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Featured Reviews

XBLA Review: The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile

 

Over the course of videogame history there have been quite a few side scrolling action games. Some have gotten the feel of locomotion and combat right and some not so much. The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile is one such game that gets all of the intangibles right with a style all to it's own. Difficulty was very much an issue with the first game. Was this addressed? Can a small indie studio like Ska Studios pull of a quality game yet again?

Ska Studios' Tour

Vampire Smile starts off where the first ends (you'll see what happens at the end first game). You're The Dishwasher of who begins to have nightmares of a girl trapped in a prison of sorts in a flak jacket. You have limited control of this mysterious girl(you get the low-down on her later in the game) for a few seconds until the nightmare ends and you are once agian The Dishwasher. This happens a few more times where you eventually get the girl to a point of escape where you get full control of her. That's when the game officall starts. Comprised of a storytelling device, comic panel after comic panel gives you the low-down on all of the disposition of each character. A short while later is when the game gives you "the choice". Do you play the game from the story prospective of The Dishwasher or do you play the game as this new character Yuki (aka The Prisoner). 

 

 And that's where the game gets its sub title from. Yuki turns out to be a vampire of which comes in greatly when serving combat as Yuki. Just as with the Dishwasher your primary weapon at the start is a sword/kitana that doesn't initially feel any different. Could this be just a pallet swap in the vein of Mortal Kombats Scorpion and Sub-Zero? That would have been a real shame if that was the case yet you can rest assured that the game plays very differently rather you choose to stay the course with The Dishwasher or try your hand at the prospective of "The Prisoner". Comparitively, what makes the two sides of the game different is the variety of attacks each character has at their disposal and how you use them. The Dishwasher plays very much the same convention way he did before. On the other hand Yuki is a vampire and that is a mighty fine thing. Quick travel through the games enviroments is key just as before, but with Yuki her telporting is key to excelling with getting your combo streak as high as you can. With either The Dishwasher or the The Prisoner you'll likely be in dyer need to learn how to get you combo counts up to fuel your magic and other oddly named items you come across.

 

For those who don't make it passed the mashing of the X button stage that will be fine for you, but the real fun of the rather deep combo system comes when you get the hang of juggling the enemies in the air that comes back to smart use of the teleport. Teleporting behind an enemie to start your attack only to teleport again behind an adjacent enemie above to execute a melee attack slam that gives off splash damage to the same foes you where just attacking a hot second ago on the ground never gets old. Or how about attacking several aerial enemies in the air by teleporting between them while never touching the ground as create your mass carnage. The contextual finisher prompts are a nice touch that help you figure out what move you want to execute to finish of you enemie, yet often will likely be a mute point for those who choose to button mash their way to victory. 

 Whether you're playing "The Story" or not there is a good variety of other modes of play to show off those crazy combo styles you will aquire. Arcade mode is back, but this time you can play through it solo or in Co-op. Playing it with a friend is a crazy experience as there is one thing that is for certain. Vampire Smile is a bloody ass game. There will be blood pooring out of you TV  ( no, not really ) after every session with this game. Over time your field of view will be seriously impacted by the amount of blood covering the screen which is a good and bad thing. Then again, that is where this game separates itself from the crowd from it style alone. No other game has a look like this game has. It's outwardly bizarre not some of the time, but all of the time. There are music rythm sections of the game that come out of no where if you find them just as in the first game cementing the fact you have a game that is very much one of a kind regardless if there are hundreds of other side scrolling "beat'em ups" out there.

In the 'Dish Challenge' you are put into a room and are tasked with doing nothing more than surviving an onslaught of oncomers to see how high and long you can get your combo streak. Between 'Dish' and Arcade that is where the bulk of the leaderboard fun with your friends will be. Every "level" you complete is put on a leaderboard for all of your friends to be ranked. Unfortunately here's where Arcade mode fails in a miserable way. The entire mode is just a series of killing rooms pulled from the story mode. While still fun, it would have been much nicer if more could have been done with the mode.

Fan's of these types of games are certain to like what's offered with Vampire Smile for the intricate combat alone (if you are willing to learn how to execute it at its fullest) as its not an inherent button masher although button mashers should feel fine playing the game with just the primary weapons having little to do with the secondary weapons or magic available to you. Unfortunaelty, if you can't get your head around the quirky style that everything is presented with this game may not be for you.

 

Review: Sonic Colors

Look, we all know that the Sonic series isn't quite what it was at one point. During the Genesis years, Sonic was THE series. He was the obvious number one competitor to Mario and his attitude mixed with his fast-paced gameplay actually made him the favorite of many for several years. He has had some serious difficulty in his transition to the 3D realm, however. The Sonic Adventure series was fun, but definitely lacked polish in some areas. From there, it just went downhill with Sonic Heroes, Shadow the Hedgehog (which we personally loved!) and all culminated with the disastrous effort known as Sonic the Hedgehog (2006). Even Sega's reimagining of the series, Sonic the Hedgehog 4 left many scratching their heads (it certainly did that to us).

