Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Splinter Cell: Blacklist (Preview)

Spring 2013
Xbox 360, PS3, Wii U, Windows

Developed by Ubisoft Toronto

Published by Ubisoft

Join Sam Fisher again as you protect the country from terrorist scum in Splinter Cell: Blacklist

The Splinter Cell series has been one of my favorite game series for awhile now.  I love being stealthy, even in games that don't focus on stealth, and Splinter Cell has always done a great job with stealth gameplay.  The most recent entry into the series, Conviction, focused more on mobility and stealth rather than the pure stealth of earlier games, and this new entry into the series is continuing that theme.

This latest foray into the Splinter Cell universe has the previous covert organization that Sam Fisher, the protagonist, worked for dissolved only to have a new organization created with Sam as the boss.  A new terrorist threat called the Blacklist has emerged in which twelve terrorists have created a deadly countdown of escalating terrorist attacks, and the President has given Sam and his team full freedom to stop this threat using any means necessary.  I've loved all the other Splinter Cell main plots and this one sounds very promising too. 

If you'd just told me where the bathroom was, we wouldn't be in this mess. Splinter Cell: Blacklist (2013)
Watching any preview for this game, players of any previous Splinter Cell games will notice an immediate difference, namely that Sam Fisher has a new voice actor.  The previous voice actor, Michael Ironside, decided he should "pass the torch" onto a new actor with Ubisoft choosing Eric Johnson to reprise the role.  Now, I am saddened that Mr. Ironside will no longer be voicing Sam and I will forever feel that he is Sam's "real" voice, but I understand that these things happen and Eric Johnson does a good job, at least in the material I have seen.

The gameplay footage above shows a very mobile, combat-heavy run through of a demo level.  A lot of fans have been up in arms about this because it seems like stealth has been sacrificed for action (which many fans also complained about in Conviction but still enjoyed it anyway).  While the game can be played this way in many instances, this is not a valid criticism of the game as demonstrated in the video below.

The developers decided to give the player a lot of choice in how to play the game.  You can either be very stealthy and slip by without disrupting anyone, or you can go in guns blazing and leave corpses as your call sign.  It's your choice and I'm glad the developers gave players that option.  Now whether there are any benefits or bonuses to being stealthy we will have to wait and see, but I wouldn't be surprised if they included some just to encourage people to play more stealthily than they otherwise would.

I'm looking forward to this game and am definitely putting it on my watch list. We still have several months before the game comes out so expect more videos, news, and screenshots to be released.  I hope they show off improvements to the NPC's AI and whether the player makes any story choices like in Double Agent, but so far it looks fun and it will be great to take control of Sam Fisher again.

Words by Josh Matern

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Grand Theft Auto or: How I Learned To Steal Cars and Love the Series

Last week I posted another preview for Grand Theft Auto V. After basking in the new trailer I am more excited than ever for Rockstar's upcoming game in the (in)famous series. With this latest (and I predict greatest) installment of Grand Theft Auto approaching, I've thought about the games that brought it to where it is today and my personal relationship with them. What follows is my love letter to the GTA games. There will be some (constructive) criticism, but mostly this is exploring how the series has evolved over the years and the experiences I have had playing several of them.

You could run down the sidewalk with an assault rifle and body armor from the very beginning. Grand Theft Auto (1997)
This year we celebrate the 15th anniversary of the original Grand Theft Auto developed by DMA Design (now known as Rockstar North). It was first released on computer in Europe. From the series' top-down roots, it had the same sandbox feel that that attracts so many players to its shores even to this day. It was always a game where you were a thug on the streets who could work his way up the ranks of gangsterdom through "missions" or you could just run amok throughout the city, blowing up cars, running over pedestrians, and getting the attention  of the police. And of course, hijacking a car was just a button-press away. By always having a control devoted to stealing vehicles, it's no wonder the series has always kept the name Grand Theft Auto.

Exploding cars was a class back in "old school" too. Grand Theft Auto 2 (1999)
I did not have a PS2 when so many were ranting and raving about Grand Theft Auto III, though I realized the number on the end must mean there were at least two before it (how about that assessment Sherlock?).  Plus, I am somewhat of a completionist as a gamer. I like to play from the beginning of a series (as we almost always do with literature and film) to see firsthand how story, game mechanics and technology progresses.  And so my personal devotion to the series goes back to Grand Theft Auto 2, but even after that I've gone back to sample the original and even its British-based spin-off, London, 1969. The phone-booth based missions of these earlier games are easily overshadowed in my memories of a nighttime street strewn with the smoldering remains of Beamers and taxi cabs. Years before Grand Theft Auto 2, a friend and I used to cause pile-ups in imaginary intersections on the living room floor with our Hot Wheels. This game let us cause similar havoc in a fully simulated sandbox. We had grown up, but so had our toys. Even today it's fun to play.

Aerial views, animated frames for cut-scenes, and touch controls. Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars (2009)
In recent years they revisited their own past with Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars. It is somewhat of a callback to the earlier games with its aerial viewpoints, though it brought along plenty of change to the experience. For one thing thing, you use touch controls to perform any number of tasks, including jacking a car (see above). Also, for the first time you get to assume the role of an Asian protagonist, Huang Lee. Chinatown has frequently appeared throughout the series, though this time it is all the more meaningful. GTA: Chinatown Wars is widely considered among the best handheld games of the last generation.

