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January 11, 2012

Busy Gamer Review - Portal 2 [BGN Game of the Year 2011]

Busy Gamer Review


Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.



Reviewed On: Xbox 360. Also available for Mac, PC and PS3.

Portal 2: Fun with a gunIn a Nutshell: A first-person shooter/puzzler with some of the best writing in videogames. Picking up after the events of the first Portal (originally part of Valve's Orange Box collection and now available as a standalone game), which you should play before this one if at all possible - if only so that you experience the magic of testing with GLaDOS firsthand. The sequel is actually more accessible, while adding much greater depth courtesy of new elements with which to solve some truly vexing (though never too difficult) puzzles. And solving these puzzles gives you such a natural high that the biggest risk is that you won't want to put it down, and you'll be more than a little sad (though ultimately satisfied) when it's over. Fortunately, there's a co-op mode that doesn't extend the main story, but can prolong the overall experience while encouraging you to be social and share the game with friends.

Learning Curve: If you beat the first Portal, you'll have no problem picking this up. Setting it down will be the hard part! If you're new to shooters, don't worry: The game designers are experts at teaching you the controls as you go, so you'll soon being doing science like the pros.

The Save Game: Save anywhere. What more could a busy gamer ask for?!

Portal 2: Co-op playFamily Factor: As with the original, there's some blood and a few adult situations. There's a heartless human named Cave Johnson who rants a bit about burning down the homes of enemies and such. But nothing too bad. In fact, the 10+ rating is probably more aggressive than you need to be. We let our 8-year-old watch us play the main story and he even participated in some of the co-op missions - and though he wasn't very much help in solving the levels, fun was had.

Buy, Rent or Skip? This one's a keeper. Buy it unless you absolutely hated the first one or first-person shooters make you excessively seasick.

Portal 2: New pal, WheatleyOn a Personal Note: We absolutely adored the original Portal's fresh take on storytelling with an innovative new puzzle dynamic and an antagonist whose vicious taunts and teases were so fulfilling we couldn't help but crave more. So we pre-ordered Portal 2 months in advance and began consuming it the same day it arrived. We immediately fell in love with the oafish Wheatley, a new robot companion whose smart British accent is paired with some of the stupidest dialogue ever written (get a sample in our audio review).

And once we each beat the well-paced main story, there was more. Part of the game's draw is the inventive co-op mode, which puts you in the metal boots of a duo of mechanical test chamber junkies -so there's not even any blood when they get hurt!

There were many games we loved in 2011, but Portal 2 was the most polished, the most enjoyable and the only title that we agreed deserved to be our pick for Game of the Year. If you missed out on it, you should look into remedying that now. You monster.

Game of the Year Runners-up: GrrlGotGame and I have very different tastes in games, so picking a Game of the Year that satisfies both of us can be a challenge, especially this year when I was leaning toward RPGs like Bastion and Skyrim and she was hot for zombie bashers.

Here are the games that were our very close runners-up, all worthy of a look:

GrrlGotGame: Alice: Madness Returns, Bejeweled 3, Dead Island and Dead Rising 2: Off the Record

Gamewatcher: Bastion, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Jetpack Joyride and L.A. Noire

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September 21, 2011

Busy Gamer Review - Resident Evil 4

Busy Gamer Review


Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.



Leon packing a shotgunReviewed On: GameCube, PS2, Wii, iPad and Xbox 360. Also available for PC, PS3 and various mobile devices.

In a Nutshell: Meet Eastern Europeans and kill them with guns, grenades and a big-ass blade all in the name of rescuing the president's daughter. Once you get past the laughable soap operatic storyline and characters, there is immensely satisfying third-person shooter gameplay with light puzzles and the occasional quick-time event (you know, those "press a button right now or be crushed" things).

Learning Curve: There's a lot going on in Resident Evil 4, but you don't have to learn it all at once. You start out shooting zombie-like people and the occasional wildlife, busting open crates and barrels and picking up ammo and healing herbs as you go. Eventually, you learn to pack your case efficiently to carry as many weapons and items as possible, combine herbs for more potent healing, buy and sell items from a shady black market dude who never fails to amuse and upgrade weapons based on your gameplay preference (say, shotgun and big pistol vs. rocket launcher and scoped rifle). Amazingly, shooting enemies doesn't get old and effective game balance keeps things challenging but rarely frustrating.

The Save Game: Typewriters are scattered around the world for you to stash up to 20 saves. You can generally find one nearby on your map, or backtrack to one you used previously. It's not "save anywhere" but it's better than many games give you.

Chainsaw dude is scaryFamily Factor: Keep this one far away from the kiddies. You won't want to blast the heads off zombified Eastern European villagers with your 8-year-old watching (at least, we hope not!). There's blood, there's gore and there's a dude with a sack over his head wielding a chainsaw. Heck, I'm not sure whether I'm old enough for this game! Keep it away from all but your most mature teens.

Buy, Rent or Skip? That depends on the version. The GameCube and PS2 versions are the gold standard, but you may lack the consoles needed to enjoy them (Wii can play GameCube titles and some older PS3s do play most PS2 games).

The Wii-optimized version is the most changed - in terms of controls and reduced gore - but it does allow you to aim with your Wii-mote. If you consider this a plus, rent it if you can and then buy it if you like it.

Some mobile versions contain snippets of gameplay or streamlined action, so they're not the optimal way to experience the game.

The new "HD" Xbox 360 and PS3 versions are download only in the U.S. (at least for now) and include an update to upscaled - though not true "high def" - graphics. They also add achievements and trophies respectively, plus the Assignment Ada mission and Mercenaries survival mode are available once you beat the game.

Bottom line: This is a game that's worth playing, so buy the best version you can.

Upscaled graphics look goodOn a Personal Note: Resident Evil 4 is definitely in our top 5 games of all time, and the main reason we hung onto our GameCube as long as we did.

We've gladly downloaded the Xbox 360 Games on Demand edition (our first such purchase!). Despite a little difficulty acclimating to the new controls (we chose the less awkward alternative setup, which has you aim with left trigger and shoot with the right) and are now greatly enjoying this 6-year-old classic which, so far, is the pinnacle of Resident Evil titles and third-person shooters in general.

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September 14, 2011

Busy Gamer Review - Jetpack Joyride

Busy Gamer Review


Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.



Coin collectorReviewed On: iPhone. Universal iOS app also optimized for iPad. Due soon for Android.

In a Nutshell: Infiltrate a secret lab, Canabalt-style, in this action platformer. You control a dude who busts through a wall in a jetpack and maneuvers through the seemingly endless side-scrolling structure while trying to beat missions that range from trivial (high-five a few scientists who populate the lower part of the screen) to insanely difficult (traveling a long distance without dying or collecting a single coin).

Jetpack blastLearning Curve: You can pick up and learn Jetpack Joyride in a minute or two, though it may take quite some time to master. But that's all part of the fun.

You activate your jetpack to dodge deadly obstacles by holding a finger against the touchscreen and release to fall earthward. There are other modes of transportation, including a powersuit called the Stomper, a Gravity Suit that lets you walk on the ceiling and a newly added robot dragon called Cuddles. Each controls differently and protects you from insta-death when you're struck by an enemy missile or fly into a zapper or laser attack.

The Save Game: As with all good mobile apps, the game saves anywhere if you quit. Normally you'll play a session for a minute or two traversing an in-game distance of a few thousand meters before running into an obstacle. It's hard to go much longer per run unless you are simply amazing at it or luck into random token spins that resurrect your fallen hero. Inevitably you'll crash and burn and then jump right back in for another run. But if your phone rings or you need to stop abruptly, don't worry - you can pick up right where you left off.

Family Factor: Reasonably tame, though you do shoot and crush people. When you start, your character is wearing a machinegun jetpack (which is, in fact, was the working title of the game!). So you basically mow down the helpless scientists who wander along the ground beneath you as you travel through the facility. Once you earn a few coins, you'll be able to switch to less violent modes of transportation - including packs that emit bubbles, steam and rainbows - but you will inevitably crush folks from time to time using the various vehicles in the game.

Stats screenBuy or Skip? Only $1 for one of the best mobile games ever? Just buy it! You'll get your money's worth and more.

On a Personal Note: I'm not a huge devotee of this style of game, but Jetpack Joyride is so well engineered to make you want to complete "just one more mission" that I have a hard time putting it down.

We've been fans of developer Halfbrick Studios since we stumbled upon their race and puzzle platformer Raskulls at PAX Prime 2010. And while we enjoyed slicing some produce with our fingers in Fruit Ninja, it didn't inspire the sort of long-term commitment that this has.

Crash and burnAfter completing all of the missions in Jetpack Joyride (three are active at any one time), you get a medal and then start the game all over again - and I did just that. You also can see how your friends are doing on Game Center and try to beat their high scores.

We're not normally all that competitive, but this game makes you want to keep trying for a greater distance, higher rank, achievements and all of the jetpack and vehicle upgrades (bought with coins you collect when you're not trying to avoid them for a mission). There's just so much depth and fun here for what seems like it ought to be a rather shallow gaming experience.

The first free game update added new elements, notably a new robot dragon vehicle. If Halfbrick keeps this up, we might save a ton on mobile app purchases. Because this is all I've been playing on my phone for the past two weeks. And there's no end in sight.

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September 7, 2011

Busy Gamer Review - Ugly Americans: Apocalypsegeddon

Busy Gamer Review


Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.



Apocalypsegeddon gameplayReviewed On: Xbox 360. Also available for PlayStation 3.

In a Nutshell: A co-op dual analog shoot 'em up with mild RPG tendencies based on the Comedy Central animated TV show Ugly Americans. Both the show and game are set in an alternate universe New York where demons, zombies, wizards and manbirds (yup, exactly what it sounds like) are as common as pigeons in Central Park. Non-human types can tap into the Department of Integration (DOI) for help settling in. It doesn't always go well.

Four of the show's leads appear as playable characters in Apocalypsegeddon:

  • Mark Lilly, the earnest social worker (human)
  • Callie Maggotbone, Mark's immediate superior and BDSM enthusiast girlfriend (hellspawn)
  • Leonard Powers, DOI desk jockey and semi-functional alcoholic (wizard)
  • Frank Grimes, head of the DOI's Law Enforcement Division and PTSD case (human)

Your playable charactersEach character has a unique special-attack keyed to his/her personality. Mark plugs his ears and shoots in the sky, sending dead Manbirds plummeting onto enemies. Grimes goes into full metal jacket mode. And so on. Players can select any of the standard load-outs before entering the game, but it all comes down to pretty much the same thing: shooting objects at bad guys. Of course, the objects might be bowling balls, baseballs or knives.

Learning Curve: This is one time you really need to read the instructions before jumping in. There isn't much to learn, but you will need to have a grasp of the dual-joystick (left moves, right fires) and a basic understanding of how to use your power move to survive the level. Fortunately, these are some of the most entertaining directions you'll ever read.

Each level is preceded by a cut scene explaining why there is suddenly a ton of say, Manbirds screaming "suck my balls" while attacking in the streets, or a horde of zombies totally ignoring the ban on human brains. The scenes were written and voiced by the show's talent, creating a familiar experience for fans. The gameplay itself consists primarily of walking down a street, getting attacked, clearing out enemies and then advancing into the next trigger area until reaching the level's boss(es). It's extremely linear and, at times, relentless.

There's little in the way of exploration, but players with itchy trigger fingers and an appetite for destruction will be rewarded for destroying everything possible including benches, mailboxes and random statues. Some produce loot, others offer the opportunity to switch load outs with a specific weapon.

The Save Game: The game auto-saves upon completion of a level or other significant action, such as leveling up. The average level is around 5 minutes and, no, you cannot save mid-level.

Family Factor: Older teens who watch South Park will find the humor somewhat tame. Younger kids will be traumatized. Expect sex jokes (Leonard's girlfriend is an anatomically correct doll), crude language ("Suck my balls" is on auto-repeat when manbirds are around) and some gross moments.

Buy or Skip? Fans of the show who just want to go forth and shoot things will have a ball with the levels. Those who are easily offended and gamers who prefer a bit more precision to their shooters should pass this one by.

On a Personal Note: I've watched Ugly Americans from the beginning, and approached the game as a fan of the show. The game does a nice job of capturing the style and humor of the series while pushing the boundaries ever so slightly. I caught several references to past shows, a nice nod to the fan base that will (presumably) make up the bulk of the game's audience.

It took me a few minutes to adjust to using a second thumbstick to shoot, but once I got the hang of it, I rather enjoyed the freedom it game me to run and gun (and spin and gun, for that matter). I had a more difficult time with the specialty moves. I never quite mastered Frank's machine gun, making it a waste of bullets. I tried using Mark's gun several times, only to have manbirds fall flat on the ground – instead of enemies. I'm still not sure what Callie's power is – I assume she has one. It didn't make much of an impression. None of that mattered once I had leveled up my strength though. A leveled-up Callie with bowling balls did plenty of damage without having to resort to... whatever.

Through luck of the draw online, I played the game alone, as a duo and, for a brief period, with a full squad of four online friends (the game defaults to online play though you can back out and choose solo action). The best overall experience was with one other team member, but that's partly due to the people who were randomly dropped into my game. With one other person in my squad it was easy to keep track of the other, and I had someone to heal me if I fell to enemy forces. Plus we were able to stay relatively close together, a critical point when playing on a shared screen.

In my four-player game, it was complete chaos - with team members falling behind to loot while others were getting creamed by the just-triggered hordes. It was frustrating and made me wish there was a boot option. I should have been more careful with my wishes: the most difficult player froze in place shortly after. It wasn't clear if he left the game voluntarily or his game froze. Either way, we had to abandon the level and start over. We couldn't advance without the fourth player. The game froze on me another time, requiring a full Xbox reboot to get back into action. At that point, there were no other players available, so I opted to go it alone. After failing to complete a level alone three times, I backed out and waited until someone else appeared. I did manage to get enough credit during my failed attempts to level up, so points for letting me keep my progress even when I failed to complete a mission.

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August 31, 2011

Busy Gamer Review - The Great Urban Race

Our Great Urban Race numbersI've been a fan of The Amazing Race for years; stalking Phil Keoghan on the global mat is on my personal bucket list. But first, I need a travel partner. Our 8-year-old, The Pikachu Fan, started watching the show with me last year and is ready to grab his passport and hit the road. Alas, we're at least a decade away from presenting Phil with a Travelocity Gnome due to age restrictions. That's a long time to wonder how well we'd do as a team.

In mid-August, we found out.

Pikachu Fan, Gamewatcher and I participated in The Great Urban Race, a one-day, single-city scavenger hunt in the same vein as The Amazing Race. The Great Urban Race sponsors events in major cities throughout the US. You won't get rich running the Great Urban Race - at best, first place winners earn back their entry fees and a little extra - but that's not the point. The Great Urban Race is about having fun, doing ridiculous tasks and finding out just how much (or little) you really know about your city.


Team Busy Gamer

We discovered the race a few years ago by accident. We were eating at a favorite spot downtown when several pairs of identically dressed people jogged by and ducked into a nearby sports bar. Not all that unusual for summer around here. Then the cow and the milkmaid ran by. Even in Seattle, that caught our eye. A quick search revealed that the Great Urban Race was in town, and the sports bar was the beginning/end point. I read a bit about it while we waited for our food. Pikachu Fan's eyes got bigger by the second as I described each delicious detail of the race. He almost exploded with glee when I discovered that in the summer of 2011, he would be old enough to participate in the family division with us. When the food arrived, he had just one question.

