Tagged: Ubisoft

Trials Fusion Review

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During the summer of 2013, RedLynx’s massively addictive racing-platformer Trials Evolution grabbed ahold of me and refused to let go, thanks in large part to the game’s exposure through YouTube personalities Hutch and SeaNanners. The XBLA and PC title succeeded through its simple gameplay and cheesy presentation, and its emphasis on leaderboards, user-created content and a few relentlessly difficult tracks made it one of my favorite games from the past generation. For the next installment in the long-running series, RedLynx has taken our favorite motorcycle men into the future, and though I’m not entirely sure what is being combined with what, Trials Fusion is a fantastic sequel that is more than worthy of carrying the series into the next generation.

Trials Fusion is a 2.5D motorcycle platformer, placing the player along a fixed plane to jump, speed and soar along the game’s increasingly difficult obstacle courses. Standing in the player’s way are a series of ramps, boxes, explosives, pipes, wheels, buildings and mountains, each designed to test both reaction time and general intuition. The series has been known for its expectations of precision from players, and Trials Fusion is no exception; the later stages require “bunny hops” and almost impossible mid-air manipulations to land jumps, and I frequently found myself saying “that’s absolutely impossible” before finally conquering an obstacle minutes later.

While simply completing a course nets the player a bronze medal, finishing in a certain amount of time and with few faults (the game’s fancy word for “screw-ups”) can earn a silver or gold medal. On the first few events — each made up of six or seven stages — it’s not uncommon to win the gold medal on the very first try, but the later “hard” events are tests of not just precision and timing, but the player’s own sanity. Faulting more than a few times — sometimes just once or twice — eliminates the gold medal, so restarting the entire course is a common occurrence; I was doing that a lot in my quest for perfection.  Add in new AI companion Cindys ramblings on whether someone is still the same person when they wake up the next morning, and we’re delving into some weird philosophical territory. Easy there, John Locke.

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Trials Evolution’s course design was incredible, with a Limbo-inspired level and the infamous “Gigatrack,” but Trials Fusion holds its own with its mix of traditional, earthy locals and “futuristic” design reminiscent of the all-chrome episode of Spongebob Squarepants. They don’t add too much to the traditional Trials experience, but the aesthetic change and commentary from both Cindy and an apparently always-present, slightly sarcastic second program help to make the game feel fresh, unlike the “welcome to the future” theme song blaring on repeat throughout Trials Fusion’s many menus.

Perhaps Trials Fusion’s most noteworthy additions are the “FMX” courses, freestyle tracks that task players with putting together combinations of flips and the brand-new tricks — executed by moving the right thumbstick at a variety of angles. These scale organically in difficulty after they’re initially introduced, and they allow players to get creative in a way that isn’t possible in the main courses. Unfortunately, there are only a few of these included, and although there’s something to be said for RedLynx sticking to its guns and focusing on improving the core gameplay of the series, it would’ve been nice to see just two or three more of these stages.

Returning from the previous game are the “skill” stages, which give players specific challenges like riding as far as possible without using the front wheel or keeping their riders’ adrenaline up so that their bike doesn’t explode. These serve as nice distractions at the end of each event, but they don’t beg to be replayed like the other two course-types do. Still, these could be some of the best modes to show off to friends, as the simple challenges could liven up what might otherwise be a frustrating demonstration of why the developers hate happiness.

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Trials Fusion has plenty of tracks to keep players busy, but its inclusion of course-specific challenges help to ensure that each stage isn’t a simple one-and-done affair. Early events offer rewards for completing them with bikes (in one case, it’s a literal bicycle) that can only be unlocked at the end of the game, while others give extra experience points for flipping a certain number of times or landing specific tricks. Some of these are simple to complete, but others — specifically those that only count if part of a zero-fault run — add a level of challenge to stages that might otherwise be pieces of cake. Trying to pull off ten flips on a course with only a few big ramps is much easier said than done.

Trials Evolution included several customization options, but Trials Fusion takes this to a near-ridiculous level. In addition to the six different vehicles (five of which must be unlocked) players can dress their adorable motorcycle man up in futuristic suits, traditional daredevil outfits, punk rock costumes, and even a HAZMAT suit. The sheer absurdity of seeing a wannabe Jesse Pinkman try to land a Superman-backflip is almost reason enough to give the game a shot. Of course, a stupidly complex course-creator tool also lets users build their own maps, and if the previous game serves as a predictor, players can expect some extremely innovative creations.

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Unfortunately, at launch there is currently only an offline multiplayer option for Trials Fusion. The developers promise a changed experience in a future update, as well as the addition of tournaments and new leaderboards, but it isn’t included at release. What is included for offline play more closely resembles Evolution’s multiplayer, featuring both “trials’ obstacle course stages and the longer “supercross” tracks, but how much resemblance this bears to the online experience is still unknown. Should the update drastically affect the game, either for better or worse, we will amend the review accordingly.

Trials Fusion is everything that I wanted out of a sequel to the immensely entertaining Trials Evolution, and its inclusions supplement the core gameplay rather than undermining it. It kept me glued to my controller for hours at a time, and even when I thought I had played enough, I kept feeling the urge to come back for more. With the game available on PlayStation for the first time in the series’ history, it now has a chance to show an even bigger audience just how awesome it is.

A

Invisible Gamer’s review of Trials Fusion is based on final PlayStation 4 review code provided to us by Ubisoft.

ZombiU Review

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The Invisible Gamer concept is what drew me to this site, as both a visitor and a writer. Within gaming, there are certain opinions that tend to be shouted down by the major gaming media outlets, while huge numbers of fans see their collective opinions go without expression. In this age of Metacritic, our voices should matter, but theirs too often seem to “matter” so much more. Case in point: ZombiU. If you are a longtime survival horror fan like me, then you will love the experience provided by ZombiU. Unfortunately, early reviews from major outlets bashed the game to the point where it is thought of by the uninformed (and supposedly-informed) as a failure that has marred the Wii U’s launch lineup. Nothing could be further from the truth in the eyes of a survival horror fan who wants some real survival horror, rather than a third person shooter using jump-scares in pale imitation of true tension.

