Here’s an analogy for you: If Skyrim is your favorite Pixar film, then Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons ($15, Xbox Live Arcade) is the animated short before that film. It’s the experience that, while short-lived, sticks with you long after credits of the main feature have rolled. I don’t think I’m too far off the mark by calling Brothers one of the most emotionally rich and meaningful games of 2013. The story is simple: you and your brother must find a live-saving cure for your father, who has fallen ill. Because he is your only living parent, saving his life is all the more important. This leads the two sons on an adventure through a danger-ridden fantasy world.
This review will be short. Not because I don’t have a lot to say about Brothers, but because the simple act of writing about the story would ruin it for you. Think of it like this: how angry would you be if I went to see a movie you’d been eagerly anticipating for the past year, and then rattled off some of the major plot points? You’d be kinda pissed, right? Every scenario in Brothers is something you must experience for yourself to truly appreciate. There are few games I can think of in which the minute-to-minute events are so special.
It’s a well-timed coincidence that a group of thieves made off with tens of thousands of dollars from a Justin Bieber concert in Johannesburg just days after the release of Monaco: What’s Yours Is Mine on Xbox Live Arcade. Apparently, they rappelled and chiseled their way into a vault room at the stadium while the concert was happening. I’m not usually one to root for the bad guy, but these heist-type crimes are undeniably cool (especially when they happen in real-life), and Monaco lets you step into the shoes of shady players who pull off big scores.
Unlike the Johannesburg criminals, though, there’s nothing realistic about Monaco’s band of crooks. They play to the classic heist movie archetypes–such as the Locksmith, the Hacker, the beautifully distracting Redhead, and the wily Cleaner, who uses chloroform to knock out guards. Though the characters may be slightly cliched, the game design itself is anything but. Monaco is a top-down action game that mixes elements of stealth, twin-stick shooting, and well-timed strategy. Your goal on each level is simple: get to your goal (typically money, or a person or object of value), and then escape. Sounds easy, right? Well, there’s a bit more to it than that.
Once in a while, a video game will toss a pop culture reference or two into its script for an easy joke. But what if the game itself is one big joke? What if it’s one giant reference to a very specific time period filled with so-bad-they’re-good one-liners and cheeseball visions of the future? That, my friends, is when you get games like Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon.
In case the title wasn’t clear enough, this is a game that doesn’t take itself seriously. It has an aesthetic obsession with every great/awful 80s sci-fi and fantasy flick you’ve ever seen. Imagine a smart-assed version of The Terminator trapped in a neon nightmare (see: Tron and Hobo With a Shotgun) with a soundtrack that has bits of The Running Man, Predator, Big Trouble in Little China, and Escape from New York blended together…and you’ll have a great idea of what you’re getting into. If none of that sounds appealing, or you’re too young to understand the references, then you may not “get” what Blood Dragon is trying to do. However, for anyone who grew up watching those films (or if you just love a good synth-groove), it’s a gut-bustingly hilarious little trip down Nostalgia Lane.
Since I was old enough to watch them, the Indiana Jones films have been some of my all-time favorites. I even love Temple of Doom, with all of its goofy B-movie charm. And yes, I was in that small minority that even found most of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to be pretty enjoyable, even if they did jump the shark with the absurd “nuke-proof fridge.” And the monkeys. And flesh-eating ants. … Okay, so it was pretty ridiculous, but I have no shame in admitting that I am a Crystal Skull apologist.
Maybe that’s why I love the Tomb Raider reboot so much. It could be that, no matter how cheesy or unlikely, the sense of discovering a lost artifact deep within a booby-trapped dungeon speaks to my inner child-adventurer. The younger version of me who thought that maybe, just maybe, there was buried treasure somewhere in my backyard. Or, it could be that the game is just rock solid in nearly every aspect, from the gorgeous graphics to the gameplay mechanics. It doesn’t matter if you’re stealthily choking out cultists, scaling rock walls, or waging all-out war against the crazies living on the mysterious island of Yamatai where you’ve been stranded. Without giving away too many plot details, something nasty has been going down on this island, where the weather can change on a dime and the people there have taken an unusual interest in you and your party. Pretty much everything in this game just works. It’s well-acted, packed with harrowing action setpieces, and features one of the most darkly compelling settings this side of Bioshock‘s Rapture. Having hit in March, Tomb Raider is already one of 2013’s best games.
Platform: Xbox Live Arcade Price: 1200 Microsoft Points ($15) Score:
Disclaimer: I suck at shoot ’em ups (also called “shmups”). I still struggle to reach the end of the second stage in Ikaruga, and even then, I usually die. Bangai-O was a fruit-filled nightmare for me. Heck, even the original R-Type is still hellaciously challenging. But I love the genre for its sometimes unabashed weirdness, cluttered design tendencies, and straight-up hardcore difficulty.
So, I was hesitant to pick up Sine Mora. It does, after all, fit squarely into the shmup mold, doesn’t it? Well, not exactly. There are a couple things that the game does to distance itself from its brethren, the first of which is to present an honest-to-goodness story. The plot is filled with heavy themes not typically found in arcade-style games, including (but not limited to) genocide, free will, betrayal, time travel, and even sexual assault…all involving characters that look like humanoid animals. There’s even a legless buffalo-man in a wheelchair. It’s pretty strange stuff, but if you can follow along with the on-screen text preceding each stage in Sine Mora‘s story mode, you’ll may be quite surprised to find yourself actually caring about what’s going on beyond simply blasting everything in sight. And hoo boy, is there a lot of stuff to shoot.
