Saturday, January 28

Man vs Child: The iPhone Wars

Everyday is a battle in my house, for you see, since she was nine months old my daughter could unlock our iPhones. As she steadily approaches three, she has figured out how to download apps from the App Store, which, to be honest, is a little concerning.

Especially after she spent $18 in less than a minute.

As a result, my wife now has less to spend on her iTunes card, Lib has something else to call her's and I have something to write about.

She only downloaded a few games and a book, but they've kept her distracted all weekend. As a parent the only thing I can do is endorse them.

The first she found was Peppa Pig Party Time. Based on the popular ABC cartoon, this game is actually seems pretty fun, with kids able to make, ice and decorate cakes with their finger as well as play hide and seek with a pet parrot. It's mind numbing for an adult, but because it closely resembles the show, the kids were right into it.

The interactive Dora the Explorer story book was another of Lib's purchases. This follows the adventures of Dora through somewhere doing stuff and things and... (trails off). I don't really know what happened other than there's a giant chicken that jumps in a pond and a car that beeps every time you tap the screen.

We've bought other Dora and Diego games before, with Diego proving to be fairly educational in comparison. Many games (including non Dora/Diego games) involve earning stickers that you place on a wall. The one I help out with a fair bit involves placing animal stickers on the countries that specific animals are from.

Whilst the iPhone is proving to be a daily argument, it is refreshing to know that she is picking up games and, in some cases, is actually learning about animals, colours and shapes in a fun and interactive way.

I'll never replace our nightly book read with a stint on an iPhone or iPad but one thing is for sure - technology is here and it's taking over. Do you have kids and if so, have you bought any cool games for your phone to keep them entertained?

Friday, January 27

Temple Run Review (iOS): Success is paid for, not earned

I'm still not a convert to iOS gaming, or the mobile scene at large. There are a few exceptions: addictive, though ultimately-shallow experiences that keep me hooked for a few hours but - in most cases - fail to deliver the responsive controls and sumptuous visuals typical of games found on dedicated gaming consoles. When I play an iOS game, it's often because it's been recommended to me by a friend, or - in the case of Temple Run - a game journalist I follow on Twitter. Imangi Studios delivered this strikingly-ugly app towards the end of 2011 and it's already enjoyed a great deal of success. Does Temple Run live up to Dan Ryckert's claim that it is "Jetpack Joyride done right"?

The short answer is no. No, it's not as charming as Jetpack Joyride. It isn't as addictive as Halfbrick's sidescrolling score attacker. Its meta-game isn't as all-consuming and Guy Dangerous is no Barry Steakfries. That being said, Temple Run is built on some solid mechanics and is well worth the non-existent price of admission (read: it's free).

In your average run you'll be swiping to jump over and slide under obstacles as well as follow the treacherous path along the temple walls. You tilt your device to move to the left or right of your current path to pick up coins. If you clip any non-lethal obstcales, a pack of demonic monkeys will give chase for a limited amount of time. Most traps and falls, however, are deadly and require genuine focus to avoid when you hit full flight. You can collect power-ups that can turn you invisible, speed you up, or turn you into a coin magnet. It's simple stuff, but it can really pull you in after a few good attempts.


Collecting coins adds to your score and also acts as currency for the in-game store where you can buy new skins, single-use items, and upgrades to power-ups that you come across randomly in each of your runs. You can choose to buy additional coins (as in with real money), so this allows paying players to make their way up the leaderboard much faster than the frugal gamer. This is because certain power-ups and buffs serve to multiply the value of coins or make them easier to collect. You could buy your way to success to an extent in Jetpack Joyride as well, but a lot of the purchasable items in that game were either cosmetic or single use; thus a high score in Temple Run can effectively be bought.  

As I've previously mentioned, the presentation of Temple Run is below par (read: it looks like fresh hell). The frame rate on the iPad 2 never falters, but I did notice the odd stutter when I played on an iPhone 4. The visual hitches I encountered on the handset version weren't enough to throw me off a high score, so it's a usually fluid - if not foul-looking - visual experience.  The soundtrack is just plain obnoxious, so I'd recommend either playing your own music over the game or just muting it all together. 