You play as silent protagonist Claude on the streets of Liberty City. Grand Theft Auto III (2001)
I will always consider Grand Theft Auto III to be one of the most influential games of all-time. It appeared on the PlayStation 2 (where the next two games would debut before better versions would later appear on Xbox and PC) back in 2001. GTA III set a new standard for open-world (though "open-city" is far more appropriate a term in this case, more on these semantics in that future post that I will reference at the end) and sandbox game experiences. We were no longer an omniscient yet distant player looking down at ant-sized action, we were down and in the game leading a character around though intimate third-person perspective in a city that seemed to function whether or not we were there. Does a falling member of a forest make a sound if no one is around to hear it? Does Liberty City keep on keepin' on when I'm in the corner of the map, inside a building, or even have the game turned off? A decade ago this New York-esque city was alive, vibrant, and exciting. Games have come so far since then, but I see this as trailblazer for countless titles and I am not just referring to the large array of GTA-clones (though many arise above this stereotype, see the Mafia series for example). Once we've reached greener pastures we ought not forget the bridge that brought us there.

A look at the cluttered interface on the iOS port of Grand Theft Auto III (2001/11)
I recently purchased GTA III for the iPad during a Halloween sale and had a hard time putting it down. For a game that worked so well on the controller I was pretty shocked by how well implemented and easy-to-use the touch screen controllers actually were. Even driving is very doable! Rockstar released GTA III for iOS last year in a special 10 Year Anniversary edition. They've announced a Grand Theft Auto: Vice City port to iOS as well, which should release sometime next month.

Tommy Vercetti, reporting for duty Vice City. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (2002)
Speaking of which, here is a far-and-wide favorite of the series, Vice City, first seen in 2002. You play as Tommy Vercetti who is not only fresh out of jail but fresh out of Liberty City. Vice City is a Miami-inspired island setting and pink and blue color scheme. This entry took leaps and bounds in the story department with a colorful character and cinematic cut-scenes. I cannot talk about Vice City without talking about its music (even though I already did so in last week's Crew Post). This is the single greatest mix-tape soundtrack of all-time with 100+ hits from the '80s, from Michael Jackson to Nena's "99 Luftballoons" and including Rockstar's own Lovefist, the seven iconic radio stations are an instant classic in whatever you're driving in the game to whatever you're driving in real life.

Runnin' and gunnin' through South Central. Grand Theft Auto: San Andrea (2004)
Two years later (2004) Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas changed the game again. You're Carl Johnson (CJ), a young and insignificant gangbanger who has returned (once again from Liberty City) to his ghetto hood  in Los Santos (Los Angeles) after the tragic death of his mother. Calling it Boyz n the Hood: The Game is not far off. On the surface it appears full of "life on the streets" complete with gangsta rap and all the disrespect that seems to come from it, but it turns out to be a game all about respect. Most of the early missions are about sustaining a reputation amidst your own before improving your monetary situation is even an option. As our first African American protagonist in the series we experience his plight especially how "the Man" (in the embodied form of crooked cops) keep pushing him down. 

It seems to me that San Andreas is one of the more divided games in the series. Some felt there was too much going on that distracted from what these games were initially about. However, if I had to choose a favorite of the GTA games this may be the one. There is so much to do in the game that is spread out over three full cities and all the countryside in-between. All the car-stealing, mob-hunting and racing you've come to expect from the series is in tact if you want it, but I see the dozens of other activities (from basketball to base jumping) as more toys in the sandbox that are there if you want them. San Andreas even brought some Sims-like light-RPG elements to the table where you had to keep an eye on your body fat for example.

The Liberty City skyline in the richest detail yet. Grand Theft Auto IV (2008)
Four years later and with a new console generation well underway and we were treated with the highly-longed-for release of Grand Theft Auto IV, which brought us back to (surprise, surprise) Liberty City, this time looking more like Manhattan and company than ever before. Speaking of looks, we were finally able to get a game that approached realism in its graphical design. GTA IV is a solid and polished game with the series' richest storytelling and protagonist. You are Niko Bellic, an immigrant from Eastern Europe who has shipped himself to American to find his cousin and join in the American dream. When he arrives he finds a city that is cold and unwelcoming. His cousin's emails were pleasant exaggerations and Niko, an experienced war veteran, finds himself mixed up with wrong crowd and wondering how now to improve his situation. 

With impressive physics and tight controls (including the long-needed cover mechanic) this game continued the tradition in improving upon what had come before it. Many extracirricular activities from San Andreas were shed, though more true-to-life elements were added: a usable cell phone, email, and a vastly improved relationship system. Those who were just looking for a good action-packed time found these to be annoyances as well. Regardless, I think anyone who has experienced any of the game's vast multiplayer modes is thankful for its addition.

