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PLAYSTATION MOVE SHARP SHOOTER ATTACHMENT REVIEW

PLAYSTATION MOVE SHARP SHOOTER ATTACHMENT REVIEW 150 150 GAMESFWD

The PlayStation Move Sharp Shooter Attachment is one of the most immersive, advanced and realistic video game gun peripherals ever to hit the market. However, it does have some ergonomic quirks and a rather high cost of entry.

To use the PlayStation Move Sharp Shooter Attachment, you need a PlayStation Move Motion Controller, a PlayStation Move Navigation Controller and a PlayStation Eye, meaning before you even have a game to play, you must invest about $160 including the cost of the gun itself.

Assembling the PlayStation Move Sharp Shooter Attachment is quite easy. The PlayStation Move Motion Controller is housed on the top under a locking snap mechanism and makes use of the output port of the controller. The PlayStation Move Navigation Controller rests in the bottom handle.

Once assembled, the PlayStation Move Sharp Shooter Attachment is about 21 inches long. With its telescoping stock extended it grows to about 25 inches. The assembled unit weighs in at about three pounds.

This Peripheral Has no Shortage of Input OptionsThe PlayStation Move Sharp Shooter Attachment has a veritable arsenal of inputs. The spring-loaded trigger is very smooth and responsive and is accompanied by a three setting rate of fire switch. Under that is a Move button which is generally mapped to an alternate fire or grenade input. The Move button has a “safety” lock mechanism to prevent unwanted firing.

Above the trigger on either side of the gun are triangle and square buttons that are generally mapped to weapon switching or secondary actions.

The handle that the PlayStation Move Navigation Controller is in has a shotgun-style pump action for reloading and there is even a button on the bottom of the gun that simulates snapping a clip of ammunition into place.

My issue is that the PlayStation Move Navigation Controller is in an unnatural-feeling location. Utilizing the analog stick, d-pad, two face buttons and two triggers effectively can be awkward and challenging. Putting the controller in a more vertical position or allowing it to twist from side to side would have made it more comfortable to operate.

If you can stomach the cost of entry, you’ll find what is arguably the best home console gun peripheral ever in the PlayStation Move Sharp Shooter Attachment. However, with a currently limited compatible software selection of less than half a dozen titles, it’s very hard to recommend people who don’t already have the required hardware.

Positives:

+ Provides an Immersive and Realistic Shooting Experience
+ Lots of Well-Built Input Options
+ Ambidextrous Design

Negatives:

– Start Up Cost is $160 without a Game
– PlayStation Move Navigation Controller Placement can be Awkward to Use

MATT HAZARD: BLOOD BATH AND BEYOND REVIEW

MATT HAZARD: BLOOD BATH AND BEYOND REVIEW 150 150 GAMESFWD

Fans of tough as nails arcade gameplay in the vein of Contra or Metal Slug will get the most out of Matt Hazard: Blood Bath and Beyond while those looking for the next great 2.5D side-scrolling adventure will be disappointed by linear, uninspired level designs.

Matt Hazard is an out of work old-school video game character whose best days are behind him. Things get worse when his arch nemesis General Neutronov escapes into the Marathon Megasoft game server and kidnaps a past version of Matt Hazard with the intention of deleting it and thus ending his existence entirely.

Matt Hazard’s sidekick has the ability to teleport him into any of the games on the Marathon Megasoft server that General Neutronov escapes to. These fictional video games often parody the look of real-life titles like Mirror’s EdgeBioshock and Elevator Action, though the gameplay of Matt Hazard: Blood Bath and Beyond remains almost exclusively rooted in run-and-gun territory.

Much like the 2009 critical and commercial failure Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard, this follow-up features juvinile, self-referential humour that plays on a number of video game clichés and highlights Hazard’s own real-world shortcomings. Hazard himself is reminiscent of Duke Nukem or Serious Sam and comes complete with a number of spoken puns and one-liners.

The story in Matt Hazard: Blood Bath and Beyond is pretty much nonexistent, but there are text-based cut scenes that precede the game’s eight levels to set up the premise of each one and crack a few jokes. The game is not particularly well-written or funny, but it is constant with its humour and I will admit to laughing once or twice at the dialogue of General Neutronov.

Each level will take about 15-20 minutes to complete during your first run through the game and each culminates with a boss fight, most of which are rather well done. Despite the levels being intricately detailed, they are also extremely linear except for a couple towards the end that feature branching paths. You are unable to backtrack through levels, so obtaining all of the collectibles in Matt Hazard: Blood Bath and Beyond will require multiple playthroughs of some levels though a Quick Play mode that is unlocked after beating the game.