For the record: One of three

It may not be the prettiest game ever made, but Temple Run provides hours of fun with an addictive score attack formula and reasonably-responsive controls. There may not be much motivation to continue playing short of taunting your friends as you journey up the leaderboards, but there is some satisfaction to be found in boasting about your best score via Twitter. As it turns out, I'm not very good at Temple Run, but it's still an easy game to recommend. Besides it's free, what more motivation do you need?

Wednesday, January 25

The Demo Downlow: Asura's Wrath and The Darkness II

Welcome to the third instalment of The Demo Downlow. Today we'll be looking at trials for Capcom's oriental space-opera, Asura's Wrath and 2K Games' follow-up to Top Cow comic-inspired The Darkness.

Asura's Wrath (Played on Xbox 360)
I've read a lot about Capcom's upcoming action game, but I've never watched any gameplay footage. I wish that I had, because then I wouldn't be feeling the sense of disappointment that I feel now. Don't get me wrong, the portion that I played looked amazing and the score perfectly suits the bat shit crazy action on screen. The problem is, no matter how nutty the titular character looks, or how many giant swords you're being stabbed with, the game handles like an interactive cut scene. Even when the action is taken off rails, it feels as though you're going through the motions until the director has something more ridiculous to show you. I certainly hope that the full game pits the player against grunts instead of boss fight after meticulously-directed boss fight. Still, the scale of the action and high-quality animation deserves to be seen (if not played).

Not pictured: The rest of this deity's giant thumb.

The Verdict
I love the game's oriental sci-fi motif and the fantastic soundtrack, but the action feels like a shallow interruption to the wonderfully-rendered cut scenes. Worth a download, but I'll probably wait for this one to hit the bargain bins.

The Darkness II (Played on Xbox 360)
I was a big fan of Starbreeze's - of Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay fame - first quasi-open world effort based on Top Cow's comic, The Darkness. It was short, shockingly-violent and truly horrifying in some scenes. Digital Extremes - which handled the PS3 port of Bioshock - is at the helm with the sequel, and what I've seen looks promising... and violent. Like ridiculously violent. Like "seriously, how the fuck did Mortal Kombat get banned in Australia and this game sails through uncensored" violent. With your Darkness powers you can eat hearts, rip men in half, impale your foes with all kinds of improvised weaponry and almost literally paint the town red. It's quite a meaty demo - all things considered - and I'm looking forward to getting my hands on the final release in a few weeks time. The shooting itself is a bit loose, but the Darkness powers allow for enough improvisation that you won't often care. It's also worth noting that the new cel-shaded visual style is a great fit.

Dear OFLC....

The Verdict
Do you like gore? Do you like the idea of a twist - however superficial it may be - on the tired FPS genre?  Do you like solid shooting mechanics and beautiful, cel-shaded graphics? If you answered yes to any of those questions, the demo for The Darkness II may manage to sell you on the full retail release.

It's probably worth noting that I would've bought The Darkness II regardless of the demo's quality, but I was expecting more from the trial for Asura's Wrath. If the weight of critical opinion is in the affirmative my balsa wood will may break, for now though.... I'll wait.

Sunday, January 22

The Circle Pad Pro is a knee-jerk reaction to a design flaw

Edit: A Bitmob writer pointed out that you can indeed move and shoot at the same time in Resident Evil: Revelations without the Circle Pad Pro. If anything, this is another argument against the Circle Pad Pro, as the developer has already come up with a software solution to a hardware problem. I trialled one of the other control types which plays similar to Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker (read: face buttons used as a second analogue stick), and it works like a dream. In any case, I sincerely apologise for any misinformation. 

This past week, Nintendo finally brought their 3DS eShop into the modern era by offering downloadable demos for Resident Evil: Revelations and Cooking Mama 4. Outrage at the limited use of said demos aside, 3DS owners are now allowed hands-on time with a game that will (presumably) be better with the incoming Circle Pad Pro: an add-on that affords 3DS owners an extra analogue stick and shoulder button. The ugly peripheral doesn't arrive until the end of the month, but I was suprised to see how functional Revelations was without an extra few inches of tacky plastic.

 No, really, you shouldn't have.

The game handles pretty much like any Resident Evil game: you search rooms for ammo and quest items (keys, screwdrivers, etc.), movement is inexplicably forbidden when aiming and firing, and you defend yourself from all kinds of scary monsters. The only difference being the camera defaulting to first-person view when aiming; which is great considering how little real estate there is on the top 3DS screen. You can opt for third-person if you wish and it is functional, but I'd recommend looking down the sights as opposed to over Jill's shoulder. Inventory management (including weapon switching and reloads) is handled on the touch screen, which is a dream compared to Resident Evil 5's awkward real-time menus.