Bicycles return in a gloriously looking Los Santos. Grand Theft Auto V (2013)
This was not a comprehensive history of all the the games in the series (though I would love to write one someday when I am more qualified), just lightly touching on the standouts and what stood out in each. From everything I have read and seen about Grand Theft Auto V, I truly expect it to be both the best and my new personal favorite in the wildly popular franchise. 

In these months before the game, I will publish more posts about the series here on These Things We Call Video Games. Besides previews, reviews and other features, the Grand Theft Auto games themselves will surely be referenced in explorations and analyses of open-world/sandbox games. This may very well be my favorite variety of game and GTA put that "genre" on the map. Furthermore, there is much to discuss about morals in video games. Has GTA gotten a bad rap over the years? Yes, but in many ways it merits and calls for that status. More on these pertinent topics to come, though you may have already sensed whispers of them in this post.

Words by J.S. Lewis

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Grand Theft Auto V (Preview II)

Spring 2013
PS3, Xbox 360

Developed by Rockstar North

Published by Rockstar Games

Grand Theft Auto V is the best way to end a console generation.

An entire year has passed since the first trailer for Grand Theft Auto V. Today we got the second. I have watched it several times including the shot-by-shot study session with the analytic folks responsible for IGN's Rewind Theater and I am immensely and thoroughly impressed. The presentation is pristine, the writing on par with Rockstar products of late (Red Dead Redemption and Max Payne 3 for example), and most importantly, it looks like it is going to be a blast!

December cover for GameInformer, first look at the three protagonists.
There has been so much news for GTA V as of late that even attempting a preview at this point is overwhelming. With the GameInformer cover story (art above), word that it would be the first in the series with a full orchestrated score (of course this is addition to the  music on the radio), and explanations as to why they did not hold it over for next gen. Gamers, expect the industry's spotlight to remain focused on this game for the next several months until its colossal release.

Jets are back baby! Grand Theft Auto V (2012)
We are returning to Los Santos this time around (the city we start out in in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas) but will also have access to the surrounding countryside. In fact, Rockstar announced that the world in Grand Theft Auto V is bigger than those of GTA IVRed Dead , and GTA: San Andreas combined. Combined! Some are concerned that it is going to be too big for it's own good. Such a thought never enters my thinking, but it is a point worth bringing up. Dan Houser (co-founder of Rockstar) revealed plain and simple that the map was this big to better support the flying the player would inevitable be doing. And how about that scene in the new trailer where Trevor, it looks like, takes a jeep out of a plane only to eject himself and free-fall... This could be the most fun of its kind since Just Cause 2!

Left to right: Franklin, Trevor and Michael: the three playable protagonists. Grand Theft Auto V (2012)
Possibly the highlight of this trailer, recent demo discussions and news is that you will play as three different characters throughout the campaign. Sometimes they will be together, sometimes each doing their own thing. Each are distinct in their situations and skills. You can get a glimpse of them above, but watch the trailer for more. Michael seems to be the main character, a middle-aged man who has come to Los Santos to stay out of trouble, but obviously that is not what happens. While watching the trailer I got a strong Breaking Bad vibe from the scenarios our characters got themselves into and the relationships between them. That's not a good bad influence to have. Off the top of my head I cannot think of another game that has done something quite like this character system, certainly not on this large a scale. This is something they first explored in Grand Theft Auto IV with Episodes from Liberty City. And not to give too much away but your campaign was not limited to the main character in either Red Dead Redemption or L.A. Noire, the latter being published by Rockstar. I am eager to see the character-switching in action.

Don't worry, helicopters return to. Also, take in the view of "Vinewood" Hills. Grand Theft Auto V (2012)
Finally, we are all terribly curious as to what the game's multiplayer is going to entail. Both GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption brought something new to open-world multiplayer, these are experiences I still throw in to my system today. No doubt Rockstar is going to deliver the high quality gameplay series preview they've become known for to both inform and further intice us, though it's not like they need to... This is hands down the game I am most anticipating from this point forward folks. Likewise you can anticipate to hear more about Grand Theft Auto V before and after its Spring 2013 release! Next year will likely be the finale for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, games like this are pushing the systems for all they can muster. I cannot think of a better way to close the curtains.

Oh, and just for the fun of it, here's the Adam Sessler discussing the trailer.

Words by J.S. Lewis

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

There's A New Game Music Bundle

The Game Music Bundles are packages of joy.
Hot off the heels of our explosive "Crew Post: The Power of Music" I received a most welcome piece of mail in my inbox yesterday morning, a notice that the Game Music Bundle 4 is up and running! Not unlike the Humble (Indie) Bundles that I praised to high heaven last week, this is a package deal where you choose the price (starting as low as $1.00) for five original soundtracks. You may want to note that if you go up to $10 you will unlock the second tier with five additional scores!

For the first time a film's soundtrack is included in the Humble Music Bundle: Indie Game: The Movie (2012)
Included in the bundle are some of the top indie games of 2012: Spelunky (currently my favorite XBLA title to release this year), Dear Esther, and Retro City Rampage (one I am patiently waiting for its XBLA release, it is currently available on PSN and Windows). This bundle also comes with soundtrack for Indie Game: The Movie! This is one of the best documentaries of the year and surely one of the best films about video games I have ever seen. Jim Guthrie, the virtuoso behind the music for Sword & Sworcery, composed the climate-controlling score for Indie Game. Seek this film out folks (currently available on Netflix Instant by the way), but also seek out the music of Jim Guthrie.