In between levels, you get to play Ragdoll Pachinko using coins that you collect by killing certain enemies. This fun game of chance would make a great iPhone/iPod Touch App and determines the bonus score you receive at the end of each level, which will likely drive some of those with aspirations of climbing the leaderboards crazy. There are also colleciable Game Boxes to obtain for each level, which do little but provide a bit of extra personality to the game.

Fans of side-scrolling shooting games will be pleased to know that Matt Hazard: Blood Bath and Beyond is a rather difficult entry in the genre. It was not uncommon for me to experience 20-30 deaths in a level my first time through the game, especially while trying to figure out boss patterns or falling victim to platforming sections that are made frustrating by floaty controls.

The three levels of difficulty do nothing to the game itself, but rather they adjust the amount of lives and continues that you start the game with. The lowest difficulty affords you with unlimited continues while the most difficult allows none. Leaderboards can be sorted by difficulty, so it’s easy to know exactly where you stand.

Matt Hazard: Blood Bath and Beyond can best be described as a blood-soaked mashup of Metal Slug and Contra and generally sees you running left to right while destroying everything in your path, though action does take place on a third dimension occasionally. When you see enemies in the background, you can focus on them by holding the left trigger.

You can also make Hazard stand in place and aim using either of the bumpers or toss grenades with the right trigger. Shooting and jumping are mapped to face buttons, as is Hazard Time; a short burst of power and invulnerability. Movement is mapped to both the left analog stick and d-pad

Though functional, the control scheme can be cumbersome and it lacks the fluidity of a title like Shadow Complex. The right analog stick is not used, but one-handed gamers may have difficulty with Matt Hazard: Blood Bath and Beyond because it uses both triggers or bumpers and face buttons in tandem.

One area where this game shines is in its graphical presentation. Every level is extremely detailed and the lighting and shadows are among the best I’ve seen on Xbox LIVE Arcade. Even during heavy action and boss fights Matt Hazard: Blood Bath and Beyond runs at a smooth 60 frames per second with no screen tearing. One fault that did annoy me was the tendency of enemy bullets to be obscured by lighting effects or bright spots in the background.

Aside from Matt Hazard’s in-game speech clips, there is little about the audio design that stands out. Weapon and explosion sound effects are adequate, but on the thin side and the soundtrack was completely forgettable, if not well-themed.

I did enjoy the few hours it took to complete Matt Hazard: Blood Bath and Beyond once I got used to the controls, however there was very little to draw me back when I was done and I can’t help but feel it would have been a much better value at a $10 price point.  High score chasers will get the most out of this game while casual players may wonder exactly what they paid a premium price for.

As long as you know what you are getting into and not expecting a sprawling adventure like Shadow ComplexTrine or Bionic Commando: Rearmed, there certainly is some fun to be had with Matt Hazard: Blood Bath and Beyond and you can even play co-op with a buddy on your couch or via Xbox LIVE.

Positives:

+ Excellent Graphics and Performance
+ Humourous Story and Parodies
+ Lots of Personality

Negatives:

– Linear Level Design
– Floaty Platforming Controls
– Somewhat Cumbersome Control Scheme

FWD News: The Gift of Gaming

FWD News: The Gift of Gaming 150 150 GAMESFWD

For many individuals living with disabilities, getting or improving their access to video games can be a gift that keeps on giving. Just ahead of the 2010 holiday season, our friends at The AbleGamers Foundation announced the delivery of their first Assistive Technology grant through a partnership with Quasimoto Interactive, a specialty gaming cabinet designer and manufacturer.

Together they offered the means to improve access to mainstream gaming to a 13-year old girl from Cincinatti, Ohio, living with cerebral palsy. The foundation fulfilled this young girl’s gaming dream by offering her a QuasiCon Axis controller (PDF), thanks to a warm-hearted donation from Quasimoto. Read More…

“There are not enough word to describe how thankful I am to Quasimoto for making this little girl’s dream come true. She was really happy and her father called [us] almost in tears,” said Mark Barlet, President of the AbleGamers Foundation, to Game Forward. “We hope this is the start of something great.”

In November, Gaming Nexus writer John Yan reported that his four-year old son Kyle, diagnosed with a relatively functional form of Autism, had finally connected with a video game, through Microsoft’s Kinect for Xbox 360 motion gaming system. For the first time, Yan saw Kyle dive right into the game—Kinect Adventures—thanks to the intuitive and controller-free nature of the system. The four-year old even succeeded in manoeuvring through the menus, after a few instructions from his father.

“Throughout my hour session with my son by my side, I was constantly impressed by how easy he could figure out each game and play them without getting fed up,” wrote Yan on Gaming Nexus. “For the first time, I was able to play something with my son and not spend any time with him being frustrated on not being to do anything or have a character get stuck on the screen.”

“He had fun with all the games and actually did well with them. The joy in his eyes as he was able to complete the tasks and move around in the menus is something I’ll never forget,” added Yan. This wonderful anecdote offers accessibility experts an exciting outlet to help youth living with Autism find a new way to interact.