So I mowed through a small portion of the final product just shy of five times over (Hell mode is suitably difficult). The new quick-use button for herbs is a god-send and I haven't had to fidget around with a rubbish real-time menu while I'm being savaged by the infected masses. Since you have to remain still while shooting anyway, it's not like I could use another stick to back away from danger. The situations presented in the demo aren't too demanding, so I'm not sure whether the controls would handle the added stress of a boss battle; still, it works well enough for me to question whether an extra analogue stick and button is really necessary.

"Fine," I hear you say. "You may not need the Circle Pad Pro for Resident Evil: Revelations, but what about the other games that enable use of the peripheral?"

Monster Hunter Freedom Unite worked well enough with the PSP's solitary analogue nub, so I'm not convinced that Monster Hunter 3G is an argument for a second stick and more buttons. Inventory management could be managed on the touch screen, and aiming with ranged weapons could handle like it does in Resident Evil (read: you can't move and shoot at the same time), or a lock-on function could be employed. Why not tinker with the control scheme and mechanics as opposed to fashioning a battery-powered add-on? 

Finally, we have Kid Icarus: Uprising where the developer has revealed that they had only been made aware of the Circle Pad Pro after the announcement of Monster Hunter 3G. This game has been in development for a while - it had been thought that it would be released in the "launch window" - and they've only been able to work with the new control setup since September 2011. At least in the case of this game, the developer believes it will prove useful for left-handed players who might find it difficult using the stylus to aim with their right-hand. It has no other applications (read: no dual analogue aiming) as one would imagine it should have, but it's refreshing to hear of developers specifically catering to southpaws.

Southpaw Gaming Association's 2012 Game of the Year

So if Nintendo couldn't foresee the use in a second analogue stick, I'm not sure why they're rushing to implement one now. Especially when the solution they've developed looks so positively awkward. Playing one of the games that the Circle Pad Pro is purpose-built for doesn't help either, as Resident Evil: Revelations works just fine without any add-ons. Nintendo made their bed and they should accept the limitations of their original design and sleep in it.

Saturday, January 21

Reader Challenge: Needle in a Haystack

It's a well known fact that games based on cinematic blockbusters are crap. You know it. I know it. We all know it.

The problem is that someone still buys them which makes them a profitable venture for the studios.

I do realize the appeal for players is the ability to become their favorite heroes/characters and that parents buy them thinking the game is good because the movie has thirty Hollywood A-listers voicing magical pigs (or whatever kids are into these days).

While Robot Chicken has accurately depicted the current standard of blockbuster gaming I'm convinced there is at least one good game out there.

The rules of the challenge are simple:

1. The game must be based on a major motion picture ie Transformers 3 Dark of the Moon, not Transformers: War for Cybertron

2. The game must follow the plot of the film ie Spiderman 2 doesn't count as it was a game released to coincide with the film. It doesn't follow the plot it just has the same characters

3. If the game doesn't follow the plot it must complement it ie The Matrix: Path of Neo

Good luck!

Friday, January 20

RAAM's Shadow Review (Gears of War 3 DLC - X360): That's no school... it's a space station

Growing up with games like  Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight and Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness, I mourn for the days where the expansion pack reigned supreme. Add-ons like Mysteries of the Sith and Beyond the Dark Portal offered fully-fledged single player campaigns AND additional content for multiplayer. The modern equivalent - downloadable content or DLC - is a poor substitute as it's often overpriced and always under delivers. Developers also have a tendency to focus on multiplayer with their DLC efforts, which is puzzling as anything undercooked doesn't stand a chance against FPS stalwarts like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 and Battlefield 3. We have seen some exceptions to this rule, with worthwhile solo expansions to games like Grand Theft Auto IV, Red Dead Redemption and Bioshock 2. Epic have thankfully shrugged the map and skins model of DLC to produce RAAM's Shadow, a brief campaign that catalogues the trials of Zeta Squad "shortly" after Emergence Day.

