May 2010

E3 2010 is right around the corner, and there’s always the expectations game. We look at the Big Three and put together the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the show for each of them.

Andrew Passafiume – Best-case scenario: Getting the exclusive reveals would be the best way to make Microsoft’s press conference stand out the most. And since they are always the first conference, they should definitely make a great impression. What I mean by exclusive reveals is dealing with something they have done well in the past: showing off live demos of the games that may not be exclusive, but are shown first running on the 360. They’ve done it in the past with Fallout 3, The Beatles: Rock Band, and Modern Warfare 2. I think this is why they always have some of the more memorable press conferences. Sure, Natal will probably still be a big focus, but I think it having its own little show the day before will be enough for Microsoft.

Worst-case scenario: The exact opposite of the best case, as in: focusing too much on Natal and continuing to show off Natal with simple tech demos and no real huge titles that make it truly worth buying. Also, although they have Halo: Reach and Fable III as their big Fall exclusives, it would be nice to see something else revealed for the Fall or even just as another release coming next year besides Gears of War 3. 

Graham Russell – Best-case scenario: The rumors about Natal being $150 are false, as the company announces a release at somewhere around $80 with a pack-in game, and it has something the core gamers fawn over. The new name somehow wows us and doesn’t waste the hype the Natal brand has. They have to live up to their Beatles conference last year, so they book someone *big* to announce a new game that everyone wants but never thought about. Gears, Reach and Fable trailers are an afterthought.

Worst-case scenario: Natal’s $150, and it doesn’t even come with a game. What’s more, they rename it Wii-style and lose all momentum with the public, and there’s nothing actually compelling from a gameplay perspective. They show off more crap like Attack of the Movies, with the final reveal being another trailer for Gears or something. You’ll know this is coming if they load up the first half of the event with third-party trailers.

Shawn Vermette – Best-case scenario: Natal is playable on the show floor with games, not tech demos. Price point and release date are comparable or favorable against the PlayStation Move. They announce a number of high quality exclusives for release this fall and winter, along with at least a few Natal enables AAA games.

Worst-case scenario: Natal ships after PlayStation Move, and for a notably higher price point. Natal is only playable with tech demos or not at all. Additionally, they have fewer exclusives than Sony and/or their exclusives don’t come out until next year.


Andrew Passafiume – Best-case scenario: They focus mostly on the Nintendo 3DS, give us a price and release date, and show us just why it is the best use of 3D technology yet. This is a good time for Nintendo to once again show why they are the dominant force in technological innovations for both handhelds and consoles. Also, they should officially reveal the new Zelda and Pikmin 3 with trailers (and maybe even gameplay); it would be a nice bonus.

Worst-case scenario: They focus way too much on casual games and/or the Vitality Sensor for games that the generally gaming press does not care for. The vitality sensor will be brought up again, but it would pain me if it becomes a major focus for their press conference. Also, there would be a huge focus on games like Wii Party and whatever other casual titles they have on the horizon. 

Graham Russell – Best-case scenario: They front-load the conference with the new Zelda like they did last year with NSMB Wii. Cammie Dunaway does little more than explain Wii Party and the casual aspects of the Vitality Sensor, and then we see something with the sensor that core gamers won’t laugh at Wii Music-style. The 3DS is revealed, it’s impressive, and it has actual AAA launch titles to go with it. Reggie goes back to his ass-kicking, name-taking self by revealing something for the niche core (possibly the next Retro Studios project), and they close out with something big we weren’t expecting, like last year’s SMG2.

Worst-case scenario: 3DS is interesting but unspectacular, and there’s nothing yet but some tech demos. The “core” segment is devoted to a Golden Sun trailer and something from the conveniently-delayed Other M. Wii Party looks lame, so does the Vitality Sensor, and Cammie talks about her kids for way too long. Reggie comes out for a bit just to talk sales numbers, and they treat the Zelda reveal at the end (with a 2011 date) as if it’s a megaton.

Shawn Vermette – Best-case scenario: 3DS blows away the crowd. 3DS is playable on the show floor with some of its launch games. Nintendo also announces a Mario or Zelda game for the 3DS launch lineup. Nintendo reveals at least one big first party title for the holiday season. Nintendo finally announces a ‘real’ Pokémon game for the Wii.