If you collect game soundtracks this small purchase is a no-brainer. If you haven't been paying attention to the OSTs of what you play then there is no better time to start. Head over to the Game Music Bundle site and check out the goodness that be. This current bundle looks to end on/around Monday, November 19th, so make sure you tell the gamers in your life!

Words by J.S. Lewis

Monday, November 12, 2012

Crew Post: The Power of Music

Music has been in video games since, well, at least Donkey Kong.  That is to say, a long time.  It is as much a part of the industry as graphics.  But how important is it?  How does it affect the gameplay experience? What are some of your favorite (and least favorite) soundtracks or songs?  The crew weighs in with their opinions:


Beautiful music is becoming a key factor in many games and for good reason.  They add to the gameplay experience.  Whether it is a powerful rock song as I blow apart buildings or a soothing lullaby as I put farm animals away for the night, music helps me be more immersed in the game and intensifies my emotions.  Some songs are fantastic by themselves and I love buying them just to listen to them whenever.

Some of my favorite games are well known for their music.  The Halo series has beautiful music done by an excellent composer.  The Halo 2 soundtrack was the first soundtrack I ever bought.  Prince of Persia used music to influence the feel of the game.  For instance, The Sands of Time has amazing Persian influenced music that adds to the mysticism while Warrior Within has heavy metal to emphasize the brutal attitude of the Prince.  And anytime I hear the Super Mario Bros. theme, I smile with memories.

Persian influenced rock always makes slicing up sand creatures more satisfying. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2003) 

Of course not all games have good music and it can detract from the game, but I will admit that I will keep playing a game that has great gameplay even if the music is terrible.  However, very rarely will I consider a game a favorite if the music is bad and it definitely detracts from the experience.  I respect any studios that go the extra mile and spend the extra money to include wonderful music in their games because without it the game will always feel like it is missing something important.


Music is an integral component in all forms of media, it can heighten or break tension, it can add emotional resonance or establish time and mood. Great examples of the use of music that immediately come to mind include Halo 2, Half-Life 2, and Skyrim. The first two are linear games and the music comes in at the exact intended moment every time, it is used to great effect but with Skyrim, it is an open-world and certain events trigger the music. When you start battling a dragon, the music is right there with you to increase the intensity and adrenaline and it is immensely satisfying. The three examples above are all scores written specifically for the series by very talented individuals but often music groups are featured in video games and enhance the experience as well.

One of the biggest influences in my musical taste occurred because of a video game. Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines featured gothic-rock artists such as Lacuna Coil, Type O Negative, and Darling Violetta among others. Because of this game I fell in love with this genre which I still enjoy today. Fallout: New Vegas is also a game I cherish because of its great score but also because of its in-game music featuring such talents as Nat King Cole, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and The Ink Spots. This music solidifies the 1950's & 60's feel it is going for.

The Ink Spots lull us into a false-sense of security and time with music. Fallout 3 (2008) 

I think it's an easy thing to under-appreciate but it would be a grave error for game-designers to overlook the music aspect of a game, even for simple apps.


Obviously this is a huge topic to attempt to tackle in one sitting, but I want to play along! My abiding love of video game soundtracks stems from the late '90s when I started building my personal library of film scores. The feelings I felt while watching the movie could be taken with me wherever I went. Overtime I paid more attention to the soundtracks of what I was playing and found the reserves to be just as rich. Harnessing the power of music is an ineffable tool for accessing memories and the emotions that accompanied them. But of course hearing them in their element (i.e. while playing the game) is where the magic is complete.

This plays at a crucial moment during the single-player experience. Red Dead Redemption (2010)

It is no coincidence that my favorite soundtrack of late comes from one of the best games of this generation, Rockstar Games' Red Dead Redemption. Like the game itself the original score is clearly influenced from nearly a hundred years of Western movies, most notably those scored by genius composer Ennio Morricone. It instantly elevated itself to legendary levels, praise be to composers Bill Elm and Woody Jackson. I could gush about any given track from the game, but listen to "Far Away" by Jose Gonzalez. Most of the game has a classic instrumental score, but when this lyrical Southwest lamentation plays when you first reach Mexico... the effect left me awe-struck. You can watch this moment of the story-driven game above.

One of the many great songs you can here on the car radio. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (2002)

Speaking of Rockstar, I would be absolutely amiss if I didn't mention the "mix-tape soundtracks" of their Grand Theft Auto series. Starting with Grand Theft Auto III every time you "commandeered" a car you had access to the radio and several different stations. The songs, (some familiar, some new) became dear friends. Whether it was "All My Exes Live in Texas" as heard on K-Rose in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas or the iconic "I Ran (So Far Away)" on Wave 103 in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, my tastes and horizons were widened as a result. Not to mention it created a needed diversion from the rest of the gameplay. The 7-disc Vice City soundtrack is something I still play in my car to this day. Corey Hart's "Sunglasses at Night" (above) plays great as your cruising around in Vice City or where you drive in the real world. This brilliant mechanic was duplicated to fine results in Mafia II and even this year's Sleeping Dogs.

