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LEGO Batman 2: DC Super Heroes Review

Just when I thought I was over the whole LEGO-as-videogame thing, Warner and Traveller’s Tales drops this gem of a game in my lap. I was as charmed as the next guy when the Lego games first appeared in 2005 and 2006 — I played the Star Wars games with my daughter in co-op mode and had a grand old time. If it wasn’t for the fact that I had a (at the time) six year old child begging to play the games with me, they’d likely have been nothing more than quick and disposable bits of videogame entertainment. The Lego games were always more a cute distraction than an obsession.

In fact I haven’t played a LEGO game in a while. I skipped the Harry Potter games and merely dabbled with Indiana Jones and simply had no interest in the first Batman LEGO game. Truth is this series, as far as I was concerned, had run its course.

LEGO Batman 2: DC Super Heroes isn’t just a cute, disposable piece of entertainment. Well, it still is that but it’s also terribly addictive. I’m playing it co-op with my (now 11 year old) daughter. I’m playing it at night after she’s gone to bed. I’m playing it more than I ever imagined possible for a game that is still clearly designed as an easy, collectible romp through Gotham and not a game that will test your gamepad prowess.

The basic idea is the same as in other Lego games — you solve puzzles, do some basic platforming, frantically piece together piles of dancing Legos, and collect a metric ton of “stuff” from gold bricks to various heroes, villains and henchmen in the DC Universe.

So what is it about Batman 2 that makes this LEGO game special?

First off, the world is enormous. The campaign is about a 20% chunk of the entire game and you’ll run through Batman’s struggle with Lex Luthor and The Joker in a few lengthy play sessions. The 15 scripted missions are fairly standard Lego fare although the spoken dialogue adds more to the game than anticipated. No longer are the LEGO heroes mimes with a flair for humor. There is a lot of spoken dialogue not only from the Gotham TV news reporter but also from Batman, Robin, Superman, The Joker, etc. Robin is starry-eyed over Superman’s ability to be awesome. Batman’s (somewhat playful) disdain for Superman is ever present. Superman the whole time remains the ultimate goody-goody. The banter between the characters is excellent and as someone who usually despises cutscenes, I loved watching the story unfold. I actually laughed when Batman said to Robin who was pleading with him to call Superman for help, “We are not…calling…Superman!”

Good stuff.

This is, technically, an open world game in that you can scoot around Gotham as you please, or follow a designated path toward the next campaign mission if you want to do the next chapter in the story. Or you can scan the city for various villains, go beat them up, and if you have the needed funds unlock them for use in Free Play/Open World mode. Some of these guys are pricey. Mat-Bat, The Penguin, General Zod…they run 500K each which is a nice chunk of change. There’s a slew of characters to unlock but you’ll need to complete the campaign to get most of them — certain members of the Justice League show up near the end of the Luthor/Joker story so you’ll be able to play as The Flash, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern as well as Cyborg.

The issue with unlocking villains is that it’s simply a quickly staged fight once you locate them, and then you can buy them as they surrender to you. Unlocking General Zod, for example, consisted of locating him through the map feature, flying Superman to the rooftop where he was located and punching him out in about ten seconds. I wish there was a little more to it than that. The “fights” with these unlockable villains are fairly easy. Killer Croc succumbed to three uppercuts from the Caped Crusader. Croc gets no respect, as usual.

Playing as Batman, even with his various suits which are used to perform certain tasks in the campaign (an electricity suit, a sonar bat suit, a power suit that shoots missiles) plays second fiddle to the other heroes. Flying around Gotham as Superman, with the awesome theme music from the original film blaring in the background, is simply a joy. I love that music and it is used perfectly here. Controlling The Flash is actually pretty hard to do because he’s so damn fast. Green Lantern can fly and can also use his ring to piece together specific green blocks that you find throughout the city. It was a great move to add so many playable characters because Batman is sorta of…blah. And Robin has to put on a ridiculous haz-mat suit and magnetic flippers from time to time.

