New Article – LEGO Worlds Early Access Preview

LEGO Worlds expertly captures the feel of playing and building with LEGO bricks with the addictive open-ended exploration and building of Minecraft.

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Read the full Preview on Pixelkin

lego worlds

The biggest and most obvious inspiration for Minecraft is LEGO. Those venerable little stacking bricks rose from humble Danish beginnings to become one of the most popular toys in the world. Over the last decade, the brand has successfully expanded into video games using its incredibly lucrative licensing deals, making games of popular franchises like Star Wars and Batman. The focus on kid-friendly, cooperative gaming has made these games hugely popular for families.

Now we have finally come full circle, as LEGO returns to its block-building roots by lifting core gameplay from Minecraft. LEGO Worlds was recently released in Early Access on Steam, meaning the game is still in active development, but can be purchased and played right now. Despite a current lack of major features like multiplayer, LEGO Worlds expertly captures the feel of playing and building with LEGO bricks with the addictive open-ended exploration and building of Minecraft.

Read the full Preview on Pixelkin

New Article – Technobabylon Review

Despite the aging Adventure Game Studio engine, Technobabylon succeeds thanks to an intriguing story, diverse cast, and satisfying puzzles.

Read the full review on CGMagazine

Technobabylon review

Wadjet Eye Studios have quietly been carving out a stalwart niche among traditional Point and Click Adventure game fans. In recent years, the genre has grown and segmented to include more narrative-rich, dialogue-heavy adventures, spear-headed largely by Telltale’s successful licensed Episodic Adventure games. Fans of old-school Adventure games, however, ones full of complex puzzles and creative worlds, can still turn to studios like Wadjet Eye and their latest release, Technobabylon. Despite the aging Adventure Game Studio engine, Technobabylon succeeds thanks to an intriguing story, diverse cast, and satisfying puzzles.

The story opens with Latha, an orphaned young woman living in poverty. Like many people in 2087 she’s addicted to the Trance – Technobabylon’s equivalent of a virtual internet of the future. Escaping her apartment after a power surge serves to act as a tutorial as you learn how to manipulate the game’s most unique gameplay hook – downloading and rearranging programs of the various electronic devices around her.

Read the full review on CGMagazine

New Article – 5 Great Wii U Games for Toddlers

A list of fun, downloadable Nintendo eShop games for the Wii U that can be enjoyed by younger children and toddlers.

Read the full list on Pixelkin.org

games for toddlers

There comes a time in every gaming parent’s life when your young child is no longer content to sit there with an unplugged (or unconnected) controller, happily mashing buttons along with parents or older siblings. They know the controller is supposed to light up. They know the on-screen characters should respond to their inputs. 

When your young child begins to express an interest in games, there are sadly too few console games for toddlers they can explore. While the mobile market and tablets in particular have made leaps and bounds toward kid-friendly gaming, the big consoles still lag behind.

Nintendo is a bastion of family-friendly gaming. But for decades they’ve had a limited selection of games that very young children can operate and enjoy. I probed the depths of the Nintendo eShop and found several fun games for toddlers and younger children for the Wii U—all kid-approved by my own 3-year-old daughter….

Read the full list on Pixelkin.org

New Article – Survival Games Without the Horror

Exploring a new genre on the rise – single player Survival Games that emphasize exploration and crafting instead of hordes of monsters or other players.

Read my full article on Pixelkin.org >>

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Minecraft’s incredible popularity and unique gameplay mechanics have spawned entirely new genres of games. Some games, like Terraria and Starbound, take the world-crafting and multiplayer aspects of Minecraft in new directions. Others focus more on surviving against the world by discovering resources and building your own tools.

Survival games rarely explore the human vs. nature conflict. Most first-person games pit you against hordes of zombies, aliens, or the occasionally terrifying zombie alien. Your survival is directly proportional to the floating gun in front of you. Thankfully the genre has grown and expanded to include a variety of experiences. All use gameplay mechanics and concepts birthed from Minecraft. One quick glance at Steam’s store reveals dozens of options that rely more on surviving against nature than hordes of undead.

