Things I Learned From Yesterday’s Nintendo Direct

Last night saw Nintendo stream the first Nintendo Direct broadcast of 2014. Nintendo president Satoru Iwata took the reigns once again – with his trademark Engrish and restrained enthusiasm – for a stream focusing on Wii U and 3DS titles set to hit store shelves and the eShop this spring.

Here’s what I took from last night’s live stream:

1. Mario Kart 8 will be released June 30th

Probably one of the most anticipated Nintendo games, Mario Kart 8 will hope to single-handedly resuscitate Nintendo’s flagging home console. It was absolutely paramount to Nintendo’s Wii U strategy to get Mario Kart on the Wii U as soon as possible, and it looks as though they will not disappoint.

2. Yoshi’s New Island could be a disappointment

I’m a huge fan of Yoshi’s Island on the SNES, and consider it to be one of the finest examples of 2D platforming ever created. Unfortunately, Yoshi’s New Island seems targeted at a younger audience and my expectations are somewhat low for this.

3. X could be the Wii U’s killer app

Monolith Soft’s Xenoblade Chronicles was one of the Wii’s top titles, and the upcoming X looks set to take up the mantle from its highly-regarded predecessor. With third-party support rapidly dwindling, this Wii U exclusive could prove key to changing Nintendo’s fortunes in 2014.

4. Nintendo’s ‘free-to-play’ strategy is finally bearing fruit

I’m not a fan of the ‘free-to-play’ model that has become increasingly popular thanks to the success of iOS and mobile games like Candy Crush Saga and (often overlooked) Plants vs Zombies 2. Nintendo clearly made a conscious effort to steer clear of the term ‘free-to-play’ when announcing their Rusty’s Real Deal and Steel Divers: Sub Wars, but that’s exactly what they are. Steel Divers offers a free version and a ‘premium’ version (so essentially a demo / trial version and a full game with all the bells and whistles, but even I have to admit that the haggling mechanic being implemented in Rusty’s Real Deal is somewhat interesting; allowing players to negotiate with an in game character to ultimately reduce the real world cost of in-game items makes for an interesting spin on the much-maligned micro-transaction.

5. Punch-Out’s Little Mac will make his Smash Bros debut

Not the most exciting announcement to come out of yesterday, but die-hard Super Smash Bros. fans will be pleased to see another playable character added to the roster of the one game that stands any chance of exceeding Mario Kart 8 in terms of sheer excitement.

6. The Virtual Console’s lackluster offering is improving… But only on Wii-U

Metroid Fusion

The Virtual Console was on of my favourite selling points of the Wii; revisiting Donkey Kong Country for the first time since the SNES days or being introduced to Sin and Punishment was worth the price of admission alone. Unfortunately, the Virtual Console offerings on both Wii U and 3DS have been lacking since both systems launched, and titles are currently limited to just NES and SNES titles, with not a single N64 game in sight.

December’s Nintendo Direct revealed that Nintendo DS games will now be coming to Wii U, and last night saw Nintendo unveil GBA games to the Wii U Virtual Console library. These are both welcome additions, but hardly the Mario 64 or Ocarina of Time caliber titles that Nintendo fans have been asking for. Also, it seems the 3DS has been left out in the cold, with no new system support on the horizon. Whether this is an emulation issue with the 3DS hardware, or whether Nintendo is just trying to leverage these re-released games for their struggling home console isn’t clear, but I for one would much rather be playing the low-resolution Metroid Fusion on my 3DS than my 1080p HDTV.

Come on, Nintendo. Let’s gets Majora’s Mask on the eShop and save the DS and GBA titles for the handhelds.

7. I’m a sucker for a themed 3DS

Image

I already own a 3DS and a 3DS XL, but every time Nintendo announces another super-special limited edition 3DS system – whether it’s gold and emblazoned with a triforce, or dino-green and complete with pixel art Yoshi – then that twinge of gadget lust always returns.

I’ll be sticking the my tried-and-tested black version for the foreseeable future, but that doesn’t make the Yoshi 3DS XL any less awesome.

The Legend of Zelda: Hyrule Warriors

Hyrule Warriors

Announced in the December Nintendo Direct broadcast, the tentatively titled Hyrule Warriors takes the much loved characters, enemies and weapons from the Legend of Zelda and attempts to tie them with the hack-and-slash action of Tecmo Koei’s Dynasty Warriors series.

