Monaco: What’s Yours Is Mine review

Few titles can borrow thematically from classic games and film yet feel utterly original. Within the first few minutes of playing Monaco: What’s Yours Is Mine, echoes of Pac Man, Ocean’s Eleven, Gauntlet, Metal Gear, Clue, and Wizards of Wor–to name just a few influences–will rattle through your consciousness. The entire package, however, is as fresh and fun as any of the long list of stellar independent games we’ve seen within the past year or so, with the added bonus of being a delight in a single-player or multi-player fashion.

The core of Monaco is a heist story featuring a host of 8-bit art style characters with their own specialty. Each level unfolds as a quest to capture a key item or escape to a getaway vehicle, all presented in a top-down perspective on maps clearly made with a fine eye for detail. Levels are rife with myriad obstacles and items; security cameras can be temporarily disabled by hackable computer terminals, disguises can be accessed for brief forays in the open, while vents, closets, and bathrooms can be used to hide from prying eyes. These are but a few of the dozens of objects that can be used to accomplish your mission, and it’s this variety that keeps the gameplay fresh and interesting throughout Monaco.

“…as fresh and fun as any of the long list of stellar independent games we’ve seen within the past year.”

Loot permeates each area as well, providing not just satisfaction for completionists but access to additional gadgets for the mission and the ability to unlock stories from other campaigns. Monaco is one of the few games that stealth feels natural and not punitive; but, when all else fails you have the option to use weaponry. Enemies are everywhere, whether in the form of security guards that will happily gun you down or attack dogs that pounce when they pick up your scent. When you feel the need to resort to gunplay, it’s most often as a last resort when you’re surrounded. Monaco realizes its strength is in its stealth gameplay, though, and ammunition is scarce as a result. Quite often, your best chance of success is based upon hiding in the bushes, a bathroom, or a vent and waiting for your enemies to give up and walk in a different direction.

Even more variety is introduced to the game through the eight different character types you can choose from. Each class has its own unique skill–the Locksmith opens doors and safes quickly, the Pickpocket has a pet monkey (!) that helps garner loot faster, and so on. Some levels lend themselves to particular characters better than others, but each can get the job done with a skilled and patient hand, and you’ll appreciate running through levels with different characters.

There are two campaigns, each with a different take on the overarching story. A big part of Monaco’s appeal is the replayability of the levels once you learn the layout and the types of enemies you’ll face. In addition, trying out different characters and pathways to success–and climbing up leaderboards while you’re at it–gives it wider appeal; it’s not just a race to the finish.

“Clearly, it’s possible to be inspired by many unrelated influences that yield an original, delightful, and frenetic outcome.”

Monaco pulls off a difficult feat beautifully–namely, it’s a lot of fun playing on your own as well as with friends. The single-player mode can definitely be tough, because you can’t be revived by a compatriot nor can you benefit from someone pulling off cool tricks like turning off the power on one end of the map the moment before you burst into a room and eliminate a bunch of enemies. On the other hand, when playing on your own and get killed, you simply pick a different character and jump right back at the same spot.

It’s clear that Monaco is a labor of love, from the meticulously detailed levels to the quirky art style and devilishly complex experience. Clearly, it’s possible to be inspired by many unrelated influences that yield an original, delightful, and frenetic outcome; Monaco: What’s Yours Is Mine is living proof.

This review was conducted using the PC version of the game.


Dead Island Riptide review

Dead Island doesn’t exactly have a sterling reputation. Techland’s open-world zombie adventure was rife with game-breaking bugs when it launched in 2011, so we couldn’t help but approach Dead Island Riptide with a healthy dose of cautious optimism. Thankfully this sequel only reanimates the fun (and quirky) parts of its predecessor, leaving a vast majority of its plaguing technical issues to rot in the ground, never to return. Riptide is the more polished experience the original should’ve been, and is an immensely addictive and enjoyable open-world game in its own right.



It picks up right where Dead Island left off, with the four original protagonists (as well as a new playable fifth) finding themselves shipwrecked on the island of Palanai. Riptide doesn’t make a great first impression, though. The prologue is boring and uninteresting, serving as a clumsy attempt to bridge the story to that of its predecessor, and its waypoint system tends to work only when it feels like it. But once you start digging into the quests on Palanai, Riptide becomes considerably more enjoyable. There’s a ton of zombies to kill, plenty of flooded areas to explore (because flooding is apparently Riptide’s thing), and lots of cash and weapons to find.

