Game Review: “Charlie Murder”

Available for
Xbox 360
Publisher
Ska Studios

Even though I’ve known for a while that it’s only rock and roll, I’ve still always liked it. I’ve shared a similar feeling with the simple 2D brawler genre, as some fond gaming memories date back to raiding the arcade with friends to play “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and “X-Men,” or just kicking around at home with “Double Dragon” on the NES.

Appropriately, the new Xbox Live Arcade game “Charlie Murder” combines both of those aspects into one title that sees you choose between members of a punk rock band that’s forced to defeat a rival group who are aided by zombies, witches, demons and other forces of darkness through a variety of levels all designed to fit the style of the apocalyptic rocker protagonists.

The comic style graphics are certainly the first thing that catches your eye about “Charlie Murder,” but once you start playing, it’s clear that the most noteworthy aspect is the game’s surprising amount of depth. While a part of that is due to the multiple stage types, which include flying and driving stages, as well as timed rhythm based segments (think “Rock Band”), the real selling point of “Charlie Murder” is its RPG aspects.

While “Charlie Murder” is a great “Double Dragon”-style 2D brawler, it’s an even better “Diablo”-style RPG, which sees you level up your character’s skills and attacks, upgrade their equipment with creative loot, and make use of various store types to acquire beneficial items like food and skill-assigning tattoos.

The combination reminded me of the NES classic “River City Ransom,” and while it’s uniquely entertaining and surprisingly deep on its own, unfortunately, the execution of combining these elements doesn’t always work when it comes to the actual gameplay. It becomes incredibly frustrating to be enjoying yourself one minute — smashing your way through hordes of enemies using a variety of weapons, including their own limbs — to have to then stop and bring up the game’s cumbersome cell phone menu to add skill points or cycle through your inventory. When playing with multiple people, it perfectly recreates the experience of hanging out with your friends and waiting for one of them to stop using their cell phone and get back to the fun.

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“The Last of Us” is a near masterpiece

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Naughty Dog’s “The Last of Us” has been available for just over two weeks now, and in that time, it’s been reviewed ad nauseam by every major games blog and even some publications that don’t normally cover that sort of thing. But it’s for good reason, because “The Last of Us” doesn’t just represent a fresh take on the survival horror genre, but it delivers one of the most memorable gaming experiences in quite some time. Unfortunately, I didn’t receive my copy until this past weekend, and as such, doing a typical review seemed pointless. So instead, I’ve put together a list of the Top 5 reasons why you should rush out and buy/rent “The Last of Us” if you haven’t already.

1) Story: There’s a lot to love about “The Last of Us,” but none more so than its rich, cinematic storytelling, which develops characters that you actually care about as they evolve throughout the game’s year-long timeline. Similar to “The Walking Dead” in many respects, the game may feature its share of zombie-like creatures to battle, but it’s the human drama that drives the story, and Naughty Dog has done something pretty fantastic in blurring the line between what’s morally right versus what’s necessary to survive. Nature can be a bitch, but in this Cormac McCarthy-inspired post-apocalyptic setting, humanity poses an even bigger threat.

2) Production value: At this stage in the current gen cycle, it’s amazing that most games still don’t take full advantage of the power behind the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, because “The Last of Us” is an absolutely gorgeous visual treat. The attention to detail is unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and combined with the excellent voice work (especially Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson in the lead roles), it makes the characters and environments feel remarkably realistic. The voice cast isn’t just recording lines of dialogue in a sound booth, but completely inhabiting their roles to the point that it’s like watching real actors at times, and that really lends to the cinematic quality of the story.

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Game Review: “Fuse”

Available for
Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
Publisher
Electronic Arts

The shooter genre has typically been defined by its ability to deliver things like innovation and addictive gameplay, which is what makes a title like “Fuse” seem so unremarkable. It’s not that the game, developed by the “Ratchet and Clank” team at Insomniac, is necessarily bad – it just feels rather mundane compared to some of the other shooters on the market. Heavily influenced by a number of likeminded titles (particularly Epic’s “Gears of War” series), “Fuse” offers a fun but somewhat shallow experience, namely due to the fact that it never fully develops its own identity amidst the hodgepodge of game mechanics borrowed from much better titles.

The story is generic and not terribly engaging, and part of that problem is a result of the almost nonchalant handling of the way information is distributed to players over the course of the game. It gets to the point where unless you’re tracking down and reading every single piece of supplemental intel hidden throughout each map, you probably won’t have a very good sense of what’s going on. So with that in mind, here’s the official synopsis provided by Insomniac:

What happens when a violent civilization unearths advanced alien technology? In the not-so-distant-future, a new kind of arms race is about to begin. When rogue paramilitary company Raven discovers an alien energy source called Fuse deep within a classified government facility, they stage a daring mission to steal it. Soon, they use Fuse to advance their arsenal beyond anything the military has ever prepared for. Desperate to keep their discovery secret, the CIA calls in a small independent contact team called Overstrike 9 to neutralize the threat. But as Overstrike closes in on one enemy, another even more sinister reveals itself behind the curtain. And what was once an alien arms race becomes something much more deadly.

