Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Graphic Horror: Game Reviews

By Brian M. Sammons


Before we get into things, here’s some news on the new DLC (Down Loadable Content) called THE SIGNAL for the best horror game in a long time; ALAN WAKE. The new mini-expansion takes place directly after the events of the original game, offers a few more hours of creepy fun, a bunch of new gamer score points for achievement junkies, and is an interesting tease on how the series may evolve. Best of all, it’s free as long as you bought your copy new. Didn’t buy ALAN WAKE brand new? Then shame on you, but you can still get THE SIGNAL for a modest sum of Microsoft Points. I have played through this add on and while it’s a bit short to get a full-fledged review, not to mention that you should already own it if you own ALAN WAKE, but I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed it and highly recommend you giving it a play through. In this day and age when most DLC is just map packs for multiplayer shooters (yawn) it’s nice to see some added story content coming out.

Ok, there ends the news portion for this month, let’s get on with the reviews all proper like.

SINGULARITY, by Raven & Activision; 2010; Rated M; Xbox 360


I don’t usually begin reviews like that, but I felt like I had to make a point. Chances are good that you have never heard of this game, and that’s a damn shame. Activision has put this game out with zero fanfare, advertising, and marketing budget. It can easily slip under your radar so I’m going to do my best to make sure that doesn’t happen.


Now don’t get me wrong, this isn’t the greatest game ever, but it sure was a lot of fun. Also, it doesn’t do all that much new, but it does have a few neat tricks of its own. It begins as your average first person shooter where you play as your typical gun-toting solider. You mission; investigate an unknown island off the coast of Russia where the Soviets did some strange tests back in the day. Before you know it, everything goes pear shaped, all your special forces buddies are dead, and you are on your own in an abandoned town and test facility where nothing is what it seems, and that includes time. That is where SINGULARITY not only gets its name but what sets it apart from other run and gun monster mashers, its unique use of time.

Back in the 1950s the Russians discovered a new wonder element on a remote island they called Element 99, or E99, that opened up a whole new world of high-tech possibilities, not the least of which was the ability to manipulate time. Then something went horribly wrong. The island was abandoned, the Soviets erased it from the history books, and all the people left on it, well lets just say that they had seen better days. Then you come into the picture in 2010 and discovered a dead island whose only residents are twisted monstrosities hat want to eat you. As if that wasn’t bad enough, you really mess things up when you slip back in time to the 1950s and save the wrong man from a fire. When you come back, everything is made even worse than before, as hard as that is to believe. Now you must make it from one end of the monster infested, Russian trooper patrolled, island to the other to set things right, while all along the way slipping back and forth between the 50s and today.


The first person shooting gameplay is solid but not remarkable. The guns are weighty effectively turn bad guys into chunky salsa. The story and characters are well written, believable and at times surprisingly original. The spooky elements are effective and plentiful, and the monsters are good and creepy so the gaming horrorheads out there will be pleased. But the stand out this game has is your Time Manipulation Device, or TMD, which allows you to skip through time, age and de-age objects and people (the latter with very interesting results), and stop time. While all this time-play is fun, so much more could have been done with such an interesting premise, so here’s hoping the sequel expands on that concept. Another thing that could have been better is the length of the single player game as is it is on the short side. To help make up for that, SINGULARITY does have a highly decent multiplayer, even if the match making system seems to be just this side of broken.


In all ways this game was enjoyable, fun, and a definite must plat for horror and shooter fans. The only real downside is the lack of marketing push Activision gave this title, so that means if it doesn’t sell well there may not be a sequel, and that would be a real shame. I for one would love to see what happens next in the world of SINGULARITY.

I give SINGULARITY a well deserved, if little known, 4 out of 5.

CRACKDOWN 2, by Ruffian & Microsoft Game Studios; 2010; Rated M; Xbox 360

Some years back everyone who picked up this game did so because it was packaged with the HALO 3 demo/beta. Once the HALOheads had gotten their Master Chief thrills, they gave the actual full length game they just paid for a try and found out, much to everyone’s surprise, that it was actually a pretty good action packed sandbox game. So when the sequel was announced plenty of people couldn’t wait to see what the designers did next with the CRACKDOWN license.

Unfortunately they didn’t do anything new with it. Now that’s not necessarily a bad thing, since the first game was good and so is this one, but it does seem kind of, I don’t know, lazy I guess. While it’s still fun, technical hiccups from the original game that you would think would have been fixed when the second game came out still remain. While those glitches, such as poor climbing mechanics when scaling a building and an aggravating aiming system for shooting fools, might not have been a big deal when the first CRACKDOWN came out but that was three years ago. Since then lots of other open world games have been released that improved on those mechanics, and yet this game didn’t, so it actually seems like the step backwards.

That said, if you enjoyed the first game then you’ll enjoy this one as well. If you never played the first, then this is a good place to start, but I’ll bring you up to speed. You play as a cloned super cop, or “agent”, in Pacific City. This seaside city has its share of problems. Namely a large gang of terrorists called the Cell and worst yet, a race of mutants aptly called Freaks, who naturally come out at night to wreak havoc and kill. And really, that’s all there is to it. Sadly another drawback to this game is that the story is as shallow as a puddle. Essentially this game tells you that, “There are Freaks and bad guys named Cell and both need to be stopped, so here’s a great big city to play in while you do that, or not, whatever, we really don’t care what you do, just have some fun.”

The good news is that there’s plenty of fun to be had in CRACKDOWN 2 besides just running around shooting things. There’s both car and rooftop races, a million or so orbs to collect that increase your abilities, helicopters to fly, skyscrapers to climb, power stations to turn on, audio logs to discover, stunt jumps to make, and the best part is you can do all that with up to three other friends at the same time. Open world games like this always goes better with friends, and this one is no exception. There is also a multiplayer verses mode, unfortunately it’s not very good, but is very forgettable.