I’m all for Nintendo giving their IPs to external developers to create fresh experiences, but this title is a bit of a mixed bag for me. For a game that is supposed to be hitting shop shelves sometime in spring of 2014, the footage on offer this December appeared to be very early footage and was really rather bland, with indistinctive locales, barren environments and visuals that don’t appear to be taking full advantage of the Wii-U’s graphical capabilities. Clearly Nintendo felt under-pressure to show something that might get fans excited having been under fire for almost the entirely of 2013, but I’m not convinced this was the right move.

Dynasty Warriors has its fair share of loyal fans, but the countless titles in the main series (I think they’re up to 8 in the main Warriors lineage?) have never managed to grab my attention with their simplistic hack-and-slash action and – even though I’m a sucker for anything Zelda related – I don’t see how shoe-horning link into a game with the same archaic mechanics will sway my opinion of the Warriors series.

If Nintendo plan on selling this as a full-priced Nintendo title, then I think they’ll struggle to shift units.

Review: Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D

Donkey Kong Country Returns

Alongside Super Mario Galaxy, Donkey Kong Country Returns is one of the most highly regarded games in the Wii library and Retro Studios is giving it a second lease of life on Nintendo’s 3DS. Adding some new levels into the mix and toning down the challenge with a brand new mode that could make this portable revision the definitive Donkey Kong experience.

The game has lost very little, if anything, in its transition from console to handheld; the impressive production value remains and the entertaining cutscenes that further the story are just as captivating as they were in 2010.

The story is the standard Donkey Kong affair, seeing our primate protagonist’s banana stash being stolen by a myriad of hypnotised animals, providing the MacGuffin that gets Donkey and Diddy back into the action and barrel blasting through a number of colourful environments in an attempt to reclaim their favourite fruit.

The controls have made the perfect transition, eschewing the gimmicky and unintuitive motion controls of the original in favour of the more traditional SNES layout introduced by Rare in 1994’s Donkey Kong Country.

It is interesting to note that Diddy Kong has been relegated from playable character to glorified jetpack. Freeing Diddy from his barrel prison no longer rewards you with the ability to play as Donkey Kong’s more agile sidekick, but simply sees him jump on Donkey Kong’s back to provide him with some welcome propulsion in the form of a jetpack to help him reach areas that were previously inaccessible. However, delve into the player co-op mode and two players can jump, roll and barrel blast their way through levels together, stripping DK of his jetpack power-up, but giving you the added benefit of an ally to share in the inevitable failure and heartbreak that is bound to occur throughout this immensely challenging adventure.

Retro Studios have treated us to some of the most creative level design of any side-scrolling platformer of recent memory. The various worlds are beautifully designed and varied, seeing you go from a lush jungle to a dark cave whilst stopping off at fiery volcano. Every time you find a favourite level, Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D throws something even more creative and memorable at you; whether Donkey and Diddy are silhouetted in darkness, hurtling down a rickety track in the series’ iconic mine carts, or you’re barrel blasting from foreground to background in a mechanic that really shines when combined with the 3DS’ stereoscopic 3D effect, the level design really is the star of the show here.

The difficulty of Donkey Country Returns is not to be understated; you will fail and fail often, but every time you do it never feels unjust or a result of faulty gameplay mechanics – it’s the level design that gets you – so smashing that barrel at the end of each section can be an immensely satisfying experience. For those unwilling to test their skills at the highest level, the inclusion of the ‘New Mode’ softens the difficulty slightly, giving you an extra heart and additional items (such as a balloon to carry you to safety when about to fall into the abyss) that make it a far more accessible experience for younger gamers and people that don’t quite feel like launching their 3DS through a train window on their daily commute. Alternatively, too many deaths will introduce Super Kong, a character that introduces a kind of autopilot feature that will complete areas on your behalf if the challenge proves to be too much.

Retro Studios have also introduced eight entirely new levels that are exclusive to this 3DS release of the game, and while it may not be enough to entice owners of the Wii version to spend their hard-earned cash on a near identical experience, it should certainly provide extra incentive for newcomers and die-hard Donkey Kong fans alike.

If there’s anything to hold against this 3D revamp, it’s that some of the visual fidelity has taken a hit in the process of slimming down for the 3DS. The resolution isn’t nearly as high, so some character models can appear a little jagged at times and the reduced frame rate hinders the fluidity of the platforming, which could be quite jarring to fans of the original, but that’s to be expected on a device of this size.

