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Hardware review: The MiniStick

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In the world of PC games everyone's all too familiar with the tried and true WASD or arrow keys. It's the beginning and end of FPS and third person control on PC although it has it's limitations. Analog control would be nice to have somehow along with that precise mouse control versus the "digitalness" of the keyboard keys as they are wouldn't it?

Here come's the MiniStick to the rescue, I hope. At the moment my laptop is the most powerful gaming computer I have right now as I have one of those new fangled Ivy Bridge machines with an Nvidia 2GB battery sucker at my disposal, so that is what I tested the MiniStick on. After going through the setup process, which was literally minutes, I was ready to get my PC gaming on with what is essentially a makeshift analog stick. 

Once you get the three loop pads in place on your keyboard all you have to do is line up the hook pads (velcro) underneath the MiniStick to match and connect the two with a press down on the unit to secure it.. That's it, you're ready to rock your PC games like never before.

Those who have any apprehension about playing PC games will find the MiniStick a possible solution. It's the closest thing to playing with a "console like" analog stick out there ( and quite possible the only thing).  Pushing the WASD keys are now just like pushing an analog stick. The only issues I found where when it came to playing a game that requires you to use the E or Q keys for in-game actions as those keys are somewhat covered by the MiniStick which could be a serious problem in certain games.

The build quality of the Ministick is the only place where improvement is sorely needed. The entire unit is plastic which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but the plastic used is somewhat flimsy and could easily be broken upon rough use or a simple case of forgetfulness if you where to end up sitting on it when not in use.

A great idea is still a great idea even if it has a few flaws which is the case with the MiniStick. The $9.95 asking price for the MiniStick is a bit steep for a piece of plastic, although what you get out of it is easily worth it when you get analog control out of your keyboard giving you better control and in turn more precision. Instead of going all of the way to a gamepad this is a nice half way step that allows you to keep your mouse control intact.

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The Splatters review

 

 

There are puzzle games and there are puzzle games that use physics. This game my friend is the epitome of physics puzzle games. If randomness isn't "your bag" look the other way otherwise be warned that The Splatters is a Tour de Force in the "oh, I get it" moment. "I don't get it" isn't an option. 

Now, lets have a physics lesson. The Splatters is derived around the simple mechanic of "splatting". Manoeuvre your splatter around the environment to splat them to the point they explode into a bunch of liquid that activates bombs that are scattered around the arena. Blowup all of the bombs and move on to the next objective. As simple as that is it's anything but that once you are introduced to more mechanics later on in the game. Unfortunately that is where the problem with the first few hours creeps its little head. The entire initial portion (Become A Talent) of the game is a giant tutorial. Although it does do a rather good job of giving you fun things to do with your new found skills you are quickly brought back to the classroom so to speak to be taught yet another skill for far too long. 

Among the skills you'll learn besides flinging your Splatter around is forward flip and reverse flip which are not what you think they are. Flipping in this game is essentially rewind and fast forward, but with a gigantic catch. You ARE NOT manipulating time. What you are doing is pushing the momentum of what you just did in the reverse direction. All of the physics properties that your Splatter has is thrown into the other direction giving you some really cool opportunities to have your head explode in delight or what is often the case, frustration.

 

 

As clever as this game can be with its physic modeled gameplay that is ultimately what will make you want to put the controller down over time for at least a break every once in a while. After you get over the solid presentation that grabs your eye with bright colors and a wackey soundtrack get ready to pull your hair out if you still have any. Much of what you learn throughout the Become A Talent section of The Splatters is straight forward all the way up until you start to get into situations where the physics take over and you feel that you don't really know what's going to happen when you are required to make an elaborate shot that is entirely dependant on rather or not the game cooperates with what you want to happen. Once this sets in you'll be restarting, restarting some more, and restarting even more after that. Thankfully the game resets itself stylishly fast or this would be a deal breaker almost immediately as you are asked to accomplish more and more complicated shots. 

Once you're out of the Talent mode and unlock the other two modes "Combo Nation" and "Master Shots" that is where the meat of the game stands and just as stated before, get ready for frustration on an epic level if you aren't a Splatter savant. Combo Nation requires you to chain together stunts as much as possible to achieve your allotted star value in the classic 1,2, or 3 star rating. Improvising your shots is a must, otherwise you'll quickly be wanting to throw your controller into orbit. Master Shots is also exactly what it sounds like. You are given a type of shot to achieve in the form of a cloud shaped just so. Make sure not to reposition your Splatter in this mode and let it fly with the exact shot the game tells your to perform. Fail to accomplish the goal exactly like its asked and you'll need to restart until you get it just right.

