Review | 6/22/2011 at 9:25 AM

Beyond Co-Op Reviews - June 2011

Beyond Co-Op Reviews is a critical look at games that don't necessarily have a co-op mode.

As we enter the summer months the myriad of titles continue to roll in.  We're fully loaded this month with 8 solid reviews of titles. Yes, the infamous (also inFamous 2) Duke Nuke Forever is finally out, playable and reviewed.  But there's plenty of other incredibly solid titles on display like Rockstar's LA Noire.

Alice: Madness Returns.................................................................................................. Page 2
Witcher 2
.............................................................................................................................Page 3
Thor.......................................................................................................................................Page 4
Red Johnson's Chronicles..............................................................................................Page 5
L.A. Noire.............................................................................................................................Page 6
Front Mission Evolved......................................................................................................Page 7
inFamous 2.........................................................................................................................Page 8
Duke Nukem Forever.......................................................................................................Page 9 Widgets

 Explanation of Scores:

 - Golden Billy - This is a must buy title. Truly excellent in almost everyway.

  - Silver Billy - A solid title with a few flaws.

 - Bronze Billy - This one is probably a rental if it interests you.

Publisher: EA
Developer: Spicy Horse
MSRP: $59.99
by: Mike "Pheriannath" Katsufrakis

You know, out of the many literary universes to choose from, Wonderland would make for a deliciously twisted game world on its own, but American McGee would disagree with you. Taking notes from the Tim Burton school of design and adding an extra dash of grimdark, the Wonderland presented here is a nasty place indeed.

As the followup to 2000’s American McGee’s Alice, Madness Returns has a lot to live up to, most notably rose-tinted views of its predecessor, a game remembered for its distinctive art style. Fear not, for Spicy Horse has come through with quite an artistic achievement- the game (some texture issues aside) looks flat out gorgeous, a fact reinforced by my wife, who almost never comments on things like that.

The bulk of the game involves light puzzle solving and platforming, and Alice has a handy triple jump, with the ability to glide short distances using her skirt. You can almost reimagine the game as a dark Princess Peach (a la Mario 2) platformer. Early on, you’re granted the ability to shrink at will, which adds the curious ability to see hidden messages or invisible platforms throughout the levels.

Combat plays fast and loose - Alice mixes light and heavy attacks using her snicker-snacking Vorpal Blade and a googly-eyed hobby horse, ranged attacks using clockwork bombs (that look like rabbits with top hats) and a pepper grinder repurposed as a gatling gun. Your defensive options include the ability to quickly dash away by evaporating into a cloud of butterflies or whipping out a lovely Victorian parasol to deflect projectiles. The clockwork bombs also double as a decoy, attracting unwanted attention while you flit away. Of all things, I got reminded of my time with Darksiders during the combat portions, and that’s not a bad thing.

Unfortunately, sections of the game that seem fresh at first begin to outstay their welcome. While the art stays strong throughout, you can only platform through similar sections so many times before it begins to feel like grinding. Madness Returns is a game in desperate need of an editor. Your moveset remains fairly static throughout the game, and once you have all the weapons, there’s nothing new to look forward to other than new environments.

If you liked the original game, you’re doubly in luck. Not only is this a good sequel, new copies of the game actually come with a port of the original Alice, which you can play from the main menu. If our patriotically-named friend and Spicy Horse can streamline the core experience a bit, I can’t wait for further adventures in this dark Wonderland.


Publisher: CD Projekt
Developer: CD Projekt
MSRP: $49.99
by: Tally "Xelissa" Callahan

I played the Witcher (the Enhanced Edition) a couple years back. I found it to be a decent game with some interesting ideas, but a little rough around the edges with some frustrating flaws. I put it down one day and never got back around to finishing it. Fast forward to May 2011. With cautious optimism, I bought a digital copy of the Witcher 2 on sale. I beat it in four or five days (and it’s not a short game). I simply could not put the game down.