Nitpicks aside, Donkey Kong Country returns is an outstanding portable adventure that is every bit the platforming marvel that we remember. The tweaked difficulty and eight new levels are welcome additions, and while it’s not quite as visually impressive as it was on the Wii, the exceptional gameplay and level design remains intact. When it comes to portable platformers, this one is the pick of the bunch.

Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate In Massive eShop Sale

Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate

Those looking to indulge their JRPG Monster Hunting cravings should head on over to Nintendo’s eShop, as Capcom’s critically acclaimed Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate has received substantial 40% discounts in both European and US eShops.

The 3DS version can be had for the paltry sum of £23.99, while the Wii-U version will set you back £29.99. So if you’re looking for something to tide you over until 2014′s sure to be stellar offerings of Mario Kart 8, Super Smash Bros and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, then you can’t go far wrong with one of the 3DS’ top titles – boasting hours of content and substantial replay value – for almost half the recommended retail price.

With the offer only running until February 6th, you’ll have to be quick if you want to grab yourself a bargain.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

The next gen is here, and while the rest of the world is busy getting excited over yet another annual release of Assassin’s Creed or the latest Call of Duty, I decided that playing the role of a sword swinging elf-child, clad in green and on an adventure to save a princess would be a far more enjoyable experience this holiday season and a welcome break from the usual green and grey shooters.

A Link Between Worlds is the latest release in the iconic Legend of Zelda series, and a bold move from Nintendo; not only is it a sequel to one of the most highly-regarded and beloved video games of all time, it is also entirely aware of its predecessor and willingly embraces its heritage, providing a Hyrule overworld that is almost exactly how we remember it. The game plays more like a Link to the Past remake than a direct sequel, but Nintendo manages to make everything feel fresh by playing on your expectations, relocating secrets, changing up puzzles, and introducing an intriguing item rental system that is brand new addition to the franchise.

Link’s myriad of gadgets and contraptions are now accessible at any point in the game, and while this makes treasure chests far less interesting to discover, it does mean that dungeons can now be tackled in almost any order, a mechanic that is reminiscent of the original Legend of Zelda’s non-linear progression. I was initially worried at this drastic change to one of my favourite Nintendo franchises, but I quickly found it only increased the sense of exploration and adventure, the two aspects that should surely be the defining characteristics of any Zelda adventure.

Nintendo also chose to cut out the unnecessary tutorials and excessive dialog that bogged down a number of the other entries in the franchise (notably Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword), resulting in a concise and streamlined experience that really feels at home on a handheld system and thrusts you into your first dungeon within 15 minutes of starting the game.

All in all, this game is the shot in the arm that this franchise needed. It feels fresh and exciting, throwing new ideas into the traditional Zelda formula but never straying far enough to lose sight of the series’ tradition or negate the charm that made these games so beloved in the first place. It will be interesting to see how much of this new Zelda makes its way into the inevitable  HD Zelda for Wii U.

Man of Steel Impressions

Man of Steel

No one has managed to articulate Man of Steel’s shortcomings as passionately as Mark Waid.

I urge you all to read his lengthy and thought-provoking post that details the moment of betrayal that would have seen him leave the theatre if it wasn’t for the intervention of his slightly embarrassed girlfriend.

Mark describes in detail how the Man of Steel’s emotional climax broke his heart, as the shining beacon of hope that Superman usually embodies was abruptly extinguished, as the last son of Krypton killed General Zod by snapping his neck.

It appears that, in Zack Snyder’s interpretation of the character, Superman is a killer; no phantom zone imprisonment and no “I won’t kill you, but I don’t have to save you” moments. How can this Superman feasibly exist in a DC Universe alongside a Bruce Wayne that, when Ra’s Al Ghul instructs him to kill an imprisoned murderer, insists “I will go back to Gotham and I will fight men like this, but I will not become an executioner.”

The sheer indulgence of mass destruction throughout the film’s finale seemed entirely unnecessary, and (for a character that should be trying to minimise the destruction of Metropolis) Kal El seemed wholly uninterested in anything other than the spectacle of destroying General Zod in the most destructive manner. Superman did not go out of his way to prevent falling buildings or debris, and he rarely (if ever) attempted to protect General Zod’s civilian victims from the carnage he was responsible for.

