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Rayman Legends Demo Impressions

Last night, I had my first “wow” experience with Nintendo’s new Wii U console. It wasn’t with any of the late-to-the-party ports or even a first-party offering. It was with the demo for Ubisoft’s upcoming Rayman Legends, now available for download. It’s just three levels, but it’s one of the most exciting, refreshing, and innovative gaming experiences I’ve had all year. It’s heartfelt, beautiful, and genuinely whimsical in a way that no cheapjack indie clone coasting along on fake 8-bit chic or even Nintendo’s own nostalgic Super Mario Bros. Wii U is. It’s joyful, full of love for video gaming and without a trace of the kinds of commercial cynicism or insulting lowest-common-denominator condescension that have become endemic in the industry.

It’s a 2D platformer with 3D elements, much like last year’s terrific Rayman Origins. Ancel’s trademark comics style is rendered in an all-new engine, and it looks amazing in 60FPS, native 1080P. Maybe it’s just the shock of the new talking, but I think it looks better than just about anything on either the 360 or PS3. Gameplay is classic platforming, at its root not really all that far removed from the original Rayman- or the original Super Mario Bros. for that matter.

But the key here is that Rayman Legends feels like a very now, very current game. This is the platformer of today. It’s not an aw-shucks genuflection to the good old days. This is a game designed with innovation in mind, drawing on recent game design elements to create a new- and original experience that really, really should have been a Wii U launch title. I haven’t seen anything yet that makes a better case for the console.

Rather than trotting out Mario in another animal costume, Rayman Legends gives platformer fans something new by bringing in brilliant use of recent concepts such as touchscreen gameplay and motion control. There are elements of auto-runners like Canabalt. There are hints of IOS games like Cut the Rope. And in one astonishing segment, “Castle Rock”, the rolling lane of a game like Rock Band or Guitar Hero is subversively hidden in the rhythm-based level design. The result is a glorious symphony of sound, vision, and movement. I don’t think I’ve played any video game this year or even in the past few years that felt so vibrant, alive, and crackling with celebratory energy.

I’m excited about this game because it feels like something new yet it remains a firm example of a classic but somewhat old fashioned video game genre. Most refreshingly, there isn’t a lick of tiresome irony, bullshit hipster intellectualism, or even postmodern revisionism. I’m not going to describe anything that goes on in it, or any of the many happy surprises that happen in just the three levels of this demo. You need to discover those for yourself. From what I understand, the demo is on the in-store display kiosks and I can’t recommend enough that you go check it out if you don’t have a Wii U.

Ghost Recon: Future Soldier- Who Shoots the Shooter-men?

One of the things that really strikes me the most about Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Future Soldier isn’t that the gameplay is extremely slick and streamlined without ever feeling “dumbed down”, to use the term forumistas and Metacritic user reviewers often deploy to erroneously describe games that are slick and streamlined. It’s that its action is extraordinarily well-framed, well-executed and unusually well-filmed. The pitch is that you’ve got four sets of boots on the ground for some third-person shooter action with a light (and appealing) overlay of gadgetry and tactics. But it’s evident that there’s a fifth man among the Ghosts- a cameraman.

Sure, the fingerprints of Call of Duty are all over the game- the requisite Bayisms, tough guy talk about intel and stuff, and those magnificent men and their shooting machines. But whereas other military shooters aspire to be like action movies with setpieces, cutscenes, and rail sequences bookended by hallway shooting galleries, this edition of Ghost Recon uses some subtle and extremely cinematic techniques to create a visceral, seamless “you are there” sense of verite. While playing through the first three missions of the game, I kept thinking that the game really has a sense of geography, space, time, and distance. I came to realize that it was because once you’re in action, everything is very nearly shot (photographically) in a single, unedited take from start to mission end.

You’ll be over the shoulder of your soldier running cover-to-cover one minute under fire, the next the camera will pan around for a scene where you rescue a CIA operative. The perspective never changes or cuts away from this phantom fifth member, the cameraman. The camera pans back around, and you’re Oscar Mike again. It’s a brilliantly employed technique working in concert with simulated handheld “shakycam” and even overused gimmicks like the ol’ dirt-on-the-lens trick sell the illusion remarkably.