On top of the gameplay is a surprisingly well organized set of social features that allow you to show off your accomplishments after each and every event. Accompanying the classic score leaderboards is something called Splatter TV. In Splatter TV you can watch clips of other players as they accomplish crazy feats of Splatter physics. This feature can be a big help for those who just don't get it and need to see how it's done even if it's just to see how to do specific stunts with your Splatter.

Ultimately though, the physics based gameplay of The Splatters is it's triumph and downfall all at the same time. As dependant as the game is on the physics being the catalyst for everything you do it's the very thing that will cause frustration. If you don't get it almost immediately you will likely hate this game with a passion. Those who so called "get it" will have a blast and be more than willing to over come the quirks and constant restarts. Physic savants do need apply. All others who are wary, maybe you should look the other way.

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XBLA Review: Torchlight



I grew up never playing Diablo.  There, I said it.  The first step to recovery is admitting the problem, right?  To be honest, I never played Dungeons & Dragons or Dungeon Siege either.  Heck, I didn’t even play Torchlight on PC.  The idea of mapping 80 different spell commands across my keyboard pretty much put me off of any dungeon crawlers no matter how pretty the graphics or deep the story.  Fortunately for my inner gamer, Torchlight on Xbox Live Arcade may be changing that. 

To start, Runic Games is forthright that Torchlight stands somewhere between the Isle of Diablo and the Wasteland of Console Controllers.  It says in the game description, “developed by the creators of… Diablo,” so I can’t criticize Runic for whipping up a rather uninspired storyline because that’s the audience they are aiming for.  Everyone knows the story: Adventurer comes to Town Nowhere that’s been infested with Dark Monsters because of some Ancient Evil dug up by Stupid Miners looking for Magical Stuff.  It’s almost lifted right out of the pages of Lord of the Rings.  As I was playing Torchlight, I actually had flashbacks to the Mines of Moria.  But that’s ok; I expected that.  I wasn’t looking for anything groundbreaking (pun!), as it’s the charm and wit of the story that I was after.  And Torchlight delivers.  While I never made an emotional connection to my character, I did find myself growing attached to my pet.  Sure, I may have transformed a cute bobcat into a huge troll, but he saved my bacon a number of times in combat and was always there when I needed to send him to town to sell loot.

 

I’m pretty sure that gameplay in Torchlight is the part everyone is most concerned about so I’ll go into it a bit more.  “OMG, no keyboard, no cash,” has probably sprung forth from many a Torchlight fans’ lips upon hearing about the Xbox port.  Frankly, I didn’t miss the grind that comes with a keyboard-mouse combo.  Spell mapping is a simple matter of assigning the spell of choice to one of the B, Y, LT, or RT buttons.  Then you can assign skills to the same buttons by pushing up or down on the directional pad.  I found this much easier than juggling weapons in Assassin’s Creed 2 and it really made it super easy for me to get into the game.  

A word of warning, the game itself is kind of easy.  If you level up your character in the right places, you can trounce everything the game throws at you.  I don’t know if this is a general trait with most dungeon crawlers, but I would have liked to see more puzzles to figure out.  I have about 8 hours invested in the game so far and I am an ass-kicking archer of death.  I have a fully enchanted bow enhanced with two super jewels I transmuted and it’s a true death-dealer.  Not many creatures can stand up to me and the bosses are quickly dispatched with the help of my troll pet.  Being somewhat linear, the game makes up for the ease with a number of side quests.  The inhabitants of Torchlight will keep you loot grinding and monster slaying for a while.  And of course you can keep track of all those ghouls you sent back to their graves in the stat tracking journal.

Controls are a tad different than I expected.  I wanted to have a twin-stick shooter-type of control mechanism so I could fire my bow while strafing away from an attacker.  Perhaps this is a by-product of the port from PC, but it’s awkward at first.  After I upgraded my bow to god-like power, I could just stand there and fire off arrows without strafing, but a novice may find this off-putting.  At the least an option would have been nice.

