GAME REVIEW: Spec Ops: The Line

War games are a dime a dozen these days, and with the likes of “Gears of War” and “Call of Duty” dominating the genre, it really takes something special to stand out from the pack. Though 2K Games’ “Spec Ops: The Line” doesn’t necessarily have that certain X factor, it’s still one of the better third-person shooters to come out over the last few years. Set in Dubai six months after a massive sandstorm has buried the city under a pile of sand and destruction, the game follows a trio of Delta Force soldiers as they’re sent in to locate and evacuate survivors, only to discover that the city is under the tyrannical command of U.S. Colonel John Konrad.

The name is clearly a reference to Joseph Conrad, the author of “Heart of Darkness,” whose famous novel was in turn adapted into Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.” And it becomes increasingly obvious as you make your way through the first few chapters of the game that the Vietnam War film had a big influence on its development, from the striking parallels between the stories, to the heavy focus on the psychological dangers of warfare. In fact, the campaign mode gets so dark at times that I wouldn’t recommend it to real-life soldiers on the off-chance that it makes their PTSD even worse.

Though I encountered a few annoying bugs throughout the game (the most prevalent of which was the habit of briefly losing control of my player while changing direction), the gameplay is enjoyable enough that most people shouldn’t have trouble overlooking them. “Spec Ops: The Line” doesn’t offer much innovation in the way of combat mechanics, but it takes the best parts of similar titles (namely the “Gears of War” and “Ghost Recon” series) to create a relatively solid experience. It’s a little disappointing that multiplayer isn’t as much fun (and quite frankly, it feels like a last-minute addition), but while “Spec Ops: The Line” isn’t going to wow anyone, it’s a more than serviceable military shooter with a unique narrative that asks some interesting questions of its audience.


A Possible Leak From Microsoft May Reveal the Future of Xbox

While the Wii U has been making its publicity tour, including an awkward appearance on “The Jimmy Fallon Show,” there has been a very shocking dearth of information from Sony and Microsoft concerning their next generation plans. That is, until now.

Well… possibly.

There is this absolutely massive 56-page report that is currently making its rounds on the front page of most major gaming websites.  Its contents are various, but the general summary of it is a detailed “game plan” of sorts for Microsoft’s next console launch, including features, a price point, and a broad ranged analysis of the console market both at the time of the documents origins and how it will look by 2013 (the next console’s supposed launch date) and beyond.

Now, this report is being classified as a “leak” as it apparently made its rounds internally around Microsoft back in 2010. However, while Microsoft is naturally remaining mum on the subject of its origins and accuracy, there are many who believe the report to be more or less a hoax, albeit a very detailed and professional one. Nevertheless, the most eye-grabbing bits of the report are the specific features of the alleged new console (which is named Xbox 720 in the report). Among them are:

– Blu-ray functionality (oh come on Microsoft, giving up on HD-DVD so easily?)

– Enhanced Kinect support, including the expansion of the system to allow up to four players and a new sensor all together

– A $299 price point

– Cloud support for taking your multimedia files anywhere

– Potential tablet integration

– Enhanced reality glasses, dubbed Fortaleza, that provide features such as heads-up displays and other virtual reality aspects

– Games that are “4x to 6x better looking than current titles”

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You probably best know developer Techland for the zombie survival game “Dead Island,” which featured perhaps the greatest trailer for a video game ever made. “Dead Island” was a technically flawed game that still managed to garner interest past its incredible preview due to a few unique game ideas (and a well-designed game world) that gave the hint that somewhere below all the bugs and somewhat stiff gameplay, there was a truly great game waiting to bust out.

People were anxious to see what Techland’s next project would be, and what they had learned from “Dead Island,” and that game is a downloadable, online ATV racer called “Mad Riders.” It’s actually a bit of a homecoming for developer Techland, because well before “Dead Island,” their main business was banging out a series of unremarkable racing titles, and that’s exactly what “Mad Riders” is.

I don’t mean to sound harsh towards the game. Truthfully, I loved “Mad Riders” when I first booted it up, because the speed of the races was just insane, and the controls were nice and loose in that proper, ATV racing game kind of way. However, things slowly started to unravel as my playtime went on. For one thing, while the game has over 40 tracks to its name, many of them range from okay to very dull, with only a few standouts. The game promises you stunts, but the tracks rarely allow more than a backflip or sharp “sidewinder” turn, and the contradictions continue in the unlock department. The game has the usual array of unlockable and customizable vehicles, riders, modes and tournaments, but none of it is particularly inspiring or worth going out of your way for.

Even the game’s best attribute — the blisteringly insane speed — becomes a problem after a while. That’s because your biggest opponent isn’t the other riders, who don’t present a challenge until later in the tournament, but the tracks themselves. There are all manners of cliffs, crevices and obstacles that will cause you to lose the race, and you’ll become intimately familiar with all of them. Of course, the game contradicts itself once more by always managing to reset you in a friendly position after you make a mistake, and I don’t remember ever once losing any ground because of this feature. Even more annoying is the shortcuts on the tracks. Any divergent path in the road will either lead to a) a road without a ramp; b) a road with a ramp that puts you at about the same place as the one without the ramp; or c) shortcuts where you have to pass through an appropriate gate and hit the Y button at the right time to access. It’s more than a little apathetic.

