January 2010

Assassin’s Creed 2

January 31, 2010

The shortcomings of the first Assassin’s Creed are well-known and well-publicized. It was too repetitive; the free-running was too awkward sometimes; and there was way too much pointless backtracking and traveling. Much to everyone’s delight, Assassin’s Creed 2 takes everything that was wrong with the first, fixes them, and then improves on everything it did right. 

The story of Assassin’s Creed 2 begins pretty much immediately after the end of the first, waking up in your room with all the glowing symbols and writing etched on the wall of your room. After this you’ll soon escape from Abstergo with the help of an old friend. Upon escaping, you’ll quickly be sent back into the animus to live through the life of another ancestor of yours, Ezio de Auditore.

The introduction to Assassin’s Creed 2 is longer than the intro to the first, but it is much more intriguing and enjoyable. It also gets you more interested in the story because of how you live Ezio’s life alongside him. If you’ve never played the first Assassin’s Creed, there is also a short cinematic that walks you through the story of the first so that you aren’t completely lost when you start playing. This is a nice feature that I wish more sequels employed.

Pretty much every mechanic from the first has been improved, from hiding to free-running to assassinations; everything is much more fluid and realistic-feeling. Obviously none of it is really possible, but it looks more natural, as if it really was possible. While there is still lots of backtracking and traveling to do in Assassin’s Creed 2, there is much less of it than there was in the first, which is a huge relief. Some new mechanics are the addition of looting of bodies and the pick-pocketing of just about anyone you want. After a fight, you can loot the bodies for florins, and when walking around the cities you can pick pocket anyone you want to for more florins. What do you need florins for, you ask? Well, you no longer rejuvenate health simply by being anonymous so you have to buy medicine to heal yourself, but you can also buy maps to treasures, improve your equipment, and even buy art to display in your home. Careful with the pick pocketing though, doing it too much or too conspicuously and you’ll be targeted by guards who will make life difficult for you.

The graphics and the setting are gorgeous; Ubisoft did an amazing job of reproducing Renaissance Italy and making it feel like you are actually there. The sound design is high quality as well, with the ambient sounds contributing to the feel of Italy almost as much as the graphics.

The controls are the same as the first game, which is great because they were really intuitive and responsive to begin with. All the intangibles of a well-made game are present as well. The entire feel of the game is that it was a labor of love, an attempt to not just overcome all the shortfalls of the first game, but to wipe them from the memory of anyone who has played the series.

I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that this might just be the most improved sequel of all time because if it isn’t, it definitely ranks up there with the best sequels we’ve ever played.

Plays like: Assassin’s Creed meets GTA

Pros: Controls are same; Combat is enjoyable; Graphics are spectacular; Sound design is great; Story draws you in; Open world Renaissance Italy

Cons: Combat can be too easy


Calling Ju-on a haunted house simulator is a very good description. This isn’t a game as much as it is an interactive movie. Nothing you do will impact the way events play out, nor is there any way to avoid the inevitable end to this game.

Ju-on is very faithful to the movie series, with appearances by freaky little girls common, and an atmosphere very reminiscent of the movies. Ju-on is split into 5 episodes, each of which has you playing out events from the perspective of a different character. The bulk of the game is comprised of exploration of grisly, eerie, or abandoned environments with nothing but a flashlight, broken up frequently by cheap scare tactics. Cheap though they may be, they worked on me…I’m not a horror fan and this was a very scary game to me. For those who play horror games, this may be more tame or run-of-the-mill for you. There are also interactive attack sequences in the game, but they consist of simply waggling the wiimote quickly in order to shake off whatever it was that attacked you this time. 

The graphics are decent for the Wii. Nothing is really detailed, but the atmosphere is fittingly eerie and freaky. On the other hand, the sound design contributed a great deal to the feeling of being in a horror game. The surprisingly apt sounds hint at grisly and ghastly things awaiting you in the darkness that your flashlight hasn’t revealed.

The controls are a pain though. They are sometimes laggy and imprecise, while other times they work perfectly. Similarly, the camera will sometimes lag, while other times working perfectly. This all adds up to an experience that is very uneven from start to finish.

