Tagged: PlayStation 3

Keep Your “Next-Gen.” Mine’s Already Here.

Over the weekend, I went to the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue in New York, picked up the largest capacity iPad Air money could buy, then boarded the F train toward my apartment in Brooklyn and spent the next 40 minutes acting like I wasn’t hoarding $900 worth of hot new Apple tech in my backpack. When I got home, the first thing I did was marvel at how light the Air was compared to my two year old iPad 3. The next thing I did was install XCOM: Enemy Unknown, which I then proceeded to play for an embarrassingly indeterminable amount of time before realizing I should probably get back to my clients.

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When I reviewed XCOM for iPad in July, I gushed about how remarkably complete it was for being a so-called “mobile port” of a AAA console game. And while I briefly touched on my disappointment over how unstable it was on an iPad 3, what I didn’t mention is that I would gladly have bought a new iPad if it meant getting a better portable XCOM experience. Four months later, XCOM is more at home on Apple’s tablet than ever, where, thanks to the Air’s A7 processor, it now screams along at 60 FPS with near-zero load times at 2048×1536. I don’t know how I’m ever going to get anything done again.

What I do know is, I’m giving my PS4 pre-order to my brother-in-law.

There’s been a lot of furor surrounding the launch of the so-called “next generation” of console gaming, but when you strip out all the noise, what it boils down to is that the next iteration of the PlayStation and Xbox brands are dropping into our laps in just a couple of weeks, and a lot of people are very excited. But to be honest, I’m really struggling to understand what’s got you all so batty.  I know a lot of you want to crucify me for this… I’ve already gotten a ton of flack on Twitter for announcing that I’d decided on a new iPad instead of a PS4, as if that decision meant I wasn’t qualified to write about or play games anymore. But hear me out, and share your thoughts on the topics below… maybe we can come to some kind of mutual understanding.

There’s Nothing to Play!

I bought my PS3 in 2008 under the assumption I’d be playing The Last Guardian in the not too distant future, and we all know how that turned out. Okay, so maybe it turned out alright: the PS3 has one of the best stables of exclusive titles of any console released in the past 10 years. But it took 3-4 years from launch for the system to get to that point. As for the PS4 and the Xbox One, there are very few titles coming this year that can’t be done in exemplary fashion on the consoles you’ve already got sitting under your TVs, and I’ve seen nothing coming within the next 12 months that has me convinced I need to upgrade. Honestly, you’re better off taking the $450-$600 you have earmarked for a new console and splurging instead on pretty much every new game coming out this holiday season.

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Breaking News: Super Mario 3D World will *not* be coming to Xbox One!

Think about it for a minute: for the cost of an Xbox One, you can buy Assassin’s Creed IV, Batman: Arkham Origins, Call of Duty: Ghosts, Gran Turismo 6, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, Pokémon X or Y, Super Mario 3D World, The Wolf Among Us, and XCOM: Enemy Within. And what’s better: spending $500 to play one or two games, or spending $500 to play 7-8 games?

Next-Gen What?

For decades, platform holders pushed the notion that “next-gen” equaled faster processors and snazzier graphics. And that made sense before the likes of Cave Story, Mega Man 9, Fez and Retro City Rampage started releasing alongside titles like Halo 4 and Mass Effect 3. With developers releasing such a broad variety of software on today’s gaming devices, it’s pretty clear gamers no longer see things in terms of the old paradigms. And if we no longer chart the growth of gaming in terms of “giggleflops” and “mecha-hurts,” what exactly is it that’s so “next-gen” about the PS4 and Xbox One?

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Does this screen from Assassin’s Creed IV look “next-gen” to you?

Perhaps it’s the slick new social features promised by the PS4? The off-screen Vita play? Maybe it’s the snappy multitasking capabilities of the Xbox One? Now, don’t read my probing as sarcasm; these are all features I’m genuinely excited to see implemented in the next versions of the PlayStation and Xbox ecosystems. But if, like me, you define “next-gen” by these new features that are going to fundamentally change the way we play, I’ve got news for you: there’s nothing next-gen about the PS4 and Xbox One. That’s because consoles and other devices have already been doing these things for years.

Nintendo did next-gen in 2012 with the Wii U’s pioneering off-TV play. Apple did next-gen in 2008 when it launched an App Store that pushed games into the hands of hundreds of thousands of people who would never have been caught dead in public with a DS or a PSP. And I won’t even bother talking about how reactive Microsoft has been in its design of the Xbox One, because Xbox Live aside, that’s been the company’s MO since it was founded. Been there, done that. Moving on.

So tell me, again: what’s so “next-gen” about the PS4 and Xbox One?

Play What You Love

Listen. I know it sounds like I’m down on the PS4 and Xbox One. But honestly, I just hate to see so many people getting excited about spending what little money they have on something that’s going to be a letdown, at least in the short term. Will I be getting a PS4? Absolutely, when there’s a game that I want to play and I can’t do it anywhere else. Will I miss out on the adrenaline rush of a new console launch? Not really: I bought a Wii U last year. But just because I’ve become cynical about the next-gen console rat race, it doesn’t mean you have to be. After all, we buy new consoles because we love games, and I’m sure you’re all eventually going to find something to love about your PlayStation 4s and Xbox Ones. In the meantime, there’s just too much to love about the systems I already own for me to care about what might be coming for the ones I don’t.

 

Dragon’s Crown Review: For The Kingdom

Dragons-Crown-Screenshots-491Every new console announcement is usually accompanied with a deluge of game announcements. Some of these are new entries in storied franchises; some are brand new IPs. Most of these game announcements eventually see release, but in rare instances, some titles will disappear into obscurity. These so called “vaporware” projects seldom recover from this state of limbo and are quietly cancelled. One such game, Dragon’s Crown for the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita, was once thought to be doomed to this eternal gaming purgatory, after its initial publisher backed out.

Luckily for PlayStation fans, Atlus USA stepped in and decided to publish Vanillaware’s newest game. Famous for it’s PS2 classic Odin Sphere and Wii classic Muramasa, the developer showcases its fantastic art style with one of the best games in the PlayStation ecosystem. It takes the tried, true, and nowadays stale side-scrolling beat-em-up genre, injects new life into it, and makes it into an addictive and deep experience worthy of your time and your dollars, regardless of which platform you pick it up on.

