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The Tech Deck

How about Nerf guns?

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In my semi-professional opinion: More offices need Nerf guns as a part of their operation procedures. It’s a fun community/team building past time! That is as long as people don’t get out of control.

Head back to ‘96 in Tamriel with ‘Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall’ for free

Are you a gamer? Do you like free things? Of course you do!

We here at the Tech Deck are just like you - poor gamers looking for a good deal. And you can't beat no price tag.

So we'll be on the lookout for games offered sans cost around the Internet. If you see a deal we should feature on the blog, contact us at dang@spokesman.com or kiph@spokesman.com.

This week, we're spotlighting the RPG classic “Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall” for the PC. Click here to download the game for free, legally, from Bethesda Softworks, and go inside the blog to read and talk about this classic title.

Last-minute holiday buying guide for parents of gamers

To parents of young gamers, the holiday shopping season can seem a minefield. Which games will work with your kid's console? Which titles are appropriate for young eyes? Well, parents, worry not; this last-minute gift guide will help you navigate the ESRB ratings and the gaming jargon to ensure that your child sheds tears of joy, not sorrow, after they desecrate your thoughtful wrapping job to reveal that brand new game.

You'll first want to verify the gaming console (a.k.a. platform) that your child uses. Since the dawn of the gaming medium, a huge amount of consoles have released, but chances are your kid is using one of the rigs listed below. So blow the dust off of that mysterious black (or white) box in the living room, or that strange folding piece of plastic on his/her bed-stand, and compare it to the pictures below.

Now it's time to figure out which compatible games your kid will enjoy. Under the appropriate sub-headings, you'll find games that work with each console, arranged by age-appropriateness. Keep in mind that games listed under younger age categories may also appeal to older children depending on their interests.

Also, many of the titles described below are “multi-platform” games, which means that they are available on more than one console. Be sure that you check the telltale colored band at the top of the game box for a clear indication of which console that particular disc will work with, and ask an employee if you're confused.

Finally, take a moment to familiarize yourself with the ESRB ratings scale. This system was developed by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board and is the primary method of content rating for games, akin to the MPAA for films. Games are actually rated on a six-level scale, but two of these levels aren't represented in this guide. Here are the important ones:

E for “Everyone” - Titles rated E are deemed appropriate for all ages.

E10+ for “Everyone 10 and up” - Titles rated E10+ are deemed appropriate for everyone age 10 and older.

T for “Teen” - Titles rated T are deemed appropriate for everyone age 13 and older.

M for “Mature” - Titles rated M are deemed appropriate for everyone age 17 and older.

Now you're ready to shop.

 

Playing ‘The Dark Below’ in Bungie’s ‘Destiny’


  

The first expansion for Bungie's monster hit 'Destiny' has arrived for Playstation and Xbox gamers this week. While I've had precious little time to delve into the new missions, I'll be sharing my experience with gamers as I work to ultimately unlock the expansion's meatiest content, the new Raid mission.

If you've purchased 'The Dark Below,' the first thing you'll do is head to a new quest giver in the tower, Eris Morn. Eris says lots of horrifying things about how some Hive god named Crota is going to destroy Earth. If you care about the story in Destiny (you're probably one of three people,) this will all sound familiar. I breezed through the introductory cinematic video, grabbed some bounties and headed to the Cosmodrome.

The first of three “quests” in the new expansion will probably take you less than 20 minutes, if you're a seasoned Destiny pro. The difficulty level for Eris's task begin at Level 26, so if you haven't bought the expansion and you're still slogging to level 20 it may be worth waiting a week or two and see if the content goes down in price.

You fight a wave of high-level Thrall and Acolytes, grinding your way through the Refinery portion of the Cosmodrome that Strike players will instantly recognize as the main setting for 'The Devil's Lair.' What's different is that you'll head to the catacombs, armed with a blade that controls exactly like the Sword of Crota in the Moon story mission and public event, to take on the quest's third boss, an acolyte of the god Crota.

This son of a gun will put a spell on you that keeps you from using your vertical movement enhancements. That's right, no thrust or double jump. And he'll use the blade to send rays of dark energy along the ground, meaning you'll have to strafe to survive. At Level 28, I counted at least 40 shots from my legendary, fully upgraded Hand Cannon to take him down.