I say "shortly" because I'm still not entirely sure when this little escapade takes place in terms of the Gears series timeline. The press material I'd read in the lead-up had me thinking that it was set the days following the cataclysmic E-Day. That surely can't be the case, as the COG have already catalogued each of the Locust genus that Zeta encounter. I did a quick search of the developer, Epic Games' forums and found that the events of RAAM's Shadow can be placed roughly nine years after E-Day (which is in turn, five years before the events of the original Gears of War). My apologies for obsessing over the finer points of the plot, but you must understand that it was somewhat exhausting trying to place this in the saga at large. Considering that Kim et al encounter an entire series worth of enemy types (save for the Lambent) in the space of three hours, it almost makes Delta Squad's first outing look like a walk in the park. You'll also have access to pretty much every weapon that's appeared throughout the trilogy in RAAM's Shadow (come to think of it, smoke and ink grenades are the only omissions I can think of). The whole scenario ends up feeling out of place in terms of the series' timeline at large.

Before you die, tell me one thing: what day is it?

Continuity and context issues aside,  Zeta Squad is comprised of some fairly generic characters. Solo players will assume control of quintessential tough guy, Michael Barrick. He's probably the most likeable of the crew, even in spite of his foul mouth and tendency to be sent to the principal's office (read: he's such a naughty boy). Minh Young Kim, returns (?) from the original instalment and functions as the suitably-average leader: he often chastises bad boy Barrick and does a good job paraphrasing your current objective. Tai Kaliso - another returning character - waxes lyrical on literally everything, from the rumbling of the ground to a kid dropping a basketball. Then there's Valera: nothing offensive about her, but she doesn't really offer up much personality either. Jace Stratton also makes an appearance and he's (thankfully) somewhat quieter than he is in the Gears of War 3 campaign proper. The titular villain, General RAAM is also back to terrorize the COG. He's not really given much depth, even when you play from his perspective. He - like most other members of the central cast -  is large, imposing.... and vacant.

The action takes place across a series of innocous locations within the COG city of Ilima, which is under siege by the Locust Horde. You'll tick all of the generic shooter setting boxes: a parking complex, rooftops, a bank, a construction site and what must be the largest school in videogame history. Ilima High School seems to go on for miles, and the ham-fisted attempt at jump moments you'll witness within its walls will incite many an eye roll. You'll easily spend more than a third of the adventure grinding through this impossibly-vast educational institution. All of the combat situations will feel overly-familiar to any Gears veterans, and you'll rarely be troubled; even on Hardcore difficulty. Even two short stints in RAAM's boots fail to significantly change up the action. If anything, it's limited by the great (in terms of size) general's two trick arsenal. RAAM's Shadow fails to excite, even with an entirely different perspective on Locust War.

Beats being stuck in that school, right?

I desperately want to see developers releasing more content for my favourite games that I can engage with by myself (or with a select group of friends): new stories, new characters, old characters, new locations. A Gears of War prequel should've portrayed the horror of post Emergence Day Sera, but all I found in this short campaign was tired characters in tired situations. RAAM's Shadow may fulfil the literal definition of prequel, but it's a meaningless, expensive ride that's best avoided.

Tuesday, January 17

Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary helped mend some broken hearts

Full disclosure: This post is a revision to The box has it (or Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary broke my heart). This post was retracted upon finding that four player splitscreen multiplayer was indeed supported in 343 Industries' recently-released remake. 

Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary
Back in 2003, my little brother purchased an Xbox bundle which included both Halo: Combat Evolved and Top Spin. In those days, I was a PlayStation fanboy, so this purchase incensed me to no end.

That is, of course, until I played through the game-changing campaign with my sibling. We fought each other afterwards in the splitscreen competitive mode. If it were any other game, our competition would have spilled from the screen to the lounge room floor (read: we'd be at each other's throats). This time, it was different: I happily flew off in a Banshee while he attempted to clip my wings with any gun he could get his hands on. I wanted Reuben (my younger brother) to run me over and then desecrate my corpse.
Soon, Beau would be home for Christmas.

Beau is my older more successful, infinitely more-sociable sibling who turned his back on video games for a life in federal politics. If there was one thing that could bring him back to the fold, it was Halo. I was sure of it.

Reuben and I continued to work in the lead up to Christmas; Beau arrived late Christmas Eve. Fragging would have to wait: We had to visit relatives and do other things that families do over the holidays. We would have to delay my older brother’s return to nerdvana.

