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DEAD RISING 2: CASE ZERO REVIEW

DEAD RISING 2: CASE ZERO REVIEW 150 150 GAMESFWD

Dead Rising 2: Case Zero provides players with an idea of what to expect from the sequel to the 2006 Xbox 360 exclusive Dead Rising and introduces new protagonist Chuck Greene. This demo-cum-prequel also reassures fans that almost everything they loved about the first game is intact and the tense, time-constrained gameplay experience has not been watered down.

Chuck Greene is a motorcycle stuntman with a big problem. His daughter Katey has been infected with a virus that will turn her into a zombie unless she gets a shot of a drug called Zombrex every 12 hours. We are introduced to Chuck and Katey as they pull into a gas station in the small desert town of Still Creek in search of supplies.

The pair ends up stranded in the zombie-riddled town after their truck is stolen. Chuck needs to find Katey’s next dose of Zombrex and get her out of town before the military arrives and invariably takes her to a quarantine zone.

Players will encounter a number of missions in Dead Rising 2: Case Zero. Chuck will be able to collect important items, escort survivors to safety or simply slaughter as many zombies as he can during any given play through.

Like the first game, a varied set of achievements will have most playing through the brief 90 minute campaign several times. It’s next to impossible to do everything in one run because of severe time constraints. Players will have to manage their time and resources and make decisions about what is most important to them during a playthrough.

Should you reach any one of several endings or succumb to the zombies, your experience and money will carry over to your next playthrough, meaning Chuck will be stronger from the get-go and certain tasks will be easier to complete.

Chuck has a level cap of five in Dead Rising 2: Case Zero, but any experience and level-up bonuses you receive will carry over to the full Dead Rising 2 game. This self-earned “head start” is an excellent bonus for fans that plan on purchasing the full game for Xbox 360.

Almost everything in Still Creek can be used as a weapon, from newspapers and handbags to swords and guns; all of which do varying degrees of damage to the ever present zombie horde. Chuck has a rather limited inventory space that shares weapons and health-replenishing food items. Players must manage this space effectively to survive, let alone succeed.

A new weapon combination system essentially replaces the photography system found in the original Dead Rising. This system allows Chuck to combine items he finds around Still Creek—such as a shotgun and a pitchfork—to create more powerful zombie killing tools; many of which have hilariously gruesome effects.

Using combined weapons earns Chuck extra experience and nets players Combo or Scratch cards that often provide additional bonuses like double experience. Any cards earned in Dead Rising 2: Case Zero will carry over to the full game.

The controls have been made more player-friendly this time around and should feel comfortable to anyone that plays third-person action games. Jump, attack and action commands are mapped to the face buttons, triggers are used for aiming and shooting and the bumpers cycle through your inventory.

Control is good for the most part, but platforming to access higher ground can be pretty clunky and often requires pinpoint timing. A finicky camera can also create problems on occasion.

Dead Rising 2: Case Zero can feel sluggish in general because of a less than optimal frame rate that struggles to maintain 30fps most of the time. In fairness, there are a greater number and variety of zombies on screen than in Dead Rising, but the slowdown is quite noticeable and consistent.

The game looks pretty good overall and the town of Still Creek is very detailed, but textures can be quite blurry up close and there are very prevalent instances of tearing and clipping. The excellent lighting engine of Dead Rising seems conspicuously absent as well, likely because of a game engine change.

It’s safe to say that outsourced, Canadian developer Blue Castle Games gets Dead Rising. They managed to improve on a cult-classic experience in many ways without pandering to those that found the original too difficult. The only concession they made was the addition of two extra save slots, though players can still “save themselves into a corner” rather easily.

Dead Rising 2: Caze Zero presents  a more “human” and meaningful narrative than the original and provides a unique experience separate from the two main games. By the time I collected all 200 achievement points, I’d spent at least five hours with the game. Tremendous value for both existing fans and those new to the series.

Positives:

+ High Replay Value, Lots of Content for $5.
+ Tense, Time-Constrained Gameplay is Intact
+ Weapon Combo System is Very Fun
+ Good Narrative, Writing and Voice Acting

Negatives:

– Frame Rate, Tearing and Clipping Issues
– Load Times are Excessive

The FWD Download: Xbox LIVE Indie Games Round-Up 1

The FWD Download: Xbox LIVE Indie Games Round-Up 1 150 150 GAMESFWD

Much like the App Store for iPhone and iPod Touch, the Xbox LIVE Indie Games service is proving to be a viable way for independent developers to break into the market and make a few bucks at the time. It is also proving to be a great way for gamers to get some great games at great prices.

In this edition of The FWD Download, I will briefly review eight titles released between December 2009 and February 2010 that highlight the variety of genres on the Xbox LIVE Indie Games service. All impressions are based on the full purchased versions of the games, though like Xbox LIVE Arcade Games, trial versions are available. More…

Arkedo Series: 03 Pixel!

The third game in the Arkedo Series is a sleek 2D platformer that stars a wonderfully adorable cat named Pixel. Although the game is brief, it features great level design and enough variety to keep it interesting.

Arkedo is not your typical Indie Games developer, having produced the well-received retail games Nervous Brickdown and Big Bang Mini for the Nintendo DS. Their experience shines through in this simple, yet polished effort that features a great look and sound.