The Wii U’s first few months of life have not been particularly good for the system. Games to be released for the system have been canceled (though in the case of Aliens: Colonial Marines, that might be a good thing), formerly exclusive games have been announced as multiplatform (Rayman, I’m looking at you), and many games have just been glorified ports (Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, Injustice: Gods Among Us) – often very playable ports with nifty new features, but sometimes lacking in functions that the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 crowds take for granted.

ZombiU, however, is one of those exclusive titles that provides a solid reason to own a Wii U: these killer zombies make for a killer app.

Real Survival Horror

In a genre that has transformed from the true scares and tension of the original Resident Evil games, the first Dead Space, and their brethren into a genre filled with solid shooters like Resident Evil 4 – 6, Dead Space 2 – 3, and their ilk, “survival horror” has come to mean “survive wave after wave of bullet-sponge enemies that just happen to look like horror movie creatures.” When Call of Duty has a zombie-fighting mode and begins to call that mode “survival horror,” you know that the genre no longer lives up to its moniker.

Enter ZombiU, a true survival horror game that puts the tension and fear back into the genre, while providing innovations along the way.

ZombiU puts players in London in the wake of a “zombie apocalypse.” You play as a survivor, who is drawn into the safehouse of the Prepper, who provides you with your mission goals and advice as you travel in the growing, somewhat open world of London. Your missions will take you into the streets, sewers, military facilities, and even Buckingham Palace. All the while, you must face increasingly difficult enemies, some slow, some fast, and some who even teleport. (Yes, I know teleporting zombies sounds odd, but can be truly terrifying in confined spaces.)

In the game’s earliest moments, you find yourself wielding a cricket bat (London, remember?), then a small pistol. By the end of the game, you may eventually find yourself using quite a few different weapons, divided into pistols, shotguns, rifles, and the like. I say “may” because these are not “gifts” for completing levels or automatic pickups to progress the story as in many games. When you find a new weapon, it is generally a fortuitous find (or discovered through use of strategy guides that are, frankly, a necessity to get the most out of ZombiU). You could very well reach the end of the game having experienced only a few weapons. Either way, you will find ammo scarce enough that you will often resort to your bat, which can be used to push away zombies or to bash them to a second death.

As in many survival horror games, your inventory space is limited, though it does expand if you find larger backpacks during your travels. Fortunately, you do have a container back at the safehouse where you can put items you do not wish to carry at that moment. In general, you carry whatever you can fit in your pack, along with up to six items that can be placed into quick-access inventory slots in the top corners of the Gamepad screen. (You will usually want to have at least your cricket bat, one or two firearms, a grenade or Molotov cocktail, and at least one health item in those slots at all times.)

Controls are typical of a first person shooter, barring using the Gamepad’s inventory slots with quick thumb presses to switch items quickly. However, the use of the Gamepad shines (and provides extra tension) when dealing with your “Prepper Pad” and inventory management. The Gamepad (Prepper Pad in the game) can be held up and titled around to look for points of interest in the environment. You can then scan them for more information about their contents, the hidden meanings of certain glyphs, to add the locations of enemies to your map, and the like. When searching your inventory for an item, or when looting a body or cabinet to find supplies, you will also look down to the Gamepad to move those items via a touch-based menu into your own inventory. In these cases, your character on the TV screen will use his Prepper Pad or Bug Out Bag (backpack), while you are looking at the Gamepad. You must remain vigilant, however. As in the trend started with Dead Space that does not stop the action around you when accessing menus, you can still be attacked when doing these things, which forces you to keep glancing between Gamepad and television, heightening the tension.

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Light also plays a fundamental part in ZombiU. While there are several types of zombies to encounter, they are all attracted to light. This allows you to use a flare to lure zombies into an area and blow them up with a mine, grenade, or Molotov cocktail, but it also means that your own light (with limited power that must be turned off periodically to recharge) will draw zombies to you. You can use this to your advantage, however, grabbing the attention of one zombie at a time from a large area of infected to better your odds of survival.

Permadeath, Zombie Friends, and Asymmetrical Multiplayer

If the Gamepad wasn’t enough, two more truly unique aspects emerge with ZombiU: permadeath and its unusual takes on interacting with other players.

Within the game, you play as a survivor, who is given very little characterization and no spoken dialogue, putting you into the role more deeply, so that their eyes feel like your own more than when playing as a heavily-developed protagonist. When taken by surprise from behind, attacked at a low health level, or unable to respond quickly enough, a zombie will grab and bite you (an attack that can only be evaded by use of a Virucide shot that you receive midway through the game that is good for one use and can be refilled from drawing the substance into a syringe from special zombies that scanning with the Prepper Pad can identify). Once bitten (or killed by fire or a fall), your current survivor dies, permanently. If bitten by a zombie, that survivor becomes a zombie and inhabits the area in which you were killed. What makes this important is that this dead survivor is wearing your backpack with all of the gear you had loaded into it! You then wake up as a new survivor, and you must not only pick up where the “dead you” left off, but also hunt down the zombie version of your former self, so that you can kill him and take back your gear. To do this, you have only a bat, pistol, and whatever you have left in the container back at the safehouse, which makes it a particularly bad idea to carry all of your weapons at once. Moreover, if your new survivor dies before reclaiming your gear, then everything he was carrying is redistributed throughout the game’s various locations, and you must either do without or follow indications on CCTV cameras in the safehouse to find the items all over again. In this survival horror scenario, death actually matters and adds significantly to the game’s tension and scares.

If this wasn’t enough to add tension, players can try Survival Mode, a run through the normal single-player mode with one catch: if you die, the game ends completely. You will not wake as another survivor, but instead have to start over from scratch. This is truly for the hardcore survival horror gamer. Think of it as permadeath taken to an even higher level.

The game’s interaction with other players also heightens the experience, but those looking for the typical Call of Duty-esque multiplayer modes will find themselves disappointed. The game makes use of social components in two primary ways. First, if you have friends via your Nintendo ID who are also playing ZombiU, then when those friends die and become zombies, they do not just appear in their game to let them retrieve gear. They also appear in your game, so that you can kill them and loot items from them. This adds some unpredictability and social dynamics to this mostly solo experience, while not affecting your friends’ ability to get their gear back (via the incarnation of their zombie self in their game, which is not affected by their zombie appearance in yours).