That isn't to say there haven't been moments of redemption for our favorite blue blur. Sonic Unleashed was certainly a step in the right direction, despite some of the tedious levels that were associated with the downright silly WereHog mechanic. Now, Sonic Colors, which many are calling the game that is bringing Sonic and his furry companions back to glory, has hit the Wii and as die-hard Sonic fans for the better part of two decades, we could not be more excited! We've learned to be cautiously optimistic with Sonic as of late, so we find ourselves stuck asking, will the title stack up to the hype, or will it go the route of the previous two Wii Sonic releases?

The first thing you'll notice when you start your game of Sonic Colors is, well, the colors. The game is beautifully designed and certainly lives up to its name. From the level design and setting, to the various effects that Sonic can use through those very levels, the beauty of Sonic Colors is consistently impressive and never dull. The title seems as though its pushing the Wii's power to the limit, however. We continually caught ourselves wishing that we could experience the title in true high definition, but that does not mean it's not one of the best looking titles on the Wii currently.

Another thing you'll notice is that the entire game gives off a kind of Mario Galaxy vibe. The game takes place in an outer space setting, and for much of the game, the background features a planetary view, so that might be the bulk of the reasoning behind that vibe. The other reason is certainly the soundtrack, particularly that of the title screen. The soundtrack has a very epic sound to it, which is definitely reminiscent of that of Mario Galaxy.

The setting of the title is a giant amusement park in outer space that Dr. Robotnik (we still hate the name Dr. Eggman) has designed apparently in order to atone for his past transgressions. He makes it very public that this is his logic and it is in no way associated with any diabolical scheme that he has. This message comes across as very obviously inaccurate, but definitely sets the tone for the rest of the game's dialog.

The dialog is something that Sega has definitely finally gotten right within the Sonic series. In the past 15 years, Sega has tried to move the dialog in Sonic games from being anime-esque, to taking itself way too seriously, to even unsuccessfully taking a page out of Final Fantasy's page with Sonic 2006. The dialog in Sonic Colors is masterfully tongue-in-cheek. The characters spend the entire time goofing on each other and cracking jokes in the style of old-school Saturday morning cartoons. Sure, it may get a little too goofy at times for the tastes of many adults, but for kids and adults that just want to play a fun Sonic game, the dialog is the best it's been in the series.

Another change that has definitely affected the game for the better has been the navigation between the levels. Rather than having Sonic and friends run to a hub within an open world, as we saw in Sonic Adventure and Sonic Unleashed, they took a page out of Nintendo's book and just made hub maps, much like was seen in games like Donkey Kong Country and New Super Mario Bros. Wii. This means that characters will have no trouble accessing the exact level they want to access and there is non-stop action, aside from the well-executed cutscenes.

The gameplay is, quite simply, the best Sonic has ever been in 3D. He can sometimes feel as though he's on skates and the action can come at you too fast at times, but there is no doubt that the gameplay doesn't get in the way of the fun, as it has in past titles. Sega has even realized that some people just can't get into platformers that use the Wii Remote, so players have the option to use the GameCube controller to play the title. We still aren't incredibly fond of the awkward design of the GameCube controller, but it will definitely please those that don't like using the Wii Remote and Nunchuck. Due to this dynamic, we are curious as to why Sega chose to not bring the title to the PS3 and Xbox 360 as well.

As Sonic progresses through the levels of the game, he'll come across various types of aliens, or Wisps. These aliens, which he is bent on saving from Dr. Eggman, enable him to use special powers. From a laser-like shot that allows him to blast through a portion of a level, to an orange rocket powerup that shoots Sonic high up into the air, the power-ups are always fun to use and feel like they are anything but a novelty.

The largest issue that has plagued the Sonic Team since Sonic's transition into 3D is the issue of level design. From the issue of of the camera getting in the way to the over abundance of instant kill bottomless pits, players have become unnecessarily frustrated with the overall design. With Sonic the Hedgehog 4, players and critics applauded the branching level design, but Sonic Colors is the first 3D game that we can honestly say has excellently designed levels.

The levels see Sonic running from point A to point B as fast as he can, which really gives the game an old school feel. To top that notion off, the game also has a large number of 2D or 2.5D levels that work better than anything we saw in Sonic 4. The sense of speed and the excellent platforming dwarfs that of Sonic 4 and Sonic Colors also got the homing attack right, which is something Sonic 4 neglected to do. In fact, the only thing that Sega didn't quite do right in this regard lies in the fact that the later levels tend to throw a few of the cheap deaths at the player.

One incredibly cool thing that Sega added to this title is something called a "Sonic Simulator". It's accessible the same way any of the levels are in the story mode, and allows for multiplayer. The player chooses one of several levels in a level select that is styled like the classic arcade machines from 80's. From there the player will be placed in a virtual training style of world that looks very similar to the Animus training modules found in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood. From there, the player will race through the levels trying to get the highest grade possible. This works very well in multiplayer and gives that old school feel that we got from Sonic 3 multiplayer.