“Mad Riders” ends up being the polar opposite of “Dead Island.” It’s technically proficient in most ways, but completely lacking in the X-factor department. It’s only 800 Microsoft Points, so there’s an argument to be made for it if you’re jonesing for a semi-competent multiplayer ATV title on a budget, but it isn’t a strong one. Because in the end, “Mad Riders” isn’t dressed up and has nowhere to go, but for some reason is in a ridiculous hurry to get there. And that’s just sad.


GAME REVIEW: Game of Thrones

It’s truly a rare occasion for a beloved movie or TV property to be adapted into a successful video game, and though George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series had all the makings of a really great action RPG, “Game of Thrones” falls well short of the mark. Though developer Cyanide has done a good job of creating a separate story that could conceivably exist within the rich history of Martin’s novels (namely, the events of the first book), the rest of the game fails to match that same level of quality. Following in the narrative style of the fantasy series, you’ll split your time between two characters – Mors Westford, a veteran ranger of the Night’s Watch with ties to the Hand of the King, Jon Arryn, and Alester Sarwyck, a red priest of R’hllor (better known to fans of the HBO show as the Lord of Light) who’s returned home from self-exile to reclaim his lands and titles from House Lannister.

The story allows for a few familiar faces to pop up throughout the course of the campaign (including Lord Commander Jeor Mormont and Lord Varys, both of whom are played by their respective actors from the TV series), but while that may add the connective tissue needed to make “Game of Thrones” feel like a legitimate part of the existing canon, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s still not very fun to play. You know that something’s not right when one of the game’s biggest problems is also one of its strengths. Although the use of long, dialogue-driven scenes may enhance the storytelling in Martin’s novels and the show, it really shouldn’t be the focus of a video game. It’s hard to argue the quality of the writing on display, but every minute spent watching one of these cutscenes is time where the player is left to sit around and do nothing.

And when you finally are given a chance to roam the world and engage in battles, the combat system is so boring that it feels like it’s on auto-drive. Of course, that’s probably because it sort of is, as the only real control you’re given in the fight is deciding the best strategic order of your attacks and special abilities. However, the rate at which you earn new attacks and abilities is pretty slow, and by the time you do have more to choose from, you’re so set in your old ways that it’s not really worth experimenting. Additionally, the game itself is choppy, buggy and even a little ugly at times, and for a property with as large of a fanbase as “Game of Thrones,” that never should have been allowed to happen.


GAME REVIEW: Minecraft: Xbox 360 Edition

I don’t think I need to waste much space explaining the basic premise of “Minecraft.” After all, with the astounding (and I mean just shocking), download numbers the game has posted, my general impression is that most of you fine readers have played, or at least heard of, this game that follows a blocky protagonist, isolated in a blocky world, whose sole mission in life is to harvest the resource blocks around him in order to build sturdier blocks, weapons, items of all kinds and, most importantly, a shelter from the creatures that roam the night.

“Minecraft” is a blank canvas that only the most patient artists will be able to make proper use of. Unlike other world building titles like, say, “SimCity,” the effort required to make that first brush stroke to build off of is much greater, but the works you can create after that are limited by almost nothing. I wish I could say the same for this 360 adaptation, which is unfortunately burdened by several limits. While the simple graphics and atmospheric music transition perfectly to the console, and the controller handles the very basic functions of the game admirably, as the game gets more and more complex (and it can in a hurry), the 360 finds itself ill equipped to smoothly handle the wealth of inventory you soon acquire in a manageable way. The various menus you have to navigate to perform even the most basic functions and creations are annoying enough without having to scroll via joystick and force yourself to try to organically manage everything with the face buttons as your main tool. This game could have greatly benefited from the use of more hotkey features (the D-pad, for instance, is completely unused).

The biggest problem? There’s just no real reason to own this game on the 360. While playing, I actually found myself with my PC nearby just to look up the finer points of the game and look for reasonable tips on how to proceed. I don’t think I’d be alone in this, and if it’s a case of having to have your computer by your side anyway, why not play it in its native format? The controls, community and everything else are greater there, and the system requirements are so absurdly low that they shouldn’t cause a problem for most anyone.

While I respect the effort that developer 4J Studios put forth on this adaptation, I just can’t recommend this port to anyone. I didn’t get to try the 360’s splitscreen multiplayer mode (due to confidentiality reasons, though the idea is a fantastic concept), but I imagine it would do little to alleviate the main problem with the game. Overall, “Minecraft” is still a great idea and a unique experience that the patient and creative will inevitably get the most out of. If that’s you, just make sure to start your adventure on the solid foundation that only the PC can give this game.


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