May 2011

The Lego series of games, developed by Tt Games, has become such an established franchise by now, with Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter and Batman editions under its belt, that this review is almost unnecessary. If you are somehow unfamiliar with the trademark puzzles, character-swapping and wanton destruction of property, you have really been missing out on some quality family-friendly fun. The latest iteration focuses on the blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean movies, including levels based on the recent release On Stranger Tides. (The game was actually released about a week before the movie, in fact.) It may be one of the best versions yet.

Like every other licensed Lego game, Lego PotC features a wide array of characters (although quite a few are the same character in different outfits), many of whom have unique skills that you will need in order to progress through the game’s puzzles. Some shoot guns (or throw axes, in the case of Will Turner), some shoot big guns (or bombs) that can destroy special silver bricks, some (all women) can double-jump to reach extra heights… the list goes on. Jack Sparrow’s special ability, his magic compass, is really well-implemented and key to solving several puzzles by letting you track down the item you require. As you progress through the story, you will unlock new characters for use in Free Play mode. Additional characters can be earned via the hub world (“The Port”) after you defeat them in combat and/or pay their fee.

While the story mode is the usual Lego pantomimed bowdlerized versions of the movies’ story (the hanging scene that begins At World’s End is… different, to say the least), it mostly serves as a vehicle to get you familiar with the stages’ layouts and unlock characters. Even an obsessively meticulous playthough will fail to yield every secret a stage has to offer. If you want 100% completion, you need to experience Free Play mode, which gives you access to characters (and their skills) that the normal story does not. you can do this either solo or with a friend, as usual; the Lego games have some of the best family play around, with unlimited continues, no reading required, and no blood. Although the mini-figs do break apart in ways that would be unsettling if there were blood. (Best not to think about that too much.) You can also find and purchase cheats (“extras”) that just add to the fun.

In the end, whether or not you need to pick up Lego PotC depends solely on how big a fan you are of the franchise. If you are not much of a fan of the PotC movies you can skip it without missing much, especially if you have played one of the other Lego games. But if you enjoy the Lego gameplay and are amused by the antics of Jack Sparrow (who is animated so brilliantly I could almost swear they used motion capture) and friends, this is a slam-dunk pick-up. 

Pros: Same great Lego gameplay with the fun of the Pirates movies, if that’s your thing

Cons: Of course, that may not be your thing



May 23, 2011

We all crow about originality in games, but what we really want is good iteration. GTA III was good, but it was many gamers’ first open-world sandbox. Do we all go back to it? No – we look back at games like GTA: Vice City for adding motorcycles and a protagonist who is more than a blank slate, Saint’s Row for taking the genre to its extreme while refining the gameplay even more, and Crackdown for turning everything around and allowing us to play in a similar sandbox with a focus on a more traditional hero. Similar to good iteration, skillful combination of elements can make for a great game as well. Look no further than Puzzle Quest for proof of that: the marriage of simple match-three puzzle gameplay and traditional RPG leveling and skills made for an enthralling game that kept gamers addicted for hours.

How does this relate to Outland? Well, Outland is the combination and iteration of several gameplay styles that don’t seem compatible at first glance. It is equal parts Ikaruga and Metroid. From Ikaruga, Outland lifts the idea of color playing a role in whether bullet-hell-style projectiles hurt the player but iterates on the idea by making red enemies only able to take damage from a blue player and vice versa. From Metroid, it lifts the general game design: the player explores a large map, gains upgrades and abilities as the game progresses, and battles screen-filling bosses in order to advance the story. 

The art is beautiful and minimalistic. Everything is reminiscent of Aztec design, and color is used to great effect to communicate to the player how a section should be passed. Projectiles are blue, not only because blue is a pretty color, but because it communicates to the player that leaving the character red will make the next section difficult or impossible. The color-changing mechanic makes combat more challenging by throwing groups of red and blue enemies at you at the same time forcing you to be constantly aware of what color you are versus what color your enemy is because it won’t do any good to whack that blue beetle when you are a blue guy. Platforming sections also flex the color-changing mechanic by alternating blue-only platforms with red bullets and other arrangements that force color changes in mid-air and in the middle of a combat scenario.

Outland may not do anything new, but it combines elements from great games to great effect, creates a challenging campaign, and looks great while it does it. Outland is challenging without feeling cheap, artistic without feeling pretentious, and fun without being expensive. I am honestly surprised that Microsoft didn’t hold on to this one for 2011’s Summer of Arcade promotion.

Pros: Interesting art design, skillful marriage of shmup concepts with Metroidvania gameplay

Cons: It doesn’t pull any punches – as soon as a concept is introduced it is ratcheted up quickly

Andreas Seyfarth’s Puerto Rico (published in the US by Alea, with editions by both Rio Grande and Ravensburger) has been one of the top-ranked games on BoardGameGeek pretty much forever, including several stints at #1 (currently #2). Originally published in 2002, it is a complex strategy game that has stood the test of the last decade. It may not be the prettiest game at the table, but its lasting appeal cannot be denied.

Puerto Rico supports from three to five players (an official 2-player variant also exists), who each receive a board with two sections: an island made up of green squares, and a city made up of purple rectangles. A central board contains the buildings that can be purchased, broken up into four levels; nearby are the cargo ships, colonist pool, and victory point (VP) chips in amounts dictated by the number of players. Each player receives a number of doubloons (one less than the number of players) and initial plantation tiles are dealt out according to turn order. The first player receives the Governor tile, which passes to the left after every round.