Sonic Colors is a game that fans will hopefully give a chance. After the massive hype of Sonic the Hedgehog 4, Sonic Colors seemed to get somewhat buried commercially since it is only for the Wii. After games like Sonic Unleashed, Sonic and the Secret Rings, and Sonic and the Black Knight, we were honestly just waiting for the gimmick of Sonic Colors to present itself. While the Wisp aliens provide an interesting dynamic to gameplay, we wouldn't consider it a gimmick per se. Instead of a game that uses a gimmick as a crutch to poor design and gameplay, Sonic Team seems to have received the fans' message loud and clear.

Sonic Colors doesn't rely on petty gameplay gimmicks to sell the title. Instead, Colors brings to the table an excellent gameplay engine, great level design, expedited level select that allows for nonstop action, beautiful graphics and some very entertaining interactions between characters. If Sega is able to successfully turn the Sonic franchise around and bring it back to it's heyday with the next few releases, Sonic Colors should be looked at as the point that brought it back from the brink and put it in the right direction.

 

Review: Medal of Honor

Medal of Honor was once an illustrious war franchise on the previous generations of consoles. The games were very well received and were genuine competitors with the Call of Duty franchise. Fast forward into this generation of consoles, and the Call of Duty franchise rules the war genre with a totalitarian iron fist. Nary a single quality title has challenged the throne of the Call of Duty franchise since the dawn of this generation. Just when it appeared a chink could be in the armor with Call of Duty 3, Activision released the now classic title, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. The title brought the war genre out of the 40's and into the present day in a big way. The title set the bar for any future titles in the genre and has yet to be matched, except arguably by its incredibly cinematic sequel, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.

Now, just when it appeared that nobody would be able to match the sheer strength and popularity of the Call of Duty series, the Medal of Honor franchise suddenly threw its hat into the ring once more. The initial title showed a modern war setting with a promise of a cinematic experience that looked to match that of Modern Warfare 2's film-like storytelling.

The game's engine is very much based off of DICE's other Call of Duty-competitor, Battlefield: Bad Company 2. In fact, if you didn't know any better, you might think you were playing a DLC pack for Bad Company 2. This is good because we absolutely loved Bad Company 2, but it also makes it difficult to justify the purchase of this title at full price if you already own that title.

This was definitely felt during the beta testing phase where fans complained that the multiplayer was essentially taken from Bad Company 2. Luckily, DICE and Danger Close tweaked the title to provide a different multiplayer experience. The multiplayer is squad based and forces players to take on the roles of Snipers, Riflemen, and Spec Ops. The great thing about these classes is that they force the players to craft their strategies completely around what class they take on. In a move that is taken straight from the Call of Duty multiplayer modes, players can earn killstreaks, which allows players to call in airstrikes or mortars in order to inflict more damage to the opposition. Players also level up and earn more weapons, much like in other games. While the multiplayer mode isn't quite as padded as the one found in Modern Warfare 2, the community seemed much more mature and goal-oriented, which leads to an inevitably better experience.

Now, to be clear and completely fair, though the gameplay is similar, the flow and story of this game is completely separate from the Bad Company franchise. Bad Company is much more about a tongue-in-cheek story about a group of knock around guys fighting in a war, while Medal of Honor is a very serious and realistic take on the current war in Afghanistan, starting directly after the events of September 11th, 2001. In fact, this title might be the most realistic title ever released on the subject matter of war.

That realism is definitely a plus, but at times it can hurt the title in terms of what it was trying to accomplish in competing with Modern Warfare 2's cinematic feel. Sometimes the realism actually prevents the title from achieving a level of epic-ness due to the "movie moments" being lesser. It has yet to be seen if players want a realistic account of a day-in-the-life of a soldier in Afghanistan, or they want a cinematic adventure of jumping through the ice-covered mountains, but as far as sales are looking right now, it's looking like fans prefer Modern Warfare 2's style of storytelling.

Bad Company 2 looked absolutely gorgeous, and Medal of Honor carries on that tradition. The character models look fantastic and the environments have a very gritty feel to them. Now, this game definitely falls victim to the typical war video game issue, where, due to the setting, the colors in single player tend to focus on brown and grey hues, which can be tiresome and boring to play through. Luckily the game is fast-paced enough to not let the player get bored at looking at the scenery and the multiplayer maps take place in a variety of locales, so you can break it up a bit that way.

As far as other aspects of the presentation, you can't get much better than Medal of Honor. The sound is phenomenal. As you make your way through the various missions, you'll hear conversations, you'll hear music of the culture and you'll hear battles off in the distance. The environment definitely feels as though its alive, which is a major key to why it succeeds in its presentation. One of the coolest moments comes as you realize that the gunshots echo based on where you are, which is somewhat surreal the first time you notice it. It's just little things like that which make Medal of Honor great as far as sound and graphics go.