An old-school styled soundtrack helps set the stage and breathe mystery into the game world. Sword & Sworcery (2011)

Video game themes are now just as iconic as those of films. Halo, Uncharted and even Angry Birds are recognizable in the first notes. Then you have something like Sword & Sworcery trailblazing a new route and creating a unique ambience that is iconic in its own way (above). The resurgence of 8 and 16-bit (chiptune) soundtracks in today's indie games is also quickly worth noting. Check out an example from VVVVVVChristopher Tin's Grammy-winning score for Civilization IV is downright inspiring. Listen to it in its entirety here, makes for excellent background music while you surf the web. There are many more soundtracks I want to spotlight, but I will have to find occasion to do so in future posts!


Music in games... Where do I even start? I could write a book- no no no, I could dedicate my life to the impact music has on games. But seeing as I'm only given a few paragraphs I'll just brush the surface. Seriously though, I advise every crew member to write their own feature on game music, the topic deserves it.

Music is probably my most important component of games. Seriously! I value good music more than gameplay, more than art direction, more than level-design, more than dialogue, more than EVERYTHING. I am willing to play a game with broken controls, repetitive gameplay mechanics and a predictable plot, as long as it has damn good music. Does that mean I play games like that? No, because there are plenty of games with flawless controls and gameplay PLUS fantastic music. Most of the games I choose to play are games whose soundtracks I've been listening to over and over weeks in advance. Half of my music library is filled with game soundtracks... and that's over 100Gb of music. I think I've proven how much I love game tunes. 

I'm not going to list what games I think have spectacular soundtracks because I don't feel like writing an encyclopedia; I'm not even going to list my favorite composers (but I will mention Koji Kondo is a god).  Instead I'm just going state a bunch of random things about game music I feel is important.

Koji Kondo being a god. Mario Galaxy (2007)

Music is the one aspect of games you can appreciate outside of games themselves. You can't take a game's art or gameplay with you to the store. But music? Music you can enjoy anywhere. Game tunes are perfect for when you're studying, driving, and obviously, playing games. 

Game music is almost its own genre. Sure, in recent years the big-budget games have been sporting more orchestrated soundtracks, similar to what you hear in movies. But at its core, game music is built around something more simple: melodies, buckets and buckets of melodies. Memorable game soundtracks have a memorable melody. Something catchy. Something you can hum and just can't seem to get out of your head. 

Chrono Trigger (1995)

Back in the dawn of games, technology didn't allow for high quality sounds, so composers had to resort to low bit forms or music. And the main method, really the only method, a composer could make a good tune for a song was by making it more melodic. Stringing basic sounds together to make  tune that could both fit in a game's memory and stick inside a child's head all day. THAT is what game music was. But as technology advanced games were allotted more memory to dedicate to music; tunes didn't have to be melodic or catchy to be good anymore. Games could have tracks that were more ambient/moody. Or they could borrow popular music of the time. The type of music completely depends on the type of game. The Silent Hill games need those dark, ambient tracks; anything else just wouldn't be setting right mood. Likewise, games like Guitar Hero and FIFA really benefit from using songs from popular musicians. 

Not the most catchy tune, but its not supposed to be. It's meant to set a mood. Minecraft (2011)

So game music isn't limited to melody heavy soundtracks anymore. The technology isn't holding it back and the shear number of game types allow for any genre of music to be used, so long as it fits the game. But I still have a sweet spot for those melodic tunes that stick in your head. They really make games just that much more memorable.


I wish I could talk about every game that I loved because they all had a soundtrack that swept me off my feet and carried me to a love hotel, but we'd be here for hours. So I'll just talk about a few.

Music has always been a huge part of my "immersion factor". For me, a game without quality tunes might as well be garbage. I have been known to even play bad games just because they have good music. NieR for example, that was a confused game. NieR was trying to be a "bullet hell shooter" and an action-adventure RPG. More importantly though (to me), was the music it had; the music made it all come together, making me not care one bit about it's flaws. The music in NieR immersed me to the fullest.

I still have a gameplay save just to boot up and listen to this now and again. NieR (2010)

Okay so maybe NieR isn't a "bad" game but it is confused and definitely one of the underrated games of the last few years.

Square Enix sure knows how to make a good soundtrack. Back in high school I played a lot of Final Fantasy XI (FFXI for short) which is an MMO that game out before World of Warcraft. FFXI had, hands on, the greatest MMO sountrack I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing first-hand. In fact, to this day I feel it was the music that kept me enthralled for years of my life. Until FFXI, there was very little music in MMOs to make you feel as heroic as a player in Vana'diel.

FFXI is filled with music like this. Final Fantasy XI (2003)

I'll end on a couple of my top moments that has to do with the music bringing it all together. They are both in Metal Gear games. As a huge fan of the series I have been playing these games since I was a tiny man. I feel as though Snake's battles were fought in good places in my life. When his struggles reached an end I felt an empathetic relief, you know what I'm saying? The first scene is from Metal Gear Solid 3 near the end.

