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This was a great year of gaming for me.  I was surprised by new titles I hadn’t heard of, pleased by spontaneous buys, and disappointed by games I had planned to buy for months prior.  Given how long it takes for me to get through games I usually just buy them or trade for them on Goozex, using the service as a long term Gamefly type setup.  As my rate of consumption increases I have to wonder if using Gamefly as a set rate of expense is a more cost effective solution, especially given the pain when I buy a stinker.  We shall see.

Below is a list of the major games I have played throughout this year.  With each is a little quip about them, and they are categorized by awesomeness.  Without further ado, here is the list:

Amazing adventures –

Borderlands – This game came out of nowhere and slapped me in the face.  I remember seeing some trailer for it, saying it was cool, then promptly forgetting about it in a sea of incoming games.  On release week, it was brought to my attention again.  The action RPG style, cell themed graphics and co-op features immediately attracted me to the title.  By release day I found myself in a Best Buy, shelling out my $60.  It was worth every penny.  Not only did it play awesome, and have great co-op, but Gearbox continued to put out DLC for this game.  In fact, I would say that I played it 6 to 8 months out of the entire year.  It had great legs to begin with, but the DLC made it into a supermodel.  At the time of this writing I have 2 days and 6 hours into my primary character, a siren.  I have enjoyed every minute of it, both on and off line, and continue to play it currently in between other games.  This was my game of the year.  Full Review

Mass Effect 2 – Literally taking your character from the first game and continuing the story (with story elements correct between games where you made hard choices) this game consumed a fair bit of my spring.  Like Borderlands, the action RPG style played really well, but the story and dialog options gave this game a lot of richness in its universe.  Leaning on my knowledge of how I never went back for a second playthrough on the first game, I played every major side quest in ME2 to their fullest.  I soaked it up like a kitchen sponge.  The plot twists and engaging nature of the story made the 30+ hours I put into the first play through worth every minute.  I knew myself well though, as I never picked it up again after the ending credits.  There was DLC released for it, but by then I had already pawned it on Goozex and was back into Borderlands again.

Splinter Cell Conviction – As a fan of Clancy games for years, this one really baked them all into one for me.  Taking the more agressive tactical elements from Rainbow Six Vegas and blending them with the assassin’s stealth of Splinter Cell, Ubisoft has created a game that tore me away from even one of my favorite games of the year Borderlands for a few months of distraction in a tight leather armor suit.  In order to take advantage of some online co-op opportunities I picked this up used off eBay of all places.  I played it online with a friend on some pre-planned weekends without ever having done the story.  I had so much fun with these couple stints that it spurned me to not only play through the entire game, but we also played through the 5 hour co-op storyline again on the highest difficulty but in half the time of the previous run through.  This game consumed a lot of time for me and I enjoyed every minute.  Previous SC games never had the pull into me that this one did and I look forward to future games if they take this direction and blend of game play elements.  Full Review

A nice fling –

Split/Second – I picked this game up after I had gotten too frustrated with Blur.  Like most games, I got it on a deal and always figured I could dump it on Goozex if I didn’t like it.  When I get into the game I was overjoyed by the gameplay and explosive graphical representations that the environment provided when you triggered events to crash your opponents.  The play and design reminded me a lot of Burnout 3 or 4, especially with the generic car makers and repeating tracks.  Though it was a rush to play up through episode 7, the game started to wain for me as the races became too difficult to get enough points to unlock progression in the game.  This lead me to having to backtrack and play previous episodes over again just to unlock newer races, which ended up being on most of the same tracks anyway.  Online play was decent, but more often than not it was hard to get a match together with a limited amount of people playing online.  It was an amazing game for a short time, but lacked the legs to make me play more than a month or so.