The game also includes two asymmetrical multiplayer modes (or three, thanks to Ubisoft’s Uplay, which must be downloaded via the Wii U eShop to access any of its unlockable goodies). The key term here is asymmetrical: players are not all doing the same thing. The three modes include traditional capture and hold, kill-to-get-points, and see-how-long-you-survive variants. One player uses the Gamepad to be the “King of Zombies,” sending out zombies in a fashion similar to a real-time strategy (RTS) or tower defense game, gaining zombie types and numbers as the match progresses. The other player(s) play in a first person mode similar to the main game, fighting off the waves of zombies that are unleashed by the Gamepad player. (With the Gamepad already utilized, these other players will use a Wii Remote and Nunchuk or the Wii U Pro Controller.) While there is no progression system from match to match, and all multiplayer modes are local-only (no online multiplayer whatsoever), these multiplayer modes are highly enjoyable and can become quite addictive.

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The great local multiplayer experience is just the icing on the cake for a single player experience that truly deserves the “survival horror” label. The game starts slow, as you wade into the world and very slowly gain new gear, but by the end, this is an experience that should not be missed, including a final sequence that literally left me shaking for half an hour after the credits had rolled.

Survival horror fans owe it to themselves to check out ZombiU. It just might be the best true survival horror game since Dead Space.

A

 

Best of 2012: The Honorable Mentions!

2012 has been an amazing year for great video game experiences – such an amazing year, in fact, that I’ve found it impossible to limit my year-end best-of list to the customary 10 titles. The list of games you now see before you makes up what I’m calling this year’s “Honorable Mentions,” but honestly, any one of them is good enough to warrant a purchase. So read on, because you never know – your own game of the year might be tucked away somewhere in the list below!

Assassin’s Creed III (PC/PS3/Wii U/Xbox 360)

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Given the franchise’s popularity, you might be surprised to learn that Assassin’s Creed III is the first title in the series I’ve spent any considerable amount of time with, but there you have it: I was an Assassin’s Creed virgin until I played Ubisoft Montreal’s latest stealth action game for Wii U. And right up until the experience began to unravel near the very end of Connor’s campaign, I was fully onboard and ready to dive in to the rest of the series. A vast, beautiful, open world with a plethora of activities to keep you engaged in the downtime between missions? Check! An engaging story full of historical figures and Hollywood style familial dischord? Check! And oh, those naval missions! But here’s the thing: at the end of the day, none of it really amounts to a whole hell of a lot. The story fizzles out once the most interesting characters disappear from the narrative (with the only explanation being “you thought they liked you? Just kidding! They didn’t!”) The final mission is one of the most glitch-ridden, poorly paced excuses for gameplay I’ve ever experienced, and all those untold hours I spent hunting and fetching trinkets so I could craft better equipment didn’t make a lick of difference to the way I engaged enemies – I either killed them in stealth like the expert assassin I was supposed to be, or fumbled awkwardly through head-on battles when I couldn’t manage the element of surprise. And don’t get me started on the ending, which I’ll admit might’ve been less stupid in my eyes had I actually been invested in the characters. No, Assassin’s Creed 3 wasn’t Game of the Year material for me – not even close. But if you’re looking for a fun, lengthy romp through the American frontier and you’re tired of Red Dead Redemption, you could do far, far worse (see Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation.)

Crashmo (3DS)

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I’ve spent more time than is probably healthy solving and re-solving Crashmo’s sometimes maddeningly obtuse puzzles – somewhere to the tune of 40 hours. Why? Because I’m a nice guy and I want you to avoid a brain aneurysm. For Nintendo fans jonesin’ for some old-school puzzle action, it doesn’t get any better than Crashmo, and if you’ve got a 3DS, there’s absolutely no reason not to fork over the ten dollar entry fee into Crashmo’s candy-colored, block-rearranging world.

Dishonored (PC/PS3/Xbox 360)

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As I stated in my review, Dishonored is a great game: an original IP with interesting, highly repayable missions, a fun story and unique world that changes appropriately to reflect the way you play, and excellent visual and audio design crafted by some of the same folks responsible for Half-Life 2 and BioShock 2. It’s also a far more engaging example of stealth action than anything Ubisoft did with Assassin’s Creed 3. In fact, it’s one of my favorite games of the year! So what’s it doing wallowing down here in the Honorable Mentions? Simple: it crumbles under the weight of its own ambition. Dishonored was frequently touted in pre-release marketing as the game that would let you “play your own way,” and it’s true that it succeeds in this, for the most part. But boy, when the seams split open on Arkane’s game design, does that stuffing spill out! I can’t count the number of times I had to re-load an earlier save or start a mission over entirely because the game didn’t like the way I chose to approach a problem. Still, most of you never experienced the kind of problems I did within the game – characters who refused to acknowledge my presence, or wouldn’t die because they fell through the ground and continued falling indefinitely, and I’m willing to accept that I might’ve gotten the one retail disc that didn’t contain the best stealth game ever made. Dishonored is really, truly an amazing game, and if you go into it ready to accept its small but considerable shortcomings, you will find an experience unmatched by all but this generation’s best games.

Kid Icarus: Uprising (3DS)

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Has there ever been a more triumphant series reboot than Nintendo’s long-awaited Kid Icarus: Uprising? Probably not. With a cinematic flair not commonly seen among Nintendo’s first-party franchises and a sense of self-awareness that would make any Nintendo fanboy blush, Uprising is a rare treat that feels nothing like its forebears yet perfectly at home among Nintendo’s best titles. The rub, as you’ve probably heard, is the control scheme, which proves not that the 3DS needs a second circle pad (it doesn’t), but that the game would’ve been much better suited on the Wii or Wii U, where motion control is the standard. If you’ve got a 3DS, you shouldn’t think twice about picking this one up – there’s really nothing else like it.

Paper Mario: Sticker Star (3DS)

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It’s a platformer! It’s an RPG! It’s a PC-style adventure game! It’s none of these things! Paper Mario: Sticker Star, one of the funniest games ever localized by those clever scamps at Nintendo of America’s Treehouse division, proves yet again that the best Mario games are the ones that stray from the side-scrolling formula and allow the denizens of the Mushroom Kingdom a chance to shine. This latest Paper Mario is a blast, and its sticker-based mechanic is more fun than it has any right to be, but the most unexpected surprise here just might be the game’s jazzy, infectious soundtrack that gives it a completely different feel from anything Nintendo’s ever done, Mario or otherwise. Seriously. I can’t stop listening.

