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Cracked LCD- River’s Games

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Among the loot that Santa Claus brought my son- who just turned three- were of course, a couple of tabletop games. Don’t be silly, I didn’t get my kid Advanced Squad Leader Junior and I didn’t give him the Mage Knight expansion as a stealth own-gift. I got him proper preschooler games. Well, at least partially. No Hi-Ho Cherry-O, no Candy Land, no Snakes/Chutes and Ladders. Not even Cootie. It was the first time I’ve ever bought games for a child, which is an entirely different process altogether. And since I missed a lot of “normal” kid games when I was little because I was already into the hobby stuff at an early age, it was actually kind of odd.

But I went through typical motions. I looked online at reviews and rolled my eyes at these adult, middle-aged men scoffing at preschool-aged games because they “lacked meaningful decisions” or because they didn’t hold an adult’s interest for longer than 15 minutes. Come the hell on. Do we really need these kinds of comments for games designed for three and four year olds? I was pretty disappointed by a lot of what I read in comments and forum posts- too many board game geeks trying to apply board game geek standards to games for kids that can’t even read yet, let alone worry about how much luck is in a game of Candy Land or if there’s some fucking variant to make it more strategic.

I went with a couple of Haba games- they’re a German company that makes some pretty neat kid’s stuff- and a couple of games that I bought straight off the shelf at Target because I thought the subject matter and art would appeal to River. I could not possibly have given less of a toss about “meaningful decisions” or whether the game prepares him to play Le Havre later in life or whatever. I wanted fun, appealing activities to do with him. I’m not trying to raise a gamer. Good Crom, no.

The Haba games were Tier auf Tier, one about stacking wooden animals on each other with a single placement rule determined by a die roll and Knuckling Knights. That one has a cardboard castle tower that you dump knight pawns into and watch them roll into dropout holes, sort of a peewee Wallenstein. River loves knights. The more mainstream games were the Sneaky Snacky Squirrel, which is absolutely adorable in a tree-shaped box and a big plastic squirrel nut-grabber, and a balancing game called Don’t Rock the Boat. That one has pirates, penguins, and a big plastic ship. River digs all three. The rules there are: 1) place a penguin on the boat 2) repeat 3) If you’re the chump that tips the boat, you lose.

The first one he went for was the knight game, and I have to admit that it was pretty awesome showing my boy how to roll a die for the first time and look at the results. He didn’t quite have the hang of taking turns just yet and he didn’t quite get that the die roll showed how many knights he got to throw in, but we had fun just piling in the knights and pulling the trapdoor that dumps them out. After about 15 minutes, I think he got it. I’d roll the die, show him the pips and get him to count out his guys. Then he started saying “and it’s my turn” after I’d go.

The squirrel game was a hit too. You spin a spinner (one of the most criminally underused mechanics in modern gaming) and take whatever color acorn is shown using the big plastic squirrel-shaped nut-grabber. There’s also a robber squirrel on the spinner (shades of Settlers?) and a wind that blows all of your acorn away. It was funny to watch a kind of narrative unfold. “Oh now, they blew away!” “I’m going to take the blue one!” There isn’t a lick of strategy beyond taking a nut of a color you don’t already have. I don’t care, River had fun, and now wants to play it all the time. We even got my 15-month old daughter “kind of” playing it.

Tier auf Tier, oddly, was a miss. It’s apparently a very popular preschool game in Europe, and I thought it looked pretty fun. You roll a die and place a number of wooden animals in any orientation on this crocodile. It’s a balance and dexterity thing, with the drama of total collapse if someone bungles their turn. River messed with the animals for a few minutes but didn’t seem to get into the gameplay at all. Maybe later, but the animals are being played with by both kids so it’s not a total loss.

Don’t Rock the Boat has a similar toy factor with the big pirate ship and penguins. It’s really dumb. But hey, River laughs and says “what’s gonna happen!” every time he puts a pirate on the ship. He’s sort of figured out what areas of the ship are more likely to tip the boat, so he’ll put penguins in the crow’s nest or close to the masts instead of way out at the edge. I find these damn penguins everywhere, and it’s sort of baffling as to why he’s played with that crappy ship more than the $50 Peter Pan pirate ship his grandparents gave him.