Medal of Honor is, by all accounts, a good game. It suffers from the oversaturation of the market and the fact that it is trying to be realistic and cinematic at the same time. The overall experience is a blast. The battles are as intense as we've seen in war games and the firefights are strategic and realistic. The only issue is that there might not be a place for this game in the Modern Warfare dominated market. We hope this isn't true, because without competition, there is no drive for progress. Medal of Honor comes off as slightly bland and unnecessary, but the game is great on its own terms. If you are a fan of Bad Company 2 and are itching for more like that, look no further than Medal of Honor. If you are a fan of Modern Warfare 2 and are looking for something thats more like a film than a documentary, maybe check out games like Mass Effect 2.

Review: Rock Band 3

When Harmonix told us that we'd "be surprised by how big Rock Band 3 is", we were all skeptical, yet we were ready to be blown away. While we knew a little bit about what Rock Band 3 was going to accomplish, we had no idea as to what we were in for. With the announcement that the game would not only perfect the formula that has made them one of the heavyweights in the gaming world, but also actually take strides to teach players how to play real instruments, we realized the magnitude of what this game could mean.

The first thing you have to look at with a game such as Rock Band 3 is the massive list of improvements and additions that the game has over its predecessor, Rock Band 2. Rock Band 3 takes the core gameplay elements of Rock Band 2, which many feel to be the top in the genre, and adds one of the most robust list of features ever seen in any sequel of any genre. The additions range from small to enormous and impact the player's experience exponentially.

The biggest, and most heralded additions are obviously the new instruments and the impressive Pro-Mode. This time around, instead of simply keeping the instruments locked at vocals, guitar, bass and drums, Harmonix has filled a much-needed gap with the addition of the keyboard. The five instrument scheme works amazingly within the Rock Band formula and the keyboard peripheral is made of very high quality. With the keyboard, players can use the realistic keys to play in normal mode, which consists of the classic five colors found on other instruments, or they can play it in Pro-Mode, which assigns nearly every key a scrolling indicator that makes the player actually work to learn to play the keyboard as an instrument.

Pro-Mode isn't limited to the keyboard, however. Pro-Mode also works for every instrument in the game. For Pro-Drums, you attach cymbals to your Rock Band 2 or 3 drum kit. Then, once you select how many cymbals you have attached (anywhere from one to three), you'll be forced to not only hit the cymbal when it's time to hit the cymbal, but you'll be required to hit the correct cymbal. The way the game indicates this is instead of scrolling rectangular notes at you, cymbal hits will show as circular. This definitely takes some getting used to, but once you get the hang of it, you will find that Harmonix has completely revitalized the fun of drumming. As someone who lost interest in Rock Band drumming several years ago, I've now found that drumming is in tight competition for my favorite instrument in the platform.

If drums and keyboards aren't really your thing, but you still want to learn a thing or two from this game, you can purchase a Pro-Guitar and learn how to play the various Rock Band 3 songs on guitar and bass. The great thing about Pro-Guitar and Pro-Bass is that they are actually played on guitars that have real frets and use all six strings. For Pro-Guitar the game will replace the five colored rectangles with six strings that have a special tablature language that signals what fret and string must be pressed and plucked for individual notes and different shapes that show what chords must be played in the higher difficulties.

There will be two models of Pro-Guitars released for Rock Band 3. The first guitar, the Fender Mustang, consists of partial strings where you strum and uses touch-pad technology on the frets. This will, more or less, simply simulate playing a real guitar, while the Fender Squier, which comes out in 2011, will be a real guitar that is functional within the game. Unfortunately, neither Pro-Guitar controller has been released yet, so we have been unable to use this features as of yet.

For you vocalists, you aren't completely left out in the dark. Though there may not be an official "Pro-Mode" for vocals, there have been a few significant upgrades which will make the experience much better. The biggest addition is certainly the harmonies, which have been brought over from The Beatles: Rock Band and Green Day: Rock Band. While it still remains that all three mics used in the harmonies must be on the same machine due to the slight lag that is created through playing online. This may seem like a minor detail, but there are very few casual players that have three mics lying around, as well as two friends that would want to harmonize with them. The other improvement that vocals has seen is the fact that the "shaky-arrow" glitch, which made the vocal arrow shake and fall outside of the vocal bars, has been fixed and is no longer an issue.

Outside of the really innovative Pro-Modes, there lies the classic mode, which made Rock Band famous in the first place. While this mode is largely the same as what we played through in Rock Band 2 from a gameplay standpoint, the layout of which you select your playstyle has been vastly improved. You can choose to "Play Now", which lets you opt to play through quickplay or complete several road challenges to increase your stardom, or go on to the career mode, which will allow you to progress through hundreds of goals separated across the five instruments and their Pro-Mode counterparts. As mentioned before, the entire setup and menu system is very intuitive and feels miles beyond anything we've seen on either the Guitar Hero or Rock Band side prior to this game's release.

Before you get to rocking, however, you need to create your characters and edit your band. The logo designer is pretty much the same as we saw in Rock Band 2, only with different designs. Once you have a logo and a name for your band, you can choose to create characters to put in the band. The character creator has progressed from Rock Band 2 as much as any other feature of the game has. Now, instead of simply choosing a face, skin tone and body type, you can go into a full-on edit mode where you can stretch and warp the face in nearly any way you see fit, much like we've seen in sports titles and Guitar Hero titles.