Persona 4 Golden (PS Vita)

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If I hadn’t just started playing Persona 4 a few days ago, it probably would’ve landed somewhere in my top ten, regardless of the fact that it’s a re-release of a PS2 game; alas, we humble games writers have only so much time, and I wasn’t able to fit this one into my schedule until after Christmas. From what little I’ve played, I’m already comfortable saying it’s one of the best interactive experiences I’ve had all year, but I can’t yet articulate what makes it a good game because there’s just so much I haven’t seen yet. Suffice to say, if you’re into JRPGs, Japanese youth culture, romance, or a good mystery, you’ll eat this one up.

Professor Layton & The Miracle Mask (3DS)

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In a year overstuffed with ultraviolence, Professor Layton & The Miracle Mask is both a breath of fresh air, and a gentle reminder of Nintendo’s expert ability to iterate on the same game, year after year, and spit out a product that’s infinitely better than most everything else you can spend your gaming dollars on. Miracle Mask does very little that hasn’t been done by any of the previous games in the series, but its emotionally resonant story, quirky characters, and welcoming presentation make this latest Layton as fun as he’s ever been. Added bonus: he won’t teabag you (though he might offer you a cup of Earl Grey.)

Sine Mora (PC/PS3/PS Vita/Xbox 360)

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Another title I’ve only recently found time for thanks to its Sally-come-lately Vita port, Sine Mora is the perfect fusion of old-school shmup design and modern visual aesthetic. If you’ve always loved shoot ‘em ups but have never had much luck completing them, you’ll be pleased to know Sine Mora’s a bit more forgiving in its approach to the whole “bullet hell” thing. In the story mode, you can’t die as long as there’s still time on the clock (time you’ll lose the more you get hit, and gain the more enemies you kill), meaning you’ll be able to spend more time honing your skills and less time staring at a game over screen. Fret not, ye hardest-of-core shooter fans, there’s still the arcade mode, which comes only in two flavors: hardest and evenharder. Out of all the games on this list, Sine Mora is probably fated to be the most overlooked, which is really kind of bullshit considering the number of platforms it’s been released on. Stop making excuses and get it already.

Uncharted: Golden Abyss (PS Vita)

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What a great game! Uncharted: Golden Abyss took what worked best in the series’ PlayStation 3 incarnations, shoehorned in a bunch of pointless, mostly-optional touch-based interactions, and stuffed it down onto a little system you could fit in your largest jacket pocket. A PS Vita launch title, Golden Abyss is still the most technically impressive title on the platform nearly a year into its lifespan, proving you really could take a AAA, console-style adventure with you on your morning commute. But at the end of the day, is that really what you want from a handheld title? How much you appreciate Golden Abyss depends on your answer to that question. If you subscribe to the highbrow notion that portable games should offer experiences that can’t be replicated on a traditional TV-based console, well, maybe this isn’t the game for you. But for people like me who spend half their waking hours riding trains, Sony Bend’s take on one of PlayStation’s flagship franchises is a classic example of what Sony does best…and makes the time it takes to get home in the evening that much more bearable.

The Games of 2011 (Multiple Platforms)

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What’s that, you say? I’m cheating? Hear me out. The current console cycle has given us no shortage of unforgettable games, but no single year has given us so many titles we’ll still be playing for the next several years as 2011. Seriously, if you claimed to be a gamer and told me you haven’t clocked more time in Minecraft, Skyrim, Dark Souls, or Super Mario 3D Land than most of the games released in 2012, I’d call you a lying liar and know I was right. Why? Because you’d be lying!

Listen: there’s nothing shameful about getting your money’s worth out of your gaming purchases, so take a look at what you’ve got on your shelves and be honest with yourself: do you really need to buy any more games right now?

Assassin’s Creed III Review

There are few franchises in gaming that just make it. Even fewer are the games that override those logic barriers that tell you “I’ve seen this before,” “other games have done this better,” or “I’m confused” and you keep pushing on regardless. Assassin’s Creed III is the fifth game from Ubisoft Montreal, and over the course of the digital life of central savior-figure Desmond Miles all of these charges have been leveled. Despite a flawed mission structure, the original Assassin’s Creed opened a world of fiction-overlapping-fact so engaging and fascinating that the general audience wanted more. Assassin’s Creed II answered a lot of the first’s problems while introducing mind-bending twists that set in motion an apocalyptic countdown culminating in this fall’s release. Could Assassin’s Creed III take all the promise of a series that so often skirted the line of brilliance and disaster to bring us one of the year’s, and this generation’s, seminal gaming experiences?

Assassin’s Creed III wastes no time dropping player new and old alike into the narrative, as convoluted as it is. In case you missed ‘em, stepping into the single player story begins with a summary of the events preceding Desmond and company’s arrival in upstate New York, narrated by his own father William Miles (Star Trek’s John de Lancie). The relationship between father and son is a central tenet of AC3’s progression, both in the present day and once Desmond drops into the animus for another go-around, and arguably creates the deepest narrative tie of any game in the series thus far. For those uninitiated, Desmond Miles (voiceover artist extraordinaire Nolan North) abandoned his assassin heritage prior to the first game—before being dragged back into the game by Abstergo Industries, the 21st Century front for the Knights Templar. Turns out his dad is one of the assassin head honchos, so the tension between his departure from the brotherhood accompanied by his new role as the only man with the ability to save the planet from catastrophe is, as you might imagine, quite palpable.