With its ongoing commitment to innovation and adaptive gaming, Valve Software—makers of Portal and Half-Life— is increasingly recognized as a leader in accessibility. Mike Ambinder, experimental psychologist with Valve has recently discussed the developer’s interest in including eye-tracking support in its games. Speaking with Gamasutra, Ambinder talked about the potential of eye movements as an input method.

“We’re always curious about alternative control devices and are constantly researching and playing around with nontraditional controllers in the hopes of finding an approach that might lead to an interesting gameplay experience,” Ambinder said.

While speaking in hypothetical terms for now, Ambider looks forward to the adaptive uses of eye tracking. “It may be possible in the future to let the eyes act as a proxy for the mouse cursor, letting gamers transmit navigation and targeting inputs via eye movements. If you couple this approach with the use of blinks or other proxies for button presses, you may remove the need for a mouse and keyboard (or gamepad) all together.”

SINGSTAR DANCE REVIEW

SINGSTAR DANCE REVIEW 150 150 GAMESFWD

SingStar Dance allows up to four friends to sing and dance along to 30 pop hits using PlayStation Move Motion Controllers, a PlayStation Eye and two included microphones. Players can also upload and share their performances to the My SingStar Online community.

Unfortunately, the dance element is far from intuitive and lacks enough content to be compelling. Long-time SingStar fans will also find a high ratio of content that has been previously released on disc and as DLC though the SingStore.

For the uninitiated, the SingStar series are karaoke performance games that, in most cases, feature the original music videos of popular songs form the 1960s to present day. Players are scored on both their pitch and timing across three difficulty levels. There is no way to actually fail a song in SingStar and the games thrive in a social gaming environment.

SingStar Dance, as its name suggests, adds dancing to the mix by way of one PlayStation Move Motion Controller per dancer. During dance-enables songs, a recorded professional dancer will appear on the right side of the screen.

Players must hold their Playstation Move Motion Controller in their right hand and attempt to follow along to the on-screen dancer as they perform choreography. This controller-based approach to dancing doesn’t feel very natural and the choreography relies heavily on right arm motions, oftentimes looking awkward.

Should a friend want to dance with you, the game will switch to a two-person routine that includes distinct co-operative moves and features a second on-screen dancer to follow. This helps add some variety to the dance routines and keeps the game marginally interesting. For the most part, however, the dancing adds nothing positive to the SingStar series and simply isn’t very fun.

Though the developers did include a practice mode, I never seem to feel comfortable with the routines, given their unnatural overuse of your right arm and no system in place to remind you of the next move. I feel like I’m blindly trying to follow along with a music video rather than really learning a dance routine.

The biggest problem with SingStar Dance is its content, or rather lack thereof. The 30 on-disc songs make great choices as dance songs and do represent good value thanks to the inclusion of music videos and two dance routines for each, however these are only 30 songs out of a library of almost more than 1000 including the PS2 SingStar titles.

I’ve been playing SingStar since it was introduced to North America and even imported the UK version of the first PlayStation 3 title months before it was released here. I have a library of well over 300 songs at this point, so to only be able to use less than 10% of them in dance mode is sorely disappointing and makes this edition feel like a cheap novelty.

About a dozen dance-enabled add-ons for previously released songs are available on the SingStore at this time at a cost of $0.49 each (songs themselves are $1.49). I should note that dance add-ons only work with content purchased on the SingStore and not with disc-based content released prior to SingStar Dance.

Obviously it would be logistically impossible for the developers to add distinct choreography to the entire SingStar library, however what they could have done is created a pool of generic dance routines that could be used with any song of a certain length or at a certain tempo.

Because of its awkward dance mechanics and re-hashed song selection, I can safely say that SingStar Dance is my least favourite edition in the entire series and that I’ll likely never play it again other than to show my friends how bad it really is.

The one-armed dance mechanic can be easily cheated, the rap system is still completely broken and I already had more than 30% of the included songs in my library; a problem likely to happen to many long-time SingStar fans.

Positives:

+ Great Social Gaming Title
+ Can Record, Upload and Share Content with Large Online Community

Negatives:

– Dancing Mechanics are Not Fun, can be Cheated
– Content Overlaps with Older Discs and DLC
– Less than 45 Dance-Enabled Songs in a Library of over 1000

DECODING BIOLOGY WITH SPONGELAB INTERACTIVE

DECODING BIOLOGY WITH SPONGELAB INTERACTIVE 150 150 GAMESFWD

Since 2007, Spongelab Interactive has been working in the IT-based education field, notably developing games which have received positive feedback from students and experts alike.

With its latest release entitled History of Biology, the Canadian company is now getting students to take a look at some of the great moments in the advancement of biology. Game Forward had the opportunity to evaluate the game and to speak with one of the co-founders of Spongelab, Dr. Jeremy Friedberg.