Like Dead Island’s Banoi, Palanai is a seemingly beautiful place at first. It’s home to flowing waterfalls, sandy beaches, and several flooded inland villages, all of which are gorgeous to behold, especially on a decent gaming PC. But it doesn’t take long before white sands give way to the blood-soaked beaches and gruesome carnage left behind in the wake of a nasty zombie outbreak. The immersive atmosphere here is impressive; environmental clues and chilling audio diaries provide plenty of context regarding the fate of Palanai’s unlucky inhabitants, and these subtle details tell a far more interesting story than the comparatively dull (and overly familiar) main quest arc. Though its story falls flat, Riptide still manages to build and maintain an immense amount of tension. There’s rarely a reprieve from the onslaught of the undead’s guttural moans and shrieks, which are constant reminders that every inch of Palanai is inhabited by something whose sole interest involves eating you alive.

“Though its story falls flat, Riptide still manages to build and maintain an immense amount of tension.”

Finding the sources of said moans and shrieks and subsequently bashing their skulls in is the primary reason you’ll play through Riptide’s 18-hour campaign. Each of the playable characters is proficient with certain types of weapons and has a unique set of skill trees, providing some incentive for multiple playthroughs. Washed up rapper Sam B, for instance, is particularly good with a sledgehammer and can be specced to withstand a ton of damage, while newcomer John Morgan is adept at powerful running jump kicks that send zombies flying (a hilarious spectacle).

The brutal, weighty melee combat is a well-designed experience you won’t find anywhere else, and it’s something you’ll encounter a lot of regardless of which character you choose to play. You’ll really get a sense of the momentum that comes with swinging a giant maul, especially when the force of its impact turns a zombie’s head into chunks of mush. Most encounters only pit you against a couple zombies at a time, but bigger engagements are sprinkled throughout, providing a high level of challenge (and, for console players, some troublesome frame rate dips).

“The brutal, weighty melee combat is a well-designed experience you won’t find anywhere else…”

Don’t expect to just run into a group of zombies swinging like a madman, though; each undead walker can dish out a lot of damage and you’ll have to be mindful of your stamina meter, which drains with each swing. You’ll be susceptible to getting knocked off your feet once it’s depleted–that’s bad news if a few flesh-eaters are nearby. For a bunch of mindless creatures driven by instinct, zombies in Riptide are good at sneaking up on you when you’re not paying attention. As in Dead Island, weapons degrade as you use them, but a plentiful number of repair benches and significant adjustments to the auto-save system mean you won’t ever find yourself stuck in a checkpoint where you’re equipped with broken armaments and surrounded by powerful enemies. Battles are persistently fun, a much-welcomed change compared to Dead Island’s crippling design elements.

Of course, the combat wouldn’t be quite as exciting if it weren’t for all the loot it inevitably leads to. As you complete quests and explore, you’ll come across dozens of weapons and items, including swords, grenades, explosive mines, Wolverine claws (seriously), firearms, and tons of other instruments of death. Most of these can be upgraded and modded to become even stronger. Jamming a bunch of nails through the business end of a baseball bat makes it a tad bit deadlier, as does strapping torches to both ends of a bo staff. Even guns–which are far more powerful in Riptide than they were in Dead Island–can be modded to add shock damage or other types of additional effects. The seemingly endless variations of weapons and the quick rate at which you’ll replace old ones will turn even modest looters into full-blown addicts.

“The seemingly endless variations of weapons and the quick rate at which you’ll replace old ones will turn even modest looters into full-blown addicts.”

Solo play is a far more viable option than it was in Dead Island, and going it alone makes for an intense, atmospheric survival experience. Add a few friends to the mix, though, and things get exponentially goofier. Watching other characters drop kick zombies from a high ledge–a new thing anyone can do–is hilarious, as is witnessing your pals swing at the special infected zombies with boat oars and katanas (though this has the side effect of making Riptide’s janky character animations become super obvious). It’s easy to hop in a game, and a scaling mechanic means you can contribute even if you join the game of a high-level player, eliminating basically any barrier from playing with your friends whenever you want.

Considering Riptide’s large scope, it’s a surprisingly smooth ride. Its addicting zombie-slaying action, dozens of interesting weapons, and immersive qualities far outweigh its dull story and occasional technical hiccups, the latter of which pale in comparison to those of the original. This outshines its predecessor in almost every conceivable way–and once it sinks its teeth into your time, Riptide is a hard game to put down.