Kinect Adventures – I played this force fed game that comes bundled with the Kinect sensor for several days.  Given that it was my only Kinect title out of the gate it’s not like I had a lot of choice unless I wanted to keep playing with swipe and voice controls in the dashboard.  Overall the play experiences were very tight and controlled at a level of accuracy that easily surpassed the Wii we have.  With only 5 main game types and a dozen or so levels in these types you can easily see all there is to see in the game after a long day of playing.  Granted, they are still fun to go back into, but only to get a next higher level of performance or score.  Gold medals seemed to come a little too easily but Platinums were rather challenging to get.  Lots of fun, but it certainly spurns you to get more games for the Kinect in short order.  To be fair, how many people just stayed at Wii Sports when they got the console?

Doritos Crash Course – I have to say, this is one of the best platformer games I have played in a long time.  Taking your XBL avatar and running it through a physical obstical course is both fun and entertaining.  A lot of great features were put into a game that was obviously setup as an advertisement.  That’s the real rub though, you only see the Doritos name in the title screen and at the start of each level in small letters.  Small things like the screen cracking in a virtual spiderweb of your TV glass when you get thrown towards it and a collection of falling animations spice up what could have been a fairly boring game.  For a free game, it’s easily better than many paid XBLA games I’ve nabbed in the past.  Good job Doritos!

Red Steel 2 – This game was picked up on a whim.  Mostly it was because I wanted to play with more swords than Wii Sports Resort would offer.  Since the second iteration of Red Steel required Motion Plus, I figured it had to be fairly accurate.  For $7 I got it from the Target clearance rack.  Needless to say, the game play was fun, but it didn’t keep my interest very long.  The combination of sword and shooting works out pretty well, however the Wii seems to get out of sync with my movements if the action gets too heavy, causing me to get a beatdown while waiting for it to figure out what I’m doing.  I love the concept, and the game is fun overall with a fairly decent set of story cutscenes to string you along, but it just doesn’t have the staying power to be played more than a few times for me.

Missed connections –

Blur – I had a lot of excitement about this game.  When both Blur and Split/Second came out around the same time, I had to make a choice.  Ultimately what won for me was the ease of slipping into play with this game (Mario Kart on steroids), the social challenge pieces and the 4 player split screen (where S/S only had two).  Once I got it for a third of retail within a month of launch via a Kmart sale and a publisher coupon.  I figured worst case I could make a “profit” by dumping it on Goozex if I lost interest.  The first couple brackets of play were a bit of fun, and I leveraged social challenges to a couple people on my friends list, played split screen with my kids and played a bit online.  After about the third bracket I found that though I was still gaining fans, I was unable to progress.  It seemed as though they had designed the game in such a way that you would have to build up enough fans in order to unlock some car that would make you win.  I tried several more play sessions to progress and could not.  At this point I basically gave up and put it on Goozex for trade at a high point value.  Bye bye Blur baby.

Crackdown 2 – As mentioned in my previous post, I was deeply invested in the first game, so naturally I thought this one would hold true and be at least the same if not better.  With so much pent up anticipation it was only a matter of time before I finally got the game and its true colors were shown to me.  For the most part, the game had less story and structure than the first, leaving me with only a checklist of objectives to roll through.  No amount of new features like wing suits or helicopters or zombies could keep me from the fact that I was plopped down in an open world and merely told to just go out and have fun.  The fun lasted for a while, but without major plot points or really any guidance it came down to just blowing things up and collecting orbs.  Fun for a while, but not enough to even complete any set of tasks.

My DS – I swear I played something on my DS this year, but I have no idea what it was.  Most likely it was Peggle…still.  Recently the DS almost falls into phone gaming for me:  something to quickly pull out and use for short sessions.  It’s too bad because when I have a large amount of time (airplane) I love sinking a bunch of time into games like GTA: Chinatown Wars and such.  This just wasn’t one of those years.  We have Wario DIY in the house now, so maybe I’ll start playing with that.  Full Review

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And there you have it, a year of gaming for me tied up in a pretty little bow.  For the upcoming year I have a hard time getting excited about anything I have seen on the horizon except for Mass Effect 3 and Portal 2.  However if 2010 was any indication, I’m sure a game will come out of nowhere and slap me about the face with its awesomeness, just when I need it most.