Bungie should be commended for adding some elements to the story mission that mimic the shifting game mechanics from its raids (If you haven't seen me fail at the Vault of Glass, there's video of that on the Tech Deck, too). But as I've said before, the expansions and events offered in Destiny will only be your cup of tea if you enjoy the shooting and RPG elements of the title, which have been largely divisive.

Check back next week for more on 'The Dark Below.'

More details about Pac-Man than you could shake a stick at

I'm not old enough to have enjoyed Pac-Man during its heyday, but I am old enough to have had it on my Atari. I'm also old enough to have been around people who really dug it. (Somewhat related, our online director, Gina, is apparently a Ms. Pac-Man fiend. Challenge her at your next opportunity.)

But no one dug it as much as Jamey Pittman, author of the Pac-Man Dossier, digs it. It's a gold mine for anyone interested in perfecting the art of the Pac-Man marathon. History of the game, information about each of the ghosts and their patterns, technical glitches, pixel accuracy of collisions, the Pac-Man Dossier has it all.

Consider this tidbit:

Whenever Pac-Man makes a pre-turn or post-turn, his orientation changes, and he starts to move one pixel in his new direction for every pixel traveled in his old direction, effectively doubling his speed as he moves at a 45 degree angle. Once he reaches the centerline of the new direction's path, he starts moving purely in that direction and his speed returns to normal. The greatest distance advantage is thereby gained by making the earliest pre-turn possible. The illustration below shows the layout of pre-turn pixels (shown in green), center point pixels (shown in yellow), and post-turn pixels (shown in red) for each of the four possible directions a turn can be approached. Each example shows Pac-Man entering the same four-way intersection from a different direction. When entering from the left, there are three pre-turn pixels before the center of the turn, and four post-turn pixels. Conversely, entering the same intersection from the right yields four pre-turn pixels and three post-turn ones. Entering from the top as opposed to the bottom exhibits the same property. For any turn that is made later than the earliest possible pre-turn, Pac-Man will be one frame behind where he would be for every pixel of “lateness” in the turn. Basically, it pays to move the joystick well before reaching a turn to maximize your speed

What the what did I just read.

The Pac-Man Dossier is a competitive gamer's fantasy

I encourage you to check it out.

Aspiring city planners offered ‘SimCity’ for free

Are you a gamer? Do you like free things? Of course you do!

We here at the Tech Deck are just like you - poor gamers looking for a good deal. And you can't beat no price tag.

So we'll be on the lookout for games offered sans cost around the Internet. If you see a deal we should feature on the blog, contact us at dang@spokesman.com or kiph@spokesman.com.

First up? The Maxis classic SimCity 2000, with the Urban Renewal Kit add-on, from Electronic Arts' digital delivery service Origin.

Click here to download SimCity 2000. You'll need to register with the site using an email address, 2 gigs of hard drive space and 512 MB of RAM.

Do you have a favorite SimCity memory? I used to make highways that led into the middle of the ocean. City planning was never my forte.

Check back periodically with the Tech Deck for new, free games.

A UFO attacks a SimCity
Man, I bet this never happened to Eldridge Lovelace. (Source: Origin).

How about Zombies?

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The world falls dark as the power plant is overrun. You hear a helicopter in the distance. Get to it first and get out of here! The only thing stopping you is a horde of zombies and your crazed, probably bitten friends. Can you survive?

‘GTAV’ worth double-dipping?

Title: Grand Theft Auto V
Genre: Open-world crime simulator
Platform reviewed on: Playstation 4 (also on Xbox One, Playstation 3 and Xbox 360, $59.99)
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar North
Release Date: Nov. 18, 2014 (current-gen edition)

Warning: This review discusses a game that is rated “M” for Mature. The gameplay video and screenshots below may be inappropriate for children.

What can be said about Rockstar's massive Grand Theft Auto franchise, and its shimmering latest edition, that hasn't already been said?

If the game's publisher is to be believed, plenty.

GTAV for the current generation of consoles arrives in the grubby mitts of gamers with a brand new paint job, to be sure. Los Santos has never looked more gorgeous, its quirky inhabitants never so believable. Perhaps the most enjoyment I've had from the game so far is playing through a rather uneventful mission where one of three protagonists, Michael, is racing his ne'er-do-well son on a bike down the game's proxy of Venice Beach.


The rain and weather effects in GTAV are some of the most realistic in all of gaming.