Busy Gamer uniform"So, what are we going to dress as?"

While ambitious costuming ideas danced in my head ("Pika" and the "chus"! Mario, Luigi and Lara Croft!), Gamewatcher wisely suggested we go simple: Team Busy Gamer. We had tees made up with our logo on the front and our gamer names on the back. Add shorts and comfy shoes and voila! Instant team uniforms. (Side note: Temperatures were in the high 80s on race day. I'd like to thank Gamewatcher for talking me out of that whole theme costume thing.)

The night before the race, I had the bright idea to read some personal accounts of the race. Within 15 minutes, I knew we were going shopping. (Nothing like being prepared...)

The pre-game checklist:

  • City map
  • Water/snacks
  • Backpack
  • Smart phone
  • Notepad with pens
  • Portable cell phone charger
  • Camera (most clues follow the "Pictures or it didn't happen" rule)
  • GPS (we used our iPhones; Android and Windows Phone 7s should work too)
  • Bus passes
  • Cash

Packed and ready, we made our way to the starting point: the Pyramid Brewery in SODO (the southern end of downtown) near the baseball stadium. Game on!


The opening of an envelope

The Great Urban Race starting lineClue envelopes were handed out shortly before noon. The clue burned in our hands as we listened to the rules: We must complete at least 11 of the 12 clues correctly to get full credit. A half-hour penalty will be given for each additional skipped (or incorrect) clue. No private transportation, including skates or scooters. Open your envelopes!

We ripped open our clue packet, booted our iPhones and set to work. Gamewatcher immediately identified a visual clue: a Totem Pole in nearby Pioneer Square. I got a little too excited when I realized we were going to Ye Olde Curiosity Shop on the waterfront. A few of the clues had addresses, including one in Capitol Hill - enough of a hike to justify getting on the bus. (Yay for bus passes!)

Then it got ugly. We knew at least one clue would be about sports - we were just steps from the stadiums, afterall - and there it was. "What's an itch-er-oo, Mommy?" "Ichiro, honey, he's a baseball player." "Oh." We finally got that one solved, only to hit this thing:

The clue indicated this was the logo of a local store.

A Fancy clue

We had to find the store, draw two random movie quotes and turn it into a wedding proposal. I latched onto the image, convinced it was a logo of a lighting store in the Belltown neighborhood downtown. Gamewatcher fixated on the word "movies." We were both stumped. I posted it to Facebook and Twitter to see if any locals might have a clue.

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August 24, 2011

Busy Gamer Review - Bastion

Busy Gamer Review


Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.



Reviewed On: Xbox 360. Also available for PC.

The KidIn a Nutshell: Action RPG with light level-up mechanics and not much looting but a deep story and riveting musical score.

You play a nameless Kid who awakens to the apocalyptic aftermath of a world knocked apart by an event referred to only as the Calamity. A character patterned on Sam Elliott's The Stranger from The Big Lebowski narrates your adventure and sometimes comments on your specific actions. For instance: "The Kid just rages for a while" is triggered if you go a little crazy with your hammer shortly after picking it up on the first level. You collect a variety of weapons and powerups - some active attacks and others passive skill boosters and upgrades - while exploring diverse locales in search of items to repair your shattered steampunk world.

There are also optional timed challenge levels should you want to test your mettle further, and you can play Plus mode after completing the main story once to go again while retaining your level and other progress from past outings - though you still have to rebuild the Bastion each time you play through.

Home Sweet BastionLearning Curve: The game teaches you the main moves and weapon specific tricks as you find them and offers additional deeper control hints on the load screens. You'll pick it all up pretty quick for the most part, though some nuances (like reloading projectile weapons) may take a little time to uncover. No matter, since the game is pretty forgiving.

Bastion is more of a "story delivery system" by default. If you demand a bigger challenge, don't despair: You'll eventually unlock a Shrine that lets you increase the difficulty of specific game elements. It's purely optional though. As it should be.

The Save Game: You can only save between missions, which typically run you 10-20 minutes each. Watch for the save icon before shutting down! If you mess around with your weapon loadouts and other upgrades upon returning to the Bastion (as you'll be tempted to do), launch to the next level and watch for the spinning gear before quitting. You'll still start back at your base in the Bastion, but at least all of your changes will be recorded.

Family Factor: The violence is cartoonish and bloodless, which makes it a little easier to play with kids around. We won’t let our 8-year-old play since it is still somewhat violent, but he's allowed to watch and we actively discuss the themes it presents around war and intolerance.

Buy or Skip? We consider this a solid buy for action fans. On Xbox Live Arcade, you can grab a trial though I found that unlocking it when prompted didn't seem to trigger the save system (or perhaps I just quit too early) so I had to start over. Still, it's hard to stay mad at a game this good - and soon all was forgiven.

BattleOn a Personal Note: While Bastion's gameplay is solid and supports a number of play styles thanks to the wide array of weapons and unlockable special moves, it never quite devolves into a mindless hack and slash. This is probably due to the story, which is compelling and character driven, and the incredible soundtrack by Darren Korb. The music drew me in with its folksy yet modern edge and neat integration with the various realms you visit in your quest to find various cores and shards and such. In particular, making a specific choice near the end of the game can deliver one of the more poignant moments I've encountered in my not unsubstantial history with videogames. (Hint: Show a touch of compassion.) When the credits rolled, I stayed mesmerized on the couch listening to "Setting Sail, Coming Home," Korb's closing duet with soulful singer Ashley Lynn Barrett. All in all, this is one of the best game soundtracks in our extensive collection - so come for the gameplay and stay for the music!

Listen to Bastion gameplay and music in our audio review and, if you love it as much as we do, get the soundtrack at Bandcamp.com.

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July 20, 2011

Busy Gamer Review - Alice: Madness Returns

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Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.



Reviewed On: Xbox 360. Also available for PlayStation 3 and PC.

Alice: Madness Returns - Lots of jumping!In a Nutshell: A twisted platformer with some serious combat, set in a nightmarish Wonderland. The game picks up where America McGee's Alice left off in 2000. A house fire has claimed the lives of several, including Alice's beloved sister. Convinced she caused the fire, Alice spirals into a mental shutdown that transforms Wonderland into a toxic hellhole. Alice bounces between Victorian era London and this new Wonderland, trying to recapture her sanity and save her home away from home.

Alice is once again guided by the Cheshire Cat, who appears periodically to drop mad Zen master grooves that would be right at home in an episode of the old Kung Fu series from the '70s. Each level is a platforming paradise (or hell, if we're being honest here) based on an iconic Alice character (Caterpillar, White Rabbit, Mad Hatter, etc.). Alice alternates between visits to London, trips to Wonderland and flashbacks to what happened that terrible night.

Learning Curve: A love of platforming is absolutely necessary to survive. There is little learning on the job here: Not only must you plan your jumps, you will be jumping onto invisible platforms (made briefly visible using "intuition"), shifting in space and losing the ground beneath you without warning. You will die. A lot. The weapons selections include some devilishly clever takes on items from Alice's world – but really, it's just guns and melee. If you can aim and hit the button, you can defeat the enemies.

Alice: Madness Returns - CombatNavigating the game is generally easy. Alice's "intuition" reveals those invisible platforms, pathways and key doors plus blunt hints ("Go this way") written on walls and the ground. There are numerous hidden paths, doors and alternate locales to explore. Too bad these are blocked the second you enter the next section of a world. I missed out on many side trips because I couldn't tell which path was the main quest and which would lead me to hidden treasures.

It is a testament to the beauty of Alice, and the quality of the story (if not the writing itself) that I finished the game at all.

The Save Game: One of the worst save systems for busy gamers. You get one save, and it is entirely auto-save. The time between save points can be absolutely brutal: My worst experience was more than an hour between saves! The average seemed to be about 20 to 30 minutes, assuming you cruise through without any issues. Not bad, you say? It is if the game freezes at the 19 to 29 minute mark, or the game glitches and you can't proceed. Both happened to me, forcing me to restart from the last load. Had something corrupted my save file, I would have had to start the entire game over. Inexcusable.

Family Factor: Teens and more mature tweens will be able to handle it, but younger children will be horrified by the gory imagery and scary monsters. The London scenes include some language (mostly British profanity) and references to prostitution. There are some bare-breasted statues in a later Wonderland level.

Buy, Rent or Skip? Rent first and play at least three levels. If you get through three visits to Wonderland and are willing to keep going, look for a sale copy. $60 is simply unreasonable for a game that will not let you save anywhere, and that many will abandon around level 6.

Meet AliceOn a Personal Note: I was a huge fan of America McGee's Alice on PC, but had to quit playing when my game glitched and I couldn't find my way out of an invisible area. Fool me once, right? I still have my original Alice and Cheshire cat figurines that Gamewatcher gave me all those years ago. So to say I was excited for this game is an understatement. Don't get me wrong – I did genuinely love Madness Returns. But I also felt disappointed that so many things that were wrong the first go-round simply weren't addressed in the sequel.

Every level is designed with a signature look that while not unique – you're still running/jumping/fighting – do keep the game fresh. Sadly, the truly breathtaking stuff is saved for the last few levels. Yes, the earlier ones are generally pretty cool. But when you reach the Queen of Hearts, you'll see what game designers can do when they put their heart and soul into it.

Unfortunately, many will never reach that point due to some lopsided, occasionally punishing gameplay and one of the poorest save schemes ever (detailed above). I breezed through some levels and had a splendid time, only to find myself trapped in an endless loop of pain in the next. A smattering of mini-games in various genres (rhythm game, Galaga-like sea odyssey, and what appears to be a Braid knock-off) felt random and added little to the title.

Console players can download and play the original Alice when the game disc is in the console using a code provided with new copies. NOTE: It is not being offered separately at this time, so don't buy the "add-on" unless you have a secondhand copy of the game! I actually dove into the the original Alice on Xbox 360 with great anticipation and realized... well, Alice wasn't the only one who's lost her mind. Maybe I've been spoiled by modern games, or maybe nostalgia is a fickle beast. Either way, I barely got 20 minutes into the original before I gave up and switched to the sequel. Sometimes, maintaining sanity means avoiding madness.

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July 6, 2011

Busy Gamer Review - Bejeweled 3

Busy Gamer Review


Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.



Bejeweled 3 ButterfliesReviewed On: PC. Also available on Mac. In development for Nintendo DS, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.

In a Nutshell: Bejeweled 3 continues the match-3 tradition with some new twists joining the classics. This edition features several modes that will send your finger (and eventually, eye) twitching in fast and furious style. Zen mode offers a laid back endless game for players who don't need the stress. Those willing to take on the challenge can try out all of the modes through the quest, which tests players with a little bit of everything in each progressively tougher level.

The major modes available include:

  • Poker. A clever take on the card game, with players creating "cards" by matching gems. Each match grants a single card with the corresponding gem. (In other words, a three-diamond match is the same as a four-diamond match – both will give you a single diamond card.) The goal is to create classic poker "hands," such as a Full House, using the gems. It requires more planning than you'd expect, as a single cascade can destroy several potential matches.
  • Ice Storm. Ice builds from the bottom up at an aggressive rate, threatening to "freeze" the board and end the game. Matching gems melts the ice, with special gems (explosion, electricity, etc.) turning icy boards into short-lived oceans. It's survival mode for match-3 freaks.
  • Lightning. The classic stress-inducer. It's match-3 for people who need a bit more action in their lives.
  • Diamond Mine. Players excavate by matching gems in the dirt. The challenge: A certain number of items must be unearthed before time is up. Again, tougher than it sounds, but quite fun.
  • Butterflies. Certain gems turn into butterflies on the board. All butterflies move up one row with each move. Match the butterfly with at least two like gems, and it flies free! Just watch out for the spider carousing at the top of the board. If your butterfly reaches the top, it becomes dinner – ending your game.

Learning Curve: The basics are easy: Match 3 or more gems, you know the drill. Mastering certain individual games may take longer – for example, Poker was particularly vexing. The games are fun and engaging, though, and the learning curve is never frustrating.

Bejeweled 3 PokerThe Save Game: The game saves on exiting a mode, making it easy to drop in and out for some quick match-3 action.

Family Factor: Entirely family friendly, although certain modes may inspire decidedly R-rated language. (I'm looking at you, Ice Storm!)

Buy, Rent or Skip? A solid buy. PopCap offers a one-hour free trial if you're on the fence.

On a Personal Note: I absolutely love Bejeweled, and have bought numerous versions of the games in the series for different platforms over the years. Bejeweled 3 is by far the best combination of engagement, challenge and fun. It also provides a great way to take a "brain break" from work.

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June 29, 2011

Busy Gamer Review - L.A. Noire

Busy Gamer Review


Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.



L.A. Noire: A clue!Reviewed On: Xbox 360. Also available on PS3. Due fall 2011 on PC.

In a Nutshell: A refreshing update to classic point-and-click adventure games blended with Grand Theft Auto-style action and carjacking, er, commandeering in 1940s Los Angeles. You divide your time between inspecting areas for evidence, interrogating persons of interest and chasing down suspects who make a run for it (and they always do!). The story is deep and engaging, but with cut scenes that are for the most part neatly integrated with interactions. Cinematics often lead into chases or questioning, so you rarely feel like an observer despite the film noir movie feel of the game (you can even turn on black-and-white mode if you're a traditionalist!). You are the detective, and the only major downside is that you're a pretty straight-laced officer of the law - so if you dream of playing a "bad cop," this probably isn't your game.

Learning Curve: L.A. Noire eases you into the various gameplay elements one at a time, starting with a relatively straightforward beat cop case to get you started, and then it constantly reminds you if you seem to have forgotten anything as you progress through the Traffic, Homicide, Vice and Arson desks. You can turn off certain cues such as crime scene music that ends when you discover the last clue, if you want to increase the game difficulty and get a better chance at a higher rating.

L.A. Noire: Quite the dropThe Save Game: The game saves automatically at various points during cases and when you pick up any collectibles. It's not "save anywhere" but checkpoints are reasonably spaced and you'll likely find good stopping places in between searching locations and interrogating suspects, or at the close of a case - though it's always tempting to start the next one right away.

Family Factor: While far from family friendly (there is bloody violence, coarse language and fully nude corpses for starters), you can choose a free roam mode from any completed desk called The Streets of L.A. You might hear the occasional salty outburst from a citizen you nearly run over while driving on the sidewalk or when causing a traffic accident. But if you're smart and stay away from the street crimes on your map, you can explore and find locations and innocuous collectibles such as cars, film cans and badges (with the optional badge challenge DLC) while a young one watches. I turned the volume down to low and let my 8-year-old watch me explore the city, and he loved it.

Buy, Rent or Skip? L.A. Noire can be beat in about 20 hours, with 5-10 hours more if you spend a lot of time collecting cars, film cans, badges, and other optional items in the game. I spent at least an hour just driving around the city to discover locations. DLC cases extend the story with missions that will be integrated into the main story if you download them before you start the police desk they're tied to, so add an hour or two for each case you add. If you want to beat it and street it, rent. But if you're a completionist, then this is a good game for you - so you might as well buy.

L.A. Noire: Greg GrunbergOn a Personal Note: I fell in love with L.A. Noire largely based on its excellent writing and storytelling, and the fact that it pays homage to one of my favorite films of the past 20 years, L.A. Confidential. From the music to some of the performances, you feel like you could easily turn a corner and run into "Shotgun" Ed Exley, Bud White and Captain Dudley Smith. The actors are eerily real, to the point that you can readily identify Mad Men's Aaron Staton as your character, Detective Cole Phelps, and Heroes' Greg Grunberg as a murder suspect.