 

I would say Torchlight looks like a pretty version of Warcraft 3.  The characters are cartoonish yet identifiable.  There are ample glorious particle effects and the Dolby 5.1 track sets the mood nicely.  I never felt like a team of 4-year olds rendered the game (see my Yaris review).  The environments are pretty varied from one level to the next considering you’re in an underground mine.  It’s not going to look like Chinatown no matter how deep the miners dig, but it is varied.  I must say the addition of day-night cycles or weather effects would have been nice, but the amount of time I actually spent in the town of Torchlight was minimal.  I definitely liked the extra bit of detail that went into the backgrounds of the mines to complete the mood for each dungeon.  The lava gave off a nice eerie glow, even if I couldn’t throw any enemies into its fiery jaws.


Honestly, I think I’m one of the few gamers left alive that cherishes a solid single player only experience, but I’m in the minority and Xbox gamers demand such things.  I’m kind of surprised that Runic didn’t include some form of local co-op in the Xbox version given that this game has been available on PC since 2009.  Local multiplayer a la Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light would have been a welcomed addition, but the exclusion doesn’t hurt the experience at all.  I can only hope that gamers don’t overlook Torchlight because of this decision.   I will go out on a limb and say that Bioshock, Assassin’s Creed, and Portal are all wonderfully deep single player games that never needed a multiplayer addition and, like these, Torchlight stands just fine on it’s own.  Also like those games, the sequels got multiplayer modes and I hope Torchlight does too.  After you finish the game, you do have the option of transferring gear to your next character.


Overall, Torchlight was a great experience for me and I really hope Runic brings Torchlight 2 to Xbox Live Arcade sooner rather than later.  Despite the lack of a personal connection between the character and myself, I enjoyed the game a great deal.  Also, the avatar awards were a bit lacking creatively, but that’s me being nitpicky.  Torchlight is console dungeon crawling done right and a welcome game on Xbox Live Arcade.  You would be making a mistake if you didn’t pick this one up; and that’s coming from a recovering PC dungeon crawler hater.

 

Review: You Don't Know JACK

 

The world of trivia is what it is. You either like it or you don't. But, when it comes to fond memories of You Don't Know Jack going way back to its PC roots where you and your buddies would sit around a single keyboard abreast to a single key as your buzzer it's all gravy. Over the years though, a proper release of You Don't Know JACK has been absent minus a web incarnation developers Jellyvision concocted sometime ago. Fortunately fans of the game from yester year have need not worry about wheter the game still holds up, it does.

On first look everything you would remember from You Don't Know JACK is all there. The wackily worded questions intertwined with irrevent humor? Check! Dis or Dat? Why yes. Check! "Screwing" other players in the game? Check! Jack Attack? Of course. Check! So, is that it? Nope, there's more to be had now.

 

With this newest incarnation of JACK, you'll be greeted with a few wrinkles to the formula that change things up just enough that give a little bit of a much needed edge where you don't feel you're just going through the motions if you've played any of the versions that have come before. At the beggining of every game you'll be introduced to what is called the "Wrong answer of the game". You'll get what turns out in the end to be a clue at the beginning of every game as to what wrong answer you should be looking for to score a cool 4,000 or 8,000 points (Round 2 doubles your points) by getting the answers wrong on purpose.

Semantics aside, what separates YDKJ from the other trivia games outthere is the raunchy humor that is very much not for the family as much as on the surface the game seems like it would be a perfect fit. On the contrary, keep you kids far far away unless you want to be put into an awkward spot when Cookie decides to make jokes about "whoopy" leaving you "with some explaining to do".

 

Unfortunately all is not well in You Don't Know Jack land. As the Xbox 360 version of the game is what was played, what you'll likely come across is the game most glaring flaw. Assuming you'd like to have as many people in the game as you possibly can in addition to what you may have on hand in person, prepare for some sad news. Mixing of local and Xbox LIVE players is not and option. Either you play the game by yourself on Xbox LIVE or play it local only. To call that a major oversight would be saying Jeopardy would be missing something without it's iconic opening theme song.

Everything is there (minus the huge ommison above). 73 episodes of You Don't Know JACK goodness brought up to todays speed, big button support if that fits your fancy, a presentation that seldom gets old, and last but not least it's half priced. You can't go wrong with this game unless you are eternaly alone. Playing by yourself is most defintely doable, yet, the magic of "not knowing JACK" is in the fun of reactions from others. If you can grab a few buds the mound of episodes found on the disc will last you for quite some time. Just remember -- no matter what, You Don't Know JACK!