Pixel himself resembles a Tamagatchi and the game world is drawn with oversized pixels and a clean, monochromatic look. The game uses many familiar mechanics, including a run button that lets Pixel jump farther and the ability to stomp on baddies’ heads. After stepping on five baddies and filling his Roar ‘o’ Meter, Pixel can unleash a powerful  attack.

The game also employs a magnifying glass system that allows you to zoom in on suspicious blocks and initiate a maze-solving mini game. Rewards for completing mazes include full life for Pixel and “Useless Relics” that act as the game’s collectables. Each of the seven levels in Arkedo Series: 03 Pixel! contains three of these relics.

Arkedo Series: 03 Pixel! is not a challenging game by any means, but it is a pleasant, family-friendly experience that should last most players two or three hours. (Arkedo, 240 MS Points)

Dreams of Witchtown

Here is a case where the description and screenshots are better than the game itself. Dreams of Witchtown is billed as a 2D side-scrolling RPG in the vein of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. While that is technically true, it is executed poorly and plays like an early Flash game.

The premise here is that Aurora, an apparently elderly witch that looks like Sailor Moon loses her broom and scroll spells after being hit in the face by a rogue soccer ball. She then grabs a bag of soccer balls an embarks on a quest to thwart evil.

Aurora can kick soccer balls and cast spells to dispatch of enemies, who will in turn drop experience points. The idea here is to level up before proceeding to the next area. Unfortunately, this game is riddled with sloppy programming traits like infinitely spawning enemies and inaccurate collision detection.

In my experience, I had to grind through the same area no less than five times in order to get to the game’s recommended level for the next area. While the concept is solid, I simply could not have any fun with this game. On the plus side, Dreams of Witchtown does feature bright and colourful graphics and a low price. (Dip Slit, 80 MS Points)

Dungeon Adventure

Roguelike fans will certainly appreciate Dungeon Adventure being on the Indie Games service, as it is the only example of the genrea available on the Xbox 360. This dungeon crawler can be played in old-school ASCII mode or using modernized graphics that include a tiny version of your Xbox LIVE Avatar.

The game is controlled using a single analog stick, though players have the option of using a ChatPad or USB keyboard to provide an authentic experience. There are also a ton of other graphic and gameplay options that can be tweaked.

After completing a tutorial that explains the basics of roguelike gameplay, you create a character from one of nine classes and venture forth into the dungeons. As you proceed, you will gain experience, find better weapons and encounter more powerful enemies.

Fans of the genre should pick up Dungeon Adventure without question. It has plenty of content and wildly-named loot to collect, though it could be considered a bit easy for verteran players. Newcomers will find an excellent example of a roguelike to cut their teeth on. (UberGeekGames, 240 MS Points)

Home Run Challenge

Home Run Challenge is a simple baseball game that can be played using your Xbox LIVE Avatar and is controlled with a single button. The object is to time your batter’s swing properly in order to knock out a few dingers. As you progress, the pitcher will begin throwing fast balls and change-ups.

At first, home runs are worth a single point, but there are several ways to increase your score like smashing targets, building streaks and even smashing the stadium scoreboard.

Home Run Challenge features a clean and attractive look that was clearly inspired by the baseball game in Wii Sports. It features a stadium filled with animated Avatars and a bright colour pallete. Though there is not much to it, the game proves to be addictive and is an inexpensive, family-friendly experience that anyone can play. (BarkersCrest, 80 MS Points)

Pixel Boarder

Pixel Boarder is a physics-based snowboarding game that features some excellent chip tune music and an intuitive dual analog control scheme. Players send their highly customizable boarder down big air jumps in hopes of landing a high score, or just landing at all.

Through manipulation of the analog sticks, you can make your boarder crouch, grab and flip as it traverses a course. In practise, I found that they physics were a bit floaty and that pulling off tricks proved to be quite difficult. I did get better as I played, but it was admittedly frustrating at first. There are a few settings and assists that can be adjusted to your liking.

High scores are kept locally and globally for each of the 20 courses in Pixel Boarder, though in many cases I was happy just to complete the course. Should you pull off a great, trick-filled run, you can view or save replays.

There are four graphics filters to choose from ranging from 4-bit to 32-bit, though none of them look particularly good. In fact, I had trouble looking at the screen when the game was set to anything less than 32-bit because of the colour palletes. There is a v-sync option for those sensitive to screen tearing and other screen options to help alleviate overscan.

Despite a few quirks like the game taking too long to realize you’ve fallen, Pixel Boarder is a quality title that rewards persistence and sounds fantastic thanks to its Commodore 64 inspired soundtrack (PixelFriends, 240 MS Points)

Soul

Hand-drawn graphics and a genuinely creepy atmosphere help this maze game stand out from the crowd. The premise is that you are guiding a man’s soul to heaven and must avoid running into evil creatures and walls.

Soul is played using only the left analog stick, but also requires extremely precise movement to navigate through the mazes. Along the way, you will encounter “shock scares” that remind me of those old internet videos people used to trick their friends with. These sections are loud and jarring, which can easily cause you to make a mistake.