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Dragon’s Crown casts you in the role of one of six classes: the fighter, elf, wizard, dwarf, amazon, and sorceress. Each character uses his or her own unique fighting style, giving players plenty of reason to take another romp though this game. Certain characters are geared towards more experienced players, while others are designed for first timers. Most players on their first run through will lean towards the fighter, with his balanced stats and forgiving attack and defense.

Attacks are carried out in a rather simple manner. Harkening back to the days of old arcade beat-em-ups, Dragon’s Crown boils down the attack to one main button, and one other button for a power smash. Rather than rely on combo memorization, different attacks are executed with different directions and through character upgrades. The leveling system unlocks new abilities for characters throughout your quest, but most of these upgrades are stat based rather than new attacks.

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The game’s level and progression system is a nice touch that motivates players to engage in tasks outside the main quest. While the main quest’s baddies and tasks will give your character experience, every completed sidequest will automatically provide 1 skill point to the player. This skill point can be used towards upgrades that affect either just your particular character, or any character that you create. This balance between specific vs. broad upgrades provides incentive to upgrade both, as the character specific upgrades are usually stronger. However, they will do nothing to benefit your other characters.

One facet of the game that cannot be overstated is the absolute beautiful art, animation, and visual style. Vanillaware has outdone their best work, creating a game that truly feels like a painting in motion, a look that many games strive to achieve but hardly ever reach. Each character has his or her own personality, animation, move set, and style, even if some of the proportions of said characters are a bit preposterous.

The world is structured around a main hub town, with specific locales and missions being accepted outside of town. There are numerous places and dungeons to visit, and the world variety keeps the game fresh enough. Each dungeon is perfectly paced and bite sized; most won’t take more than 20 minutes to complete. This rhythm makes the game easy to play on the go, helping it succeed as a handheld game in addition to a major console release.

Dragon’s Crown truly shines at refining and making an old gaming genre feel fresh and new again. Modern games, such as Double Dragon Neon and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World The Game, have tried to modernize the side scrolling beat-em-up genre, but with only moderate success. Most of those games were spent recovering from an attack that knocked you on the floor and left you vulnerable. Dragon’s Crown rarely places the player in such a state of vulnerability, keeping the pace and intensity up. Frustration has been replaced with flow and progression, keeping the players engaged far longer than the previous mentioned games, which tired me out only after a few levels. Local co-op on the PS3 and online multiplayer on the Vita make the game a blast to play with your friends; it’s just a shame that it takes a while to unlock. The lack of cross-platform multiplayer also may disappoint.

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The loot system is a novel concept and adds to the games addictiveness, but I mostly found it to be arbitrary and somewhat confusing. About halfway through the game, I found a set of armor and weapons that I used for almost the entire remainder of my journey. Keeping the stats and names of the loot a mystery until the player pays to unlock it is unique, but I often found myself selling it off and not even pursuing new items.

Overall, Dragon’s Crown is an addicting, beautiful brawler for the PlayStation faithful. No other game on the market currently has as much style and depth, while still maintaining fairness and incentive. The lack of cross-buy and cross-platform multiplayer may upset some, but the support for cross-save makes it an experience that you can easily take on the go. Dragon’s Crown is one of the best games this year on PlayStation, and it easily cements itself as one of the premier Vita experiences. Don’t pass this one up.

A-Minus

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified Review – Choice and Consequence

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The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is a visually authentic representation of America at the height of the Cold War, viewed through a “What If?” scenario in which the country’s biggest threat isn’t Soviet subterfuge, but rather a global invasion of hostile extraterrestrial forces. At its best, it’s an entertaining, squad-based sci-fi shooter played against some genuinely creepy backdrops; at its worst, it comes across as a cynical cash grab designed to capitalize on the success of Firaxis’s recent XCOM: Enemy Unknown (a game I cannot possibly praise highly enough.) The Bureau isn’t a bad game, it just isn’t X-Com, and the level of enjoyment you get out of it will depend largely on your willingness to accept that fact.

My biggest problem with The Bureau is the way it takes narrative control out of the players hands — something that has always been at the heart of the best games in the series — and forces us to sit through hours of sub-Hollywood soap opera drama. Our central character, one Agent William Carter, is an alcoholic hothead we’re supposed to sympathize with because of his tragic past, yet Mark Hildreth, the actor who provides Carter’s voice, plays him like, well, like Christian Slater trying too hard to sound like Jack Nicholson. It’s sort of like Crypto in the PS2 classic Destroy All Humans, except not funny in the slightest. Listening to Carter speak made me want to skip entire story segments just so I didn’t have to listen to Hildreth’s voice, which is a shame considering the rest of the cast turned in excellent performances. Not that the story makes much sense when you are paying attention… probably because 2K Marin didn’t get enough time to playtest The Bureau’s branching dialogue system, which never seems to take into account whether players have actually been given the proper information they need to understand what anybody is talking about. Case in point: about halfway through the game, a central character contracts a non-fatal alien disease, and after speaking with the character in a hospital, Carter leaves, taking a drink from his flask and muttering a quick prayer that the infected character may rest in peace. Oh, so he died, then?

The ham-fisted storytelling isn’t the only sign that the developer simply didn’t get X-Com, but even taken as its own entity, most of The Bureau feels slapdash and incomplete. In classic X-Com style, you’re encouraged to find and train new recruits — that way, you’ll have a selection of second-stringers to choose from should one of your agents die. But there are two problems with The Burea’s approach. For starters, you can only ever bring two soldiers along with Carter on a mission, meaning any other characters you want to train will have to be sent off on dispatch missions that happen off-screen while you’re handling other business. There’s no risk/reward system at play, since you’re  pretty much guaranteed to succeed as long as you throw enough agents at a dispatch mission. Second, it’s all a wash anyway, since even if one of your agents dies, you can just reload from one of the game’s frequent automatic checkpoints.

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Despite these issues, the actual missions in The Bureau are fairly engaging, thanks to an interesting squad mechanic that has you issuing individual orders from a command wheel. When you bring up the command wheel, the action slows to a crawl, giving you plenty of time to place agents behind cover, flank, target specific enemies, revive downed agents, or utilize special abilities you’ve unlocked. In the beginning, you’re basically limited to pistols, shotguns and rifles that don’t do a whole lot of damage even to the base grunt units, but once you start picking up alien technology, you can fire lasers, lift enemies in the air, engulf them in flaming plasma, and so on. It’s all highly reminiscent of Mass Effect, which is a good thing, but again, it doesn’t really feel like X-Com at all.