Worst-case scenario: 3DS falls flat like the PSPGo did last year. No new first party games to fill on the holiday void.


Andrew Passafiume – Best-case scenario: Showing off the Move with a killer app (or multiple killer apps) that gives the consumers good reason why they are going above and beyond what the Wii has already done. People do not want more mini-game collections (and there’s a good chance they will get them either way), but a lot of people want to see something that shows that the Move is something more than just the Wii HD. Also, showing trailers (or even gameplay) of upcoming games like Killzone 3, the rumored infamous 2, or even whatever else they may have up their sleeves.

Worst-case scenario: Another PSP is announced. This is the last thing that Sony needs to focus on. If anything, they should have a nice showcase for the games coming out for the PSP, but the Go proved that they should simply stick with what they’ve got and worry about one new piece of technology (the Move) at their conference. Any kind of announcement about a new PSP, outside of possible PSP bundles, would be a huge mistake on their part.

Graham Russell – Best-case scenario: Move is impressive, and it kicks the floundering Natal out of the conversation. The conference is a fun one with more Kevin Butler and less actual executives, and the rumored big reveals are a reality.  The new PSP shows that they learned from their mistakes with the first one, and it’s at a competitive price point.

Worst-case scenario: Move is just another Wii clone, and Natal does something amazing to make it look silly. Sony’s presser is another snooze-fest, and…well, my friend and The Tester winner Will “Cyrus” Powers put it this way when lowering expectations: “There are going to be no reveals… just talking about PS2 for 2 hours.” Yep, that’d be a bad one. 

Shawn Vermette – Best-case scenario: Natal ships later and for a higher price point than the PlayStation Move. Move is playable on the show floor with games. Sony announces some exclusives to fill in their fall and winter lineup.

Worst-case scenario: No new exclusives shown for this year. Move is either not playable on the show floor, or only playable with tech demos.

Let’s get one thing straight right away: Alan Wake is an action game, a third person shooter even. The game follows a rather basic gameplay formula and, aside from a few key moments, it sticks to that formula. However, the formula works wonders, and the game delivers some very tense and atmospheric moments. In short: Alan Wake is a game that will make you paranoid, but you’ll love every second of it.

Alan Wake is an author who has recently found himself with writer’s block while beginning to work on his new novel. He and his wife, Alice, decide to take a little vacation to a little town known as Bright Falls. Once he gets there, he loses his wife and wakes up in his nearly destroyed car a week after he remembers arriving at the sleepy town. Soon enough, he finds himself battling with the Taken, enemies that are literally shielded by darkness, and also pages from a manuscript he does not remember writing. 

The story of Alan Wake is excellently told, and while the ending may leave some scratching their heads, the entire story is fantastic. Alan Wake’s narrative throughout the entire game feels like it comes straight out of one of his own horror novels, and the manuscript pages both narrate what’s about to happen and give background on certain characters or events. Along with a strong supporting cast and plenty of twists, Alan Wake delivers one of the best stories of the year.

The presentation is something special as well. The game is told in “episodes” and each of the six episodes each feels like they are from some kind of TV show. It all works well and makes each of the individual episodes that much more replayable on their own. The game itself looks amazing, especially during the nighttime scenes. No game does foreboding, dark, and creepy forests better than Alan Wake. The voice acting and sound design are top notch as well, with believable performances and plenty of spooky sounds. The enemies themselves sound ridiculous, but it fits right in with the somewhat overwrought nature of the narration. 

As I said earlier, this is an action game first and foremost, and it definitely does not disappoint in that regard. You are forced to use your trusty flashlight to burn the shadows off of the enemies before they become vulnerable, and from that point on, you have a nice array of weapons to finish the job. The revolver is your basic weapon, but later on you get shotguns and hunting rifles to mess around with. There is also a flare gun, which acts as a rocket launcher and, when shot at a group of enemies, will clear them out very quickly.

