Friday, April 17, 2015

Furious 7

Title: Furious 7
Director: James Wan
Written by: Chris Morgan
Starring: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges

It would have seemed impossible in 2001, when the first Fast & Furious movie premiered, that fourteen years later the franchise would include seven motion pictures and, having earned $3.1 billion at the worldwide box office, be Universal's biggest franchise ever. What began as a small-scale girls-and-cars movie has gradually transformed over the past decade into a big-budget stunt spectacular, with high-wire set pieces that wouldn't look out of place in a James Bond or Mission Impossible movie. In this latest installment, appropriately titled Furious 7, the stunts are bigger and better than ever. More importantly, the same veins of comedy, camaraderie, and family -- which flow throughout the entire franchise -- are on full display in Furious 7, which ranks among the best of the series so far.

Furious 7 tales place shortly after the events of Fast & Furious 6, when Dominic Toretto (Diesel), Brian O'Conner (Walker), and the rest of their gang have returned to the United States after securing amnesty for a laundry list of past crimes. Interrupting their tranquility is Deckard Shaw, a rogue special ops assassin intent on picking off members of Dom's team after they put his villainous younger brother in a coma. With his friends and family threatened, Dom gets the gang back together to stop Shaw before it's too late.

Furious 7 boasts plenty of gravity-defying stunts.

The story in Furious 7 isn't anything special. It's a variation of the anti-heroes-fight-villain arc that's defined the series since its second installment. What elevates the proceedings are the action set pieces, which are thrilling and spectacular, and the heartfelt interaction among the movie's protagonists. More on that later.

The action is Furious 7 is fast, frenetic, and decidedly over-the-top. Often in action movies, implausible or exaggerated action scenes turn out to be immersion-breaking and distracting. This was certainly the case during a few of the impractical action scenes in Fast & Furious 6. But Furious 7 deals with the potential landmine early, setting the stage in the opening scene when Deckard Shaw single-handedly takes out a small army protecting his brother's hospital room. It introduces to the audience an idea of heightened reality, of the possibility of the impossible. And that idea is further elaborated upon throughout the movie, as cars fly out of planes, across skyscrapers, and into each other. In a particularly impressive set piece -- maybe the best of the series -- Dom, Brian, and others attack an armored convoy on a winding mountain road an attempt to rescue a kidnapped hacker. Expertly paced, choreographed, and edited, it's the stand-out action scene of the movie.

Dom's crew cleans up nice.

When director James Wan (Saw, Indidious) isn't crunching metal, glass, and bodies, he turns his attention to the relationships among Dom's crew. What's kept Fast & Furious afloat for 14 years, apart from the fast cars and half-naked women, is the sense of family and loyalty that binds a ragtag crew of ex-cops, street racers, and criminals together. In one of the more moving moments of the movie, Dom says simply, "I don't have friends. I got family." Wan and Chris Morgan, who penned Furious 7, understand this. Furious 7 is perhaps the most openly emotional of the series, as themes of parenthood, sacrifice, loyalty, and family are unpacked in the quiet moments between car chases.

Furious 7 concludes with a touching tribute to Paul Walker.

What makes the movie even more emotionally powerful is the death, two years ago, of Fast & Furious star Paul Walker, who passed away tragically in a car accident with filming for Furious 7 only half complete. Using stunt doubles, including Walker's two brothers, and digital wizardry courtesy of Peter Jackson's Weta Digital, Wan and company were able to redevelop Walker's character and orchestrate his exit from the series. But the sting of his death is felt anytime Walker shows up on screen. As Dom says, "I don't have friends. I got family." After seven movies and fourteen years, Walker is family. And it hurts to see him go.

Luckily for viewers, Furious 7 ends with a beautiful tribute to Walker. It's the perfect way to say goodbye, and it wraps up one of the most emotionally intelligent and entertaining movies of the long-running franchise.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Valiant Hearts: The Great War

Game: Valiant Hearts: The Great War
System: PS4 (also on PS3, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC)
Genre: Adventure 
Developer: Ubisoft Montpellier
Release date: June 24, 2014

Pros: Amazing art direction, top-tier production values, engaging and diverse gameplay
Cons: Easy puzzles

In an industry filled with war games that ask players to shoot first and ask questions later, it's refreshing to find a game that takes a moment to meditate on the causes and effects of violence, on its meaning, and on its meaninglessness. Valiant Hearts: The Great War, the latest from acclaimed studio Ubisoft Montpellier, is such a game. 