Luckily, when you do fail, you immediately start back at the beginning of the room you were in. Many rooms require a trial and error approach in order to determine where creatures will appear or to gauge the speed of obstacles.

Though the art does look great and the game features some nice lighting effects, I sometimes found it hard to determine where walls were, which caused some frustrating restarts. The sound effects in Soul are also well done and serve to help create the atmospere of what appears to be an abandoned hospital.

It certainly is not for everyone and the shock scares become all-to frequent, but Soul does provide a unique and challenging experience that fans of Kururin Paradise or Irritating Stick will appreciate. (Kydos Studio, 80 MS Points)

Yet Another Zombie Defense

A hybrid of an arena-based shooter like Zombie Apocalypse and tower defense games, Yet Another Zombie Defense proves to be a fun diversion well worth the price of admission.

Your task is to survive night after night of incoming zombie attacks by shooting them and slowing them down with barricades. As you progress, the zombie hordes will get tougher and faster and will require stronger weapons to defeat. In between waves, you will be able to purchase both weapons and defenses like steel fences or turrets.

Weapons stronger than the default pistol have limited ammunition resources, so careful spending is required to make it deep into the game and achieve high scores. Zombies will drop both money and health packs that need to be picked up before they disappear.

Yet Another Zombie Defense features 3D models and ambient lighting provided by a single street light. The music is rather generic and loops too often, but like other games on the Xbox 360 it can be replaced by your own custom soundtrack. (AwesomeGamesStudio, 80 MS Points)

You Will Die

The concept of this shooter is simple: you have one life to survive as long as you can against increasingly powerful enemy ships. You Will Die is an addictive boss rush experience that shows a lot of potential and features global leaderboards.

You start by battling a simple enemy ship. As you progress, ships will become more complex. You must destroy every weapon on a ship before it can be damaged and areas get weaker the farther they are from the centre. As you build your score multiplier by landing successful attacks, shields will become available for use. You can also use the multiplier to repair your ship, which is easier said than done in the heat of battle.

Though it plays like a traditional horizontal shooter, You Will Die is controlled primarily with the analog sticks. I found that ememy bullets were quite small and were often obscured by a scolling star-filled background. The rest of the graphics fare quite well and the in game sound effects are adequate, though there is no music to be heard while playing. (Derrick Hopkins, 80 MS Points)

The quality of the games on the Xbox LIVE Indie Games service is getting better every week and though there are a number of duds and novelty applications no one needs, I find myself checking the Indie Games Marketplace more often all the time in search of unique ideas to spend my leftover Microsoft Points on.

DEATHSPANK REVIEW

DEATHSPANK REVIEW 150 150 GAMESFWD

This lighthearted and downright silly take on loot-collecting, hack and slash adventuring features great art, full voice acting and over 100 missions to complete. DeathSpank has its heart in the right place, but this brainchild of Ron Gilbert falls flat in a number of ways and becomes a tedious grind about halfway through.

The basic premise is that our hero, DeathSpank, is trying to obtain a powerful item known as The Artifact that was hidden behind a magic seal by a local witch. DeathSpank must battle his way across the kingdom while completing a variety of tasks assigned to him by a large cast of colourful characters.

The kingdom is quite large and is made up of dozens of distinct areas, most with their own enemy types. Many missions will require our hero to cover great distances. Thankfully, a fast travel system exists by way of magical outhouses. These outhouses also act as respawn points when DeathSpank is felled in battle.

Most missions involve collecting an item, dispatching a certain enemy, or both. While this formula is common to most games in the genre, I found a lack of mission variety to be one of DeathSpank’s biggest downfalls and was pretty much forcing myself through the last 30-40% of this 15-20 hour adventure while experiencing a diminishing return of actual fun.

A necessary evil in this case, as completing all 100+ missions and defeating the final boss essentially requires you to be at the level cap of 20 and have some of the best armour available.

My other issue is that, for a game based on collecting loot, DeathSpank does little to make collecting the loot fun, interesting or rewarding. The game simply hands out more powerful weapons and armour as you progress. You cannot actually upgrade or augment items, so there is very little attachment to them on the player’s part.

Giving players the ability to customize their weapons and armour would have gone a long way to add some depth and reduce tedium. The only reason I ever switched weapons, other than for simple strength upgrades, was thanks to an affinity system. Most enemy types are susceptible to certain weapon types like ice, fire and lightning while being resistant to others.

The entire inventory and menu system is rather convoluted, which again is a detriment to this type of game. DeathSpank has a rather limited inventory and can rid himself of excess clutter by using a grinder, which also gives him some gold back in return. Navigating the map, menu, inventory and quest log is needlessly cumbersome and only serves to detach you from the game world.

The game world itself is rather beautiful in its own right. DeathSpank is set in a colourful and cartoony land based on conventional medieval fantasy aesthetics. The distinct areas and wide variety of enemy types do a lot to give the world personality and an attractive art style is punctuated with some good cel shading.

Character and enemy art are also very good and my only real complaint about the graphics is that the screen can become cluttered with loot and money when facing a large group of enemies at which point the game will suffer from some noticeable slowdown.

