May 2010

There’s a lot going on in what will soon become the bustling town of Carson City (published in the US by Eagle Games), although all that’s there at the start is a single residence, a bunch of mountains, and from two to five groups of cowboys looking to lay claim to the surrounding territory. Roads will be laid down, various buildings erected, and there might even be a firefight or two (although not near the churches) before all is said and done. Carson City combines several mechanics into a unique gaming experience; role selection, worker placement, and tile laying all need to be tackled to get the job done and earn the most points.

Players begin with one gun, one road, some cash, and three cowboys. After randomly determining the initial start order, each player claims one plot of land on the map; eight mountain tiles are randomly placed (using dice and the marked grid) as is the center of town, but the remaining squares are all up for grabs. A second plot of land is claimed in reverse order, and then the real game begins.

The first order of business each round is to choose one of the seven roles available. In addition to determining play order, each role has its own special ability and cash limit. Some abilities happen as soon as you select the role, others take place at the appropriate time in the turn. The next phase is placing your cowboys either on the buildings you wish to purchase, the plots of land you wish to claim (which can include any unclaimed space, even mountains or houses), or various actions you wish to take. The order for the next turn’s role selection is determined by the order in which players pass out of the placement phase, giving some players a reason to not use all of your guys on a given turn.

Once all of the players have passed, the actions resolve in order. However, with the exception of two basic actions and the universal actions, only one player actually gets to use each space. Conflicts are resolved with a shootout in which each player’s strength is compared; your strength is a random number from 1-6 plus the number of guns you have and how many cowboys you have left in reserve (another reason to hold some back, especially if you’re expecting a fight). The winner gets the space, while the loser gets his “dead” cowboy returned to him for future use (including future fights in that same turn). All cowboys that are successful in their placement are consumed, as there is a strict maximum of ten cowboys per player at any given time (you get an increasing amount at the start of each round).

Any buildings purchased as the actions resolve must be placed on the town map, preferably on a plot you own if you want to earn any cash from it. Each building also causes a house to be built, and all buildings must be accessible from the center of town by roads (“accessible” in this case meaning “a continuous string of roads at least touches one corner of each building”). Ranches and mines are exceptions and neither build a house nor require roads. Most buildings earn cash depending on what other buildings or locations are around them; for example: mines prefer to be adjacent to mountains, ranches like having open space, and saloons appreciate houses — but only neutral buildings(/mountains) or ones you own count towards your income. The game uses a built-in “dial” on each double-sided tile to indicate how much a given building is worth, with the “pointer” being on the slightly larger plot tiles; it’s a neat little concept, but can be a little fiddly at times as you usually have to re-evaluate each building every time something changes around it. One final use for cowboys during worker placement is to put them on properties owned by opponents. If you succeed in this (either because they didn’t defend themselves or failed in doing so), you steal half of that building’s income that turn.

At the end of the turn each player must discard any cash in excess of his chosen role’s limit. Every $10 you shed this way can be turned into points, but that’s a very poor exchange rate, as there are spaces on the board that can earn you one point per $2, $3, $4, or $5 (these actions that get taken away as the game progresses, with the 2:1 conversion only available in round 1), with one final $6 per point “action” taking place at the very end of the game — after you’ve discarded down to your limit at 10:1. The game plays out over only four turns, but each turn is significantly longer than the one before it due to more cowboys, more buildings, and generally more options available to each player as the game progresses. The last round is especially tense as each player tries to wring out the most points without going (too far) over their cash limit for maximum payout. You ultimately earn two points for every occupied piece of land that you own; combined with the final 6:1 conversion and the incidental 10:1s along the way, these are the only points you can earn without using one of the available actions and I’m fairly certain you will not win relying on just those “freebies”.

Carson City offers a number of strategies that could lead you to victory, although it is incredibly easy to fall behind early thanks to an unlucky shoot-out roll and never be able to really recover. Fortunately, the game also comes with a number of variants. In addition to a different map (the other one features a river that affects values of property in various ways) and alternate powers for each role, there is a tile-based shoot-out variant in which each player is given seven one-use tiles, valued from 0-6, that replace the die roll and bring a bit more strategy to conflicts to those who are paying attention to whom has shot which “bullets” (if you manage to spend all seven you can “reload”). I prefer anything that eliminates randomness getting in the way of my strategy and highly recommend using the tiles, although the “standard” game should be experienced at least once as well.