This game was reviewed on PC.

ShootMania Storm review

ShootMania Storm is a trip back to a time when competitive first-person shooters were simply about hunting down your opponents and making sure you didn’t get shot. There are no guns to choose from, no ammo to worry about, and no cover controls to learn. Instead, what you get is a barebones shooter that rewards skill and technique without any of the frills that we’re used to from the more popular FPS titles out there.

One of the most important things that makes ShootMania stand out from today’s shooters is that it focuses on accuracy over damage. Two shots anywhere is all it takes for you to get killed, so you’ll need to master the game’s simple controls of jumping and shooting to evade fire and take down your opponents. These controls are simple enough for FPS beginners to enjoy, but mastering the technique of leading a shot is key to scoring kills.

Matches themselves are quick to get into, thanks to the various familiar modes the game offers. After navigating your way through some confusing menus, you can choose from the game’s pre-created modes, most of which offer variations on free-for-all, team, and King of the Hill-type matches. One ingenious mode in particular features a cyclone that slowly makes its way to the center of the battlefield, forcing players closer together for chaotic sudden death shootouts.

“…a barebones shooter that rewards skill and technique without any of the frills that we’re used to…”

ShootMania takes a novel, if simplistic, approach to weaponry, as it supplies everyone with the same energy gun that fires four shots before it needs to recharge. That means no interchangeable rocket launchers, sniper rifles, shotguns or other standard FPS fare. Not only does this put everyone on the same playing field, but you won’t have to worry about picking the right weapon for a specific situation. Some maps do offer special zones where your weapon magically transforms into a rocket launcher or a sniper, but these areas seem unneeded as they leave you vulnerable. You’re better off with your default weapon, even if shooting the same bullets tends to get old after a while.

For better and worse, the game also doesn’t offer a leveling system. In the hands of skilled players, some matches can culminate in tense stand-offs between two opponents strafing back and forth, hoping to anticipate their opponent’s moves and land that last shot. However, you’ll likely start to feel like the game doesn’t offer anything more than what it comes with. Winning matches simply increases your global and local leaderboard rankings, but victories don’t offer anything else that makes you feel like you’re making progress. You’re not playing for experience points, unlockables, or new weapons, so despite having accessible controls and mechanics, ShootMania actually feels like a game tailored to competitive players that are satisfied with just winning. Those who don’t live for the sheer thrill of victory might find themselves wanting more.

“…actually feels like a game tailored to competitive players that are satisfied with just winning.”

To remedy this, Nadeo also supplied the game with an impressive level editor that lets you design your own battlefields and decide what rules to give your matches. Offering a basic and advanced level creator, the editor includes all of the components from the core game, and it lets you test out your levels and rules before creating them and sharing them with the world. You may not be making any progress, but designing your own maps and inviting some friends over for frantic battles with rules you created is a rewarding experience that not many modern FPS games offer. When it comes down to it, much of ShootMania’s replayability lies in the hands of its community and the variety of inventive stages you’ll encounter on its servers–and so far, there are plenty of creative modes to explore.

As fun as it is to create your own worlds, the levels you’ll play through and create repeat the same generic visuals that make the game feel stale after playing through them dozens of rounds in a row. Even the default stages are easily forgettable, and don’t provide any sense of wonder or context as to what world your vapid avatars inhabit. The strange soundtrack that loops in the background is also uninspiring and doesn’t match the action on the battlefield, sounding more like futuristic menu music than something you’d expect from a match to the death.

“…ShootMania Storm is like a blank canvas for FPS fans’ creativity.”

Despite its bland and overly simplistic exterior, ShootMania Storm is like a blank canvas for FPS fans’ creativity. Players who miss the days of Unreal Tournament matches will appreciate the game’s simple and uncomplicated gameplay, but those looking for more than basic victories should look elsewhere. It’s not a game everyone will appreciate, but priced at $20, those who want a classic, fast-paced competitive shooter should pick this one up.

Dishonored review

Editor’s Note 4/19/13: Scroll down for  review of Dishonored‘s DLC update, The Knife of Dunwall.

Historically, new IPs with unique worlds don’t pop up as frequently when it’s several years into a console cycle. But with Arkane Studios’ Dishonored, the first-person, stealth-action title sneaks in, like its hero, and catches you completely off-guard with its overall quality. Dishonored arrives with a unique world filled with fascinating characters and intensely entertaining stealth-based combat. This strong core is topped off with the inclusion of player choice and the ability to create your own path in the world, making a thoroughly satisfying experience.