The main mechanic in Puerto Rico is role selection, which inflicts a variable phase order on all players. There are six main roles to choose from: Settler, Mayor, Builder, Craftsman, Trader, and Captain; each role has a general action all players take and a special privilege offered to the player who selected it that round. A seventh role, Prospector, is available only when playing with more than three players (two copies if five) and affects only the player who selects it. Unselected roles at the end of a round each have one doubloon placed on them, which accumulates until someone finally takes it and receives the cash bonus although it is rare for a role to be unselected for more than two consecutive rounds. The role you select each round is crucial to success, although you have to anticipate what your opponents are likely to select and plan accordingly. Keeping in mind who will be Governor next round is also important; on a round in which you are Governor, there will be a long wait until you get first pick again and it is easy to inadvertently set up a situation where one or more of your opponents profit from your decision before — or instead of! — you.

The Settler role allows each player to take one of the randomly-available plantation tiles (corn, indigo, sugar, tobacco, and coffee) and place it on their island; a quarry tile is also available to the privileged player. The Builder allows each player to purchase a single building and place it on their city; buildings provide VP at the end of the game as well as enabling players to break certain rules or otherwise gain advantages, but only if the buildings are staffed by a colonist. Selecting the Mayor role distributes colonists from the colonist ship to each player as evenly as possible, with the privileged player receiving an extra from the pool (in addition to the fact that the distributing begins with that player, so any uneven amounts reward him first as well); colonists are then assigned to plantations and/or buildings to activate them, with any surplus colonists being placed in the San Juan space as a holding zone, and the colonist ship is then restocked with a number of colonists equal to the number of vacant building spaces on all players’ boards or to the number of players, whichever is greater.

The Craftsman role does nothing unless a player has occupied one or more plantations, and all plantations but corn also require a corresponding occupied building; players who have the required occupied tiles produce goods, and the privileged player produces one additional good of any one type he produced. These goods can be sold via the Trader action (the privileged player receives one additional doubloon) or converted into VP via the Captain action (with one additional VP for the privileged player); both of these actions have specific restrictions on how they can be executed that might (and often will) force players into either sub-optimal plays or shutting them out of the action completely. The Captain action in particular is mandatory, and once all players have shipped as many goods as possible they lose all of their remaining goods save one unless they have a storage building to contain the others. A player opting to Prospect for the round simply receives one doubloon (plus any that have accumulated on it).

The game continues until one of three conditions are met: one, the colonist pool is exhausted (as the result of a Mayor action); two, a player has filled all twelve spaces in his city (via the Builder action; note that there are some large buildings that occupy two spaces); or three, the VP pool is exhausted (additional VP beyond the initial pool is still awarded as necessary). Once one or more of these events occur, the current round is finished and total VPs tallied. Ties are broken by the number of remaining goods and doubloons. 

A game of Puerto Rico is usually around 90 minutes in length, although the experience levels of each player is a major factor in play time due to the number of factors that must be considered each turn. Even with all but the most insanely-prepared veteran players there can be a significant set-up time as well, especially when it comes to counting out the VP and colonist pools. Between the bare-bones presentation and the weighty strategy it can be difficult to get new players interested in the game, but those who do appreciate this kind of strategy will quickly find themselves hooked. This is definitely a game you want to try before you buy (probably a few times), but is generally available for between $30 and $40 dollars if you want to add it to your collection.

Ronimo Games, those guys behind the student project that later became de Blob, unveiled the team’s followup effort to side-scrolling RTS Swords & Soldiers. The game, titled Awesomenauts, is an arena battling game for PSN and XBLA. With a focus on online play and an aesthetic reminiscent of 1980s cartoons, it should be one to watch.

We’ll have an in-depth look at Awesomenauts at E3, so we’ll be sure to snag all the details.

You can’t fault a game for trying new things. After all, with a system launch as full of retreads as the 3DS’, anything seems like a breath of fresh air. Enter Dream Trigger 3D, a game that is nothing but new things. Unfortunately, trying often leads to failing, and though there are some intriguing parts to the game, the way everything is tied together just feels a bit disjointed.

At first, it seems a bit like games such as Rez and Child of Eden. You’re a ship of a sort, shooting enemies in a 3D environment from a 2D plane. The visuals are trippy and artistic, which we guess makes sense from developer ART, and the whole thing is set to musical cues.

From there it gets a bit frazzled. You see, you can’t just shoot the enemies right away. First, you have to expose them by tapping on corresponding parts of the bottom screen, revealing them on the top screen and letting you take them out. Yes, this is tough, and it’s a big part of Dream Trigger. It seems like a mechanic that fans of dual-screen games like Henry Hatsworth will enjoy, as it makes for another one of those pat-head/rub-belly exercises that require a certain brand of mental acuity. (The game supports a left-handed mode, as well as a control setup that lets players use buttons instead of the touch screen. This makes things a bit less of a juggle, but the speed at which you can do things goes down a bit. You’ll want to invest the time to learn the intended controls.)

There are fifty stages to the main game, with boss fights where you take on baddies based on nightmare concepts: you’ll fight Fear, Desire, Rage and others on your way to the end. 

Even when you learn the controls, though, Dream Trigger is hard. Unlike the almost-calming Child of Eden, Dream Trigger has some elements that feel almost reminiscent of bullet-hell games, and bosses take more hits than would seem reasonable. Ultimately, it’s a matter of pattern memorization, learning levels and knowing where enemies will be before they appear.  

Besides the main game, there’s not too much to do. You can try for better scores on each level, take on a friend in a strange versus mode where you take on enemies and avoid opponent attacks simultaneously and replay campaign stages in Time Attack mode, where it’s speed rather than points that’s tracked.

There’s a very specific type of person who will want to play Dream Trigger 3D, and they already know who they are. This isn’t the game to ease people into the genre, and it’s not exactly a 3DS showpiece, but it has enough of its own hook to get those danmaku die-hards to plunk down their cash.

Pros: Interesting visual style, attempts at innovation

Cons: Steep learning curve, limited appeal