The Witcher 2 is, for lack of a better word, an evolved experience. Many of the same characters make reappearances from the first game and the world has a similar dark, dangerous feeling, but it’s as if all the raw potential I saw in the Witcher was finally polished and perfected in the Witcher 2. In general, the game is about telling a story - but a story the way you want to tell it. My Geralt loves Triss Merigold, places love before honor, and feels kinship with the elves and dwarves because as a mutant he’s similarly shunned by humans. Your Geralt might just enjoy friendly romps with Triss, value his honor above all else, and see the elves as terrorists, plain and simple. This type of character development is not only done with the standard cinematic dialogue options, but also with completely different experiences in the game. For example, based on a decision you make at the end of first chapter of the game, much of the rest of the game will be a completely different experience. Different main quests, side quests, the whole deal. The game also has sixteen different endings, which is mighty impressive.

The combat is much improved from the first game (though it can take a little while to get used to at first) and players are provided with different ways to customize the way they fight by putting points into passives as they level up. If you enjoy slinging spells, you can choose to go down the sign path which upgrades and improves the basic signs you have access to from the start of the game. If you like charging into the fray, you can go down the sword mastery path and learn how to really dish out the pain with your steel and silver swords. Or if you really like the alchemy/potion system, you can go down the alchemy path and improve the effectiveness and durations of your potions. Or, as many will do, you can mix and match different passives from all three, picking the skills that suit your playstyle the best. A note of caution: the game starts offsomewhat difficult and you’re somewhat thrown into the game with little instruction on how many of the mechanics work; however, once you take some time to figure them out and as you progress through the game, the difficulty gets more manageable.

I can’t really say too much more about the game without spoiling things, but I will say that I started playing the Witcher 2 with moderate expectations and finished playing it with it on my list of favorite RPGs. I can’t stress how impressed I am with how certain decisions can lead you down completely different paths, a method that many developers strive for, but seldom manage to actually pull off. This game was simply a joy to play and I can’t wait to see where CD ProjectRed goes with it next.


Publisher: SEGA
Developer: SEGA
MSRP: $59.99
by: Marc "Djinniman" Allie

One would think that super heroes would translate well into video games. Colorful costumes, superhuman abilities, and over-the-top storylines should combien to make great games, right? Sometimes, this is the case (Batman: Arkham Asylum, Marvel vs. Capcom 3), other times is spectacularly not so (any of the Superman games). Unfortunately, Thor: God of Thunder falls into the latter category.

Thor is a 3rd person brawler, which is pretty much the standard for boring movie tie-ins. Gameplay consists of Thor whacking his enemies with his enchanted hammer, or zapping them with bolts of lightning. This sounds like fun, but it isn't. The controls are fiddly, the animations are jerky, and it's hard to actually get Thor to hit the bad guys even when they are right in front of him. It's clear that the developers were going for a Norse flavored God of War clone, but it fails miserably in this regard.

The environments are about as generic as they come. Apart from Asgard itself, you'll spend some time in a jungle world, a frozen world, and an underground realm. Sound familiar? The enemies are bland and you see them over and over again. Boss fights break things up somewhat, but due to the iffy controls and one of the worst cameras in video game history, they are far harder than they should be.

If there is any saving grace to Thor: God of Thunder, it's two things: the voice acting and storyline. The movie actors for Thor and Loki both voice their characters in the game, so there is so continuity between the two. The story, a prequel of sorts, is written by comic scribe Matt Fraction. It's nothing special, really, but the fact that it was scripted by someone with comic book chops has to mean something, right?

My son and I are big comic book fans, and we were really looking forward to playing this one. However, after only a few levels, we lost almost all interest. It got to a point where it was, frankly, more of a pain than it was worth to continue. It speaks volumes that a family like us, who is exactly the target audience for a Thor game, didn't even bother to finish it. The game is already heavily discounted not even two months after its release, and for good reason. Thor: God of Thunder is the epitome of bad movie video game tie ins, and should be avoided by most gamers.