Armed with a doctorate in molecular genetics and biotechnology, Dr. Friedberg has also been extensively involved in scientific education outreach programs and a teacher for over ten years. This experience has taught him many tricks to teaching and stimulating students when it comes to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education.

Wanting to inspire young gamers to explore the world of science and biology, Spongelab based its approach on the need to integrate technology in the classroom. Through its games, Spongelab translates sometimes complex scientific material into easy-to-grasp, bite-sized lessons with the help interactive media.

In Friedberg’s opinion, game-based learning is more important than ever. “Along the way, people realised that it can be challenging to teach creativity and critical thinking. But we can create an environment that allows creativity to occur and help foster it.”

A key element in the ‘21st Century learning’ philosophy, game-based education has been used to various degrees since the 1960s. “Think only of flight simulation,” highlights Dr. Friedberg. “This hands-on experience allows users to practice reacting to random crises in a simulated environment. [Pilots] have to be creative and critical in emergency situations, when they do not expect it. This helps determine if they can use the information stored in their minds in times of crisis and figure out what to do.”

What makes game-based learning different from traditional textbooks and lectures, aside from being more entertaining and engaging, is that it allows for teaching and assessment at one time. It puts users in a realistic situation and evaluates their knowledge over time. Today, game-based learning is increasingly used in medical and surgical training, and a number of other fields such as military training, linguistics and even customer relations.

In History of Biology, Spongelab is using the power human drama to arouse the natural curiosity of students and teach them about historical moments in the advancement of biology. “Students get hooked on and very interested in the story,” Dr. Friedberg says about the game.

“More than just giving students facts, it puts them into context. It follows the rich, vivid story of characters as regular and flawed individuals, not monoliths of science. They had motivations behind their discoveries, and the game shows the political and social context around these characters. Stories told are sometimes sad, but real.”

Targeting students ranging from high school seniors to college juniors, the game introduces players to Dr. Shyre, a synthetic biochemist on the cusp of a major milestone in biology research. Players act as Shyre’s research assistant, who has gone into hiding but provides instructions via automated emails. Shyre has hidden his discovery from watchful eyes and asks for players to help uncover it through a series of scavenger-hunt puzzles based on groundbreaking discoveries in biology.

While some of the concepts presented are complex, the game can also reach younger audiences. Referring to a pilot project with a grade 8 class, Friedberg explains that students have a harder time solving the puzzles but usually succeeded with a little help from their teachers, staying motivated by the game’s captivating story. He also notes significant interest in the mainstream gaming community.

When used in a classroom setting, teachers have the ability to adapt the game’s workflow by checking off the weekly distribution of missions. While students are encouraged to work together, the solutions to each puzzle are randomized—meaning that no two students pull the same information. They can share problem-solving techniques, but not answers. The full version includes a teaching guide providing mission-by-mission solving tips and learning objectives for the game’s 14 levels.

History of Biology has two sides. The main interface is built around a computer workstation where students receive problems and use tools to solve them. However, players must also make use of the Internet to scavenge additional information required. For example, one mission asks students to view an online version of Robert Hooke’s Micrographia and use clues found within to answer a riddle. Using outside sources adds an interesting dimension to the game, pushing students to be crafty and pay close attention to details.

Having had the chance to demo the first three levels of the game, the quality of its production and presentation are outstanding. Excellent voice-overs, attractive looking graphics, an inspiring soundtrack and a smooth-running engine enhance the game’s rich educational content.

My main concern came with the difficulty of the puzzles. The tools to solve them are all available in some way, but understanding what exactly you are looking for can be quite challenging. In that context, the game strongly benefits from the guidance of a teacher with access to the manual which outlines the steps to follow. Creative thinking is essential to successfully getting through the game.

While History of Biology is presented as story-based game, Spongelab employs other methods to present different types of information. In its previous release entitled Genomics Digital Lab, Spongelab takes a more traditional approach. Although gaming remains central, Genomics Digital Lab is presented in chapters, exploring learning objectives in sections.

“We spent time looking at different types of game design to determine which is most effective for particular content,” said Friedberg. “The choice of design was based on what was practical in an educational environment. The information is broken down to make it easier to share with students in limited class time, by portioning content. The game style includes visual puzzles where students learn the relative relationship between shapes representing chemicals in a reaction, for example.”

“We also had to understand the classroom environment and give teachers the ability to assess students as well as an integrated reporting system including formative and summative feedback,” added Dr. Friedberg. Genomics Digital Lab was in fact the first title to use the company’s online deployment and assessment system, successfully managing many limitations found in the typical classroom.

“We had to work around technical constraints to make it a browser-based application requiring no installation, working on minimal specs, and accessible through secure networks. This 1.5Gb game uses universally accessible technology which can even run through dial-up Internet service.” With its unique deployment system, Spongelab games can be played on virtually any Internet-ready platform.