 

 

Review: Raskulls

The second title in the Games for Holidays promotion on Xbox Live might be the least appealing and original looking out of the three, but it very well may be not only the best out of the three, but one of the most enjoyable downloadable platformers in recent memory. The title mixes the classic 2D platform elements with various types of puzzles and races and throws in a whole lot of humor to create one of the best, albeit short, experiences in the history of Xbox Live Arcade.

You start out with humorous little still cutscenes explaining how the Pirats, a pirate group consisting of, get this, rats. Alright, that doesn't sound incredibly creative, but when their ship runs out of fuel and crash lands, they decide to venture out and find an alternative fuel source. Don't think that the Pirats are the heroes, however. In trying to secure an alternative fuel source, the Pirats decide to try to trick the Raskulls, a local skeletal species, out of their Shiny Stones. The Raskulls aren't ready to give up their Shiny Stones, so you assume the various roles of the Raskulls and your adventure to protect one of their most precious resource begins.

The gameplay of Raskulls is varied, but revolves around 2D platforming. You'll make your way through various levels that are hosted in three different environments. Each environment presents various challenges, primarily focused on a race of some sort. Each race will see the players running to a goal or doing laps in hopes to outdo either AI adversaries or the clock.

During these events, numerous obstacles will be in the way of you and the AI racers. The most common obstacles are the blocks that auto-generate within the levels. These blocks add a strong puzzle element to the game due to the fact that they interact with each other much like blocks in a typical puzzle game do. As you destroy them with your spark, they fall and conjoin with like-colored blocks, creating new formations and making the block-busting more calculated. Along the way, you can pick up power-ups and jars that fill up your Frenzy meter, which acts as a turbo boost in the racing scenario. The 2D platforming race is no new concept, but with the tight controls and numerous variations on the idea, Raskulls proves to possess a mastery of the genre.

In addition to the various races and time trials, there exist several other types of events. They range from making your way to a goal through large masses of blocks with only a certain number of zaps in your repertoire, to making your way to a goal without losing your Frenzy. The most fun of the different game variations, however, is the one where you must defuse bombs that are spread throughout masses of blocks. The trick is that you must do them without anything falling on them or causing the bombs to fall. Later on in the Mega Quest mode you'll even come across modes that combine the objectives of other modes (i.e. Defuse the Bombs with a Limited Number of Zaps) and more unique modes like the Sculptor mode, which requires you to zap a certain shape or color of block.

In addition to the Mega Quest mode, there are several multiplayer modes. The multiplayer modes, which span from local to Xbox Live, are all based in the primary theme of racing. These modes prove to be a huge success. If you can get a good group of people to race through the Grand Prix mode, the competition will get serious really quickly and the Mario Kart-esque antics with power-ups and Frenzy will ensue. This really serves to save the title from getting stale after the Mega Quest is done with.

Raskulls really is a great title. Xbox Live and Microsoft Game Studios ended the year with one of their best games. The only thing that we would've liked to see added to this game is another chapter or two of the Mega Quest. With only three chapters, the Mega Quest doesn't seem to really live up to its name, but with the possibility of DLC in the future, there is hope. The Quest doesn't really warrant another play through, but multiplayer and time trials give it plenty of value. The title would be a surefire candidate for downloadable title of the year if only it had a little bit more meat to it. As it stands now, Raskulls is an amazing title that is a little short-lived.

Review: ilomilo

The final title in the Games for Holidays promotion is an incredibly cute title that goes by the name of ilomilo. Ilomilo, which combines the names of the two protagonists, Ilo and Milo, appears to be a 3-D platformer at first glance, but without a doubt, this is a puzzle title.

The game centers around the two characters, Ilo and Milo. The story goes that they are best friends that live on separate ends of a park, but they like to see each other. Unfortunately, they have terrible memory, so everytime they try to visit each other, the journey seems different, which explains to the player why the puzzle is different with every level.

The game puts the two characters at opposite ends of the puzzle (or sometimes right next to each other) and gives the player the objective of making the two meet. Seems simple, right? Well, for the most part it is. Every so often, however, they will throw a serious curveball into the level and make it very difficult to finish.