I’ve found two that are particularly intriguing. Stranded Deep and Subnautica are indie games that are part of the Early Access program.

Read my full article on Pixelkin.org >>

Gaming Backlog Final Thoughts – South Park: The Stick of Truth

A perfect combination of the show’s aesthetics and humor with a fun RPG system makes South Park: The Stick of Truth one of the best licensed games ever made.

I have finished another backlogged game via Rogue’s Adventures. You can read my latest Final Thoughts below and also on my gaming blog on Game Informer.

Developer: Obsidian Entertainment (with South Park Digital Studios)

Publisher: Ubisoft

Release Date: March 4, 2014

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I was slightly late to my South Park fandom. The first season aired back in the ancient era of 1997, and I’d written it off as a silly Beavis and Butthead style adult cartoon. While it was quite silly and full of shock value, I didn’t begin seeing its incredibly clever social commentary and political skewering until several years later. Around the time South Park was in its fifth or sixth season I caught up on all the episodes, and I’ve been a diehard fan ever since.

To say I was looking forward to South Park: The Stick of Truth is a big understatement. Developed by beloved RPG developer Obsidian, they were tasked with directly collaborating with Matt Stone and Trey Parker in creating an epic RPG with the look and feel of the show. Licensed games usually fare poorly in their translation to gaming, but all the previews looked fantastic, and The Stick of Truth made it onto my Most Anticipated Games lists….for 2012, 2013, and 2014!

The game had been stuck in development hell for years after its proud announcement, partly due to the dissolution of then-publisher THQ and its acquisition by Ubisoft. Heavily licensed game plus long, tumultuous development typically results in disaster. I’m pleased to say that not only does South Park: The Stick of Truth defy expectations, but it’s easily one of the best licensed video games ever made.

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From the moment you jump into the character creator the art style and animations completely absorb you into the world of South Park. The show’s unique 2D cutout animation is in full glorious display, and for the first time you can actually walk around and explore the modest open world of the town. Exploring the town of South Park brought me endless joy (and made me pine for a Simpsons-Springfield equivalent game). Everything is right where you think it is, from the South Park Mall to each boys’ cookie-cutter houses in a row.

The initial hook of the story is related to Season 17’s “Black Friday” trilogy, which ended with direct teases to The Stick of Truth. Though South Park goes in some very funny and dark places with its social commentary and pop culture references, my personal favorite episodes are when the kids are play-acting extravagant events and adventures. They juxtapose their incredibly imaginative and increasingly creative adventures with the equally mundane and crazy backdrop of their lives and town.

The Stick of Truth runs with this theme perfectly as most of the kids in town are playing a Dungeons & Dragons style real-world fantasy game using costumes and household objects as weapons. Entire factions are drawn up, war parties are formed, and you as the new kid in town are thrown into the middle of it. In fact, much of the main story missions are heavily inspired from BioWare’s RPGs as you gather allies from other factions such as the goth kids, the kindergartners, and even the girls. Eventually you’re forced to choose a side between Cartman’s humans and Kyle’s elves, though an even darker event causes the boys to join forces in the end.

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Meanwhile you’re free to explore the entire town at you leisure, with only a few locations blocked off Metroidvania-style until you acquire new abilities. The town is a treasure-trove of recognizable locations and hidden goodies, with just the right amount of side quests to add some additional adventuring without overwhelming you with superfluous tasks. I did enjoy collecting friends on Facebook; not only is it fun to find and talk to people but acquiring friends unlocks passive perks.

Loot is everywhere. By halfway through the game I was equipping new weapons and armor sets just about every 15 or 20 minutes, and each one has slots for equipping patches and “strap-ons” to modify them further to suit your needs. It’s an embarrassment of riches and partly lead to the overpowered feeling I quickly gained for most combat encounters.

Combat is designed similarly to Super Mario RPG and the Paper Mario games. When you run into an enemy, be they ginger kids, hobos, mongorians, or nazi zombies, the game shifts to a turn-based JRPG-style battlefield where you take turns using melee, ranged, magic and special abilities. Your magical abilities, of course, are powerful fart attacks that you acquire throughout the game, and are also used to access new areas in the world.