The thing that most excited me about 2K’s decision to reboot the X-Com franchise was that it gave some pretty talented artists the opportunity to revisit some of MicroProse’s terrifying, but dated alien and set designs, bringing them in-line with the kinds of things that scare audiences today. And while Firaxis’s work on XCOM: Enemy Unknown was uniformly brilliant, 2K Marin’s interpretations come across as uninspired, uneven, and even a little hokey. Early missions set in eerily abandoned Main Streets and farms littered with dead livestock are quickly replaced by an abundance of robotic tentacles and cold, lifeless alien bases that look they were ripped wholesale from Crysis 3, while promising early enemy redesigns (with the hulking Muton behemoths being a standout) give way to endless variations on a single class (the sideways-mouthed Outsiders.) Also: whose idea was it to turn Sectopods into quadrupedal clown cars?

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It was obvious from the moment The Bureau was announced in 2010 as XCOM that this was not the series reboot X-Com fans were looking for, but with development being handled by the studio that brought us the criminally under-appreciated BioShock 2, I was confident that the game would at least be able to stand on its own as a gripping sci-fi adventure. Unfortunately, the best I can say about the final game is that at least it didn’t come out before XCOM: Enemy Unknown; had that been the case,  it might very well have killed off enthusiasm for the franchise before Firaxis’s game ever saw the light of day. Hats off to 2K Marin for having the ego to completely re-write the X-Com formula; sometimes, it takes an unpopular idea to bring real innovation to the table. Other times, though, you just have to leave well enough alone. And that’s something I think most X-Com fans will want to do with The Bureau: XCOM Declassified.

C

Defiance DLC #1 (Castithan Charge Pack) Review

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Defiance is a multiplatform (PS3, Xbox 360, PC) MMO third-person shooter, based in the universe of the SyFy television series of the same name, which is now in a dead time between its first season finale and the launch of the second season in mid-2014. Invisible Gamer has reviewed the core game and now continues its look at the MMO’s content as it evolves. With ten updates surrounding the show’s first season, we now check out the first official paid DLC add-on for the game, the Castithan Charge Pack.

Let’s be clear here—people come to these Defiance content reviews because (a) we are one of the few sites to actually review each update and (b) the depth of coverage. This was a huge update, so expect a rather lengthy look at these. If you simply want to know whether to spend the money, skip on down to the two different letter grades at the end of this review.

A Mixture of Paid and Free

Since Defiance is an MMO, its add-on content works as a mixture of free and paid content. The game is updated for everyone to include some new content, and the paid DLC content adds extra goodies on top of that. The price tag is $9.99 for each DLC pack, or $39.99 for a season pass that entitles the player to all five of the DLC packs that are to be released between now and the launch of the second season of the TV show (at a savings of $9.96). Of course, all promises from Trion Worlds seem to be relative to the current situation on the company’s end. The DLC was originally meant to launch far earlier, but constant bug fixes delayed its release until after the first season of the show was complete. In any case, the question becomes whether the extra goodies are worth paying, and if the add-ons that everyone gets are enough to satiate the Defiance enthusiast.

Free Content: The World Evolves

The free content that has been added into the game with the patch associated with the DLC is substantial this time around, as one would expect with a true DLC update, rather than a weekly content update. 

All players now have access to a new form of major and minor Arkfall. Along with the standard three Hellbug major Arkfall variants and the Scrapper major Arkfall, players can now face a Dark Matter Arkfall, in which they face Dark Matter enemies (the fiercest in the game), a huge Dark Matter Monolith (the walker style robot that initially blocks the Golden Gate Bridge and will blow you to smithereens if you try to cross before the storyline allows it), and an unusual set of devices that supercharge your EGO powers during combat. Smaller Dark Matter Arkfalls are also now available, alongside the various enemy faction minor Arkfalls. These are a welcome addition to the frantic Arkfalls that often include dozens upon dozens of players at a time. Dark Matter doesn’t look so tough when pounced upon by a quarter of the players on a given server at once . . .

Sieges, one of the most acclaimed game modes that was added for the Afflicted storyline and subsequently removed, are finally back with a twist. Rather than facing wave after wave of Afflicted (quasi-zombies), players now face waves of Volge, the powerhouse enemies who appeared in the last regular content update to the game. Two new Pursuits (and data recorders) have also been added to the Volge Incursion Episode Pursuits to go along with these, providing awards that include special Volge helmets for player characters, akin to the (*cough* overpriced *cough*) Volge helmets made available for purchase with Bits (i.e. real money) in the game’s store. One new Volge Incursion Pursuit, Volge Vindication, features a brief data recorder hunt and a strange side mission that can only be undertaken during a Volge Siege (not made clear at all in-game). The side mission is well worth it, though, as it provides a new Volge Light Machine Gun variant that is quite effective. However, the second new pursuit, Volge Violence, is currently “bugged” and was apparently the same in the PC alpha game testing recently. It requires completing 10 Volge Sieges, achieving a specific score, and reaching a specific stage – all of which are doable – but then it also requires completing each “type” of Volge Siege. No matter how many times you complete each siege, that last requirement will not check off on any platform, making the Pursuit’s reward perpetually out of reach. A solution is said to be in the works, but since Episode Pursuits are often removed after a short time, there is some reason to wonder if that solution will come before Volge Violence is removed from the game entirely.

A second weapon type, charge weapons, are also available. These can be acquired through random loot drops, as rewards for Arkfalls (a type of loot drop), and from the Thorn Liro faction vendor. Charge weapons allow for a weapon to charge up before shooting, which provides a unique bonus for whatever blast it produces.

PVP fans will be excited to see two new tweaks with this update. First, the Shadow War mode (in which huge numbers of players play an expanded game of capture and hold in the regular world instead of a map that is separate from the main world, while other players and enemies continue to exist and interact in that same area) has been tweaked to begin with fewer players queued to play. This should drastically increase the frequency of these matches, which originally tended to require so many players that you would often find yourself queued for hours, watching the notifications note that you need 7 more players . . . 10 more players . . . 6 more players . . . 12 more . . .