Set in and around the Western Front during the First World War, Valiant Hearts follows several star-crossed characters whose lives are uprooted by the monumental conflict that engulfed all of Europe from 1914 to 1918. The four main characters, all playable, include a French farmer named Emile, conscripted into the French army; his son-in-law Karl, a German native, drafted into the German military machine; a Belgian nurse named Anna; and Freddie, an American expatriate living in Paris who volunteers to fight for the Allies.

Players must solve a variety of puzzles to advance.

Throughout the game's four chapters, which span the beginning of the war to its waning months, players will control all four characters as they solve puzzles and complete a variety of action events, all of which, while not necessarily difficult, are nonetheless engaging. Puzzles include everything from distracting guards to deciphering codes to ordering a faithful canine companion to retrieve out-of-reach items. The puzzles, which come in many shapes and sizes, are fun and rewarding, but difficult they are not. No adventure game enthusiast would ever confuse the linear and approachable puzzles in Valiant Hearts with the brain-melting riddles in the LucasArts canon, for example. Nevertheless, the puzzles are regularly entertaining. 

Even more entertaining that the game's puzzles are its action events, which include stealth sections, chase sequences, military assaults, and, yes, even boss battles. Avoiding sentries and dodging machine gun fire in real time is thrilling, and it provides a much-needed foil to the methodical puzzle-solving that makes up the rest of the game.

Real-time action sequences add variety to this puzzle adventure.

All of these action and puzzle sequences come to life thanks to the UbiArt Framework, a 2.5D engine developed in house at Ubisoft Montpellier. With gorgeous hand-drawn characters and backgrounds, Valiant Hearts at times plays like a wonderful piece of animation, something out of Les Armateurs. The engine and its artists capture the serene beauty of rural France, the fiery hellscape of no man's land, and everything in between. The end result is one of the most visually arresting video games ever made.

While Valiant Hearts may be shorter and less substantial than other big-budget epics, it still manages to pack a punch, artistically and mechanically. The puzzles, however easy, are fun and involving; the action scenes are thrilling and imaginative; and the whole package is beautifully drawn, scored, and written. It's a testament to the creativity of Ubisoft Montpellier. Moreover, it's a testament to the studio's bravery in making a war game less concerned with winners, losers, and kill count than it is on the heroism of everyday people and on war's devastating human cost. Francois Truffaut is credited with saying that making an anti-war movie is impossible, because all war movies end up making combat look like fun. Valiant Hearts is the rare anti-war piece that, by reflecting on the indignity and insanity of war, achieves its goal.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Order: 1886

Game: The Order: 1886
System: PS4
Genre: Shooter
Developer: Ready at Dawn
Release date: February 20, 2015

Pros: Amazing graphics, stellar production values, first-rate weapon design
Cons: General lack of interactivity, poor aspect ratio, generic shooting gallery sequences

Last year, Dana Jan, who directed The Order: 1886, made headlines when he stated that storytelling is at the "top of the pyramid" and that everything else, gameplay included, supports that capstone. For some, who enjoy the cinematic intensity of games like Uncharted and Heavy Rain, this news was promising. For others, weaned on early-generation games in which storytelling was an afterthought, the idea of gameplay being subordinate to script was anathema. After playing The Order: 1886 for myself, I can say with confidence that Ready at Dawn achieved its mission of placing story and graphics at the forefront in its newest game. The graphics, physics, textures, and lighting are all spectacular. The story, although derivative and anticlimactic, is genuinely intriguing and presented with gusto by a talented cast of voice actors. But, by committing its workers to story and graphics at the expense of gameplay, Ready at Dawn chipped away at the agency of the player. The end result is a gorgeous, atmospheric, stylish video game in which the player is not trusted to do much of anything at all. To paraphrase Ferris Bueller, "The Order is like a museum. It's very beautiful and very cold, and you're not allowed to touch anything."

Set in an alternate history London, The Order follows an ancient order of knights who protect the world, or at least the British part of the world, from half-breed monsters like werewolves. In the fall of 1886, four of these knights run afoul of two enemies, half-breeds and anti-government rebels, and, perhaps, a larger and more sinister conspiracy.

The knights of The Order descend a Zeppelin.