Sound design is one area where DeathSpank excels, particularly for a downloadable game. Every single one of the hundreds (maybe thousands) of lines of dialogue that I encountered was competently voice acted, which is impressive considering most conversations with non-player characters have several branches to explore.

The soundtrack is also well done, featuring upbeat jazzy themes that change dynamically depending on your situation. Custom soundtracks are not an option on the PlayStation Network version, but as a trade-off it does offer a DTS audio track in addition to Dolby 5.1.

Ron Gilbert is probably best known for his work on Maniac Mansion and The Secret of Monkey Island, and his adventure game roots show in DeathSpank. In addition to a rather deep conversation system, many items that you collect can be combined to create new tools to interact with the game world or solve light environmental puzzles.

Gilbert’s games are also known for their distinct sense of humour and that is also very much intact in DeathSpank. There is an extremely silly, almost childlike quality to the writing that people will either love or hate.

Control is a little on the complicated side and makes use of every button on the PS3 controller, but is somewhat customizable. Attacks are generally best mapped to your face buttons, with items on the d-pad. These eight slots can be customized in the inventory screen  Target-locking and shield-blocking are handled by the L2 and R2 buttons, while the R1 and L1 buttons bring up the map and inventory.

Technically, DeathSpank has local two-player co-op play, however the second player is relegated to using a wizard that can’t equip items of his own. It would have been great to see each player get a customizable player and given some incentive to playing through the campaign with a partner.

There is also no new game plus option, so players must tie up any loose ends and find any items they want before taking on the final boss, though you can max out the level cap before seeing the ending. Thankfully, the game clearly warns you about this “point of no return”.

DeathSpank is a good game. In fact, I thought it was a great game for the first half of the time I played it. It’s probably worth the $15 asking price for most hack and slash adventure fans, but a distinct lack of depth may turn off hardcore players and the tedium of grinding for experience points and incrementally better loot in the second half of the game may turn away those with a passing interest in the genre.

Positives:

+ Attractive Art and Cel Shaded Graphics
+ Full Voice Acting
+ Plenty of Content

Negatives:

– Lacks Weapon and Armour Customization
– Grinding Becomes Tedious

PUZZLE QUEST 2 REVIEW

PUZZLE QUEST 2 REVIEW 150 150 GAMESFWD

As addictive as ever, the latest title in the Puzzle Quest series improves on the original version while returning to its traditional gameplay formula after deviating from it in Puzzle Quest: Galactrix. The story in Puzzle Quest 2 revolves around fighting the evil spread around the world by necromancers, sending your hero on quests through a series of underworld dungeons.

In this semi-open world, players will have the choice between one of four character types; assassin, barbarian, sorcerer and templar, each with their own skill sets. Venturing through the world your character will soon encounter a wide variety of eerie enemies including goblins, orcs, skeletons, ghosts, witches, and wolves.

By swapping pieces on the puzzle board, players create matches of three items or more; collecting the corresponding coloured mana, action points or inflicting skull damage. In this turn-based game the enemy will have the chance to fight back using magical, physical or skull attacks. A variety of puzzles is used in every aspect of the game, from bashing locked doors and unlocking treasure chests to searching rooms for traps and disabling them.

Massive quantities of loot are collected throughout the game, including a variety of weapons, shields and armour, potions, magic jewellery and resources used to upgrade these items. Earning experience points after each puzzle, players will occasionally get to chose one of their character’s attributes to upgrade.

The presentation of Puzzle Quest 2 kicks it up a notch compared to the original with a more serious and dark look. Both the enemies and player characters are creatively drawn with beautiful detail. The music is also very suiting, with dark and mysterious tonalities. A few cutscenes feature excellent voice acting adding a touch of variety to the game’s presentation, though it would have been nice to see more of these.

The main drawback of Puzzle Quest 2 is the world map, which is a bit tedious to navigate. To get from one point to another, characters must pass through predetermined checkpoints, rather than moving around freely. This is not a problem in itself, except when you try to backtrack to a specific point and have to pass from checkpoint to checkpoint, scrolling from one screen to the next. The cursor will automatically point in the direction of the next quest, which can cause some needless backtracking if players are not attentive. However, portals will appear along the way to fast travel you to key areas.

While the game will surely keep fans playing for hours, the experience does get a bit redundant and can be tiring if you are trying to advance the story. The encounter rate is pretty high and since every action is puzzle based, so players might get tired of the grind before reaching the end of the game.

Along with the single player quest mode, the game offers local and Xbox LIVE multiplayer, a quick battle mode which has you fighting random enemies, and a mini games mode in which you can replay any type of puzzle. Players can have more than one active character, but each must play through the story mode independently. After about 25 hours of play time, I estimate being approximately one third through the game, with my character at level 30.

Puzzle Quest 2 is truly the sequel fans have been waiting for, successfully expanding on the original concept. Despite being a bit of a grind, the game offers great value with hundreds of hours of gameplay. Players, including myself, will keep coming back for more.

Positives:

+ Many Hours of Addictive Gameplay
+ Great Audiovisual Presentation
+ Larger Variety of Puzzles

Negatives:

– Gets to Be Redundant as You Progress
– Getting Around the Map is Tedious

FWD News: Games for Pain Reduction, Alcoholism and Visually-Impaired Fitness

FWD News: Games for Pain Reduction, Alcoholism and Visually-Impaired Fitness 150 150 GAMESFWD

Virtual reality games are showing promise as a tool to combat pain. A research project is studying the analgesic effects of virtual reality environments and how they impact the way patients’ brains respond to pain.