The regular Capture and Hold mode, which until now has only had a single map (Freight Yard, which took many updates to finally return after being found to be rather buggy originally) has now been updated with a new (and, yes, buggy) map, the Military Academy. The new map is interesting in its layout and takes a blasted, post-apocalyptic approach to its style that makes stark contrast with Freight Yard.

Players can also now duel with one another, quickly challenging another player in a brief confrontation to see who can fire the first successful shot at the other player. Think of it as super-short, super-tiny PVP gameplay. It isn’t extremely interesting, but it marks the only other new Pursuit added into the game for all players: a new Duelist category within the Competitive Multiplayer section of the Season One Pursuits list.

I should also note that, while not considered a DLC connection, per se, there have also been updates to the chat system (a step downward, given that it seems to be pretty glitchy at the moment), the world map (with more details provided for each fast travel point),  fast travel points (with more now), and the way people can queue for multiplayer (competitive, cooperative, and Shadow War), which can now be done via representatives at most fast travel points, instead of having to use the menu system. This will hopefully draw more new players into those modes.

For a free update, this is the biggest and best yet. One wonders what DLC and Season Pass buyers have actually paid for, however, given how much has arrived free . . .

Paid Content

The answer is: a little new content, but mostly a head-start.

Since the game’s launch, only two playable races have existed: human and Irathient. Now, the Castithan race (think Datak Tarr in the TV series) has been added into the mix for paying DLC customers. Tied into this is a new means of redesigning your character’s look, which will require Bits (real money) for those without the DLC. DLC purchasers are allowed one free recustomization of their character, and they can create a Castithan character with any new character curing customization.

New storyline missions were advertised for the DLC, and what we receive is something that feels more substantial than a standard Side Mission and some of the Episode Missions, yet less robust and connected to the main Story Missions than we many had expected. Players begin with a new mission, The Whisper’s Scream, during which players again hunt down a few data recorders. These lead to the Diablo Lighthouse (an existing location with a new fast travel point), where the player gains access to the new Battle Arenas. For the storyline, the player must face each of five different Arenas, earning a silver medal on each to complete this new tale. As a reward for completing the storyline, the player receives a new mask and, most importantly, a new weapon type: a charge blade (lightsaber style weapons used by Castithans). The Battle Arenas are essentially a sort of “horde mode” in which the player can use any of their own loadouts to face off with five waves (per arena) of previously-existing enemies, increasing in difficulty as one moves up through the five types of arena. These award “Reputation” for a new faction, Thorn Liro, which has a vendor at Diablo Lighthouse. This new vendor sells charge blades, new titles, and charge weapons, which are all only available to those with Thorn Liro Reputation (i.e. paying DLC customers). The Battle Arenas can be returned to at any time, allowing a great opportunity for farming kills, gaining Thorn Liro Reputation, and a decent challenge for most players. For their part, charge blades drastically alter the melee combat in the game, which, until this point, has been limited to firearms that sometimes happen to have bonuses when smacking someone across the face with the weapon itself. Finally, the Blur EGO power looks like a more viable weapon in combat, instead of just a method of running behind players with a shotgun in PVP modes.

A new vehicle has been introduced to the game. Until now, fans could play with two rollers that can be purchased in the game with scrip: a Dodge Challenger or Duni Shetarru buggy. Two runners (four-wheelers basically), the Growler and Hannibal, have also been available for scrip. If you preordered via Steam, recommended the game to a handful of friends, or spent real money in the Bit Store, you could also access a pickup truck called the Nomad. Each has various scrip-paid and Bit-paid color schemes, but these five main vehicle types have remained static throughout the game’s life until now. Players have also had access to a military-style vehicle called the Cerberus, complete with a missile launcher and turret, but only in Capture and Hold, Shadow War, and the Explosions 101 co-op map. Now, players have access to the Raptor, a vehicle that looks similar to the Cerberus but boasts no weapons at all. It can carry three other players for when playing in groups, but is otherwise a dull and slow means of transportation that most players will quickly dump in favor of a Duni Shetarru or Hannibal. (Many fans have been annoyed that early plans commented upon by Trion Worlds that the Raptor would include a turret were changed, leaving it weaponless.) Paying DLC customers receive a Raptor automatically, while non-paying players will have to purchase a Raptor, if desired, in the Bit Store.

Paying players also receive one new Castithan-based costume that is available only with the DLC, along with a “starter pack” of charge weapons, including a pistol, shotgun, and sniper rifle. (These weapons are pretty easy to come by as loot drops without paying, though. During the downtime when the PS3 version of the paid DLC was unavailable due to an issue on Sony’s end, I managed to snag two charge weapons in the span of about half an hour of play.)

The Verdict

I have to give this one two different grades—one for all players, and another for those who actually purchased the Castithan Charge Pack.

For players who did not purchase the pack, the lack of playing as a Castithan and having to get charge blades through Tier 4 Lockbox luck, charge weapons via loot drops, and the Raptor via the Bit Store can be a bit frustrating (Then again, if you don’t pay, what do you expect?). Overall, this update has been a huge push of new content and something that any fan should be able to welcome and enjoy. For them, this update rates a grade of . . .

A-Plus

On the other hand, DLC purchasers will likely be annoyed by the sheer volume of “their” content that was actually just an update to the game for everyone, rather than something unique to those who spent cash to buy the DLC. Players who paid have gained:

  • Access to the Battle Arenas and their related (brief) storyline and Pursuits
  • a unique costume
  • a new race to play
  • a new faction with its own Reputation and vendor, which means new Contracts
  • a “free” recustomization of their main character
  • a uniquely-colored Raptor vehicle
  • a head start on charge weapons with one of each category (three total)
  • the ability to gain access to charge blades via the Battle Arenas or the Thorn Liro vendor, rather than expensive Tier 4 Lockboxes that only provide a chance at at charge blade

Given that other Raptor variants can be purchased for 960 bits in the Bit Store (the equivalent of $9.23, $10.67, or $11.97, depending on which bit package you purchase), then if you want the Raptor, the Castithan Charge Pack is a no-brainer purchase. However, if you really don’t particularly care for the Raptor, this may be a tough sell. Personally, I would have preferred a bit more “meat” to the Story Mission and at least to not have to use bits to purchase anything but the basic charge blade color (bluish white). While I am not adverse to paying $9.99 for this particular DLC, I would hope that future packs contain a bit more content for paying customers, even if that means a bit less for everyone else.