Given its potential length and complexity, Carson City may take some getting used to before you really appreciate it. It’s certainly not a game I want to play every week, but it can make for a good “main event” at a game night once everyone is up to speed, especially with all of the variants available to keep things fresh. 

Shawn Vermette is on vacation this week. In the meantime, we’re talking more about E3.

Current score

Andrew Passafiume: +125

Graham Russell: +45

Eric Schabel: 0

Shawn Vermette: +135

Sony debuting a premium PSN membership at E3

Game news site VG247 is reporting that Sony’s planning a paid premium membership that includes free PSN games and streaming music, among other services. The company has always used the free nature of PSN as a selling point in their battle against Microsoft. Would they give that up for an extra revenue stream?

Andrew:I can definitely see this happening, but I can only imagine it being a service that only gives you a ton of extra content for a cheaper price than XBL. They already offer online play for free, so taking that away from people and making them pay is a bit ridiculous and would most likely outrage many gamers. But I can definitely see a service that goes above and beyond what Microsoft does currently, or at least something Sony considers to go above and beyond XBL.80%

Graham: All the rumors seem to confirm that Sony gets it — they can’t mess with normal PSN membership. But a subscription that includes free games and streaming services? As long as it’s completely optional, it’s feasible. Of course, just because they could doesn’t mean they will, and it could get a delayed announcement too (since it isn’t exactly the kind of thing fanboys gush over).  55%

Eric:I could definitely see this story coming true. Sony can certainly charge for extra bells and whistles and still avoid criticism by offering most of the same services as Xbox Live for free, as it currently does. No matter how you look at it, the PSN network allows you to do the most important stuff, like play your games online for free, and that will always give it leg up over Microsoft. 65%

Announced 3DS launch lineup at E3 to include a core Mario or Zelda game

We know we’ll be seeing Nintendo’s new portable at the show, but we don’t know what games we’ll see. Nintendo typically launches a system with a flagship Mario title, but there have been exceptions (Virtual Boy got Wario, GameCube got Luigi, Wii got Zelda). Zelda is the other franchise that has the heft to carry a system launch for the core gamer. There’s a hesitation as of late, though, to release the important titles at a system’s launch, so the 3DS could start out megaton-free.

Andrew:I can’t see there being another Zelda game already, but I can definitely imagine a new Mario title. The DS launched with Mario 64 DS, which was also one of the first major games they showed off for the system back at E3 2004. A new Mario title that shows off the system’s capabilities, both in terms of 3D technology and graphical capabilities, would be a perfect move for Nintendo. 85%

Graham: They couldn’t possibly release two Mario games within a year, right? Oh, wait…NSMB Wii and Galaxy 2. Of course, they also couldn’t release two Zelda games in short succession either, yeah? Hold on a sec…Wind Waker and Four Swords. It’s completely possible, and Nintendo’s learned the pain of a lackluster launch a few times now. I won’t insist on it being a new title, since their modus operandi on handhelds is to release ports first (SMB Deluxe, SMB Advance, SM64DS), but there has to be something.  80%

Eric:I would love for there to be a new Mario or Zelda released at the launch of Nintendo’s next handheld, but I really don’t feel so confident about it. The development teams traditionally involved with those two landmark franchises have had their hands busy with console games as of late, and I am just not sure we can count on a brand new Mario or Zelda game right out of the gate. That said, history is on the side of this rumor, and there’s no better way for Nintendo to make an impact than to open with a heavy hitter. Either way, I certainly hope this one comes true. 45%

New hardware besides 3DS, Natal, Move, Vitality Sensor to debut at E3

This year’s really heavy on the hardware, with new peripherals from everyone and a new platform for Nintendo. There are still, however, rumors of other new iterations, from a new PSP to an HD Wii. Then there’s something that could come out of left field.