The game’s target age group starts around grade 8, with the goal of having students continue to use it year after year. The content begins superficially, but offers students more layers of detail over time. A recent study (PDF) from York University evaluated Genomics Digital Lab’s success rates with students between grades 9 and 12. It found that in more than half of the cases, their tests scores improved after playing the game and strongly recommended the software as a test review tool.

Based on a core curriculum which is universally taught, teachers can also tune the game to specific lesson plans. New lesson plans are still being added, currently reflecting all of Canada’s regional curriculums and about half of those from the United States. “We are sensitive to localizing content and have different language options, from American to British English to a variety of other languages,” Friedberg said.

These days, Spongelab is mainly working on creating content for four new real-time strategy titles—where players will manage different aspects of biology—and on developing a new content deployment system. However, as Dr. Friedberg explains, the company is also considering the possibility of tackling other subject matters. “We absolutely see ourselves permeating to other areas. Right now we see a need to focus on STEM. But for example, History of Biology pulls from every subject, from STEM and literacy to history and art. The historical model is a framework that can be applied and replicated for any subject.”

Looking further ahead to the growing role of educational games in schools, the company is seeing a small revolution. Classroom technology is changing rapidly with the introduction of open wireless broadband Internet and better computers. With the advent of small devices like portable tablets, Spongelab sees a lot of potential and is hopeful that content will eventually catch up. However, the classroom environment will need to be as strong as the technology available.

“The public education system will need to do more keep up, having more computers in the classroom, allowing content to be deployed through these devices,” finds Dr. Friedberg. “But this requires a different business model. Traditional textbooks have a life of about five years, tablet PCs can’t work the same way. Each student would be required to have a personal one as part of their school supplies. There is of course a socio-economic problem where the government would have to step in so that all students can be on equal footing.”

Despite missing some pieces that would allow game-based education to become the norm, companies like Spongelab continue to make headway. Reaching thousands of users in 65 countries around the world, Spongelab has made a name for itself through its content-rich and visually appealing STEM games.

KINECT FOR XBOX 360 HARDWARE REVIEW

KINECT FOR XBOX 360 HARDWARE REVIEW 150 150 GAMESFWD

When it works properly, Kinect for Xbox 360 provides a remarkably intuitive and immersive, controller-free gaming experience. However extremely restrictive play space requirements may prevent some gamers from getting the most out of the device.

Kinect for Xbox 360 utilizes an RGB camera for functions such as facial recognition. An infrared depth sensor allows the device to see your play area in 3D under any lighting conditions and a multiarray microphone allows for both voice commands and headset-free communication with friends.

Setting up Kinect for Xbox 360 is a simple and straightforward process. The sensor requires a power source and should be placed in the centre of your TV at a height of two to six feet (61-183 cm). According to the packaging and instructions, the sensor must be at least six to eight feet (183-244 cm) away from where you will be playing.

In my experience, however, this is simply not enough space for Kinect for Xbox 360 to function properly. At my initial sensor placement of four feet (122 cm) high and 7 feet (213cm) away from where I was standing, the Kinect sensor simply could not see enough of my body—I am 5’6” (168 cm) tall—and my floor to accurately detect my movements or create a Kinect ID through facial recognition regardless of lighting conditions.

After some adjustments, namely placing the Kinect sensor on my centre channel speaker at a height of about six feet (183 cm), I was able to successfully calibrate the device using a somewhat odd-looking calibration card included in the package. I was unable however, to properly go through the Kinect ID setup without moving my couch and creating a ten by ten foot (348 cm) play area.

This strict space requirement is the biggest downfall of Kinect for Xbox 360, particularly for those living in urban environments like apartments and condos. Having to clear our living room every time we want to play will likely hinder the amount of time we spend gaming with Kinect after the initial excitement and holiday social season pass.

With all of that said, once I got everything working properly, including a quick and easy voice calibration I started having fun. Lots of it, too. There is an inherent intuitiveness about using Kinect for Xbox 360 that makes it feel oddly natural.

If you wave to your Kinect sensor or say “Xbox Kinect” while on the standard Xbox 360 dashboard, you will be taken to the Kinect Hub; a voice and hand-controlled version of the dashboard. From here you can create Kinect IDs, use the Kinect tuner, or start up the Video Kinect communication tool. Unfortunately, you cannot access functions like system settings or memory management through the Kinect hub.

You can bring up the Kinect hub in-game by making a specific gesture for a few seconds in order to check your messages or just pause the game and take a break. In my experience during the first week after launch, Kinect gaming has been physically demanding, but also very enjoyable.