Most of the gameplay of any Assassin’s Creed game takes place within the fictional construct of the animus—the deus ex machina that allows a user to access “genetic memory” and live the life of their predecessors, allowing Ubisoft to transport the player anywhere they wish, this time at the outset of Revolutionary War-wracked New England. For as much as I love the gorgeously detailed forests and historically important cities of Boston and New York, the time spent as Desmond in AC3 felt well-earned and much needed. Since AC2, Desmond has slowly been learning the skills and abilities of his ancestors to make him the skilled assassin he had never wanted or trained to be, and there needed to be payoff shown here. The amount of time spent outside of the animus is not even remotely close to that spent within, but you get a sense that Corey May and the writers of AC3 knew that Mr. Miles needed to show just how capable he has become. In particular, a late game return to one of the series’ key present-day locales from games past is especially rewarding. The return of Dr. Warren Vidic (Phil Proctor), your jailer and Abstergo mastermind, and introduction of a fallen Assassin to serve as a foil to Desmond’s redeemed Assassin bring the story full circle in many respects.

What the assassins and Templars are looking for lies in the memories of the Kenway family, another of Desmond’s lineage and the first line of his family in the New World. Barring an unexpected—but fascinating, and different—twist in the first three to four hours, you spend the majority of your animus time in the body of Ratonhnhaké:ton (Noah Watts), a member of the Kanien’keha:ka (Mohawk) tribe of the Iroquois nation. Ratonhnhaké:ton is quite the traveled man by journey’s end, with your path crossing the likes of Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Israel Putnam, and George Washington, in addition to a number of notable Templars on the side of both the Patriots and British/Loyalist numbers. Under the tutelage of ‘retired’ assassin Achilles Davenport (Roger Aaron Brown), and using the name of Connor, the world of Revolutionary New England is opened wide to your footsteps. Assassin’s Creed has always been a remarkable playground for the historically inclined, and there is no shortage of things to do while running through the streets and forests of the late 1700’s. While the primary story, discovering a key that is the doorway to mankind’s salvation or destruction, meanders on for the better course of 15-20 hours, the real meat of AC3 lies in what surrounds the life of Connor Kenway. The optional side missions in AC3 drew for me many a comparison to Rockstar’s 2010 western epic Red Dead Redemption: the wide open wilderness, animals to hunt, skin, and trade, and strangers to accept missions from. Some of these missions work brilliantly, the naval and Homestead missions being of particular enjoyment. Others, such as assassin trainee recruitment and ambient world missions to collect this or acquire that, could have used a bit more fine-tuning. Overall, the frontier presented in this game was far more interesting than the non-city areas of the previous four entries combined, and will be sure to tickle your exploration fancy if you’re up for it. A chance encounter with Bigfoot or the Headless Horseman might so incline you to check it out, too.

Technically speaking, Assassin’s Creed III is the finest this series has looked. That should come as no surprise, being this close to the end of a console generation, but AC3 offers some of this year’s most memorable moments visually. From the heights of mountain and tree-tops to the steeples of Boston meeting houses, the attention to detail so prevalent in past games is in full effect here. From Old North Church and the Old Statehouse in Boston to historic Wall Street and Broadway in New York, each city is full of landmarks from the nation’s infancy. None is as impressive as the Basilica di San Lorenzo and Venezia’s Grand Canal in Assassin’s Creed II or the Hagia Sofia in Assassin’s Creed Revelations, but the true revelation of Assassin’s Creed III lies in the frontier. The sheer vastness of the American northeast is captured brilliantly in the forests, streams, lakes and mountains of AC3, made enjoyable by the refined navigation tools introduced. It’s one thing to scale rooftops and swan dive into haystacks, but the effortlessness with which Connor traverses the forest was extremely welcome. Gliding from branch to rock face to rooftop and back again was the most fun I’d had traveling through an environment in quite some time, and it made the exploration of the world that much more enjoyable.  Combat found some refinements as well, introducing new weapons (Connor’s tomahawk being one of the most useful in the series) and removing components from previous games found to be unnecessary (the hook-blade) or overly complicated (looking at you, bomb-crafting). Firearms also take a step backward, though this made AC3 far more historically accurate than the firearms of the Ezio saga. Still, I would have given up my second hidden blade for a bit faster reload on a few of the pistols. The crafting and trading mechanics also stuck out sorely, weakening an in-game economy that was practically nonexistent in the wake of fairly liberal purses available in Assassin’s Creed II and Brotherhood. These minor grievances only slightly mar a game that was, for me, a pleasure to roam around in even a month or two after release.

Should mapping and trapping the wilderness not suit you, Assassin’s Creed III has a multiplayer suite that’s far different from the majority of player-vs.-player online experiences you’ll find in modern gaming. Introduced in Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, multiplayer has become a quiet selling point of the series. Rather than shootouts and fast-paced action, the online component of AC3 requires deliberate steps and quiet approach. The idea of hiding in plain sight, blending in with a crowd of characters that look like those in the match, makes the cat-and-mouse gameplay all that more enjoyable. Can you mimic the actions of the system’s artificial intelligence? When you’re spotted, can you pick up on subtle clues to find out who your pursuer is? While not for everyone, the audience that has picked up on Assassin’s Creed multiplayer has made it an experience I’ve enjoyed more than just about every other one outside of Journey this year. If you are looking for (somewhat) more traditional multiplayer fare, the addition of modes like Wolfpack (Assassin’s Creed’s Horde mode) and Artifact Assault (Capture the Flag) bring some variety to the suite. Add in a sprinkling of story, involving the return of the hacker group Erudito and a look at some of Abstergo’s “real world” influence, and AC3 has plenty to offer those who had their fill of the single-player component.

The story of Desmond Miles has woven through the fabric of the Assassin’s Creed franchise, and has taken some strange turns along the way. While the animus story of Connor was no slouch, and probably equal to some of the outings of predecessors Altair and Ezio, it was the story of Desmond that drew me more deeply into this installment. With relationships being such an essential part of both Assassin’s Creed III and Liberation, the developers at Ubisoft touched on an aspect of the human experience that can be simultaneously encouraging and painful, capturing a small fraction of it in their characters. As the Assassin’s Creed series moves on into what looks to be a new generation of video game consoles, this can only be seen as a strong step toward that future.

A-Minus

The Invisible Gamer review of Assassin’s Creed III was based on a retail PlayStation 3 copy and played to 83% Synchronization of the single player story, and three to five hours in the multiplayer. Assassin’s Creed III is available for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii U and PC.

Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation Review

You are not Desmond Miles. The Animus is not a secret. Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation is the world according to Abstergo Industries, and you’re playing their game—and they’re playing for keeps.