This whole scene was a missed opportunity, the finale could have focussed on the last son of Krypton’s epic struggle as he juggles the responsibility of protecting those around him with the need to take down this Kryptonian supervillain; we could witness the moral struggle as Superman’s beliefs almost become his undoing.

I didn’t dislike the film, but I wasn’t blown away by it either. A lot of things didn’t sit right with me and, like eating a doughnut, I enjoyed the experience but left the theatre feeling an overwhelming sense of dissatisfaction with this portrayal of the Man of Steel.

For a more articulate approach to the Man of Steel, read Mark Waid’s brilliant article: Man of Steel, since you asked. | Thrillbent.

Review: Bioshock Infinite

Bio Shock Infinite

After fours years in development and tens of millions of pounds in resources, the team at Irrational have finally shipped the highly-anticipated sequel to one of the most beloved video games of this generation.

You play as Booker Dewitt, a man tasked with rescuing a girl from the floating city of Columbia in order to pay off his gambling debts. It’s no coincidence that one of the first actions you make reveals a reflection of Booker’s face; this isn’t the typical faceless vessel that the majority of games present you (FPS games in particular), Booker Dewitt is a genuine and fully realised character whose perspective we happen to share.

While it bears the BioShock name, Infinite is far from a rehash of the original. Sure, the opening is a definite head-nod towards its predecessor, as Booker Dewitt approaches a lighthouse amid dark and stormy waters, but the game literally launches you skyward and immediately eschews any thematic association with Rapture, and this proves to be a running theme throughout. BioShock Infinite is both keenly aware of its roots, and willing to disregard them entirely without hesitation.

Your first glimpse of the floating city of Columbia is spectacular; it’s a pristine and beautiful world of retro science-fiction – a floating city of cloud and Zeppelins that revels in its unique oil-painting aesthetic. Columbia only continues to impress the deeper you delve into its lore and fiction, and while Rapture provided a leaky, broken down environment and an isolated experience, Columbia is clearly in the midst of its own Renaissance; the streets are lined with people and music, there are bright colours and a fairground for you to explore should you feel so inclined. By the time you arrive in Rapture, the drama has already occurred and you’re left to piece it together; in contrast, Columbia is in the middle of a revolution by the time you stumble through the entrance.

It quickly becomes apparent that this paradise of barbershop quartets, hot dogs and beaches hides a more sinister underbelly; seemingly innocent posters hide ulterior motives and propaganda, calls for ‘racial purity’ and pop-culture references that are not of the 1912 era all serve to unsettle the player and position Columbia as an off-kilter society with some serious corruption problems. Zachary Comstock – one of the founders of Columbia – is the egotistical dictator hell-bent on antagonising and de-railing Booker Dewitt from the moment he sets foot in Columbia. Comstock is a worthy successor to Andrew Ryan, with his deplorable views of race making him instantly hateable.

The wonderful thing about Infinite is that it has such a compelling narrative, but it doesn’t force it upon you. You can play this game like Call of Duty and race through to the finish line and the game won’t stop you, but go out of your way to collect the various Voxophones and code-books that are scattered around the city and you’ll be rewarded with further insight into this remarkable world. If there’s one criticism to be had about this new focus on narrative, it’s that you have to go out of your way to find the interesting characters and discover how they fit into this society; the game no longer forces the likes of Frank Fontaine or Dr. Steinman down your throat, you now have to go out of your way to discover their stories.

It’s not until the introduction of Elizabeth that the game really begins to take shape; Elizabth revolutionises both the narrative and the focus of the gameplay, providing an interesting companion for Booker and an emotional outlet for the player, as her awe and enthusiasm at her surroundings mirrors your own experiences. Elizabeth drastically alters the battlefield following her arrival, with her ability to pull objects from alternate realities affording you a more strategic approach to combat by introducing cover, automated gun-turrets, health packs or ammunition on the fly via these trans-dimensional ‘tears’. Combine these elements with the Skylines, and BioShock Infinite’s combat is immediately elevated beyond the realms of a typical first-person-shooter, despite its all too familiar weapons and vigors that (for the most part) are pulled straight from the original BioShock.