So the lessons learned about buying and playing games with River are that I really don’t care at all what the game is, as long as he’s having fun and we’re interacting. I’ve had more fun playing games with River and seeing how he talks about them, plays with them, and learns about them than I have with pretty much any other “adult” game I’ve played in a long time. When you play a game with a three year old, all of the usual hufflepuff, all of the critical chin-scratching, all of the what games should or should not be guff fades away and it becomes just about having fun with a loose structure to hold it altogether. The funny thing is that it’s really not all that much different than what I want from playing “dad’s” games.

DMC Impressions- Doofuses May Cry, But This Game Rocks

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One of the worst- and woefully dated- things about Capcom’s Devil May Cry series is Dante. Sorry to send those of you who still think that a guy with white hair in a red trenchcoat is “cool” crying into your Trigun cosplay jacket, but Dante is a bad character that really ought not appeal to anyone over the age of 16. It’s that charmingly clueless sense of whatever Japanese “cool” is that’s kept him afloat all of these years, and the fact that he’s starred in at least three great action games that all have their share of clunk and junk ranging from terrible writing to bad pacing to unbalanced design.

So after all of the fan rage over Dante’s makeover, we’re left with the new title in the franchise, DMC, and a host of things that Ninja Theory has done with this long-running brawler franchise. I’m just a couple of hours into the game, having just ushered what the game calls a Succubus to a rather gruesome death in the bowels of an energy drink factory, but I’m not hesitant to state that the new game is the most refined, slickest game in the series. It’s by far the best-written, it’s the best looking, and it is the most seamlessly fun.

I’m going to shoot down any kind of comment about Ninja Theory “dumbing down” DMC right off the bat. The Devil May Cry games are as a whole incredibly fucking dumb. But they’re dumb, rock n’ roll fun, and that’s a good thing. In DMC, when the Z-grade Fear Factory cover band they got to do the soundtrack kicks in and you’re juggling bad guys, spinning around in the air with guns blazing, and hearing the new, chic-er Dante proclaiming awful one-liners it’s just as much fun as the first, third, or fourth game could be. Sure, it’s easier- at least on normal. The combos are simpler and it’s kind of shocking to fight the first boss and never get hit one time. But I’ll be damned if I’m not enjoying it more.

I’ve been constantly surprised by the game, in particular that I actually like the story and not in an ironic “oh, those crazy Japanese writers” way. Hell more or less controls the world with energy drinks and subliminal messages, Dante and Vergil attempt to stop head demon Mundus. It’s really overblown, ridiculous trash- but it’s at least self-aware, smart trash that bites enough from John Carpenter’s They Live to make adolescent-friendly messages about, like, the government and stuff, man. All of the eye-rolling nonsense about angels and demons getting it on and spawning bad-ass swordslingers is present, but the sense is that it’s a game written by folks smart enough to realize that the original games could be both playfully mocked and reverently respected with a single stroke of the pen. Oh, I’m 100% sure the writers (one of whom is apparently screenwriter Alex Garland) were very aware of how terrible some of Dante’s comments are.

I’ve also been surprised by the platforming, which is actually not terrible at all. This time out, Dante’s abilities are split between angel and devil ones and each has a whip associated with it. Angel whip is a grapple, devil whip pulls things. There are some rather nifty jumping sequences that use both of these, and there are plenty of opportunities to explore or wonder if maybe there was an argent key up that way that you didn’t go. Fortunately, it’s a game built for replay so there’s always next time. Challenge rooms, multiple mode unlocks after completion, pursuing the higher rankings, and beating folks on the leaderboards gives this game far more legs than is usual for AAA action titles these days.

I’m also really pleased at how the game is developing in terms of gameplay. New weapons, abilities and concepts are unlocked almost constantly, and it seems- so far at least- that there’s always something new to do around the corner. This is a very accessible game, yet it is not at all a dopey button masher. I love that I can try-before-I-buy all of the upgradeable abilities for every weapon- you can get a feel for how Roulette or Stinger fits into your rhythm before dropping the ability points. Don’t like it? You can respec any time.

It all comes back around to the fighting, and man, is it good. At first, there was a bit of an adjustment period and I didn’t feel like the game was as smooth as the past games. But once I found my particular flow, I was hitting the S rankings and feeling like a total killing machine. It has been disappointing that the enemies are pretty dull and repetitive, but the big boss fights have been memorable if not quite up to the standards of some of the others in the series. That said, at least you don’t have to retry fights 50 times to get it right.

