8.5

Sleeping Dogs

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Sleeping Dogs CoverI like freedom in games. That being said, I love open world games-the ability to run around a virtual world, doing missions whenever I please, and I will give any open-world sandbox game a chance, from Toy Story to Saints Row. I fondly remember the “undercover cop” GTA rip-off True Crime series so ridiculous it was almost hard to take serious about ten years ago-yeah, the one that let you play as Snoop Dog. I soon found out that Sleeping Dogs, seemingly released out of nowhere this month, was the once-titled True Crime: Hong Kong, only having changed names due to legal reasons after switching publishers from Activision to Square Enix. While it may have once belonged in a line of True Crime games, TRUST ME- In no way, shape, or form is this anything like what I remember the True Crime series being like. (In a good way.)

With Square Enix’s reboot, remastering and renaming of the True Crime franchise, now Sleeping Dogs, they have tooled what could prove to be one of the biggest surprise smash hits this year with tight gameplay all around and with a story more compelling than most of Rockstar or THQ’s gangster tales have ever felt. Here is my review of Sleeping Dogs for Xbox 360.

Penumbra: Black Plague

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Penumbra Black Plague CoverAfter playing Penumbra: Overture, everyone knew a sequel was on its way. The ending leaves scores of questions unanswered and perfectly prepares a follow-up. In 2008, Frictional Games released Penumbra: Black Plague, and in many ways, Black Plague does make the original feel like a mere overture. Frictional well heeded feedback following Overture's release and significantly tuned up their product in regards to pacing, controls, physics, and character interaction. All while continuing the fantastically creepy atmosphere and adding significant new elements to the story.

Blackwell Unbound

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Blackwell Unbound CoverFresh on the heels of the well-received The Blackwell Legacy arrives Blackwell Unbound. After playing and thoroughly enjoying the first for our Indie Impression feature, continuing was an inevitability. For reference, Legacy was released in 2006, and Unbound in 2007. There have since been two more releases in the semi-episodic series, so I'm still a bit behind. I am playing the re-released versions in the Blackwell Bundle, which offer improved voice acting as well as bug fixes and some extras. The Blackwell series (as well The Shivah) were primarily developed by Dave Gilbert and his studio, Wadjet Eye Games.

For ease of writing, I'm just going to assume that you don't mind to be aware of mild spoilers in the first act of the first game. After all, it's printed everywhere, including the covers of these very games. Essentially, the Blackwell series is about the generational history of this family who has been "blessed" to be mediums to the restless spirit world. In the case of the Blackwells, they have been assigned by the powers that be to a ghost detective named Joey Malone. He is forced to stay with his medium at all times and guide them towards restless ghosts in the world who have, for one reason or another, been unable to pass on into the afterlife.

During Legacy, we played as Rosangela, the newest medium in the Blackwell family. She has to fight through a bit of family history as well as her own personal weaknesses, before encountering her family's legacy. In Unbound, we travel back to her aunt, Lauren, who has already met and come to terms with Joey.

Plants vs. Zombies

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Plants vs Zombies CoverPlants vs. Zombies is a game I've been eyeing for a while.  It regularly tempted me at $10 Steam with even cheaper sale prices.  This summer's sale finally put me over the edge.  Every so often you need some good tower defense action, and PvZ seemed like a unique yet highly praised take on the genre.  Its cartoonish, Popcap/flash feel and simple five-lane setup makes things perfect for beginners.  And it has enjoyed massive success over a huge variety of platforms.  Originating on PC, PvZ has since expanded to every modern platform imaginable, both traditional and mobile.  Popcap is undeniably a casual gaming powerhouse.  The Bejeweled and Feeding Frenzy creators certainly know how to make products and pricing that clicks with the average consumer.  They've been so successful that EA recently purchased the company for ~$750 million.