The sensor comes bundled with a Kinect Adventures disc that also contains demos for the insanely fun Dance Central, futuristic fitness game Your Shape: Fitness Evolved and Kinect Joy RideKinect Adventures itself is a middling collection of minigames, though it does feature online play and the ability to share content like photos through a dedicated website called Kinect Share.

Both Dance Central and Your Shape: Fitness Evolved excellently showcase the capabilities of Kinect as a full-body tracking motion control device and will likely become many Kinect for Xbox 360 adopters’ first two purchases as they were ours. Kinect Joy Ride is a rather shallow kart racing game that can be played while sitting down.

At this time, Kinect for Xbox 360 is rather inaccessible for physically challenged gamers. Though voice commands may help some in controlling media playback, the bulk of software available requires an able-bodied, if not physically fit player. A seated or one-handed player can simply not play most of what is available at all. On the bright side, hybrid games that use a standard controller as well as Kinect functionality are on their way and may prove to be more accessible.

Kinect for Xbox 360 is a very promising technology that can create a truly unique and immersive gaming experience for up to two players at once and represents a good value. It lays a solid groundwork for the future of controller-free gaming, however certain aspects, particularly the space requirements and rather noticeable lag contribute to a feeling of the technology not quite being ready.

Positives:

+ Truly Unique and Immersive Gaming Experience
+ Best Device for Active Gaming like Dance and Fitness
+ Arm and Voice Controls are Great for Media Playback

Negatives:

– Space Requirements Exceed Those Listed on Packaging
– Not Accessible to Disabled Gamers at Launch
– Two Player Limit

HEROES OF KALEVALA REVIEW

HEROES OF KALEVALA REVIEW 150 150 GAMESFWD

This colourful match-three puzzle game presents players with the added dimension of managing a simulated village. Available for iOS devices, Mac OS X and PC, Heroes of Kalevala is both pleasant and attractive, offering over 140 hand-crafted puzzles.

Behind the game is the premise that an evil witch is truing to take over the land of Kalevala. With the help of mythical heroes, players must solve puzzles to acquire gold used to buy houses and other village necessities so that residents can inhabit the land.

The puzzle gameplay is straightforward and includes a few special touches making it a unique experience. Puzzle boards have irregular shapes which range from level to level. Using a match-three mechanic similar to Bejeweled or Puzzle Quest, players must turn the background of every tile to blue before the time runs out. Doing so will complete the level.

Cleared pieces are replaced by others that cascade down but because of the irregular shape of the board the pieces that fall don’t always come in the location you might expect.

Happiness is the key to your success. Depicted by green happy faces above their heads, every happy resident will earn players ten bonus gold at the end of a puzzle. Making them happy is simple enough and requires the purchase of items for your village, such as trees.

If there are not enough happiness-inducing items in your village, residents will walk around with red sad faces above their heads, meaning no extra gold can be earned from them during a puzzle.

The witch’s evil crow will gradually circles the puzzle board, acting as a timer and progressively eating away at bonus gems. If it reaches its starting point before you turn all of the tiles blue, you will have to restart.

Players can slow down the crow’s progress by momentarily stunning him, either by making a match with pieces that touch it or by using a bomb in its proximity. The game keeps tracks of how many levels players have failed, so it is often best to restart a level when you think that it won’t be cleared in time.

As you play Heroes of Kalevala, your village will move up in rank starting at bronze, followed by silver and gold. As you advance, you will unlock new items in the shop. These range from different types of trees and larger buildings, to happiness-inducing items like fountains or sundials, and jobs like gardener, carpenter and farmer.

While jobs are meant to increase your village’s capacity, there is little to do beyond giving job hats to villagers. Players will eventually unlock the Settler, who they can purchase to open the next village. Before start a new village, you can select an amount of gold you want to transfer over to give you a head start.

Puzzles are numbered according to your overall progress, and are not assigned to a specific village. You could conceivably play all 140 plus puzzles without leaving the first village.

Heroes are also progressively unlocked as you collect gold in each village. They are used in puzzles and appear as character pieces on the board. Match them to use a hero’s special ability, which clears extra pieces on the board and turns tiles blue. Before beginning a new puzzle you will have the option to chose which unlocked hero you wish to use.

As you advance through the game, additional puzzle components with special clearing conditions are introduced such as a locked tiles, ice tiles, stone tiles and tar tiles. Alternatively, using a bomb will also work to remove or break down some of these special tiles. Small bombs appear by making four-piece matches, while larger bombs come from matches with five pieces or more. Some bombs will appear on the board at the beginning of a puzzle.

The simulation aspect of Heroes of Kalevala could have been more deeply explored. As it stands, there is very little to manage beyond buying and placing items. Once there are enough trees per resident, your job is done, until you can buy more houses and trees. It would have been interesting to add more challenges in your village such as needing to water trees regularly or repair houses.