For missing the mark and acting more of a leg up in some areas than unique acquisitions for DLC purchasers, this DLC earns a rather “meh” grade of . . .

C

The Last of Us: American Dreams #1 – 4 Comic Review

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The Last of Us has proven itself to be a darling of this generation. The gritty survival horror tale has been one of the biggest hits of 2013 and the entire Playstation 3 lineup. While not as common as comic adaptations and tie-ins to movies and television series, the genre of video game tie-in comic books has provided some of its own greats in recent years, including Tom Taylor’s Injustice: Gods Among Us series to provide backstory for the game of the same name. Dark Horse Comics, meanwhile, has provided players with a four-issue prequel to The Last of Us, entitled The Last of Us: American Dreams. Does this mini-series live up to the game it leads into or the high bar set for video game comics with Injustice?

Nope. Not unless you really enjoy foul-mouthed and/or unlikable characters. With those, American Dreams abounds.

An Unlikable Ellie and Her Streetwise Pal

American Dreams is written by Neil Druckmann and Faith Erin Hicks, the latter of whom is also the artist for the series. Druckmann and Hicks draw upon elements of Ellie’s background, hinted at through her conversations with Joel in the game, to provide us with a glimpse into Ellie’s time in a military school and her first face-to-face encounter with the Fireflies.

A large portion of the emotional impact of The Last of Us comes from the player’s ability to form attachments to both Joel and Ellie. In particular, Ellie is characterized as both a fighter and a victim, strong and vulnerable – she is the kid that is tough enough to survive the apocalypse but fragile enough to remember that she is still in many ways just a kid. Naughty Dog balances her childlike qualities, such as difficulties in defending herself against an adult and how Joel views her use of firearms, with more “adult” qualities like being able to take the lead when Joel is injured or her prolific swearing. Somehow, in the game, Ellie’s use of profanity is endearing – an amusing reminder of how this child has had to grow up in such a harsh reality. Players have been brought to tears by moments in the game, particularly in the last hour or so of the tale. We care about Ellie.

Thank goodness we did not form our opinions of Ellie from the comic book. Praise be to the powers that be that Dark Horse Comics did not manage to release all four issues of The Last of Us: American Dreams before the game’s release. Otherwise, we would loathe Ellie.

Naughty Dog, Dark Horse Comics “broke” your character.

Ellie spends the first of these four issues arriving at the military school that she is required to attend upon turning thirteen. She is to stay there until she turns sixteen, at which point she will be required to become a soldier to help fight the Infected (who, by the way, barely appear in this mini-series). Within that first issue, Ellie meets equally-unlikable teen Riley. Along the way, those 22 pages rack up 15 uses of profanity, 5 of which are from Ellie, and a full third of which are constant repeats of the phrase, “I should stomp your f***ing balls.” (No, I’m not kidding.) In comic form, rather than game form, the non-stop searing does nothing to endear us to the characters and instead drives a wedge between the reader and Ellie over and over again.

The second issue sees Ellie and Riley sneaking away from the supposedly secure facility to seek out the Fireflies, the rebel group that Joel and Ellie are working with in the game. (During this excursion, we rack up another 13 profanities, 3 of which are Ellie’s.) After a little bit of clumsy bonding (on the writer’s behalf, not the characters’) between Ellie and Riley in an old mall, we move on to the third issue, still feeling as though little to nothing has happened yet. (Oh, and we still haven’t seen a single Infected, unless you count a guy who is being held for possibly being infected.)

The third issue finally introduces some action into the tale, sending Riley and Ellie out to watch and then assist in a clash between the soldiers and the Fireflies, resulting in them finally meeting the Fireflies that they have been seeking. This action-heavy, dialogue-low issue only brings 8.5 profanities (one cut off), 2.5 of which are Ellie’s. This issue also finally brings us three Infected, all of whom appear to be Runners (despite one being called a Stalker in the next issue), which means that they basically look like any generic zombie from any generic zombie franchise, rather than the more elaborate forms we see in the game that make The Last of Us‘ Infected so unusual and interesting.

Having spent two issues to set up what could have perhaps been the first half or less of a single issue, and with much of the action in the mini-series concluded in the third issue, the fourth installment attempts to cram in enough backstory and game tie-ins to make you forget that you have just spent good money on three (now four) issues in a sub-par attempt at a video game tie-in series.

In The Last of Us, your primary contact within the Fireflies in a woman named Marlene, their leader. Through a rushed issue with the series’ highest profanity count (around 18 total with 8 being from Ellie), we witness Ellie and Riley’s first encounter with Marlene, but it is not as one might expect. Rather than setting up the game by leaving Ellie bitten by an Infected and staying with Marlene until she can be sent across the country in hopes of finding a cure, we learn a bit of Riley’s backstory (a brief blurt about one of her more traumatic moments, which would have hit us hard if we had any reason to actually care about the Riley character) and see how Ellie gets a weapon she uses in the game and learns a tiny bit about a personal connection that shows up in the game in a late-story audio recording. We then see Ellie and Riley put right back where they started.

As American Dreams ends, are we ready for the events of The Last of Us? Do we feel as though we know more about Ellie in a way that gives us new insight or interest in the character beyond what we experience in the game? Failing either of those, have we at least been provided with a solid adventure in world-building to make the setting for The Last of Us all the more “real” to gamers?

The answer in an emphatic no on all counts.

The Verdict

I really wanted to like The Last of Us: American Dreams. I greatly enjoyed the game and Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series. I am an avid reader of some of Dark Horse’s comics and even wrote for them briefly in 2004, which was a true thrill. No amount of wishing, however, can make American Dreams anything more than it turned out to be: a poorly written, dull, cash-in that all but the most die-hard The Last of Us completists should simply avoid reading. At $3.99 each, there simply isn’t nearly $16 worth of enjoyment to be had here.