GrrlGotGame is less fond of the game, largely because she can't role play as a corrupt officer - though she did manage to toss a perp off a roof, jack many cars from citizens and gun down countless criminals and the occasional civilian.

The only serious black mark is some sloppy structure, particularly during the Homicide cases. A well planted clue to what was really going on popped up early, but the game prohibited me from running down any leads in that direction. Instead, I had to see it through in a forced linear fashion that included interpreting obtuse clues and even some platforming action (which felt mostly out of place). The finale of this section took forever because I didn't realize I had to proceed at a certain point in what had been a dodge-and-shoot pursuit, and it kept failing me. This might have been saved if the game had let me pursue my suspicions to a dead end and the last homicide case were better constructed.

But once I landed on the Vice Desk, all was forgiven. I really enjoyed the remainder of the game, and was glad I saw it through to the bittersweet end. I just hope they keep making DLC so I can extend my investigations until the inevitable (and most welcome!) sequel.


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April 6, 2011

Busy Gamer Review - You Don't Know Jack

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Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.



You Don't Know JackReviewed On: Xbox 360. Also available on PS3, PC, Wii and Nintendo DS.

In a Nutshell: An often-suggestive comedy show disguised as a trivia game, wrapped in a Generation X wrapper. (Say, when's the last time you heard anything about Gen X?!) The conceit is that you are part of a slickly produced game show, complete with ads, bumpers and a snarky host. Up to four people can participate in the festivities, with every correct answer earning money. The faster you answer, the better the rewards. Miss an answer, lose your cash.

Trivia questionYour long-time host and resident smart-ass Cookie (also known as Tom Gottlieb in real life) returns to quiz you and, more importantly, sarcastically ridicule you when you get the answer wrong. Seriously, I'm pretty sure he's rooting for you to lose! Cookie's questions can be mind-bendingly hard due to phrasing. Things that should be pretty straight forward are twisted and warped into pop-culture candy that both entertains the palette and confuses the taste buds. Don't spend too much time trying to get the reference; it probably has zero to do with the answer.

The final event, the Jack Attack, asks players to match up two things based on a topic. A name or item appears on screen followed by a series of flying options, including many that either sound alike or just sound plausible. First to buzz in on the right one gets the points. Get too itchy and buzz in wrong, and you lose. The massive point build up means that even a doomed player can come from behind and own the category for the win... and the "Came From Behind" achievement. (See, I told you it was freaky!)

Learning Curve: If you know your game controller (or PC keyboard), you can play. If you aren't sure which button is where, you might want to brush up before you get started. Otherwise, it's very straightforward. Your only limitation is trivia knowledge. Don't have a name (or too rushed to enter it)? One will be assigned to you, and it's usually pretty amusing.

The Save Game: Each game session takes about 10-15 minutes to complete. The game records your progress, including questions answered, at the end of the game so you don't repeat any. There are 73 games on disc, and PS3 and Xbox 360 gamers can buy packs containing 5-10 more for $5 each.

Family Factor: Not as crude as South Park, but definitely some questionable material. Language runs to the damn/hell/ass variety. Heavy sexual innuendo. While small kids won't get most of it, you probably don't want them running around screaming "I CAME FROM BEHIND!" following a victory, either. Teens probably won't understand half the humor unless they watch a lot of Nick at Night. Finally, a game you can beat them at!

Buy, Rent or Skip? With 730 questions and add-on packs of new and "classic" (read: old) sessions coming down the DLC pipeline, this is a solid buy for those who enjoy trivia games, bawdy humor and screwing their neighbors.

On a Personal Note: We played You Don't Know Jack about a decade ago on the computer back in our Macintosh days, and we loved it. The new game feels just like the old one, which is a good thing. The addition of Achievements/Trophies makes it even sweeter – finally, I can up the sexual innuendo factor in my gaming score!

Screw Your NeighborOn the flip side, there are some seriously WTF questions mixed in for "fun." For me, these typically involve the word "physics." As in, I barely passed algebra, and don't go near the stuff (well, unless I trip and get a real world schooling). These don't show up every game, but they do seem like frequent occurrences. And when they do appear, it's the perfect opportunity for Gamewatcher to screw me! As in, hit the button that takes a small piece of hardware (a screw) and drills it down into the words, "Player 1." (Queue obligatory suggestive Cookie comment.) This option, available once per game, forces your neighbor to answer in 10 seconds while a dramatic clock counts down. It's worse than it sounds. The losses are bigger, but get it right, and the screwer becomes the screwee.

Gamewatcher and I especially enjoy playing mid-day during work breaks. If you're wondering, he usually screws me first. Damn physics questions.

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February 2, 2011

Busy Gamer Review - Fallout: New Vegas [BGN Game of the Year 2010]

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Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.



Welcome to New VegasReviewed On: Xbox 360. Also available on PS3 and PC.

In a Nutshell: Post-apocalyptic RPG set in the western U.S. The big one hit somewhere in the '40s or '50s (based on music and style) but life went on... sort of. Multiple warring factions including The Legion (think Roman Empire), the NCR (military government) and multiple thuggish gangs are just a few of the things that stand between you and your destiny. As with Fallout 3, you can play it good, bad or ugly - but this time, your reputation varies down to the town. Piss off one faction and win brownie points with another. Play do-gooder in another area and expect a rival faction to come gunning for you in the wild.

The bounty hunters can make a simple trek across the desert a real pain - especially when they show up in the middle of a rad scorpion attack. And exploration is really what this game is about. There are tons of caves, towns, graveyards, and burned out camp areas to discover and loot, many with back-stories to distract you from the main mission. Expect to spend at least 100 hours on this game, and more than likely twice that. And, apart from the occasional freeze up (even after the most recent patch), New Vegas really delivers and builds on its predecessor with a deep, compelling world and rich and engaging action and story.

Learning Curve: New Vegas gives you the option to skip some training in the beginning, which is tempting to Fallout 3 vets. I opted to skip it myself, while ever-patient Gamewatcher went through the whole thing. He confirmed that the training included a few new skills that would have been helpful - but I managed to beat the game, learning what I needed on the job. If you're impatient and just want to start killing things, skip it. If you're a completest, take the training. Either way, you'll pick up everything you need as you go.

Role play with robotsThe Save Game: You can save anywhere from the menu, including during combat. This is the only reason I got through some particularly treacherous boss battles - shoot, retreat, hide, save. You are limited to 100 saves, which seems arbitrary to me. I easily burned through 400+ saves on Fallout 3, and I'm still not entirely done with it. (Beat it? Yes. Done with it? No.)

IMPORTANT: As with the original release of Fallout 3, you cannot return to the game after you beat the final quest. You can reload an earlier save and return the wasteland, however. You will be asked if you have done everything you want to do before entering the finale. If you have not saved recently, say no, save your game, and start the speech challenge again. Fallout 3 was eventually patched to allow you to continue after the ending, but apparently that bit of wisdom wasn't picked up for the sequel. Maybe we'll see a patch for this down the road, but the Dead Money expansion pack doesn't address it - you still have to play it from a save that predates the finale.

Family Factor: This one is for the grown-ups. Even people playing for good are forced into violent (and quite gory) confrontations with realistic people, giant mutants and an army of Elvis impersonators (Elvii?) There is some bad language, although a lot of it is written rather than spoken. Still, not for tweens or younger. Your teen may be mature enough, but that's for you to decide after you've logged at least a few hours in New Vegas yourself.

Action, violence, not for kidsBuy, Rent or Skip? This falls into either Buy or Skip - there is simply too much to do in a reasonable rental time. Fallout New Vegas is a fantastic, immersive experience with much to offer both shooter and RPG fans. New expansion DLC extend the life of the game, although just wandering the wastelands and looking for new areas will keep you busy for quite a while. That said, gamers who don't have a strong tolerance for violence should skip it. But, for all others we recommend you buy this one.

On a Personal Note: There are plenty of areas open from the beginning, but don't be fooled - there are ample super-nasty factions waiting to hand your ass to you across the wastelands. The best way to level up is to stick to the main mission at least for a little while. Once you've gotten a few perks under your belt, you'll be good to go.

As a bonus, the more missions you perform, the more Mr. New Vegas - Wayne Newton in a genius piece of casting! - has to discuss as your personal DJ. Yes, once again, your actions will influence what you hear on the radio. Sadly, it won't do anything about the music, which is limited and repetitive. (Dear God, not Johnny Guitar again!)

Long-time readers know I'm firmly on team chaos, while Gamewatcher plays for the nice guys. We've both had some issues figuring out exactly how to keep our reps where we want them to be though. This game is hardly black-and-white. I finished it with two different endings, and I'm still not sure if I was a naughty girl or not. Now THAT'S a game!

The main mission is relatively short, and requires much more attention and thought than in Fallout 3. You'll have a chance to align yourself with one of several factions as you fly toward the grand finale. There's just one problem: Making even one incorrect speech choice can forever shut down access to your desired faction. I had to reload several times to redo seemingly innocuous speech decisions. Even speaking to the wrong person at the wrong time can kill an entire quest line.

New Vegas at nightI should note that I tried Hardcore Mode for about five minutes - and I do mean five minutes - before returning to regular mode. As you've no doubt heard, Hardcore Mode ups the ante by requiring you to find water, rest and actually seek out a doctor when you get hurt. It adds a serious level of masochism that is unlikely to appeal to busy gamers. But if you beat the game and want a bigger challenge, it's there waiting for you.

However you play, New Vegas is packed with magical moments:

The first time you see New Vegas at night.

The various vaults you unlock and the secrets they contain.

The relationships you build with the many characters who drop in and out of your travelling party, from the girl-crazy technophile Veronica (voiced by The Guild's Felicia Day) to the floating robot ED-E who plays march music whenever he attacks. Or my fave, Cass, who finally left me after the abuse I heaped on her took its toll. (I told you I was a bad girl in the game!)

Each character has a backstory to unravel, and the game may overwhelm you with its wide array of interesting quests to complete. Seriously, there's a good chance you may still be chipping away at this game a year from now.

If you've read this far, pick it up - you won't regret it!

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December 22, 2010

Busy Gamer Review - Kinectimals

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Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.



Reviewed On: Xbox 360 (Kinect required)

Teaching your cat a new trickIn a Nutshell: Play mini-games and teach tricks to virtual wild feline friends. You adopt a lion, tiger or other ferocious kitty spawn and then pet and play with it like you never could in real life. You can throw small balls and rubber chickens for it to pick up (ha, like any cat would "fetch"!), volley soccer balls for fun (and a stealth mini-workout!), drive remote control vehicles (including a Warthog and Ghost from the Halo series!) and even dig for buried treasure (the cat collects the chest for you and then pats it back into the ground after you've claimed its booty). There are also slightly longer RC vehicle races, obstacle courses, target shoots and other challenges that you can play alone or with friends to compete for high scores. Winning these earns you unlockable items and currency to purchase décor for your virtual home in the game.

Cute game, but a lot of fun too!Kinectimals unfolds with an overly long intro and lots of backstory about some captain who once cared for the kitties and how they've been craving attention since he left, and there are other parts of the island that have been forgotten. There's a flying lemur who introduces you to new areas and activities; if you can get past this over-the-top touch and rambly explanation, there's some great gameplay to be had. Typical play sessions tend to be longer than most Kinect games (30 minutes or so) since activities are easily strung together and your pet helpfully introduces new and existing items as play suggestions if you don't pick something to do quickly. Completing mini tasks (such as hitting targets with a frisbee or knocking down objects with an RC car) earns you points toward unlocking the next challenge or area of the island, which progresses the game and adds new cats and toys for you to play with.

Learning Curve: Some of the tricks you teach your critter can be tricky to pull off, but otherwise this is an easy game to pick up and play. It's arguably the best launch game to get you started with Kinect because it teaches you the mechanics of movement and control, plus it works better in tight spaces (less than 8 feet from the TV) than the pack-in game, Kinect Adventures.

The Save Game: Despite the warning that you may lose progress, the game saves your score and any unlocked items and locations when you quit and periodically as you complete activities and challenges. It won't save your exact place in the game, but it's easy to return to your kitty and select a challenge or toy box item to play with, so there's not much lost when you exit. Your pet is also infinitely patient, so you can leave the game running while you're doing your chores (like feeding your real-world cat, who probably isn't happy about all of the strange purrs and meows he's been hearing!) and your little virtual feline will entertain itself until you return.

Kinectimals cat riding a Covenant Ghost!Family Factor: The whole family will love it, from the toddlers to the grandfolks. The only exception may be teens and young adults, who may not want to admit how much fun Kinectimals is due to its overly cutesy veneer (mostly due to that talking, flying Lemur who narrates your adventure).

Tell them there are Halo unlockables and that they can play it with their favorite emo or death metal soundtrack (ripped to the hard drive), and they might just give it a try. I played with Green Day's "American Idiot" (when our 7-year-old wasn't home) and had a blast!

Buy, Rent or Skip? If you have a Kinect, this is a "must buy" - especially if you have small children. Even after you beat the game, there's fun to be had cavorting with your favorite feline and topping your high score in challenges. You might even get a little exercise playing. It makes a nice warm-up for the more intense workout programs on Kinect or your favorite cardio regimen. Teens will probably be too cool for this game, but adults who are secure in their identities can (and should!) love it.

On a Personal Note: I'm an adult male, and I love Kinectimals. I expected this game to win over GrrlGotGame and our 7-year-old son, Pikachu Fan, but I had no expectation that I would play this more than once or twice just to check it out. When I was younger, I railed against overly cute games - but now, perhaps due to the feline theme, the solid game mechanics, the wisdom of my years and the light runner's high I get after a game session - I play it more than they do!

My first cat was a black panther I named "Midnight," though I've unlocked several more cats - both through gameplay and reusable codes collected from Burger King promotions and stuffed animals included as pack-ins with some versions of the game. Scan cards can be found for free on the Internet; just print them and hold them up to the Kinect camera when visiting the Scan Stone at the circle where you pick your active pet. (Individual stuffed animals without the game are expected to hit retail in 2011, if your kids are wondering why Santa couldn't drop one in their stocking.)

If there's a knock against this game (besides the "cute factor"), it's that you can't quickly jump into multiplayer from the main menu. It takes hours of play to unlock the various challenges, and then you have to travel back to them using your map and switch off to another player (by holding your arm out to the upper right of the screen) to let them have a go at challenging your score. So it's not a great game for when you have a lot of kids vying for their turn - for that, I'd recommend the Kinect Sports mini-games or Kinect Adventures.

But other than the lack of quick play, it's a great game - I'd even say it's the best Kinect launch title.

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November 24, 2010

Busy Gamer Review - 7 Wonders HD

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7 Wonders HD Reviewed On: iPad. Also available for PC, PS2, PSP and Nintendo DS. 

In a Nutshell: Fantastic match-3 game for finger gamers who enjoy a bit of eye candy with their competition. Your mission is to build the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World, including the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the Great Pyramid of Giza. You won't be slinging bricks, though. Instead, you match gems (at least 3, up to 5) to make room for bricks to fall down to your minions.

Each "Wonder" is built through a series of levels. You begin with a written educational debrief about the Wonder and then proceed to a set of puzzle levels. There are two basic goals: One, match every space at least once to clear it (additional layers are added as the game progresses), and two, drop the bricks down to your minions. This is achieved by matching gems in any vertical row below it. At the end of each level, an antiquated schematic shows your progress to date, with completed work on the "Wonder" filled in and remaining work displayed in outline. It's a kick to see the buildings and statues grow each level, and the artwork is simple but beautiful.