To overcome the various obstacles in the levels, the player will be required to switch between the two characters, pick up and place various kinds of blocks and even defy gravity by rotating around the cubes. The different cubes range from simple moveable blocks to ones that extend and even transport the character to the other side of the cube.

As you advance through the nearly 50 puzzles, you'll play through several different environments, which makes it so the game always looks fresh. Even if the game didn't switch around the various environments, the game is still gorgeous looking and totally unique as far as presentation goes. The whole title has this LittleBigPlanet feel to it in the presentation department, but this is certainly a unique experience that takes full advantage of the Xbox 360's power.

There is much more to do within the puzzles themselves than just reunite the two little guys. Within each puzzle, there are smaller versions of ilo and milo called Safkas which are hidden throughout the levels and generally require the player to go out of their normal path to retrieve. Collecting Safkas results in bonus content that is generally worth the collection for those fans that get really sucked into the title. In addition to Safkas, players can also collect various fragments of memories and other bonus content, such as soundtrack parts, with all go to unlock bonus content for both the game and the other Games for Holidays titles.

Overall, ilomilo is about as addicting as games come. The average player might find themselves turned off by the somewhat cutesy art style, but once you get past the art-style and overall silliness of the title, you have a serious platforming puzzler that is able to present a serious challenge to even the most experienced gamer. Ilomilo is one of the first titles to be released in 2011 and if it is any indication as to how the year will shape up for Xbox Live Arcade, then we are in for a good one.

Review: A World of Keflings

Xbox Live Arcade games may not always have the longevity of a retail title, but that doesn't mean they can't be as or even more addicting than their retail cousins. A World of Keflings, the latest creation from the good folks over at Ninja Bee, is a follow-up to 2008's A Kingdom for Keflings and only serves to expand the scope and enjoyment of its predecessor.

The title casts you in the same role as the original title: a giant (represented by your avatar) that lives among tiny anthropomorphic creatures known as Keflings. A kingdom shrouded in ice discovers you frozen in a giant block of ice. You are freed and asked to assist in building their kingdom up. Obviously, you oblige their wishes, otherwise this game wouldn't exist.

You can decide whether or not you'd like to see the tutorials, but if you are unfamiliar with the Keflings titles, we'd definitely recommend you switch these on. If you're familiar with the series, there is an option to view Advanced Tutorials only. You'll start the game in the Ice Kingdom learning the ropes and building some basic buildings and harvesting the resources of the area. Eventually, the tutorial of sorts will end annd you'll be able to move onto the main part of the game, which takes place in the Forest Kingdom.

Once there, you'll meet the main character who wants you to build up his kingdom. You'll spend the bulk of your gameplay in this kingdom, but there is a third kingdom, which feels like it only serves to elongate the experience. Each kingdom has different resources, which allows you to trade between the three kingdoms to build more advanced buildings.

As you feel yourself get better at the game, you'll notice an addiction take hold and eventually you'll realize that hours have passed. Just as you start to wish that your avatar could walk a little faster or carry more resources, you'll have the option to buy upgrades that will do just that and more. NinjaBee was very smart about the timing of when they allow you to purchase such upgrades.

The dialog that occurs between the Keflings and yourself is very enjoyable to follow. NinjaBee was great about making dialog that is not only humorous and entertaining, but very family appropriate. The humor that is found in the dialog is found throughout the game as well. You level-up Keflings by bopping them on the head, you can dance and perform other "emotes" in order get reactions out of your Keflings, and some side-missions actually revolve around you kicking a given number of Keflings for various ridiculous reasons.

The main game will last you between seven and eight hours and will definitely have you wishing there was more game to play. Luckily, after you achieve the ultimate goal of building the castle for the king in the Forest Kingdom, you are able to free play and continue on building upon your already existing castle. With the promise of additional DLC, plus avatar awards on top of the already-present achievements, the replay value is in the above average realm as well.

A World of Keflings is a late favorite for downloadable game of the year. It has all of the qualities of a great sequel and many qualities of an overall great title. A World of Keflings not only builds upon the successes of the hit A Kingdom for Keflings, it improves on all of the shortcomings. With titles like Band of Bugs and A World of Keflings, NinjaBee is quickly becoming one of the top Xbox Live Arcade developers and hopefully they continue to get the recognition that they deserve.