In the end, Ju-on is not a game I would recommend for fans of horror games in general, as there are already several horror games on the Wii that are much better, such as Silent Hill and Resident Evil. However, if you are a fan of the Grudge movies, or you’ve played the other horror games and are still hungry for more, you may enjoy Ju-on.

ESRB:  M for violence and blood

Plays Like:  An interactive horror movie

Pros: Faithful to the films; pretty darn scary

Cons: Controls are very laggy and imprecise; camera is a pain; less a game than a virtual novel


If We Ran is a look at what we’d do if we were in charge of gaming companies and series.  We offer an 8-step plan to get them back on track.  In this inaugural edition, we look at a company that needs a lot of work: Sega.

After years of running the Sonic series into the ground, we’re ecstatic that Sega is (supposedly) taking things back to their roots with the horribly-named Project Needlemouse.  If we ran the company, we’d ban all characters introduced after Sonic 3 (we’re okay with Tails and Knuckles) and make sure Needlemouse is a true Sonic 4.  In fact, we’d name it that.  The game should also be in 2-D, and heck, we wouldn’t mind a retro art style either.  Also: Ryan Drummond would be reinstated as the voice of Sonic.


Rez has already made the leap, and rumors suggest Sonic Adventure will make its XBLA debut soon.  Of course, we’d rather see some titles that haven’t been re-released already, and some are perfect for the service.  At the top of our list would be ChuChu Rocket, Ooga Booga and Jet Grind Radio.


Now, though the series gets panned more than it probably should, this isn’t about the quality of the Mario & Sonic games and our desire for more.  No, we just realize that some of the things we’re suggesting, while better for the long-term image of the company, might be a bit costly in the short run.  Mario & Sonic games sell like, well, Mario games, so any excuse Sega has to get in on that gravy train is one they should exploit.  On the other hand, the Sega “star” compilations are not such a good idea.  Though they’re relatively fun, there’s just not a rabid following for those characters, and the final products just feel second-rate as a result.  


A big company like Sega doesn’t often have an overlooked masterpiece like Valkyria Chronicles.  Of course, it was a pre-2009 PS3 game, and the sequel is coming to the PSP, so it won’t fare any better.  Bring VC3 back to consoles and run a few ads.  It can appeal to the Final Fantasy crowd and the Fallout 3 crowd too…if they knew it existed. In the meantime, VC2 would be a tough PS3 port, but throw it on the Wii anyway, since that port is common.


While Sega was a colossal failure in the hardware market for the most part, the most impressive part of their games was how the early ones on each system really pushed the limits of the chips.  Blast processing looked amazing on the Genesis, and the speed of Sonic Adventure made the Dreamcast a must-have at launch.  Valkyria Chronicles looked great on the PS3, and it would have made a big splash if it was available in 2006.  Sonic and the Secret Rings would have been great at the Wii’s launch as well.  We’d work closely with Sony, Nintendo and/or Microsoft to get a cool game out early next time, and they’d be happy to have something impressive too.


Sega’s had a moderate amount of success in Japan with card-based arcade games like Mushiking and Sangokushi Taisen.  Of course, the American arcade is dead, but there’s a solid DS version of Sangokushi Taisen, and it’s an interesting title on its own merits.  It’s a big risk to get cards translated and printed, but we feel like America’s ripe for another card-based craze.


A lot of the problems Sega games have had recently are related to glitches and bugs.  It’s a shame, because those problems can be worked out with just another layer or two of QA.  The downfall of the Sonic series since Sonic Team USA folded has really been that the problems make them unplayable.  Then again, Sonic Team Japan hasn’t made anything good in a long time…


Sega’s latest, Bayonetta, is a result of the publisher providing support to a small but accomplished outside developer.  The company’s internal teams aren’t the most promising as of late, but Sega could make a big splash publishing more cult favorites like they are with Platinum Games’ titles.  Even if they just get into competition with Atlus and Ignition in exporting Japanese hits, it’d help.


What do you think?  Are we crazy?  Should Sega take action on some of these? Let us know in the comments!

The original Army of Two truly made for a fun co-op experience, and the sequel improves upon that in many ways. While it is incredibly similar to the first game, it does enough to differentiate itself from the original while keeping the things that did work the same.  