There are 49 levels total in the game. Finishing the game unlocks a free play mode, or you can go for a second (or third!) go-round building the Wonders. Subsequent games begin at a higher difficulty and do get extremely challenging: I found myself timing out much earlier, and more often, my second time through. It was not frustrating, however. It simply demonstrated that I needed to rethink my strategy. If anything, the game became more fun!

Learning Curve: Very easy to pick up. The early levels are generous with time and matches. My 7-year-old picked up on what to do just by hovering over my shoulder, and started pointing out moves that I missed. The second half of the game does require strategy and a quick hand, but by that time players have mastered the basics and are ready to take on the multi-layered pieces.

The Save Game: Very busy gamer friendly - you can save your exact place in a level at any time by exiting to the menu.

Family Factor: Completely family friendly, and your kids might even learn something! Pikachu Fan was amused by the little minions running back and forth across the screen, although he was disturbed when one appeared to be "crushed" by a falling piece. (The minion emerged unscathed. We decided it actually fell in front of him.) Seeing the monuments also sparked some discussions about the actual 7 Wonders of the World, a bonus in my book.

Buy, Rent or Skip? Buy – this is a must for match-3 fans or anyone who is looking to give the genre a try. It's a deep, rich game that will keep you entertained for a long time to come, and the increased difficulty for repeat playthroughs lends the game even greater value.

On a Personal Note: I was a fan of 7 Wonders of the World on PC and always wished they would put out a phone version I could take with me. The downside: The large boards realistically wouldn't represent well on a little screen. The iPad is the perfect solution, offering a screen large enough to make the colors and textures pop, plus plenty of room to maneuver pieces into place without the frustration of mismatches that often happens with these types of games on small touchscreens. Before this game came back into my life, I barely touched Gamewatcher's iPad - now he has to fight me for it!

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November 17, 2010

Busy Gamer Review - Fable III

This week, we have a guest reviewer. Patty Campbell (Tackyspoons on Twitter) is a friend and former game industry colleague.

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Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.



Reviewed On: Xbox 360. A PC version is in development.

Is Fable III a misfire?
      Is Fable III a misfire?

In a Nutshell: Set 50 years after the last installment ended, your brother Logan is King of Albion and not a very popular one at that. The first half of the game leads you through a rebellion to overthrow your brother and the second half of the game puts you on the throne. As Queen (or King), the choices that you make and the way you decide to rule have a huge impact on how the game ends. Are you a benevolent ruler who makes good on your promises or do you simply drive forward in a self-serving quest for riches, not caring who or what you harm in the process?

Through combat, interactions with people and quests, you earn Guild Seals, which you can spend to level your magic, melee and ranged weapon skills. Melee combat has improved since Fable II. The more you use a weapon, the more elaborate your attacks with that weapon will become. Instead of augments, Fable III makes use of a unique levelling system for weapons, but you'll need to read each weapon's description carefully to find out how to activate it.

If you only follow the storyline-based quests, the game is appallingly short. I was able to finish twice in one week. My advice, if you get this game: Take your time and explore the side quests along the way to unlock new content and extend the life of the game.

Learning Curve: Fable creator Peter Molyneux has long tried to do away with the traditional game interface to reduce the amount of clutter on the screen and allow a player to become fully immersed in the game. There are some improvements over past Fable games, but not many.

Like Fable II, you learn how to play the game through character dialogue or pop-up help text at the top of the screen. But from there on out, Molyneux's vision of a simple UI falls flat. Your items, clothing, map, save features and access to Xbox Live features have been moved to a place called The Sanctuary — just a button push away from your game screen. Although it's a marked improvement over Fable II's character/item management, the user experience of The Sanctuary is clunky and inconsistent.

Interactions with villagers, a key way to gaining the guild seals you need to progress in the game, are frustrating at best. The elegant "emotion wheel" from Fable II has been replaced with a jerky, time-consuming cut scene consisting of three emotions: a "good" one, a "bad" one and a "funny" one. My first "meh" of this review. (Oh yes, there will be another!)

The Save Game: You'll have to play through about an hour of the game before you can get to a save point. After that, as long as you're not in the middle of a quest or interacting with another character, you can save your progress at any point by entering the Sanctuary and going to the options menu.

Family Factor: In addition to scary imagery and dark, supernatural beings that even made me jump a little, there's sex, mildly foul language and lewd behavior. Sure, you can play the game without getting married and having a family, but you miss out on a lot of the experience if you do. Bottom line, not for kids.

Buy, Rent or Skip? Rent. While it's still fun to explore the world of Albion, the game is too short to justify a $60 investment and I hate to reward Lionhead for sloppy testing.

On a Personal Note: I loved Fable II. I spent hours exploring the kingdom of Albion, interacting with its citizens, fighting crime, buying property and making choices that affected not only my character's life, but the lives of those around her.

Fable III bug count
This shot from a Fable III developer diary shows a bug count of 30.
Did those bugs all get fixed? It doesn't seem like it.

Fable III was to be the jewel in Lionhead Studios' crown. Their marketing materials were rich with the promise of dramatic visuals, all-star voice talent (including John Cleese, Simon Pegg, Stephen Fry and Sir Ben Kingsley), exciting battles and a compelling story line.

Dramatic visuals? Check. All-star voice talent? Yes, plus a bonus gold star for crafty dialogue! Exciting battles? Sure, if your definition of exciting is using the same spell all the way through the game. Compelling story? Meh. Not exactly.

The sheer number of plot holes and dead-end storylines alone should have been my first clue that this game was rushed through production. But those paled in comparison to the number of bugs I found in the game.

There were at least three quests I was unable to finish due to bugged NPCs or environmental issues. The sparkly gold trail that leads me from quest to quest would disappear for no reason, and at one point, my butler (voiced by John Cleese) just stopped talking to me. These are all well-documented bugs, but so far Lionhead has been silent as to how or when there will be a patch to fix them.

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November 4, 2010

Busy Gamer Review - Dead Rising 2

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Chuck's ready for anything - are you?Reviewed On: Xbox 360. Also available for PlayStation 3 and PC.

In a Nutshell: A strong update to the original Dead Rising, with a new hero, storyline and location (a Las Vegas doppelgänger called "Fortune City"). You play as Chuck, a motorcross superstar who is trapped in the city with an infected daughter. Fortunately for you (and the kid), a pharmaceutical company has developed Zombrex, which holds the virus at bay. The events unfold over several days, with survivors once again holed up in a blocked-off mall security area while you go out and run errands and save survivors.

While this will all sound familiar to Dead Rising vets, there are some new features to the game. You can now combine certain items to create super-cool weapons (tiki torch + water gun = muy bueno!), and the Dead Rising 2 psychopaths have been cranked up way past eleven. (Tip: If you make it far enough to get the One Hit Wonder side mission, do it - this was by far the BEST. MISSION. EVER.)

The game has a separate online multiplayer arena where you can earn cash to use in the game - and you will need cash. Lots of it. Once you get past the rather long intro video (which can be skipped once you are placed in a game), you'll be challenged to a random set of mini-games, some grosser than others, all geared toward killing zombies. Ride the Zombonie and then spew zombie-touie into grotesque clown mouths! Snipe zombies from above! And, of course, ride your motorcross bike over every zombie in the house. You can stay as long as you want - just be sure to cash out before you leave. Your earnings will appear in your single-player saved game the next time you load.

Speaking of re-loading, should you make it through the game once and go back for more, all cash, levels, health bars and weapon slots will come back with you. As fans of the first Dead Rising know, sometimes it's better to level up, quit and start again - although with three slots, it is feasible to hack your way to an ending... even if it's not the one you might want.

Chuck plays with fire and zombiesLearning Curve: The game will teach you what you need to know as you go. Some stuff you do have to trigger, so keep your eyes peeled for icons appearing on objects or locations. Even Dead Rising experts will have a thing or two to learn this time around, so don't dismiss messages without at least a cursory read.

The Save Game: Capcom's game designers once again require you to find a bathroom (classy!). The semi-good news: There are a lot more bathrooms in Fortune City than at the Willamette Mall. Better news: You get three save slots this time. I know, I know... but you only had one in Dead Rising, so this is progress.

Family Factor: Ha. Haha. Hahahahahahahahha... ha... ha... heh.... no.

Buy, Rent or Skip? Masochists and people who love finding new and creative ways to beat the hell out of zombies should rent it with the option to buy. At $60, it's hard to recommend just flat out buying it without at least taking a brief spin. Once it drops down in price, have at it. Those who can still feel their tendons (oh how I miss mine) or who don't enjoy high-stress, timed missions should definitely skip it. Not sure which camp you fall into? Xbox 360 owners can download Dead Rising 2: Case Zero for $5 and get a small taste of the game, albeit in a location NOT found in the actual game. More importantly, you can level Chuck up to 5 and transfer his progress to the main game. That alone is worth the money. (Plus, extra achievements!)

On a Personal Note: I absolutely loved the first Dead Rising, although I sometimes feel like I'm the only one in the world who isn't 20 with endless patience and limitless time to play. I never beat the original game with the "good" ending - in fact, I've never made it past Day 3 due to one particularly difficult mission. I kept going back for more, though, because I just enjoyed wandering the mall and finding new ways to mess with the zombies and psychos. Plus, the more I leveled up, the easier different missions became. But I really hated the single save slot and that one mission I still have yet to complete.

The fact that I managed to finish Dead Rising 2 on my first run through - and yes, I had to visit GameFAQs a few times for some sage advice - says a lot about just how much I wanted to find out what happened. I've already started going back through a second time, because - and this is painful to say - now is when it gets fun! I've leveled up, I know my way around and this time I'm going to be a better dad. (Let's just say Daddy is going to the toy store early and often this go round.) But more importantly, there are tons of shops, gambling joints and restaurants I've yet to see, and people I haven't even tried to rescue.

The developers have said these games are designed for multiple play-throughs, so I guess I'm their audience. It's up to you to determine if you feel the same way.

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November 3, 2010

Busy Gamer Review - Heart's Medicine: Season One

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Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.



Reviewed On: PC (GameHouse exclusive downloadable game)

The Heart's Medicine time management clinic In a Nutshell: A time management game with a soap opera veneer and some challenging mini-games. You play as Allison Heart, a medical student performing her residency at the Still Creek Clinic. The game opens with the event that changed Allison's life: assisting a doctor at the scene of a traffic accident. Based on a few simple tasks ("fetch my doctor's bag"), he identifies Allison as a natural. Flash forward six years to today: Allison's first day at the clinic.

Your goal for the day? Treat 'em and street 'em. The first few levels double as training sessions, with only a few patients and a very forgiving time limit. Patients have a seat in the waiting area, displaying a location above their heads: changing area, treatment bed, treatment chair, etc. It's up to you to match the location to the image and direct the patient there. Once the patient is in place, the required treatment will appear above their heads along with hearts. Naturally, patients with fewer hearts are sicker than others.

As the sole doctor in the area who is actually working, it is up to you ensure the patients are moving at a steady pace from location to location, freeing up beds/chairs for those still waiting to be seen. The treatments themselves range from simply clicking on a pill bottle to mini-games like spot the sore (you look with a magnifier for their causes such as fishhooks and bees). My favorite is x-ray, a partial puzzle that requires you to place or "set" the bones in the correct positions before time runs out. I also enjoyed the fast but challenging blood-pressure game, which requires you to identify where the blood pressure needle hesitates (just like in real life!).

As the day progresses (and you pass levels), Allison becomes embroiled in a real-life soap opera, complete with beloved but dying patients, battling coworkers (they're divorced... or can't you tell?) and, of course, a suitor. The back story also has Allison traded around to different departments (levels). The Lab, which includes the x-ray mini-game, was by far my favorite. Pediatrics just proved that working with children is not my forte... but at least no one died.

Learning Curve: As with most good casual games: Easy to pick up, hard to master. I chose the middle level (not a newbie, but not a time management expert) and did fine for the first few levels but began having problems remembering to stock shelves and handle other maintenance work while trying to keep an eye on the truly sick patients. Fortunately, you can send a limited number of patients for a lovely beverage (water, coffee), thus adding a heart to their already diminished health. That kept me going through some particularly hairy times in the game.

The Save Game: You can escape to the main menu at any time. Your current go-round will be lost, but levels are so short that completing one in a few minutes is no big deal.

Allison's first mission in Heart's Medicine Family Factor: Extremely family friendly. The dialog is completely innocuous and even the sickest patients just look like they need a nap.

Buy or Skip? Buy. The game is extremely enjoyable and challenging without being overbearing. It's perfect for a mid-day break or end-of-day wind down.

On a Personal Note: I have tried many time management games before (most notably Diner Dash) and never really saw the appeal. The games tended to be stress inducing and made my head swim. I really enjoyed Heart's Medicine though. The pacing was just right, and the mini-games broke up the tension of trying to figure out who needed to go where.

The x-ray game was a bit jarring at first because it immediately reminded me of the night two years ago when Pikachu Fan broke his then 5-year-old arm. While I know the doctors were doing much more than putting a puzzle together, I still felt a kinship with the fine surgeons who reassembled the bones in our boy.

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October 27, 2010

Busy Gamer Review - Costume Quest

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Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.

Reviewed On: Xbox 360. Also available for PS3.

Costume Quest kids In a Nutshell: At first glance, this looks like a cutesy little kids' game. In fact, it's a cutesy little game for anyone who wants to have an absolute blast with exploration, light questing and turn-based combat. To quote one the best lines of the game: "Shh! You had me at QUEST."

You control either a little boy or girl whose sibling is abducted by candy-grubbing monsters who mistake it for a sweet yet squirmy Halloween treat. You spend the game defeating monsters in simple but fun combat sequences where timed button presses are used to inflict damage on your enemies while minimizing attacks against you and the new friends you make along the way. The best part is that upon entering the battle arena, your cardboard and paper mache creations become a Transformer-esque robot, ferocious black panther, swift and powerful ninja and other mostly fearsome adversaries in full blown Calvin and Hobbesian metamorphosis.

The costumes you collect usually impart new powers in battle and the overworld map where you trick or treat, resolve issues for people (such as finding a pie ingredient for your school principal's poorly planned bake sale), collect battle stamps that grant bonus powers or stats improvements in battle, trade candy collector's cards for fun and to complete mini quests, and clean out two neighborhoods, a carnival and the local mall of all of its candy and monstrous intruders.

Costume Quest combat Learning Curve: If you've ever played a game with Quick Time Events (like Shenmue or Resident Evil 4), you'll pick this up quick. The battles require a little strategy but nothing you won't be able to suss out with a few tries, and you can take as many as you need. Younger kids and new players who haven't memorized the button placements on the controller will have an uphill battle, but even failed attacks do some damage and powerups help - so they'll still get through it, albeit with a lot more retries.

The Save Game: The save system isn't bad, but it could be more busy gamer friendly. The game saves whenever you complete a quest or travel to another area, but NOT after every event - such as a successful battle or the collection of a costume piece. Thus, you may lose progress if you don't reserve a quest-completing action for when you're ready to quit (such as trading an extra card with someone who's requested it). Eventually, you'll unlock portals between the game's various locales, which trigger an instant save whenever you use one - but it's still a nuisance. You basically have to leave and come back to start where you left off. Most loose candy respawns whenever you return, so it's odd that there's no Save and Quit option to just record your battle progress and major item pickups whenever you're done playing.

