uncomfortable. If something in a game makes me uncomfortable, it is probably doing something right, and Bioshock Infinite hit just enough right notes to make it one of my top games of 2013.

2. Gone Home

There is no combat in Gone Home. No mini-games. Almost no voice-acting. It takes only about two or three hours to finish.

Which is exactly why Gone Home is so brilliant. Players occupy the body of a young twenty-something girl coming home from an extended trip across Europe. While she was away overseas, her family moved into a strange new house, and when you arrive nobody is home. Cryptic messages tell you not to snoop around, and to definitely not go up to the attic. What follows is a simple game of exploration, finding documents, notes, and other clues that help the player piece together what has happened to this family, in particular your younger sister Sam, who is the author of many of the notes lying around the house.

I loved Gone Home because I wasn’t sure what to expect. I finished it in one single, intense and focused sitting as I searched every inch of this spooky and foreign empty house. The game throws curveballs at you, at times making you think it is something it isn’t. At the end, the very real and very strong feeling of dread I had before opening the door to the attic was something I haven’t felt in a video game in a long time. Gone Home is important because it shows games don’t have to be about guns or violence. They don’t have to last 30 hours to be considered “worth it.” And they don’t have to be told in cinematics that take you out of the experience, but rather can be told simply through the gameplay. For all the reasons above, Gone Home is one of my favorite games of 2013.

Game of the Year – Papers, Please

Papers, Please is an indie game about stamping passports. And reading rule books. And verifying birthday’s and expiration dates.

Sound exciting? Not really, but place these mundane sounding game mechanics in a dystopian country called Arstotzka, reminiscent of Cold War Soviet Russia, where you work as an immigration official on the border and things get complicated quick. With one simple “Access Granted” or “Access Denied” stamp can save or ruin somebody’s life. Do you deny this man entry because his paper’s aren’t up to date, even though it would separate him from his wife and child? If you let him through your job might be on the line, as every mistake you make cuts into your already measly paycheck, which you must use to pay for food, heat, and medicine for your family. Do you accept bribes? Do you detain innocent people because you get money for every three people detained? Do you help rebels trying to smuggle agents into the country? Every chapter of Papers, Please includes more heart wrenching choices like these than any other game I’ve played. The consequences of your actions are near immediate and painful. For more than half of the game I wasn’t able to provide both heat and food for my family. Soon all of them were sick, and I was forced to allow my uncle to die so I could have enough income to buy medicine for my wife, son, and mother-in-law. All of this is told in in the retro aesthetic of the game were people for the most part are just pixelated silhouettes and 90 percent of your time in the game is spent at a desk staring over documents.

This simple gameplay and clean interface, combined with it’s social commentary on security checkpoints, full body scanners, privacy and immigration law, makes Papers, Please without question my game of the year. Check it out. Glory to Arstotzka.

What games were among your favorites this year?

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Do Game Demos Hurt Game Sales?

Releasing a demo for a game actually hurts the chances of that game selling well.

Or at least that is what game industry analyst and Puzzle Clubhouse CEO Jesse Schell claimed in an interesting presentation at the 16th annual DICE Awards this year.

In a handy dandy little chart, Schell breaks down Xbox 360 game sales with four different lines. At the bottom of the totem pole are games that don’t have any trailers or demos. Surprisingly, barely above rock bottom, are games that only have demos released. Games with promotional trailers only soar far and above the competition in terms of sales.

Jesse Schell

For Schell, the answer is simple. Games with trailers only are the most successful.

“The thing is, with no demo, you’ve got to buy it if you want to try it,” Schell said.

This seems like a somewhat logical conclusion. Curious players who download a demo and play a game may be intrigued to purchase the game upon release or leave unimpressed. Players who are curious about a certain game and don’t have a demo to play may buy the game upon release and still be unimpressed, but hey, they bought the game.

Despite Schell’s role as an industry analyst and the numbers that back him up, I think making the link between lower game sales and games which release demos is a case of mistaken cause and effect.

Schell is equating demos as the cause, and lower sales as the effect. But what he completely misses is a simple fact that is apparent to most of us – we just aren’t interested in many of the games that release demos.

Remember these? They are evil, terrible ideas. 

Demos are used by developers to further increase the number of people interested in a game so that they will potentially purchase it when the full game is released. It is for promotional purposes.

However, you don’t often see demos for huge triple A titles such as Halo, Skyrim or Call of Duty. Why is that? Because there is already so much player interest and support that a demo doesn’t actually help increase sales. A demo, when almost the entire gaming community is excited about your product, is pointless and a waste of a developer’s time and resources. When a triple A game does get a demo, it is usually well after the game’s launch.

Demos are instead primarily used for lesser known titles or games whose success isn’t 100 percent guaranteed. Many of these games are less than great. Let’s take a look at some of the recently released demos on Xbox Live. We will take the first five: The Crysis 3 open beta, Dead Space 3, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, Cabela’s Dangerous Hunts 2013, and NBA Baller Beats.