Once you create your character, you can dress them up in any accessories or clothing items you want. They did go a questionable route of including shirts from bands like The Doors and The Who, which you must pay $1 of real money to be made available for your character to wear, but you don't have to go that route if you don't want to. If you don't feel like going through the character creation process for four members of the band, you can always appoint stand-ins from the ready-made characters that we've come to know from the previous Rock Band titles. The only issue here is that there is no way to easily define what character plays what instrument, so if you want one guy to play guitar while your character sings, you have to jump through various hoops to achieve that.

Once you're ready to rock, you can navigate through the aforementioned menus to select the song, goal, or road challenge that you want to play. The best part about these three modes in this game is the fact that they are all integrated into progressing your band through their careers. This is something new to the genre. Before, if you wanted to gain more fans for your band, you had to play through World Tour mode, or if you wanted to achieve goals, you played different goals in career mode. Now, you can achieve goals and gain fans all at the same time. Even in Quickplay, you will gain fans for performances. This idea really meshes with the idea that you are here to "start a band and rock the world". As you progress through gaining more fans, you'll see cutscenes of your band. They start simple with your band sitting in a diner and deciding on a name, and work their way up to getting ready to run onto stage at a huge music festival. These also really add to the overall feeling of the game itself.

The most simple mode is Quickplay. All you do here is go through and play the songs you want to play. It's as simple as that, but Harmonix has taken this simple idea and created an enjoyably simple experience. Now, if you're a DLC hoarder, you don't have to go through the over 2,000 available tracks to find the one you're looking for. Now, you can sort by nearly any method you can think of. You can sort by song name or artist name like in Rock Band 2, but now you can sort by multiple options at a time. So if you want to only find country songs that you've gotten four stars on guitar and start with the letter "L", you can find that song immediately. There's even a new feature that allows you to rate any song, including on-disc tracks, so you can sort songs on songs that you really like. If that sounds like too much of a hassle, you can create a playlist and save it, so if you and you're friends like to play the same ten songs every time you get together, Harmonix has got you covered here.

With the Road Challenges, you will work you're way from being a locally touring band to touring the world by playing different sets at different establishments. These sets range from a pre-determined list of three tracks from a particular artist that you have in your library, to you playing to the interests of the crowd at that bar, club or venue. Either way, you'll always have a choice of whether you want to choose a custom set of classic rock songs, a three-set of Blink 182 songs or a random three-set of Nu Metal tunes. Another thing that Road Challenges implements is a system that awards "Spades" in addition to stars on songs. Spades are bonus currency that unlocks more venues to play and extra challenges. They aren't earned simply by playing well, however. You'll be given a random task at the beginning of the set, such as activating overdrive as many times as possible, or getting as many streaks as possible, or even nailing individual sections of the songs while you play through them. As you earn more spades, you'll unlock new tours that you can take. Touring will see you selecting a tour route and going across the country or even the world on those routes. Harmonix did an excellent job of creating a addictive feeling of being rewarded through this mode.

The final main mode is the career mode, which is essentially turned into the "My Goals" mode. In this, you'll be given hundreds of goals that are both general and instrument-specific. Some are tied to achievements and trophies, while others are simply tasks to shoot for within the game itself. The title does an amazing job of tracking your stats and accomplishments and lets you know exactly how far or close you are to achieving each and every goal set forth. This mode makes you incredibly prone to the "just one more hour" syndrome that every game, music or otherwise, should strive for. You can't begin to count the number of times you're ready to quit, but you see how close you are to achieving a goal, so you play another set. Each time you achieve a goal, you'll also unlock new customization items, as well as earn more fans. Goals aren't just tied to this mode, however. As mentioned earlier, everything is highly integrated, so if you achieve a goal in Quickplay, you'll be notified and it will be crossed off the list in your "My Goals" section.

Of course, every music game ever created is made or broken by the group of songs available. Lucky for Harmonix and lucky for us, the game with the most features ever seen in a music game also has the most robust library of songs. There are 83 diverse tunes on the disc with hundreds of tracks that can be imported if you are an owner of previous Rock Band titles, and a DLC library that stretches beyond the 2,000 song mark. With the recent release of The Doors' Greatest Hits and the promise of greatest hits releases from huge artists like Bon Jovi and Billy Joel, Harmonix shows absolutely no sign of slowing down or shying away from the model that has made them thrive in the music genre.

There is one thing that must be realized for anyone that is reading this and is thinking about delving into the Rock Band series for the first time due to the praise that this title is receiving. All of this entertainment comes at a very high price. If you are starting from scratch and want to get the full experience, you can expect to pay well over $1,000 in order to get all of the instruments, the game, and a decent amount of downloadable content. This is a very steep price for new players to the series and something that is definitely a commitment that many people will need to shy away from in this economic climate. Luckily, there is enough to do on just one instrument to justify the purchase of the game with just one instrument to start out.