Finally, we managed to trap Beau in front of the TV late on Christmas night. We loaded the console with what we thought was our secret weapon. There was only one problem: We only had two controllers. How did this not occur to us until then? I felt so stupid.

“No worries,” I said. “We’ll rent one from a video store.” So we drove to pretty much every video-rental outlet in North Brisbane. Every encounter was exactly the same: We engaged in small talk, we bought junk food, and our expressions sunk when we heard, “Sorry, we don’t rent controllers for the Xbox.” 
O Brother, where art thou?

We arrived back home still licking our wounds, and we resolved to play the game anyway, with the winner keeping a controller. It was great. We laughed, we cried, and we died repeatedly. Beau escaped to a life of international travel, marathon meetings, and an endless run of nights that ended in trendy bars. Reuben and I still engage in a daily ritual of fragging and teabagging.

This past Christmas, Beau returned home from Thailand, and the Damen brothers were once again reunited with a copy of Halo. We even dragged our wives and girlfriends into the fray. Turns out the game is even funnier with players of varying skill levels vying for control of the leaderboard. On one hand, Beau's girlfriend struggled to even stand eye-to-eye with her many assailants; on the other, veterans like Reuben and I cackled incessantly as we performed seemingly-impossible headshots in a vast array of maps from both Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary and Halo: Reach.

Towards the end of our family picnic, Reuben and I introduced our loved ones to the online community. Our middling performances on the battlefield inspired much trolling, but it's amazing just how well you can respond when you have the Kinect set up as a mic. Even the loudest critics were silenced by the collective smack talk and uncontrollable laughter of seven people on our end.

It may not have been the emotional journey littered with little disappointments, small talk and junk food that brought three brothers back together in 2003; but it was fun all the same. If anything, it allowed us to bond with the new members of our family in what was previously a nerdy males' domain.

What are your favorite Halo memories?

Sunday, January 15

Run Rabbit, Run

If you are anything like me you are running out of time in the day. I don't have poor time management skills; I just suffer from 24 hour day syndrome.

I want to play more video games and spend more time with the kids and see more bands and have a mind knowingly successful career but with the choices I've made in life it's not all possible right now.

One aspect of my life I'd like to improve is my fitness. With most physical activity in the past 11 years since high school being Guitar Hero, I decided to start running, however the inner geek in me wanted to track, measure and report improvements. With this in mind I hit the App Store and found Runkeeper.

It costs next to nothing to buy and uses the GPS in your smart phone so you don't have to sync it to a $200 pair of Nikes to know your accomplishments.

Runkeeper accurately tracks your distance, coaches you through your exercise and displays your results in graph format to easily see when and where you are performing well.

It makes the lazy, fat bastard in me happy because I'm reaching my fitness goals but it's also appealing to the geek who likes stats and finding correlations and looking at graphs. With the exception of the sprained ankle I got from running too far, it's making me happy on many levels.

My only criticism is that you can't use the app to monitor changes to your weight or track any other health related issues; it's purely a distance/time/pace record.

Available on iOS and Android, you can use it for a variety of different sports - even swimming(?) and fun exercise like snowboarding.

I realize this isn't in the world of gaming but health is important to us all. With more smart phones and technology available to us, some things we dislike or ignore have been made easier to get through. Give it a go - it might be the change of pace you are looking for.

Friday, January 13

Mario Kart 7 Review (3DS): Vengeance is a dish best served cold

I've always had mixed feelings towards the Mario Kart series. I haven't played every instalment, but when I pick one up I often find that I have a visually-pleasing racer with woefully-scaled difficulty levels, belligerent AI and addictive mechanics that provide satisfaction and tear-inducing frustration in equal measure. I'll play these game over the course of weeks, months, even years, and not grow tired of being repeatedly screwed over by the shells of various colours, or many other power-ups that are inspired by the diverse cast of characters. Will Mario Kart 7 prove to be any different from its predecessors, or am I just playing these games for the sake of comfort and familiarity?

The first thing that players will notice with Mario Kart 7 is the wonderfully-rendered tracks and karts; each smacking of colour and the series' trademark visual charm. The frame rate is brisk and consistent, with Super Mario 3D Land being the only real peer in terms of visual prowess on the portable system. Even with a screen full of racers and power-ups in play, the action never slows: it is a wonder to behold. 