(Spoilers) Watch until 2:15 if you don't want to see the cutscene:

Another moment I keep a game save for. I love to play this fight over sometimes. Metal Gear 3 (2004)

(Spoilers) The other is from Metal Gear Solid 4:

Brothers face off at the end the same way it began. Metal Gear Solid 4 (2008)

The beauty in that last video is how as the fight progresses it changes the music from Metal Gear 1 to 2, 3 and finally 4. This moment of closure brought together by music!

As you can see music plays a huge role in my gaming experience, and I don't see that ever changing. My name is Casey Holt and I am a video game music addict.

Brothers - A Tale of Two Sons (Preview)

Spring 2013
PS3, Xbox 360, PC

Developed by Starbreeze Studios

Published by 505 Games

Brothers - A Tale of Two Sons is a breath of fresh mountain air in its setting and concept.

Swedish developer Starbreeze Studios has been on my radar ever since their first game (under this studio's name) back on the original Xbox, Enclave, which is an overlooked classic of fantasy action comparable to Dark Souls. The company went on to put themselves on the map with their releases of The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay and The Darkness. I have been eagerly anticipating what their next project woud be, their trajectory had me expecting an A-list game of significant caliber, but instead I learned about Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, slated to be a downloadable title next year.

Josef Fares, a Swedish filmmaker, has boarded this project as creative director. A fresh set of eyes to the medium seems to have done the game a great service. Brothers stands out from just about everything I have seen before despite being set in a Medieval-esque mountain village. You play as the title characters, but instead of switching between them like you might think you control both at the same time, but separately.  The left thumb-stick and triggers guide the older brother while the right side is used to lead the younger. It may sound troublesome but watch the gameplay video above to see how smoothly it seems to operate. The story is primarily told through the uncluttered visuals as you interact with NPCs and solve puzzles in an effort to find a cure for your father's illness. Slated for release in Spring of next year, Brothers - A Tale of Two Sons is fresh face on the digital store front.

Words by J.S. Lewis

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Review)

November 11, 2011
PS3, Xbox 360, PC

Developed by Bethesda Game Studios

Published by Bethesda Softworks

A new open-world to explore, forever more. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011)
Skyrim is as engrossing an experience as the medium as ever seen.

Today marks the 1-year anniversary of the most memorable launch date of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. On 11/11/11 I was in line (like many fans across the country) for the midnight release of the latest installment in Bethesda Game Studios' successful franchise. The Elder Scrolls is the quintessential medieval-fantasy role-playing game for the Western world. Many players jumped aboard during 2006's Oblivion, less discovered The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind back in 2002, and so on to the series' launch in 1994. I still cite Morrowind as my favorite game of all-time for reasons both nostalgic and ground-breaking despite the game's infuriating mechanics (then and even more so now). With nearly two decades of related games before it I am confident in ascribing Skyrim has not only the greatest entry in the series but among the crowning achievements of our current generation of video games.

I write this review even though I have yet to complete all that there is to do. It's debatable if that is even possible as Bethesda programmed ways for the experience to literally be infinite. There are entire quest lines I have yet to touch and all this even after clocking in some 80 hours into the game over the past year. So please keep in mind as you read this review that I am far from being done with Skyrim; and I like to think it is far from being done with me. Of course I have completed the main quest, which happens to be the first time I have done so in the series. I believe this is primarily because Skyrim is the most accessible of all The Elder Scrolls games. The technical advances in gaming since previous installments have certainly helped make the story in an open-world game such as this more detailed and thus more personable.

A map of Tamriel. This time we are in the appropriately white province of Skyrim.
Skyrim is one of the nine provinces of the empire of Tamriel. As the above map displays it is centered and Northward. It is a land mostly covered in a permanent winter, a place that is sometimes a wonderland and at other times a terribly bleak existence. It feels fairly compact, but the mountain ranges and windy terrain give you plenty to work with. Skyrim is roughly 14 square miles in size. You could probably run across the whole thing in an hour of real-time which would last a day or two in game world's time. Even so I am still stumbling upon caves, ruins, and even an occasional settlement that I have never seen before. When you pull up the game's map it is littered with the destination markers of every place you have been. It's staggering to take it all in.

Character creation has more details than you could ask for. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011)
In such a large and lived-in world you play but a single role. Nevertheless you are one capable of mighty action (for good or for evil or maybe something in-between). Like every previous game in the series Skyrim is single-player only (though The Elder Scrolls Online is in the works). You begin the game as an unknown prisoner (a classic RPG trope if ever there was one) awaiting execution. Before your head is put on the chopping block you get the luxury of deciding what that head and its body looks like. Like Oblivion before it there is a robust character creation process that takes wherein you choose from nine varied races (with different abilities), select a gender, and then further customize your looks (these choices are entirely cosmetic). You could easily spend a half hour deciding things like the postion and length of your nose. Immediately the detailed character models of the game are showcased. They start to pale in comparison to something like Mass Effect, but wow, we've come a long way since Morrowind! You make the character you want to play as and after your inevitable though exciting escape from imprisonment you are given an open-world to explore at your own pace and digression.