The story in The Order held my interest throughout, even if, at times, it relies too heavily on the rhetorical devices, motifs, and archetypes of the genre. The characters are well sketched and superbly acted, and the twists and turns, however predictable, are convincing. By the time the credits rolled, roughly seven hours in, I wanted to know more about this alternate version of Victorian England and more about Sir Galahad, the principal protagonist of The Order.

Supporting the story are some of the most sumptuous graphics on PS4, or any other platform for that matter. The particle effects, dynamic lighting, and especially textures in The Order regularly stun. Ready at Dawn actually scanned and digitized period-accurate textiles into their graphics engine to ensure that the clothes worn by Galahad and his confederates look and move accurately. Adding to that sense of realism is a volumetric lighting and fog system that reproduces Victorian London in all its gritty, industrial glory. London is, as Art Director Nathan Phail-Liff said, "almost another character in our world."

Sir Galahad runs to cover.

The problem is that all these expensive graphics, cloth physics, and effects are merely window dressing. And the areas in which Ready at Dawn should have invested -- level design, enemy artificial intelligence, and tactical gun play -- are all grievously underdeveloped. Much of The Order is spent watching, not playing. There are hours of cut scenes, both interative and non-interactive, which, while luxuriously painted, aren't very fun or engaging. When Ready at Dawn does allow players to interact with the game world, it's often the simplest and most linear of interactions: walk from point A to point B, listening to conversations; or push a cart or open a door with the press of a button. Shooting sequences aren't much better. They came in two forms: duck-and-cover "Whac-A-Mole" shooting galleries with dumb, generic enemies; and dynamic, tactical episodes where Galahad must constantly move and readjust, picking up guns and ammo on the move, and generally improvise. This latter form is the rarer of the two, but by far the more enjoyable. More importantly, it points to the huge, and arguably wasted, potential of The Order.

When Ready at Dawn returns to make a sequel to The Order, it should drop its cinematic pretensions, including the letterbox black bars that reduce visibility in hectic firefights, and focus on gameplay. The shooting mechanics are strong; the weapons, weighty and deadly, have a satisfying pop and crack; and the characters and mythology are intriguing. What's needed is a studio willing to pull all these things into a cohesive video game experience where the most important person isn't the script writer or the art director, but the player.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Leonard Nimoy Passes Away at 83

The world of science fiction is a favorite of mine: gleaming spaceships dancing among the stars, alien worlds filled with wonders and horrors, the unstoppable curiosity of mankind pushing outward into the inky blackness of space looking for a new frontier. Nowhere, perhaps, were these possibilities and promises better realized than the TV series Star Trek, and no one represented that show better than the character Mr. Spock, played elegantly by Leonard Nimoy, who passed away yesterday morning.

Nimoy, who, according to his wife Susan Bay Nimoy, died from end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, was synonymous with the character Spock, whose human and alien parentage afforded him a unique perspective on terrestrial and extra-terrestrial events, and very often provided the non-human prism that Gene Roddenberry, inventor of Star Trek, needed to artfully convey what exactly made humans tick.

Throughout his life, Nimoy admitted that Spock was, at times, an ambivalent force, one that simultaneously defined him and restrained him. His two autobiographies, "I Am Not Spock," published in 1977, and "I Am Spock," published in 1995, speak to the difficult relationship between actor and iconic role. In the end, however, Nimoy embraced his role as Spock, starring, between 1979 and 1991, in six motion pictures based on Star Trek, two of which he directed. He would play Spock again in 2009 in the Star Trek reboot and, four years later, in its sequel.

When Nimoy wasn't playing Spock, he was acting in Mission: Impossible, lending his sonorous voice to narration, famously in the show In Search of..., writing books and poetry, and pursuing his interest in photography.

But it's Nimoy's role as Spock in Star Trek, a role Roddenberry called "the conscience of Star Trek," that will remain his most iconic and most beloved. In Spock, Nimoy realized a layered, conflicted, endlessly interesting character whose pointy ears, arching eyebrows, and logical mind are forever enshrined in the science fiction lexicon. Star Trek would not be the same without him. Science fiction in general would not be the same without him. Legions of Star Trek fans, myself included, would have poorer lives had he not invaded our living rooms with his tall frame, lean face, and baritone voice, making us smile and laugh and cry.

He will be missed.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Top 10 Most Wanted Games of 2015

With the new year officially upon us, it's time to look forward to all the great gaming experiences coming in 2015. Featuring new games from acclaimed studios Kojima Productions, From Software, Monolith Soft, Naughty Dog, and Nintendo EAD, 2015 promises to be a stellar year.