The first three titles on our list are games many would consider popular. However, none of them are going to even come close to selling as many copies as games like Halo, Gears of War, Call of Duty, Skyrim and other AAA games. Metal Gear is a tough sell on the Xbox, as Metal Gear has historically been a PlayStation franchise. Dead Space 3 is trying to sell itself as an action title featuring co-op and more gunplay. Demos are being used to increase awareness about what these products are all about for gamers who might be interested but not sold on their ideas yet.

Now, Cabela’s Dangerous Hunts and NBA Baller Beats is our other reason for releasing a demo. These are games that are not going to achieve huge financial success and have very little marketing going for them. Demos are released then to increase interest with the hope of somebody downloading the demo, having fun, and deciding to shell out some cash. Dangerous Hunts 2013 has a metacritic score of 58, while Baller Beats has a 73.

You are telling me this game didn’t sell well because it had a demo, and not because it’s a game that appeals to a very specific demographic? Not to mention it’s Kinect only.

I propose that demos aren’t the reason for these games selling poorly. It isn’t because gamers, once they get a taste of the game to come, decide to opt out of purchasing it at launch. Just think of how absurd Schell’s statement really is. He is saying we, as consumers, would rather spend $60 to try a game rather than trying it for free in demo form. It doesn’t make sense.

The real reason game demos seem to point to lower game sales is really quite simple – the games that have demos are games not many people are interested in purchasing in the first place.  Demos aren’t the cause of lower game sales; they are more of a symptom that a game won’t break any sale records. A developer releasing a demo says they are trying to get as much attention to their product as possible, that they aren’t 100 percent confident in its ability to be successful on trailers alone. It’s not the demo that is causing the lower sales, or the trailers causing high sales. It’s just the game. It’s really as simple as that.

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Colonial Marines Review: An Express Elevator to Hell (and not in a good way)

Video games have been borrowing from the Aliens franchise for a long time.  Halo’s space marines are almost carbon copies of the foul-mouthed, rough and ready colonial marines from the film franchise. It’s not hard to see where the space-horror franchise Dead Space drew its inspiration from, and even Samus Aran herself was inspired by the iconic female heroine of the Aliensfranchise, Ripley. It only seems fitting then that the granddaddy of them all to get its own big budget video game. Well, Aliens: Colonial Marines is finally here, and it’s about as fun as being raped by a facehugger.

On its surface, Colonial Marines sounds promising. Picking up were Aliens left off, the game follows a group of marines sent to investigate a distress signal left by movie characters Ripley and Corporal Hicks after the events of the film. The reality is a storyline of absolute zero consequence. On top of that, rather than adding to the mythology of the franchise,  it instead stomps all over the continuity of the films and doesn’t even bother to explain why.

Upon arriving in orbit over LV-426, the marines discover the U.S.S. Sulaco, the ship Ripley and Hicks flew away on at the end of Aliens and the same ship seen in an entirely different star system in Alien 3. But it’s back at the colony, for reasons never fully explained. What follows is barebones plot that only serves to let players follow in the footsteps of the Aliens film. The only problem here is that Hadley’s Hope, the main setting of the film and the primary location featured in the game, was blown sky high by a colossal nuclear explosion that could be seen from space at the end ofAlien just a few months ago. This is apparently no big deal for the writers of the game. Your marines, seemingly immune to massive levels of radiation, simply stroll on into Hadley’s Hope, finding it to look almost identical post-nuclear explosion as it did in the film.

This is all bad, but it gets worse. A reveal towards the end of the game completely eviscerates the continuity of the film series – a literal WTF moment so mind boggling that even the game’s main characters can’t comprehend it.  As the baffled marines ask how this shocking plot twist came to be, they are literally told “We don’t have time to explain that right now.” And the game doesn’t ever make time. The question goes unanswered, even after the credits roll. It’s a slap in the face to fans of the films, and makes me question whether or not the games writers ever even watched the movies to begin with.

I don’t understand it either, Bishop.

Now, this could forgiven (maybe) if Colonial Marines made up for its atrocious story through stunning visuals and intense gunplay. Sadly, this isn’t the case. The game, with the exception of one mildly interesting and suspenseful stealth sequence where you are stripped of your weapons, consists of running from point A to point B, blasting everything in sight. Occasionally players will participate in what I’m assuming are supposed to be epic and intense last stand scenarios reminiscent of the film. Instead, players are treated to boring segments that involve finding a safe corner and lying on the trigger until the game tells you to move on. The previously mentioned stealth segment and two terrible boss fights are the only attempts at diversifying the gameplay.