On top of those weapons you also get standard flares to help keep the enemies away from you as well as flash grenades, which act as…well, grenades. Eventually, all of these tools and weapons become very handy when, later on in the game, enemies become numerous and begin to swarm you more frequently. There are key moments where you are isolated to one specific spot, forced to either survive or protect a person or thing. These are some of the best moments of the game and they keep you on the edge of your seat the entire time. And with solid controls, all of this comes together to create a very compelling action game with plenty of scary moments.

When I said this game will make you paranoid, I mean it. You will often find yourself catching the glimpse of something at the corner of the screen, thinking it is an enemy, but realizing it is just a tree. Although this paranoia is for good reason, as enemies will often appear and sneak right up to you without making a sound. And however dark the forests may seem, you will never find yourself lost as the game is rather linear. This does work well for the story the developers are trying to tell, and I feel with a more open world, a lot of that excellent narrative would have gotten lost. 

The downside to the enemies is there is a true lack of variety. You get your standard enemies, which are basically humans that have become Taken, and there are two upgraded versions of them (one that is stronger and one that is faster). There are also possessed crows that attack you in swarms, and finally objects that become possessed and must be defeated by shining your light on them. The lack of variety makes the game feel a little stale by the end, but at the 8-10 hour length, it never overstays its welcome.

Finally, there are plenty of collectibles in the game that will keep you coming back to specific episodes. Outside of the many manuscript pages you can find, there are also 100 coffee canisters that are scattered around the different levels, and a lot of them can be tricky to find. And then there are the fake radio and TV broadcasts, both of which are very entertaining. The fake TV series in the game is an homage to The Twilight Zone, and these mini-episodes do not disappoint. 

Alan Wake is a one of the year’s best releases, and the best action horror game since 2007’s Dead Space. This game pieces together excellent action elements with some truly scary sequences and wraps it all up in a narrative and story that puts it above and beyond most game releases this year. Was Alan Wake worth the long wait? Yes, yes it was. 

Pros: Amazing atmosphere; solid writing and gripping story; excellent controls and truly compelling gameplay; fake TV and radio shows are entertaining; plenty of collectibles to find

Cons: Lack of enemy variety



3D Dot Game Heroes makes no secret of blatantly ripping off the Legend of Zelda formula, milking nostalgia and tongue-in-cheek references about gaming to create an updated adventure game. Can this homage to an out-dated gaming era hold up now in the land of FPS’s and RPG’s without becoming some flippant inside joke? 3D Dot asks this question while handing you everything you may have loved about Zelda while throwing in its own tricks.

In the land of Dotnia, a formerly 2D kingdom, a great warrior stopped a big bad guy and sealed him up with the power of 6 orbs controlled by 6 mages. Since then the land upgraded to 3D due to lack of tourism until a different menace threatened to unleash the big bad guy again. As a living descendant of the first hero, you are called upon by the King to stop this imminent threat, and save the princess in the process. The game milks it for all it’s worth by blatantly making fun of why you need to do things, including subtle pokes at gaming in general and more specific references to other Atlus games that may not click with the non-initiated. How many people are going to get a Demon’s Souls reference, really? But in wit and charm the game rewards you with great, intentionally bad writing (Life Up Get!) and some moments that catch you off-guard, such as using a bomb to open up a secret cave only to find the owner of the cave mad and demanding money to fix his wall. Treasures like these are generously sprinkled throughout the game and show the developer has more than a passing interest in creating a quirky backdrop for the action.

Speaking of action, do you remember all the great things about the original Legend of Zelda? Well, they’re all here and they’ve aged remarkably well. Atlus was kind enough to throw in its own unique tweak to the formula as well: A giant sword. Not just big; I’m talking about half-the-size-of-your-screen big. As you progress through the game, this sword can be upgraded to be longer, wider and able to swing a full 360 degrees around your screen which means clearing an entire screen in one sweep. A combination of the old and new satisfies in so many ways and by limiting the outlandish-sized sword to full health, it encourages you to play flawless lest you are forced to play with a mortal sword.