Combat is supported by active button-prompts, letting you dodge attacks and do more damage with the right timing. Abilities utilize active button prompts in various ways, like spinning the joystick to wind up Butters’ hammer throw, or mashing all the buttons to get Cartman to scream various obscenities when he unleashes his electrical V-Chip powers a la South Park: The Movie.

The emphasis on speed and efficiency over tactical depth matches well with the overall gameplay. That’s not to say there weren’t some deep systems involved. Multiple debuffs and status effects were very important in affecting opponents, such as Grossed Out and Pissed Off, and elemental damage could be added to weapons to further take advantage of a foe’s weakness. Armor and shields also played into the combat; often I had to adjust my strategies and weapon mods depending on the area and enemies I was facing.

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Once I learned the various combat systems I breezed through most encounters without much trouble. At the end of combat both health and power points are fully restored, allowing you to unleash your powers as much as you see fit. Consumables are also incredibly prolific, and since using one doesn’t take up your turn you can quickly pop a health or buffing potion and still attack.

You’re allowed one supportive party member from a familiar roster of the main cast to join you, and not only can you switch them out on the fly, you can switch them out right in the middle of combat. While you can’t change out their equipment, each hero comes with their own abilities, and I found them all to be fairly useful in different situations. Battles go quickly but the animations are so much fun, and the enemy variety decent enough that they remained enjoyable throughout my 15 hour adventure.

The main story takes place over three days, with each day ending in a large event resembling a dungeon crawl. The first day ends with the classic South Park aliens abducting you, complete with lots of anal probing – resulting in a new anal probe satellite dish to teleport to new places. The story goes in all kinds of really fun, really messed up places – very much appropriate to the series. From infiltrating an abortion clinic and fending off an outbreak of nazi zombie fetuses, to fighting underpants gnomes right under your very noisy, very graphic sex-having parents, the game never shies away from the hilarious shock value that the show is infamous for.

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In addition to the many, many references around every corner, dialogue session, and cutscenes the game even adds its own funny jokes, like an incredibly funny on-going gag about Taco Bell as the cover-up to the UFO crash and presenting Canada as a hilariously pixelated 8-bit overworld style map.

It all ends in a fantastic final assault on Clyde’s fortress of doom (a giant tower in his backyard). Throughout several big story missions in the game you’re pitted within the backdrop of an ongoing battle, and I loved how various environmental traps and abilities could be used to affect foes before ever engaging them in combat, sometimes taking whole groups out completely. Seeing the the various kids so passionately involved in their role-playing is pure fun, and the absurdity and seriousness of it all is a fantastic combination that is quintessential South Park. Fans of the show and RPGs rejoice, for we have been blessed with an amazing adaptation.

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Pros

  • Art Style and animations are perfect recreations of the South Park style
  • Just as shocking and hilarious as the TV show
  • Surprisingly deep combat system that never wears out its welcome
  • Tons of loot and customization options
  • Exploring the town is sheer joy for fans
  • Perfectly paced, with just the right combination of linear story missions and open world exploration and side quests

Cons

  • Other than a few boss battles, combat is pretty easy
  • Summons and Fart Magic are almost entirely unnecessary
  • At 15hrs it’s a bit short for a standard RPG, and a few plot threads or events feel a bit rushed or edited (only one crab person in the whole game)

Final Say: A perfect combination of the show’s aesthetics and humor with a fun RPG system makes South Park: The Stick of Truth one of the best licensed games ever made.

New Video – Pillars of Eternity Dragon Fight – Cail The Silent

My 2nd attempt at battling Cail The Silent, my first major dragon fight in Pillars of Eternity.

I don’t get the chance to really live stream or record very many gameplay videos or Let’s Plays these days. I did manage to sneak in a quick little video showing off my first major dragon fight in Pillars Of Eternity, a massive, old-school tactical RPG Kickstarted by Obsidian Entertainment in 2012 and released in March.

I’m really loving the hell out of Pillars of Eternity. For fans of the Golden Age of tactical computer role-playing games (late 90s, early 00s) and games like Baldur’s Gate, it’s absolutely a dream come true. Divinity: Original Sin, another phenomenal tactical RPG (and also crowdfunded) was my Game of the Year last year, and Pillars of Eternity is a strong contender for this year.