When the “extreme” sports sub-genre of gaming reached the height of its popularity, SSX was in its prime. Even traditional sports like football, basketball, and hockey were being “extreme-ified,” in the most tubular, awesome, extreme way possible. Remember NFL Blitz? NBA Street? Heck, even Tony Hawk was still good. But that niche eventually waned a bit, and some franchises, such as the aforementioned Tony Hawk, fell from grace. SSX seemed to fizzle out and quietly disappear from the forefront of the gaming scene, but it’s back. This brings us to SSX (formerly subtitled “Deadly Descents”), an attempt by EA Canada to bring the franchise to the current generation of high-def gaming systems. The result is a snowboarding game that easily out-tricks all others, but may end up getting the cold shoulder from the more conservative SSX veterans out there.
This new release sees the original boarding team going head-to-head with former team member Griff, who has “gone rogue.” He double-dog dares them to board some of the world’s deadliest mountains, because that’s what hardcore snowboarders do. And that’s about it.
In this modern generation of video games, there are plenty of titles that offer up twisting storylines and complex gameplay mechanics, some of which require mental dexterity and problem-solving skills beyond anything we had to summon a decade ago. But every now and then, it’s relieving to just switch off our noggins and feed that primal urge to blow s@!# up. Red Faction: Armageddon fills that requirement without a hint of pretension or subtlety. In other words, it’s a true Red Faction game, one that faithfully follows the destructive spirit of its predecessors. And boy oh boy, is it fun.
Armageddon is the follow-up to Red Faction: Guerrilla, considered by many fans to be the best game in the series and one of the sleeper hits of 2009. It took the Red Faction story of resistance and revolution (on Mars!) out of the dark and drab mining caverns where it started, and into an open-world sandbox a la Grand Theft Auto. It also pulled the camera back from a first-person perspective, into the over-the-shoulder view we’ve become so accustomed to seeing in recent years. In Guerrilla, you could tackle objectives and side missions with relative freedom compared to its linear forbearers. But Armageddon refocuses the experience and drags you back into the tunnels below the surface of the red planet. Whether that’s a good or bad thing will depend on the individual, and the move has certainly proven to be divisive amongst the series’ fanbase. Though I’m okay with the return to linearity, it does prove to get a bit tiresome at times. More on that later, though.
As Detective Cole Phelps approaches a burned-out house, county coroner Mal Carruthers stands on what remains of the front porch. “You guys better take a look at this; I hope you have strong stomachs,” Carruthers says. Phelps steps through the front door and turns into the living room…then he sees it: the charred remains of a family, all kneeling, seemingly posed like dolls in positions of prayer. The scene is gut-wrenching and grim. This is the work of a twisted man and it’s up to Detective Phelps to find him.
That memorable scene is just one of dozens in L.A. Noire, which at times is more film than video game. It often wrests control from the player to tell its story, so if you’re an impatient fidget who gets tap-happy with buttons in a frantic attempt to skip cutscenes in other games, this may not be for you. But then again, L.A. Noire isn’t like other games. Though it presents a sprawling 1940s-era Los Angeles to explore at your leisure, I wouldn’t put it in on the shelf next to “open world sandbox” titles like Grand Theft Auto. Car and foot chases frequently happen–many times ending in violent shootouts–but I’d hesitate to call it an “action game.” The real meat-and-potatoes of the game lie in the search for clues, close examination of evidence, and interrogation of suspects. Are they telling the truth, exaggerating, hiding something, or just lying through their teeth? Well, it’s up to you to figure it out by paying close attention to their body language and facial expressions. This is where Noire really breaks off into a league of its own.
Widge Here: Everyone give a big warm welcome to Brady, who wanted to throw in with some gaming review action. The more the merrier. Or considering the game in question: “Excellent!”
Just about any gamer who visited an arcade or owned a Sega Genesis or Super Nintendo in the 90s is familiar with the basics of Mortal Kombat: cheesy character designs, buckets of blood, over-the-top finishing moves, and something about a martial arts tournament in a place called Outworld that decides the fate of Earthrealm. The storyline, while entertaining in its goofiness, was never really that important. It was all about beating the bloody snot out of your opponent and then getting a chance to tear his/her head off (spinal column still attached), Predator-style.
But as many devout MK followers know, the franchise lost its way through the years over the course of several sequels and spin-offs. One game focused on the Sub-Zero character was critically panned, and you got the feeling that the developers had run out of ideas when they introduced finishing moves called “Babalities,” in which you turned your opponent into a diaper-clad infant. At several points, it seemed as if the series had become a parody of itself…and not in a good way. Other recent titles shifted the playing field from two dimensions to three with lackluster results, and even pitted the hardcore bloodletting kombatants of MK against heroes and villains from the DC Comics universe (an amusing distraction, but hardly what fans were clamoring for). However, devotees can finally breathe a sigh of relief: the new Mortal Kombat brings the fighting series back to its roots with stunning results. It is simply the meatiest, goriest and most feature-laden fighter available right now.