As much as I enjoy flying around the city, rescuing citizens, unlocking characters and snatching up gold bricks, doing it in co-op mode is is still the way to go. The game plays in split/screen mode so you can go where you want and are not tied down when your partner lags behind or forges ahead before you’re ready. It can get a little confusing at times when the heroes are close to one another as the split screen line starts to move around a bit but after you get used to it it works just fine.

While I feel that the open-world part of the game would benefit more from additional mini-game missions and various tasks to perform aside from finding and unlocking characters, and that some of those characters were a little more unique, this remains an easy game to recommend for the parent looking to play a beefed up LEGO game with their kid or a solo gamer who loves to collect stuff..and fly around as Superman. This is low risk, high reward gaming.

I feel like I have been dishing out No High Scores High Score Awards like candy of late, but I’m very happy I played LEGO Batman 2, and that’s reason enough to hand out another one .

Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two Trailer

YouTube video

Epic Mickey was a pretty hefty letdown.

Let me back up: Epic Mickey sold rather well, upwards to 2.5 to 3 million units. The actual game, though, was a letdown for many — especially considering how well that game showed at E3. It had a lot of people, people who usually don’t give games of its ilk a second glace, giving it a second glance.

Reviews were mixed and extremely polarizing. You rarely see this level of division— and it’s one of the things Metacritic is very good at revealing. Not so much the scores in and of themselves but the range of scores.

Sure you may see some Yahoo be an outlier and give Red Dead Redemption a less than glowing review (what a dummy) but to see so many great reviews and then so many “this is crap” reviews is rare.

So Epic Mickey 2 is in development and the trailer shows off some gameplay and has Warren Spector telling everyone about the new spin. He also mentions the camera which was a HUGE issue with the original and Spector has I guess changed his tune because he used to think the camera was A-OK in the first game. Funny how that works. I love Spector’s work but his reaction to Epic Mickey’s critics never did sit well with me.

If reviewers want to give us a hard time about it because they’re misunderstanding the game we made, it’s not for me to tell them that they’re wrong, absolutely not. But I wish people would get it out of their head that we made a ‘Mario’ competitor, because we didn’t.

I want Epic Mickey 2 to succeed and getting it out of the Wii exclusive realm and “enhancing” the camera, as Spector puts it, will go a long way into making that happen.

The Wonders of The Witcher 2

So you are a console gamer, specifically an Xbox 360 owner, who has heard PC gamers sing the praises of CD Projekt RED and its stance on DRM and how awesome The Witcher series is, going back to the 2007 original. So what is it about Geralt of Rivia and his monster hunting ways that makes the game such a hit with PC RPG fans? What can you expect tomorrow when the 360 version drops?

As I said, this is a long, long game and there’s a metric ton of dialogue so speed gaming through The Witcher 2 simply doesn’t work. Get ready for a journey with a huge scope. It’s not Skyrim big, but it’s also not Skyrim aimless, either. The campaign is focused. You know what you are trying to do and while there are a lot of “side quests” none of them have anything to do with trivial nonsense. FedEx quests and cats stuck in trees — Witchers don’t play that. Ok granted I could do without the arm wrestling and fistfight contests. One of the best aspects of the game is that you can see Geralt doing all of this stuff. You will not find a quest in this game that seems out of place. After all, Geralt is a Witcher and Witchers are professional monster hunters so going off to kill a Nekkar nest or hunt Harpy feathers for money fits perfectly in what Geralt is all about.

A man has to eat, right? Geralt calls it Witcher’s work. I call it a game with meaningful side quests. Hooray!

While the campaign is tightly focused there are myriad of choices that you are forced to make that will radically change the path of your quest. Some of these choices might even seem mundane, until you realize– they weren’t. I made choices in hour one that had an effect in hour ten. The game does a brilliant job in making things come full circle.

A huge personal attraction is the world of the Witcher itself. While I am leery calling this ultra low fantasy, there remains a certain grimness to the setting that I find appealing. It’s dirty. At times a bit obscene, even. When one of the Dwarf NPCs says about a lesbian female sorceress: “Everyone knows she doesn’t go for cock” it should tell you all you need to know. Crass? Oh yeah. But when you meet this Dwarf you can see him saying that. Sexist? Sure, the Dwarf is, but the game isn’t going for cheap thrills. This world is bleak, dirty, mean, and sexually charged.