You play as Corvo Attano, the famed Lord Protector of the Empress of Dunwall. The city has seen better times, and is afflicted with an infectious rat plague that’s turning the citizens into zombie-like, blood-crying Weepers. Upon returning from an assignment to find a cure for the plague in a neighboring empire, Corvo witnesses the Empress’s assassination and kidnapping of the Empress’s daughter, Emily, and is rendered helpless. He is quickly accused of regicide by the true perpetrator and self-proclaimed Lord Regent (Hiram Burrows). But with the help of an underground resistance group, Corvo escapes captivity, meets with the band of loyalists and, begins setting plans in motion to rescue Emily and enact revenge on those responsible.

Players receive missions from the Hound Pits, the Loyalists’s home base. From here, you’ll head to an open mission area by boat where you can gather details on your target, discover secret paths, and decide what course of action you’ll take. Every target can be assassinated, but with additional effort, each one can be neutralized through unique, non-lethal means. So, instead of simply stabbing them in the neck, you can manipulate situations to get the target banished, humiliated, or even kidnapped by a “secret admirer.” It is incredibly rewarding to successfully complete the optional side missions required to pull off the non-lethal solution. You’ll learn everything there is to know about the dense world lore and the interesting target characters–like their motivations, and personalities–through journals, voice recordings and NPC gossip. Then, once you find out how horrible of a person the targets are, you’ll feel satisfied when you give them a punishment that’s (in most cases) much worse than death.

“…filled with fascinating characters and intensely entertaining stealth-based combat.”

The entire world setting immerses you in the story and creates motivation for you to rid Dunwall of it’s corrupt political figures. You explore the visually striking, Victorian-inspired city, covered in graffiti–protesting the oppressive overlord. Plagued corpses lie on sidewalks and fill rotting apartment buildings. The characters are believable, intriguing, and unpredictable–forcing you to consider the fate of every prominent character, even the Average Joe security guard. Every mission environment feels different from the last, ranging from dank, underground sewers and long abandoned whale oil factories to royal mansions and exclusive burlesque houses. But Dishonored truly excels at pulling you in with its integration of player choice.

The story maintains its intrigue by showing how your actions impact the game world. Whether you choose to assassinate or spare a target, your number of kills, or the more you make your presence known to your enemies, they all increase the world’s chaos rating. Doing less desirable actions makes Dunwall a drearier place, giving true weight to your choices. A high chaos rating fills the streets with additional weepers and rats, but it also has a psychological impact on your companions and their attitudes toward you. You can be seen as a ruthless killer, or a merciful savior, making the story all the more engrossing as you see the impact you are making.

Corvo has a variety of weapons and abilities at his disposal. Assassin-style weapons like his retractable short sword and one-handed crossbow make up his standard arsenal, but he also has access to supernatural abilities–bestowed upon Corvo by the celestial Outsider–that allow him to transport himself short distances, summon rats, and freeze time. Each of these abilities are earned and upgraded by collecting runes, and Corvo can get minor bonuses from finding and equipping bone charms. Collecting the runes and bone charms encourages exploration, but it can become annoying when the on-screen pop-ups continuously remind you to upgrade and force you to enter the menus to get rid of them.

 “The story maintains its intrigue by showing how your actions impact the game world.”

Although Dishonored has a sequential level structure, the missions are far from linear. The way you approach a goal is completely up to you. If you’re interested in action and gruesome kills, you can charge through guards with adrenaline fueled melee kills, explosive grenades, and Jedi-like force pushes. Or you may decide to get creative by combining your weapons and abilities to almost absurd levels, which is incredibly amusing. You can summon a horde of rats, freeze time, attach a spring razor (proximity mine) to a rat, possess the rat, then walk it over to a guard, the spring razor will release, shredding the guard to meaty chunks. The multiple combat options allow you to play your own way while making you feel like a powerful super-ninja, but ability limitations and powerful enemies ensure missions won’t be a walk in the park.

Unfortunately, starting off with limited abilities and weapons in the beginning of the game might leave a bad taste for some players. Some of the earlier challenges are abnormally difficult, simply because you don’t have to abilities like Time Bend or Rat Swarm to help you get out of sticky situations. Without the more powerful skills, your success will be more dependent on trial and error, which can become discouraging.

“Dishonored is a game that you won’t want to miss.”