Yet it’s not strictly a filmic style. It’s near future, so there’s this cool augmented reality information overlay and virtual HUD that halos everything. Much like in last year’s Tom Clancy title, Splinter Cell: Conviction, giant words appear in the environment to tell you where you are or what you’re doing. It’s a neat, stylized effect. I get the idea that the game is showing the players what the Ghosts see in their super duper future googles, but since this is a third person game with such a strong sense of camera, these augmented reality effects could only be occurring in that phantom camera.

Another cinematic quality that keeps impressing me over and over again is how extremely well-scripted the missions in this game are. There’s a real sense of pacing, drama, crescendo, and aftermath. You’ll be creeping along in optical camo (octocamo?), tossing a pilotable UAV drone to mark targets and enabling a one-button command to your team to perform a simultaneous takedown.  It’s deliberate, methodical, and quiet. But then it all goes pear-shaped. Somebody saw one of those bodies you just made, and the next thing you know you’re ducking behind a crumbling concrete wall under fire from a machine gun mounted on a light truck. Shootouts are intense, over quickly, and feel appropriately dangerous. Civilians hit the deck. Watermelons in the fruit stand explode in vivid washes of red. Then it’s quiet again.

This game also uses on-rails sequences with heavy scripting, but in such a way that I actually like them. There’s been a couple of exfiltration goals where the character has to drag a VIP through heavy fire to a checkpoint. It’s you, the guy you’re dragging, and a pistol. Bad guys (who come in both brown and American varieties this time, in what must be a new trend) pop out. And you actually kind of feel like a bad ass popping them, not like you’re playing Hogan’s Alley. They’re integrated perfectly into the action of the narrative, creating tension. I haven’t seen a turret sequence yet. I hope that I don’t.

The quality of seamless cinematic visual technique along with this sense of rising and falling action are examples of the things that really distinguish the title from falling into the me-too military shooter trap. It hits all of the genre touchpoints- including some of the more clichéd or overused ones- but its style and the quality of the gameplay set this one apart. The gunplay is great, the cover system is as good as any I’ve ever seen, the stealth works, the gadgets are fun, and the team AI actually isn’t atrocious. There’s a lot going for this game, even in its single player offering which is supposedly a good 10-12 hour event. The multiplayer is good, but you lose some of the interesting film-like qualities of the single player game.

The single player story sucks, though- it’s not even trash action movie bad. It’s vague and empty. You do, like, special forces stuff. And there’s intel. Always intel. For some reason you have to go to Bolivia, shown on a science fiction map with cool fonts. And there’s hostiles!  As for the characters, who knows?  I can’t even remember the lead’s name and they say it every time you die. There’s a scene early on where they’re sitting in a bunk talking about car parts and listening to white trash nu-metal, but that hardly makes these soldiers real people. They may as well be commando raccoons, and the missions arcade game levels. I’m actually kind of OK with that, because the focus is on the gameplay rather than a Z-grade Hollywood script that I would likely care nothing about. It’s ironic that the game uses filmic techniques so well but pulls up well before it turns into another would-be interactive action movie. It stays a video game, and I appreciate its honesty.

Might & Magic: Duel of Champions for PC and iPad

Ubisoft is continuing to try to find ways to keep the Might & Magic license relevant, this time with a card game. Now, we all love our card games here at NHS and some of us still enjoy Might & Magic. (I still feel the series peaked with HoMM III but that’s a story for another time.)

Anyway, this card game will be “free to play” which sounds like a potential money sink if you want to get the good cards. PR ahead:

Today, Ubisoft announced the development of Might & Magic Duel of Champions, a new online free-to-play card game. A closed beta of the game is available now in France and other countries and regions will be added to the beta testing in the coming months.

Might & Magic Duel of Champions is being developed by Ubisoft Quebec, and will be available for both Windows® PC and Apple® iPad®. Players can compete against each other online across platforms, and post updates on their progress to Facebook and Twitter from within the game. The game also features an in-game messaging system and other social features.