In this video I battle the fire dragon Cail The Silent. This is actually my second attempt at battling the beast, the first time I came extremely close but ultimately lost. My team consisted of my PC (melee chanter), Edér, Pallegina, Durance, Aloth, and Sagani, all level 8.

 

 

Gaming Backlog Final Thoughts – Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon

A mini-slice of Far Cry open-world gameplay wrapped up in a glorious homage to 80s sci-fi action films.

I have finished another backlogged game via Rogue’s Adventures. You can read my latest Final Thoughts below and also on my gaming blog on Game Informer.

Developer: Ubisoft

Publisher: Ubisoft

Release Date: May 1, 2013

Blood Dragon box art

There was a moment late in the game when Blood Dragon’s protagonist Sergeant Rex Power Colt (voiced by 80s/90s sci-fi action hero Michael Biehn) picks up the ultimate weapon called the Killstar and yells out the opening lyrics to Stan Bush’s “The Touch.” The ridiculousness of everything I’d experienced reached a heightened level of awesome, and I let myself get completely immersed in Blood Dragon’s loving embrace  of cheesy 80s sci-fi action films. It’s low-hanging fruit to be sure, but the music, writing, and plot effectively capture the nostalgic era that the developers clearly adore. I just wish its open-world gameplay and art design were as equally inspired and interesting.

I’d never played a single Far Cry game before, and thus didn’t really know what to expect out of this well-received stand-alone expansion to Far Cry 3. The 80s homage definitely appealed to me over the modern day jungles of the main series, and the much shorter run time helped motivate me to give Blood Dragon a shot.

The adventure starts off completely linear, forcing you into a humorous and very self-aware tutorial. A recurring problem throughout the game immediately surfaces this early: just because you make fun of something and mention how dumb it is, doesn’t give you a free pass to actually do the thing. In other words making fun of how tiresome super linear and simplified tutorials are and then giving you a super linear and simplified tutorial doesn’t make it all that much more fun to experience.

There are a few times where it eschews this common gaming-parody tendency (like the surprising lack of a final boss battle), but all too often Rex bitches about doing something and you still have to do it. Most of the side quests, for example, are seemingly interchangeable “go rescue this guy from this group of bad guys” or “go hunt down this creature.” Rex remarks “blah blah kill blah blah,” which is funny and on point, but is in fact what you end up doing.

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Other than the enjoyably cheesy dialogue cutscenes, presented in tiny retro-style comic panels, the opening and first few missions are incredibly linear and play too much like a mediocre shooter. Despite its retro sci-fi setting (2007 – the future!) Rex is still armed with your basic heavy pistol, sniper, assault rifle and shotgun. His one unique tool is the cybereye, which lets him zoom in and automatically mark any enemies he sees. This reveals them as thermographic images – critical for a stealthy approach.

I don’t play a lot of stealthy first-person shooters, but the ones I have played that give you the option, I often enjoy taking that route (Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Dishonored). Blood Dragon encourages the stealthy approach to the many enemy strongholds that dot the island, at least to get far enough to shut off the alarm system. The alarms are clearly marked on your map and if an enemy gets to it after spotting you, a huge contingent of forces spawns in and runs at you, making your job extremely difficult. Rex also can’t take a whole lot of hits, despite being a super-powered cyborg soldier, and can only carry a limited number of healing items. This combined with a lack of mid-mission saving definitely led to some frustrating woes before I got a handle on the stealth systems.

Thankfully I enjoyed the stealth gameplay, and the game mechancis make it fun. All enemies give off a red glowing aura, the cybereye lets you mark and track them, and stealth takedowns are incredibly fun, easy, and can potentially take down multiple foes together in a chain. You also get access to the bow early on, an ideal long-range stealth weapon. The only thing you can’t do is move bodies, so once you start killing you need to move quickly.