What CRACKDOWN 2 does it does well, but truth be told it could have done them better and it doesn’t do anything that the first game didn’t do. So fans of the first game rejoice, here’s more of the same. While fun, here’s hoping that CRACKDOWN 3 brings a bit more of “the new” to the table when it inevitably comes out.

As for CRACKDOWN 2, I give it 3 same old, but still kind of fun, things to do out of 5.


PUZZLE QUEST 2, by D3 Publisher & Infinite Interactive; 2010; Rated E; Nintendo DS, Xbox 360.

*NOTE* There is a version of this game out on the Nintendo DS, but I didn’t play that one but I believe there is a little difference between this Xbox Live version and the Nintendo one. However, to be clear: this review is specifically for the game available on the Xbox 360.

This game is one half BEJEWELED puzzler, one half DIABLO RPG lootfest, and totally addictive. I mean like potato chip flavored crack cocaine addictive. I’ve been playing it for hours, and there seems to be hours left to go in this aptly named quest. So why is this game so compelling? What, weren’t you reading above? It’s a puzzle game mixed with a RPG; cigarettes that taste like chocolate aren’t this addictive. But if you want proof, I can do that.

Now I never played the first game, so I can’t compare this one to that one, but it also means that I wasn’t already a fan of these games, so I came into it with totally fresh eyes and it still completely won me over. Deceptively simple, at first, the root of the game is the puzzles where you match three or more colored orbs to gain mana. Mana is magical energy you use to power your spells. You use spells to fight your foes and combat is the majority of puzzles you’ll encounter as you go on an epic fantasy quest to a monster haunted dungeon to stop the evil that stirs there. Further RPG flavor comes in the form of four character classes to choose from, assassin, barbarian, sorcerer, and templar, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. You also get a myriad of items, such as armor and weapons, which you equip to help you survive such battles. To uses your weapons against a pesky goblin or a bothersome orc, you must match action “gems” in a combat puzzle. Or you can damage your foes directly by matching three or more skulls in the puzzle. There there are the aforementioned colored mana gems which will allow you to utilize spells and abilities with a wide variety of effects. To say that all of the above gives you lots of options on how to do battle other than just the traditional “match the colors” kind of puzzle game play would be putting it mildly. This alone would make this game a winner, but as they say on late night TV, “Wait, there’s more”.

That more comes in the form of lots and lots of varying puzzles. Come to a locked door? Well you can bash it down (which is one type of puzzle), or pick the lock (which is another type of puzzle), or use a spell on it (which is, you guessed it, a third type of puzzle). Want to search a room? Yep, there’s a puzzle for that. Find a treasure chest and want to raid it for epic phat loot? Well what do you think you’ve got to do? So if you are a puzzle fan then this game will give you a happy O.D. like few others.

RPG fans, puzzle game fans, and especially those who are both, like me, will love this game. If any of these categories also applies to you, then do yourself a favor and get this game today. That is, as long as you’re willing to pick up another hard to kick addiction. Consider yourself warned.

I give PUZZLE QUEST 2 5 red gems that allow me to use my berserk ability and pummel a goblin to death, out of 5

SAM & MAX SAVE THE WORLD, by Telltale Games, 2007 (1st episode), Rated T; PC, Wii, Xbox 360.

Back in the far off yesteryear of 1993, Lucas Arts, the kings of the hilarious, point and click adventurers that were all the rage back then on the PC, brought out a game called SAM & MAX HIT THE ROAD. It was about two “freelance police”; Sam, the large dog straight man, and Max, the hyper, slightly psychotic, “rabbity-thing”, who traveled across the country, solving mysteries, and generally doing very funny things. The game was a hit, so much so that it is still fondly remember by old school gamers like myself today, and it even spawned a short-lived cartoon TV show. No really, it did. However it never spawned a game sequel, much to the moans of us fans that wanted more.

Jump ahead fourteen years and the guys that made the original game form their own company, Telltale Games, and decide to take a gamble and do another SAM & MAX game, but not content to just breathe life into this golden oldie title that many may have forgotten about by almost everyone, they decided to take an even bigger risk by release the game one “chapter” at a time as episodic content, something many games have tried to do but few, if any, had pulled off successfully. Well Telltale’s gamble paid off and they have now bundled the First Season (as there are other seasons now available) of six episodes into one game. But do Sam & Max still bring the funny like they did fourteen years ago?

The quick answer is yes! The quips come fast and hit their marks more than they miss, the characters are still zany and do unpredictable things, and the plots of each self contained episode is intriguing, funny, and most importantly, memorable. Also, like any good story, each chapter is linked, with threads and mysteries running from the beginning to the end. As for the game play, it’s still rooted firmly in point and click adventure land, where you have to find items in the game world and figure out how to use them to solve puzzles to advance the story. Most of the time this is great fun, the one instance it’s not is the only real problem I had with this game. During the first three episodes everything was fine, but the last three the games started doing the old, start at point A, go to point B and get item, go back to point A and use item, go back to point B and get new item, go back (again) to point A to use new item, go back once more to point B, and so on and so forth. This constant back and forth, only being able to advance the story one small step at a time, was aggravating at best and down right boring at worst. I can only assume that the game designers did this to artificially lengthen the game play of these later chapters. Either that or they were somehow getting paid by the number of loading screens the player had to sit through. However that one questionable bit of game design aside, this new SAM & MAX game is still as clever, funny, and fun to play as it ever was.

I give SAM & MAX SAVE THE WORLD 4 psychotic rabbity-things with a penchant of violence out of 5.

--Brian M. Sammons