- Ben Mazhary-Clark

I loved the first Crackdown game.  Though I was a little late to the Xbox 360 adpotion party, I showed up in full force and bought Crackdown as my first real game for the console.  Given that I was so fresh to the console and this was really my only primary game for it, I easily spent 3 months in early 2007 playing through it.  I even went as far as to purchase the DLC for the game, though I never found it as challenging and fun as the core game itself.  Suffice it to say, I was a Crackdown whore though.

A couple years later, Real Time Worlds attempted another game called APB.  This was set in a similar environment to Crackdown, but was more focused on becoming the next big MMO, which of course we all know WoW will keep that crown until the end of time.  Since Real Time Worlds was putting all their focus into APB, they pawned Crackdown 2 onto a new studio that had grown out of RTW called Ruffian Games.  I was aprehensive of this at first, but was still loving the idea of a sequel to a game that I spent so many hours and even months on.  Now anyone who has done any amount of serious video gaming should know that you are setting yourself up for failure once you start getting too excited about a game.  It seems best if you just let them sneak up and slap you across the face, as this year’s release of Borderlands showed.  However, I let myself get excited into the hype of Crackdown 2.  Reading previews, watching trailers and developer diaries, I should have known that I was setting myself up for disappointment.

Dell had a deal a few days after release of the game, which they said was a pre-order discount but they were still running it well after the release date.  Taunted by the good deal on the game I placed an order and refreshed package tracking pages in rapt anticipation.  When it arrived I coveted the cover and swooned with dreams of Agent sugarplums in my head.  Putting in the game I found myself in the same world that I had left three years prior, though it looked much more worse for wear.  Controls and game play came easily, and contained the same niggles such as the struggle of getting a proper enemy targeted when in a horde of target-able objects.  I threw myself into the game, looking for new adventures.

For a while, I was honestly entertained.  I built up my skills, explored the world and new game concepts such as closing freak breaches, which proved to be one of my favorites.  The game was fun, but it was nothing new.  There were new objects to play with, like the magnetic grenades that allowed you to suspend objects in midair in springy fashion.  Even these wained my interest quickly and I hunted for more depth in the game.

I didn’t find it.

The entire weak storyline had been stripped from the game, leaving you only a series of tasks to be done in almost any order.  Though the appeal of the open world was there, and great expanses of sandbox to play in, there was so little direction in the game that I felt there was nothing to work towards except a hollow checklist of activities.  Freak breaches closed: check.  Control point controlled: check.  Collect every gun by bringing it back to a checkpoint after I was through a bunch of the game and forgot the mechanic: check.

I spent a good couple weeks in my copious free time hacking and slashing through this game.  I even got most of my skills up to the amazing cap level of 6 (ground pound and the wing suit were fun at this level).  I closed breaches, controlled points, and tried to destroy the infected zombie apocalypse, which seemed to be the only real goal of the game.  More often than not, I found myself frustrated trying to get these goals done.  Freak breaches could only be done at night, and I often found myself crawling across the map to close one, only to have dawn arrive and I can’t work on the objective, which caused me to wander off and forget about it until it was dark again, getting to it just in time for…dawn again.  Arrrgh!  There was one last control point that I needed to complete, but the bulk of the enemies were on the roof of the building above the point.  If I went too far away from the point while climbing the building then it would reset and I would have to start over.  The weapons were satisfying, explosions abound, and I never found myself at a loss to blow things up or mow them down.  Nothing really new to see here, but that was fine as well.  Graphics were also about the same.  With a texture filled cell shaded world it is a style I’ve come to like a lot, though it’s not really pushing the pixels that hard.

Orbs were a big part of the last game and this iteration was no different.  I found them easier to get in many areas and had mighty asparations to get them all this time.  I was also excited about online co-op, since the previous game didn’t perform well in this area at all.  Needless to say, I didn’t get all the orbs because my lack of enthusisiam preventing me from wanting to stay in the game long enough to do so.  To be honest, the orb hunting was one of the highlights of this game for me.  I easily spent hours doing nothing but this.  In the end though, it wasn’t enough to keep me going.  Co-op never happened either since no one I knew had gotten this game.  Better luck next time.