A big problem with the core gameplay is how devoid of intelligence the game’s enemies are. As viewers and fans of the movies know well, the Alien from which the franchise gets its name is the ultimate predator. They are incredibly stealthy, have the ability to climb on walls, are covered in razor sharp spines and claws, and have that nasty second mouth thing. The Aliens featured in the game must be another breed entirely, because, aside from occasionally leaping onto a wall, these monsters from outer space are about as dumb as they come. Their only tactic is to run straight at you and hope for the best.

Colonial Marines also suffers from an extreme lack of enemy diversity. You will fight hundreds, upon hundreds of the same brain dead xenomorphs. Only twice in the game will you encounter the terrifying and grotesque facehuggers. Only twice towards the end of the game will you fight a slightly different brain dead xenomorph. Sprinkle on top one segment featuring bizarre blind, exploding aliensand another handful of segments featuring equally brain dead human enemies in the form of Weyland-Yutani mercenaries, and you have every encounter in the game. The guns are even boring and uninteresting. I used the starting weapon, the pulse rifle, almost exclusively the whole game, finding the other weapons ineffective. Even the flamethrower, used to devastating effect at the end of Aliens, is underwhelming.

Fun fact, the game doesn’t actually look this good.

Once again, some of this could be forgiven if Gearbox delivered a dark, spooky and atmospheric setting to cover up the poor AI. Instead, we have what could easily be mistaken for an original Xbox game. Poor character animations, from the marines to the xenomorphs, take players out of the experience. Textures pop in and out almost constantly. The games lighting does little to elevate the games already dirt poor graphics. The result is an Aliens game that bears almost no resemblance to what makes the film franchise so enduring.

There is some fun to be had in the game’s co-op mode, if only because misery loves company. For fans of the film exploring familiar locations in Hadley’s Hope while discovering audio logs and the “legendary” weapons of the film’s fallen marines is fun fan service, but ultimately to call Colonial Marines a missed opportunity is an understatement. Gearbox has not only managed to contribute nothing to the Aliens franchise, but may have actually detracted from it through their sloppy and irresponsible use of the film’s continuity. Simply adapting the film would have been a better call. After the final cut scene rolled and the achievement “Game over, man!” appeared on my screen, I was relieved for all the wrong reasons. I wasn’t relieved because I had completed an eight hour long campaign of terror, suspense and blood pumping action, but because I could finally wipe the game from my memory and ignore its status as “official canon.” Game over, indeed.

NOTE: This review is based solely on the campaign and co-op experience played on the Xbox 360. I did not play multiplayer.

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The Legend of Shaq-Fu

You may have heard of a game called Shaq-Fu, released on the SNES and Sega Genesis. You may have heard that it’s an atrocious, steaming pile of a game that is not worthy of your time.

This is very true. Shaq-Fu is terrible on just about every level. It’s for this very reason that I bought it a few months back for the bargain price of $1 at a local game store. The store was practically giving it away. When I asked the cashier for the game a look of baffled amusement crept across his face. I assured him I knew what I was in for. I was buying it as a joke of sorts. Surely I could get $1 worth of entertainment out of a NBA star shooting flaming basketballs out of his hands in a magical kung-fu world.

Shaq-Fu SNES Box

Wait, EA put this out? Now it all makes sense.

He went into the back of the store to dig out a copy of the game. I waited patiently. He returned with a similar amused expression, and in his hand he held what I at first mistook for a Legend of Zelda game.

Instead, in his hand rested a golden copy of Shaq-Fu.

“Somebody spray painted this one gold, is that OK?” the cashier asked.

I replied logically. “Why would I not want a golden one? It’s golden.”

And so with a swipe of my debit card a golden copy of one of the worst games of all time became mine.

Golden Shaqu-Fu

My golden ticket….to misery

I couldn’t help but wonder about the circumstances surrounding the game’s past. Why would somebody take the time to paint a copy of Shaq-Fu golden? Scenarios swept through my mind.

This game, this crappy game, might have been special to someone at some point in time. Perhaps some parent, unable to afford the Legend of Zelda, painted the cartridge golden to make his kid happy one year for Christmas. Maybe some kid knew the game was crappy, and that somehow painting it golden would make it better. It could have been a practical joke from a friend; a game nobody wanted painted golden and gifted just for fun.

Or maybe not. Maybe some kid was just bored one day and didn’t have anything better to do with a game nobody wanted to play. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something to the history of this cartridge that I would never know.

I played the game. The game is extremely difficult for reasons I can’t quit figure out. It wasn’t very fun, though the dialogue and plot is hysterical. Unsurprisingly, the golden finish did very little to improve the quality of the game inside the plastic cartridge. I can safely say I did get at least $1 worth of entertainment out of it. Maybe even $2 worth. Now it sits on my shelf, Shaquille O’ Neal’s darkest moment ironically shining brighter than any other game in my possession. Every once in a while I glance at it and wonder where it came from, who it belonged to and the series of mundane events that led it to eventually fall into my possession.