As you weave in and out of joggers, skateboarders and the general riff-raff of this fictional version of Southern California, they'll jeer at you, yap at each other about popular culture and generally just go about their day. This is the most immersive sandbox in the history of sandbox gaming, and Rockstar makes it even more so by offering first-person mode for the (mostly) first time in the franchise.

Because the controls are wonky, you'll probably end up playing GTAV the classic way if you're a hardcore gamer going for the game's gold medals. You won't spend much time in first-person mode, and that's a shame. It's a completely new perspective that offers gamers a new, if at times wonky, way of viewing the mayhem that is the Grand Theft Auto franchise.

In addition to the new perspective, Rockstar has hidden extra goodies around Los Santos and surrounding Blaine County, offering newcomers unique rewards and players working their way through Rockstar's epic a second time even more fun stuff. There's peyote plants to look for, which spawn animal-centric minigames, and street art mosaics to photograph around Los Santos.


The so-called “monkey mosaics” are on of the new collectibles in the latest version of GTAV.

This is all to say nothing of the new player cap in Grand Theft Auto Online, the addictive multiplayer component to GTAV that had an exceptionally rough launch. Heists still haven't been delivered yet (hurry up, Rockstar) but now 30 players, a huge bump from the original 16, can tear around Los Santos together. What has become a smooth and player-friendly online experience in the year since GTAV launched on last-gen consoles invites players who were jilted the first time back into the fray.

The game's first-person mode is also fully functional in GTA: Online.


Car interiors are fully animated, including when furry friends are along for the ride.

I can't recommend one of my favorite games of all time enough to new console owners. There's plenty here to make double-dipping an option you can feel OK about, and to be honest, do you really want this title missing from your library?

Verdict: 5/5 stars

Next ‘Street Fighter’ a PS4/PC exclusive?

The Internet is abuzz this morning after Japanese developer Capcom posted a teaser trailer for Street Fighter V (apparently prematurely, since it has now been set to private on YouTube) that indicated the next installment in the massive franchise would be a Playstation 4 console exclusive.

The Tech Deck is not posting the trailer as it has been taken down. But a quick Google search should get you the 30 second footage that includes a bout on a well-lit street between franchise favorites Ryu and Chun-Li. Stark, black paintstrokes show fast movement in a stylistic design that hews closely to the artistic style of Street Fighter IV.

The screen explodes in a signature hadouken move from Ryu, revealing the Street Fighter V logo and the words “Exclusively on PS4 and PC,” as a deliciously retro MIDI tune plays in the background.

Speculation is Capcom meant to announce the title as part of the Playstation Experience event kicking off tomorrow for two days in Las Vegas. Capcom is a confirmed studio that will appear at the event, which will also feature new content from Batman: Arkham Knight, Destiny's new expansion The Dark Below and Mortal Kombat X. Naughty Dog's Uncharted 4 will also be featured on the showroom floor, according to Sony.

What do you think about a console-exclusive Street Fighter? I haven't played any of the games since the pizza grease stuck to my hands flicking joysticks on Street Fighter II in the early 1990s, but if the news is true, it's clear the console wars are once again heating up.

Source: Giphy.

Local indie dev preps a pair of wildly different titles

Spokane isn't exactly known as a hotspot for indie game development, but pockets of Washingtonian creativity do exist east of the Cascades. Take, for instance, the Spokesman's own Andrew Smith, who recently introduced himself as a new contributor to the Tech Deck blog. An avid lover of games all his life, Smith has been a part of a multitude of indie development studio start-ups.

Now, he's settled down with his wife, Jackie. Alongside his YouTube Let's Play channel, he's ventured into the realm of totally independent game development. He and his wife have crafted a pair of working game prototypes that he hopes to complete and publish. Over the course of the past week, Andy gave me the chance to play through both of these early working versions. Below are my impressions of each.

 

What to play tonight?

Board games and tabletop games are fun boiled down to their basic components. In this blog we are here to figure out which games are packed full of good solid fun. Hope you enjoy my reviews and I look forward to hearing your responses.

‘Kings’ of the old-school

Title: Mercenary Kings
Genre: Platform action/shoot ‘em up    
Platform reviewed on: Playstation 4 ($8.99, also available on PC, Mac)
Developer: Tribute Games
Publisher: Tribute Games
Release Date: March 25, 2014

I never poured quarters in a Neo/Geo machine for Metal Slug action in the 1990s. I was always too busy playing the Ninja Turtles arcade game a few cabinets down.