After your first encounter, Elizabeth remains an ever-present NPC for the majority of the game. This could prove distracting, but NPCs have come a long way since Goldeneye’s Natalya; instead of becoming an annoyance, Elizabeth becomes a genuine ally and regularly supplies you with health packs, weapon and ammunition. It truly is a technical marvel how well she has been implemented into both the gameplay and narrative; the few occasions where you’re actually separated from Elizabeth feel unnervingly quiet and empty, and are the moments that most closely resemble the original BioShock’s sense of isolation and atmosphere. Returning to BioShock after investing so much time in Infinite would certainly be a jarring experience.

The Skylines prove to be one of the highlights of the game; these exciting one-man-roller-coasters allow Booker to quickly navigate the various islands of this vast floating city. The mechanic is truly an accomplishment and has been brilliantly implemented into some of BioShock Infinite’s action set-pieces; jumping from a skyline and obliterating a nearby foe in one seamless motion is one of the most satisfying and visceral moments you can experience in a video game. However, leaping to and from these skylines in the middle of combat is not as seamless as it should be, and frantically thumbing the right-stick in search of the elusive ‘A’ button notification can leave you open for some serious punishment. As a result, the skylines are sometimes forgotten about once Booker is grounded – especially on the easier difficulty settings – leaving the fight to unfold in a more traditional manner with shotguns and vigors.

BioShock Infinite introduces two new enemies in the form of the Motorised Patriot and the Handyman. Motorised Patriots are robotic versions of George Washington (seriously) or Father Comstock that can provide a significant threat when encountered alongside a handful of typical grunts; the Handyman is a human head attached to a disproportioned mechanical body. While both of these new adversaries are compelling and fit nicely into the fiction that Columbia weaves, neither of them comes close to the iconic stature of BioShock’s Big Daddies. Your first encounter with a Big Daddy was a memorable and intimidating experience; they were physically imposing and were often heard well in advance of the actual encounter, adding to the atmosphere and the tension, especially if you were ill-equipped for the fight. The Big Daddies would be out of place in this new setting, but it does feel like a missed opportunity that Irrational were unable to introduce a character that could provide a similarly iconic experience within the realms of Columbia.

Conclusion:

Ultimately, BioShock Infinite feels like a shotgun blast to the face of ideas. So much is thrown at you that some things just fly by your peripheral vision, with very few of the themes ideas explored to their ultimate conclusion. The religious themes and issues of racism that are introduced early in the game are quickly neglected in favour of a science-fiction tale, which still provides one of the most incredible narratives in recent memory, but leaves you thinking that some of the most compelling parts of Columbia might have been left on the cutting room floor.

Let’s be honest, you’ve probably already played BioShock Infinite to completion or have at least added it to your collection. If you’re a video game fan, or a fan of visual media in general, then BioShock Infinite is something that you absolutely have to experience. Judged on its mechanics alone, BioShock Infinite would be little more than an average FPS game, but it’s the narrative, fiction and interaction with Elizabeth that elevate this title to legendary status.

9/10

I wrote this for Pure Xbox. I’m crossposting it here for my archive.

Independent Film Released Exclusively On Xbox

Pulp

Pulp leads the way for Microsoft’s media strategy…

Xbox is following in the footsteps of Netflix by distributing exclusive content over Xbox Live.

British independent film, Pulp, will make its debut on Microsoft’s platform, with a Microsoft spokesperson informing the BBC that the company plans to secure more deals of this nature in the future.

Pulp follows hot on the heels of the recent Netflix exclusive House of Cards, and opens the floodgates for the gaming giant’s first foray into media distribution. The Xbox boasts a vast user base and a burgeoning reputation as one of the best media hubs on the market, making it an attractive proposition for directors and film producers looking to bypass the rapidly shrinking market of physical media.

It will be interesting to see what these deals mean for the next Xbox and the future of the platform.

Pulp launched on March 4th 2013 to Xbox Live subscribers, and will set you back 1180 Microsoft Points for the standard definition version, or 1420 Microsoft Points for a high-definition version.

I wrote this for Pure Xbox. I’m crossposting it here for my archive.

Review: Gears of War – Judgment

Gears of War: Judgment

The Xbox 360′s testosterone-fuelled swan song?

There isn’t much to say about Gears of War that hasn’t been written countless times before. It’s undoubtedly one of the most beloved video game series of the 360 generation, going from ‘unknown IP’ to ‘legendary’ status in record time, as it quickly became one of Microsoft’s signature trump cards. Now the bonafide system shifter returns for one final go-round before the 360 rides off into the sunset. Can Gears of War: Judgment be the 360’s swansong before we usher in a new era?