Might & Magic Duel of Champions includes hundreds of new, detailed, collectible cards all set in the Might & Magic universe. As players develop their skills and strategies, they’ll be pitted against each other in epic battles, challenged to earn new cards and grow the strength and abilities of their chosen hero’s army. Players also can enhance their experience and replenish their card supply by visiting the game’s online store.*

For more information about Might & Magic Duel of Champions please visit:



Shoot Many Robots in Review

The action is equal parts run-and-gun side scroller and any given co-op horde mode. The art style is Borderlands by way of Team Fortress in a cel-shaded illustration style. The transactions are micro and the humor is gratingly juvenile. The game is Shoot Many Robots, a new downloadable from Demiurge and published by UbiSoft.

It made an immediate bad impression on me with comic elements focused mostly on testicles, drinking beer, and “redneck” stereotypes. Had I known that I could pay real money to “nut up” to an “awkwardly large sack” of the game’s currency, I might have passed on the review code. That said, I also might have passed on it if I had known that it’s yet another game in a negative trend that encourages players to continue spending money on the title through an in-game store to unlock new weapons and equipment rather than earning these through gameplay.

Not that the gameplay is any great shakes to begin with, and actually spending enough time with the game to earn enough “nuts” to buy your way into the game’s plentiful wardrobe options and armory would be quite an endurance test. Essentially, it’s a Contra-style game with four-player co-op and as the title suggests, many robots at which to shoot. There are lots of levels and they’re all star-ranked to encourage you to play through multiple times to grind out your nuts (yep), level up, and unlock the more difficult areas. Most are straight-up fights with tons of robots attacking Walter P. Tugnuts (see?) and his cronies but there are also survival levels that test your ability to withstand the robotic onslaught. One touch that I did really like is that if you survive the wave-based areas, you can keep going into bonus rounds.

The problem is that even if you manage to hold your own by machine gunning, freezing, frying, or exploding the many robots, none of the weapons or funny hats that you can buy alleviate the sheer boredom and repetition of it all. This is a single-minded, completely undynamic game despite light RPG elements and although its keen focus isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s a bad thing when you’re an hour deep into it and you realize that you’re a couple of minutes away from going insane if you have to hear the incessant sound of your bullets plinking against robot hulls any longer.

So you’ll run, jump, and occasionally hold down the trigger to plant your feet and train your fire in any direction. Sometimes you’ll stand in one spot and literally just hold the fire button down, watching the conga line of robots dispense damage numbers before expiring. Keep shooting, and a combo meter multiplies the nuts you can earn. Sometimes, a stronger robot will come out and you’ll have to change position since there’s no way to avoid getting hit reliably. Or maybe you’ll use those fancy pants you bought to slide through the onrushing horde, drinking a beer to replenish your health.

Or, maybe you’ll just get bored and doze off, as I did several times during my review period. There was segment in particular where I would nod off and wonder why I kept returning to this one checkpoint. No amount of “quirky” humor, under-delivered promises of over-the-top mayhem, or been-there-done-that gameplay can make up for a game that is simply so uninspired, unoriginal, and flat out dull.

Shoot Many Robots is exactly the kind of mediocre, ne’er-do-well game that could not exist outside of the low-cost, downloadable marketplace. With similar and superlative genre examples like Outland, Vampire Smile, and Hard Corps: Uprising available through the same outlets- not to mention still-in-circulation classics like Gunstar Heroes- I can’t think of a single element upon which this game can make a case for itself.

It’s not a badly made game by any means, though. It’s completely serviceable for what it is and it’s competently produced but that’s about as far as this wagon will roll. I don’t doubt that some players will get some mileage out of its four-player co-op mode either online or on the couch. But here’s a shocker- almost any game is good and fun to play if you’re doing so with your buddies. And this is a review of Shoot Many Robots, not fun with friends.

No High Scores All-or-Nothing Metascore (on a scale of 0 or 100): 0