Publisher: Lexis Numerique
Developer: Lexis Numerique
MSRP: $9.99
by: Katrina "Shadokat Regn" Pawlowski

Red Johnson’s Chronicles is a game that you may have heard in passing, but forgotten about. It is a Playstation Network exclusive that released the same day that all the network outages began. As such, the game’s release went largely unnoticed, which is a real shame considering the quality content in it. You play as Red Johnson, private detective in the grand city of Metropolis. Your job is to solve a murder using whatever means necessary, as the lazy police force doesn’t really feel like it.

Playing the game is fairly simple and straightforward for any gamer, but the language is definitely set for an adult audience. Basically the gameplay resembles something like Phoenix Wright crossed with Professor Layton meets L.A. Noire. Your first task is to investigate a bridge, and you have a few options that you’ll investigate now, and some you’ll revisit later. Most of the areas are visited repeatedly, like the bridge (crime scene), various apartments, and your office.You’ll have to solve a few puzzles to get to each thing you’re looking for, as well as keep an eye out for any items that may be out of place in case they’re important later.

During the course of Red Johnson’s Chronicles, you’re investigating environments, figuring out complex puzzles, interrogating people who may have been involved, and surviving short little cut scenes (controlled by quick time events, hit X to dodge, Y to recover, etc). The puzzles range from rewiring circuit boards, to cracking safes to find the evidence you need to uncover who killed who, and why.

Sometimes the puzzles are obvious in their solution, and sometimes you have to dig deeper to uncover what’s going on. You have a snitch to rely on for clues, but he charges you for each hint he offers to a puzzle. Each puzzle you solve or successful interrogation will lead you to the next clue you need. The charm in Red Johnson’s Chronicles is endless with the clever dialog, intriguing world of Metropolis, and colorful characters involved in the storyline. I can only hope the series continues with more crimes to solve in the future.


Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Team Bondi
MSRP: $59.99
by: Mike "Pheriannath" Katsufrakis

I must admit, if we were reviewing games solely based on their title screen, LA Noire would easily coast to a superlative score. However, this isn’t a fantasy land, and that makes me sad. Luckily, the rest of LA Noire is just as incredible as its moody title screen and I’ll still be able to give high marks.

LA Noire, at its core, is a classic point and click adventure game dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Sure, it’s got most of the trappings of your standard post-GTA 3 open world game, but I find it has a lot more in common with something like Phoenix Wright. A typical case opens with an introduction to the case by your Captain, then you’ll proceed to various crime scenes, collect evidence and follow up on leads. Eventually, you’ll find a suspect and try to pin them with the evidence you’ve collected. Simple enough.

The storyline follows the career of one Cole Phelps, a World War II veteran who joins the police force after returning home. After an early break, he’s promoted to Detective, where you’ll advance through the ranks and take on all sorts of cases, from Traffic crimes to Homicide and eventually Vice and Arson. He’ll rub shoulders with the elite, punish the wicked and even help investigate the infamous Black Dahlia murder.

What you’ll notice instantly about LA Noire is the startlingly realistic facial animation of its characters. Real actors, many whom you will recognize had their facial expressions recorded during their performances, and the game translates them beautifully. During interrogations, you’ll be asked to suss out whether a character is telling the truth, holding back or outright lying, and the fidelity of the character animation will let you see every sideways glance, nervous swallow or smug grin. It’s really something to behold, and the fact it doesn’t go sailing off the cliff flanking the Uncanny Valley is an achievement.

Since much of the game is based in (exaggerated) nuance, it can sometimes be frustrating to misread a suspect, and failing to conduct flawless interrogations will lead to lack of evidence that may or may not be critical to your case. The game does a great job of continuing on despite any failures on your part. It’s certainly possible to put the wrong person behind bars, but it will never result in a failure state.