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The world opens up after you take your first stronghold, with the help of the titular blood dragons. These giant glowing laser-shooting lizard-dinosaur things roam the world with impunity, often getting into random battles with creatures and other cyber-soldiers. Each stronghold is protected by a dome that keeps them away, so a major strategy in taking down strongholds is to sneak in and disable the dome.

Looted cyber-hearts from enemies can be thrown and act as a lure for the giant creatures, resulting in a very satisfying and angry pet that be somewhat directed around. The blood dragons are a lot of fun, both as a useful tool and a fearsome foe, and when you finally have to take one down later in the story, it presents just the right amount of terror and awe.

Taking down strongholds is the main purpose of the open-world gameplay, as they lead to sidequests, provide fast travel opportunities, and give you a safe place to respawn. They’re also entirely optional, as are collecting the various collectibles dotted around the world (CRT TVs and VHS tapes, naturally).

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The sidequests can give a few mini-opportunities for stealth, but often I could just go in guns blazing and kill them faster than they could kill the hostage. Even with rewards doling out nice weapon attachments and upgrades, I mostly skipped them (that and two of my favorite weapons, the bow and mini-gun, had no attachments to earn).

The main story is only about half a dozen missions long and as the case with many open-world games there’s an awkward disconnect between continuing the story and just roaming around doing your own thing. Frankly the art design and level design of the world just weren’t interesting enough to make me want to explore the world, and given the retro sci-fi setting that is a hugely wasted opportunity. The mundane island dotted with the occasional enemy fort doesn’t contain a whole lot of secrets, and while there are a few variety of enemies, they all basically look and behave the same, save for the inevitable zombie-types that crop up later on. The blood dragons do add a unique twist to exploring the island but unlike say, Skyrim’s dragons, there’s no real incentive to fighting them.

Blood Dragon makes up for its lackluster open world gameplay with its fantastic story and main missions. In fact, I would recommend anyone taking on Blood Dragon to mostly stick with the main story. The comic-style cutscenes are extremely well done and often laugh out lout funny, and the missions throw a lot of unique curveballs at you that keep them fresh and interesting. Stealthily planting bombs on a dam early on goes awry, and ends with Rex taking down dozens of soldiers, helicopters, and jeeps with the newly acquired Terror 4000 (the awesome mini-gun). Holding down the fire button on the mini-gun results in Rex screaming and yelling incoherently while you fire; if that doesn’t endear you to his personality than this game probably isn’t for you.

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The story has Rex fighting back against insane rogue army general Dr. Sloan, a classic hyper-conservative, war-mongering villain that looks and sounds like General Treister from The Venture Bros. Rex is aided by Sloan’s former research scientist Dr. Darling, and she sends you on missions to undermine his control. Many of them involve large underground facilities, often with several big rooms of soldiers where a stealth approach comes off like a tactical appraisal, not unlike the Batman Arkham games.

There are a lot of fun scripted moments, like using a flamethrower to take out blood dragon eggs a la Aliens, hang-gliding your way through enemy blockades, avoiding cyber-sharks in the water, and eventually riding your own weapon-mounted blood dragon for the on-rails finale. The adventure ends much, much stronger than it started, and I found myself fist-pumping and giggling along with the game.

In giving you a smaller slice of Far Cry’s open-world gameplay Blood Dragon is mediocre at best, with a boring world and bland art style. The real treat comes from the excellent story and soundtrack by Power Glove, though I presume many of the references and nostalgic enjoyment are lost if you didn’t grow up with and adore 80s sci-fi action films like Terminator, Aliens, and Robocop. Stick to the main story and immerse yourself in an impressive and well-scripted 80s-tastic adventure.

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Pros

  • Well-realized story that hits all the right notes for 80’s sci-fi action genre
  • The blood dragons are scary, powerful, and awesome additions to any situation
  • Large open-world island with tons of strongholds and side quests
  • Fantastic synth-heavy soundtrack by Power Glove

Cons

  • Bland art and level design
  • No mid-mission saving
  • Forgettable and recycled side quests
  • Mostly boring, conventional weapons
  • First-person vehicle driving is a nightmare

Final Say: A mini-slice of Far Cry open-world gameplay wrapped up in a glorious homage to 80s sci-fi action films.