Review: Donkey Kong Country Returns

When Donkey Kong Country hit the Super Nintendo, it changed the face of the video game industry forever. With its 2.5D graphics and its platforming perfection, there was no doubt in our minds that DK had much more up his sleeve than simply hurling barrels at Mario. The game also presented a significant challenge to gamers of all backgrounds and experience level. All of these traditions from the original Donkey Kong Country have been carried through with the latest release, Donkey Kong Country Returns on the Nintendo Wii.

The game is, much like New Super Mario Bros. Wii, a huge nod to nostalgia-seeking gamers in their 20's and 30's. From the enhanced graphics and the new game mechanics, however, the title definitely brings enough new to the table that it doesn't feel like a simple rehash of the successes of a game that came out three generations ago.

When you begin playing, you'll notice that Donkey Kong Country Returns features some amazingly well-done updated versions of the original Donkey Kong Country tunes. The familiarity will be enough to draw in fans of the original from square one, which is something that Nintendo really needs to capitalize on if they hope to keep up with the improved motion sensing of the other consoles in this generation.

The concept of the game has remained largely similar as well. You run from left to right, simply trying to make it to the end of each level. If that's not enough for you, another well-known concept from the series has been carried into this title as well. Throughout the game, there are unlockables and hidden items galore. You have the original K-O-N-G letters to find, then you also have puzzle pieces, secret passages, and a whole lot more to worry about as you make your way through each individual levels. It's because of this that completionists will find a lot to like in way of replayability.

Even if you aren't a completionist to that level, the level design will certainly leave you satisfied with just making it through the levels alive. There is no way around it, this game is tough. You will die a lot throughout the course of the game and you will definitely be engulfed in a severe fit of rage more than a few times.

The fine line that Nintendo always seems to tread in its first-party titles is the line of whether your in-game deaths are fair or not. Sure, some of the New Super Mario Bros. Wii levels were frustrating, but none of them were unfair. That same notion applies to Donkey Kong Country Returns. While most of the platforming levels are manageable and rather fair, there is a pretty sizeable amount of vehicle-based levels that feel downright unfair and will have you throwing your Wii Remote across the room. While the old adage of "practice makes perfect" certainly applies to these, it feels like many of them are trial-and-error, which is fine to an extent.

Even though the game may sound like an outright winner from the synopsis of taking the winning formula behind the Super Nintendo series Donkey Kong Country and giving it the New Super Mario Bros. Wii treatment, it is far from perfect. Aside from the frustration you will feel from the vehicle levels, the biggest issue is definitely the control scheme. The developers, for whatever reason, felt it so incredibly important to force the player to utilize the Wii Remote's tilt and shake functionality, that they didn't include the ability to use the Gamecube controller or even the Wii Classic Controllers.

This definitely steals away from the retro experience and the forced use of the motion controls feel just that way. The way the motion/shake controls work in normal gameplay is that if you shake the controller when you're standing still, Donkey Kong will slam the ground, which will destroy things on the ground or stun nearby enemies. If you are pushing the D-Pad in one direction, Donkey Kong will rolls in that direction if you shake the controller, which will knock some enemies off the stage, or at least off their feet. The final variation is if you're pushing down and you shake the controller, Donkey Kong will blow in that direction, which is useful for unveiling hidden bonuses and defeating fire-engulfed enemies. The issue is that the D-Pad will sometimes be finicky, which will cause a lot of unnecessary harm to Donkey Kong. The issue certainly could have been remedied had the developer allowed for the use of those aforementioned controllers.

A big different between this incarnation of Donkey Kong Country and the original series is the health aspect of the game. in the original title, each player was able to be hit once and they were dead. It worked fine for that title, but with new challenges presented in Donkey Kong Country Returns, the developers felt it necessary to implement a two-hit health system, which allows for more mistakes at the cost of a more difficult game.

The highlight and purpose of this game, for many, will be the co-op multiplayer. The mode operates very much the same as the co-op for New Super Mario Bros Wii, but with only two players at a time. In Donkey Kong Country Returns, player one controls Donkey Kong and player two controls Diddy Kong, much like the co-op in the original Donkey Kong Country. While co-op experiences generally tend to keep characters fairly equal in terms of base skills, Donkey Kong Country Returns actually makes Diddy Kong, and thus player two, the much more useful character. Not only can he shoot peanuts (which ends up not doing a whole lot), he can also utilize a jetpack, which comes very much in handy in the more difficult platforming stages.