Andrew:With Nintendo already focused on unveiling the 3DS, I doubt there will be anything else from them aside from game announcements. Sony and Microsoft will be behind their own motion controllers/technology full force at their press conference, so I don’t believe they would show anything off either. Maybe we’ll get hints at something new coming from one of the big three, but nothing that will be officially unveiled.5%

Graham: Do I think the HD Wii’s coming this year? Probably not. I wouldn’t be surprised to see something in PSP land, though, since the Go was such a disaster and Sony wants to move on. I will say this, though: I expect a lot of accessories this year for the new peripherals. Like…way too many of them. And can anyone think of a use for the Vitality Sensor that isn’t just a Wii Fit followup? 30%

Eric:I really don’t see this happening. Microsoft and Sony are focusing on new “innovative” peripherals to keep their current consoles selling for another couple years; I don’t see them releasing any information about next generation hardware at E3. Nintendo seems pretty happy with the way things are going right now, and outside of the 3DS I don’t think we will see anything from them. In other words, the big three gaming giants all have their hands full this year already.20%

Joy Ride to not be released in 2010

Every year has its share of vaporware, crazy delays and sidetracked projects. BigPark’s free-to-play Xbox Live racer was featured at Microsoft’s booth at E3 2009 with a winter release, but we haven’t heard anything since. Microsoft has said that they’re planning to release it in 2010, but intentions aren’t everything.

Andrew:I forgot this game even existed. I really have no idea what to say to this, I doubt many people care about it. I can still see it coming out, considering Microsoft is doing fairly well at selling new Avatar clothing items and whatnot; they could use that to boost the sale of extras in Joy Ride. But it’s really hard to tell. 5%

Graham: This Avatar push was supposed to be a big part of gaming, and it isn’t there. I really don’t know how Natal games are going to incorporate them, so Microsoft needs to double down or get out. Personally, I’m surprised this didn’t release last holiday season, since the version I played last year was pretty much done. It would have been a great addition to Christmas family time. Do I think it’ll be delayed to 2011? No. But there’s a chance it’s gone completely.  10%

Eric:I’m going to give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt here and say we will be playing Joy Ride this year. It’s not a title that should require another year’s worth of development time, at least I hope not. Who knows, maybe we will see a surprise release during E3 itself…how’s that for a rumor? 5%


Nintendo rarely makes direct sequels to games. Usually they wait a generation, take things in a completely different direction and end up with a final product that could hardly be called a sequel. With Super Mario Galaxy 2, though, they’ve done a very traditional followup to the 2007 blockbuster. If you are a fan of the first Super Mario Galaxy, everything will feel pleasantly familiar. Sure, Galaxy 2 is more of the same, but when you are talking about the best platforming gameplay of the generation, that doesn’t qualify as much of a complaint.

That is not to say there is nothing new in Galaxy 2, though—some elements are in fact improved upon over the original, including a more streamlined overworld map system. This overworld feels a lot like the New Super Mario Bros. games, with sequential worlds but branching paths. There’s still a hub world of sorts; you fly around a spaceship shaped like Mario’s head, and the vessel contains training areas and a growing collection of people and things collected along the way.

The levels themselves are an evolution of the original’s. There are very few pure platforming stages in Galaxy 2. Most of the levels are based around power-ups. There are new collections of challenges built around the original’s Bee Suit, Boo Suit and Spring Suit, and some creative worlds based on new suits. The Cloud Suit allows Mario to create temporary platforms in mid-air, and when these get pushed by wind, things get complicated. The Rock Suit turns him into a careening boulder that bowls over enemies and obstacles. And the drill isn’t a suit, but pushing through planets to the other side makes for different kinds of puzzles.

One of the big selling points of the game is Yoshi, and his levels don’t disappoint. The venerable dino has three power-ups of his own, allowing Mario to race up walls, light up hidden pathways and jet up to high platforms F.L.U.D.D.-style.

Nintendo has suggested that Galaxy 2 would be a more challenging title than the first game. Levels get increasingly difficult, but the main stages aren’t where things get crazy. The comet challenges are often very difficult, and collecting all 240 stars is no easy feat, but earning just enough stars to advance and beat the game is easier than some may expect, and for two reasons.

The first is the infamous “super guide” that Nintendo has committed to as of late. Dying on a level enough times unlocks a help feature that takes you through the world and to the star. This seems cheap, but purists shouldn’t worry; the result is a bronze star instead of a gold one, so achieving it normally is still rewarded.