“Virtual reality produces a modulating effect that is endogenous, so the analgesic influence is not simply a result of distraction but may also impact how the brain responds to painful stimuli,”explains Dr. Jeffrey I. Gold, associate professor of anaesthesiology and paediatrics, Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California. “The focus is drawn to the game not the pain or the medical procedure, while the virtual reality experience engages visual and other senses.” More…

Presenting at the annual scientific meeting of the American Pain Society, specialists and researchers reviewed their findings in the field of virtual reality games.

Dr. Lynnda M. Dahlquist, a clinical child psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, revealed details from her recent laboratory research examining the use of virtual reality and other computer and video game technologies to provide distraction-based acute pain management.

In one pilot study involving 100 children having blood drawn, those immersed in a virtual 3D environment felt less pain than those who watched a cartoon or who played video games on a flat screen. There was less distress for the technician and the parent as well. On the other hand, the researcher recorded significantly greater pain tolerance for kids wearing specially-equipped video helmets when they actually interacted with the virtual environment.

While early results are promising, Dahlquist emphasizes that more research is needed to know for certain if virtual reality would play the same distracting role in such pain-generating procedures as cleansing wounds, cancer treatment, immunization, injections and burn care. However, one preliminary study showed a reduction of 30 to 50 percent in pain ratings during severe burn wound care while patients using virtual reality during physical therapy reported greater reductions in the amount of time spent thinking about pain and its intensity.

Game Tackles Alcohol Recovery

The University of Central Florida and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Charleston, SC, have developed a video game to help recovering alcoholics avoid falling off the wagon and reintegrate into sober life. Entitled Guardian Angel, the game is a project under the Health Games Research program.

The mini game-based software leads players through the choices recovering alcoholics must face in their rehabilitation. Players start the game with no job or driver’s license, for example, and have to plan their daily travels to avoid liquor stores and other triggers. A “craving meter” takes note of the player’s stress levels and emotional state. Too much stress and emotional volatility will push the character to relapse.

Dr. Marcia Verduin, from the University of Central Florida is one of the lead project researchers. She explains that with this game, recovering alcoholics will have the chance to make these mistakes in a virtual world, rather than in real life. Learning these relapse skills in a game is also meant to make the learning process more enjoyable.

Trials are expected to continue until fall 2010. Once the research is completed, the project developers plan on making the game available online at no cost.

Visually-Impaired Gamers can Get Fit Too

Another research project, this time from the University of Nevada, Reno, has found a way to let the visually impaired play fitness games. Called VI Fit, and loosely inspired by Nintendo`s Wii Fit, the free games can be played using the Wii Remote and a Bluetooth-enabled PC.

“Lack of vision forms a significant barrier to participation in physical activity, and consequently children with visual impairments have much higher obesity rates and obesity-related illnesses such as diabetes,” said Eelke Folmer, lead researcher on the project.

In VI Tennis, players get audio and vibration cues letting them know when to serve and return the ball. In VI Bowling, vibrotactile feedback shows players where to throw the virtual bowling ball. In an evaluation of the game, participants were found to exert as much energy playing VI Bowling as if they had spent the same amount of time walking.

Additional research on this project was done in collaboration with experts from the State University of New York, Cortland and the Department of Kinesiology, Sports Studies, and Physical Education at SUNY. The PC games can be downloaded for free on the VI Fit website.

NOT QUITE A REVIEW: CRACKDOWN 2

NOT QUITE A REVIEW: CRACKDOWN 2 150 150 GAMESFWD

After about four hours of Crackdown 2 I can safely say that I like it, mainly because I loved the original title and this expansion pack-cum-sequel is essentially more of the same.  A few tweaks and additions were made, most notably four-player online co-op, however even as a fan of the franchise I can admit that Crackdown 2 isn’t nearly as impressive as it’s predecessor and it falls flat in a lot of ways.

Crackdown 2 is set ten years after the events of the first game in which agents rid the city of three large gangs . For some unexplained reason, Pacific City has again gone to hell, a virus is turning citizens into zombie-like “freaks” and a single gang organisation called The Cell is terrorizing the city.

There is an overarching narrative in Crackdown 2 that sees The Agency tasked with restoring power beacons, liberating tactical locations from The Cell and wiping out the hideouts of the freaks. While on paper it sounds like there’s more variety than Crackdown, the mission structure really boils down to the same thing as before; move to an area and annihilate anything that stands in your way.

This time however, there are no boss-type characters to deal with and so far I have only been facing generic enemies. The  feeling of satisfaction for completing objectives is far less than the first game, making Crackdown 2 feel much more empty or soulless in a way. It lacks any real personality.

The day/night cycle has become more relevant in Crackdown 2. By day, Cell members roam the streets, leaving tactical location held by them more vulnerable and at night thousands freaks come out -awkwardly rising from the pavement- leaving their nests ripe for destruction. There are often a ton of freaks on screen at night, though they basically stick to being at ground level and can easily be avoided by your acrobatic agent.