This time you play Dovahkiin (or Dragonborn), a being with the body of mortal and the soul of a dragon. As such you are capable of using "Dragon shouts," one of the new additions to player's arsenal. These let you do anything from summoning a terrible storm to take place over your battles (did I mention the game has a vibrant weather system?) to slowing down time itself. The force push shout "Fus-ro-dah" has gained Internet meme status as it is among the first you learn to use. It bears some of the funnest results as you send your enemies flying, even the giants go head over heels for it.

Look up "epic" in the dictionary and you will find this screenshot. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011)
It is a good thing that a Dragonborn has appeared on the horizon because actual dragons, those wicked worms, have once again started appearing throughout the land of Skyrim, much to everyone's surprise. They terrorize the tundra (some with fire, some with ice) and occasionally choose to take on a town. You are Skyrim's greatest hope in taking them down (though I did watch a giant and his wooly mammoth do a pretty good job at it). The dragon battles are possibly the highlight of the game and can take place anywhere outdoors. They are random and seemingly infinite, but are more majestic manifestations of this epic experience than anything else. Watching dragons circle a mountain in the far off distance is a breath-taking sight. One flew right over me once, his shadow completely overtook me out of nowhere, but I sighed in relief as he flew on his merry way. Maybe he was late for something... 

It is more than luck that the Dragonborn's appearance coincides with those of the dragons. A wise group of sages known as the Greybeards reside atop the highest peak in all of Tamriel. You seek them out to understand your potential as the Dragonborn and further the game's primary story. I say "primary" because there are many. Each person you come across in Skyrim has something to say, many of which have favors to ask. Children will want to play tag with you, a fugitive will ask you to keep quiet about their whereabouts, and every city's Jarl (a mayor of sorts) seems to have a bandit problem. There is so much to do in Skyrim that your menu will soon and fast fill up with quests.

You can examine every item in you inventory, even the salmon meat. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011)
The user interface is general is simple as can be for an RPG as massive as Skyrim. One thing that is easy to overlook is the clear and clutter-free HUD (head-up display). Besides the ever-present compass at the top of the screen there are no other items onscreen outside of combat. When you are physically engaged the health, magic, and fatigue meters fade onscreen to let you keep track, but they just as subtly melt away so that the entire screen is dedicated to the impressive visuals, from the scenic views outside and to details of every shelf inside. Every building you see can be entered, expect a load time when you do though. Furthermore you can interact with most items in the game. Read books, cook food, repair armor, make armor, chop wood, arrange all your belongings (whether they be ill-gotten or rightfully earned). The menus (especially when you open up a filled chest) could desperately use some customizable organization, but they stay true to simple menu scheme. You can manage your inventory, view your stats, check the status of your missions, and study the map with simple flows through the menu.

Part of the reasons I have left some aspects of the game untouched is due the character I am playing as. I am a Wood Elf named Zar Vular and I am trying to remain a "good guy." I have dabbled in the Thieve's Guild but have avoided the Dark Bortherhood and Vampirism. I sided with the Empire in the fierce civil war that is ever-felt in this cold provence. These are all choices that you make as a player. It's not that I am not opposed to playing in some of those ways, but this character has a personality and a code of ethics. In fact, I have eager plans to start a second character soon. She (yes, sheShe will be a naughty girl who excels in black magic, seeks out the Dark Brotherhood, and would slice up a farmer's wife just for looking at her sideways. Hei Mao will be a dark-furred Kajhiit, a cat-like yet humanoid race of Tamriel. Some gamers might not care to make a psychological-rounded character and will play as someone who bends as easily as reeds in the wind, but I like to think that games like Skyrim are progressing how we think and ultimately how we play. The topic of morality in video games (or lack thereof) is one I will address in future posts, but I had some truly tough choices to make in my play-through.

Skyrim would not be a Bethesda game without its bugs, and I'm not talking about the butterflies they you can catch and use in potions. The game has its fair share of technical hiccups and even glaring glitches. I experience an unbeatable dragon during the main quest which took troubleshooting to get pass. When making something as ambitious as Skyrim I let many of these annoyances slide as I try to realize it is impossible to test every aspect of an open-world game that gives the player this much freedom. To me the adventures are worth the consequences. We all deplore them and wish we could have an experience without them. My hats off to the fine team at Bethesda for continually updating and patching the game to ensure smooth gaming in the future.

Shepherd giants and their flocks of mammoths are a wonder to behold. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011)
There is much more to tell you about my time in Skyrim. The people I have met, the creatures I have slain, and the flowers I have picked. There is a bard college I am thinking about joining. This one time I resurrected a bunny after I killed and it attempted to fight along my side. And I am still deciding which lucky lady is going to be Mrs. Zar Vular as you can even get married. This week I began Dawnguard, the first DLC available for the game. I eagerly await next month's Dragonborn. I will not be finished with it until The Elder Scrolls VI because that is the kind of a game we have here: An endless showpiece of atmosphere, a rich history of lore, dangerous dungeons and dragons, and... you. This is what video games can be all about.


Words by J.S. Lewis

Assassin's Creed 3 (Impressions)

October 30, 2012
PS3, Xbox 360, Wii U, Windows

Developed by Ubisoft Montreal

Published by Ubisoft

Fight for freedom and salvation against all foes in Assassin's Creed III.