But the Konami Code is etched in my memory forever from bouts of Contra on the Nintendo Entertainment System, and the side-scrolling platformer has always been a fond favorite of mine.

Enter “Mercenary Kings,” the love song to Metal Slug and the old-style shoot ‘em ups. Developer Tribute Games, makers of the beloved Scott Pilgrim vs. The World RPG, have lovingly re-created what gamers loved about those titles, while also carrying over the baggage that can make them frustrating slogs at times.


Guns, guns, guns.

The game’s oh-so-good retro soundtrack is on display from the loading screen, welcoming you to the action with an explosion and guttural “MERCENARY KINGS!” that will warm the cockles of your heart every time you log-in. From there, you pick a male or female character model and jump right into the thick of the story with up to three friends in couch co-op. Internet co-op play is available, but a bit confusing to launch.

The ridiculous plot, introducing you to over-the-top characters like a coffee-addicted general and a sentient helicopter, is really just a means to the satisfying end of gunplay in the title. Retro sound effects can be grating at times, but generally serve their purpose. Though the game leans heavily on its 16-bit forebears, the art style - like in Scott Pilgrim - is charming and will grow on you during the 10+ hour campaign.

There have to be safer ways to ride a helicopter.

What won’t grow on you is the need for backtracking, and the maddening migration of stage bosses. You’ll wear a giant mechanized foe out (evidenced by the genre’s must-have flashing-red cue), then stand by helplessly as it retreats to another part of the game’s relatively few maps. All the stages take place in the same (approximately) eight environments, which means you’ll become bored with the scenery rather quickly as you work to complete the title’s 112 main story missions.


Real men wear pink.

The monotony is offset somewhat by the ability to completely design your weapon. Want a shotgun-style firearm that delivers devastating, icy blows but long reload times? Go right ahead. Prefer a fiery machine gun with a barrel that resembles a beehive? You can do that, too. You’ll earn cold-hard cash in each mission that can be spent on weapon and cosmetic player upgrades that mince enemies more quickly (in glorifyingly gory ways) and build toward trophies. There’s also an in-game resource system that allows you to unlock more weapon types and accessories for your character.

While it won’t suck your time like a Destiny or Grand Theft Auto V, “Mercenary Kings” is an excellent complement to an early-adopting PS4 gamer’s library if only because it offers one of the console’s few satisfying couch co-op experiences.

Verdict: 3/5 stars

We’re going to mars!

I don't know if you were paying attention to the Twitters this morning, but NASA started off the morning with an awesome announcement:

We're sending humans to Mars! Watch our #JourneytoMars briefing live today at 12pm ET: http://t.co/6XtjOi1yJo #Orion pic.twitter.com/wrf89sn35A

— NASA (@NASA) December 2, 2014

This is the most exciting announcement out of NASA for an entire generation, the first deep space program since the Apollo missions landed on the moon.

Per NASA.gov:

In the not-too-distant future, astronauts destined to be the first people to walk on Mars will leave Earth aboard an Orion spacecraft. Carried aloft by the tremendous power of a Space Launch System rocket, our explorers will begin their Journey to Mars from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, carrying the spirit of humanity with them to the Red Planet.

The first future human mission to Mars and those that follow will require the ingenuity and dedication of an entire generation. It's a journey worth the risks. We take the next step on that journey this Thursday, Dec. 4, with the uncrewed, first flight test of Orion.

Sure, they're projecting 2030-ish before it actually happens, but there is a lot of work to be done between now and then. The only problem I have with any of it is that I will be in my 50s, far too late to train for the trip, so I'll have to decline when NASA shows up at my door asking me to be the commander of the mission.

Light saber escalation

Light sabers are getting crazier and crazier.

Tackling the Vault of Glass in ‘Destiny’

Title: Destiny

Genre: First-person “persistent online shooter”

Platform Reviewed On: Playstation 4

Developer: Bungie

Publisher: Activision

Release Date: Sept. 9, 2014

I entered the Vault of Glass this weekend. And I did not survive.

 

Playing the only Raid currently available for Destiny is a lot like picking up an entirely new game. Don’t get me wrong, the same enemy types will swarm you, the gunplay is still utterly satisfying and the locales aren’t really all that new. But the Vault of Glass is one of the toughest challenges I’ve faced in gaming, and at times it feels nothing like the 48 or so hours I’ve already put into the game.