A caveat is that while conventional weapons are great for dealing with Cell, they are relatively ineffective against freaks. Contrarily, a new UV weapon system can take out a mass of freaks easily but will do little against Cell. It’s an attempt at balance that is rendered ineffectual by your agent’s ability to punch and kick.

While melee attacks are still quite awkward, the team at Ruffian actually managed to make the weapon targeting system worse than the first game, which was already pretty squirrely. Target priority is completely screwed up (even after a title update) and will often snap to objects in the background, foreground and in some cases, useless objects like the door of a civilian car. It’s extremely annoying, especially during a heavy firefight.

Platforming around and collecting hidden orbs and agility orbs can still be quite fun and for most Crackdown fans this is probably the main draw of the franchise. However, you will be collecting orbs in the same city and though some of its layout has changed, I have literally picked up orbs in Crackdown 2 that were in nearly identical spots as before. On the plus side, rogue agility and driving orbs have been added that require you to chase them through the streets or along rooftops.

Getting around feels a lot more clunky than before to me. Your agent needs to be perfectly lined up to grab a surface and often will not grab onto things that appear to be climbable. In one case I traversed a silo using the metal rings that hold it together, then literally two minutes later and a few blocks away an identical structure could not be scaled. Admittedly this was a problem in Crackdown, but it feels worse and more inconsistent here some three years later.

Though the draw distance has received a significant update and Pacific City is no longer blanketed by fog, there are a few things about Crackdown 2 that make it look less appealing than the original, which again, is three years old.

First and foremost, the city itself feels sparse. Buildings lack a level of subtle detail, such as having junction boxes or air conditioners on them. In the first game these objects could often be used to create tricky platforming sections, whereas now everything feels quite literally straightforward and flat.

Textures, both on buildings and terrain are also noticeably worse and texture seams can be spotted everywhere. Explosions have been toned down and have lost the “oomph” they once had. The colour palette looks more washed out than before and though trivial, Crackdown 2 is missing the cool scanning effect when you target a vehicle to tell you if it’s friend or foe.

The game also has much more prevalent screen tearing and frame rate issues than the original Crackdown. This isn’t necessarily the fault of Ruffian, who had a very short development time to deal with and were unable to reuse the Renderware engine because its creator Critireon Games was purchased and internalized by EA, but the problems are very noticeable.
It’s not all bad news though and there are some good things about Crackdown 2 that will keep me playing. Rooftop and vehicle races are back, the aforementioned rogue orbs are fun to chase down and you can now pilot helicopters. Also, when you have maxed out your agility (I’m more than halfway after four hours), you can glide around the city in the wing suit and I’ve seen a rather cool-looking tether weapon in videos that I can’t wait to play around with.

Another nice addition is that of a radar that briefly shows you any orbs in your vicinity at the touch of a d-pad. This will make hunting down the last of the 800+ orbs much easier than before, though it feels a bit cheap towards the beginning of the game.

I’m playing solo for now, but will be diving into some four player co-op action as soon as I can. My Xbox LIVE friends list has over 50 active users on it and only two of them have even played Crackdown 2 so far one full day after the official launch date, so it may be tough to get a session together. The addition of orbs that can only be collected during co-op play is annoying.

Like other reviews have said, it really is more of the same. A bit more is some cases and a lot less in others. Crackdown 2 is fun for me because I loved Crackdown and I can look past a list of flaws that took me around1000 words to describe.

I am hooked on collecting orbs, I love blasting and power sliding my way through freaks and I will play until my agent is maxed out. Am I happy I paid $70 CAD ($60 USD) for Crackdown 2 after waiting three years for what can best be described as a half-baked expansion pack? No, absolutely not.

FWD NEWS: GAMES TO MAINTAIN A HEALTHY BRAIN

FWD NEWS: GAMES TO MAINTAIN A HEALTHY BRAIN 150 150 GAMESFWD

Researchers at the School of Physical and Occupational Therapy at McGill University in Montreal, QC, and the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Ottawa, ON, have developed an interactive virtual reality training program to boost patients’ confidence and increase the success of stroke rehabilitation.

“Relearning and improving movements affected by brain injuries is an intense process that requires hard work and motivation,” said Dr. Michael Hill of the Heart and Stroke Foundation, a funding partner of the program’s clinical trials. “Research into how to best engage and motivate patients is vital for stroke recovery.”

By practicing reaching and catching movements through the game, patients stimulate their brain to make the fullest use of its ability to re-organize and restructure itself after a stroke. Trials are testing the effectiveness of 2D and 3D applications to determine the best method for stroke recovery.

“The training program uses kinematics, which measures how well a movement is made,” explains Dr. Mindy Levin from McGill University. “It allows us to understand how recovery is happening.”

Divided into four groups, patients are either treated using a fully immersive and interactive 3D virtual reality system or a more economical 2D game system; while the last two groups practice similar games in different physical environments.

While results are still preliminary, early indications show that the 3D version of the game is the most effective. “Novel use of virtual reality has the potential to revolutionize forever the way we think about rehabilitation,” said Dr. Antoine Hakim of the Canadian Stroke Network. “Dr. Levin’s research is showing that by motivating and involving the user, the recovery can be dramatic.