So yeah, DMC turned out really damn good. Probably the biggest surprise of all is that Ninja Theory actually made a really great game, particularly after the sub-mediocre Enslaved. I’m really happy that the team had enough respect for and understanding of the original Capcom designs to look at what worked best, what had grown long in the tooth, and what needed to be completely changed. I’m sure there are still old school Dante fans claiming that this game is some kind of sexual assault or that eeeeevil Capcom is at it again, but for those looking for a great, highly stylized and very modern action game this is your first stop in 2013.

Now, the ultimate question. Is it better than Bayonetta? The answer- absolutely not.

DmC: Devil May Cry in Review

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When you spend a lot of time covering games, either professionally or for a hobby, it becomes very easy to think that every fan of games falls into the same shrieking hell pits of frothing insanity brought about by this change or that ending. The reality is that most of the people who play games not only don’t know about the various “Insert game name here”-gate style brou-ha-has that pop up, seemingly every day, but they don’t care. They see games that they may like, buy them, play them and usually enjoy them. If they don’t, they move on to something else and live happy lives, unencumbered by the nautical miles of internet rage that accompany almost every release these days.

I mention this because, in playing DmC: Devil May Cry, Ninja Theory’s reboot of Capcom’s brawler, I had a brief shining glimpse of what it’s like to live in that rarefied air of Not Giving A Crap Mountain. As I have mentioned here before, I have no connection to the Devil May Cry series, so I don’t care what Dante looks like, or what clothes he wears. I played DmC because I heard it was good and lo and behold, it was.

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Don’t get me wrong, I can certainly understand a fan’s trepidation over a reboot of their favorite series. “Reboot” is such a generic term that it can mean anything, and the potential is there for all that you loved about the series to be swept away in the rebooting process. Granted, there’s “trepidation” and there’s “bat-shit insanity”, and if you find yourself petitioning the White House over a reboot, trust me, you are firmly in the latter category. Luckily Ninja Theory understand what makes a good brawler, namely a bevy of weapons, each with their own advantages and disadvantages, a slick and intuitive combat system that rewards those willing to put the time into learning it and an array of enemies that range from cannon fodder to “I just took away half of your health because you were stupid.” Make no mistake, Dante is still a brawler. Whether or not he’s your brawler any more, well, that’s between you and Dante.

I, personally, have never been into the idea that games have to be incredibly difficult just to make those able to finish them feel better about themselves as players. Well, that’s not entirely correct. I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be difficult games and that you shouldn’t feel good about yourself for completing a difficult game, but if you can’t feel good about yourself for beating a game at a higher difficulty level simply because the game allows less skilled players to beat the same game on a lower difficulty level, well, that makes you kind of an ass. I played the demo of Devil May Cry 4 and couldn’t get past it, I played all of DmC, mostly on the easiest difficulty level, and had an absolute blast. In my mind, letting people like me play the whole game is a good thing, because it makes me excited for the next one. If my enjoyment somehow negates your enjoyment, I’m not sure how to help you. Furthermore, I’m pretty sure I’m not going to waste time figuring it out.

But enough about me, this should be all about Dante because in DmC, Dante is pretty damn cool. That’s his job, to be cool, so it’s good that he pulls it off. He goes through a not-at-all surprising transformation from lone wolf, demon hunting, shagging girls in a trailer bad boy to protector of humanity over the course of the game and despite it not being surprising, it totally works. Well, not totally. Ok, remember at the end of Thor when Thor is all like “The Earth is under my protection”, and you should be like “Wait, what?” but you’re too busy being all choked up because he just got his armor back and sweet, heavenly Jesus, Chris Hemsworth is gorgeous? Yeah, it’s kind of like that, only without Chris Hemsworth. I mean, Dante is very good looking and is all swagger and sex appeal but he’s no god.

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Dante starts off fighting demons because only he can see them, and they have a tendency to pull him into Limbo, the hell dimension that exists just under our dimension, complete with twisted geometry, flashing commands to kill Dante and demonic inhabitants. Soon he finds out that not only is he not alone in his ability to see demons everywhere, but he has a brother, Vergil, and that both of them are Nephilim, a product of the union between their angelic mother and demonic dad. Turns out their dad Sparda committed a big n0-no for lying down with an angel and Mundus, the current de-facto ruler of Earth, had their mom killed and their dad imprisoned. In a last ditch effort to save his boys, Sparda had the brothers split up and their memories wiped so that they woudn’t figure out their supernatural heritage.