Alternatively, you can completely “ghost” a level, leaving none the wiser to you ever being there. But, taking the stealth route is boring compared to more violent methods. You can find clever ways to circumnavigate enemy guard positions and find hidden paths in the nooks and crannies of the environment, but you’ll also have to forgo the system of combining the weapons and abilities we mentioned before. The fun-factor of patiently hiding in the shadows pales in comparison to dismembering adversaries with magic powers or sticking your retractable blade through an enemy’s chin. However, the alternate outcomes and multiple story endings lend themself well to more than one playthrough. So, getting your bloody rampage fix on the first run may inspire you to make the next pass a bit more subtle.

Dishonored combines a beautiful, stylized world filled with colorful characters, and gameplay freedom to form a fantastic adventure that you will want to revisit again and again. The open-style missions–combined with the weapons and abilities–make a thrilling playground to explore, tough enemies present a significant challenge, and the multiple outcomes, characters, and setting create an exhilarating world to discover. Dishonored is a game that you won’t want to miss.


Dishonored: The Knife of Dunwall DLC review

Corvo Attano’s story is done, but there are still other tales to be told from the city of Dunwall. Dishonored’s first DLC offering, The Knife of Dunwall, is set immediately after the assassination of the empress at the beginning of the original game and puts you in the role of Daud, the leader of the assassin order called The Whalers. The DLC takes you through three challenging missions, gives you access to new powers, and lets you dive deeper into the lore of Dishonored. And guess what? Those additional missions are absolutely worth your time.

The Knife of Dunwall gives you more insight into the mind of the master assassin in the first part of a two-part story. Daud’s struggle with guilt over the murder of the empress and the downfall of Dunwall, as well as his subsequent path to redemption, is a compelling setup. But with the story being broken up into two parts, the story feels like it’s just that; a full story that has been chopped in half. That is to say, the intriguing introduction to the bad guy ends incredibly abruptly with a weak twist.

“Those additional missions are absolutely worth your time.”

Some of the environments are particularly striking. For instance, the first level takes you through a whale oil factory that contains butchers torturing civilians and a massive whale being drained of its valuable fluids, while it’s still alive. The corrupt moments you witness drive home the concept of Daud’s guilt and opens up the character as more than just a heartless murderer.

Outside the underwhelming ending, the DLC maintains the excellent stealth-action gameplay of the original, and gives you a few twists on the classic powers to experiment with. The levels are as challenging as ever, with multiple options in terms of the path you take to your target and whether you eliminate them lethally or just ruin their lives. You’ll also get a chance to explore more of the corrupt city’s underbelly, both in the environments and in the diaries, books, and notes you find.

“…you’ll have to wait for part two to see if Daud’s tale will be a full, compelling story.”

Daud’s alternate weapons and powers give players a few less options than what Corvo had and your abilities rely more on distraction than straight stealth tactics. The original rat summoning power now calls a helpful assassin to your side, possession is completely missing, and you now have enemy-stunning Chokedust grenades at your disposal. These options give you fewer avenues to be stealthy and creative with kills, since tactics like possessing enemies and walking them into deathtraps is impossible. However, the core gameplay is still strong, even if Daud’s abilities lean more towards the Chaos path.

Dishonored: The Knife of Dunwall is an entertaining experience from a gameplay standpoint. It hits the highpoints of the original game as you carefully ghost through the environments or brutally assassinate everyone you see. If you’re looking for more of Dishonored’s stealth-action gameplay, The Knife of Dunwall will definitely scratch the itch, but you’ll have to wait for part two to see if Daud’s tale will be a full, compelling story.

Our Verdict: Buy it


Injustice: Gods Among Us review

With Superman, there’s always that underlying tension: What if one day, he just snapped? What kind of havoc could the all-powerful Kryptonian wreak on mankind? You’ll get to experience his terrifying strength firsthand in Injustice: Gods Among Us, the latest 2.5D fighter from NetherRealm Studios that pits DC’s most iconic heroes and villains against each other. It’s one of the most accessible, adrenaline-charged brawlers around, and despite a few missteps, Injustice will be a surefire hit with fans of the brand and genre alike.

The 24 heroes and villains that comprise the Injustice roster offer stellar variety, and half the fun of using them comes from how unique and powerful they all feel. The other half lies in the sheer intensity of the attack animations: Every uppercut and gut punch has a palpable force to it, and the bombastic super attacks are the epitome of crowd-pleasing. It all looks stunning, thanks to graphics that strike just the right balance between realism and cartoonish color. Sound also plays a huge part in the impact of your attacks–when The Flash does a running punch with the Earth’s circumference as the wind-up, the crunchy sound effects and eye-popping visuals will make you feel the force of the blow.