The sheer amount of content in LA Noire is almost staggering. There are 21 cases to solve in the main game, and once you’re out of tutorial land, most take at least an hour to wrap up. If you’re playing the PS3 version, you benefit from having an extra two cases out of the box. In addition, there are about forty street crime mini-scenarios, each with a small bit of story set up, though they usually involve a quick chase or shootout, and Cole sending another stiff to the Coroner’s office.

So while the investigation and interrogation portions that make up the bulk of the game are absolutely fantastic, other aspects of the experience leave a little to be desired. Driving around the city is fun, especially if you appreciate the painstaking detail Team Bondi put into 1940’s Los Angeles, but once you’ve cleared street crimes out of the way, there’s not much in the way of content. Luckily, you can set a waypoint and have your partner chauffer you around. Periodically, outside of foot chases, you’ll be expected to engage in a bit of urban traversal, which feels shoehorned in. Nothing takes me out of a game faster than asking me to control a character’s balance while walking across a beam or plank.

When the action picks up, the game does a good job of keeping things exciting. Some scripted events are inserted into the chase sequences to ratchet up the tension, and who doesn’t love a good car chase? Foot chases work well because Cole will automatically grab onto ladders or jump over/climb obstacles for you, letting you focus on keeping eyes on the perp. When guns come into the equation, the controls are serviceable, with some basic cover mechanics and (seemingly) infinite ammunition. If you’re having a hard time with the action and fail a set number of times, the game will actually allow you to skip the sequence, keeping the plot moving.

Though there are some rough edges along the way, the superlative quality of the writing, acting, presentation and the technology that drives it all make this a game that’s not to be missed. Recent Rockstar games have had fantastic DLC support, so hopefully LA Noire continues that trend.


Publisher: Square-Enix
Developer: Double Helix
MSRP: $59.99
by: Katrina "Shadokat Regn" Pawlowski

Front Mission Evolved is a long-running Mech style franchise that has received a recent overhaul to the style of the gameplay associated with the Front Mission name. Front Mission before this time has been a primarily turn-based strategy franchise featuring mech soldiers. For Front Mission Evolved, however, you’re directly in the driver’s seat as a rookie pilot/engineer building mechs called Wanzers.

Your character is the son of a prominent military figure in a long-standing war between three factions, each using their own style of Wanzer. Your Wanzer mech is unique in that you can do anything with it - it’s not associated with a faction, so you can paint it orange and put any combination of body, legs, arms, or weaponry on it that you like.

As the first of the style for the series, the gameplay has a few issues. Unlike the fast-paced action of Armored Core style games, you’re a little bit slower in your movement, you can’t jump or boost to fly, but you can really bash the crap out of the bad-guys (and you’re not “charged” for ammo use after each mission, so you can shoot the crap out of anything you like). The story doesn’t require any prior knowledge of the series to understand, it’s all pretty straight forward. Factions are getting too big for their own good and picking fights in other territories, casualties are had, and it’s up to the hero character to set things straight.

There are also on-foot sections when you have to go where your Wanzer can’t get to. You’ll run through buildings primarily, using boxes, guard rails, and other debris as cover. You don’t “stick” to cover as it were, but as long as you’re ducking you stay mostly protected from enemies. The third-person shooter parts of the game were fairly well done for this, considering it’s primarily a mech fighting game.

I’d say they have at least one more title in this style before it becomes polished enough to call a great game in the third-person shooter and Mech combat style, but Front Mission Evolved does a fair job presenting a new gameplay style to the series.


Publisher: Sony
Developer: Sucker Punch
MSRP: $59.99
by: Jason "Origami Panther" Love

Comics and action movies once had that one moment in the course of events when the hero would leap from a ledge/building/helicopter to a different ledge/building/helicopter. It would be a tense moment where you’d wonder whether the hero would make it or fall, but, of course, the hero made the jump and went on to beat the bad guy/save the world/escape from rockets. This became such an iconic technique that it was parodied and, eventually, replaced by the hero missing the leap. inFamous 2 - like its predecessor - takes many of its cues from those comics and action movies, quite successfully in many cases; yet does it make the metaphorical leap, or does it fall spectacularly to the ground below?