Overall I was left unsatisfied.  I wanted it to be the sequel of a lifetime.  What I got was less of an overall game, put out as a quick money shot for a publisher, riding on the successes of a prior title.  Had this game even been given the shallow storyline treatment of the first game, or better yet sliding even closer to a GTA title, it would have done so much towards giving the game structure.  Instead I didn’t even bother finishing it, and it goes into my Goozex queue of shame.  I pour out a drink for my homie Crackdown 1, may you rest in sweet peace in my gaming memories.

– Ben Mazhary-Clark

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I will start this off by being honest.  I have never finished a Splinter Cell game before this.  I tried on multiple occasions to get through the first Splinter Cell title, the Pandora Tomorrow title, and even Double Agent.  Most times I would end up stuck in some situation where I was out of ammo, surrounded by tangos and not have a way out of the game short of restarting.  I often found that the level of stealth required to get through the game was almost insurmountable, reminding me of the old PC game Thief verses something more modern with technology on my side.

Needless to say, I was skeptical about yet another Splinter Cell title being added to the franchise.  Overall the Tom Clancy name was being diluted by Ubisoft and the name was being put on tons of IPs.  Was this going to just be another in a line of rehashed titles for Ubisoft?  Obviously I stayed my hand, and waited until well after release to see how the public as a whole reacted.  The trailers had looked interesting, with much more action than previous titles, but I wasn’t going to let myself be swayed into buying Splinter Cell Conviction right out of the gate.

Then of course, I had a free night to play online with a friend, and got a copy of the game off ebay (used).  This revision of Splinter Cell gave me a whole new appreciation for the series.  Gone were the long levels of making sure you weren’t seen, and limited resources.  It was actually FUN.  This game did for the stealth genre what Mass Effect did for RPGs.  SCC gives a whole new take on the one man stealth army, with hand to hand eliminations which load up a meter so you can mark targets and take them down in execution succession, better gadgets and a unique black and white system to show when you are hidden.  I loved it.  We spent a good 6 hours that night playing through the co-op campaigns on normal.  A couple weeks later we went through them all again on realistic and finished it out in about half that time.  The game was good, and I was inclined to play it.

Over the next month or so I finished out the storyline.  The details and fleshing out of the background story were satisfying enough for me, though only borderline plausible.  Let’s not kid ourselves though, this is a superhero action game, who’s really looking for a scientifically correct story?   Throughout the game, you are mostly at the same capability level, with the unlocking of certain skills or gadgets occurring over time.  For the most part, you are just Sam Fisher: Bad-ass extraordinaire.

One aspect I really enjoyed about the game was using the surrounding walls or buildings as a backdrop for cut scenes or objectives.  One time, I was chasing a target through a crowd and he ducked into a tent.  As I passed it a bit of texts over-layed on a truck near me saying “He’s still in the tent!”.  Excellent use of the environment to keep yourself involved in the story and engaged.

There are great challenges within the game that give you point credits so you can upgrade your arsenal or gear, which adds a little bit of RPG mechanic to the otherwise stealth shooter series.  I tried to get the bulk of the challenges (PECs) but lost interest before finishing out any full set.  The amount of time required to complete all sets is fairly intensive and I had other fish to fry with my copy of Crackdown 2 sitting there taunting me (read: orbs).

For me, this was the first Splinter Cell game I actually enjoyed playing.  Even hard core fans of the series have had greats things to say about it.  Though it is a deviation from the previous trend of the series, I feel it is for the best.  Taking in Rainbow Six: Vegas elements into the Sam Fisher universe really helped round out the game and gives a much fuller experience than the previous iterations.  There are many hours of game play available in this game and I’m almost sad to move on to another.  I likely put about 20 hours into SCC, which is pretty good for a modern shooter game.  The co-op elements shine brightly in the Deniable Ops part of the game, while the single-player makes you yearn to solve the mystery around your missing daughter and the conflicting emotions of revenge.  If you are a fan of Splinter Cell in general, this is a shoe-in for you.  If you like semi-stealth shooters and tactics, dive in.  Most shooter fans should enjoy this as well.  However, if you only like car racing games…well…you might want to pass.