On a technical level, the game is pretty impressive. The environments are incredibly varied and the amount of destruction is shown off amazingly. This is one thing that stands out about this game over the original; each level feels less generic and full of unique things that help them stand out. The destruction feels overdone at times, but it is a nice touch in certain levels.  

The game’s story is pretty basic, although it takes itself a bit more seriously than it did in the first game. Shanghai is nearly in ruins, and both main characters (Rios and Salem) are trying to get out of the city alive after a job goes bad. Along the way, there are morality choices that can be made that impact the game’s story and inevitably the ending. With three possible endings, these choices definitely make the story seem less tacked on and more involved this time around. 

Gameplay is pretty much exactly the same as in the first game, with a few added things that improve the game a bit. The gunplay is excellent and truly satisfying, and it never seems to get old. The controls themselves are solid as well, giving the player enough options without feeling convoluted. One small problem with the controls is the A button, which is used to do too many things. You could try to revive your partner, but end up jumping over cover and getting shot down my enemies. It leads to many frustrating moments. 

Like the first, co-op is huge in this game, being the main selling point and all. You can play through the entire game by yourself with an A.I. partner, or in co-op. The A.I. is actually really good at handling itself and does fairly well in combat, but the main draw is the co-op. Playing through this game with another person makes it a completely different experience, and although it still is a lot of fun solo, the co-op makes it a lot more enjoyable (and quite addictive). 

There are many moments in which teamwork is important. To tie in with the morality system, there are moments when you can (or have your partner) take a bad guy hostage from behind which signals the other guys in the room to put their guns down. From there, you can either execute them or tie them down, which works in with the morality system. And if there are hostages involved, you could try and save them to boost your morality. All of this plays into the game’s story, as mentioned above.

And then there is the multiplayer, which is pretty generic. You get a handful of modes, most of which never stand out or leave any kind of impression. The one mode that does stand out is Extraction, which needs to be downloaded separately and is only available to those who have pre-ordered the game for the first month. This mode plays like Horde mode in Gears of War 2, or Firefight in Halo 3: ODST. You need to try and survive as long as possible facing off against wave after wave of increasingly difficult enemies. It can be very fun with the right people and will test your skills at the game immensely.  

One downer is the game is incredibly short, like the first, but it does have a lot of replayability. Those who want to get all of the endings have plenty to do in multiple playthroughs, and once again, the co-op makes the experience almost feel entirely different.  

Overall, Army of Two: The 40th Day is a truly enjoyable action game that, while not original in any way, is still a ton of mindless fun. And sometimes, all you need is a friend and a mindless action game to waste the day away.  

Pros: Incredibly satisfying gunplay; solid controls; addictive co-op; plenty of replay value; fantastic level design and set piece sequences; Extraction mode is a blast 

:  Aside from Extraction, the multiplayer is generic; can be finished in 5-6 hours; having the A button do almost everything is annoying

In Antoine Bauza’s Ghost Stories (published by Repos Games), you and up to three other players are the last line of defense against Wu Feng, Demon Lord of the Nine Hells. The tiny village that houses his funerary ashes is under siege by a horde of Wu Feng’s spiritual minions; if they succeed in locating the ashes, all is lost. The villagers will lend you what aid they can, but ultimately you and your fellow taoists must succeed on the strength of both your strategy and your willpower… and a little luck wouldn’t hurt either. 

The village consists of nine tiles randomly laid out in a three-by-three array. The four taoist boards are then randomly placed around that central array (with the side facing up also randomly chosen), indicating which player(s) will have which power(s). Each player receivers four Qi (life points), a tao token of his color (or one of each color in solo play), and their yin-yang token; if playing with less than four players, any neutral (unused) boards receive just the Qi, and then each player receives a Power Token (or all three tokens if solo). Finally, the Ghost Deck is prepared: after shuffling — and removing five cards per missing player, if any — one of the ten possible Incarnations of Wu Feng is secretly placed on top of the bottom ten cards of the deck, with the rest set aside unseen.