In single player mode, this is also utilized. You can only control Donkey Kong in single player, but as you bust out Diddy Kong, he jumps on your back and you gain all of his abilities as well. It works like a power up for doing well, much like the laser sword in the original Legend of Zelda titles. It is weird always controlling Donkey Kong, even after unlocking Diddy, however.

Donkey Kong Country Returns represents a load of nostalgia, a ton of platforming challenge and a world of unfulfilled potential. The game may be one of the top titles of the year for the Wii, but the controls can be frustrating. With a little bit less reliance on the Wii gimmick, Donkey Kong Country Returns could have been the best title on the Wii, but instead, it may just have to settle for the year's best. It fails in comparison to New Super Mario Bros. Wii, but almost any update will. When all is factored in, Donkey Kong Country Returns is well worth the price of admission for all 2D platforming fans and a great pickup for fans of the original Donkey Kong Country.

Review: Crazy Taxi

Hey hey hey! It's time to make some ka-razy money! That's right everyone, Crazy Taxi, the wildest ride on the Sega Dreamcast, has been resurrected in the form of a downloadable release. As with Sonic Adventure's re-release, not a whole lot has changed, which will please the purists. There's no doubt that Crazy Taxi was crazy appealing back early last decade on the Dreamcast and in arcades, but with arcades an endangered species and the Dreamcast an extinct one, does Crazy Taxi have enough gas left in the tank to appeal to a new generation?

Crazy Taxi has, and always will be a game about speed and recklessness. For those unfamiliar with the title, very little setup is required on the part of the player. You choose which mode you want to drive in, Arcade or Original, choose a cab driver, and go. The game throws you right into the thick of things. You get a timer and thats about it. The narrator will quickly tell you your mission of making some "ka-razy money", the timer will start and you'll find yourself racing towards the prospective customers that are hailing you.

Once you pick them up, they'll let you know where you need to take them. Since the city can be a little confusing, especially in the beginning, you'll also receive an arrow that gives you turn-by-turn directions. Upon reaching your destination, you'll receive a base fare, which is based on how far the destination was from where you picked the customer up, as well as a "tip", which is really just a time bonus, based on how quickly you got them there. Along the way, you'll also receive little tips (or bonuses) for how exciting the ride is for the passenger. You'll accumulate for things like going airborne or narrowly missing oncoming traffic. This daredevil style of rewards system does wonders for increasing the excitement level of the game.

Once you complete your "shift", all of your earnings will be tallied up and you'll receive a license based on your performance. The higher your score, the higher your grade will be. You'll unlock achievements as you obtain higher grades, which, trust us, can be pretty tricky to get. Speaking of shifts, you'll also have the option as to how long you want yours to be. You can choose between the arcade style of shifts, which gives you time bonuses each time you pick up or successfully deliver a patron, or you can choose to work a hard-timed shift, which will expire the moment the timer runs out with no bonuses. Either way, you'll have plenty of rushing around to do.

In addition to the main modes, there's also a mode called "Crazy Box", which requires players to perform stunts in specialized courses in order to progress through the mode. The stunts range from performing long jumps using special moves in the car to drifting through various turns in order to make it to the goal in a short amount of time. The modes are fun, but are certainly a brief afterthought when compared to the other modes in the game.

So, now that we've covered the gist of the gameplay, the biggest question, as we mentioned earlier, is how does it hold up over a decade later? Well, the biggest factor is that the gameplay is still great. Crazy Taxi mastered the art of arcade-style driving long ago, and that is well-represented through this port. The sense of dangerous driving is still alive and well in this version, as well. The only thing that didn't really translate incredibly well, which was to be expected, was the presentation.

Originally, the game was consisting of beautifully designed levels inspired by southern California. Now, however, those levels are still intact, but they definitely look fairly dated.The textures don't look as smooth as we remember them due to the phenomenal graphics of today, but it definitely looks upgraded when you compare it side-by-side to the Dreamcast and arcade versions of the past. The only issue we had with the presentation is that there were apparently issues with the licensing of the Offspring tunes in the original, so they have been removed from this version of the game. This may seem like a minute detail, but for nostalgia junkies, they'll miss the chaotic environment created in part by "All I Want" being blasted in the background.