Focusing on healthy brains is also the purpose of the latest Humana Games for Health project. The organization has recently launched a new application for the iPhone promoting cognitive health. Created in collaboration with Persuasive Games, Colorfall has players thinking quickly to arrange cascading coloured tokens in the order of the colors of the rainbow.

“We’re excited to be the first health insurance company to offer people fun, healthy mobile games that challenge their minds and bodies while encouraging healthy behaviors,” said Paul Puopolo, director of consumer innovation at Humana.

BURNIN’ RUBBER REVIEW

BURNIN’ RUBBER REVIEW 150 150 GAMESFWD

Burnin’ Rubber, also known as Bump ‘n’ Jump, is a top-down racing combat game that can still provide excitement almost 30 years after its initial release. The PlayStation minis version of Burnin’ Rubber is a straight port of the 1982 arcade original however, with no modern emulation features and it could be considered overpriced at $3.99 for all but die hard fans.

The action in Burnin’ Rubber takes place on 32 courses categorized by the four seasons. The goal is to reach the end of the course while smashing as many opponent vehicles as possible by sending them into walls or landing on them with a jump.

Along the way you will find obstacles like narrow bridges and rivers that must be avoided, usually by jumping. In order to make your car jump you must be travelling at 100 MPH or higher. Every time you land a jump your speed decreases by about 20 MPH.

A distinct audio and visual cue warns you of impending danger, giving you a few seconds to try and build enough speed to make dangerous leaps. Burnin’ Rubber could be considered a difficult game and at times it can be frustrating because of “cheap” opponents.

There are a number of opponent vehicle types including heavy, tank-like ones and those that drop boulder-like objects in your path. Each opponent has a different weight to it, meaning some are easier to smash into walls than others.

The physics are quite bouncy, but they are consistent, making it easier to get a feel for how opponent vehicles will react when you hit them and more importantly, how your car will behave.

Unfortunately, Burnin’ Rubber offers little in the way of modern emulation options or improvements. The lack of an auto save feature means your high scores can be lost easily. There are some simple difficulty and starting lives options to toggle.

There are no graphical filter options, however Burnin’ Rubber does look crisp on both the PSP and on a TV and features a bright colour palette. There is also a cabinet view that can be toggled on and off to your liking. Disappointingly, I found that the game would often drop frames or slow down when action got hectic.

The sound is typical of an arcade game from this era, meaning audio is minimal. An upbeat theme plays faintly in the background and thankfully the car sounds are not grating.

Control is quite simple. Your analog control or d-pad steers while a solitary button is used to trigger the jump mechanic.

While I was a huge fan of Burnin’ Rubber in arcades and spent hundreds of quarters on it at my local Laundromat, I found the $3.99 price tag a bit hard to swallow given the lack of modernization this port received, though I still consider it a great game and one of the best racers of the era. Unlike most PlayStation minis titles, you can also enjoy Burnin’ Rubber with a friend thanks to the inclusion of hotseat multiplayer.

Positives:

+ Fast and Intense Racing
+ Crisp Graphics with Cabinet View
+ Audiovisual Cues Warn of Danger

Negatives:

– No Auto Save or Graphics Filters
– Noticable Slowdown

PICROSS 3D REVIEW

PICROSS 3D REVIEW 150 150 GAMESFWD

The latest game in the Touch Generations series successfully translates the addictive, number-based logic of Picross to a 3D environment. Picross 3D offers incredible value and contains over 350 puzzles, with even more available via friends and the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection.

The game is most easily described as sculpture-by-numbers. Starting with a large, rectangular block players will break down cubes to reveal a colourful, chibi-esque sculpture. Numbers represent the total amount of cubes that should appear in a given row or column and, a bit like in Sudoku, you will use your logic to find which cubes belong in the puzzle or not. Symbols also indicate whether the cubes appear in a continuous series, in sets of two or more.

Each puzzle is timed to be completed within 5 to 30 minutes, depending on its difficulty. Most will allow up to five mistakes, except for “one-chance challenge” puzzles which allow none. Players will receive three stars for completing a puzzle under the required time and without any mistakes. Stars add up to unlock silver and gold trophy puzzles at the end of each level. Once solved, the puzzle reveals the sculpture set in a thematic background which players can view again in the game gallery.

Picross 3D ScreenshotPicross 3D offers five difficulty modes which get progressively unlocked. In beginner mode a tutorial shows players all the ropes. However, there is no way to skip this section to immediately start solving puzzles. Those returning to the Picross series or starting the game a second time may find this feature annoying.

The game is played with the stylus and a combination of d-pad buttons to highlight or remove cubes. Using the stylus alone lets you rotate the block to view it. The game also introduces slicers–blue and pink diamonds that appear at the corners of the block. Sliding the slicers back and forth lets players view each layer of the block independently, an essential tool to successfully solving the puzzles.

Players have the ability to create their own puzzles in My Picross. Either based on a sample or built from scratch, players get to chose the background, music and puzzle colours and have the option to go back and edit any puzzle. You can share your puzzles with others via local connection, as well as download and play those made by your friends.

The Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection also lets you download and unlock Puzzle Packs, which you can access in My Picross. There are also Puzzle Challenges; competitions asking users to upload their best original puzzle relating to a given theme. After the deadline, judges will review all submissions and later release the best entries for download.

With this growing online content and over 350 included puzzles, Picross 3D offers excellent value. After playing for about 15 hours, I am only about one third through the game with lots more to unlock. While some players returning to the series may find the game easy at the beginning, most players will appreciate the challenge. Addictive, simple and fun, Picross 3D is a great portable title for puzzle fans of all ages.

Positives:

+ Lots of Content with More Available Online
+ Fun to Play for Hours
+ Puzzle Creator Mode

Negatives:

– Unskippable Tutorial

FWD PROGRESS: A GREAT MONTH PAST, ANOTHER AHEAD

FWD PROGRESS: A GREAT MONTH PAST, ANOTHER AHEAD 150 150 GAMESFWD

May of 2010 was a great month at Game Forward. We managed to get three solid event preview features and one about a cool rehabilitation technology together, which in turn generated a bit more traffic than usual. We also published a couple of reviews and one of Nathalie’s news round-up posts did rather well. I’m sure that regular readers know that we offset our costs primarily through page impressions and ad clicks, meaning the bump in traffic made us a few extra bucks too.

The month of May, normally about the time that the traditional “summer drought” sets in, was also a surprisingly solid one for retail titles. Nathalie and I started playing a few for our own enjoyment, though these days I find it next to impossible not to be critical and at the very least take notes about the games we buy. We started playing one game for each console; 3D Dot Game HeroesAlan Wake and Super Mario Galaxy 2.

Alan Wake will likely go down as one of my favorite games of 2010. Despite severe screen tearing, I find this game absolutely beautiful to look at. And, while the strorytelling mechanism is not quite at the same level as Heavy Rain, the writing and acting are well above average. Frankly, I would expect nothing less from the team at Remedy.

The gameplay itself is part survival horror, part open world adventure and part third person shooter. The premise is that you are safe in lighted areas and must destroy the darkness around your enemies using the trusty flashlight before dispatching them with traditional firearms.

The game creates a wonderful sense of tension and is presented like a season of a TV show. Alan Wake is difficult to describe without going into too much, potentially spoiling detail, but I feel that Xbox 360 exclusive is a must-play. We purchased the Limited Collector’s Edition, which includes a full soundtrack CD, a book called The Alan Wake Files and some video content, including DVD-style developer commentary. I think it was well worth the extra cost.

3D Dot Game Heroes is a game that literally explodes with charm. A 2D world has been transformed into 3D in this lighthearted tribute to action RPGs of the past, namely the eight and 16-bit The Legend of Zelda games with a healthy touch of Dragon Quest-like aesthetics.

The game features a fantastic character editor that lets you create just about anything to use as your hero. Check out the Hall of Heroes for a better understanding. My favorite thing about this game so far is that it does nothing in the way of hand holding.  For example: you will be told little more than the direction in which to head to reach or complete a quest, which stays faithful to the retro-ness of the whole package.

A generous helping of post-processing effects gives this game and very surreal, stop motion animation-like look and the soundtrack is absolutely fantastic.

I am probably more disappointed with Super Mario Galaxy 2 than any other recent game I have played. While I am only about two hours into the game, I haven’t seen anything particulary exciting or impressive to this point. It is quite literally more of the same. Besides the staple of princess peach getting absconded by Boswer, the premise here is that Mario needs to collect stars to fuel a ship. Riveting.

There have been some changes, such as the utilization of a world map instead of the large hub world seen in the original Super Mario Galaxy. So far, the biggest addition is that of Yoshi, who can flutter jump and of course, eat and spit things.

Something that I find strange is that the fidelity of the music and sound effects seems to be far worse than the original game. This could be a side effect of our Wii being three and a half years old, but it honestly sounds like subpar compression technology was used this time around.

Super Mario Galaxy 2 is still a great game, and certainly more challenging than the first however I cannot shake the feeling that I would have enjoyed it more as an expansion pack released a year earlier. Also, the controls are identical to the first game, so those who had trouble with them in the first game will likely get frustrated because of the bump in overall difficulty.

In the month ahead, I am really looking forward to playing Disgaea Infinite and Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker on the PSP and of course, E3 is only about a week away. This year will definitely be more exciting and relevant two Game Forward than last because of the focus on new video game technologies.

We should see the 3DS revealed to the public and both “Project Natal” and PlayStation Move will undoubtedly be featured heavily, giving us a better idea of the software lineups we should see at the time of their respective launches. I personally think that all three new technologies will be accessibility nightmares, but am also very excited to try at least two of them out this year.

I am slowly getting caught up on a huge backlog of planned reviews and features and I’m hoping that between Nathalie and myself we can push 15 or 20 articles out in the month of June. Some of the downloadable games I am looking forward to this month are Snoopy Flying Ace on the Xbox LIVE Arcade and Joe Danger on PlayStation Network.

Keep checking Game Forward for new content, don’t forget to follow Nathalie and Brian on Twitter and Like us on Facebook. We’ll have a game giveaway on our Facebook page this month. As always, a heartfelt thank you for reading!