From the moment you enter the world of Liberation, it’s clear that this is not your typical Assassin’s Creed experience. Abstergo, the modern-day front for the Knights Templar, has brought their Animus technology into the world. Now everyone is their own Desmond, living the life of Aveline de Grandpré, experiencing history as Abstergo wants you to know it. The question you may ask yourself as you play Liberation, one that I am still asking: is this the history that I want to play?

For five years and through four (now five) full console iterations, Assassin’s Creed has been the story of the Assassin Brotherhood struggling throughout time against the Order of the Knights Templar. Even more specifically, Ubisoft Montreal has followed the life of reluctant assassin Desmond Miles and his ancestors Altair, Ezio, and Connor as they piece together the mystery behind the Templars, the First Civilization, and a prophecy of the end of the world. Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation flips the script on us. No longer shackled to the present-day narrative of Desmond and his lineage, Liberation puts you in the shoes of Aveline—the series’ first female protagonist—in the streets and bayous of 1770’s New Orleans.

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The daughter of a French businessman and an African slave, the character of Aveline does stand out as one of the more interesting in Assassin’s Creed lore. While Assassin’s Creed III hero Connor Kenway shares dual parentage of British and native mix, he is still a man, and the unique worldview that Aveline possesses as a female assassin is one the series was lacking. Unfortunately, this opportunity to explore the ideas of race and gender in a video game is largely underdeveloped. It is a trend that occurs all too frequently in Liberation.

Aveline is a woman split between worlds, and the developers acknowledge this through an interesting persona system. As the Lady, Aveline can walk the streets of New Orleans as a woman of high standing, her petticoat and parasol speaking to her well-to-do means, though without the full resources of her assassin arsenal at her disposal. Donning her assassin garb gives her full access to the familiar weapons of the trade, with the drawback that she is always on guard; your Notoriety, a feature carried over from the console space, is permanently at level 1, drawing attention from guards even when you’re walking around at street level. Her Slave persona is useful for blending in and remaining unnoticed, but any hostile or unusual actions—like clambering around rooftops—will increase your notoriety quickly, and your weapons are limited to your Hidden Blade and a useful blow gun reminiscent of Ezio’s spring-mounted darts.

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One of the greatest benefits of the Assassin’s Creed games is the player’s freedom to attack challenges as they see fit. There have always been optional “correct” solutions to each puzzle or challenge presented, but you were still free to ignore those suggestions and play the way you wanted. Some of that freedom is lost in Liberation, especially with regard to these personas. While many missions allow the use of one or more personas to achieve your objective, often enough even those missions lean far more on one persona than the other. A good portion of the game’s opening hours take your choice away entirely, requiring you to play as one persona or the other. While not a game-breaking issue, it would have been nice to see how Ubisoft Sofia could have let us tackle a high-society mission as a Slave, or stroll into the Bayou dressed in your finest linens. But story constraints keep these options from being viable, and ultimately limit the replayability of the game—if a Trophy had been attached, I could easily have seen myself running through each mission three separate times to see how a different persona would affect the outcome.

Having finished the game’s narrative, and a few of the game’s sparse side missions, the saddest statement I can make about Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation is that I have no motivation to come back to this world. The story is serviceable, but makes no great strides in narrative nor has any twist comparable to the discoveries at the end of the original Assassin’s Creed or Ezio’s first two adventures that left me scratching my head and wondering where they could go from here. In fact, the game’s big reveal in the third act was so telegraphed that I found myself waiting to see when Aveline would figure it out herself. This is not a criticism of the developer’s story, only an acknowledgement that such reveals have been done before, and with more of a lasting impact than Liberation left me with.

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The unique moments of the game are found in how the conceit of a ‘commercial Animus’ is turned on its’ head. The story presented is the one that Abstergo wants you to see; you will find few mentions of the Templars, and many of the conspirators are made to look sympathetic, even reasonable—nothing like the diabolical natures of Robert de Sablé or the Borgias of past adventures. But someone wants you to see the truth: a hacker by the name of Erudito. Throughout key events in the story, you’ll hear the disembodied voice of your truth-teller and have to locate and kill a civilian, one of the three tenants of the Assassin code expressly forbidden. Worry not, though, as these characters are code within the Animus that, once ‘deleted,’ show you the way events actually happened. This aspect of the game really spoke to what fun could be had with the narrative construct, I only wish that there had been more than a handful of instances where this was a possibility.

All of these issues are secondary to how the game feels when you pick up your Vita and play. Here, the team behind Liberation gets things mostly right. If you have played an Assassin’s Creed game, these controls should be instantly familiar. The game runs on Ubisoft’s Anvil Next engine, created for Liberation’s parent game, and it looks fantastic on Vita’s screen. The world feels alive, with people, animals, and scenery to spare, though the scope of such a feat does lead to some texture pop-in and some draw distance issues. Where the team stumbles is on the implementation of Vita-specific features. Taking more than a few notes from Uncharted: Golden Abyss, Liberation tries to make use of every feature the handheld provides, with varying degrees of success. Finding a bright light with the back camera to uncover secret messages, using the rear touchpad to paddle a canoe, and utilizing the Sixaxis tilt controls in one of the game’s few puzzle segments are novel (and in the case of canoe control, optional), but they’ve also been done before. The use of the touchscreen in menu selection for personas, weapons, and general navigation is probably my favorite Vita-centric component, but not one that’s innovative or special.

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There is a multiplayer component to Liberation that is quite unique compared to the console version. Rather than pitting you directly against opponents online, Liberation features an asynchronous multiplayer pitting Assassins against Templars for control of the world. Choosing either to play as an Assassin or Abstergo/Templar agent, you pit your various combatants against your opponents in order to take ‘control points’ across the globe. It’s a confusing mechanic to me, in all honesty, and my time with the game’s multiplayer suite has been limited. Sadly, even after more experience with the multiplayer, I’m just as confused as when I first started. There is fun to be had, it’s an interesting mechanic, and like most Vita games, the asynchronous nature makes it easier on the system’s resources than a standard console multiplayer experience, but it should have been fleshed out more. Which seems to be the case for many of the game’s mechanics, sad to say.