- Ben Mazhary-Clark

Crackdown 2 demo out

22nd June 2010

The demo is finally out, if you hadn’t noticed already.  Now to set the stage, I was a Crackdown whore.  The original Crackdown was the first real game I bought after buying my Xbox 360, and let me tell you, I played the hell out of it.  For months solid I spent my time taking down gangs, collecting orbs (499 out of 500, still pisses me off that I could never find that last one), and generally creating havoc.  Imagine my excitement when Crackdown 2 was announced at last year’s E3.  I have sat in a state of anticipation for the release of this sequel, even though it wasn’t completely made by the original team, as Realtime Worlds has been putting their focus on APB instead.  However, I will say that Ruffian Games has done a great job from what I’ve seen so far from the trailers and the 30 minute demo.

Ruffian gives a decent amount of gameplay in the demo and I found myself having enough time to get several gameplay elements in with this amount of time, though of course I wanted more.  While driving around I found myself in a sea of “zombies” on the road which I plowed through readily with my car.  Taking down gang members seemed easy at first, but when they swarm you there is certainly a need for a bit more tactics.  Aiming felt accurate once you locked on, though sometimes the lock was on an object or enemy you didn’t want.  I seem to recall running into this with the first game as well, as third person cameras can sometimes be a challenge in combat.  One game element I liked so far was the control point, in which you tell the game you are going to take over an area and you have to clear it so the chopper with backup can arrive.  I did a couple of these and they were fun.  The game mentioned I did 2 out of 27, so there is certainly more to do in the larger world.  Agility orbs were just as much fun to get, and once you get up high there is always that “just one more” in your line of sight.  The MOVING agility orb was indeed an interesting challenge and intriguing to figure out the strategy of.  Explosions and particle effects are all that you could ever want, and there is certainly lots of exploding.

Overall it is looking promising.  I expect I’ll play the demo a few more times before the release of the real game on July 6th.  This is certainly a game I’m buying off the bat instead of waiting for a used copy off of Goozex.  Here’s looking at spending another 3 months on this wonderful sandbox world…

- Ben Mazhary-Clark

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Save the Arcades 2!

27th May 2010

Originally linked to me from Wil Wheaton’s twitter, I followed the path to Ground Kontrol’s blog to find a challenge of gaming high score proportions.  Set yourself up an account and donate your high scores to the classic arcade of your choice.  Ideally all of us in Portland, OR would hope that it goes towards Ground Kontrol, but the ultimate choice is yours.

For those of us whom grew up in the arcade era, it has been a tear at the childhood heartstrings every time we saw one close.  Now they are a rare endangered species, being fiercely guarded by video arcade conversationalists.  If you enjoy local nickel arcades, being a pinball wizard, or fantasize about putting your quarters up on the screen for the next turn at the cabinet, please do your part and play the Stride sponsored game above.  This will give at least one arcade the strength to continue the good fight.

–ben

UPDATE 6/18/2010: Ground Kontrol won the challenge, with almost double the points of the other two arcades combined for a prize of $25k!  While this makes me happy for Ground Kontrol, it is also bittersweet, knowing that two other arcades didn’t get the funds to do something exciting to keep themselves alive.  Cheers to Stride for this awesome contest.  Support your local arcade, it is indeed an endangered species!

Happy 30th Pac Man!

21st May 2010

Well it certainly boggles the mind, the classic game of Pac Man turns 30 today.  Being one who grew up playing Pac Man, Ms. Pac Man, etc in the arcades I can’t believe we are already at this point.  I want to start singing “Who knows…where the time goes…” but I digress.  Amazingly, I am also wearing my Atari shirt today.  Wrong brand, but at least right era.