 I love the orange hues of Autumn

The thirty-two tracks in Mario Kart 7 offer a mix of the old and the new, much like Mario Kart Wii. The new courses are all a joy to tear through, and feature a variety of short-cuts and strategies to employ. I was somewhat disappointed by the choice of retro tracks as there is some overlap with the last instalment on the Wii. That being said, Dino Dino Jungle was included this time, so I wasn't too perturbed. There are some new power-ups added to the mix as well, with two in particular having some interesting defensive applications. Blue shells are still there to undo a perfect race, and the Bullet Bill, Golden Mushroom and Super Star power-ups seem a little overpowered given the brevity of some tracks. All things considered, the game adheres to the well-established Mario Kart formula; superficial changes to drifting and the new ability to glide after certain jumps don't significantly alter the pace and mechanics of the "standard" Mario Kart race.

 Not as crazy as it looks

The custom kart system employed in Mario Kart 7 is an interesting departure from the character-themed vehicles found in previous iterations. Depending on your selection of chassis, wheels and glider, five stats ranging from speed to off-road ability can potentially be affected. Character choice also has an impact on your performance in different areas. I had a lot of fun experimenting with these combinations, but due to the randomized cruelty one often experiences in a typical race (above 50cc, that is), it's not something that really needs to dwelled upon. I also found the roster to be somewhat lacking. I'll try not to spoil anything, but the exclusion of Diddy Kong - and to a far lesser extent, Waluigi - will surely rank as some of the previous year in gaming's great disappointments. That being said, there's plenty of customization options and characters to unlock for those willing to invest the time... and endure the frustration. 

The main problem I had with Mario Kart 7 stemmed from the difficulty levels, or rather, Nintendo's inability to properly scale the challenge across the game's four settings. 50cc presents nothing in the way of challenge and fails to prepare you for the cheap tricks that you suffer in 100cc, or the devastating twists of fate found in the 150cc and Mirror classes. Once I hit 150cc, the f-bombs started flying at an alarming rate; especially considering the wide demographic that this game can appeal to. Still, I kept playing and will continue to play. The AI can be cheap and I may get frustrated, but that's one of the reasons I keep coming back: vengeance and the joy found in smiting one's enemies! 

 See you in a colourful rendition of hell, losers!

Time Trial functions just as it should, and it's really not worth mentioning the shallow Coin and Balloon battle modes. What will keep series' faithful invested in this iteration is the Mario Kart Channel and online multiplayer. Players can exchange ghost data via the Spot Pass system and I've enjoyed great success besting the times of complete strangers. I must admit, I've never had much luck with Spot Pass. Even living in a metropolitan area hasn't allowed for me to net more than a handful of hits, so I haven't had that many ghosts to beat. I've also had trouble finding matches online. When I did finally get some races in, however, I didn't experience any lag; so that's encouraging. I could see how this feature set could extend the longevity of the game, it's just a shame that I haven't been able to find a race when I've wanted one.   

Upon reflection, there's not a whole lot that can be considered new in Mario Kart 7. For most (myself included), however, that's one of the big drawcards of this game and the series at large: consistency. If you're a fan of the series, I have no doubt you'll have a great time with this instalment. If cheap AI and power-ups have never been your cup of tea though, you'd best steer clear.

Tuesday, January 10

Saints Row: The Third Review (X360): I'm an idiot, I'm a hero, I'm a zombie

Saints Row - a series that is equal parts essential and disposable. The first instalment providing the Grand Theft Auto patch that Xbox 360 early adopters craved, with enough personality, flair, and humour to be considered essential. The sequel returned to a familiar space but took the vulgarity and nihilism hinted at in the first game to near-unacceptable levels. It also felt like an unpolished turd after GTA IV's release just months earlier, which featured a polished game world that felt alive. Saints Row: The Third gets the f#@k outta dodge with a new setting, and a set of missions and activities that makes its predecessors look sober by comparison.

The Good
Back to school - I sincerely hope that Rockstar North - or any developer of open world action games, for that matter - takes notice of the opening act of Saints Row: The Third. There's no errand boy boredom on offer here. While there are some missteps throughout the adventure, most missions are designed and paced in a way that is undeniably fun. Stealing a bank vault by helicopter, and sky-diving into a rival's penthouse pool party are highlights that appear in the first few hours. The slightly more-intelligent friendly AI and forgiving vehicle physics also served to counter the frustration that I encountered in previous games in the series.