The following list includes my ten most wanted games of 2015. Please enjoy.


From Frictional Games, the creators of Penumbra and Amnesia, comes SOMA, a survival horror game set in an underwater research facility. The game will be oriented around exploration and survival. Thomas Grip, Creative Director at Frictional, stated that his goal for SOMA is "to not just be another carnival ride of cheap scares. It is meant to chill you to your core, and confront you with questions about your very existence."

Yoshi's Woolly World (Wii U)

The first home console Yoshi game in 18 years, Yoshi's Woolly World seeks to honor traditions and, at the same time, add some new mechanics. With characters and levels composed of yarn and cloth, the game should provide a healthy amount of environmental interaction, in addition to the aerial acrobatics and transformations typical of the series. Two-player co-op is also available.

Batman: Arkham Knight (PS4)

As the first Batman game designed for PS4 and Xbox One, Arkham Knight manages to fit the entire city of Gotham into one tiny disc. In fact, the game is five times bigger than developer Rocksteady Studios' previous title, Arkham City. Combat has also been refined in the years since Arkham City launched. There are new, more powerful enemies, new combos, and brand new environmental attacks. Last, but definitely not least, this latest Batman game features, for the first time, the Batmobile as a drivable vehicle, which can be summoned to the player's location at will.

Mario Maker (Wii U)

Mario Maker is a game creation application with huge potential. Whether owners want to create interesting and unique levels, or simply experience levels created by others, the game should provide hours and hours of entertainment. Directed by Yosuke Oshino, who worked as a programmer on Pikmin and New Super Mario Bros. Wii, Mario Maker will offer lots of customization options, include four distinct graphical styles.

Uncharted 4: A Thief's End (PS4)

With what looks like improved level design and enemy AI, Uncharted 4 could be the best game in Sony's marquee shooter series. Boasting scripted platforming and cinematic action, the game looks to be a logical continuation of the series, with a smart dose of stealth mixed in for good measure. During the game's lengthy, invigorating demo at last month's PlayStation Experience, it became clear that cat-and-mouse covert action would play a more significant part in this latest Uncharted game.

Bloodborne (PS4)

From the geniuses who brought the world the Souls series comes Bloodborne, an action RPG that borrows some ideas from Demon's Souls and Dark Souls, but which entertains new mechanics and much faster gameplay. Following the mantra that "the best defense is a good offense," director Hidetaka Miyazaki and company have designed the combat in Bloodborne around speed, agility, and offensive firepower. The game will also feature online co-op for up to three players.

Xenoblade Chronicles X (Wii U)

Fresh from creating one of the best games of the seventh generation, the developers at Monolith Soft are back with Xenoblade Chronicles X, an open-world RPG focused on questing and exploration. With an improved battle system and quest log, multiple character classes, and the ability to travel via Transformers-style mechs, Xenoblade Chronicles X looks to be another instant classic from Monolith Soft.

Splatoon (Wii U)

One of the surprise hits from E3 2014, Splatoon looks to change the rules of what has become in the last decade a very stale and bloated genre. Splatoon is a squad-based third-person shooter that pits two teams of four players against each other, each squad composed of squid-kid hybrids armed with ink guns. During each match, players can transform from a kid into a squid, which can then surf through its own team's ink undetected, and maybe even ambush an enemy player. The WiiU GamePad is used cleverly in Splatoon, displaying a map of the battlefield covered in ink and the player's teammates. One swipe of a finger (or stylus) will launch the player across the map directly to his or her partner.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (PS4)

The latest from legend Hideo Kojima is Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, a game that promises, according to Kojima, "a true open world experience." Storywise, the game is a continuation of the story started in Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker. Apart from the open-world structure, The Phantom Pain will feature real-time weather and horseback riding. As always, this Metal Gear game will focus on stealth and tactical espionage.