Defiance TV Tie-ins #10

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Defiance is a multiplatform (PS3, Xbox 360, PC) MMO third person shooter, based in the universe of the SyFy television series of the same name, which is nearing the end of its first season as of the time of this writing. Invisible Gamer has reviewed the core game and now continues its look at the MMO’s content as it, as designed, evolves to connect with the TV show. This time, we look at content released to coincide with the SyFy channel airing of the season one finale, Everything is Broken.

Let’s Do the Time Warp Again

After recently having new Pursuits added into the game, along with the massively dangerous Volge enemies, hopes were high as to just how Defiance would introduce more new materials into the game world to celebrate the final episode of the television series’ first season. Those expecting new content found that the answer was . . . pretty much nothing.

Instead of introducing entirely new material or spending some time making earlier Episode Missions available to those who never had the chance to play them before (and only those people), Trion Worlds instead launched its “Season One Rewind,” or Replay One, as it is referred to in-game. This update has brought back all previous Episode Missions, plus the Afflicted and elemental Hellbug Emergencies (but not the Pilgrim Emergencies, though their Lights of the Fallen have returned in some areas.) These are available to everyone, unlike the previous “Rewind Weekend” that made content available only to those who had never completed those missions before. To accommodate players who were new to these events and those who had already completed them, Trion created a new category of Episode Pursuits, Replay One, rather than bringing the old Episode Pursuits back to go with the old content.

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The result is new, revamped, and mostly simplified Pursuits in a time-warp effect that makes almost all major game update events available at one time, allowing a chance for new players to experience them for the first time and for new players to plow through the material again for added XP, rewards, and new Pursuits. Given that the Rewind material is only online for a limited time, it is quite fitting that completing the new Replay One Pursuit category earns the player a new title: “Marathon Hunter.”

Since we already reviewed each of these updates when they were first made available, we will not go into depth with each Pursuit. However, it may be useful to note some specific differences for players wondering whether they should bother going back to retread old ground.

In general, kill-based requirements have been lessened, as have the location restrictions of those kills. By the time all of Replay One is complete, players will have been required to kill only 42 specific enemies, and only the Afflicted (zombies) have a location restriction on which region allows kills to count toward your total. All Episode Missions will have been completed again as well – a total of 14 of them, though most are pretty short. Completing two co-ops maps is required (Commander Cronkhite and Island of Lost Soldiers), and the player must ignite 10 Lights of the Fallen and collect 10 hellbug chrysalis samples.

What is not included in this Rewind event is anything related to Pilgrim Emergencies (which are not back at all, as noted above), any of the multiplayer Pursuits that made up the bulk of the Most Wanted Pursuit category from earlier this season, any Contract completion requirements, tallies for hellbug kills based on elemental differences, and (in this update’s greatest disappointment by far) anything relating to Sieges.

That’s right: the main item that Trion did not add back into the game as part of the Rewind weekend is the Siege event type, which was the single most praised addition made to the game all season. Presumably, this is due to server lag and crash issues that emerged during heavy Siege play, but with no explanation from Trion to fans, many have expressed displeasure over this so-called “oversight.”

The Verdict

It has been fun seeing Defiance evolve alongside the television show throughout its first season, and getting the chance to replay most of this season’s game content in a huge marathon run-through has been quite enjoyable. Sure, it doesn’t make chronological sense whatsoever, but that wasn’t the point. The point was simply to allow fans a chance to play what they might have missed as content was cycled in and out of the game over the last few months.

The television series fan in me is still frustrated over the season finale, as I find myself wondering why Echelon’s manhunt for Nolan in the game seemed to have no bearing on this season and why SyFy will not premiere the second season until June 2014, by which time the Playstation 4 and Xbox One will have possibly left the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 version of Defiance in the dust. I also have to scratch my head at why Trion did not bother to add anything new in terms of content, rather than revised Pursuits, on the day of the show’s season finale.

In the lead-up to the season finale, fans of the game joked that its title, Everything is Broken, just might refer back to the rough ride that Defiance has had with glitches, server issues, and the like, especially on PC and Xbox 360. In reality, of course, it referred to the series-altering events of the finale that we will have to wait nearly a year to see resolved.

Oh well. At least we supposedly have five DLC releases, one full Season Pass worth, to tide us over between seasons.

For giving us a chance to relive the past and still earn new rewards, but also for not bringing back Sieges as part of the Rewind and not introducing any truly new content for the season finale, this Defiance update earns a solid (but somewhat disappointed)…

B

Defiance TV Tie-ins #9

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Defiance is a multiplatform (PS3, Xbox 360, PC) MMO third person shooter, based in the universe of the SyFy television series of the same name, which is nearing the end of its first season as of the time of this writing. Invisible Gamer has reviewed the core game and now continues its look at the MMO’s content as it, as designed, evolves to connect with the TV show. This time, we look at content released to coincide with the SyFy channel airing of the episode Past is Prologue.

Paradise is in Deep Shtako

After a dead week in which no new content was released to coincide with the series episode The Bride Wore Black (barring overpriced store items like the Liberty Heavy Trooper outfit and headgear that are purely cosmetic and will run you about $16.50 in “bits,” which are sold in-game in a system similar to the frustrating Microsoft Points system), Defiance provides a startlingly difficult (er, challenging) update to coincide with the SyFy airing of the first season’s penultimate chapter, Past is Prologue.

In the double-length pilot episode of Defiance, the Ark Core that was obtained by Joshua Nolan and Irisa Nyira (thanks to the Libera Nova Gem that they stole from the player character in the Defiance game) was used to defeat an invasion of Defiance (St. Louis) by the Volge. The Volge are a warrior species that the Votans (Defiance‘s mixture of alien species) thought that they left behind when fleeing their home system. They re-emerged during the Pale Wars (a conflict between humans and Votans) and reappeared again during the pilot episode when conspirators working against the city drew them to the town. They would have wiped out Defiance, had it not been for the actions of the show’s protagonists in holding off the Volge, then blasting them with the Ark Core.

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Now, those powerful, armored, alien warriors have come to Paradise (the San Francisco Bay area), emerging as a new threat that makes their Defiance MMO debut in this week’s udpate. Their introduction is accompanied by a new Episode Pursuit, entitled Volge Incursion, and a variety of new Emergencies (randomly-spawning world events), six in all, which center around combat with the Volge. The Volge Incursion Pursuit requires the player to kill one of each of the three types of Volge enemies: trooper, bomber, and Viscera (a mini-boss character similar in style to Tankers and other existing mini-bosses). The Pursuit then requires that the player complete a total of five Volge Emergencies, though, thankfully, not requiring that they be different Emergency variants, which would require driving around the world in hopes of getting lucky.