 By the end, this will feel sedate

Great salad - While the steak that is the main quest line offers a great deal of fun, an addictive real estate meta game and activities like Trailblazing and Insurance Fraud make for a disturbingly enjoyable side salad. While a lot of these activities return from earlier instalments, they're scored more generously this time around, and are more enjoyable as a result.

Smarter than the average - While the humour tends to be a little more explicit and infinitely more crass than its competitors, Saints Row: The Third raises the bar by taking aim at pop culture phenomena and American foreign policy. There are still some remnants of the series' frat boy roots here, but they are for the most part undone by spectacularly-vulgar jabs at the everyday. Definitely not what I expected from a series that once had me spraying structures with raw sewage.

Commando - The arsenal of upgradable weapons and abilities available to players in Saints Row: The Third offer satisfaction, side-splitting laughs, and often had me pondering "Why hasn't anyone thought of this before?" Sure it may not be appropriate to have an incendiary SMG in a game like Grand Theft Auto IV, but something similar would have been a perfect fit for Volition's Red Faction games. Pistols with explosive ammo that can propel enemies into the air, a Mega Buster-esque arm cannon, and the terrifying Apoco-Fists were other personal favourites. Then there's the Bo-Duke-En, a Dukes of Hazzard-inspired move that allows you to enter cars stylishly, but at the expense of closed windows and windscreens. Glass everywhere.

Where were you in '92? - Generally speaking, the sound design found in Saints Row: The Third is exceptional. The general citizenry of Steelport may not have much to say for themselves, but the central cast deliver an outstanding experience; especially given the lunacy of the plot at large. Not one character - not even the auto-tuned pimp, Zimos - is over-acted, and I often found myself chuckling at my own character's incomprehensible zombie dialogue (that my homies were somehow able to understand).  Guns, explosions and collisions also have that comical oomph that matches the floaty vehicle physics, and wacky on-screen action. The soundtrack isn't flawless, but you can distill your favourite tunes from each radio station into a mixtape that conveniently shows up in any vehicle that you commandeer. That being said, I almost always found myself tuned-in to the Adult Swim station.

The Bad
Big bugs - While it didn't happen often enough to discourage play, some pretty big glitches occurred throughout my playthrough that required patience at the very least, or a full restart at its worst. One particularly frustrating hiccup occurred during the final mission, when a wrecked VTOL fuselage landed on a catwalk that I needed to ascend in order to reach the next checkpoint. I couldn't clear the clutter with weaponry and I couldn't crawl under it. Instead, I had to backtrack for five minutes and wait for it to disappear. Other bugs included the GPS failing entirely, and certain context sensitive commands not working. In both of these instances, I had to turn my console off and start again.

One hand clapping - Throughout the campaign you'll be presented with several choices in pivotal missions, only once did the question asked cause me to stop and take stock. The characters in Saints Row: The Third feel somewhat disposable, even though they're voiced expertly. This may have a lot to do with the fact that most decisions involve money, respect or the granting of an additional (usable) homie. As your empire grows, very few of these outcomes present any real benefit to the player (as you'll be blessed with an abundance of each from early on), and as a result, they lack weight.

Decisions, decisions...

The Ugly
American Psycho - For the first few hours at least, I found the inherent nihilism in Saints Row: The Third to be somewhat unsettling. There never seems to be any consequences for any of your transgressions. The Steelport police are near-powerless to stop your player character's unbridled thuggery. Upgrades that increase your health, damage resistance, ammo count, and weapon effectiveness render most threats impotent before they're even introduced. Despite the narrative implying that a gang war is escalating, there's no real sense of tension. Even the presence of a paramilitary organisation failed to evoke any fear, or impose too greatly on my routine. The game tried to make me feel as though the whole world was against me, but there was little that put a stop to my antics.

The Verdict
Saints Row: The Third represents fun in its most unadulterated and immediate form. From start to finish, you will literally be hanging from helicopters, swinging dildos and generally blowing shit up. The pace never lets up, and very rarely did I find myself wanting for anything. There are issues with purpose, but the game is so unbelievably loud that it simply can't be ignored; and thus, shouldn't be missed. Highly recommended to the cynical, the jaded, the young at heart, and the easily bored: trust me, you will find something to like in this game.