The Legend of Zelda (Wii U)

According to series producer Eiji Aonuma, The Legend of Zelda for Wii U is “rethinking the conventions of Zelda.” Like A Link Between Worlds before it, The Legend of Zelda will stray from the series’ staples and tweak the formula that has defined The Legend of Zelda for generations. Based on the footage shown so far, Zelda U will feature an enormous, fully-connected open world, similar in design to that in the original Legend of Zelda on NES. According to interviews with Aonuma, Zelda U, unlike recent console entries, will give players more room to explore and more freedom to tackle objectives in the order they see fit.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Games of the Year, 1990-2014

Since 2014 is almost over, I thought it appropriate to take the opportunity to create a summary of the best games of the last 25 years, going back to 1990. Specifically, this is a list of the "game of the year" for each of the 25 years between 1990 and 2014. Studios around the world have created hundreds of amazing game experiences over the last two-and-a-half decades, but only one game per year can be the very best. These are those games.

Please enjoy, and happy holidays to everyone!

Note: all years are based on North American release dates.

Super Mario Bros. 3
Developer: Nintendo R&D4
Release date: February 12, 1990

Although the Super Mario franchise had veered slightly off the road with Super Mario Bros. 2, it returned to form with Super Mario Bros. 3, arguably the best NES game ever made. Designed with the same platform elements typical of its predecessors, Super Mario Bros. 3 introduced several additions, including mini-games, many new power-ups (e.g., Tanooki Suit) and an overland map that allows players to select which levels to play and which to bypass.

Super Mario World
Developer: Nintendo EAD
Release date: August 23, 1991

Like its immediate predecessors on the NES, Super Mario World is a platform game that demands its players jump, run, duck, and swim to survive hazards and enemies in each level. It retains the overland map of Super Mario Bros. 3, but makes the game world and the levels within that world much larger, more graphically detailed, and more diverse; ghost houses, fortresses, and castles dot the landscape. Super Mario World marks the first appearance of Yoshi, who would become one of Nintendo’s most famous mascots.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
Developer: Nintendo EAD
Release date: April 13, 1992

While not necessarily the greatest Zelda game ever developed, A Link to the Past is certainly the quintessential Zelda experience. It established many of the items, enemies, and tropes that appear in almost every Zelda game. The Master Sword, for example, first appears in A Link to the Past. The game also introduced to the series the idea of parallel or alternate dimensions, across which the hero can travel. This added a new (forgive the pun) dimension to puzzle-solving in The Legend of Zelda. Items and portals that appear in one universe may be manipulated to produce effects in a parallel universe.

Shining Force: The Legacy of Great Intention
Developer: Climax Entertainment, Camelot Software Planning
Release date: July 1993

Why do RPGs always have the most awesome subtitles? March of the Black Queen, Person of Lordly Caliber, and of course The Legacy of Great Intention. Whatever The Legacy of Great Intention means, it's a terrific game, an influential turn-based strategy role-playing game, and one of the very best Sega Genesis titles. Players control a silent protagonist as he recruits a small army of fighters to push back against the evil Darksol who wants to conquer the world. Battles in Shining Force take place in square grids, on which players move units strategically to outflank and overcome opponents. There are over two dozen unique and colorful characters to recruit during the game, all of whom can be be promoted to a higher class.

Final Fantasy III (VI)
Developer: Square
Release date: October 11, 1994

Many point to Final Fantasy VII as the ultimate Final Fantasy experience, but its older brother is a more complete game, and a better one. Epic in size and in scope, Final Fantasy III (Final Fantasy VI in Japan) features over a dozen playable characters, all of whom carry significant emotional baggage and who endure trials that range from rafting across raging rapids to, quite literally, the end of the world. There are several unique events in the game, including an opera, a dinner party, and a number of multi-party battles, which allow the player to divide his or her party into two or more battle groups in order to fight off a multi-party enemy.

Chrono Trigger
Developer: Square
Release date: August 22, 1995

One of the most unique RPGs of the fourth generation, Chrono Trigger is an exceptional game with a deep combat system, unique characters, and a bewitching soundtrack. The combat system, with its "tech" attacks, double and triple techniques, and area-of-effect attacks (all of them gorgeously animated, by the way), is particularly impressive. Although the game is relatively short for a role-playing game, the inclusion of multiple endings affords the game a high replay value.

Super Mario 64
Developer: Nintendo EAD
Release date: September 26, 1996

The finest example of the great migration from two-dimensional sprites to three-dimensional polygons, Super Mario 64 gave the platform genre unprecedented freedom of movement. It also introduced a revolutionary camera system that allowed players to manipulate the camera angles in the game. Set once again in the Mushroom Kingdom, Super Mario 64 sets Mario on a path to a final confrontation with his arch-enemy Bowser, who has once more captured Princess Toadstool. Super Mario 64 features fifteen diverse game environments and several hidden areas.