For the most part, PvZ exemplifies this success.  It creates a casual-friendly atmosphere with calculated progressive learning combined with enough longevity and a tad of optional difficulty to round out the complete package.  The game starts slowly, at first holding your hand with only a couple plant options (towers) available to defend your house from a weak zombie horde on a completely barren level.  With only five lanes to defend, beginners will learn quickly what it takes to operate.  In case they make mistakes, the game includes a get-out-of-jail-free card, in the form of zombie-clearing machines that activate and clear the lane should a zombie make it past the plants.  For a while, the game introduces a new plant on almost every level, encouraging the player to try them out and discover what they're worth.  Soon enough, juggling several plant types on more obnoxious levels will be a requirement.

Pokémon HeartGold and SoulSilver

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Pokemon Heartgold CoverThe “Pokemon fad” died about ten years ago, but the franchise is still as strong as ever as Diamond and Pearl sold over 17 million copies worldwide.  In order to satiate the appetite of rabid Pokemon fans anxiously awaiting the next generation of games (which were recently announced as Black and White), Nintendo decided to remake the second generation games, Gold and Silver.  Pokemon has changed a lot in the ten years since the release of Gold and Silver, but fortunately Nintendo has added every single innovation into the remake, along with a few new ones.

Split/Second

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Split Second CoverIn all my years, I’ve never been much of a racing game fan. Quite honestly, the idea of doing the same thing over and over feels tedious to me. While some games, like Need for Speed Underground and Gran Turismo have offered vehicle customization to try and keep things fresh, they still seem to fall into a slump of painful repetition.

But Black Rock Studios, the creators of Pure, have strived to come up to a solution to this plague, and that is massive destruction and a game premise unique from any other racing game I’ve ever laid my eyes on. This solution is called Split/Second.

The premise of the game is that you’re a stunt driver in a reality television series called Split/Second, that has these stunt drivers racing against each other in cities manufactured by the television show. While stunts, in themselves, are not entirely new, the massive chaos is extremely refreshing.

We’ve all played Mario Kart, and we’ve shot koopa shells at our enemies and laughed as they were rendered motionless while we passed them into first place, and it’s relatively satisfying to a point, but this is different.

But where Mario Kart is set to stun, Split/Second is set to kill. From gas station explosions and helicopters dropping explosive barrels to air planes crashing on the raceway, this game delivers a completely original adrenaline rush that delivers over and over again.

You’re in control of these beautiful disasters with power plays, which are your weapons in this dog-eat-dog racing world. The way to activate them is to accumulate energy. You can accomplish this by drifting around corners, drafting behind your opponents, and jumping with your vehicle. You also receive a bonus amount of energy by passing opponents while drifting, jumping past opponents and dodging power plays set off in your path.

Scribblenauts

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Scribblenauts Cover

The most talked about DS game at this year’s E3 wasn’t another installment in a popular and established franchise, but instead a strikingly original title from the creators of the Drawn to Life series, 5th Cell. In the same spirit as their million-seller, Scribblenauts relies heavily on the creativity of the player. Armed with tens of thousands of words, you must solve puzzles that range from moving a cow off the road to saving people from a horde of hungry zombies. If you can think it, you can do it.

Players control the rooster hat-wearing Maxwell, a kid that always has a smirk and curiously wear shorts with long sleeves. Maxwell is thrown into hundreds of levels with one simple goal: find and obtain an object called a starite. In order to do this, the player must summon objects by writing them via a mini-keyboard or by spelling them out (trust me, it’s easier to just use the keyboard). Objects will then appear in the level to help, or in some cases, hurt you. The game boats tens of thousands of objects, and 5th Cell has done a remarkable job including pretty much everything you can think of. Practical objects like bridges, ladders, and boxes are in the game, but it also has every kind of obscure animal, vehicle, or instrument you can think of. The game is also filled with a lot of bizarre and nerdy objects such as internet memes (lol wut is a personal favorite), Lovecraftian monsters, mythological creatures, giant robots and everything in between. Is a helibackpack a real thing? It doesn’t matter, it’s in the game and can be quite useful.

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