“…the bombastic super attacks are the epitome of crowd-pleasing.”

No matter your playstyle, you’ll find someone to love in Injustice. Like lengthy, big-damage combos? Green Lantern’s your guy. Solomon Grundy and Doomsday will please those with a preference for brutal bruisers, while tricky players will love Batman and Green Arrow. Somewhat obscure pugilists like Ares and Killer Frost may not have the notoriety of Shazam or Wonder Woman, but they’re no less fun to bash faces with. It’s not all about your preferred brawler, either–the environment can have almost as big an impact on a fight as the chosen combatants. This is due to interactables, which let you wield the scenery as a weapon, and cinematic stage transitions that are the superhero’s equivalent of a hip-shattering tumble down the stairs. This focus on the stage as a deciding factor is refreshingly different and easy to grasp–it won’t take more than a few matches to ascertain where the interactable objects are, and how to avoid them when they’re used against you. That said, you can always disable them if you prefer to stick to the basics.

Each fighter is made all the more unique by their Trait, a character-specific ability that can completely alter their approach or simply enhance it. Joker’s parrying Trait is a huge factor in playing him properly, while others like Aquaman’s water shield simply reduce the risk of going on the offensive. They’re all activated with a simple button press–in fact, simplicity is one of Injustice’s strong suits when it comes to controls. Instead of the two punch, two kick layout of Mortal Kombat, Injustice uses the easy-to-grasp setup of light, medium, and heavy attacks plus a Trait. The Block button has been done away with entirely, while special move inputs and combo timings are more forgiving than your typical fighting game. A new one-use Wager move provides a great equalizer for close matches, though it’s less exciting to gamble chunks of your super meter when the opponent can clearly outbid you.

“No matter your playstyle, you’ll find someone to love in Injustice.”

Giving each fighter their own distinguishing Trait makes everyone feel varied; the drawback is that you’ll have to do some homework on which characters can do what before you’ll know what you’re up against. But when these Traits promote an irritating style of play, it can be a problem. When it comes to long-distance zoning, Deathstroke is king, with Superman, Black Adam, and Harley Quinn being potential projectile spamming culprits. These fighters all have moves that make them excel at thrashing you from afar–but it nearly threatens to ruin the game for you if you’re at the mercy of an unending stream of handgun fire or laser beams. Watching a skilled Deathstroke is boring; playing against one is absolutely infuriating. With practice, you’ll find ways to get in on these spam-centric defenses, but having to face them may make you give up on the game entirely.

Of course, these kinds of frustrations are only likely to arise during multiplayer affairs. In terms of the single-player, Injustice offers plenty of options. The star of the show is the game’s story mode, a gripping campaign that offers a great explanation for why heroes are beating each other to a pulp, and why the Joker doesn’t die from taking a hail of bullets to the face. It’s exciting from beginning to end, feeling like an epic crossover comic come to life or a Justice League feature film. Seamless transitions between cutscenes and fistfights make it a captivating 3-to-5-hour thrill ride–and even if you blow through the campaign in one marathon sitting, you’ll walk away satisfied.

“The star of the show is the game’s story mode…”

Once you’ve completed the story mode, your other solo options are some typical arcade-style Battle ladders or some charming (but ultimately superfluous) mini-games in the S.T.A.R. Labs. Your time would be better spent testing your mettle against other players, whether through living room duels or Injustice’s excellent online experience. The dependable netcode keeps lag at a minimum, and the online Theater view lets you switch between spectating a match and inspecting other players in the lobby with zero hassle (something that ought to be the standard for all future fighters).

For all its impressive visuals and enjoyable online play, some areas of Injustice feel like they’re lagging behind the contemporary competition. The controls stay faithful to the pre-established physics of Mortal Kombat, perhaps to a fault–the fixed jumping angles, stiff dash distances, and general heaviness of the characters can feel a bit clunky when compared to other 2D fighters. Once you’ve acclimated yourself to the controls, they’re undoubtedly solid, but getting to that point may take a few hours of practice.

“Once you’ve acclimated yourself to the controls, they’re undoubtedly solid, but getting to that point may take a few hours of practice.”