The presentation is quite nice with brightly coloured 2D graphics. Central to the game, the heroes are very well drawn and detailed, their appearance reminiscent of Greek gods. The puzzles are also neatly designed, with clean looking graphics and tiles that change according to the village you are in.

The village backgrounds are attractively-coloured and detailed though the residents look underwhelming as basic sprites which occasionally clip into their surroundings. The soundtrack that accompanies the game is orchestrated and pretty.

The touch-based control scheme in Heroes of Kalevala is generally good, though it could use a some tweaks. Unsure whether it is because the controls are too sensitive or that the tiles are too small, there were a few instances when I tapped the touch screen to select a tile and the software selected another. This became a problem when pressed for time, especially when this mis-selection led to an unplanned match, thus ruining planned sequences or timing and requiring a do-over.

After five and a half hours of game play, I have completed 70 levels, unlocked all four villages, including one which I have finished and gold-ranked, and unlocked nine out of ten heroes. The game contains no difficulty settings but starts out very easy and ramps up in difficulty as you progress. However, it becomes easy again about half way through once you unlock most of the assists. Players can continue playing the puzzles indefinitely after having completed the storyline.

As a puzzle game, Heroes of Kalevala is fun and original, though familiar in its mechanics. With its varied puzzle formats and contents, the game can easily be played for a few hours at a time or in short bursts with little redundancy.

However, the village component could have been much deeper. Without the need to tend to your village or manage villagers beyond settling them in, this feels like a wasted opportunity. However, the overall product is still enjoyable and a solid pickup for fans of the puzzle genre.

Editorial Note: The team at 10tons Ltd. provided Game Forward with a review build of Heroes of Kalevala for iPhone and iPod Touch. It is also available on iPad for $4.99 and for Windows PC and Mac OSX at a suggested price of $9.99

Positives:

+ Fun and Varied Match-Three Puzzle Mechanic
+ Detailed Graphics, Supports Retina Display
+ Excellent Soundtrack

Negatives:

– Village Simulation Lacks Depth
– Controls can be Inaccurate, Too Sensitive

GUITAR HERO: WARRIORS OF ROCK GUITAR CONTROLLER REVIEW

GUITAR HERO: WARRIORS OF ROCK GUITAR CONTROLLER REVIEW 150 150 GAMESFWD

The Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock Guitar Controller features a modular design, “solid body” construction that reduces the chance of hardware malfunction and is the most lefty-friendly plastic guitar on the market today.

The touch strip that was introduced with the Guitar Hero: World Tour controller has been removed in favour of having all the internal electronics near the base of the controller’s neck. Instead of the neck detaching from the body, only the head does.

This design means less chance for the contacts to become damaged or loose over time, which was an all-too-common and frustrating flaw of previous controllers. The new design also allows for some customization, because the body’s “wings” can be detached and replaced.

I received a set of bonus wings with my purchase and found the process of switching them quite cumbersome because of a the locking mechanism.

The strum bar feels extremely responsive and even after playing through the Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock Quest Mode, the fret buttons feel new and they sound markedly quieter than on previous controllers we’ve owned

Though slightly smaller than recent guitar controllers in length, The Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock Guitar Controller feels comfortable and correctly weighted and the strap location feels more natural regardless of the handedness you play.

From a personal standpoint, this is the best Guitar Hero controller yet because the designers have finally included those of us that use the lefty flip option in their plans.

Though the whammy bar is still in the way a bit, the d-pad has been moved to a more central location and sunken, meaning no more aggravating, combo-breaking strums from accidentally brushing against the d-pad while playing.

The Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock Guitar Controller is perhaps the most accessible to physically challenged players yet as well. With the wings removed the guitar becomes a rather small, thin stick that could be modified or mounted for any number of table top or lap top uses with relative ease.

The removal of the touch strip may be lamented by some hardcore players, but for most players looking to replace an old controller, the Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock is an excellent choice thanks to its solid build quality and more universal design.

Positives:

+ Solid-Body Construction
+ More Lefty-Friendly Design
+ Modular Design could be Adapted for Accessibility Needs

Negatives:

– Touch Strip was Removed

Enabling Devices Makes Guitar Hero More Accessible

Enabling Devices Makes Guitar Hero More Accessible 150 150 GAMESFWD

In time for the release of Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock in late September 2010, individuals living with a physical disability can now play along more easily thanks to Enabling Devices’ recently released adapted Guitar Hero controller.

The controller takes the form of a tabletop control centre which allows users to play the game’s five coloured buttons in sync with the musical notes. The buttons are large and easy to press, either with a finger or using a mouth stick. The company also points out that the game’s easy beginner level allows users to hit any coloured button, going to the beat of the music without having to follow a specific pattern.

“Now there is no need to strum a guitar to join in on the fun,” explained Gail Cocciardi, Director of Product Development for Enabling Devices, which specializes in developing affordable learning and assistive technology devices to help people of all ages. “What makes it even more exciting is that the user can play at different levels of difficulty from beginner to expert – all with our tabletop controller.”