In celebration of the 30th anniversary today our good friends at Google have changed their logo to a modified version of Pac Man.  The epicness of this is that the logo is actually playable after you press “Insert Coin” under the search bar.  There goes the rest of my day…

Happy birthday Pac Man!  You have been a good friend over the years.

Love,

– ben
UPDATE:  You can still play the logo, forevermore: http://www.google.com/pacman/

It’s been years.  I have put off buying a Wii for years.  However it appears that I strung the family on long enough with the Gamecube and Xbox 360.  It finally happened, we bought a Wii over spring break.  Best Buy had a good deal that weekend, and I was able to get the Wii system with a free copy of Wii Sports Resort that game with the Motion Plus adapter in it (two months later, this is now the standard bundle, but at least I didn’t over-pay). Then of course I picked up Wii Play as the second controller.  We quickly realized that this console is a hardware buying nightmare, in comparison to others I had bought in the past.  With a family of 5, having the maximum amount of controllers is key.  After limping along for several weeks I was able to snag two more wiimotes and three nunchucks off the local Craigslist, and some non-branded Motion Plus adapters off DealExtreme.

But really, the focus is the games.  Now we all know the Wii isn’t any kind of modern technical marvel.  In fact, the core system is hardly more powerful than the Gamecube that came before it.  Where the Wii shines is gameplay.  Getting a crowd of people together all waggling towards a common goal or duking it out against each other is what makes this console interactive and fun.  Let’s get to the games, and more specifically, the ones I feel are worth a play.

Many of the games that come out for the Wii are trash.  A hasty flash game port or another random collection of mini games, they feel tired, unoriginal, lame and a waste of money.  Overall, the first party games from Nintendo are usually a safe bet, but even these are often just upgrades from a Gamecube version, which is often an upgrade from an N64 version.  It takes time to find the jewels in the pile of waste.  Below is my quick list and a summary of each game that I have found reasonably entertaining.

Wii Play – I don’t recommend this for the games it includes at the full retail price.  Even my kids lost interest in them after a while, but it’s a great way to get a second controller and add a few extra mini games to your collection.  You are going to buy that controller anyway.  Cow racing only goes so far.

Animal Crossing City Folk – My kids have always gone crazy for this series.  Granted, the core game has hardly changed since it came out on the N64, however it is a very engaging game for children.  The kids have spent countless hours doing little tasks around their town, decorating their home, sending messages between each other.  I’d recommend it for 12 and under.

Harvest Moon: Tree of Tranquility – This game has some elements that are similar to Animal Crossing, but with much more depth.  You can choose to farm, go mining, enter contests at the local fair, do tasks around your town and even foster a relationship and get married.  This is the game that took over for my kids after Animal Crossing waned for their attention.

Boom Blox/Boom Blox Bash Party – Personally, I love this game.  It is very accessible to all ages.  For the most part, you are throwing things at Jenga like blocks or trying to pull pieces out of stacks without toppling the whole bunch.  It is a very creative game and secretly teaches you physics while you play it.  Great for hours of fun, I even play it with my wife.

Mario Party 8 – The next iteration of a long line of Mario Party games.  It’s basically going to be the same collection of mini games with new faces on them and lots more motion control than previous generations.  If you don’t have a Gamecube copy laying around to play, this is always a good game to pick up for group festivities.  Playing this game by yourself wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.

Mario Kart – Though it really isn’t that much different from the prior version on the Gamecube, it does have motion control.  You remember back in the day when you would turn the controller while playing a driving game, though it didn’t help you?  Now it will.  Fun party action with 4 players, and a grand opportunity for smack talk.

eXcite Truck – Like eXcite Bike and other eXciting games previously, this game pits you in a truck for all kinds of wild racing, truck jumping and other such trials.  A nice break from the endless mini game collections.

New Super Mario Bros. Wii – For those of us who grew up in the NES era, this might feel like old hat.  However, this is a fairly good remake of the original SMB side scroller from the 80′s.  Extending the game that was remade for the DS, this variation now adds 4 player co-op for better or worse.  Sometimes your partners can be a help, but often they can be in your way and push you into that pit of lava or steal your mushrooms.  Hard feelings or not, it is still a blast now that it is no longer just a single player experience.

