Demon's Souls - title

With a new generation of consoles coming into their own, the lifespan of the PS3 and XBox360 is rapidly coming to an end. It's not quite as monumental as the end of the PS2's lifecycle, which is arguably the single best gaming console ever made! With the PS3 and XBox360, our console games started to have consistent online functionality, and with online functionality comes a sad side-effect: a game's life-span is finite. I can always go back and play my favorite PS2 games (like Silent Hill 2, Metal Gear Solid 3, Ace Combat 4, Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, Gran Turismo 3, and Devil May Cry) and have pretty much the same experience that I had the first time I played. But I won't be able to do that with some of my favorite PS3 games, because some of them have online features that won't remain active forever.

favorite PS2 games
As long as my PS2 is functional, I can always go back and re-play my favorite PS2 games.

PC gamers have been dealing with this problem since the dawn of the internet, but they have work-arounds. PC Games can be modded to support direct TCP / IP connections in order for their online communities to stay online. Hypothetically, you could keep your favorite MMO alive for yourself and your circle of friends in this fashion. But with console games, there are much more significant technical hurdles to overcome, and when the producer shuts down the servers, that is basically the end of that game.

And that is exactly what is going to happen some day with my favorite PS3-exclusive: Demon's Souls.

Every console has its defining games - those games that are reasons for owning the consoles. The original PlayStation had Final Fantasy VII and Metal Gear Solid, the Nintendo 64 had Goldeneye, the Dreamcast had Shenmue and Soul Calibur, the XBox had Halo, GameCube had Resident Evil 4 and Eternal Darkness, the PS2 had Shadow of the Colossus. For me, Demon's Souls is that game for the PS3: the game that makes owning a PS3 worthwhile.

Demon's Souls is a game that completely redefined the way that I think about gaming. My ideas about how a player can interact with a game world and with other players were completely turned on their head with this game. So I want to take a moment to pay tribute to this masterpiece of interactive art with a full review while its servers are still up and running. And maybe - just maybe - I can sell a copy or two to some new players.

The gameplay is based on a simple control configuration in which weapons are mapped to the left and right hand and controlled with the left and right shoulder buttons (respectively). The design is reminiscent of a simplified version of FROM's other major game franchise: the mech-combat sim Armored Core. Weapons equipped in the right hand have a basic attack and a heavy attack, and weapons or shields in the left hand have a block and heavy attack (sorry, lefties, no left-handed characters for you!). These basic controls are very simple, and any player can start hacking and blocking away as soon as they pick up the controller. But more advanced controls and variations in weapon functionality make this seemingly-simple combat system very deep.

Each weapon class has different movesets, ranging from the slashing of a sword to the thrusting of a spear, to smashing of a giant hammer. And shields (and some off-hand weapons) have an advanced parry feature that allows you to stun and counter an attacking foe to land a critical hit. You can also attack while running or out of dodges in order to keep a foe guessing. Mastering these various features takes a little bit of time, but it is immensely rewarding when you finally have the skills to go toe to toe with a giant, butcher-knife wielding skeleton with confidence. But don't get overconfident, because this game will punish you for every mistake!

Demon's Souls - Vanguard rematch
With patience and practice, you'll soon stand confidently before the Vanguard that killed you in the tutorial.

If you die, you lose all your accumulated souls (i.e. "experience"), and must restart the level from the beginning! But there is a shining glimmer of hope: you have one chance to reach the spot where you died in order to recover your lost souls. If you get there...

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Dark Souls: Artorias of the Abyss - title

I may have been a bit hard on Dark Souls in my original review (despite spending like six months playing it before I reviewed it). I guess - despite my best efforts - I just couldn't get over my love for Demon's Souls (which I still think was a better game for its time). But Dark Souls ended up eating up a lot of my time, and I have fallen as much in love with it as I had for Demon's Souls. As such, I have updated my original review with a new, retrospective score to go along with this DLC review. I bought and downloaded Artorias of the Abyss DLC on day one (PSN) when it was released last year, but didn't get around to playing it until earlier this year.