The game takes place immediately following the events of Emergence Day, and opens with a well produced, epic, cinematic cut-scene. Accused of treason, familiar face Lieutenant Baird emerges from a Raven helicopter, bound by handcuffs and escorted by Colonel Loomis and a number of armed guards. In the background a city stands ablaze with the ever imposing Reavers circling overhead. It’s an impressive opening that really demonstrates the scale of the war, and kick-starts this latest installment with the kind of grandiose presentation that has been a hallmark of the Gears franchise ever since it debuted way back in 2007.

The absences of Marcus Fenix and Dom Santiago (two of the primary protagonists from Gears 1, 2 and 3) are notable, although learning more about Lt. Damon Baird and and Pvt. Augustus Cole is refreshing and provides enough variation from Judgment’s predecessors to ensure that it succeeds as a stand-alone experience rather than an extension to the existing trilogy.

As Lt. Baird and Kilo Squad are about to begin their tribunal, the player is thrust into the action. Baird’s voice-over narration accompanies your first tentative steps into the war zone. This narration becomes a regular occurrence throughout the campaign, as Baird describes exactly how each mission and the happenings throughout have contributed towards the trial.

Lt. Baird is clearly the Marcus Fenix character this time around and the majority of the campaign revolves around his story, although we are given the opportunity to play as Augustus Cole and the other members of Kilo Squad, as each one is afforded the opportunity to give one’s testimony to the court. Each mission is bookended by a cut-scene that brings us back to the trial at hand before ushering in a fresh set of allegations and tasks for the following mission to either justify or debunk. These moments break up the campaign into bite-sized sections that encourage repeat playthroughs to improve your score and increase your star tally.

‘Declassify’ missions crank up the challenge of the campaign by introducing a number of stipulations. These range from decreasing your health, increasing the number of enemies, reducing visibility or forcing you to use specific weapons that are less effective for the situation you’re about to face. As well as making the campaign more challenging and enjoyable, these stipulations also tie directly into the narrative; for example, a lack of ammo in one particular area forced Kilo Squad to implement tactics that are actively discouraged by COG (Coalition of Ordered Governments), which doesn’t bode well for their ongoing trial. Upon completing these missions you’re award with stars based on how well you performed. There are a maximum of 3 stars per mission, and depending on the number you have acquired, additional content, characters and features are made available to you, the most notable being the ‘Aftermath’ campaign.

‘Aftermath’ is a short stand-alone campaign that takes place during the events of Gears of War 3 and lets players experience significant moments from a brand-new perspective. While ‘Declassify’ missions aren’t required to complete the game, ‘Aftermath’ provides ample incentive, and it should definitely be a priority for anyone intending to gain the ‘full’ experience of Gears of War: Judgment.

Even if you opt for the added stipulations described above, the ‘Normal’ difficulty never provides as much challenge as you’d expect, although Epic does recommend that war-hardened Gears crank up the difficulty to ‘Hardcore’ for the best campaign experience.

Epic’s flagship series has never been renowned for its story and Judgment does not break this tradition, with the narrative never straying far from the typical video game tale of Humans vs Monsters. It’s clear that Epic has tried to inject some charisma into these glorified grunts, but while Cole remains as entertaining as ever and Baird demonstrates some muscle with his leadership, they’re ultimately as meaningless as the army of generic Locust creatures you’ll encounter.

If you purchased Judgment for three-dimensional characters and a narrative that rivals Orson Welles then you’ve come to the wrong place. Gears of War is all about high-octane action and a solid gameplay experience. Judgment delivers the action with some of the best pacing a video game can muster; the quiet periods provide just enough time to catch your breath before another relentless onslaught from your enemies. The combat is built on an engine that randomly selects the enemies you encounter from countless possible combinations, and those enemies attack from different directions, spawn in different areas, and ensure that each battle is unique. You can gear up to face a Boomer only to have some other abomination cross your path, leaving you entirely unprepared. It’s an approach that games like Left 4 Dead have utilised brilliantly, and it’s baffling that it has taken so long for other developers to cotton on and implement similar systems.

The Gears of War cover system was revolutionary upon its arrival in 2007, with countless titles imitating and replicating the mechanic, and the same solid system has been fine-tuned and honed for its return in Judgment. It’s rare that you’ll find yourself stuck in the open due to a button press that wasn’t registered or some other malfunction, leaving unprepared co-op partners with fewer excuses when you’re replaying an area due to their untimely death.