GoldenEye 007
Developer: Rare
Release date: August 25, 1997

GoldenEye 007 ranks among games like Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake as one of the more important shooters ever made. Upon its arrival on N64 in 1997, GoldenEye proved two important things: one, that first-person shooters could survive, even thrive, on home consoles; and two, that they need not all be corridor shooters where players run from point A to point B, blasting everything in sight. In GoldenEye, stealth and strategy matter. Apart from its incredible and challenging single-player mode, which has tons of replay value, GoldenEye features a legendary split-screen multiplayer mode with customizable weapon sets and expertly-designed maps.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Developer: Nintendo EAD
Release date: November 23, 1998

Ocarina of Time is a masterpiece, the pinnacle of Nintendo creativity and ingenuity, and the benchmark against which all games -- past, present, and future -- must be judged. It pioneered innovations like z-targeting, auto-jump, and context sensitive buttons. It took existing game mechanics like horseback riding, fishing, and the realistic passage of time and wove them into the game narrative like never before. Truly, Ocarina has everything: a sweeping musical score for the ages; vast, fully-realized three-dimensional worlds; innovative and easy-to-use controls; an epic and emotionally engaging storyline; and gameplay so rich, varied, and engaging that it has no equal.

Developer: Namco
Release date: September 9, 1999

Boasting incredible graphics, huge replay value, and a revolutionary "eight-way run" control scheme, SoulCalibur is one of the best fighting games ever made, a rare console port that outdoes the arcade original. Combat is strategic and intense, the characters are varied, and the action is silky smooth and beautiful to watch. One of the highlights of the game is "Missions Mode," a story mode of sorts where players can complete missions to earn points, which can then be used to unlock concept art and costumes.

Deus Ex
Developer: Ion Storm
Release date: June 26, 2000

It's difficult to single out one thing that makes Deus Ex such a superior game because everything works together. Graphics and sound provide an appropriate sense of place and atmosphere, the story and characters provide meaning and direction, and the dynamic gameplay provides constant challenges. What might be Deus Ex's greatest strength is its level design. Each level is perfectly spaced and paced, whether it's UNATCO headquarters on Liberty Island or a night club in Paris.

Halo: Combat Evolved
Developer: Bungie 
Release date: November 15, 2001

There are only so many truly revolutionary titles in the history of video games. One such game is Halo: Combat Evolved. What did it achieve? Well, by providing the nascent Xbox with a "killer app," it secured Microsoft's spot in the gaming world. It also introduced features, control schemes, and themes that have, for better or for worse, infiltrated almost every mainstream first-person shooter since. And, lastly, it shifted first-person shooters away from computers and onto home consoles. So it's a hugely influential title, but it's also an amazingly great game, with superior graphics, a standout soundtrack, a well-written story, outstanding level design, and perfect gameplay.

Metroid Prime
Developer: Retro Studios
Release date: November 17, 2002

When Metroid Prime was showcased by Nintendo at E3 2001, the reaction from fans and critics was mixed at best. Thankfully, Nintendo and Retro Studios (the new kid on the block) stayed the course, and released a game that somehow, miraculously, managed to transition Metroid from 2D to 3D and third-person to first-person all at once. The result is one of the best games of the sixth generation, and the start of a brilliant trilogy that would continue on GameCube and Wii.

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
Developer: Nintendo EAD
Release date: March 24, 2003

Unfairly criticized for its cartoonish appearance, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker features some of the most memorable and vibrant art direction of any Zelda adventure and boasts, without a doubt, the most visually expressive Link of any franchise game. Set on a huge, never-ending great sea, The Wind Waker is the story of Link’s quest to rescue his captured sister. Unlike other Zelda games, in which Link traveled by foot or on horseback, Wind Waker asks its players to navigate across the vast ocean in a small sailboat. Aside from its gorgeous cel-shaded graphics, the game boasts a terrific soundtrack and a deep, sometimes unpredictable story complete with several mid-game revelations and a truly shocking ending.

Half-Life 2
Developer: Valve Corporation
Release date: November 16, 2004

In Half-Life 2 Gordon Freeman must use his weapons and his wits to, once again, save mankind, in this instance from alien overlords and their human collaborators. Boasting an incredible physics system -- in which objects and people obey the laws of gravity, friction and buoyancy -- remarkably sophisticated artificial intelligence, and superior graphics, Half-Life 2 is the very definition of next-generation. Half-Life 2 unfolds across several chapters, some of which involve the use of vehicles, some of which are heavy on problem-solving. The variety of gameplay experiences packed into Half-Life is remarkable.