Where is all of this going Cameron, you ask? So you got a golden copy of Shaq-Fu. It was bad. Is there any more to this story?

Not really. But if you really need a moral to this story ,remember, all the glimmers is not gold.

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Dishonored Review – The Power of Player Freedom

Player choice and freedom is an idea many video games try desperately to capture. Ultimately, the vast majority fail, instead only offering brief glimpses of what a game could be like if it truly let you play it your way.

Dishonored is not one of those games. In the dark, steam punk, rat plague ridden port city of Dunwall, developer Arkane Studios gives you, the player, incredible power. Better yet, they give you freedom to do whatever you want with it.

Players done the mask of one time royal bodyguard turned assassin Corvo. After a bloody coup that leaves the empress you swore to protect dead and her daughter stolen, you are framed for the deed and imprisoned. After a daring prison escape you learn of a resistance aimed at removing the conspirators who captured the throne. From there the game is a series of daring assassination missions on key targets, paving the way for the return of the rightful heir to the throne of Dunwall.

Every mission sends players to a large, open ended environment. Aside from a few clues, it’s up to you to piece together the best way to eliminate the selected target. First you have to figure out how to get there, which is where the real beauty of Dishonored’s gameplay comes in.

Central to the Dishonored experience is the Blink ability. Corvo’s first magical gift from the Outsider, Blink allows players to navigate huge gaps of space in the blink of an eye. Warping across rooftops or quickly appearing behind an unsuspecting guard can be done instantly, eliminating the slow and methodical pace many games with an emphasis on stealth suffer from. Combine the Blink ability with the open environments and multiple ways to reach and accomplish each objective and you have a freedom that is almost unheard of in video games, aside from pioneers such as Deus Ex.

A variety of tools are at the player’s disposal. Corvo, being a bodyguard, is skilled with both swords and guns, and thanks to a little visit from the mysterious otherworldly presence known as the Outsider, he isn’t half bad with magic either.  Stopping time outright? No problem for Corvo, magician extroidinaire. Summon a swarm of man eating rats? Easy. Possessing one of said rats? Done with the press of a button. Players can find hidden Bone Charms that provide small passive bonuses such as more mana regeneration or faster knock-out attacks, allowing you to tune Corvo to your playstyle.

Now combine all of this together and you begin to experience the possibilities, and fun, of Dishonored. Should I possess a rat and sneak into the Overseer’s office through a grate? What about Blinking up to the balcony, stealing the key from a guard and opening the door? Or I could simply waltz up to the heavily fortified front door and hack, slash, and shoot my way inside. The choice is yours – there is no wrong way to play Dishonored.

Except when there is.  My only real gripe with the game, aside from a plot twist over half way through and a rather abrupt ending, is that though the choice of playing the game your way is there, if you want a certain ending (of which there are several) your play style must adapt accordingly. Killing enemies in the game has consequences in how NPC characters react around you and the state of the already dismal Dunwall. Players that kill with reckless abandon will receive a much darker and more depressing ending than those who snuck their way past every guard and performed the nonlethal options for removing assassination targets. While the choice in how to play is yours, so are the consequences. If you want the best ending, you really only have one way to play the game; with the upmost stealth, essentially eliminating a large, and satisfying portion of the game – the combat. Sword play involves well time parries to be successful, making it hard to simply hack and slash ones way through large groups of enemies. When combined with one of Corvo’s magical abilities however, such as Stop Time, you can quickly become an unstoppable force.

Perhaps the true star of Dishonored is the richly detailed world of Dunwall and all the interesting characters that inhabit it. Upon your first encounter with the Outsider you are granted a strange and grotesque, heart. This heart speaks to you, showing the locations of bone charms and hidden runes used for upgrading your abilities. When pointed at an NPC, the heart dives deep into the characters mind, revealing their inner thoughts, experiences and thoughts. I spent at least an hour just learning the hidden fears and ambitions of random NPC characters, even learning some very interesting background information about some of the games more important characters. Players can learn about the world of Dishonored and the city of Dunwall by reading books and notes littered throughout the game. It’s there for players who are into that sort of thing (I am) but is completely optional. From just looking and exploring the game environments you get a sense of Dunwal being city of real history, now suffering from a crippling plague that is bringing the once proud city low.

Dishonored is one of those rare games that truly is a joy to play. It’s variety of refined gameplay and it’s simple but precise controls combined with a detailed world setting evoke a near perfect mixture of gaming nirvana that is part Deus Ex and part Bioshock. Arkane Studio knows that if you give gamers the tools, they will figure it out how to play the game themselves. It’s this trust and faith, to simply let gamers play the game, which makes the game great. There is no hand holding in Dishonored, no right or wrong way to accomplish any given task. There is only freedom – and all the fun that comes with it.

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