Rock Band 3 is by no means a perfect game, but it really gets closer than anything we've ever seen in any genre. The graphics are improved over the previous title, the feature list is almost as robust as the song list, and incredible strides have been made to improve the series over the last two years. If every series took the Rock Band approach and improved their series by this much with every sequel, the gaming world would be a much better place. Rock Band 3 is, without a doubt, the best and most complete music game we've ever seen and will certainly be looked back upon as the game that turned the music genre away from the abyss of normalcy and the business-as-usual mentality.

Review: Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1

16 years. It's been 16 LONG years since Sonic the Hedgehog 3 came out. Since then, we've gotten great games like Sonic & Knuckles and Sonic CD, but no Sonic 4. We've also had our fair share of subpar titles, which any casual or hardcore Sonic fan will be quick to remind you. After over a decade, however, Sonic Team has decided to bring its beloved Hedgehog back to his very solid roots; the 2D console game.

Sonic the Hedgehog 4 has been hyped as the game that will bring the Blue Blur back to his glory days, but can this new title live up to that near impossible expectation, or will it just leave more fans struggling to defend their favorite video game icon? Let's just say this: it certainly doesn't bring Sonic back to his days of old.

Upon selecting the title from your respective console's desktop, you'll be greeted with the nostalgic "SEGA!" soundbyte. If that doesn't get you excited to run from left to right at a blistering pace, we don't know what will.

Once you start the title, you'll notice the nice fresh coat of paint that has been given to the title. Looking at the graphics, the title looks crisp, but Sonic just looks like he sticks out off of the background. The way Sonic interacts with the environment is fine, but his motions seem very unnatural. When he flies through the air, the motion looks awkward, but the biggest issue comes with the way he speeds up.

Once Sonic starts moving, he picks up speed, but his animations look like he's still walking or jogging. This is also reflected in the physics, which are at the point that they are both awkward and a problem with the core gameplay.

The gameplay is the main issue that older Sonic fans will find with this title. The controls are very much the same as Sonic 2, which doesn't sound like a problem at all, but when combined with the new physics, the unimaginative level design and the strange inclusion of the homing attack from the 3D titles, it just doesn't feel right. In fact, even as you come to the end of this very short title, you still don't feel used to the gameplay mechanics. The best way to describe the gameplay has to be "counter-intuitive."

Creative level design is where the 2D Sonic games have always florished. One would think that in the nearly 15 years since the most recent 2D console release, Sonic Team would have come up with some original level designs that could have been used for the grand re-entering into the genre. Unfortunately, original ideas are few and far between. Nearly every nuance and challenge in each level has been lifted from a previous game in the series.

The game is incredibly short, consisting of only four Zones. The first zone is basically the typical Green Hill Zone-type zone from Sonic the Hedgehog. The second zone is essentially a rip-off of Sonic 3's Casino Night Zone. The third zone is he most original zone, but still borrows many elements from Sonic & Knuckles' Sandopolis Zone. The final zone, the Mad Gear Zone, is basically an amalgamation of every previous final zone found in a 2D Sonic title.

Each zone does have its own gimmicks, however, which gives the title a bit of a fresher feel. From running through a dark area lighting bombs and torches with a flame you carry, to overturning cards to gain items and rings, this is where the most original ideas come to life. There's even cart-based segments like those found in Donkey Kong Country, but they end up feeling too scripted and very brief.

Boss battles have also been a bright spot in the Sonic franchise in the past, as well. Unfortunately, nearly every element of every Boss Battle found in Sonic 4: Episode 1 has been taken from previous battles. The most infuriating moment came at the end of the final zone. Dr. Eggman (a name that desperately needs to go back to Dr. Robotnik) and Sonic blast into space and unlocks a new world. Sega bills this world as an epic "Final Showdown in Space".

All this amounts to is Sonic fighting through all of the previous boss battles from earlier in the game. Once you make it through this insulting final level, you are greeted with the most incredible slap in the face. The final showdown is none other than another boss stolen from a previous Sonic title, the final boss from Sonic 2.

The final straw for this game has to be the length, or lack thereof. Four zones is not nearly enough to justify the price tag, especially when long, enjoyable titles like Dead Rising: Case Zero are only $5. To put things in perspective, the original Sonic the Hedgehog, which was released in 1991, had six zones. There is no reason that Sonic 4: Episode 1 should be charging $15, the price of a premium Xbox Live, PSN or WiiWare title. The fact of the matter is, though there are save and level select features, it is incredibly easy to beat the game in one sitting. The only redeeming part of the game's length is the fact that the search for Chaos Emeralds are back, which can allow you to re-attain Super Sonic status yet again.

There is no doubt that Sega wanted this game to succeed. They put a lot of work into it and even delayed the title by a full season, but the game still feels empty and rushed. There's no reason that this title should play like this. Sonic used to be about precision and speed, but Sonic 4 strips those aspects from the title. The biggest travesty is the fact that nearly everything in this game has been seen before in previous titles. The game puts all of its eggs into one basket: nostalgia. Nostalgia was obviously what everyone was looking for when they went for this title, but it can't fuel a title on its own. There has to be some innovation and sense of progression in order for the title to earn the right to be called a sequel to the great Sonic 3/Sonic & Knuckles. To be perfectly blunt, this game is nothing more than a glorified remake.