I love the Assassin's Creed series.  I've played from the very first game and have loved them all, yes even the repetitive first one.  The integration of sci-fi genetic memory travel with ancient conspiracies and historic gameplay is an excellent idea and Ubisoft does it all very well.

Assassin's Creed III continues the story of the actual main character Desmond as the modern-day Assassins race to find a way to save the world from an impending apocalypse.  In order to do so, they need to go into the memories one of Desmond's ancestors, Connor (aka Ratohnhak√©:ton), who lived during Colonial America.

The enthralling feel of spying on campers. Assassin's Creed III (2012)
The story is very well done for the parts I've seen.  The beginning does a recap of the series for new players but manages to avoid major spoilers from previous games.  Characters are interesting, conversations feel authentic, the setting is fleshed out, and it's easy to see a lot of research went into historical figures.  The modern-day story line is much better developed too.  Lots of tantalizing clues are discovered about the "First-Era" and the mission locations are much funner.  I am very invested into the story and want to play to the end to see how it turns out.  If any game makes me feel that way then I consider it to have a good story.

The gameplay is fluid and fun.  Ubisoft outdid themselves in tree parkour.  They made it both enjoyable and surprisingly plausible.  Sometimes the controls can be a bit fiddly, but it works fine for the most part.  Combat is satisfying and varies enough to keep it fresh.  Tough enemies can't be attacked directly and the toughest enemies require clever combat in order to defeat.  Stealth is done very well with Connor being able to easily blend into crowds, hide in bushes, and surreptitiously peak around corners.  Stealth kills are incredibly gratifying to pull off.  The gameplay alone makes this game worth playing.

Never bring a gun to a tomahawk-knife fight.  Assassin's Creed III (2012)
Missions are varied and interesting.  Synchronization is back with most missions having optional objectives.  Many different locations are available and the developers worked on making most missions different in some way.  Naval missions, new to the series, are incredibly fun and a great new addition.

Multiplayer is back but unfortunately I have not tried it out as I'm too enamored with the main storyline.  I loved the previous games' multiplayer and heard it is like those but improved so I will be sure to try it out.

The beginning is a bit slow, trying to ease the player in, and there are occasional bugs, but overall this game is fantastic and an excellent addition to the series.  I highly recommend this to all players, veterans of the series and new fans alike.


Words by Joshua Matern

Saturday, November 10, 2012

There's A New Humble Bundle

Guys, guys, there's a new Humble Bundle out! Wait, you know about Humble Bundles, right?

I seriously wonder why any gamer would not partake in the greatness and glory of the Humble Bundles... Perhaps you are heartless and want nothing to do with helping any charity. Perhaps you believe in being charged more money for less games. Perhaps, dare I suggest it, you do not care for the video game industry. Or (and I would rather you fall into this last camp) perhaps you do not even know about the Humble Bundles, in which case you best keep on reading. And if you already know of and love them please feel free to continue anyway, nodding in agreement the whole way.

In short dear readers, I am hear to tell you about one of the greatest things under the sun: Humble (Indie) Bundles!

The first Humble Indie Bundle line-up!
I was fortunate enough to hear about these terrific treasure troves from the start with the first Humble Indie Bundle back in May of 2010. I purchased it at a price comfortable for me at the time and wherein I obtained the likes of World of Goo, Lugaru HD and more. I am still grateful to my cousin for pointing me in its direction. It has consistently been the best deal in gaming ever since.

Check out this advertisement for the current Humble Bundle for Android 4. Don't let the name disuade you. All these titles can be downloaded and played on Mac and PC. Watch the above trailer to see what titles are featured herein. As the catchy theme song tells you, "Pay what you want, DRM free, cross platform, and it helps charity." That's right, you can be a cheap bastard or a generous fellow, pay the price you want and even choose how it is distributed amongst the game developers, charities, and Humble Bundle itself.

The Binding of Isaac (2011) is one of many surprises I discovered for myself through Humble Bundles.
At the end of the day, it is all about the games and if Humble Indie Bundle did not shine in this department I would not be raving about it the way I am. From modern masterpieces like Braid to obscure experiences like Osmos. Many of the featured titles are challenging yet rewarding. One bundle featured the The Binding of Isaac (a Roguelike from the creators of Super Meat Boy) which I am still playing and loving every disturbing minute of.

An organic real-time strategy game that mixes nature with science. Sign me up! Eufloria (2009) 
Indie games ought not be thought of as lesser games. In most cases they don't cost near as much as the blockbuster titles do nor do they require the latest and greatest hardware to run, they are limited in these regards and are thus forced to explore unique ways to keep things fun and engaging. From my experience indie games are among the more innovative video games out there. Furthermore, art has no limits and some of these games beg to be labeled as such. For example, just look at Eufloria featured in the current bundle.

I have one last question for you: What are you waiting for? There has never been a better time to join the party. Wait, earlier would have been better, but now is good too! The folks at Humble Indie Bundle live and die by their mantra, "Pay what you want for awesome games and help charity," and so should every gamer!

Words by J.S. Lewis