The use of sex and sexual imagery is a 180 degree turn from games such as Dragon Age or Mass Effect. In those games, sex is treated like a goal. It’s fake sexy and handled so poorly to be a distraction. Gamers would use every conversation, looking for those subtle clues that the person you are talking to might want to have sex with you.

The Witcher 2 opens with Geralt and Tress in bed, in a tent near a battlefield. You are presented with a shot of Triss’ ass and bare breasts. A guard walks in and his eyes nearly pop out of his head. Geralt looks at him, waiting for him to leave as he gets one last peek at the beautiful woman. Immediately you know this: Geralt doesn’t have to work or beg for it. No trinkets required. There will be no dialogue trees asking gamers to hope that your character has sex on screen. You want Geralt to get laid? Go to a whorehouse. Done. There are only a few potential romances in the game and even then, this isn’t some long drawn out charade. And while Dragon and Age and Mass Effect tease you with its sex scenes, The Witcher holds no such punches.

There’s a ton of sexual imagery in the game, like the aforementioned sorceress — she has a female student/slave that she loves to ‘play’ with. The Witcher 2 doesn’t hide its sexuality. It’s a mature game for mature audiences. I have never had a problem with intense sexual situations in videogames, they just need to fit in the story, make sense, and be handled properly. I hate the sexual stuff in Bioware games. I’m totally fine with it here.

Combat is fast and fluid. In the original game it was more timing based — you watched as Geralt went nuts with his sword and you had to click the mouse in rhythm in order to pull off advanced moves. That’s been toned down a tad in the sequel and while there is still a rhythm to combat it’s not as precise as the first game, which I admittedly miss a bit. Additionally, alchemy is also streamlined. Still, one of the most rewarding aspects is when Geralt faces a tough fight — it becomes highly tactical not only in how he approaches combat but there’s also the question of traps — do you use any? Pre-fight oils for your sword? Do you cover your weapon in a specific oil to aid you in the fight? What about potions? Do you have time to create or drink any? Remember, you cannot drink a potion during combat; you need to meditate in order to consume them because they are all highly toxic. Planning is key, especially when going up against a lot of foes. I also suggest playing the game, if you are an experienced action-RPG player, on the hard setting. Normal isn’t a total cakewalk but as Geralt improves his ability some of the fights become a bit easy and playing on Hard makes every single fight worth thinking about.

And the best part? You can change the difficulty mid game.

Crafting is another key element, not only buying new items from merchants but finding diagrams and formulas. This is why money is so important and why Geralt going out of his way to fulfill a monster killing contract makes sense. Diagrams and alchemical formulas aren’t cheap — and he needs them.

Character customization, while not as deep as in the original, does allow you to focus Geralt’s ability in multiple areas. While you can’t specifically do typical RPG things like “add 1 point to your strength value” — which again makes perfect sense to me. How exactly does that work? Geralt looks pretty strong already, no? Anyway, here you decide what Witcher path to take: you can make Geralt more adept at swordplay, alchemy, signing (spells) or general training. You may also mix and match so you don’t need to put all talent points into one area. It’s a neat system and it forgoes the traditional, and stale, pattern of most role-playing games.

As I said before on Friday, this isn’t the perfect game as there are certainly things I don’t like. The quest map, for example, can be a pain in the ass, especially in Vergen in Chapter 2. Hoo lordy that place is annoying as hell to get around in. When others temporarily join your group for a quest the pathfinding can be frustrating. The interface of cycling from the map, inventory, quest log, etc is much faster on the PC. The dialogue can go in circles and people will greet you like you have never met even though you had a 10 minute conversation a few hours earlier. Those are certainly annoyances — but the good far outweighs the bad.

I’m really excited to hear how people who haven’t played the games on PC react to it. I guess we’ll find out tomorrow, eh?

The Oddities of The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings on the Xbox 360

I love The Witcher. I think it’s a marvelously grim world full of low fantasy awesomeness. It also happens to be a hell of a game.