Difficulty is gradually ramped up so that you won’t be playing with the massive sword the whole time, as enemies will most likely cause at least a little damage to you every now and then. In dungeons, the difficulty is ramped up even further while you try to figure out puzzles. These puzzles and dungeon design are directly descended from Zelda, as you need to find the special item of the dungeon that will allow you to progress to the boss. First it is the boomerang to hit switches from a distance, then the bomb to explode cracks, and conveniently enough these objects let you eventually access the next dungeon on the list. While it may seem simplified, it is satisfying working your way through the increasingly puzzle-laden dungeons.

At the end of each dungeon is a ridiculously oversized boss that you need to get through to get the orbs. Even though the bosses follow the old-school “I will follow geometric pattern until you kill me” formula, the fights stand out for their increased difficulty and fun nature. Atlus was kind enough to leave a boss replay option in each dungeon, so I can come back any time I want to and re-fight an old boss as I attempt to get the perfect boss kill achievements offered by the game. Add to this a deep world to explore with plenty of secrets to discover, and side games of tower defense and block attack and you have an experience that could go over 20 hours on the first playthrough.

The game takes the 3D-pixel look to the extreme. I thought it was beautiful at first (especially the water effects they used), but towards the end I wished for some sort of soft edges somewhere. One benefit to this engine was the ability to choose different models for your hero, including a custom-built character. With my custom snake hero I noticed more model blips that showed the unit frame box, so I swapped back to one of the many default heroes.

Similarly, the sound may either bring feelings of nostalgia or drive a person to insanity. Using faintly familiar 8-bit soundtracks and sound effects, the game capitalizes on repetitive music loops and almost stock sound bites to complete the homage. I never thought hearing a character climb stairs or destroy an enemy would make me remember things from almost 20 years ago. Unfortunately, if I lingered in a zone for too long I would become annoyed listening to the same loop over and over again and would turn off the sound. Now that’s commitment to nostalgia. 

It is impossible not to compare 3D Dot Game Heroes to Legend of Zelda, whether it is a wholesale stealing of the game or a light-hearted homage to a great game is up to each gamer to decide. Regardless, the Zelda elements still hold up and the additional sword leveling action make this a game any gamer will appreciate whether they have played Zelda or not.

Plays Like: Old-school Zelda, complete with boomerangs, bombs and puzzles

Pros: Great old-school gaming, interesting progression, deep world

Cons: Graphics may not be for everyone, very repetitive music



EA Sports’ FIFA series has enjoyed incredible success, especially in the recent years. EA has also put out FIFA World Cup games to commemorate the championship itself, and this year we get 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa. While I’m not a veteran of the FIFA series, I have played one every now and again, and consider it to be the best around when it comes to soccer video games. However, many people criticized the last World Cup game. Does this title redeem the FIFA World Cup name?

The presentation, as expected, is top notch. The player models all are great, the crowds are incredibly realistic, and the stadiums themselves look incredible. The crowd will react depending on how well the team they are rooting for is doing, and it is clear there was a lot of attention to detail when it comes to these little tweaks. The player animation is very solid as well, and the commentary is well done. EA has done another fine job in the graphics and sound department and delivered a very realistic looking and sounding soccer game.

The first thing you will notice when you start up the game is the ability to choose options that will cater to you depending on how much of a FIFA Soccer veteran you are. You can choose the beginning difficulty level, and change your control scheme to suit your needs. There is even a two button control scheme that allows you to pull off all of the basics very easily. Sure, this control scheme does not allow for the precision that veterans are used to, but it allows for all players to get into this game. The controls, no matter which scheme you select, are as responsive as you can get. 

There are many different modes and options to choose from. You can jump straight into a match if you would like with the “kick off” option, which is easy if you are just looking for a quick match to play by yourself or with friends. You can start a random match by either pressing the start button, or you could select a match using the right analog stick right from the main menu to pick two teams straight away. This game definitely gives you plenty of ways to jump straight into the action. And of course, you can actually play through FIFA World Cup itself as any team you’ve selected.

Captain Your Country is a new mode, although it’s basically the World Cup version of FIFA Soccer’s “Be a Pro” mode. You either play one to four different players on specific teams (you can basically pick four different teams), and you can select a specific player from the team(s) or create your own. The character creation is pretty good, and has plenty of options for crafting your own soccer captain. 