Instead of just unlocking a special quest as soon as the DLC is download (ala Skyrim), the DLC of Dark Souls can only be accessed by defeating an existing, but entirely optional boss in an existing, but entirely optional area of the world; then defeating an existing enemy that allows access to a specific NPC; then defeating another monster in one of the end-game areas (after acquiring the Lordvessel) in order to unlock the "key" to the DLC content. Phew. That's a lot of hoops to jump through! So it took me a while just to be able to access the new content - let alone play through it. Sure, you may have paid for this DLC, but FROMSOFTWARE is still gonna make you work for it; and kudos to them for not compromising on their principles!

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This review was originally published 07/30/2010 on Game Observer (now defunct). It has been republished here for archival purposes.

NCAA Football 11

NCAA Football 11 cover (PS3)

The game has nice ideas and looks great, but new gameplay mechanics only seem to create more bugs and problems.

EA really needs some competition in the football gaming market. I can’t imagine any football gaming fan NOT wanting the NCAA to discontinue EA’s NCAA football-exclusivity license when it expires either this year or next. [Update: EA has agreed to not sign another exclusivity agreement!] Comptetition is always good for the consumer, and right now, EA really isn’t giving us games that are up to par with our expectations. For the past two or three years, EA has given us NCAA football games that have contained some great new features and gameplay additions, but every year, they manage to fill the game with new flaws or take steps backwards in terms of gameplay.

Two years ago, excessive turnovers made the game almost unplayable. Last year, the oppressively fast game speed made the game look and feel so chaotic, that it almost completely overshadowed the improvements such as the “"Dead Duck" passes and the "Setup Play" feature. Like in past years, the new game gives us a lot of welcome improvements, but also introduces new problems and takes several steps backwards in certain areas.

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This review was originally published 05/15/2011 on Game Observer (now defunct as of 05/13/2014). It has been republished here for archival purposes.

Portal 2

Portal 2 cover art

Yes GladOS, we brought you back to life because we really do love to test!

To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t looking forward to this game. I love the first Portal, as it was about as close to "perfect" as any game has ever come, but I couldn’t help but fear that Valve might turn this into a franchise, and in doing so, some of the allure of the game would be lost. But the game was released, and it is a triumph. Mostly.

Apparently, a very long time has passed since the first game. The Enrichment Center is very different. Under the care of the watchful AI, Wheatley, the entire facility has been slowly falling apart. The degrading, decrepit test chambers make for much more interesting visuals than the sterile, white and gray chambers of the first game. They are now overgrown with weeds and vines, panels are falling off the walls, broken glass litters the floors, and fallen and bent metal beams and girders obstruct some of your paths. It’s just too bad that with all the debris and vegetation littering the environment, that none of it is interactive. It slightly breaks the immersion when you walk through dangling leaves and they don’t react to your passing at all.

There is a lot of visual variety in this game. You travel through the dilapidated chambers of the early game until the facility begins to rebuild itself. You watch it piece itself back together. Then you get to travel through the deepest guts of Aperture Science. And finally, you come back to see the test chambers tear themselves apart again

Portal 2 - co-op characters

The co-op puzzles are fun, but not terribly replayable.
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This review was originally published 09/14/2010 on Game Observer (now defunct). It has been republished here for archival purposes - and in anticipation of a Trine 2 review.

Trine

Trine cover

A fun and graphically very pretty puzzle-platformer, but physics and controls could have used a little more work.

If you look at the review score above, and think "Hmm, this game can’t be that good to be given a 76," you should be aware that the score takes into account that this game was reviewed as if it were a full-priced $40 to $60 title. But, don’t be discouraged, Trine (regardless of price point) is still good. The friends who have played co-op with me virtually unanimously agree that the game’s fun factor make it worthwhile even at a $40+ price point, regardless of its rating. That being said, let’s talk about the actual game.

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