Meanwhile, Mundus put on the face of a banker and through years of controlling debt, has managed to rise to power, a “ripped from the headlines” approach to villainy if ever there was one. Through the use of energy drinks and a Fox News-esque media presence, Mundus ensures that humanity is fat, happy and doesn’t ask any questions. While I was more than ok with the finance industry getting the demonic skewering, the whole energy drink/Fox News jabs were pretty lazy. If you’re going to paint the media as being complicit in the subjugation of the human race, there’s plenty of bullshit on both sides of the ideological fence to call people on. The game’s story felt like a lazy jab at the Right, allowing lefties like myself to feel good about themselves for never doing anything at all detrimental to the world, as if all of those iPhones we used to Tweet pictures of the last inauguration sprang fully formed from the earth. That being said, I loved the boss fight at the Raptor News Network, so I won’t complain too much.

The game follows the usual structure of a brawler, namely fights connected by corridors, but the gradual ramping up of new weapons and new enemies that require using your new weapons, means that things never get boring. The game is happy to point out when certain techniques would work best against certain enemies, provided you purchased the necessary upgrade, and usually gives you like, one guy, on which you can try your new technique before throwing a ten more at you. It’s as generous and gradual a learning curve as I’ve ever seen in an action game, and I appreciated it greatly. Similarly, at any point you can go and try out your new moves, should the timing prove tricky, and, in a move I wish every action RPG would replicate, any upgrade point applied to a weapon can be removed and applied to something else should you find that you either can’t pull off a move, or it’s not as good as you had hoped.

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Add to this the fact that the button presses needed to pull off moves are repeated across the various weapons, meaning that you only have to learn the timing once, even if you have to relearn the application of said moves, and you have a combat system that eases new players in gradually but has the flexibility and gosh darn coolness, to let you pull off combos and long streaks of controlled mayhem with surprising ease. I have no idea if it’s as easy on the hardest difficulty level to get style bonuses and SSS combos as it is on the lowest difficulty level, but honestly, I don’t care. Whipping between sword, pistol, scythe, grappling hook and giant, demonic fists through measured application of button presses and trigger pulls made me feel like a dude who had been fighting demons his whole life, which is exactly who I was playing as.

If you’re really into Teh Hardcore, there are plenty of other modes to take for a spin once you’ve finished the game’s story. Some have remixed enemies and higher difficulties, some have one hit kills for all parties involved, Dante included, and one has enemies at full strength and health but give Dante a health bar so small that he goes down with a punch. You can also replay the main story to find all of the lost souls and keys and then use those keys to unlock secret missions full of timed platforming and combat mayhem. I would think that there’s enough difficulty there to appease the most masochistic of brawler fans, but I play games on Easy, so what do I know?

I know that it sounds like I’m slamming people who don’t like DmC, but that’s not it. If you’re a huge Devil May Cry fan and the reboot just doesn’t do it for you, then I’m sorry you played a game that you didn’t enjoy. My point is that if you’re a fan of the series, don’t discount Dante’s new look and new story simply because it’s more inviting to newer, less skilled players. Don’t worry, Dante has more than enough swagger for everyone.

Calendar Man – Week of 1/21

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There’s slightly more stuff out this week than last week, but still not enough to warrant more than a paragraph talking about it. Sorry folks, but seeing how another holiday season is right around the corner, fast on the heels of the last one, this is all you get. This week’s two big releases are Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch on the PS3 and The Cave, coming to a bevy of digital download services near you. I played both of these games at E3 and both are beautiful, very stylish games. Unfortunately, given my current slate of games, I don’t need another 40 hour game. A 2D adventure game, on the other hand, will fit the bill quite nicely. Other stuff comes out too, including the PC release of DmC, ShootMania Storm, Strike Suit Zero and Dawnstar. Yay, PC shooting.

Deals

Toys R Us – Buy one, get one at 50% off for all games priced $19.99 and below. Get a free $20 gift card with purchase of any 3DS XL. Skylanders Giants battle packs on sale for $19.99, buy two, get one free on all Skylanders Giants single figures (Giants not included, ironically enough.)