 

Partly because I have few Playstation friends who’ve yet picked up the game, and partly because of Bungie’s stubborness on matchmaking for the game type (you’ll need at least a few level 26 friends who are interested in venturing into the Vault of Glass just to launch the mission; you’ll need five if you want to survive), I’d yet to open the giant door that leads to Destiny’s toughest challenge until this weekend, nearly 3 months after the game’s release. Even though I died more times than I care to admit and my journey was ultimately unsuccessful, I can’t recommend this mission enough as it truly shows the potential of what Bungie is trying to create.

 

Fireteam prepares to enter the Vault of Glass
You'll need four or five high-rank friends to successfully enter the Vault.

 

You begin with a simple enough task: Open the Vault. It took me and my five fireteam members (I woke at 7 a.m. Sunday to play with gamers halfway across the world, where it was 11 p.m. That’s how committed I was to playing this game type) an hour to simply do this.The six-member fireteam maximum is not a suggestion, it’s a mandate. There are three zones you need to control against a wave of level-26 Vex enemies, and losing one of them for even a second can derail up to four minutes of solid control. It’s a frustrating precursor to the evils that await below.

 

Our fireteam made it to the next challenge room, which throws balls of light called “Oracles” at you, a new enemy type, that appear during musical cues in the game’s soundtrack. These jerks will hit you with a mark that adds a shader to your HUD, and you’re informed that if you don’t “cleanse” yourself in the center of the map it means instant death at various intervals. It took our team about five playthroughs to figure this out, then another six or seven to completely wipe out the oracles.

 

Kip lines up a Praetorian headshot with his sniper rifle
Expect a ton of high-level enemies gunning for you.

 

We were derailed when we finally fought the underboss, a Hydra whose impermeable shield will only drop if a player hits him with a blast from a shield relic that must be charged. At the same time, oracles are still marking you for death and there are enough Vex harpies flying overhead to make you crave open airspace.
  

After our 10th attempt, our friend across the globe said he had to say goodnight. It was 3 a.m. there. We’d been playing for four hours and still hadn’t reached the final boss of the raid.
  

My team and I have plans to tackle the challenge once more after Thanksgiving. And while I’ve never swore at much as a video game as I did at 8 a.m. Sunday, I can’t wait to go back for more.

Come and get your love
Come and get your love (GIF made by Somewhat Awesome Games).
  

The Ten Best Licensed Games of the Eighth Console Generation

Licensed video games have garnered a universally low quality standard; their rushed development cycles to meet narrow release windows result, more often than not, in products that are middling at best. An argument could be made that this trend changed at some point during the last generation of consoles. Though a multitude of mediocre licensed games were released on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii, the eighth console generation brought with it a batch of truly great licensed video games that signal hope for a niche that was previously lacking in the area. Here are, in my humble opinion, the ten best licensed video games to grace the eighth console generation.

 

 

‘Strider’: Classic platforming made new

Title:  Strider

Platform reviewed on: Playstation 4 (Digital-only, $14.99, also available on PS3, Xbox 360, Xbox One)

Developer: Double Helix Games

Publisher: Capcom

Release Date: Feb. 18, 2014

The last several years have seen a renaissance in the 2-D, action platformer genre. Updates to once-proud franchises like Kirby’s Dreamland, Donkey Kong Country, Bionic Commando and even Super Mario Bros. have shot up the sales charts and softened critics’ three-dimensional biases.
  

As a Nintendo gamer in my youth, I never had my hands on Capcom’s classic hack-and-slash ‘Strider’ franchise, which released in the height of the ninja craze ushered in by titles like Ninja Gaiden. The 2014 release is meant to be a re-telling of the original game in the franchise, with a sheen of Metroidvania gameplay. It largely succeeds, though difficulty scaling is a bit wonky and level design makes collectible hunting frustrating and unsatisfying.
 ​

You play as the titular Strider Hiryu, a bionically enhanced superninja sent to the dystopian Kazakh City as the 12th operative attempting to slay dictator Grandmaster Meio. Along the way, you’ll slay dozens of peon soliders, robotic monstrosities and chemically engineered baddies with your cypher, a sword that can be upgraded throughout the roughly 4-hour affair to inflict explosive, magnetic and ice damage. In the Metroidvania tradition, upgrading your cypher and other abilities enables you to reach portions of the map previously unaccessible and progress through the game.