The second player aid is a revamped two-player cooperative mode. Super Mario Galaxy 2 is, like its predecessor, a game that was designed as a single-player experience. However, the two player “co-star” mode in Galaxy 2 is vastly superior to the tacked-on offering found in the first game, and it is actually loads of fun. If a second player chooses to join in, they will be represented by a little orange Luma that follows behind Mario. He can help Mario in many different ways; from vanquishing enemies and collecting items (including mushrooms) to freezing moving hazards in place, the co-star luma almost always comes in handy, no matter what the level is.  In fact, sometimes it is almost as fun to play as the co-star instead of Mario himself. It’s a great way to let a friend try on the blue overalls when you feel you need a break from the action.

Of course, all this leads to what we call the “Tails effect.” In Sonic the Hedgehog 2, a second player could control Tails, and were capable of doing most of what Sonic could do without fear of death. The dynamic in Galaxy 2 is similar, if not more pronounced. Adding a second player drops the difficulty a few notches, as the successful creation of a fun second player lets you divide tasks and conquer tricky areas. It’s lots of fun nonetheless, and you’ll just need to use your judgment and decide when you want to walk the hard road. 

During development, the team thought about calling this game “More Super Mario Galaxy.” Well, it is, but it’s not just more of the same. Working off the original’s framework, Nintendo could focus on letting their gameplay imagination run wild. It shows, and the result is a game that won’t wow you, but probably won’t leave your disc slot anytime soon either.

Staff writer Eric Schabel contributed to this review.

Split/Second is flashy, full of suspense and intense competition, and has a flair for the dramatic. It is intentionally all of these things, because the Black Rock racer’s setting is that of a reality show. And as reality shows are never the place to find actual realism, Split/Second is incredibly over-the-top.

The game is essentially an arcade racer with a gimmick, but what can we say? It’s a very cool gimmick. Manipulating the environment to thwart other racers is an intriguing concept, especially when it means explosions and mayhem. (Hint: It always means explosions and mayhem.) The game plays a lot like the Burnout series, with eye-blistering speed and rewards for risky behavior. Split/Second kicks things up a notch, though, by throwing not only explosions and swerving cars in your face, but also ridiculous obstacles like crashing planes and collapsing buildings. Best of all, all of these “Power Play” events are triggered by you, the player (or any of the racers you are competing against, of course). In Split/Second, there is nothing quite as satisfying as perfectly-timed Power Play wiping out a group of opponents at once. You’ll need to dodge your own explosions, too, but close calls are all the more exhilarating.

Ridiculous mayhem aside, the racing mechanics in Split/Second are solid and satisfying; drifting, jumping, and going really fast all feel great.  However, attempting to bump or nudge other players off the road really does not work. The game really wants you to focus on blowing them up instead, and that’s fine, but it would have been nice to be able to nudge rivals into walls with a few finesse maneuvers.

The game’s very impressive visually, with graphics that rival any other racing title currently on the market. The explosions are impressive, the cars look slick and everything runs at a smooth frame rate (even in split-screen). Of course, that’s easier when only perfecting one look. All the game’s tracks seem to blur together in a dusty brown mess of abandoned buildings and construction equipment.  The rest of the game’s presentation leaves a bit to be desired. After all, with the premise of a reality show, it would have been nice to have at least some announcer or voice acting during the race to make it feel more show-like.

Black Rock threw in a few different game types into the Season mode. Race is the standard type, with Elimination mode slowly knocking out the racer in last place every ten seconds until only one remains. Those are both enjoyable, and Elimination adds an intensity that adds to the game’s exhilarating excitement. Survival mode has you avoiding explosive barrels dropped out of big trucks, and Air Strike has you doing the same with missiles launched from a helicopter. These feel more like a 2D shooter than anything else, and while they’re not lasting diversions, they’re an interesting test of driving skill. Detonator is the game’s Time Trial mode, but course hazards trigger as you speed around the raceway. (Race, Survival and Elimination modes are also playable online and locally with a friend.)

The single-player Season mode is the game’s main attraction. Everything proceeds in “episodes,” named chapters with a handful of varied events, culminating in an “Elite Race” against AIs with specific personalities. This final race determines your standings in the show, and performance in these last races each episode decides the winner at season’s end. There are 12 episodes with six events each, so even if you’re perfect the first time through, there’s about five hours of gameplay here. (You won’t get things perfect initially, either, as learning the tracks is key to victory. We’d clock it in at about eight.)