Target – Buy two, get one 50% off on all Skylanders Giants single figures (Giants included).

Best Buy – $20 off on all 3DS and 3DS XL consoles. Get Black Ops 2 Wii U for $49.99, NBA 2K13 Wii U for $39.99, Dance Central 3 for $34.99 and Halo 4 for $39.99

Dungeon Command Wave 2 Review

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You may remember that I wasn’t hugely impressed with the initial releases in the new mix-and-match miniatures skirmish line Dungeon Command from Wizards of the Coast. The absorbing tactics of the maneuver phase had to be counterbalanced against a dull and predictable combat mechanic. But there was potential there, the maddening hint of unfulfilled promise.

Stand-alone games don’t get a second bite at the cherry. But this isn’t a stand-alone game, it’s a series of modular packs meant to combine together and increase your options. And so I thought I’d put the second set of releases, Tyranny of Goblins and Curse of Undeath through their paces to see if they pushed the envelope, did something more impressive with the creative ideas that underpinned the concept.

In short, they do. And it isn’t an incremental leap either: almost everything I found wanting about those initial releases has been remedied to some extent in their newer siblings. To explain why, I need to break it down in more detail and that’s the focus of the review. So if you want a higher level overview of how the game plays, you might want to check out my previous Dungeon Command review first.

The biggest single point change is the variety of order cards on offer. In the previous offerings most of these effects were combat-related, leading to tit-for-tat offensive and defensive play and a fast burn rate of cards. Here the potential effects are much wider, encompassing the management of existing cards in play, positioning and most importantly, movement, bolstering the most interesting part of the game with further variety.

Now when you attack you have no idea whether your opponent is sitting on a handful of defensive cards, or a bunch of effects he’s hoarding for later use. The uncertainty adds a level of tension that was lacking in the base game, and sorely missed.

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These new sets also feel a lot more cohesive and thematic. Goblins are supposed to be fast-moving, and flexible, making up for individual weakness with strength of numbers and that’s just how they feel. There’s even a “grovel” card. The whole thing just made me want to make mean, screechy goblin noises to accompany the actions of my little army of cringing servants. It’s not such a strong effect with the Undead set but there’s still a palpable sense that these are creatures that are summoned rather than merely deployed.

The improvements even extend to simple things. Presentation, for instance. Wizard of the Coast’s infamous fast-warping cards are still in evidence, but the figures in these boxes are better-painted and more varied than their predecessors. They also make better expansions for the Adventure System games, with Curse of Undeath propping up Castle Ravenloft particularly well.

However, the real meat of the changes comes not from these sets as individual items but from the suddenly much extended range of combinations that can be obtained by mixing them with each other and the original modules. When there were just two sets, the mixing and matching of monsters and items seemed more like a theoretical possibility rather than a reality. Now it’s very much worth the time and effort, with plenty of cards and monsters that synergise with those from previous sets. Occasionally the results can be distractingly daft, and the sets are more thematically cohesive left as they are.

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With four different boxes to choose from you can now also choose to check out the multiplayer rules that were included from the first releases but unusable without access to duplicate sets. It works well with more than two, subject to all the usual provisos of multi-player like king-making and bash the leader which will either delight you or send you running back to take cover behind your stacks of worker placement clones. Four player perhaps runs a little long for what it is though.

Of these two new releases, I prefer Tyranny of Goblins. It’s just got more interesting cards and characters as well as playing just like a scrawny bunch of mewling weaklings ought to. It also offers clearer and more obviously powerful effects around which you might want to group cards from other sets and build your own custom warband. Plus it’s nice to be able to add some classic goblin fodder to my adventure system games.

One early review of these games I read suggested that if you didn’t like the original sets, there was nothing here to change your mind. I heartily disagree. These feel like a big step up from the previous releases, and make Dungeon Command a more rounded, more exciting and more interesting game than it originally was.

Given the value inherent simply in having more cards and figures to mix, and playing multi-player, it seems bizarre Wizards didn’t release all four together. But now they’re all here, and while it doesn’t suddenly catapult Dungeon Command into my top five from last year, I suddenly find myself awaiting the next series release, Blood of Gruumsh, with more than a trace of anticipation.