Each player’s turn is broken up into two phases. During the Yin Phase, the ghosts on that player’s board are active. Each ghost card has three stones on it (although many have one or more of those spaces blank) along with its name and strength. Any abilities on the center stone apply first; this usually involves a Tormentor causing the Curse Die (with four undesirable results and two blank faces) to be rolled by that taoist or a Haunter figure advancing one space (a haunter that advances twice has haunted the first tile in front of it, rendering that tile’s ability unusable). Then the toaist checks to see if his board is overrun with ghosts. If it is, then that player loses one Qi; if not, the player must draw the top card from the deck and place it on the board of its color or his own board if it is a black-aligned ghost (if there is no open space on the appropriate board then the ghost can be placed anywhere that is open). Any abilities on the left stone of the new ghost are applied, then the turn proceeds to the player’s Yang Phase.

During the Yang Phase, the player may move one tile (including diagonally, so a taoist in the center can reach any other tile), then perform one action. That action can either be to request the aid of the villager on his current tile or to perform an exorcism of any adjacent ghosts. An exorcism consists of rolling the three tao dice and then checking against the ghost(s) strength. If enough of the correct colored symbols are rolled, then the ghost is exorcised (discarded) and any effects on the rightmost stone are applied (this can be a curse and/or a reward); tao tokens can be spent to make up the difference, and any taoists on the same tile may share tao if necessary. At any point during the Yang Phase the player may also spend his Yin-Yang token to either request the aid of any villager or to un-haunt a tile, but it’s not easy to regain that Yin-Yang, so plan accordingly. Also, for games with less than four players you may spend a Power Token to temporarily gain the ability of one of the neutral boards; the Power Token is placed on the center tile and anyone who ends their turn there may pick up one or more Tokens present.

The players win once the incarnation of Wu Feng is defeated (and they have survived any curse that might be inflicted by doing so). That’s the good news. The bad news is that there are three ways for the players to lose: all players run out of Qi (and thus are dead; a dead player’s board is “possessed” and functions as a neutral board until the player is revived using the Graveyard tile), four tiles become haunted (even if all three tiles in the row of the ghost causing the haunting are already haunted), or when the Ghost Deck becomes exhausted. Oh, and that set-up is for the “Initiation” level of difficulty; on “Normal” each player/board only gets three Qi and it takes only three haunted tiles to lose. If you’re brave enough to attempt “Nightmare” you have to defeat four incarnations of Wu Feng (three for one or two players), and the brave souls who attempt the “Hell” difficulty will do so without the benefit of their starting Yin-Yang token!

As you can probably guess, every time the players win a game of Ghost Stories, it is an epic achievement and cause for celebration. Even a close loss can be a tale to be retold by those who suffered through it. The problem comes when the losses aren’t close, and with the heavy reliance on dice that can be a problem. A poor shuffle that brings up a bunch of horrific ghosts in rapid succession can possibly be overcome by strategy and luck, but there isn’t a lot that can be done about poor rolls. Every failed exorcism is essentially a wasted turn. Use of tao tokens and some other abilities can combine to make rolls unnecessary or otherwise reduce the luck involved if you’re really good about how you use them; this is much easier in solo play where you theoretically have access to all four Taoist powers on nearly every turn. Unfortunately every player beyond the first limits the combinations available, and with the full four players you’re relying on a fortunate roll more often then you would probably like. Additionally, neutral boards do not add ghosts during the Yin Phase; extra players may mean more ghosts and more actions, but actions can fail — adding ghosts does not (or else you’re losing anyway).

I enjoy playing Ghost Stories solitaire; it turns the game into a sort of puzzle that is actively trying to smash your face in. Playing with others is less fun for the reasons stated above. However, if your group isn’t as turned off by randomness ruining strategy as I am it can still be quite enjoyable. As with any cooperative game, there is the risk of one player taking charge and turning the game into a solitaire game with several pairs of hands doing the work, especially with newer players mixed with veteran taoists. As players gain experience with what strategies are best (where to place ghosts, which ghosts can be safely ignored to use a village tile, how much randomness to risk on a roll) that will go away, but it can affect the fun of the game until then.

Randomness issues aside, Ghost Stories is still a great-looking game with awesome flavor. The art is awesome and the figurines are well-sculpted; the cards are a little on the flimsy side, but it’s not a major issue. It’s worth a play just to experience it once. However, if you really want to enjoy Ghost Stories, both solo and with others, I highly recommend picking up the expansion, White Moon. But more on that next time…