Alongside the great cover system, Epic has tightened up the controls this time around; changing weapons is seamless and requires a simple button press rather than the d-pad scrolling of previous instalments. Despite the improved controls, Epic Games still seems reluctant to improve on a few jarring animations that have been prevalent throughout the series. Jumping over objects still requires entering cover before launching yourself over, when a more natural animation after double-tapping ‘A’ would be a welcome improvement. Sure, it’s nitpicking, but surely a developer the calibre of Epic could have addressed such a minor imperfection after six years of working on a AAA franchise.

Gears of War would not be complete without its myriad of devastating weapons, and all the old favourites return this time around. The iconic, chainsaw-laden Lancer is as gruesome as ever and the Torque Bow still packs an explosive punch. New weapons are also introduced, like the One Shot, a gun that (as its name suggests) can destroy practically any enemy you come across with a single round. The game does a good job of balancing its more effective weapons; heavy ammo is sparse and infrequent, leaving you to pick your targets appropriately and ration rounds in preparation for the climactic shoot outs that close most chapters. AI throughout is adequate and enemies never seem overtly stupid, but your team-mates will regularly obscure your line of fire, inexplicably leave you for dead when you’re down, or simply stand over your lifeless body as you bleed-out in the midst of a firefight. It’s not irritating enough to ruin the experience or break the game, but it’s definitely a noteworthy flaw.

Visually, Gears of War: Judgment is as brilliant as ever. Taking a moment to admire the quality of textures on the wall, or the detail in the sprawling city-scapes you’ll encounter makes you really appreciate how much work has gone into this title. One stand-out moment sees a large black cloud slowly encompassing a devastated city, a glance to the left and the Endeavor Naval Point enters your field of view, a glance to the right and a giant aircraft carrier lies broken on some nearby rocks, bobbing and swaying precariously. While we’ve surely reached the limits of what the Xbox 360 can accomplish in terms of visuals, revisiting the original Gears of War after seeing this really demonstrates how far we’ve come in seven short years; Gears of War was no slouch, but Judgment is in a different league.

While Gears of War: Judgment offers an impressive campaign, the experience feels like a ‘cut-and-paste’ job from the previous three games. Some of the missions are among the best the series has to offer, but there are no iconic moments or big action set-pieces that could rival the likes of the Brumak Rodeo from Gears of War 2.

If you’ve played a Gears of War game then you know exactly what to expect with this outing; everything from the sound effects to the way characters handle remains untouched and, while it’s not always necessary to reinvent the wheel, the departure from the lineage of the original trilogy could have seen Epic attempt to refresh the experience for the adventures of Baird and Cole.

Conclusion:

There’s no doubt that Gears of War: Judgment is a great game and one that will probably be used as the standard to which other third-person cover-based games will be measured. It’s as solid as ever and the top-notch pacing makes it an exhilarating campaign to play through.

That being said, it’s hard to overcome the ‘been-there, done-that’ feeling it inspires. If you’re a die-hard fan of the series then it’s definitely worth completing the story and experiencing Emergence Day through the eyes of Lt. Baird. For casual fans that have played any of the previous Gears of War games, there isn’t really anything new in Gears of War: Judgment that makes this worth the £40 investment.

New to the series? Then this is the perfect introduction to one of this generation’s landmark series.

8/10

I wrote this for Pure Xbox. I’m crossposting it here for my archive.

Dishonored To Receive New DLC

The Knife of Dunwall

Name, price and release date announced…

Bethesda’s critically acclaimed first-person stealth game, Dishonored, is set to receive a shot in the arm this spring with the release of some fresh DLC.

April 16th will see The Knife of Dunwall hit virtual shop shelves, setting you back 800 Microsoft points for the privilege of extending this entertaining but all too brief experience.

The Knife of Dunwall will introduce some new weapons, characters and locales, as players take on the role of Daud – star of the previous DLC add-ons – and embark upon “a search for redemption”.

A Bethesda statement reads: “Your search will take you through never-before-seen districts of Dunwall as you face off against new and terrible foes. Employ a unique arsenal of new weapons and powers that enhance Dishonored’s dynamic combat, mobility and stealth systems. In the struggle to hang onto the last shred of your humanity, the choices you make will ultimately determine your fate.”

I wrote this for Pure Xbox. I’m crossposting it here for my archive.

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