Family Factor: The game is rated E10+ for 10 years and up, but this is rather conservative. We let our 7-year-old play and he's more than ready for the game's content. We did have to explain about Halloween pranks (and why they're not cool!) when he asked us what was up with the toilet paper and eggs in the game, but they're only used as powerups against monsters - not for pranking.

Buy or Skip? Buy. Even if Halloween has passed when you read this, Costume Quest is a great game that celebrates one of the best holidays of the year. We'd love to see sequels celebrating Christmas, Valentine's Day, Easter, the 4th of July, Dragon Con and Joss Whedon's birthday, but for now we'll just play this one into the ground. The game is divided roughly into thirds, and each third more than justifies its part of the overall $15 pricetag (honestly, the Mall level is so deep it's probably worth $10 all by itself!).

On a Personal Note: Costume Quest has an addictive quality that I have not encountered since the original BioShock. With both games, I'd play for half an hour or so, quit and then be itching to get back to 30 minutes later! Don't try to stretch it out and savor it; give in and binge like you did with candy on November 1st when you were a kid. You'll get all of the sugar rush with none of the tummy aches!

The game isn't perfect, but that didn't significantly impair my enjoyment of it. Some dialogue is repetitive and it lacks any voice acting, which forces you to read all of the game's entertaining dialogue (and may make for a slightly less interesting podcast audio review). This also proved a challenge for our 7 year-old, though one that he's up for: He's been sounding out the big words and gets most of what's going on. And, on the flip side of the coin, at least it's not bad voice acting!

It also would be nice if you could blow up the trading cards portraying weird and gross Halloween treats. They're hard to read on a high-def TV and pretty much illegible on standard definition sets. They're mostly eye candy, but still - you devote a large part of the game to collecting and occasionally trading them. And someone put some hard work into them; we'd love to be able to fully appreciate them full screen!

Some areas of the game will be hard to find or access if you're an adult. Our 7-year-old figured out instantly how to open an area that took me a day to guess, but then he missed how to get to the tree in the very next section, so neener, neener, neener! Unlocking all of the costumes will take some work (and possibly a walkthrough if you're impatient). Whatever you do, don't approach the final boss with the costume you're awarded closest to the end or you won't trigger the end of the game! It took me an hour of looking for incomplete quests - there weren't any, but there was some vague wording that made it seem like maybe I'd missed something - before I realized the costume was not permitted in battle and, thus, blocked me from initiating the final fight.

I'm actually considering a purchase of the PS3 version now since the layout of the DualShock buttons always messes me up. This would present a much bigger challenge for me than the Xbox 360 version, which I tore through rather handily. The lack of difficulty did not make the game any less fun. Sometimes simple, well-crafted games can be the most enjoyable - and that's certainly the case here.

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October 20, 2010

Busy Gamer Review - Comic Jumper

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Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.



Captain Smiley shoots everything Reviewed On: Xbox 360.

In a Nutshell: Shoot everything that moves, except for the things you bash and kick. Really, that's pretty much the game. Comic Jumper is primarily a platform shooter, with some rail shooting and a few brawler parts. The punching and kicking is easy - there's not much to it except for timing - but the shooter parts are intense. Enemies will flank you, throw or shoot stuff at you - and you'll need quick reflexes and persistence to make it through.

The game is quite deep, with upgrades to help you beat later sections and the insanely tough "one hit = death" challenge mode levels. You begin in a modern comic world filled with female robot enemies and a nemesis who resembles Duke Nukem in both attitude and appearance. You then get canceled (in an unexpected live action montage) and then get hired to make guest appearances in Conan-style fantasy, '60s Silver Age and black-and-white inked manga adventures. Each comic style presents new challenges, which keeps the game fresh as you progress. A few really tough sections may test your resolve to finish, but I never rage quit in frustration (as I'm sometimes prone to do with these sorts of games) and eventually powered through to the end.

Learning Curve: If you've played a platform shooter, you'll pick up the basics right away. But the game contains a number of unexpected variations and boss fights to keep you guessing. For one boss battle, you'll lose some of your reaction time and get clobbered if you don't figure out when to stop your attack and back off. But for the most part, there's nothing new to learn - though it may take some time to master.

The Save Game: This is where Comic Jumper earns its only real bad mark: There are mid-level checkpoints so you don't have to play the level back from the start if you die, but they're only good as long as you leave your console running. The game only saves progress at the end of each rather lengthy and usually challenge-ridden level. We asked Twisted Pixel lead engineer Mike Henry about this at PAX Prime (full interview), and he claimed it was for unspecified "technical reasons." In retrospect, we should have dug deeper: Other games pull it off, so why not this one? It's not like the game records the placement of every fallen adversary. More than likely, this limitation was more about trying to appeal to the hardcore gamers who don't mind staying up late to best a level. We busy gamers lose enough sleep to work and family issues; we don't need it from our games, too! Despite par times of 10-15 minutes, it took me 30+ minutes to beat most levels - so plan accordingly.

Comic Jumper in The Silver Age Family Factor: The constant shooting and off-color humor make Comic Jumper strictly for teens and adults. The game makes a lot of sexist and Asian racist jokes - played off as parody of retro comic makers' attitudes of the day - but occasionally they go a little far and your smaller kids won't get the joke. And while there's no blood, there are a ton of bullets flying; I easily unlocked the achievement for 125,000 shots fired. You won't want your young ones to even watch you play it, which relegates this to the post-bedtime gaming ghetto - unless you're blessed with a tot who takes long naps.

Buy or Skip? Despite our complaint about the save system, the gameplay is great and a lot of fun. Get the trial version and if you enjoy the first taste, we recommend a buy.

On a Personal Note: I tried Comic Jumper at PAX and was not overwhelmed. I picked up a controller on a game already in progress on a Conan-styled Nanoc level and didn't know how to shoot (right thumbstick) so I mostly jumped and punched and died a lot as dinosaurs chomped me, natives barraged me with chickens and large birds picked me up and tried to carry me away. But many a poor PAX demo impression has masked a great game, so I vowed to try it when it came out - and I fell in love with it.

I'm still not entirely sure why. Probably due to the (mostly) tight controls, rewarding gameplay and humorous situations (often funnier than the actual jokes). And the music! There is Captain Smiley's hilarious ringtone, his arch-nemesis Brad's theme song and even a ditty that recounts your stats (listen to our podcast audio review for samples and download the free ringtones).

I've finished all of the levels and unlocked every bonus (a few hundred items including videos, 3D models, readable comics, music, a dashboard theme and even bonus levels for Twisted Pixel's 'Splosion Man). And I'm still playing, trying to complete the difficult challenges just for the pure fun of it! Hint: Upgrade your firepower first since it can help you most - and you can collect quick cash to unlock more upgrades and bonuses.

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October 6, 2010

Busy Gamer Review - BioShock 2 Minerva's Den DLC

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Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.



Reviewed On: Xbox 360. Also available for PlayStation 3.

BioShock 2 Minerva's Den In a Nutshell: Minerva's Den is comprised of three entirely new single-player BioShock 2 levels, including new storyline, plasmids and weapons. The story enhances, but does not exactly expand, the BioShock 2 lore. While the primary characters – namely you plus the people talking to you via radio – are new to the BioShock universe, the story is basically the same. Someone wants to take over, we know what's good for you, are you good or are you evil, yadda yadda yadda, let's go harvest some Adam.

That is, until you get to level 2, when you start to put together just how deeply weird things were getting down there. By the end of Act III, you'll have the full, tragic picture. I should have guessed what was going on, but must admit that I was too immersed to think about it. Had the story played out over 11 levels, I think it would have been obvious. In this case, shorter is better. Savor the final details – you'll know you're there when the voice tells you to "take your time." Check out EVERYTHING, get up close and read. It will break your heart.

Learning Curve: Small, since you've probably beat at least BioShock 2 since it's required to run the DLC. The splicers are a mix of old and new, with one particularly nasty barrel-chested dude adding to the fun. And by fun I mean pain. The first level is especially tough, as you start out without a lot of powers or weaponry and won't find much to help you at first - and you have to deal with the little sisters to get Adam (to pay for most plasmids). Stick with it, once you're powered up it's a (winter) blast. If you haven't played any of the games, well – put your BioShock 2 disk in first and get acquainted. The training in the DLC is minimal.

The Save Game: Gotta love the BioShock series: You can save anywhere, which I recommend doing early and often. You'll have multiple save slots – use them. In addition, you'll find checkpoints throughout the game. If you die, you'll respawn at the nearest checkpoint and the world will be in the same shape you left it. Splicers and fellow Daddies will retain any damage done, although Splicers do have the ability to heal themselves at health stations.

Family Factor: None. As with BioShock and BioShock 2, Minerva's Den is strictly for the grown-ups.

Buy or Skip? If you're even a small fan of the series, I highly recommend this add-on mission. I loved the story, and look forward to having another pass through to pick up some achievements I missed the first time around. If you didn't care much for BioShock 2 or prefer the multiplayer modes, save your money.

On a Personal Note: Another fantastic entry in one of my favorite intellectual properties! While the game is designed to be completed in a brisk 5 hours, I savored it over about 8 by revisiting areas over and over to find missing items, putting together the story and generally enjoying the view. The next BioShock is up in the air (I'm not being vague - it's actually set amidst the clouds!), which makes this journey to the bottom of the sea seem ever more like the watery grave it represents.

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September 15, 2010

Busy Gamer Review - Dead Rising 2: Case Zero with Tips and Tricks

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Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.


Zombrex won't help your daughter look less creepy Reviewed On: Xbox 360.

In a Nutshell: Basically, a paid demo for the upcoming Dead Rising 2 - with benefits. You play new protagonist Chuck, a rugged motocross star trying to reach Fortune City with his zombie-infected daughter. The good news? She'll live (but still look creepy as hell) as long as she gets a shot of Zombrex every 12 hours. The bad news? You're broke down in some Podunk town that doesn't have an open pharmacy. Oh, and it's filled with zombies. Lots and lots of zombies.

You fight timed missions, many of which overlap, to find the Zombrex, arrange a way out of town and kick some ass in creative ways. The developers have included a workbench this time around that allows you to create new and, in some cases, really nifty new weapons. But first, you have to figure out what the magic combos are, through trial and error or by finding or earning cards that describe what to do.

Shooting controls are much improved Learning Curve: Dead Rising vets can skip the training and dive into the game - but pay attention, a few things have changed. You'll need to climb up buildings now, and it's up to you to visit the dude who doles out missions. No more annoying phone calls - but if you don't make time to find/visit him, you'll miss out on a lot of opportunities.

People who are new to the franchise are likely to have a frustrating experience until Chuck levels up a bit. You may want to take your first day's walkthrough as a learning experience: Run around, kill zombies, rescue some people for bonus points and ignore the main mission. You'll get the "bad" ending, but you'll also become a stronger, faster Chuck who can kick serious ass when you start the day over - sort of like Groundhog Day with leveling. Dead Rising lets you keep all of your earned advantages - including levels, weapon cards and special moves - when you restart the game even if you don't finish the "day."

The Dead Rising franchise is about finding unusual ways to take out the bad guys. Just about everything is a weapon, some good, some pointless. Run around, try stuff out and don't be afraid to dump things that don't work for you. Guns are rarer than melee, but they are out there - and the shooting controls work pretty well this time.

The Save Game: Improved, but still not ideal. One of the biggest complaints about the original Dead Rising was that you had to find a designated save point - usually a bathroom, but there was also a gym that no one ever found - and you had to save over your single game slot. In other words, make one bad save choice and you were hosed. Case Zero offers three slots, which feels luxurious after suffering with the single slot option for so long. You still have to find a bathroom, but they are plentiful even in the small town. (Tip: There's a save point in the café, by the slot machines. Centrally located, and near where you pick up missions!) It's not save anywhere, anytime, but it's definitely better than it was.

Family Factor: No. Seriously, just no.

Buy or Skip? This is DLC only via Xbox Live Arcade, though there is a demo so you can try before you buy. I'm loving the game, because there are so many different "games" to play (see my tips below for details). This is a pretty good deal for just $5, and a must-buy if you plan to get Dead Rising 2 - you'll be able to enter the game with a Level 5 Chuck, which is a definite advantage in a game genre where repeating sections to level up is par for the course.

On a Personal Note: I'm a huge fan of Dead Rising, and continue to pull it out every few months just to run around and wreak havoc. I've never fully finished the first game - I simply hate that garage! - but for me, it's not about the main mission. It's about the creativity and sheer joy of finding new ways to try to save the world (well, until it blows up in the end because I haven't finished it). So I was extremely excited to hear there were enough zombie-slayin' masochists like me out there to justify a sequel. I'm loving Case Zero, and what I played at PAX Prime indicates there is more fun to be had once we reach Fortune City.

Tips and Tricks: Whether you're a katana-wielding, photo-taking Dead Rising killing machine or brand-new to the franchise, there is a lot to enjoy in Dead Rising 2: Case Zero. Here are some tips for getting the most of your game. In order to level up, you must get down with the sickness, ladies and gentlemen.

Here's how: Make up your own games!

True Dead Rising aficionados know it's not about the main mission - it's about making up mini-games to play. The developers have acknowledged this with several opportunities to go forth and have fun. The downside: your in-game daughter probably won't be too happy at the end (no, this is not a spoiler). But if you can handle it, ignore the main mission and go for the levels. Here are my recommendations:

SPOILER WARNING: Details about the Case Zero environment and map follow below. There are no story spoilers, however.

Continue reading "Busy Gamer Review - Dead Rising 2: Case Zero with Tips and Tricks" »

July 28, 2010

Busy Gamer Review - Blur

Busy Gamer Review

Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.

Reviewed On: Xbox 360. Also available for PC and PS3.

Blur - blast your opponents! In a Nutshell: Aggressive driving game from the folks who made Project Gotham Racing in the spirit of Burnout with a touch of Mario Kart - but with a grown-up edge to it. This is not for the really small kids. Driving skills are important, but it's your willing- and ableness to mine, shoot, bash and generally beat the crap out of your competitors that will help you win. If this is your bag - and it is most certainly mine! - you'll have a terrific time. You'll also get to know the tracks very well, as you'll be running the same loops over... and over... and over as you attempt to garner at least a third-place finish.

Learning Curve: Experienced drivers should have no problems picking up the game. Learning to distinguish between some weapon icons can take time, as they may look similar at first glance. Once you have it down, you're solid. Then, it becomes a matter of positioning yourself to pick up the items you need to succeed. Opponents (both real and AI!) will aggressively bump you out of the way to get to items, meaning you either have to fall back long enough to let the desired item regenerate or risk getting rammed and losing it entirely. So, yeah, there's some minor strategy.

The Save Game: As with most racing games, Blur autosaves after every completed race. Keep an eye on the corner and watch your button mashing - you don't want to lose fans by exiting prematurely. You'll also miss out on unlockables if you exit before the game has finished announcing all of your wins. Pro tip: If you "fail" a race, DON'T retry it. Instead, select Continue so you get credit for any fans earned (even a few fans is better than none!). Then restart from the menu. A pain, yes - but as you hit harder levels, you'll need every fan you can get to level up, unlock cars and finally have what you need to take down the increasingly difficult challenges.