Online play in Split/Second is a mixed bag. Since you unlock better and better cars through the single-player mode, new racers are completely outclassed by those who are further through the game. This is most certainly what the developers intended, but it’s not too fun to see a few players dart off into the distance knowing that you will never get the chance to unleash hell upon them no matter how much power you manage to build up. Of course, all of that changes when you are the one behind the wheel of a beastly vehicle, but that sort of introduction to the online experience isn’t likely to leave many die-hards in the months to come.

Split/Second is a fun way to spend an hour every once in a while, and those susceptible to its charms may become obsessed. Much like, well, a reality show. We hesitate to recommend it for everyone because it’s hardcore and may not have the legs to sustain online multiplayer, but it’s definitely going to hit the right buttons for some. 

Staff Writer Eric Schabel contributed to this review.


May 19, 2010

The team behind past DS titles like Hotel Dusk and Trace Memory have brought another “interactive novel” to the handheld, this time with a modern crime theme. Like Hotel Dusk, Again has you hold the DS sideways like a book, with the touch screen providing text interfaces while the other screen shows you character reactions and other scenery. The presentaion is very similar to CING’s previous work, and although Again uses actual photographs of actors rather than Hotel Dusk‘s sketch-like portraits, the overall effect is pretty much the same.

In Again, you take on the role of FBI Special Agent Jonathan “J” Weaver as he and his partner Kate Hathaway reopen the unsolved “Providence” killings that took place 19 years ago — and which are now seemingly happening once more. J’s family were the final victims of the original killer, and he receives a mysterious letter telling him to “go back to where it all began” shortly before the new murders begin. Shortly after entering the scene of the original murder, J experiences a vision of the same scene 19 years ago, which is the main focus of the actual gameplay in this title.

When experiencing a vision, the touch screen represents the present day, which J can explore; the past is displayed on the other screen at the same time. When J discovers a significant difference he can focus on it to gain further insight, but if he focuses on the wrong aspects it drains some of his strength; too many of these misses are the only way to earn a Game Over (that I discovered, at any rate), although his strength returns to full at the beginning of each new day. Oddly, this mechanic has more in common with the Konami game Time Hollow than with CING’s other titles, which are more traditional puzzle-adventures. There are a few puzzles in Again, but mostly it’s just a 3D version of “spot the differences.” As J matches the present to the past, he eventually pieces together a vision of what went down nearly 20 years ago. The idea is that by figuring out the original murders, the identity of the “Providence” killer can be determined before he — or a copycat — can recreate the entire spree in the present.

The rest of the gameplay is J and Kate driving all over town and asking various questions to witnesses, local law enforcement, and other notable characters involved in both cases. There aren’t a lot of branches in these dialogue trees, and answering incorrectly at the very few times it is possible to do so earns you nothing more than a “that’s not right…” from Kate and the opportunity to submit the correct answer. You rarely even need to use your inventory, despite having the ability to show all kinds of photos and case files at your disposal. It’s really kind of boring, gameplay-wise, although at least the narrative is interesting enough to hold your attention. 

And that’s all there is to it, frankly. Outside of the few past visions there isn’t a hell of a lot to do other than read. One could argue that a game billing itself as an “interactive novel” is supposed to have lots of text, but I felt that Hotel Dusk had much more of the “interactive” part than Again, which made for a better game overall . I blew through Again in a single day (~10 hours of play) mostly because I was engaged in the plot. Sadly, I thought that the resolution kind of fell apart towards the end, as the motive for the present-day killings seemed awkward, and the identity of the killer should become obvious to the player well before J and Kate put everything together. Discovering the truth behind the past killings was much more interesting, with the intersection of the two sprees  feeling a little forced but not entirely unreasonable.

In the end, the lack of interaction and decent puzzles is what keeps Again from reaching the heights of its noir-inspired predecessor Hotel Dusk. It’s worth a look if you’re not opposed to more reading than usual, and I’d put it roughly on par with the similarly-themed Time Hollow.

Plays like: Hotel Dusk without as many puzzles (or as solid characters).

Pros: Decent enough story, fairly original concept

Cons: Too much “novel,” not nearly enough “interactive”.