What makes this update different, particularly in light of the Afflicted Emergencies of a few weeks ago, is that the Volge are absolutely brutal enemies to take on, especially if tackling an Emergency alone. They are about as close to “bullet sponges” as this game sees, and even the most basic of their number are as difficult in terms of damage inflicted and absorbed as just about any mini-boss in the entire game. It is the larger Volge, a Viscera, that makes for the easiest battles, since, while powerful, it fires more slowly and deliberately than the others.

I have to give one knock against this update in that it is providing content that is out of proportion in difficulty, especially for new players, than most of the other content in the game, but given the fear instilled by the Volge in the television series, it actually makes continuity sense for these new foes to be bad mamajamas.

If you are looking for a new Pursuit that is a challenge (albeit one that can be completed, with patience and determination, in about an hour or so) and an update that provides significant new foes into the Defiance MMO experience, this week’s update will be a treat.

Just pack your heavy weapons . . .

B-Plus

 

A Brief Side Note (and SPOILER for Past is Prologue)

While not directly related to this week’s new game content, those watching Past is Prologue will find that Rynn has returned. This is a direct game connection, given that the character was introduced in the series, then escaped to San Francisco in the game’s previous Episode Mission update, and now she has returned for vengeance, based on information she discovered in the game. Assuming that she needed time to travel across half of North America again, the lag of two weeks from those missions and this week’s unrelated update, her appearance in the episode makes perfect sense and is a nifty tie-in.

Defiance TV Tie-ins #8

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Defiance is a multiplatform (PS3, Xbox 360, PC) MMO third person shooter, based in the universe of the SyFy television series of the same name, which is in its first season as of the time of this writing. Invisible Gamer has reviewed the core game and now continues its look at the MMO’s content as it, as designed, evolves to connect with the TV show. This time, we look at content released to coincide with the SyFy channel airing of the episode If I Ever Leave This World Alive.

Simple Content, Significant Story

As in the case of the Piper Investigation missions (covered in our fourth review in this series), the new content this time included three Episode Missions, but each one amounted to a glorified data recorder search.

The premise is that the Plague has ended (meaning that the triage areas are gone from the locations where they had appeared for our fifth weekly review, and so are the great Afflicted Emergencies and Sieges, though that game mode is likely to return with different enemies at some point). Now Varus Soleptor wants payback for the double-cross he experienced at the hands of television series regulars Joshua Nolan and Irisa Nyira in the game’s pre-show Episode Missions. He has called in Echelon (a mercenary group that acts as the faction whose Contracts in the game revolve around competitive multiplayer modes) to hunt down Nolan and Irisa, but they are looking in the wrong place. As they search Paradise (the San Francisco Bay area) for the duo, they are noticed by Rynn, the Irathient woman who first appeared in the television series and then fled as a fugitive to the game after the events of the episode The Serpent’s Egg. She owes Nolan for letting her escape after helping him, so she intends to help him in return.

Thus begins a series of three Episode Missions: The Manhunt, Parts 1 – 3, all of which are very similar. Rynn contacts the player, needing help to find more information on Echelon’s activities. In each mission, the player joins Echelon in battling Raiders, then seeks out a data recorder at each battle location. Finishing each mission requires finding the data recorders, and finding all three completes a new Episode Pursuit, The Manhunt.

Upon completing the final mission, the player is rewarded with a new title (“True Friend”) for completing the Pursuit, and a new costume (Rynn’s fugitive attire) for completing The Manhunt, Part 3. Most importantly, though, a new custcene plays, in which Rynn informs Lawkeeper Cooper (friend of Nolan and a fellow member of the “Defiant Few”) that Varus has hired Echelon to find Nolan and that they now know that Nolan has gone to Defiance (St. Louis). Cooper further informs her of the “death” (actually a comatose state) of her adopted father, Sukar, at the hands of Nolan in the episode Good Bye Blue Sky. Rynn heads out for Defiance, though whether she will aid or kill Nolan is, as yet, unseen . . .

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But Wait, What About the Show This Week?

I won’t belabor this point, as it was addressed in detail in our last review, but it should be noted that this week’s Defiance episode, If I Ever Leave This World Alive, does not directly tie into this week’s game content. Instead, it seems to have been intended to sync with last week’s content, as it sees the request and delivery of the cure to the Plague from Paradise to Defiance. It makes for an interesting tie-in, but it stumbled greatly by being out of sync for the week. One would hope synchronicity will soon return.

The Verdict

While relatively simple to accomplish (taking about fifteen minutes at most), this week’s new Episode Missions provide a new costume reward and would seem to be significantly affecting the plotline of the Defiance universe, sending Rynn back for a return appearance in the series. It isn’t the most substantial update that we’ve seen, but it is certainly one of the times we have felt the most connected to the television series this season.

B-Plus

The Last of Us Review

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There’s a moment in the final act of The Last of Us that made me want to put down my controller and stop playing. Not for anything that upset me or caused me to doubt what had just happened or anything like that; no, I wanted to let that moment live on for as long as possible. I probably could have let the game end there, and would have found the game just as ambitious and worthwhile and impressive as those who finished the cross-country journey. It took every effort not to pull back on the controller and push away from this sequence and on into the game’s climax, but I knew this was not the end. I knew there was more that Joel and Ellie had to endure. And so I drew away, and marched on toward the conclusion of one of the rare games that has made me think about violence, survival, and human nature and what lengths I might go to protect those I cared for.

Continue reading

Defiance TV Tie-ins #7

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Defiance is a multiplatform (PS3, Xbox 360, PC) MMO third person shooter, based in the universe of the SyFy television series of the same name, which is in its first season as of the time of this writing. Invisible Gamer has reviewed the core game and now continues its look at the MMO’s content as it, as designed, evolves to connect with the TV show. This time, we look at content released to coincide with the SyFy channel airing of the episode I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times.