Family Factor: I've let our 7-year-old watch me play, and so far, he hasn't crashed any cars in real life. We have had many discussions about why it's a fantasy and we don't drive like this around the neighborhood. He does not play the game; he's relegated to Mario Kart for his own vehicle destruction thrills. There is no language in the game, but online players sometimes get salty. I'm looking at you, prepubescent griefer in the Ferrari. There's a reason we threw you out of the game!

Buy, Rent or Skip? An absolute buy for racing fans. Even with the frustrations, this is a great game with solid replay value. Due to the wide range of power-ups and vehicle choices, every race is unique. I've even greatly enjoyed playing online; except for the aforementioned booted pre-teen, people are friendly, play nice (they'll even apologize when they run you off the road!) and are generally well behaved.

On a Personal Note: I have to admit, I wasn't particularly excited about Blur when I first saw the videos earlier this year. I entered the beta for the same reason I enter most betas - for Busy Gamer News. I fully expected to play long enough to be able to speak intelligently about it and then be done. Instead, it became my nightly obsession, and I quickly hit the level cap implemented for the beta. I couldn't wait to get my hands on the game for reals, and have been greatly enjoying it ever since.

Blur - keep a safety power-up handy Online racing is mostly done right with drivers matched within a level range. There's one problem, however. Your online ranking is based on online driving - so drivers can master the courses for days/weeks/months in career before going online and smoking the newbies. Your best defense, unless you really just want to race real people online, is to work on your career first - even though your offline career in no way levels your multiplayer one and the car unlocks are separate as well.

The basic single-player challenges are: 1) placing in races, 2) "fan runs" that require you to zip between slalom-style gates in the midst of regular race (AND place to get credit for it) and 3) scoring a certain number fans within the race, primarily by being a jerk to your fellow drivers. There are also destruction mode challenges that amount to chasing down cars and shooting them to gain more time and a beat-the-clock mode that requires you to boost and collect stopwatches for a few bonus seconds as you race through timed checkpoints.

The single-player career mode has you beating a set of challenges and special requirements (e.g., "evade 3 lightning attacks") staged by your various AI opponents so you can finally race them and take their cars. Your fan base contributes to your level and unlocks new vehicles. Every run will earn you fans as long as you cross the finish line (or time out in timed modes) and DON'T select retry.

If you run into trouble when the difficulty ramps up (as it does rather quickly after your first one-on-one win), be sure to collect every fan you can and match off-road vehicles to races with long stretches of dirt track. Don't worry about fan runs - they can distract you from the win and only count if you place in the race. Always try to keep at least one defensive power-up handy to protect against attacks from behind. And if you're the leader, save a shunt attack in case someone passes you right before the finish line!

My all-time favorite attack is the barge - it's a purple power-up that lets you blast away enemies on either side of you. Wedge yourself between two aggressive drivers (or anyone approaching that next power-up you want to collect) and watch them fly away and then roll off in your rearview mirror!

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July 7, 2010

Busy Gamer Review - Alan Wake

Busy Gamer Review

Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.

Reviewed On: Xbox 360

alan_wake_screenshot[1] In a Nutshell: Conquer your fear of the dark and bad writing with a flashlight, pistol and seemingly endless supply of flares. You're an author whose writer's block has a body count in a psychological thriller aimed at fans of interactive storytelling and survival horror. It's like Silent Hill set in Twin Peaks - with both the extraneous locked doors and mind games to make the comparison complete. There's even a mysterious and strange agent who appears in Bright Falls without explanation, though as far as we know he's not obsessed with the local diner's pie and coffee. There are six episodes (complete with "Previously On" recaps to help it resemble a TV show) and more are promised as downloadable content to extend the series indefinitely - at least until cancellation when ratings inevitably plummet.

Learning Curve: You can pick up the game pretty quickly thanks to a short but engaging nightmare prologue/tutorial, but the difficult ramps abruptly in Episode 2. Be prepared for some frustrating times until you master the controls (review our tips) and then finally reach the part of the game where flares become plentiful. Light protects you from the darkness, get it? You'll spend a lot of time "burning the darkness away," which will either become fun or endlessly repetitive depending on how you feel about the flashlight, shoot, rinse and repeat game mechanics or the story's ability to intrigue you enough to carry on despite them.

The Save Game: Your progress is saved at frequent checkpoints, usually when you step under a lamppost in the middle of a dark forest or park. Listen for the musical sting and visual indicator to be sure it's saved successfully before quitting for the night.

Family Factor: It's T for Teen. We know parents frequently bend this, but we suggest you stick to the recommended age range in this case. You shoot a lot of human enemies (at least they look and sound human) though clearly the Taken, as they're called, are more spectral in nature. Younger kids won't understand the distinction. Also, the horror element might induce nightmares with the young'uns (and possibly the older'uns though they'd never admit it!).

Buy, Rent or Skip? You can beat the game in 10-15 hours, so rent it unless you are a survival horror junkie or you find a cheap used copy. It remains to be seen whether the downloadable content episodes will make it worth holding onto the game after you beat it.

On a Personal Note: As a writer myself, I really wanted to love Alan Wake. Alas, the most I can muster is a grudging "like." The descent into chaos is abrupt, you don't get nearly as much freedom to explore what could be a very fun and chilling world, and busy gamers will quickly abandon the quest to collect every manuscript page and coffee thermos. Your primary "enemy," the Taken, endlessly respawn - in part to keep you from finding the boundaries of what should have been a giant sandbox with deep exploration potential but ends up being only a slight improvement on the rail shooter genre. There's a fairly linear path; step off of it at your own peril.

Here's an example of the disconnect between reality and what the game expects you to figure out. In the first chapter, I was directed by some mysterious yellow paint (which appears only when you shine your flashlight on it) to a flare gun. So I did what you would expect to do with a flare gun - I fired it into the air to attract the attention of someone who might help! Waste of ammo. Then I found a strange box with what appeared to be flames on it. So I shot it with another flare thinking I was being directed to burn it open. Another wasted shot. Flareguns are only used to decimate large hordes of Taken, which - incidentally - is different from what you use standalone flares for (and the ammo can't be interchanged). I think this illustrates what a muddled mess Alan Wake rises above to become a good though definitely not great game.

In between relentless bouts with dark enemies are boring stretches where you drive around in daylight or visit past events in the protagonist's life. These latter segments should be deep and fascinating but end up being short and shallow side trips. The good news is that persistance pays off - the last three chapters are quite fun if you enjoy a bit of mindless repetition (as I do). You'll get into a rhythm of taking down the Taken and may even get a little sad when it all comes to a somewhat predictable end.

The truth is that I found the story more trite than the pulpiest Stephen King novel I've read, and I've read (and enjoyed) more than a few. Once you get into the groove, the action is solid but ultimately not fulfilling. So while I'm glad that I played through it, I'm not eager to return for another visit. Since there was a code for a free a DLC episode included with the retail copy we bought, I'll give it one more chance and then most likely send its remains floating down the river.

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June 9, 2010

Busy Gamer Review - Doom II

Busy Gamer Review

Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.

Reviewed On: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade; also available for PC, Mac and many other platforms in various incarnations.

Doom II In a Nutshell: Shoot demon spawn and zombie soldiers. There are puzzles, mostly involving keys and switches, but it really just boils down to: Kill enemies and find the exit. Rinse and repeat. That's basically it.

Oh, but there's so much more. Doom was the granddaddy of the modern first-person shooter. Building on the slick Nazi slaying of Wolfenstein 3D, Doom added grit, texture and some impressive enemies and level design. Then Doom II took things to new heights and helped foster a new generation of level designers. Many of the people who build the maps for the FPS games you play today cut their teeth making Doom WADs and Total Conversions.

Doom II for Xbox Live Arcade isn't necessarily the definitive version of the game, but for $10 it packs in a lot of value: the original 32 levels of Doom II, 9 exceedingly well-crafted bonus maps, split-screen and Xbox Live co-op and deathmatch and a pair of avatar items you can unlock including a black Doom II avatar t-shirt.

The No Rest for the Living bonus maps added by Nerve Software (which ported the classic id Software game for Bethesda Softworks) are masterful - if you take the time to enjoy them. Most are designed to provide relatively quick access to the exit, but if you notice any areas that are not accessible, hear the distant sounds of imps or see a key you can’t reach, you haven't extracted full enjoyment from them.

Spend some time finding the secrets and you will be rewarded with some great gaming moments: thoughtfully sprung traps, intricate mixes of enemies and bonus weapons to help make the experience stimulating and rewarding. The puzzles are so well done, I had a big grin on my face for almost the full time I played these levels. When I realized with horror on one of the later levels that an Arch-Vile was resurrecting a slew of dangerous enemies I had carefully dispatched - and then, a few minutes later, I heard another Arch-Vile lurking nearby ready to do the same - I tipped my virtual hat to the level designer.

Learning Curve: If you've never played Doom before, you'll need to adjust to its old-school ways. You can't look up and down so your weapon auto-aims to hit any enemy directly in front of where you're pointing. You'll have to learn which weapons work best against different enemies, though this is pretty easy and part of the fun of the game. Due to the way the console version cycles through your weapons (X and Y buttons), you will need to practice switching until you can do it quickly while under fire. The D-pad does offer your most common choices (shotgun, chaingun, rockets and plasma), but it would have been nice if they made it user remappable.

The Save Game: Save anywhere at any time. You do have a limited number of save slots (10) per storage device, and there's no quick save but otherwise this works really well.

Family Factor: In retrospect, this is not the most violent videogame ever (despite what some parents seemed to think in the '90s!) but it does have blood, rocket launchers, humanoid soldier enemies, scary-looking demons and some vaguely satanic looking symbols. Mature teens can probably handle it (especially if they've already experienced Call of Duty or Halo), but keep the little ones away while you play.

Buy or Skip? Hit the free demo to see if you enjoy it, but we'd rate this a buy at $10 for single-player and co-op alone. Xbox Live connectivity is hit or miss, and there's no system link (LAN) play so you may want to skip it if these things are vital to your enjoyment.

On a Personal Note: In the mid-1990s, GrrlGotGame and I were avid Macintosh gamers. There weren't a lot of games available on the Mac back then (oh how things have changed, right?!) - mostly shareware and the occasional BIG GAME RELEASE. When Doom II arrived on Mac a couple years behind the PC version, we were skeptical but gave it a try - and were instantly hooked!

It's not that we were against violent videogames per se, but the media reports had painted Doom as... well, you know the drill by now, a murder simulator. (Oh how things have changed!) I'm a pacifist and have never fired a gun in real life (well, maybe once when my dad was holding it at a shooting range when I was 10). But Doom II was riveting, stress-relieving and just plain fun. Those shocks of adrenaline when a well-designed level tossed an unexpected trap (say, a demon attack in a dark room) proved addictive. And we enjoyed the novelty of new community-made level downloads, including a replica of the Atari corporate offices, a total conversion that turned Doom into an Aliens game and a truly inspired set of maps called Memento Mori. (If you played them, you remember the name.)

We became so passionate about Doom, we launched a niche interest e-zine, MacDoom Review. (Oh how things have changed! Now we write a niche interest gaming blog and podcast!) MDR, as we called it, had a small but deeply devoted following. It was published monthly using a Mac tool called DocMaker so you couldn't even read it on a PC! We had interviews, tutorials for homebrew tools to make your own levels, tips and tricks and lots and lots of WAD reviews. Oh, and poetry. GrrlGotGame put her creative talents to work writing verses, lyrics and even recipes to entertain a lost generation of Doom-lovin' frat boys (we'll include a sample in Busy Gamer Podcast 35).

Doom II was actually the first Doom game to be released on Mac, followed by Ultimate Doom (which included the original Doom with bonus maps) and several map pack compendiums. Doom II remains the gold standard for us. It introduced some of the best enemies: the plodding but powerful Mancubi, rocket-firing Revenants and flaming Arch-Viles.

One of my favorite pastimes in Doom II was (and remains) slowly taking down a Mancubus with a shotgun. It takes a while and requires careful strafing to avoid his fire attack, but it's so satisfying to hear the creature's plaintive "Bwaa" with each impact that I could do this all day. Revenant rockets actually track you, so dodging them is a similarly rewarding challenge, along with the sound their bones make when they eventually crumble. And the menacing murmur of a nearby Arch-Vile still chills me, especially when I'm walking through a room of dead demons that I know it will bring back to life if it gets half a chance.

If you only pick up one Doom game for Xbox Live Arcade, make it Doom II - it's rich, deep and still loads of fun.

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April 27, 2010

Busy Gamer Review - Batman: Arkham Asylum

Busy Gamer Review

Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.

Reviewed On: Xbox 360. Also available for PlayStation 3 and PC.

Batman: Arkham Asylum In a Nutshell: This is a combination third-person brawler and action-adventure game. The brawler mechanics tend to dominate, particularly at the beginning, but it eventually transcends them to deliver a rich interactive story with deep exploration. Most battles are settled with your fists, but there are options to play the game "your way" - by choosing stealth tactics to sneak up on an adversary to perform a silent takedown or using a well-placed batarang, grappler or explosive to surprise an enemy head on. Or just button mash, up to a point. (More on that in a minute.)

The game is initially frustrating as areas abound that you can see but not access. But as the story unfolds, so do your options to enter new areas and hiding spots. What truly salvages this game is "detective mode," which provides a special visor view that turns the world blue and makes it easy to spot bad guys (who appear as blue or red skeletons depending on whether they are packing "heat"), hiding places, secrets, etc. You'll use this mode to hunt specific clues to advance the story, but without it players like me would be lost much of the time.

Learning Curve: The basic brawler mechanics are easy to pick up, but hard to master. The basic moves serve you well for most of the game - but if you don't learn advanced moves and counter strategies, the end game will be intensely difficult. Fortunately, this doesn't interfere with your enjoyment of 90% of Arkham Asylum but it could lead to frustration as you're stuck with an almost complete experience that has little hope of a satisfying finish. Switch to the videogame equivalent of a cold shower (a little Bejeweled 2, perhaps?) and then jump back in and get the job done.

The Save Game: The save system isn't very busy gamer friendly. The game does perform background saves at checkpoints along the way, but it can be hard to tell when you've triggered one. There is no Save and Quit option; when you quit, you're warned of the potential for lost progress. And lose progress you probably will, at least some of the time. Be prepared to repeat some sections if you don't have large blocks of uninterrupted time at your disposal.

Family Factor: This game is rated T for teen. The beat-'em up aspect is pretty benign, but Batman does get knifed, shocked and shot up by armed goons, and there are some nightmare sequences that make this game not suited for younger eyes (at least if you don't want to risk giving them the night terrors, signing you up for those middle-of-the-night soothing sessions!). Pre-teens can probably handle it, especially if they've already been exposed to the darker of the Dark Knight comics.

Buy, Rent or Skip? This game is a solid rental unless you're a completist who needs to collect every Riddler pick-up and best all of the bonus challenge modes you start unlocking late in the main story. If you find it for less $20 or less, you'll get your money's worth.

On a Personal Note: I went into this game with a lot of Batman baggage. Having suffered through so many bad Batman games over the years, I stopped paying attention to them. When I started hearing good buzz about Arkham Asylum, I decided to give it a try and downloaded the demo. The interactive title sequence (somewhat reminiscent of Half-Life) where you walk Batman around while bits of story unfold was interesting. But, alas, the brawler mechanics just didn't grab me and I ended up putting it into the "no thanks" pile.

But the praise for Arkham Asylum continued, so I tossed it into my Gamefly queue. I decided to play on Easy so I could focus on the story and not worry about having to repeat a bunch of boring beat-'em-up sessions. About half an hour in, I started to get why people love this game.