Crazy Taxi is the second release of Dreamcast classics on the Xbox Live Arcade and Playstation Network. Even though this game looks fairly dated, the gameplay still holds up as an excellent arcade driver. Throw in the fact that it has one of the more fun concepts of the past ten years, and you've got a great game to rediscover or, if you've missed the boat so far, you've got a new game to play during your time off this holiday season.

Review: Call of Duty: Black Ops

Who would have thought that after last year's enormous Modern Warfare 2 launch, that the Call of Duty franchise would continue to reach new heights? Nobody expected Black Ops to sell better than Modern Warfare 2, but to everyone's surprise, the game actually ended up selling 5.6 million copies in the US in the first 24 hours of its release. Not only is that 900,000 more copies than Modern Warfare 2 sold in its first day, but the game was selling out everywhere, including the rarely-sold-out Amazon. The game has now been established as the largest entertainment launch of all-time, but does it have the substance and staying power to live up to that daunting title?

Much like its predecessor, Modern Warfare 2, the game contains campaign and multiplayer modes. The campaign for Black Ops takes place during the Cold War, which allows battles to take place across many places and times. This is apparent, even at the beginning of the game, as the first few parts of the campaign see you in locations such as the Soviet Union and Cuba.

Try as it may, however, the campaign of Black Ops simply cannot amount to the overall epic stature of Modern Warfare 2. The story may be much more realistic and diverse, but, really, how do you top Washington D.C. being invaded and overthrown? Sure, interacting with the likes JFK and Nixon was pretty cool, but it definitely lacked where Modern Warfare 2 excelled.

For those still wondering, yes, the phenomenon known as "Nazi Zombies" that started in Call of Duty: World at War, is back as well. For those unfamiliar, the zombie mode, the mode places players in the center of a barricaded area. You can reinforce the areas and salvage weapons, but most of all, you'll be fighting off increasingly difficult waves of zombies. The mode is still one of the best modes of any game in recent memory. It remains one of the most fun versions of this new wave of survival modes found in shooting games, easily beating Gears of War's Horde mode and Halo's Firefight.

The main draw for many in the Call of Duty franchise, however, will always be the online multiplayer. Luckily, Treyarch has outdone themselves in this regard. The multiplayer is arguably the most well executed it's ever been in the series. There were many that complained about various issues from Modern Warfare 2, but it seems as though many of those have been fixed.

There are a few issues, however. Some of the reasons we found ourselves tearing our hair out over multiplayer stems back to the killstreak rewards. The ones we hate in particular are the dog and the RC Car rewards. The dogs, which were annoying in World at War, are even more hate-inducing now. They are more difficult to overcome and they tend to kill the player in one strike, rather than pouncing on a player, allowing them to fight back.

The RC Car, which is obtainable at a very low killstreak level, making it as commonly found in multiplayer as the spy planes that give away enemy locations. These RC Cars feel overpowered and way too common. Sure, if you can find a player hiding in the corner using the RC Car, it's an easy kill, but more times than not, you'll be stalking another player, when you suddenly hear a "whheeeeeee" then see an explosion and you're dead. It's enraging at times, but we aren't sure yet if the issue is that it's overpowered or we just haven't developed an effective strategy to deal with it yet.

Treyarch also takes a bit of a different approach to leveling up than we've seen in the past. This time around, rather than instantly unlocking certain killstreaks and guns at certain levels and milestones, you will be able to pick and choose which unlocks you want to obtain, based on experience points you earn while playing through. This makes it feel much more rewarding to earn these new abilities and gives a player incentive to press on.

Speaking of giving the player incentive to continue playing, you are also now giving the chance to take on "contracts", which allows you to try and complete certain tasks in a certain amount of time for a lump sum of experience points that you can use to level up. These range in difficulty, but usually aren't very easy to accomplish. They can be weapon or situation specific, and there are an abundance of them, so there is always going to be incentive to keep playing to earn these points.

There will always be those that complain about little things here or there, but when it's all said and done, Call of Duty: Black Ops is a phenomenal game that deserves to have the successful launch that it has earned. After Modern Warfare hit the market, people sort of assumed that Infinity Ward was the superior Call of Duty developers. With Black Ops, however, Treyarch has definitely made a case for themselves. The campaign may not be as epic, but it is more well thought out and tells a better story. The multiplayer is the best we've seen in the series and the zombie mode is just icing on this very well constructed cake. Black Ops is a definite contender for game of the year and deserves to be mentioned alongside the greatest first person shooters of all-time.