The bundle comes complete with a traditional Les Paul controller—so other friends can join in—copies of Guitar Hero: World Tour (with beginner level) and Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock for the PlayStation 3, as well as the tabletop control centre which is also compatible with PS2 consoles and games. The entire package is priced at $249.95 USD.

“One of the goals of our company is to adapt bestselling games and toys so that people with disabilities can enjoy them along with their family and friends, said (PDF) Dr. Steven Kanor, President of the company. “We are thrilled that we have been able to adapt the electronics of Guitar Hero and create an easy to use tabletop control center.”

A video demonstration of Enabling Devices’ adapted Guitar Hero controller can be seen here.

Editorial Note: When Sony issued the 3.50 firmware for the PlayStation 3, they disabled the use of many USB peripherals in an attempt to curb the use of counterfeit controllers and correct a major security flaw. Game Forward has confirmed with Enabling Devices that the adapted Guitar Hero controller does still work on PlayStation 3 consoles because it is modified from an officially licensed controller

Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light Review

Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light Review 150 150 GAMESFWD

This isometric action-adventure features a lengthy campaign with high replay value, a precise and fluid control scheme and excellent local co-op play. Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is not only one of the best downloadable games I have played, but one of the best games to ever star everyone’s favourite raider of tombs.

The premise is that Lara Croft comes across an artefact called the Mirror of Smoke in Central America at the same time as a local gang leader, who unwittingly frees the evil Xolotl and Totec, the ancient warrior who trapped him in the Mirror of Smoke.

Lara and Totec team up in an effort to chase down and re-imprison Xolotl, who escapes to a stronghold deep underground that is protected my a perilous labyrinth filled with traps obstacles and a variety of environmental puzzles.

Lara Croft is very agile and is capable of lengthy leaps, quick evasive rolls and interacting with a host of objects. She also has a grappling hook that enables her to latch on to golden rings found throughout the game’s 14 expansive levels.

Aside from basic platforming abilities, Lara becomes armed with a magic spear that acts as both a weapon with unlimited ammunition and a device that allows her to scale large walls or gaps by acting as a jumping point when thrown at most walls. There is a caveat however; Lara cannot use weapons while perched on a spear.

Combat in Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is quite different than in the Tomb Raider games. It takes a dual-stick approach, with your right analog stick used for aiming and the right trigger used to fire. Lara can equip three weapons in addition to the mandatory magic spears. Lara also has an unlimited supply of explosives that can be used to destroy or interact with objects in addition to doing damage to advancing enemies.

There are over 20 weapons to be collected; from Lara Croft’s iconic dual pistols, to machine guns, flamethrowers and grenade launchers. The game can be quite combat-heavy at times and some sections will pit Lara against a large number of powerful foes at once. These sections can be both infuriating and extremely satisfying to get through.

The controls in Lara Croft and the Guardian of light are fluid, precise, intuitive and a host of other positive words. Jumping, dodging, bombs and action are mapped to the face buttons. Players can toggle weapons with the d-pad or left trigger and Lara’s grappling hook is fired with a bumper. There are slight variations when playing co-op as Totec.

Mastering the controls is key to completing a host of in-game challenges. Players will be awarded Relics and Artifacts that can be used to upgrade weapons and abilities for finishing levels within a target time or reaching certain scores.

There are also a number of collectibles to obtain such as health and ammo upgrades and each level has ten red skulls hidden throughout. Challenge rooms will present a single environmental puzzle that is usually a bit tougher than those in levels.

Players looking for value will find plenty in Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light. The campaign took me over seven hours to complete and I collected maybe 70% of the items in the game and completed about 60% of the challenges. This game is excellent for those that like speed runs as well and I found myself replaying levels a few times, trying to shave precious seconds of my best time.

This game also has one of the best local co-op modes in recent memory. Lara and Totec can propel each other to great heights and a number of co-op specific puzzles are introduced that are not present in the single-player experience, providing yet another reason to play through the game more than once.

Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is a good-looking and highly-polished game. Great lighting and shadow effects minimize frustrating “blind leaps”; a common problem with isometric platformers. The game maintains a rock-solid frame rate, even during intense combat or chase situations and features a warm colour palette and nice special effects.

The audio presentation isn’t on the same level as the video, but still fares well. This game features competent, if somewhat uninspired voice acting throughout and a suitably cinematic soundtrack. It should be noted that any in-game speech is not subtitled, though cut scenes are.

Downloadable games don’t get much better than Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light. This effort from Crystal Dynamics is extremely well-presented and will, without a doubt, appear on many 2010 game of the year lists. The extremely high replay value, fluid controls and excellent production outclass many current retail offerings that sell at four times the price.