Compared to the original inFamous, inFamous 2 has made the kind of improvements you want to see in a sequel – or any action game, for that matter. Our hero, Cole McGrath, can get around the new setting of New Marais a lot easier thanks to vertical launch pipes; an enhancement to your static thruster ability that allows you to float farther and longer; and a later ability that allows you to grapple from building to building like some kind of web-slinging guy. The other powers have also gone through an overhaul to make you feel more like a super-powered individual, like being able to pick up and hurl objects at your foes. There really is nothing more satisfying than when you hurl a car at a helicopter and watch it explode. Of course, with great power comes great moral decisions, and this is where the game turns.

Cole is faced with a number of choices throughout the game about which path – light or dark – to choose, each of which is championed by two of the game’s protagonists and their own super powers. Choose the path of good and Cole gains access to complimentary ice abilities that focus more on halting foes instead of stopping them dead, while the path of dark leads to pure fire-based destruction. Both sets of abilities are well executed and introduce some interesting game changes, but the decisions that lead you to them are where the flaws start to appear. Some of the decisions fit in with the overall story arc, which sees Cole preparing to face a powerful entity known as the Beast and what he’s willing to do to get there, but the rest are questionable. For a character focused on defeating the Beast and saving the world, why would he just randomly decide to beat up on some police officers or innocent street performers? How does this help him at all? In the end, inFamous 2’s greatest downfall is that its characters are still flawed and rarely come off as little more than one-dimensional caricatures of action stereotypes.

So, does inFamous 2 make it to the ledge, or does it plummet? From my viewpoint, the game is hanging on with one hand and is starting to pull itself up. From others, though, it could be argued that it’s slipping…


Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: Gearbox, 3D Realms
MSRP: $59.99
by: Nicholas "BAPenguin" Puleo

It may have been the longest running joke in the videogame industry, but Duke Nukem Forever has finally arrived thanks to the helpful hand of Gearbox Software. The studio’s president, Randy Pitchford, told the press before the release that the game was as 3D Realms intended, their job was only to finish it. Twelve years is a long time for anything to be in development, whether it’s a movie, book, or a videogame - the culture in which that content was built on changes during that time. Duke Nukem Forever clearly suffers from its long development.

I’m pretty sure the second level may be one of the only things Gearbox actually helped create, as almost the entire thing is a bit of fan service as you walk Duke through a museum of himself admiring his past achievements and cracking jokes about past games.  It's one of the few parts that have actual jokes about things within the past few years.  But the jarring reality of what Duke Nukem Forever is occurs 3 seconds in, as the first action you actually do is piss in a urinal. While you jump right into the action with a boss fight, It’s a good 25 minutes afterwards till you actually shoot something - though in typical Duke 3D fashion there’s plenty to mess around with - pool tables, faucets, televisions. The problem here is, while these gimmicky things were amazing at one point in videogames, now they are just the norm.

I do commend Duke Forever to some degree on its level design, something most FPS games don’t seem to do well anymore. There’s a whole puzzle element to getting from point a to point b -and while you may see your path almost immediately, there’s never a clear cut way to get there. Some sections of the game are almost entirely too long in this manner though, and so it falters. Others you simply become lost in a repeated maze of similar geometry, unsure if you went this way or that.

The bottom line for Duke Nukem Forever is the game is down right offensive at times. It takes things too far and touches subjects that a videogame probably shouldn’t try to touch. There’s more intelligent ways to make a joke in a game about numerous adult subjects, but the blatant crudeness of some of the jokes are cringeworthy. For the most part, I was unable to play the game with my wife in the room, not for fear of offending her, but because I was embarrassed to play the game.

When all is said and done, Duke Nukem Forever really never had hope to be a great game. Twelve years takes its toll on things, and while I did get some enjoyment out of what I played and felt a tiny bit of nostalgia, I’d rather just go back and play Duke Nukem 3D in co-op to get my fix.