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Game Review: “Motocross Madness”

Available for
Xbox 360
Publisher
Microsoft

While not exactly an all-time classic, the original “Motocross Madness” games for the PC had a solid fanbase and are generally well remembered for their incredible crashes and speedy action. It was a pleasant surprise, then, to hear Microsoft would be reviving the series, only this time as an avatar-driven Xbox Live arcade title.

Arcade is the keyword here, because from the over the top announcer, to the over the top races, this “Motocross Madness” feels like it belongs in an old arcade cabinet, complete with motorbike controller. However, once you get past the tutorial level, which does a nice job of showcasing the high speeds, “SSX” style tricks, and the glorious return of those highlight reel crashes, you’ll likely be surprised to find that “Motocross Madness” differs greatly from those old arcade racers in how open it is.

In a race, for instance, you’ll find a plethora of shortcuts littered throughout each course, creating contests that limit the amount of course barriers and invisible walls, and instead encourage exploration in order to find the best way to tackle a lap. It’s nothing new, but except for a couple of instances where you get lost easily, it’s well done. Where the open course mentality really shines, though, is in the free ride mode, where you are granted a sizable map to collect coins and skulls, which can be used to unlock new items, and more importantly, plenty of room to pull off amazing jumps and tricks.

These open levels consist of three sections and are absolutely huge. Every area is littered with multiple insane jumps, as well as unique areas you’ll run across like amusement parks or castles which provide even more opportunities for creative havoc. My biggest problem with the mode, however, is that unless you are really, really obsessed with finding big jumps and exploring the areas or unlocking everything, there just isn’t much incentive to invest serious time in it, and the novelty can wear off quickly. I would have even settled for scaled down environments if they could have been loaded with more objectives, kind of like the old “Tony Hawk” games.

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App of the Week: Slayin

Developer: Pixel Licker Games

Compatible with: iPhone (optimized for iPhone 5), iPod Touch, and iPad

Requires: iOS 4.3 or later

Price: $0.99

Available here

“Slayin” is an app that wears its retro gaming heart on its sleeve. You don’t have to look hard to spot its influences from games like “Castlevania,” “Ghosts and Goblins,” “Metal Slug,” “Mega Man,” and more, yet “Slayin” is also unique. It touts its gameplay as the first endless action RPG, in that you are constantly moving, constantly battling, and constantly trying to level up and improve yourself through statistical upgrades and better equipment.

Mix those notions of nostalgic ideology and brand new mobile gameplay together, and it’s like tasting peanut butter and chocolate together for the first time. Yes, “Slayin” is basically the Reeses of the app world, yet infinitely more filling.

“Slayin” tasks you with choosing between three character classes (the strong knight, the ability loaded wizard, and the dual sword wielding knave) and embarking on a timeless quest to slay a dragon, and all other minions and bosses along the way. While all the classes have their own unique abilities and progression systems, they are all bound to the very simple play style which has you constantly moving in a small area, and shifting your direction left and right as you work to destroy everything in your path.

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It may be simple, but it works so, so well. “Slayin” refers to itself as the first of its kind, and its uniquely relentless and dangerously addictive style certainly feels the part. Once you quickly adapt to the flow of “Slayin,” you’ll find yourself in that great zen like state a game can provide, where your actions seem to occur a fraction of a second before you even think them. You’ll need those extra quick reactions, as “Slayin” borrows its difficulty from many of those titles that influenced it, though I’m happy to report that the challenge is one based of skill over trial and error for the most part.

While more of an action game than an RPG, those role playing elements still shine in “Slayin,” especially when it comes to its upgrade system. As mentioned, each character type has their own upgrades and equipment available, which the game cleverly lets you purchase without much break in the action courtesy of an appearing shop keeper. Thankfully, the vast majority of your purchases are made with in-game currency, and the additional in-app purchases available are mostly novelty items that in no way are necessary for your completion, or enjoyment, of the game.

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Where “Slayin” really hits it out of the park, though, is in that retro style. Apply this concept to any other form, and it just wouldn’t have worked as well as it does here in a hybrid world of 8 and 16 bit video game design. There isn’t a visual or audio element that doesn’t harken back to that time, and yet “Slayin” also adds just enough of its own style to those elements to feel fresh. This is particularly evident in the music (done by one of the same guys who did “Retro City Rampage”) where a few notes will remind you of certain classic games, yet the score itself is more of a unique entrant into the field than a mere tribute.

There are games out there without a fraction of the addictive nature and charm of “Slayin” that are still great. “Slayin” is a title that focuses on the advantages of the mobile platform, and uses every single one of them to craft an experience that is a feast for the eyes, ears, mind, and hands. It’s a twitch based actioner with equal measures of looks and heart, as well as a surprising amount of depth.

If you ever want to see and experience the design pinnacle of a three button game, then you need “Slayin.” As I type this, I just want to jump back into it’s one more play world that inevitably stretches on for hours, so let me wrap this up quickly by crowning “Slayin” the unquestioned app of the week.

  

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