Wii Fit – Yes, sometimes we need to stay a bit more active.  I was actually surprised to work up a light sweat the first night I played this with my wife.  Though a lot of the activities are centered around keeping your balance, they do try and keep the fun in making you stay active.  Wii Fit Plus adds the one thing that the original lacks, the ability to create a playlist of activities that you can string in a row.  One of the pet peeves of the first one is you spend a lot of time in menus before doing an activity that only lasts 1-3 minutes.

Wii Sports Resort – Usually a great way to pick up a motion plus adapter (much better accuracy, why didn’t they build them this way from the beginning?), this set of games can easily stand on its own.  As an upgrade to the Wii Sports that comes with the console, the mini games within this package are varied and multi leveled.  From disc golf to bicycling to kayaking, it has kept us entertained for many many many hours.  The downside for multiplayer is that every player MUST have a motion plus adapter to play, otherwise it won’t let you join.

Tiger Woods PGA Tour 10 – Also usually bundled with a motion plus adapter, this game with the improved accuracy of motion plus, makes you feel like you are really playing the game.  As much as a wiimote in your hand can feel like the real thing at least.  Character customization is great, and the gameplay has a lot of longevity in it.  The bonus feature on the Wii version of this game is that it includes multiple disc golf courses on it.  Bring a disc golf player myself, this is added draw, though there have been complaints that the disc golf in Wii Sports Resort runs with a better feeling of weight in the physics of the game.

Lego (anything) – Very popular on almost all platforms, the Lego series provides hours of adventure and exploration in the various licensed worlds (Indiana Jones, Batman, Star Wars).  If you have someone interested in any of the licensed worlds that Lego brings to their games, the fun is sure to follow.

So there you have it, my pick of games that we have enjoyed or will soon enjoy once I trade for them on Goozex or some such.  Feel free to leave your personal favorite in the comments section.

- Ben Mazhary-Clark

borderlands-box-artIn the past, I never would have picked up an RPG (Role Playing Game for those not in the know, and if so, why are you reading this?).  The mere mention of them gave me impressions of turn based action sequences, painful management of inventory, and killing spiders for 20 hours to level up.  Recently, publishers and game designers have switched it up a bit, making RPGs less of a painful grind and bringing back the fun.  Mass Effect was the game that got me interested in RPGs again.  The inventory management was pretty easy, the action felt more like a shooter with squad based strategy elements, and the storyline kept you captivated.  From there I went a little more hardcore, and blew untold hours on crafting a paradise in the wasteland of Fallout 3.  Then, from out of nowhere came a game I had heard about in passing several times but never gave it any thought.  A new IP called Borderlands.  Suddenly, days after it came out I was working out a plan to acquire it.

Borderlands for me had all the elements I was looking for in an RPG.  The art direction was cell shaded, which I enjoyed in Crackdown and Robotech Battlecry.  This artistic style gave it a unique look that was easily recognizable whenever you saw a screen shot up.  Battles were action based and didn’t require a lot of setup beforehand.  Inventory management was fairly minimal.  All of these elements were only made better for me given the fact that online co-op was also available, though limited to a 4 player raid.  More on all of these points below.

1-borderlands3-fullThe premise of the game is that you have landed on the world of Pandora, to search for alien treasures hidden somewhere on the planet’s surface (no, this isn’t Avatar).  The planet itself looks like you’ve landed somewhere in New Mexico, with nothing but scrub and junkyard towns scattered about the dusty plains.  The junkyard towns are usually where you get your quests and have the supply depots in them, where sharky businessmen make their living off the fortune seeking quest followers.  Cell shading lends to thicker outlines around objects, while textures insides of the cells are still reasonable.  If you have played Crackdown you are familiar with the style.  At first it feels almost cartoony, however once the action starts you will feel it is anything but.  Textures themselves are of a industry standard detail, nothing over the top.  Occasionally when you warp into a new part of the world, the textures can take a while to pop in, though it isn’t usually that distracting as you are already rushing to replenish your stores at the closest vending machine.