 


Yes, you go into space. I know that's weird.

  

What makes the Metroid and Castlevania series work is their non-reliance on duplicative backtracking. If you’re simply playing ‘Strider’ for the story progression (and - you’ve been warned - the narrative is about as bare bones as it gets), you won’t run into this problem. But, if you’re a trophy/achievement hound like me, you’ll want to discover every nook and cranny of the largely bland Kazakh City. The sameness of the level design and the interesting choices about exactly where you can access one area of the city from the next make this process a chore.
  

Difficulty scaling is also an issue in ‘Strider.’ You’ll strike down dozens of faceless enemies that are minor annoyances in corridors leading to important rooms, but battles with bosses and sub-bosses require pattern recognition that takes at least one playthrough to master, even on the normal difficulty. The result is about 20 minutes of frenzied fun swordplay followed by a 30-minute slog to kill one enemy. The pacing just doesn’t feel right.

 


If the enemies get too tough, feel free to just hang out.

  

Still, count ‘Strider’ among the fine two-dimensional remakes that give a new generation of console fans a glimpse of gaming’s golden yesteryears.
  

Verdict: 3.5/5 stars

What needs to change with ‘Assassin’s Creed’?

I'm a huge fan of the Assassin's Creed series. Ever since being roped in by the beautiful Assassin's Creed II (which remains one of my favorite games of all time), I've gone on to play each subsequent major entry in the franchise. Out of love for the series, I even went back and worked my way through the heavily dated first installment. And against all good judgment, I pre-ordered the latest entry, Assassin's Creed: Unity, out of trust in the brand to deliver what I was looking for.

But Unity faced a shockingly lukewarm reception upon its release, prompting widespread questions as to whether Ubisoft's annual release schedule had begun to impede upon the quality of its flagship franchise.

Prior to Unity, Ubisoft had already garnered significant flack for their annualization of the series, which began with the release of Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood in 2010. The schedule has shown no signs of slowing down - let alone stopping - since. From a financial perspective, who can blame Ubisoft for this move? Activision has the consistent success of industry juggernaut Call of Duty to rely on year after year. Electronic Arts has the competing Battlefield series, as well as a myriad of licensed sports franchises that rake in mounds of cash on an annual basis. The first Assassin's Creed was the game that brought Ubisoft out of limbo and into the status of a publishing giant. So it makes sense that they'd want to capitalize on that success as frequently as possible.

 A screen from 'Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood,' the first annualized entry in the series.

Gamers are wary of annual releases for the lack of iteration often associated with them, but Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed franchise has remained unpredictable despite its yearly releases. It has taken us from the imposing beauty of 17th century Constantinople to the height of the American Revolution and into the waves of the Atlantic aboard fierce pirate vessels. It has continually refined its signature free-running mechanics, improved its once-clunky controls, grown exponentially prettier with each release, and introduced novel new concepts like naval combat, tower defense, complicated trade networks, and assassin disciples. Not all of these changes worked well, but one could hardly argue that the series has gone annual at the expense of its ingenuity or innovation.

As a result, arguments against Ubisoft's annualization of the series have, before now, failed to gain much traction; the games in the Assassin's Creed series were simply maintaining too high a quality standard to serve as legitimate evidence that a change in the publisher's behavior need occur.

Until now. The criticisms leveled at Ubisoft's latest blockbuster have been harsh and unrelenting — and mostly not leveled at the game itself. Instead, the backlash has been centered on three things in particular: lack of polish, obnoxious social integration, and the presence of microtransactions.

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare brings more of the same

Title:  Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare
Platform reviewed on: Playstation 4
Developer: Sledgehammer Games
Publisher: Activision
Release Date: Nov. 4,  2014

It would be difficult to overstate the influence the first-person shooter genre has had on gaming. While competitive gamers traditionally flock to fighters, the advent of AAA, high-production value blockbusters in the industry can be most fairly attributed to the decision to pin the player's vision behind the barrel of a gun and throw enemies in front of them to shoot.

And among those franchises most responsible for the bombastic state of online console shooters today has to be Call of Duty, the series whose origins lie in the height of World War II. But with 2007's Modern Warfare title, the franchise burst into the present day and hasn't looked back since.

Mech suit walking underwater

I mean, really, what would advanced warfare be without an underwater mech suit battle?