But it has its share of faults and quirks and if you are coming into the game without having first played the PC version, there are a few things you need to keep in mind. I’ve been playing the Xbox 360 “Enhanced Edition” for the better part of a week and I’m still in Chapter 1 — it’s a long game and I’m not ready to write a full on review but I can certainly discuss the ins and outs and the oddities.

Today’s post is about the quirks found inside Geralt’s Quest to find a king killer. Not all of these are technically “bad” (although some are) but even veteran role-playing fans will need to learn the ropes when jumping into the world of The Witcher.

*First the important bits: The game looks fine on the Xbox 360. This whole notion of how it looks just as good on the console as it does on the PC — that’s silly. In fact I’d say the game looks a lot like The Witcher 2 on the medium setting on a modest PC. It looks slick, sure, but the Witcher 2 on a beefy PC is a stunning game. This isn’t that. It looks good and let’s leave it at that.

*The gamepad control is excellent. After a brief tutorial I was up and ready to go. The game was really made for a gamepad so the move here is a smooth one. A and X attacks (fast and heavy), B does the roll dodge, Y uses a Sign (a spell) LB activates a wheel to select your spell or to choose a trap, bomb or dagger. RB throws said trap, bomb or dagger. RT parries. Done.

*The camera is very sensitive. You use the R-Stick to move/spin it and that took some getting used to due to its sensitivity. Still, all in all the translation to the 360 appears to have been a success.

*INSTALL YOUR GAME. Seriously. Otherwise load times are terribly long. Even then there are a lot of load screens when moving from locale to locale.

*The Witcher 2 removes one of the staples of classic videogame role-playing — the sucking down of potions during combat to keep your avatar alive. The Witcher 2 is a hard game because combat is brutal. Swordplay in an RPG SHOULD be dangerous. It shouldn’t be simply a matter of wading into a mass of enemies and coming out unscathed. Particularly early on, even a group of bandits can kill you if you aren’t careful. I consider this a huge boon to the game as a whole but one that you may need to get used to at first. In order to drink a “healing” potion you need to meditate and you aren’t going to do that while a group of Nekkars are leaping at you. Potions are also toxic and you can only drink so many before getting a Witcher tummy ache.

*Geralt might be a famous monster hunting Witcher but he also plays the role of prized herbalist and barrel scrounger. This game does a very poor job of item finding because it makes you play scavenger. Everywhere you turn the “search” icon appears or the “Pick Herbs” text appears allowing you to rummage around like a common street urchin. Even inside someone’s home — with them standing right there — Geralt can browse open chests and table drawers and take 10 gold here and 12 gold there. Geralt picks up alchemical and crafting ingredients this way so it’s almost required that you do this and it gets old and feels totally out of place with the rest of this very real, vivid world. I’d honestly rather have a button that automates me going out in the forest looking for alchemy herbs and then I randomly find stuff. Hey at least there isn’t a “picking herb” animation. It IS fast, which helps.

*There isn’t an animation after you meditate and drink a potion though. Not a big deal but I miss seeing Geralt slam down those glass vials.

*The conversations can get circular. This is classic dialogue tree weirdness and anyone familiar with Black Isle/Bioware games will feel at home with this quirk. You can “restart” conversations and will even get into the exact same discussion with an NPC that you literally had two seconds ago. Some of the conversations with NPCs (and there is a LOT of talking in this game) doesn’t flow as well as it should.

*Quicktime events. More than I’d like. Fist fighting contests and even some actual gameplay elements require pressing the keyed button sequence. I have been playing Resident Evil IV a lot of late and The Witcher 2 has more QT events than that game. That’s too many.

*Repeated canned dialogue — there’s a lot of that too. If you are familiar with The Witcher 2 you likely recall the “Plough em all” song sung by the drunk guard in Flotsam. This song is laugh out loud funny the first time you hear it. The 20th time? Eh… The banter offered up by the NPCs isn’t varied enough and it sorta pulls you out of the world when people keep saying the exact same thing over..and over..and over.

Tomorrow I’ll talk about what makes this game so special. And this is a special game.