Injustice also takes alternate costumes a step further past the typical palette swap by giving some costumes their own intro and victory animations. But many outfits have been relegated to pre-order bonuses, while others, like the coveted Yellow Lantern outfit, are doled out seemingly at random as you level up your profile. It’s disheartening to see a sweet alternate costume online, only to realize that you won’t probably get the chance to don those spiffy tights any time soon.

All-in-all, Injustice is a licensed fighting game done right, sure to please fans of the brand and the genre. Its accessibility lets casual gamers or avid comic readers enjoy themselves, while retaining all the depth that fighter enthusiasts crave. If you’ve ever wanted to witness Batman and Superman duke it out in a brutal showdown, there’s no better time than now.

This game was reviewed on Xbox 360.

Strangers in the House: Review

The Turkish film is a well-observed character drama that also illuminates the troubled history of the region.

 The long history of conflict between Greece and Turkey has generated a lot of bloodshed in the real world and a fair amount of potent drama in literature and film. A fresh approach to the subject invigorates Strangers in the House, one of the most affecting movies shown at this year’s Istanbul Film Festival. The film may be too specialized to achieve much exposure beyond the festival circuit, but it’s a small gem that will stir audiences who have a chance to see it.

The film begins as Agapi (Melpo Zarokosta), a stubborn, spirited woman in her 80s, travels from Greece to a small fishing village on the Aegean coast of Turkey, accompanied by her granddaughter Elpida (Romy Vasiliadis). At first she refuses to explain the purpose of her visit, except to say that she wants to return to the town where she grew up and in particular to the house where she was raised. When they arrive, the two women encounter Yasar (Fatih Al), who now owns the house and dismisses the old woman’s insistence that this house still belongs to her. Yasar’s mother has recently died, and he hopes to turn the house into a hotel. But he is intimidated by Agapi’s ferociousness — and unmistakably attracted to Elpida — so he agrees to let them stay in the house until Agapi can conclude the mysterious business that she claims to have in town.

The older woman’s back story is parceled out in small bits of exposition. Eventually we learn that she was forced to leave Turkey during the massive population exchange that followed one of many Greco-Turkish wars at the end of World War I. Is it just nostalgia for her homeland that has led her to return, or does she have another purpose? The answer to that question is delayed until the very end of the film, but when it comes, it packs an emotional wallop. The population exchange forced Agapi to leave a Turkish man whom she loved, and the two lost contact, though she has never forgotten him. The film is a powerful but subtle indictment of war, reminding us how ordinary people’s lives can be drastically altered by momentous events swirling around them.

But the film is shrewd to couch its larger political statement in a well-observed character drama. We really get a feeling for the single-minded Agapi, the lonely Yasar, and the group of cronies who hang out with him and complain about the constrictions of village life. This is a town where everyone knows everyone else’s business, and Yasar does not quite fit in with the local louts and gossips. He once dreamt of a different life in the city, and his house is crammed with books and old phonograph records that his buddies have trouble appreciating. He finds a more sympathetic ally in Elpida, and despite the language barrier between them, she is intrigued enough by his melancholy nature to make us feel there might be a mutual attraction.

All of the performances are first-rate, though Zarokosta as the iron-willed Agapi invevitably dominates the movie. Directors Ulas Gunes Kacargil and Dilek Keser bring the town to life with vivid images.  The handsome cinematography is a major asset, and it adds complexity to the film. We recognize the beauty of the landscape that entices both Agapi and Elpida, but we can also understand why the isolated town oppresses Yasar. At times the film is reminiscent of Fellini’s I Vitelloni, though a nice modern touch is that one of the members of Yasar’s gang of malcontents is a young woman who hangs out with the men. The low budget, however, may have contributed to the film’s somewhat confusing sense of time. Presumably the story takes place in the 1990s rather than the present day, but the details of costume and sets never quite establish the exact period when the story unfolds.

But these dissatisfactions are minor. Welcome bursts of humor punctuate this sharp slice of provincial life, and the emotional climax — when Agapi recalls the lost love who inspired her to make this arduous journey — may move audiences to tears. This haunting, elegant film lingers in the memory.