Gosh, That Was Easy

Two updates ago, Defiance players saw the introduction of several new, easy to find data recorders, which set up the backstory of the Plague (viral hemorrhagic fever) and provided the fodder for a new Pursuit, along with several new triage stations at important game locations. The following update then provided a wealth of new content in the form of two new Pursuits, several new forms of Emergencies that revolve around Afflicted (zombies, more or less), and a new set of giant events in the game known as Sieges. 

These updates were both built around the idea that a plague has broken out in the San Francisco Bay area (as evidenced in the data recorders and new Emergencies), and it is only by fighting in those Sieges that the player can protect efforts to synthesize cure components at the four Siege sites. Given that this was all accompanied by a new trailer for the game online and on television that showed Indogene doctor Eren Niden being attacked and a warning that signs of the disease had appeared in Defiance (St. Louis), the setting for the television series, it became the player’s mission to stop the disease and create a cure that would help those in the Bay area and in Defiance.

While fans expected a major new mission (or set of Episode Missions) to round out this storyline, that does not appear to be what was provided. What began with a strong batch of new content – especially the introduction of Sieges and Afflicted – seems to have fizzled out.

The new content this week came in the form of one new Episode Mission and one new data recorder. Notice that I did not mention a new Pursuit, as there isn’t one. Whereas any other update would likely have multiple data recorders to find for one Pursuit and another Pursuit to be completed by the Episode Mission (or series thereof), none were added for this update. Instead, the data recorder was laying at the feet of the person to speak with in order to start the Episode Mission, making finding it difficult for only those with an IQ below their shoe size, and only one new Episode Mission was added, rather than a series of them.

The new Episode Mission, Launching the Cure, is a bit bizarre and rather short. Apparently, Eren has developed a cure, but it needs to be delivered to Defiance. In the game, though, one cannot travel between Paradise and Defiance, as the game world only currently encompasses the Bay area. Thus, containers of the cure have been loaded into a huge missile (an ICBM) that can be launched to deliver a payload of the cure to Defiance, and Eren needs your help to reach the missile launch station. You fight your way through Cronkhite Bunker (one of the game’s main “dungeons” that you visit in the Story Missions and co-op sessions) to reach the missile, then launch it toward Defiance, where it should release its payload to be recovered and save everyone. The Bunker map has been retooled so that it is laid out the same as it has always been, but some halls are now filled with water, and enemies have been changed to include waves of Afflicted and members of the game’s toughest regular faction of enemies, Dark Matter (who are apparently there to stop the missile because the disease is killing normal humans, and Dark Matter wants normal humans - any normal humans – to die . . . cue mustache twirl and villainous laugh).

While the mission provides a new take on the Cronkhite Bunker scenario, there is a severe sense of “been there, done that” with this one, and fans’ reactions are not helped when considering that the mission itself can be completed much, much more quickly than the Bunker map usually would be. While it is not something that can be finished in, as some have complained, “five minutes,” it does feel significantly smaller and easier than one would have expected, and enemies are of varieties already encountered ad nauseaum in the game.

And . . . that’s it. It would seem that the Plague storyline has concluded in the game, which brings up another issue . . .

Parallel But Not Simultaneous?

The whole concept behind Defiance and how both the show and game have been pitched to audiences is that what happens in the show will affect the game, and what happens in the game will affect the show. In this case, that is happening, and we quickly saw a bit more of this connection in the first few minutes of the next episode, If I Ever Leave This World Alive, which were released as a teaser for the episode. However, while the connection is there, the two media for the tale seem to be out of sync.

The first update to feature any information about the Plague was released during “dead weeks” between the show’s airing of two episodes that were completely unrelated to the Plague: Brothers in Arms and Good Bye Blue Sky. This makes some sense, though, since one could argue that Paradise was dealing with the Plague before there was ever any trace of it in Defiance (later revealed to be “months” earlier, which causes some chronological issues). This seems to be confirmed in this week’s episode, I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times, as a reporter from the game’s region arrives in the show’s region, only to be struck by the Plague at the end of the episode.

That, in and of itself, was handled rather clumsily. The episode is mostly about what seems to be a human astronaut, once thought killed in space, who has been found on the ship (a piece of Arkfall) that crashed during Good Bye Blue Sky. It is a story about his quest to find out the truth about who he is and how he fits into the world. Oh, and then, out of nowhere, in the last 70 seconds before the credits, they introduce the Plague element. The character from the Bay shows up sick, breaking into a conversation tied into the rest of the episode, and the show’s physician, Doc Yewll, immediately, after running a scanner over the patient for about two seconds, claims that it “looks like viral hemorrhagic fever . . . We’ve got ourselves a Plague.” Really, Doc? All that analysis in a matter of seconds? They need to pay you more. (Technically, the Plague is Irathient Flu, which the character had familiarity with already, but it certainly was not clear in the episode itself.)

The next episode of the show airs on June 17, and the first few minutes, released online shortly after this week’s episode, make a strong connection to the game, as Doc Yewll hopes for a cure from Paradise, noting that “there was an outbreak in the Bay area. A former colleague, Eren Niden, spent months working on an antiviral. If we’re lucky, one of the independent outposts will relay the message to San Francisco.”

This would have been a great connection if it had been timely. Any tension is drained upon finding out that the show’s characters need a cure from the game, after players of the game have already completed the mission in which that happens. Launching the Cure should have been content for June 17, not June 10. In fact, all of the Plague material should likely have been shifted to one week later. As it stands, we get a relatively minor bit of new content this week, which, in some respects, spoils elements of the following week’s episode on television. The stories remain in parallel, but it would seem that they are out of step with each other, perhaps due to the period between Brothers in Arms and Good Bye Blue Sky, in which no new episode aired.

(For what it’s worth, the week after this new content, the episode If I Ever Leave This World Alive does indeed feature the arrival of the cure care package in the Badlands. Joshua Nolan and Connor Lang seek it out, saving everyone, thanks to your efforts in Paradise, which seem to have taken place during the first few minutes of the episode, halfway across the continent.)

The Verdict

With what seems to be a rather weak, easy, and fast Episode Mission, lacking any new Pursuits or unusual mission rewards, and a story that appears to be ahead of the television series in a way that drains at least some of the tension from both media for Defiance, this week’s game update stumbles over what should have been one of its shining multimedia moments. The negative impact of these factors can be mitigated a bit by the fact that they do directly influence events of the following week’s episode, but the tie-in trips over itself when it should have been able to sprint to victory.

C