For owners of Assassin’s Creed III: If you purchase Assassin’s Creed III for the PlayStation 3, there is a nice way to connect your experience with Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation. Before you reach Memory Sequence 8 in Liberation, connect your Vita to your PS3 with both games running on their respective systems. In the Main Menu of each game, there will be an option to connect your devices. Doing so will unlock AC3 protagonist Connor in one of your final missions, as well as making his signature Tomahawk available for purchase and use. Details on the link between this game and AC3 will be included in our review of the console game.

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[UPDATE: For those wondering how things from Assassin's Creed III: Liberation would cross over into it's console big brother, here's your answer: it doesn't. While there's benefit to having AC3 if you own Liberation, there's no benefit to having Liberation if you own AC3. None of Aveline's weapons or items, none of the unique features of Liberation, such as the persona system, make any appearance in Assassin's Creed III. Unfortunate, but not entirely unexpected.]

Make no mistake: Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation is not a bad game, just not a memorable one. Ubisoft Sofia’s ambitions with Liberation should not be overlooked. This is an Assassin’s Creed game, through and through, from the open city of New Orleans and bayou of Lake Ponchatrain to the free running and aerial assassinations that distinguish the series. Liberation feels like the Assassin’s Creed game you’ve always wanted on a handheld. But the little nags, mixed with a confusing narrative structure and story that doesn’t quite connect, prevent Liberation from standing right along her console brothers as a must-play experience.

 

 

 

Invisible Gamer’s review of Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation was based on the PSN downloadable version of the game. Download codes were provided to us by the developer shortly before the game’s release. The review is based upon 80% Synchronization of the single-player story and 2-3 hours of time with the multiplayer suite.

E3 2012: Sony’s Missed Opportunities

Expectations can be a dangerous thing. They can set unrealistic benchmarks that will never be met, they can fill your mind with hopes just waiting to be dashed upon the nearest rock (or nightstand as The Last of Us showed last night.) When attending a show like E3, it’s important to keep your expectations tempered, lest you find yourself in the position of being utterly and completely disappointed by the industry you’ve driven yourself to succeed in.

You didn’t really think I’d keep my excitement in check when I’m four rows from the front of the Sony PlayStation Media Briefing, did you? Oh, and meeting Christophe Balestra of Naughty Dog, Shane Satterfield from GameTrailers.com, and Colin Moriarty of IGN didn’t help temper my enthusiasm. When the customary montage of PlayStation titles finished rolling and Jack Tretton walked out to introduce David Cage’s new project, I just knew that this was Sony’s E3 to lose. Such a strong start had to mean there was more to come, bigger, better, and louder.

How swiftly winds can change. It’s true, this could have been PlayStation’s day in the sun; with the Microsoft press conference being predictable—tent pole franchises Halo and Gears of War, bookended by new levels from Call of Duty: Black Ops II, with a whole lot of Kinect integration and new media-related announcements in between—and Nintendo facing a make-or-break briefing this morning with the full unveiling of the Wii U. But Sony didn’t capitalize on the goodwill of their fanbase. While Andrew House and Jack Tretton got a few things right last night, here’s where they stumbled:

Where’s my Vita?

If you were wondering where all those lovely new PlayStation Vita titles that we were so hopeful for last week were while watching from home, so was the assembled press at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena. The biggest announcements, Call of Duty Black Ops: Declassified and Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation, were barely-there. Call of Duty, a franchise I said MUST come to the Vita, only saw a title card on screen; the largest entertainment franchise in the world was featured for thirty seconds with a placeholder. Assassin’s Creed’s handheld offering was treated to a trailer, as well as the bundling of the first crystal white Vita upon release, but was pushed aside for her big brother’s live demo and gameplay reveal.

Some of the biggest news regarding the Vita—notably the cross-controller gameplay being introduced for LittleBigPlanet 2, allowing you to use your Vita to control Sackboy on your PlayStation 3, as well as all the level-creating goodness that comes along with Media Molecule’s darling—was touched on briefly, but in the midst of a one-and-a-half hour press conference, briefly doesn’t cut it. And in the face of Microsoft’s new Smart Glass initiative, allowing smartphones and tablets to serve as remotes for Xbox 360, and seeing Nintendo devote an entire pre-E3 Nintendo Direct webcast to their tablet controller’s functionality, spending a minute talking (and not showing) how cross-controller works with LittleBigPlanet is a huge misstep.

This misses the bigger issue regarding the Vita: despite your assurances, Mr. Tretton, the PlayStation Vita is not selling well, and you’ve given us no reason to believe it will. Established franchise game bundles, different colors, and YouTube are not going to push this product. New hardware demands new thinking, new IPs, new applications, and new reasons to convince a society that sees 99 cent iPhone games as too expensive that they need to pick up a $250 dedicated handheld that requires at least a $30 memory card with games priced as high as $49.99. Three game announcements and Hulu Plus are not going to do that.

Downloadable Titles? What are those?

Journey is one of my favorite games of this generation. Our Executive Editor seemed to like it as well. It was reasonable to expect that, with the success of such a game, Sony would focus some of their conference on the expanding collection of excellent titles available exclusively for download on the PS3 and PS Vita. Perhaps a short gameplay demo of something like Dyad or Papo Y Yo, which was a sleeper hit on last year’s E3 show floor. Even one of their famous montages of the excellent titles coming in the downloadable sphere over the next twelve months would have sufficed—they did say over 200 were set for release in that time frame.

Instead what we got were more title screens. Oh, and of those 200 games supposedly in production between now and next year’s conference, we were given screens for just three: the aforementioned Dyad, Papo Y Yo, and Sony Pub Fund gem The Unfinished Swan. And Journey, because we have to remind people of how successful this one game has been. Never mind the fact that Minecraft for XBLA has now sold over 2 million copies digitally, that Trials Evolution had set XBLA sales records just weeks before that, and critical third-party hits like Bastion, Super Meat Boy, and Fez are still unavailable to PlayStation consumers.

While Sony is quick to tout the creativity and originality of their PlayStation Network exclusives, it doesn’t mean a whole lot if you don’t showcase them. Microsoft also had three Xbox Live downloadable titles on display at their media briefing; every one of them had a short trailer to accompany them, and every one of them look about half as impressive as what we’ve already seen from the likes of Papo Y Yo and The Unfinished Swan. Why is Sony not celebrating their independent spirit? Put it on full display, for all the world to see, show your consumers that downloadable experiences can go hand-in-hand with the triple-A blockbusters you highlighted.