Detective Mode Arkham Asylum itself is a huge sprawling campus on an island with lots of areas to root out and secrets to find. I played with detective mode turned on for most of the story.

Zipping around armed enemies from one stone gargoyle to the next never seems to get old. Lose the enemies, and then sneak up and trap them with an upside-down stealth takedown or glide into them, finish them with a knock-out punch and then zip to safety before the remaining henchmen spot you.

Most of the boss battles are Zelda-like concoctions - once you find the weak spot or pattern, you'll just do what's required, rinse and repeat until the enemy falls. The game is generous with the hints if you get stuck. A few nightmare sequences play with your expectations and change the gameplay in a significant way; these are fun little side trips that extend the game and help it transcend its brawler roots.

The final battle is another story all together. If you haven't studied your moves and learned how to take down henchmen armed with knives and shock sticks, you are in for a world of hurt. I had to re-learn how to fight, with emphasis on maneuvers that stun or perform unblockable takedowns, to finally complete the game - which was, on the whole, enjoyable and ultimately worth the effort.

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April 8, 2010

Busy Gamer Review - Solitaire Siege

Busy Gamer Review

Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.

Reviewed On: iPhone. Also plays on iPod Touch and iPad.

imageIn a Nutshell: Solitaire with a militaristic touch. There are three card games included: Pyramid, Siege Mode and the creatively named Mini Game. The Siege and Pyramid games both focus on removing cards, or "enemies," from a pre-set board. The Mini Game is a tapping game that asks players to hit falling grenades before they blow up. (It bored me to tears.)

But back to the good games. In both Pyramid and Siege, players start with a stack of cards, one card facing up. You may remove any adjacent card from the board, regardless of suit. If you miss a move, the enemy "attacks," depleting your health. The enemy also attacks periodically, just for the helluva it. It is war, after all.

Learning Curve: Even with directions, it still took me some time to figure out Solitaire Siege. After a bit of trial and error (a lot of error!), I figured out both the moves and the strategy. As an experienced Pyramid player, it was easy to pick up - but I'm still bewildered by how, exactly, it's deciding if I win or lose a level. A little more work in the support area would be beneficial.

The Save Game: This threw me for a loop. The game saves your progress when you exit (or when it crashes, which has happened to me a lot). It never says that it's saving, however - nor is there a save option. Also, it just saves the level you've reached, not your game in progress. This is particularly frustrating because the game does crash - and it's usually when I'm doing particularly well. When you boot the game, it will ask if you want to proceed with your game in progress or start fresh. There doesn't seem to be an option C, leave and play something else. (Or is that the square button on the bottom of my iPhone?) So once you're in a game, you're in it.

Family Factor: Mild. Certain power-ups will create very small explosions that consist mostly of dust. The sounds, including gunshots and screaming, are comical, but could also be disturbing to small kids.

Buy or Skip? It's a fun little game, but the tendency to crash every so often should be factored in to your decision. Then again, Gamewatcher may not have updated this app for me. Regardless, I found it engaging enough to move to my second screen, and have been playing it nightly for a couple weeks now. It's only $1, and there's a free Lite version so you can try before you buy.

On a Personal This has been on my iPhone forever, in the very last screen with other stuff that I never looked at. A few weeks ago, I decide to go allll thhheee wwaaayyy dooowwnnn to the last screen and just play with EVERYTHING long enough to decide if it stays or goes. Out of 12 apps, this was the sole survivor.

The Pyramid cards, or "enemies," are presented in rows resembling the traditional Pyramid solitaire game. Your goal is to eliminate as enemies as possible, working your way up the board. I've won sieges with a few cards on the board, and lost with fewer cards - I still haven't figured out what the magic number is, or if it's based on hit points. And yes, I did RTFM. I have since abandoned it for Siege Mode, which is quite engaging and - dare I say it - fun.

Siege boards vary from level to level, but are basically different riffs on the horizontal solitaire layout. It's the same basic remove cards game, but with militaristic touches. Barrier cards ranging from a forest to a solid cement wall randomly block your progress, but can be blown up with specialty cards such as grenades and fire. Those are also randomly placed in the deck. The barriers add a level of strategy to the game, as some targets are more vulnerable than others (Hint: Don't use your grenade on ANYTHING but the wall. Trust me.)

The game uses sound effects, including guns and explosions, to enhance the war theme. Attacking a face card will result in an appropriate screech - the Queen's death rattle is particularly disturbing. The little victory song at the end of the level is, however, kinda groovy. Plus you get stats and rankings (military stars) and level up after each successful siege. Once you get your groove, you can keep leveling up for a good long time.

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March 17, 2010

Busy Gamer Review - BioShock 2

Busy Gamer Review

Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.

Reviewed On: Xbox 360. Also available for PC and PlayStation 3.

BioShock 2 In a Nutshell: At its most basic level, BioShock 2 is a first-person shooter set in a dystopian steampunk aquarium under the sea. The game builds and improves on the original in some ways, introducing duel-wielding (plasmids such as telekinesis in one hand, weapons in the other) and some new goodies courtesy of your status as a prototype Big Daddy.

The world itself is essentially the same, but with new locations to visit and ponder. You're still faced with the occasional moral choice that will impact the remainder of your game, and finding/playing tape recorders remains the main way that the backstory unfolds. You can also be assured that your favorite (and most loathed) enemies are all here, with some notable additions in the form of a fat-but-still-bad-ass splicer and the much-touted Big Sister, who does NOT play well with others. She's mean even if you play nice!

The game also introduces a sort of escort mission that, thankfully, doesn't involve walking for hours protecting someone who's important/wounded/profoundly stupid - which is why the words "escort mission" no doubt made your stomach churn a few seconds ago. In this case, Mr. Bubbles, you shoulder the burden - which makes it an easy thing to do, most of the time.

There's no denying the scenery is still gorgeous - and if you skipped the first one (shame on you!), you're likely to have the same sense of awe it inspired. The downside: The story also feels somewhat familiar, even though it deals with a completely different set of Ayn Rand-esque wackos.

Capture the Little SisterOn the plus side, BioShock 2 introduces multiplayer - and does it right. It takes favorite online gaming staples and improves them. For instance, a "Capture the Little Sister," which takes old-school CTF and adds a screaming, bitchy twist: "Just WAIT until my DADDY gets his HANDS ON YOU!" Frag fests are easy to find online as well, although your weapon/plasmid choices are severely limited until you level up. Alas, what happened to split-screen?! I'd love to take on Gamewatcher in the multiplayer games, but not enough to drop another $60 on a second copy.

Learning Curve: First-person shooter vets will have no problems picking up the game controls. The in-game tutorials do an excellent job of explaining the basics, and plasmids are introduced gradually enough that even newbies will be able to catch on. BioShock fans will enjoy some of the new plasmids and game dynamics with expanded environments available for destruction. The hacking scheme has been changed to a simple but eventually challenging stop-the-needle game that is a welcome change from the game-interrupting build-a-pipeline project of the original.

The Save Game: You can save anywhere, which I recommend doing early and often. You'll have unlimited save slots (well, at least until you run out of hard drive or memory card space), so use them! In addition, you'll find Vita Chamber checkpoints throughout the game. If you die, you respawn at the nearest one with the world in the same shape as you left it. Enemies retain damage done, although Splicers do have the ability to heal themselves at any health stations that you failed to hack or destroy.

Family Factor: This game is strictly for grown-ups. As with the original, even adults may have nightmares. It's nothing you can't handle - probably.

Buy, Rent or Skip? The game is worth playing - the question is whether or not it deserves a slot in your collection. The single-player story is relatively short and can be beat in about 15-20 hours, depending on your level of expertise and OCD. Explorers and completists chasing the game's three different endings will take longer (and can justify the purchase), but those who want to beat it and street it can tear through the game in a rental period.

If you're a multiplayer fan, it's a buy. Multiplayer is a blast, and goes far beyond the typical dump-me-in-a-game-with-a-weapon approach to online deathmatching. It's worth noting that there BioShock 2 downloadable content coming out, which will enhance both online and single-player - though it remains to be seen whether this will improve the "buy" factor. If anything, it may be a reason to wait for the inevitable Game of the Year edition.

On a Personal Note: I was absolutely floored by BioShock, and therefore approached the sequel cautiously. I think that may have enhanced the experience for me since lowered expectations are easier to meet. This game did touch me in ways that the first one did not. To explain how would be to give away core surprises and the few story points that were enjoying. However, suffice it to say I will be building a Little Sister costume for PAX West this summer.

Sadly, overall the story itself does not live up to original. While I applaud the attempt to make an entirely new, standalone adventure, it still somehow feels like a poorly executed rehash. The final battle is repetitive, and the so-called "good" ending left me wondering how bad it was going to turn out for me when I play again for the dark side. For the record, there are three endings this time: good, not so evil, and just plain satanic. Oddly, there is little difference between the "bad endings" given what you must do to get one versus the other.

If you do pick up BioShock 2 and need a little help getting through it, here are some tips:

  • Desperate for health but don't have cash? Bash (melee) a health machine to quickly access a full health pack - but you won't be able to pay to get better. This trick doesn't work with the ammo machines. Hacking the health machine and hitting the blue zone will also generate a health pack, and it will make the machine zap wounded enemies who try to use it. You can still bash it later for an extra pack, if you need it.
  • Do a final sweep before entering any mode of transportation (i.e., leaving the level). This is a prime time to beat the hell out of far-flung health dispensers (check your map) to stock up on health packs, re-check corpses for loot you couldn't pick up previously and leisurely look for any major stuff you missed (tape recordings and tonics).
  • Focus on upgrading one weapon at a time. The rewards are exponential. There's some debate on which ones are best, but I found the shotgun and rocket launcher the most helpful in the long run.
  • Each Little Sister can visit two "angels" max, so be sure you get both gathers in before "taking her home." You have a limited number of Little Sister per level, which means missing a gather equals a permanently lost Adam opportunity.
  • Achievement hounds should show mercy whenever the opportunity presents itself. As far as I can tell, there is no reward for being wicked this go round.
  • Before returning your last little darling home, stock up on health and ammo - even if it means hacking or destroying those health machines. Also, try to save some cash. When you do take her home, look for the nearest (unbusted) health machine. Run like hell to it as soon as you can. Bonus points if there's a friendly camera around. Trust me.
  • Use caution when picking up stray tonics in the wild. Press the standard action button and it will replace something in your active inventory. Take the time to consider what it does versus what you have, and then decide if it's going into rotation or storage. Can't figure out how to get to a tonic you can see? Use the map to find areas that you haven't visited, even if it's far away from the tonic.
  • This game is made for people who like to mess with the environment. See oil? Use fire. Near water? Electricity. Something that goes boom? Shoot it or send it flying.

And finally: Explore, explore, explore. Take time to press every button, search every nook and, again, check your map for areas you missed. Because, despite its flaws, this is just one cool game.


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March 3, 2010

Busy Gamer Review - The Maw

Busy Gamer Review

Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.

Reviewed On: Xbox 360. Also available for PC via Steam, Greenhouse and Direct2Drive.

Frank and Maw In a Nutshell: The titular Maw is a giant purple blob with a big, hungry mouth (get it?) and the brain of a dog. A sweet, stupid, really hungry dog. The game's opening scenes imply - but do not show - Maw in a laboratory, presumably about to get sliced and diced. He escapes with his buddy Frank, an adorable yet slightly creepy bug-like alien dude. That would be you.

Frank slaps a collar on Maw and off they go trotting around the globe in search of... well, I'm really not sure, but I assume it's to avoid Maw vivisection. As you journey, Maw eats everything in sight, allowing him to grow and eat even larger things. This isn't a Katamari knock-off, though. Maw gains special powers by eating certain wildlife. These vary by level, but include fire eyes (you heard me!), rhino-nose and flying.

The Maw is all about puzzles, starting with how you acquire those powers. Many delicacies require some preparation before Maw can chow down. If you feed him something prematurely, he'll spit it out faster than you can say Tom Colichio. But once Maw has the power du level, watch out.

Learning Curve: Mastering the moves is very easy. Nothing requires more than one button push, and most similar tasks are assigned to the same button. There are a few platformer moments that consist primarily of Frank jumping from one spot to another. Platforms are always spaced mercifully close together, meaning players don't have to spend long periods of time mastering the jump moves.

The more difficult aspect, for me, anyway, was keeping track of Maw's powers. It seemed like new wildlife appeared every level, requiring me to figure out a new process (how do I catch/cook/whatever it) and then determining what Maw could do after he ate the crispy critter. Some creatures/powers re-appeared late in the game, by which time I had forgotten what to do.

Certain puzzles were also insanely hard to me. That said our 7-year-old, Pikachu Fan, was able to guide me through them without breaking a sweat.

The Save Game: Very tough for busy gamers - the game only saves at the end of a level. No interim saves.

Family Factor: Subjective. The game is rated E for everyone and is mostly harmless. Some creatures, including Maw himself, might be scary to very small children. Also, note that there are guns (turrets and spaceships) used against Frank/Maw throughout the game. If Frank or Maw get hit, they just fall back and see stars - no blood, no deaths. Your heros never die, but copious authority figures (presumably security guys) do go down - and are promptly eaten by Maw. Some creatures are bonked on the head/see stars.

Buy or Skip? This one is not available for rent (though there is a free trial on Xbox Live Marketplace), so it comes down to buy or skip. I thoroughly enjoyed the game, although it is incredibly short. I beat it in two Saturday sessions totaling about 6 hours. I can easily see playing through it again to try to beat my best time and pick up a few achievements I missed the first go round. It's also a perennial Pikachu Fan favorite, so it will be in rotation for some time to come for that reason. There are three bonus levels (so called "deleted scenes") available for purchase if it leaves you wanting more, but they total $3.75 which is 37% of the total $10 game cost. So far, we've passed on them.

Overall, the game is a solid "buy" for anyone looking for an inexpensive puzzle game you can play with your kids.

photo On a Personal Note: Our 7-year-old discovered The Maw last year, and immediately started mimicking Frank's call (Maw? MAAA-AWWW!), even adapting it to call one of our cats, Mal. (Listen to our next Sunday podcast for an audio sample!)

I had no idea TwistedPixel was selling stuffed Maw dolls at PAX '09 until a friend mentioned it on Twitter. I went on a frenzied search for their booth, only to find out they had just sold the last one a short time before. They were planning to get some overnighted from Austin, however.

Long story short, the FedEx shipment did not come through - but TwistedPixel ultimately did. We gave them cash (with somewhat overestimated shipping) and a business card, and the following Monday received e-mail saying Maw was on his way.

He now resides in Pikachu Fan's room, where he scares the wits out of our cats.


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February 3, 2010

Busy Gamer Review - Assassin’s Creed II: Battle of Forli DLC

Busy Gamer Review

Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.

Reviewed On: Xbox 360. Also available for PlayStation 3. 

Assassin's Creed II Battle of Forli In a Nutshell: A set of six fast-paced missions that comprise the lost Sequence 12 of the Assassin's Creed II storyline. And by lost, I mean the developers didn't finish it in time to cram it into the original game (or that's their story, anyway). For context, the finale, in which you have fun storming the ultimate castle, is Sequence 14 and there's another DLC pack coming in February that fills in the also absent Sequence 13.

As the title implies, this missing memory takes place in Forli: the less developed, less fun area of the game. It compensates by bringing back everyone's favorite homicidal hottie, Catarina Sforza. While she's clearly burning for Ezio to show her his big sword, she also has kind of a bad track record with the menfolk. (Good night, Ezio. Sleep well. I'll most likely kill you in the morning...)