Here's an idea: why not keep it to one release? Why bring it out episodically? There's no reason that they couldn't have delayed it until 2011 and made it one full title, much like the company's previous main competition, Nintendo, has done in the past with the New Super Mario Bros. franchise. Sonic 4 was supposed to reaffirm a sense of hope in the Sonic franchise, but instead all the game did was make the remaining believers question their faith. If you are still curious about the title, do yourself a favor and check out the trial version first.

XBLA Review: Comic Jumper: The Adventures of Captain Smiley

Twisted Pixel, the geniuses behind XBLA favorite, 'Splosion Man, have returned with another off-the-wall title. This time, instead of 'Sploding your way through a labratory, you'll be blasting fools away as you travel through four different comic books.

Comic Jumper: The Adventures of Captain smiley is really a hodgepodge of several different titles. The game takes the gameplay of Duke Nukem, the graphics of 'Splosion Man and the wise-ass nature of Matt Hazard and puts it into one title starring a superhero with an emoticon for his head.

Captain Smiley is definitely not your typical hero. He's clumsy and jealous, but the real kicker is that the star on his chest is actually attached to him biologically. Not only is this star (aptly named 'Star') a separate character altogher, but he constantly gives Captain Smiley a tough time, which leads to some very entertaining banter.

The story is definitely one of the most original concepts in the history of the Xbox Live Arcade. You star as the previously introduced Captain Smiley, one of the biggest stars in comic books. Unfortunately, as you'll see for yourself in the first mission, Captain Smiley's comic has been terrible lately. A very funny live-action cutscene after the first mission shows the comic being buried at a playground, given away for free at comic shops and even used as toilet paper (ok, thankfully you don't actually see this, but it's definitely implied).

The sales of the comic have turned down so sharply, that the team is actually broke and getting canned. Turns out that the only thing Captain Smiley can do to make some money and attempt to save his comic series is to actually make cameos in more successful comics. That's exactly what you'll be doing throughout the entire game. You'll go from comic book to comic book, completing missions to help the characters in each universe.

The graphics are very nicely done. You can certainly see the 'Splosion Man-esque graphical style throughout the game. As you travel through the four comics, the art direction changes. This is a great touch and as you go, you'll see everything from modern comic-style to cel-shaded to black and white. The character models are very embellished, as they are in comics. Basically, if you are into comics, you will love the graphical direction of Comic Jumper.

 

The melee gameplay of Comic Jumper, however, is hit-or-miss. The beat 'em up aspect of the game can be a little frustrating. While the game does do a good job of giving the player a few different ways to interact with up-close adversaries, the combat can feel a bit clunky. This is very much remedied as you get futher into the game and get to use various weapons in melee combat.

We much prefer the gun combat, which can actually become really rather difficult. The main difficulty-increasers are certainly the enemies, who can take a lot of punishment. They also have a knack for over staying their welcome at times, with enemies coming out just as you thought you made it through that particular wave. You'll definitely find yourself in your fair share of Contra-esque firestorms. Luckily, the game does a generous job of giving the player checkpoints, which you'll definitely need since you don't regenerate health unless you die.

The controls during gun sections are pretty intuitive and fast-paced. You use your left stick to run through the levels and your right stick to aim. To make matters easier, you use the right trigger to fire and the left trigger to jump. It all works out very well, but if you prefer to do it another way, you can also use the face buttons for a more old-school feel.

Throughout the title, you'll find various Easter-Eggs for other Twisted Pixel titles. The best tip of the hat has to come in the form of actually having 'Splosion Man and The Maw arcade machines in Captain Smiley's lair. Of course, to play them, you actually have to own the games through the Xbox Live Marketplace, but it's neat to see them in there. Captain Smiley and Star even make reference to the criticism that many people had concerning Twisted Pixels' DLC releases for The Maw, which is incredibly humorous and does a great job of addressing the critics.

Overall, Comic Jumper is a game that takes a level or two to feel better than average, but once you get going, the story and above average gameplay will grip you unmercifully. The banter between Smiley, Star and the other characters are as entertaining as we've ever seen in any title, and the story is always entertaining to the point that you'll find yourself laughing out loud on occasion. At $15, you'll get more innovation and fun than you will in most $60 retail titles. Sure, the game has a few flaws, but they are very easily overlooked when the overall product is this well-made.

XBLA Review: Hydrophobia

Hydrophobia has been billed as "A Digital Tsunami of Epic Proportion". Whenever we see the word "epic" in a description, we are always somewhat skeptical. In this case, however, there are few things more epic than the situation the characters in Hydrophobia are in.

In the beginning of the game, the character awakens and the player learns that several years ago, the world was flooded, wiping out much of the population. To take refuge, Kate, the main character, has joined thousands of other people on an enormous, city-sized ship called The Queen of the World. Kate decides to go out and partake in the "Party of the Century" to celebrate the anniversary of the ship itself.