Fun for the whole fam… HEADSHOT! EVISCERATION! BLUDGEONING! F^$%!

Hoo boy… Michael went into much more detail on this, but I felt I needed to touch on this subject briefly too. All of the major press conferences yesterday, Sony included, relied heavily on the Mature Gamer Experience. Halo 4, Gears of War, Dead Space 3, Far Cry, God of War, The Last of Us: not a T-Rated game in the bunch; Far Cry 3 even had ‘tasteful’ nudity, as one Twitter user called it, during the Ubisoft briefing. But the prominence of violence in modern video games was in full force on Day 0 of E3.

So where are all those millions of gamers, whether themselves under 17 or parents with children at home, supposed to go for their entertainment? PlayStation seems to believe that only two things with a more kid-friendly focus are worth mentioning: PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale and their new augmented-reality venture Wonderbook. Their Super Smash Brothers knock-off failed to impress most who watched the live PS3/Vita cross-play demonstration, but the fact that they’re banking on a game where you’re using Kratos to kill the likes of Fat Princess and PaRappa the Rapper seems a little suspect for a game that will undoubtedly be marketed to the younger gamers among us.

The Wonderbook introduction was just a roller-coaster of an event. After two years of touting the PlayStation Move as the next evolution in motion gaming, it seemed as though Sony was prepared to finally move on and put the wands aside in favor of more traditional control methods. However, Wonderbook’s AR pages are designed to be manipulated by those glowing little devils, putting the ill-conceived Wiimote pseudo-successor firmly back in the spotlight. And the idea of an application designed to help children interact with storybooks would have been something to completely pass over… if not for the announcement of J.K. Rowling’s involvement, and her creation of a brand new interactive tome set in the Harry Potter universe. But when the demo for this new Book of Spells lasts longer (or at least seemed to) than most of the other demos presented, game journalists lose interest quickly; or worse, tune out of the presentation altogether.

Surely PlayStation could have spent some time showing off LittleBigPlanet Karting, another knock-off of a Nintendo franchise, but at least one that is set within an already-established Sony world that has been critically and commercially successful. With Ubisoft making a major presentation, they could have shown off Rayman Legends, the sequel to the highly entertaining Rayman Origins, which would have brought some fun and levity to the midst of a decidedly grim showing of titles that involved murder, mayhem and elephant heads being de-brained.

To be clear…

I enjoyed my time at the Sony press event last night. The reveals of Beyond: Two Souls, single-player gameplay from God of War: Ascension, the ship-to-ship battles of Assassin’s Creed III, and the first ever gameplay of The Last of Us all had me at the edge of my seat, ready for what came next. But Sony just never quite hit the mark in covering all of their various assets. PlayStation Vita was pushed to the side, family gamers were completely ignored, and I don’t even have time to cover the lack of new media features that should be on PS3 and Vita but aren’t. Where is my HBOgo, Sony?!

Except for Vita... and PSN games... and E Rated titles...

With E3 beginning today in earnest, we may hear more about the topics addressed above, but make no mistake: Sony and PlayStation had a huge opportunity to take this convention by the horns last night, and instead they took it by the elephant tusk and never quite finished the quick-time event.

E3 2012: So Much Violence

Splinter Cell. Tomb Raider. Assassin’s Creed. Beyond. Far Cry. Watch Dogs. Crysis. The Last of Us. Medal of Honor. Call of Duty. The first day of E3 2012 was a blur of highly polished, highly desirable titles from many of gaming’s greatest developers; I can’t honestly remember ever having been so thrilled about so many upcoming games before, and there are still three days to go!

However you feel about the protracted life cycle of the seventh generation of game consoles,  one thing is clear: developers are thriving on their familiarity with the hardware. The Xbox 360 and PS3 have aged like fine wine, and we’re now firmly entrenched in the greatest renaissance in gaming since Nintendo saved the industry from annihilation with its 8-bit Famicom and NES machines. The great benefit of all of this is that developers are now able to fulfill upon creative visions that have long been stymied by inadequate hardware: video games now offer a more immersive, more cinematic experience than even the biggest Hollywood films, and games will only continue to outclass the movie industry.

But for all the excitement and fulfillment that comes along with witnessing the artist unshackled, the situation also forces us to consider what it is we’re enabling by celebrating this work, and what it reflects upon gamers as a global society. Consider the content of today’s major debuts: of the ten games I mentioned above, half feature sickeningly visceral stabbings or bludgeoning of human beings as a central game play mechanic; the rest make bloody sport of hunting down and shooting people until they die. Games have always been built on the play between conflict and resolution, and in that regard, there’s nothing new going on here. But the extreme level of violence, combined with what appears to be a dreadful seriousness about the subject matter, is cause for concern.

Parents, teachers, and politicians have hemmed and hawed for decades about the dangers of exposing children to violent video games, but I wonder how many of us realize that adults are just as susceptible to these influences. How many of you have come home after a particularly demoralizing day, turned on a game console, and emptied a clip into an enemy soldier or driven over a pedestrian as a way to relieve the stress of work, school, or your social situation? Probably most of us, right? And there’s no real harm in this, when it’s done in moderation. But with one after another of the biggest games of E3 2012 hewing toward the old ultraviolence, there’s been no better time to champion a little more diversity in our triple-A titles. Publishers sell us violence because we ask for it, and developers seem to thrive on it. If we don’t start demanding a little something else every now and then, we may end up wishing we’d done things differently when we had the chance.

Luckily the games I’ve mentioned here aren’t the only interesting ones coming out of E3 2012. Titles like Ni no Kuni, Rayman Legends, and South Park: The Stick of Truth should deliver compelling experiences for those of us looking for a little more levity in our gaming experiences. Will I do my best to dig deeper with Tomb Raider, The Last of Us, Watch Dogs and Crysis 3 this week? You bet. But if, tucked away in some forgotten corner of the Los Angeles Convention Center, I can find an interesting game that doesn’t involve thrusting an arrow through a man’s throat or smashing his face against the corner of a desk, you can count on a full report, right here.