Resident Evil 4
Developer: Capcom
Release date: January 11, 2005

Before Resident Evil 4, the Resident Evil franchise had been one of the great video game series, and certainly the definitive survival horror series. With Resident Evil 4, it achieved new levels of greatness. Set in a rural village somewhere in Europe, Resident Evil 4 follows Leon S. Kennedy (one of two heroes from Resident Evil 2) in his search for the missing daughter of the American president. Capcom removed the fixed camera angles that had defined previous installments, and allowed the camera to follow Leon wherever he went. Thus RE4 became something of a survival-horror and third-person shooter hybrid, with some RPG elements thrown in for good measure. The game is thrilling, terrifying, and addictive, all at once. 

Gears of War
Developer: Epic Games
Release date: November 7, 2006

Third-person shooters tend to get overlooked in favor of their first-person cousins, but it’s difficult not to be impressed with a game as technically sound and exhilarating as Gears of War. Released roughly a year into the lifecycle of the Xbox 360, Gears of War was the first game to truly justify the purchase of Microsoft’s expensive hardware. It looks great, it sounds great, and, thanks to an intuitive cover system, it plays even better. Featuring a thrilling and demanding single-player campaign and plenty of multiplayer options, both cooperative and competitive, Gears of War stands today as, arguably, the best third-person shooter ever made. 

Developer: 2K Boston (Irrational Games)
Release date: August 21, 2007

A spiritual successor to the System Shock games, BioShock honors its predecessors by cleverly merging multiple genres into an amazing game experience. While it's predominantly a first-person shooter, BioShock features elements of adventure games, role-playing games, and even horror games. It's a masterpiece of game design, and it plays very differently depending on the path the player chooses. It's difficult to elaborate on the game without giving away its many secrets, but suffice it to say that Irrational Games, who developed the game, created in BioShock one of the most unique and mesmerizing game settings of all time. From the very first moments of the game to its final frames, BioShock will steal you away to another world.

Super Smash Bros. Brawl
Developer: Sora, Game Arts, Nintendo
Release date: March 9, 2008

Boasting a staggering amount of content, from its online and offline multiplayer modes to its "vault" to its suprisingly deep single-player campaign, Brawl is one of those rare games that can be played ad infinitum. The stage design in Brawl is inspired; its score, a greatest hits collection of thirty years of Nintendo music, is unmatched; and its fighting mechanics accessible enough for novices yet deep enough for veterans. Most importantly, the game is a joy to play, alone or with a group of friends. 

Demon's Souls
Developer: From Software
Release date: October 6, 2009

Set in a medieval kingdom ravaged by demons, Demon's Souls tasks players with exploring several diverse game environments, slaying terrible monsters, and collecting weapons, armor, items, and souls, the currency of the game. It all sounds typical of the genre, but the game is anything but typical. Employing a unique permadeath mechanic, whereby demon slayers who fall in battle are reduced to a weakened "soul form," and an asymmetrical online multiplayer mode, whereby other players can leave behind hints or invade others' worlds, Demon's Souls brings extraordinary features to a fairly common genre. Add to those some memorable music, spectacular level and enemy design, and a steep difficulty curve that makes victory all the more rewarding, and what's left is one of the very best games of the seventh generation.

Super Mario Galaxy 2
Developer: Nintendo EAD
Release date: May 23, 2010

Three years after Nintendo EAD caught lightning in a bottle with the original Super Mario Galaxy, the studio returned with a sequel that manages to match, even surpass, the brilliance of the original. The sheer imagination on display in Super Mario Galaxy 2 is mind-boggling. It packs more ideas and mechanics into individual levels than some games do in their entirety. Super Mario Galaxy 2 might not be as revolutionary is its predecessor, but it's every bit as beautiful, creative, and fun. 

Portal 2
Developer: Valve Corporation
Release date: April 19, 2011

A significant upgrade from the first Portal game, Portal 2 is packed with more puzzles, more interesting and varied level design, and some of the funniest writing and voice acting of any video game, ever. Players will hop, skip, and jump through dozens of puzzling levels, using portals, blocks, and gels to move past seemingly impossible obstacles. Level and puzzle design is deliriously clever; single-player and co-op modes are addictive and fun; and the dialogue, humorously delivered by Ellen McLain, Stephen Merchant, and J.K. Simmons, is uproarious.