From there, you see your captain’s own personal website where you can check your stats, your ranking among other captains, manage your team, train your captain, and eventually go on to play different matches. And you are scored based on how well you play in different matches. Overall, this mode is full of plenty to do, with lots of depth for true soccer fanatics, and it probably will last you quite a long time.  

The online play is where the game is really lacking. The online options seem very limited, and although you can play through the World Cup with friends, either competitively or cooperatively, the lack of online support with Captain Your Country is very disappointing. Also, I had problems connecting to matches on many different occasions and a lot of them I did connect to seem to be very laggy. Let’s hope that these small issues are ironed out soon, because they really hamper the online experience.

When it comes down to it, 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa plays a great game of soccer, and has plenty of new modes and improved features that will keep you coming back for more. If you’re a FIFA Soccer fan or just a soccer fan in general, this is definitely one game that is worth adding to your collection. 

Pros: Amazing presentation and player animation; solid controls; Captain Your Country is a great addition that will keep you busy; easy for all players to get into; plenty of modes and options to choose from

Cons: Online options are lacking, and online can be laggy at times

Picross 3D

May 26, 2010

Picross, as the name sort-of implies, is picture crosswords. The two-dimensional variety feels a lot like Sudoku cross with a crossword puzzle. You’ve got numbers along the top and left of a grid telling you how many squares are filled in. That’s not all the information you need to figure out the puzzle and draw the picture though. What the numbers don’t (always) tell you is how many of the squares are no filled in. If your picross grid is small (let’s say 5×5), and “2 2” is one of your clues then you know that particular line is “shaded shaded blank shaded shaded” because that is the only arrangement that satisfies what “2 2” tells you which is “2 shaded squares, >0 blank squares, 2 shaded squares.” As puzzles get more complicated you’ll need to determine where some blanks are guaranteed to be and where some shaded squares are guaranteed to be in order to draw the picture. It’s a fun little puzzle, and it works great on the DS (if you don’t already have 2007’s Picross DS you should pick it up as it’s a ridiculous value). Now, extend that basic idea into three dimensions and you’ve got Picross 3D.

When working in three dimensions instead of two, the clues take on a different format and the presentation changes. No longer are you marking the squares you need on a grid – now your task is more akin to sculpting than painting as you’ll use the clues to chip away blocks that you don’t need from the puzzle. Picross in 3D is more complex than Picross in 2D, but HAL does a good, if lengthy, job of teaching the mechanics and then setting the player loose on a puzzle that makes use of the newly learned trick. Since the clues are written on the faces of blocks HAL had to come up with a way of telling you how many groups of blocks are in each row or column. “2 2 2” won’t fit so they went to shapes. Numbers mean one group, circled numbers mean two groups, and squared numbers mean three or more groups. It takes a little getting used to, but all of the puzzles are designed with the clue system in mind so you never feel like you’re missing vital information. My only complaint is that it’s easy to mess up slicing the puzzle open and chipping away that one block that doesn’t belong.

After you learn all of the games tricks it is time to start earning stars. Each puzzle has three stars associated with it: one for completing the puzzle, one for completing the puzzle quickly, and one for completing the puzzle without trying to chip away a necessary block. Another small touch (which you’ll remember from Mario’s Picross) is that once a puzzle is completed the created object animates for a moment. The train chugs, the whistle blows, etc.. It’s little touches like this that set puzzle games on the DS apart from their Flash counterparts on the Internet. Accrue enough stars in each set and you’ll unlock the bonus level.

Picross 3D took another page from Picross DS’s book, and it’s a good one. The online component allows you to download new puzzles from the Nintendo WiFi Connection service. You can also upload puzzles of your own creation to the service for others to try. And if you have friends that really ought to try Picross 3D out you can send a demo of the game from your DS to theirs (alternatively you can just hand them your DS). Picross 3D, like Picross DS before it, is easy to learn, and difficult and rewarding to master. If you’re itching for a new puzzler on the DS then give Picross 3D a shot – with 350 puzzles on the cartridge you’ll be busy for a good long time. 

Plays Like: Picross DS, Mario’s Picross

Pros: Lots of puzzles, good tutorial

Cons: Can still be difficult to think in three dimensions and chisel that last block out of the middle of a puzzle