Action in Borderlands is often intense and keeps your interest.  The intensity increases when you co-op up to three other friends, as both the levels and the quantities of the enemies you are fighting explode to manic proportions.  Even exploring the world and grinding I still found exciting enough to keep playing it on and on.  As you progress through the game, the enemies level up with you.  Each enemy you destroy will give you experience points, that ultimately help you become more powerful.  They also often drop items, such as ammo, weapons, health vials, etc.  Lot more on weapons later.  The interesting item in regards to the level of enemies is when you go back to an earlier area you can literally mow everyone down with little resistance.  The caveat of going back to lower levels, though it does make you feel god-like, is you get almost no experience for anything you take down.

Borderlands Weapon StatsWhen leveling up, you find yourself with access to new skills and abilities.  There are 4 classes you can play as:  tank, sniper, soldier and assassin.  Each one has it’s own set of three major branches of a skill tree that unlock unique abilities for that class.  As you gain levels, you are given points to deposit into skills in the tree, leaving your character customization options fairly open.  I chose to take the assassin route, and by the end of the main quest line had quite a stealthy bad-ass whom could take on her fair share of enemy raiders.

Which brings us to weapons.  Some have described Borderlands as a gun nut’s orgy.  There are an almost unlimited amount of gun combination available in the game.  You have your basic classes such as SMG, machine gun, sniper, rocket, etc.  However, for each one of those classes you have level of weapon and a series of modifiers available for each one.  These modifiers can be something simple like a 2x reload rate, or more extreme like 4x fire damage for a certain amount of seconds after the target is hit.  Though inventory management isn’t that difficult in this game, you can spend a bit of time after a battle looting what the dead left behind, always searching for the perfect gun.  Ammo slots can be upgraded as well, and once you are half way though the quest line running out of ammo really wasn’t a big deal.  A nice feature is you can collect everything off the battlefield, then take it into a local town or vending machine and cash it all out.

BorderlandsCrewThe quests given to you in towns and people you meet out in the wasteland are varied.  It can be something simple like collecting and item and bringing it back, or the more extreme of finding pieces of an ancient artifact to help the storyline along.  All quests can be done solo or with your friends.  Once completed, everyone in the party gets the experience from the quest.  Vehicles are available within the first hour of the game, which further facilitates exploring and movement on the very large map.  Their armaments and speed mix it up a bit in what would be a boring quest or a lot of walking.

Borderlands shines the most when played co-op.  Gearbox did include 2 player split screen, though it is hard to see the menus in each half of the screen when you are trying to do inventory management and the like.  The ultimate best way to play this game is online with three other people.  Nothing beats the experience of trying to flank a horde of baddies with your party, communicating to each other over voice chat, and completing a quest together.  For best results, everyone in the party should try and be a different class, but even when there are duplicates the game gracefully takes it in stride and sends just the right amount of challenge your way.

borderlands_fireThe developers at Gearbox really knew how to breathe extended life into this game.  Not only can you do a second playthrough with your same character, but the amount of DLC they have release has been substantial.  They have released several major DLC packs for Borderlands to date, and they are still planning more.  The latest iteration, General Knox, adds a whole new realm to the universe, with fresh weapons, vehicles and enemies.  The last game in the recent past I have seen that provided such a steady flow of DLC for a game has been Burnout Paradise.  It is great to see that some developers are finally extending a game with added content, verses just popping out another sequel once a year (I’m looking at YOU EA).

Overall this game has been a great experience.  It took about 30-35 hours for me to do the first play through.  I still have plans to play it a lot more as soon as I can finally make it through Mass Effect 2.  The constant approachability of Borderlands and the amazing fun of playing it online has been keeping it off my Goozex queue, even though I have already finished it once.   I’ll see you in the Borderlands.

- Ben Mazhary-Clark

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