Venue: Istanbul Film Festival
Cast: Melpo Zarokosta, Fatih Al, Romy Vasiliadis, Cem Bender, Ferit Aktug
Directors: Ulas Gunes Kacargil, Dilek Keser
Screenwriter: Ulas Gunes Kacargil
Producers: Ozkan Yilmaz, Serkan Cetinkaya, Dilek Keser, Ulas Gunes Kacargil
Director of photography: Turksoy Golebeyi
Art director: Isil Caglar Narler
Music: Ulas Gunes Kacargil
Editor: Hande Sakarya
No rating, 90 minutes

Sniper: Ghost Warrior 2 review

Precision, stealth, and timing are the essential traits of a sniper. One mistake can mean the difference between life and death, and knowing when to pull the trigger can determine whether a mission is a success or a failure. There’s no margin for error. Developer GI Games attempts to simulate the pressure of being a real-life marksman in Sniper: Ghost Warrior 2, bringing players to exotic locations to take down global threats with a single shot rather than a barrage of gunfire and grenades. But while this long-range, FPS strikes the nail on the head with its sniping mechanics, it misses its target entirely when it comes to creating an overall engaging experience.

In Ghost Warrior 2, you take on the role of mercenary sniper Cole Anderson as he works with the CIA to stop a biological weapons dealer. The story takes you through dramatic twists and turns, flashbacks, betrayals, and contrived plot devices like keeping the protagonist on a need-to-know basis. The narrative passes as a decent excuse to shoot terrorists in the head for a few hours, but the characters’ cringe-worthy dialogue and overly grizzled voice-acting makes paying attention almost unbearable. The mission commander–who orders you around over the radio during missions–in particular is angry to the point of being comedic. Almost every time characters open their mouth, they take you out of the immersion, turning an otherwise passable shooter story into a goofy distraction.

Corny dialogue isn’t the only fault you’ll find in Ghost Warrior 2. The visuals don’t do much to help keep players focused on the mission at hand. Textures are often blurry up close and pop-in far too regularly when peering down your sniper scope. On top of that, enemies and characters look bland and have robotic animations that don’t even remotely resemble trained, military soldiers. When compared to the motion-captured animations of other modern shooters, watching the characters in Ghost Warrior 2 feels like you’ve stepped into the 3D animation Stone Age.

The 6- to 8-hour campaign has few high points and rarely features any memorable set pieces. The missions take you through a series of sneaking and sniping sections in environments like the present day Philippine jungle and the war-torn city of Sarajevo during the early 1990s. The action is slow-paced, with mission paths that are incredibly straightforward and linear. Breadcrumb objective markers guide you every step of the way. They take all the fun out of sneaking through enemy-infested battlegrounds, leaving you without the ability to discover your own path through an enemy compound. Instead, every stealth kill and hidden path is neatly laid out in front of you, making levels feel like a guided tour.

If Ghost Warrior 2 excels in one aspect, it’s the sniping mechanics. With every shot you take, you’ll have to compensate for a number of factors, including bullet drop, travel time (when aiming at moving targets), and wind speed. Your posture (crouched, prone, or standing) and heart-rate, as well as how slowly you physically pull the controller’s trigger, also affect each shot. All of these elements combine to make a realistic-feeling sniper experience every time you set up your bipod and aim down the scope. It’s extremely satisfying when you correctly line up a shot or take down an entire guard patrol without raising an alarm. On top of that, the camera will occasionally follow your bullet from the end of your barrel to the terrorist’s cranium in slow-motion, rewarding you even more for your precision.

Ghost Warrior 2 also accommodates those who don’t want to calculate every trigger pull by providing a helpful red-dot bullet-impact indicator to get you through engagements. On easy and medium difficulties, a red dot in your scope shows where the bullet will hit, essentially doing all the math for you–which comes as a relief at excessively long ranges. This simplifies each engagement significantly–which is great for players with a little less patience–but those who want a true sniping challenge will find that wiping all assists clear on the hard difficulty is the most satisfying experience.

Outside the single-player campaign, the multiplayer offering is incredibly disappointing. Sniper: Ghost Warrior 2 drops its competitive mode in with the bare minimum of features. Team Deathmatch is the only match type, which has a measly two maps to duel other snipers online. The action is (once again) slow-paced, so instead of running-and-gunning, you’ll have to strategically move about the map to get the best vantage point on other players. The hide-and-seek game is initially entertaining, but once you score a few kills on each of the two maps, you’ve essentially seen everything there is to see.

Sniper: Ghost Warrior 2 misses its mark when it comes to being an overall fulfilling sniper experience. All of the sniper mechanics that go into making a precise, one-shot-kill shooter create some thrilling moments as you play through the campaign. However, everything surrounding the long-range shooting makes this far from a satisfying experience. The muddy visuals, cheesy dialogue, predictable level design, and lacking multiplayer leaves plenty to be desired.