Advanced Warfare has developer Sledgehammer Games, the team behind Modern Warfare 3, thrusting players into the near future. Ballistic guns are still the main weapons in the game, but new metal suits that grant the player bionic abilities make their appearance to presumably alter the gameplay, and Academy Award winner Kevin Spacey is on hand to provide the title some gravitas.

How unfortunate, then, that Advanced Warfare doesn't feel advanced at all, and in some respects weighs down the franchise. While the campaign is undoubtedly slick and highly polished, and Spacey's performance elevates the usually drudgery of Call of Duty stories, there's not enough here to justify a truly next-gen experience in the franchise.

You play as Jack Mitchell, a Marine who loses his arm – and a dear friend – in the game's opening moments, an assault on South Korea by North Korean forces. In true Call of Duty fashion, we're never really given enough time to forge a relationship with this character whose death is supposed to drive much of Mitchell's motivation throughout the game. The death is just one of a series of “weighty moments” that continue to fall flat in the series.

The character models in 'Advanced Warfare' are some of the most detailed in gaming history.

None of those letdowns can be placed on the shoulders of Spacey, who plays Jonathan Irons, the father of Mitchell's slain comrade. Irons, as head of the Atlas Corp., gives Mitchell a new arm and trains him to become a supersoldier, carrying out contracts for the company. What unfolds over the next 12-13 hours is what we've come to expect in the franchise: Go here, kill these guys, then learn allies are foes and foes are allies. Rinse and repeat.

This is not to say Sledgehammer has not created a technically sound backdrop for this meandering and familiar play to take place. Shooting is still just as satisfying in Advanced Warfare as it's ever been, and the game is significantly sped up and made more aerial with the addition of “exo suit” abilities. Want to get over a flaming car? Just use your boost jump. Use a harpoon-looking grapple that shoots out of your wrist to scale buildings. A cloak ability renders you almost invisible with a “Predator”-like hazy silhouette, perfect for avoiding enemy patrols.

The problem is that not all of these abilities are always available. The game invents a mechanic to make only a few available at any given time (two different types of suits) and the mission design constricts the way you play. While there are some stand-out stealth moments in Advanced Warfare, none of them come close to the “All Ghillied Up” mission in the original Modern Warfare. Sledgehammer continues to hold your hand throughout, giving you tons of toys to play with but only narrow windows in which to bring them out of the box.

Prisoners in transport

Hmm. It's almost as if Sledgehammer included this sequence as a metaphor for how they tie your hands in gameplay.

That criticism does not hold for Advanced Warfare's multiplayer suite, arguably the reason most Call of Duty fans continue to buy the latest game in the franchise every year. Back are favorite game modes like traditional Team Deathmatch, Kill Confirmed and Domination, each with the particular twists of the exo suits subtly changing how you will play. Advanced Warfare feels much faster than its predecessors, and the customization options are opened up by allowing players to pick which exo suit abilities they want in their loadouts. However, the game also feels familiar enough online that franchise veterans will feel right at home, and if you hate the exo suits there are playlists that disable their abilities as well as the classic “hardcore” game modes with limited heads-up display and friendly fire damage.

Call of Duty franchise fans will get more of what they crave in this newest installment of the now-annual blockbuster series. But don't expect it to carry the lofty weight of the promise in its title.

Verdict: 3/5 stars

Narrative gets left behind in ‘The Last of Us’ DLC

Title: The Last of Us: Left Behind

Genre: Third-person stealth/shooter

Platform Reviewed On: PlayStation 4

Developer: Naughty Dog

Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment

Release Date: February 14, 2014

Warning: I recommend that you play 'The Last of Us' before playing 'Left Behind' or reading this review. Spoilers for the base game follow. You have been warned.

In Naughty Dog’s post-apocalyptic masterpiece, The Last of Us, gameplay and narrative are symbiotic from the start. From the moment players take control of Joel, every one of his actions feels irrevocably tied to the story the game tells; almost every button press feels like a strengthening of the bond between Joel and Ellie.

By contrast, much of The Last of Us’s story-driven DLC, Left Behind, feels pointless. Left Behind remains an audio-visual treat, packing the The Last of Us’s stunning visuals and subtle, moody soundtrack, and retaining the great gameplay from the base game. Unfortunately, the DLC stumbles most where The Last of Us excelled so totally: in the area of narrative.

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