Xenoblade Chronicles
Developer: Monolith Soft
Release date: April 6, 2012

With its challenging and deep battle system, its focus on exploration and character building, and its beautifully-realized game world, Xenoblade Chronicles is a RPG for the ages. When players aren't fighting off monsters and mechanical warriors with a combination of skills, arts, and ether attacks, they can take on hundreds of side quests, manage "affinity" levels among their party members and the general populations, and craft gems for weapons and armor. The huge amount of things to do, see, and discover in the world in Xenoblade is astonishing.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
Developer: Nintendo EAD
Release date: November 22, 2013

Despite sharing an overworld with its predecessor A Link to the Past, A Link Between Worlds represents a brand new Zelda experience. In the game, the hero Link boasts a new ability to transform into a two-dimensional painting to access hidden rooms, treasure, and a dark "mirror" version of Hyrule. Backed with fresh ideas, brilliant dungeons, and plenty of secrets, A Link Between Worlds is the best Zelda game in years. 

Mario Kart 8
Developer: Nintendo EAD
Release date: May 30, 2014

Where recent installments of the Mario Kart series felt, at times, like variations of a theme, Mario Kart 8 feels like a brand new game experience, built from the ground up. Sure, the battle mode is an afterthought, but it's small potatoes considering everything that's right with Mario Kart 8, including opulent visuals, an orchestral soundtrack (a first for Mario Kart), silky smooth online play, and imaginative tracks that rank among the best in the series.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (WiiU)

Game: How to Train Your Dragon 2
System: Wii U
Genre: Action
Developer: Torus Games
Release date:June 10, 2014

Pros: Clever multiplayer mode; exploration is fun while it lasts
Cons: Boring, buggy mini-games; muddy, outdated graphics; not nearly enough variety

Video game players have been trained, by experience or by reputation, to treat games based on other forms of entertainment, most famously movies, with a healthy dose of skepticism. More often than not, these tie-in games, content with simply leveraging the popularity of their source material, demonstrate a disappointing lack of creative energy. Such is the case with How to Train Your Dragon 2, a relatively inoffensive game that believes, wrongly, that a licensed property is enough to keep a mediocre game afloat.

Those wary of spoilers need not worry. Although How to Train Your Dragon 2 shares the title and characters of the DreamWorks' animated movie, it's largely plotless. Instead of tracking the plot lines of the movie, which, by the way, could have resulted in some terrific on-rails shooting segments, the developers at Torus Games opted for a fixed location -- the Viking island of Berk -- and a series of mini-games.

Racing in a circle through floating rings is as fun as it sounds.

Unfortunately, these mini-games, which make up the main gaming experience of How to Train Your Dragon 2, aren't very interesting or much fun. They consist mainly of Superman 64-style fly-through-the-floating ring races, shooting galleries, and sheep collecting challenges. The shooting gallery mini-game, which functions like a simplified version of Virtua Cop, is a nice diversion, but in general the mini-games are boring, buggy, and lacking in variety.

Luckily, players can avoid the mini-games entirely, opting instead to explore Berk at their own leisure. It's here where How to Train Your Dragon 2 moves toward achieving something special. Hidden around the island are 50 tokens for each dragon; collecting them all will unlock special abilities. There's also plenty of dragon perches, mountains, and caves to explore, and even some beautiful vistas to view, despite the game's muddy, GameCube-era graphics.

The dragon Toothless zeroes in on a dragon token, one of 50.

The best part of How to Train Your Dragon 2 on Wii U, sadly, has been completely unadvertised by Torus Games. It's a slick multi-player mode that allows a second player to join in at any point during the game. This second player, riding a different dragon, can explore Berk, participate in races and challenges, and partake in three multiplayer-specific mini-games. Since the game doesn't support the Pro Controller, the second player is required to use a Wii Remote with limited controls, but, impressively, there is no split screen -- one player gets the TV to him or herself and the other uses the GamePad.

Despite this neat multi-player mode, How to Train Your Dragon 2 never breaks free from Torus' lack of ambition. The mini-games are tedious and prone to bugs; Berk, while fun to explore, is too small to sustain investigation for long; and the game's graphics and physics seem generations old. There's some fun to be had, but not for long, and not in large quantities.