Unfortunately, things go the way that they usually do during big celebrations in video games, that is, they don't quite go as expected. Rather than fireworks and fun, Kate is treated to a full-blown terrorist attack that threatens to plunder the ship and it's citizens into the overgrown ocean. While the ship slowly goes down, it looks like it's up to Kate to save the floating albatross.

It turns out the terrorists are operating on a fanaticized version of social theorist, Thomas Malthus' theory on population growth. With this, the terrorists operate on the idea that humanity has over-populated the earth to the point that the planet cannot support the race through its resources. Thus, the group has sprawled their slogans, "Save the World - Kill Yourself" among them, across the ship, creating an eerie setting.

As you play through the title, you'll notice numerous similarities between this game's style of play and that of another revolutionary title, Mirror's Edge. To get from point A to point B, Kate must free-run, climb and jump from ledges and ladders. Often times, she'll be doing so with obstacles closing in on her, such as an elevator that is about to see it's brakes fail while she's in the shaft, so she's pressed for time as well.

The Mirror's Edge style of gameplay is present in the combat as well. Throughout the adventure, Kate will encounter several of the Malthusian terrorists, all of which are heavily armed. Even later on, when Kate receives a pistol, she is still out-matched and out-skilled. Therefore, she must take roundabout methods to take out the patrolling enemies.

Since Kate must utilize various tactics, such as defeating enemies by destroying environmental hazards surrounding them. This is where the game shines. The water flows in an incredibly natural manner, which is unlike anything we've seen in any game before. Water can sweep you or your enemies away, so you must plan very carefully when attempting to take out enemies.

Despite the great aspects of the game, there are definitely a few misfires. The navigation, while not terrible, does feel a little jerky at times. Running and jumping will sometimes leave the player feeling a little out of control, which will cause a few deaths throughout the story. The free-running is also nowhere near as controlled or fluid as seen in other titles that use similar mechanics, like Assassin's Creed or the aforementioned Mirror's Edge.

Aside from a few strange textures and some pretty bad voice-acting, the presentation in Hydrophobia is among the best offered on the Xbox Live Arcade. The water, as mentioned before, looks and feels as good as it has in any title, retail, downloadable, or otherwise. The environmental damage, which also plays a big role in the title, works as well as one could hope.

Throughout the story, players will also put a device called a MAVI to good use. The MAVI, which acts kind of like a highly advanced iPad, will put several detective style tools at Kate's disposal. The device will be used to hack locked doors and computers, detect useful objects within the environment, and even scan ahead to alert Kate of danger. The device is very useful, but can feel like a bit of a burden at times, as some of the situations feel a bit forced.

In addition to the story, there are a few things that will add to the replayability, including a pretty cool challenge mode, which rewards players for keeping their chain multiplier up and using the room's hazards to their advantage. Also, while you're running through the campaign, you'll be coming across several different types of collectibles, including quotes from Thomas Malthus, which will help the player to better understand the motives of the social theorist.

Overall, Hydrophobia is one of the top Xbox Live Arcade titles of the past several months, but there are a few key things keeping it from being in the running for Downloadable Game of the Year. With a slightly improved free-running engine, as well as a better voice acting team, the game could've been one of the best titles available for the Xbox Live Arcade. Instead, what we get is a satisfying adventure that capitalizes upon the theme of a reluctant hero to the fullest. Hydrophobia is worth the purchase price of $15 if you are truly looking for something a little different, yet slightly familiar.

iPhone/iPad Review: Rocketeer

The iPhone has some pretty sweet apps, but have you ever felt like you might want to take a few rocket men and launch them into a black hole? Well Rocketeer, Wired Developments' new physics based aiming game, might be able to fill that void in your app library.

Rocketeer's setup is about as simple as it gets. You have a spaceship on one side and a wormhole on another. The goal is to aim your Rocketeer into the wormhole to transport him to the next level. It's not always so simple, however, as planets and meteor belts will be glad to get in your way.

To remedy this, Wired Developments actually uses the concept of gravitational pull to swing the Rocketeers around these obstacles. The bigger the planet, the stronger the pull. This means that you'll have to pay close attention to not only the layout of the planets, but also the size.

 

The game, like most games on the market, starts the player off with a set of training wheels. You'll begin by passing by one planet, then two, then three until you fully understand the concept of the gravitational pull. There were a few points that I felt a little overwhelmed, but not to the point where I got frustrated, so the developers did a good job ramping the difficulty curve. Before you know it, however, you'll be blasting your Rocketeers through more difficult puzzles and bouncing, spinning and even rapid-firing them towards the wormholes.

The graphics are pretty run of the mill, but look very nice and crisp on the display. The mixture of 2D and 3D graphics works well in the game's formula and plays really nicely, especially on the amazing displays of newer devices.

Overall, Rocketeer is a well-made game that combines interesting concepts with an addicting gameplay style. The game does a good job of taking a simple style of play and making the most of it through little innovations and tweaks upon the original idea. The game won't be replacing your Angry Birds addiction anytime soon, but it's definitely a worthy companion to the title.