Monday, January 9

Happy New Year and other thoughts

Hope you all had a great Christmas and New Year. Further to that, hope you're ready for another year of Dutch madness. I didn't get to do half as much gaming as thought I would over the break on account of raising a new puppy. That being said, expect reviews for the following releases in the near future.
  • Saints Row: The Third
  • Gears of War 3: RAAM's Shadow 
  • Temple Run
  • Mario Kart 7
Thanks for sticking with us!

Friday, January 6

It's my life: A nihilist reading of Saints Row: The Third

 Note: This post is a response to the Bitmob Writing Challenge - January 2012. This post also contains spoilers for Saints Row: The Third.
That is the most extreme form of nihilism: nothingness (the "meaningless") eternally!
          Friedrich Nietzsche

Don't let the wealth of colour, vulgarity and fun fool you: Saints Row: The Third is a playground for nihilists. Each gang, law enforcement agency, politician, and paramilitary organisation eventually comes to disregard the laws and institutions of the city of Steelport. The individual player even comes to reject established standards of previous open world action games given enough time with the game itself, and its elaborate arsenal of vehicles, weapons and abilities.

While the killing of civilians in Steelport is technically illegal (read: will illicit a response from police in close proximity), through activities like Mayhem, Tank Mayhem and Trailblazing, violence against public and private property, the police and the city's inhabitants is incentivized. It can be argued that there is a greater reward for shooting inanimate objects instead of people, however, killing civilians is not effectively penalized. I was able to reach target amounts in all but one of these instances by attacking innocent people, gang members and the law; it wasn't until the last instance of Mayhem that I found that destroying fences and barriers was the most effective way of completing that particular activity. Saints Row: The Third's missions are designed in a way that allows players to disregard human life.

I'd say "I'm sorry", but it wouldn't mean shit
The Wavves - "Idiot" from the WDDT CPDG Adult Swim radio station
Where most other games are designed to punish players who harm civilians or friendlies - through either mission failure, or the use of increasingly-belligerent police as per the Grand Theft Auto series - Saints Row: The Third either completely ignores the player's transgression, or offers them ways to cancel the interest of gangs and/or the police that require little effort. Firstly, players can evade all pursuers by entering any stores that they own. Considering how little this valuable real estate costs, and how densely-populated Steelport is by these retail spaces, shaking your would-be captors and assassins is so easy as to defy the consequence of any misdeeds entirely. You can also call "homies" - that the player acquires throughout the adventure - that can either revoke your "wanted" status or allow for law enforcement personnel to intervene in most conflicts on your behalf. Players can also purchase the ability to wipe notoriety with any of the game's three gangs. All misdemeanours performed by the player can be rendered meaningless with a minimum of fuss.
Nihilism has no substance. There is no such thing as nothingness, and zero does not exist. Everything is something. Nothing is nothing. Man lives more by affirmation than by bread.
Victor Hugo
At the close of the campaign - at least with the choices that I had made - the Saints became immortalized in film, and had been deemed heroes for defusing an explosive situation. Everything that my created avatar had done was for money, fame and power. Not for the greater good of Steelport, not to achieve any form of vigilante justice, just for me (and perhaps Burt Reynolds). I brought death and destruction to Steelport so that it may be covered in my gang's trademark violet hue. Every mission, side mission, collectable, customized vehicle, and weapon was attained so that the Third Street Saints could impose themselves upon another city; to affirm ourselves so that we could have domain over something and everything (well not quite, I'm at 91% completion).

It's my life, don't you forget. It's my life, it never ends.
Talk Talk - "It's My Life" from the 107.77 The Mix radio station
Despite a conclusion that somewhat redeems the player created lead and the Saints, life after the main saga is meaningless. You could complete the leftover side missions and find those last collectables, but after that, all there is to do is kill. Kill so that you can impose yourself on the people of Steelport once again. To be chased, to evade or to die... and rise again. The various upgrades players can buy only serve to make the final hours all the more pointless: with upgrades to your damage resistance, you can make a close range rocket as painless as a short fall. Saints Row: The Third allows you to do everything and achieve nothing at the same time. It is a nihilistic sandbox in which you must assert yourself, as nothing else matters.