You'll spend a fun-filled hour (or two, if you fall a lot, which I do) running around doing favors for Catarina, by which I mean killing guards, then killing more guards and then just to break things up, running across a field and then, yes, you guessed it - killing some guards. There's also more flying.

Oh, there are no new achievements or trophies, so don't get excited.

Learning Curve: Game play is exactly the same as ACII - if you've played the game, you'll be fine. Unless you've been playing a lot of another game (say, Borderlands) in which case you might want to fast travel home and brush up in the training area.

That said, I got the "No Hitter" achievement for taking down a bunch of guards without getting hit within the first 10 minutes of booting the game. An achievement I couldn't get when I was actually playing the main game. And trying. Hard. Guess button mashing can have its benefits.

The Save Game: Same as before. You'll get periodic mid-mission saves, and a save after every completed mission. Quit to the main menu before shutting down to ensure your progress is saved.

Family Factor: Lots of killing but little blood, a few bad words and you will definitely see London and France courtesy of Catarina, albeit swathed in the finest cotton available in the 1400s. It's a very brief flash, so to speak.

Buy or Skip? It really depends on how much you enjoy the game. The missions are easy, but it doesn't really fill in any major storylines. It's just a way to extend the game for a few bucks. Did I mention there aren't any new achievements or trophies?

On a Personal Note: I was excited about the DLC when it was first announced as I was still steeped in the game. Having beat and walked away from AC II at the end of 2009, I was less rabid when it actually arrived. I'm glad I played it, and I certainly enjoyed the opportunity to revisit the world. Having two people in the house who will (eventually) play through made the (admittedly inexpensive) $4 cost easier to swallow.

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January 27, 2010

Busy Gamer Review - Borderlands [BGN Game of the Year 2009]

Busy Gamer Review

Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.

Reviewed On: Xbox 360. Also available for PC and PlayStation 3.

Borderlands In a Nutshell: A cel-shaded "role-playing shooter" with a post-apocalyptic sci-fi slant. The opening credit sequence (accompanied by the excellent "Ain't No Rest for the Wicked" by Cage the Elephant) introduces you to your four playable characters, each with a unique unlockable special skill. There's Mordecai (Hunter), whose pet bird Bloodwing rips apart foes; Lilith (Siren), who can temporarily walk through another dimension and damage enemies as she phase shifts; Roland (Soldier), who tosses out a turret gun that delivers cover, hurt and eventually healing and ammo; and Brick as himself (a tank of a man with Hulk-smash skills).

Once you pick your character, you're booted off the bus and onto the arid desert wastelands of Pandora (no, a different one!) near the aptly named Fyrestone. Here you'll meet the first of many dancin' robots to guide you through your first labyrinth, giving you ample opportunity to search anything shiny, dank and green for weapons, ammo and other goodies. Oh, and you start killing folks about 30 seconds into the game. (The FPS element is strong with this one.)

The main quest line (if you can call it that) is... um... wait, don't tell me... well, there was this vault. Or something. And, according to legend - oh, hell, forget it. This game is about killing things and collecting loot. There are occasional allusions to what happened to researchers and other settlers. Sometimes, I even pay attention. But then a really big guy with a bigger gun starts yelling at me, or the "local wildlife" decides to play, and my trigger-finger starts getting itchy.

Once you've opened up the world a bit and leveled up (2-3 hours for even novice players), the game becomes what you make of it. There are mission boards across the land, but missions only appear as you progress. Each offers a "Level" and "Difficulty" ranking, which makes choosing your own adventure much, much easier. (The difficulty drops as your character level rises since the mission level stays the same.)

It's a great single-player experience, but where this title really shines is co-op. More about that below.

Learning Curve: The game, hampered by confusing UI (particularly on split-screen co-op, where you have to horizontally scroll your dialog boxes), can take awhile to suck you in, and it's easy to get discouraged if you start going up against higher level enemies before you're ready. Fortunately for you, we've compiled our best getting started tips.

The training is well-done and elementary for anyone who has played both an FPS and RPG. My biggest issue has been retraining my brain to use a completely different set of buttons than most games I've played. Also, my finger occasionally grazes the front left bumper, triggering my special skill unintentionally. The wait time for the skill to "cool off" and return makes that a painful accident.

Your early training missions, all a short distance from Fyrestone, open up some critical elements: namely, a source for paid health and ammo. It's worth noting that you can find both all over the game for free, but don't count on getting exactly what you need when you need it - buy a few back-ups or plan to do a lot of walking back to your mission when you respawn.

But I digress. Once you have access to health and weapons, you can start to venture out on your own or take on work - it's up to you. It's worth taking missions for a couple reasons, however. The first, and most obvious, is leveling up. You won't get the option to spend any skill points until you hit Level 5, when you open up your special skill. Plus - listen up kids, this is important - your enemies have levels as well, and they are already out in the badlands. My poor little Level 3 character was slaughtered by the Level 11 NPC next door in about 2 hits. I returned the favor later, after leveling up to 15, when his bullets damaged my higher-level hide much less.

The learning curve for starting a co-op game without making a mistake is actually a little steep. Good luck with that. Be prepared to quit and restart a bit until you've worked out how to get in the right slot with the right character and ensure that everybody is ready at the same time.

The Soldier's turret is your friend The Save Game: The game offers a local respawn point whenever you pass a Nu-U station, though it doesn't technically save your game as far as we can tell. When you're done playing, you should quit to the main menu to ensure your actual mission progress is saved. When you quit and come back, any enemies you defeated will likely have returned (heck, newcomers appear in places you've cleared while you're playing if you're gone for more than a couple minutes!) though any checkmarks you've made toward completing missions are preserved.

If you load an existing game in co-op, you should always let the lowest level player host - otherwise, low level players will make no progress in their game. We just keep separate characters for our co-op game, and they always play together.

Family Factor: This is for the grown-ups and high teens only - very violent, very bloody. Plan on saving and quitting quickly when younger children wake from nap, or play late at night (as we do!).

Buy, Rent or Skip? Unequivocal buy. This is a fantastic game with lots of replay value, plus DLC to keep you going once you crack Level 50 and beat all of the missions. It's our Busy Gamer News game of the year for 2009 based on depth, staying power and just how much fun it is to run around and shoot stuff after a long, hard day slaving over the Interwebz.

On a Personal Note: I'm thrilled to finally have a co-op game that I can play with Gamewatcher. This has become our nightly ritual, and I truly look forward to it. Gamewatcher and I have never been big co-op players. It isn't for lack of desire - we're just not into the realistic war games, and haven't found a title that we truly enjoyed playing together in some time. Now, we can't wait to get Pikachu Fan tucked into bed ("Hey! It's 4 p.m.! Wow, you must be tired...") and head downstairs to kick some Pandoran ass.

It's also the first game in awhile that has convinced me to start over so I could try out the various character choices. Each character has a unique set of skills, from weapon mastery to how fast they can haul across the desert. I've played all but Lilith (who is Gamewatcher's co-op character, now and forever!) and settled firmly on Team Roland for one very good reason: His turret. As we say around the Busy Gamer News labs, it's like having another soldier on the field.

Mordecai comes in a close second. In fact, I prefer him in pretty much every way except for the all-too-critical special weapon. He has the best voice acting (outside of Lilith), moves like the wind and comes equipped with some superb sniper skills - a must in this game. But his bird just doesn't cut it for me. If Mordecai had a turret, he'd be perfect.

I found Brick to be the weakest of all the characters, despite his clear physical strength. He doesn't run, he lumbers. His weapon skills are difficult to master, and his Hulk-smash special was extremely difficult use. Being a major melee fan, I expected this man-tank to be my long-lost FPS love. Instead, I dumped him like a ton of Brick.

Lilith and the dancin' robotWe've been playing a Roland/Lilith combo that has worked out surprising well, other than our vastly different gaming styles. Gamewatcher is a hang-back and snipe kinda guy, whereas me... well, let's just say patience is not my virtue. But I'm learning. Because the most critical thing you can do in this co-op game is heal your teammate, assuming you can get to him/her before they respawn. (You pay for the Nu-U each time, and it gets EXPENSIVE.) Duck and cover, recharge your shields, and holla for help, kids!

Best of all, this game has remarkable replay value. I know, as I have now played some missions three times (two solo characters and co-op with Gamewatcher) and I'm about to start solo again with Roland. While these missions have gotten easier with each replay (knowledge is power), even the new missions I'm encountering with Gamewatcher as we progress into our Level 30s continue to entice and enthrall me.

I haven't enjoyed a game this much in general since Fallout 3, which is still my fallback title when I don't feel like playing the game du jour. I can see Borderlands competing with Fallout 3 for that fallback position for a long time to come. And I haven't even bought any of the Borderlands DLC yet.

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January 20, 2010

Busy Gamer Review - Lego Rock Band

Busy Gamer Review

Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.

Reviewed On: Xbox 360. Also available for PlayStation 3 and Wii. Different version available for Nintendo DS.

Lego Rock Band In a Nutshell: The Rock Band "pretend music" rhythm game experience, ported to a more family-friendly format filled with those familiar interlocking bricks. Unlike past Lego-branded console outings, this isn't a smash-'em-up puzzle adventure. You do still collect studs to spend on costumes, characters, and instruments - including a rad octopus mike, dinosaur drum set and lightning bolt guitar (to name a few). And the scenes that introduce challenges are pure Traveller's Tales silliness (bring down a building with the power of rock?), right down to their trademark Lego character reactions throughout.

At first glance, it looks more or less like Rock Band with lego bricks traveling down the note highway instead of the solid glowing rectangles. But there have been some tweaks and new features added, most notably Rock Challenges. As your progress through your band's career, you open up vehicles which lead to new, exotic venues such as a skyscraper, pirate ship and coral reef.

Each area is punctuated by a challenge that begins with a lengthy intro scene and then brings up a special play mode where all players are scored as a team rather than individually and the guitar and drum parts drop in and out (the vocalist doesn't get a break, unless the song has an instrumental stretch). Do well, and you'll escape a pursuing T-Rex or defeat a giant octopus intent on wreaking his vengeance on the band.

The game offers the widest range of difficulties to date, from Super Easy to Expert. But it lacks refinements seen in recent outings such as the long overdue 3-second countdown when returning from pause that Harmonix introduced in The Beatles: Rock Band. Our little drummer has a habit of hitting the Guide button on the drumset during his exuberant fills; it always takes him a few seconds to get us back in the game (since only the pausing player can unpause) and we always miss notes/vocal phrases when we launch back into the song without warning.

Learning Curve: If you're played Rock Band or Guitar Hero: World Tour, you'll feel mostly at home here. If you're new to the genre, you'll need at least a plastic guitar peripheral or two and maybe a microphone and drums to complete the set. Then run through the tutorials and stick with it until you get the hang of things. As with learning a real instrument, it may take some practice - but you'll eventually get it. (Here are some starter tips from the original Rock Band; these are generally applicable here too.)

The game does include several nods to the younger fans it hopes to ensnare. There's Super Easy mode where hitting any note counts, as long as it's more or less timed right, and you can't fail out. Alas, there's no separate No Fail Mode, so younger/novice players may hit a steep difficulty curve when they attempt Easy. This is lessened slightly for budding drummers (like our own) who can turn on the automatic bass pedal option that is hidden away in the Extras section (instead of Options).

The Save Game: The game saves after every set list and when you quit or buy something for your character. The save screen actually comes up a lot, though it's usually pretty quick. If you quit in the middle of a gig, you may lose fans (a small penalty) - but that's pretty much standard issue for these types of games. Expect to set aside 5-15 minutes for each play session, and you can always go longer.

Family Factor: The game is reasonably family friendly, though this depends a little on your taste in music and what you consider appropriate. The musical choices (and any Rock Band DLC that you are permitted to pull in) have been vetted by Harmonix, so you won't be shredding to "El Scorcho" or that Serj Tankian song (you know the one). Some of the included tracks are a bit obscure, though there are some crowd pleasers such as "Ghostbusters," "Accidentally in Love" (from Shrek 2), "Life is a Highway" (from Cars) and "Crocodile Rock." There's also some Foo Fighters, Iggy Pop, Spinal Tap and Jimi Hendrix, no doubt to try to pacify the grownups. Kudos for not going with all kids' songs, but the resulting mish mash is all over the map (full song list).

Buy, Rent or Skip? Since Lego Rock Band is expandable via qualifying DLC for the other Rock Band games, this is a buy if you love Rock Band and yearn for a version that's designed specifically to rock out with your kids on. If you just want to play the songs and challenges but don't expect to be jamming, family-style, into 2011, make it a rental. You can export the songs from Lego Rock Band to your other Rock Band games, but it'll cost you $10 (using a single-use code that it's included in new copies; don't expect to get the code from Gamefly or Blockbuster!). And it's not nearly as useful as a code to export the songs from Rock Band 2 to Lego Rock Band would be; why can't we have "Nine in the Afternoon," "Everlong," "Float On," "Hungry Like the Wolf" and "Livin' on a Prayer" (to name a few) in our family game?! Can somebody get on that, please?

On a Personal Note: This was our 6-year-old's big request for Christmas. He adores all things Lego, and a chance to join his parents on their musical outings (after years of mostly watching us play the first two Rock Band games) seemed nothing short of awesome to him. The game has exceeded his expectations (you can hear his mini-review in our Dec. 27 podcast; it's adorable!).

The unexpected highlight came several days into the game when we unlocked a challenge that began with our band crashing the tour vehicle into a hotel swimming pool. The manager called in a Securi-T-Rex dinosaur rent-a-cop to chase us away, and we were off - racing (and rocking) to safety while playing "Monster" by The Automatic. We'd never heard the song before, but it instantly resonated with our son. The chorus ("What's that coming over the hill?") has become a common catch phrase around our house, and we bought the track from iTunes and have a new favorite song on our iPod playlist.

Our son has begin to master the drums more successfully than he did with the original Rock Band games, in no small part to Super Easy Mode coupled with the Auto Kick Drum (we were prompted to use this latter feature on first play, possibly because our modded drum pedal was unplugged at the time). Again, we'd love if No Fail Mode were available as an option for Easy, just to ease the transition. He's really eager to make the move up the difficulty scale, and probably will in the next week or so - at least for songs that he's practiced. We'll probably still suggest Super Easy for new songs since some of them have quite fast drum parts and might scare him off if things get too difficult too fast.

This won't serve as a replacement for regular Rock Band for us grownups, particular since a large portion of our DLC library is off-limits - including the full 5-pack of Alice in Chains we picked up recently. Is it the band name, or do all of those songs have some naughty lyrics I've forgotten?

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January 13, 2010

Busy Gamer Review - Assassin's Creed II

Busy Gamer Review

Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.

Reviewed On: Xbox 360. Also available for PlayStation 3 and PC. Alternate versions with different gameplay available for DS and PSP, and coming soon to iPhone.

Assassin's Creed II In a Nutshell: Basic sandbox game with a main quest line, side mission opportunities and the chance to wreak general havoc if you are so inclined. You play an assassin in training running around Italy in the 1400s (the game bounces around years). Your primary weapons are blade-based (knives, swords, throwing knives, etc.) or big heavy hammers. You will not be sniping or going rogue with a sub-machine gun in this one. You also won't be seeing well in some areas, as light sources are kept strictly period (windows and torches on the wall). You will defy gravity on a regular basis, climbing and leaping across rooftops and reaching the tallest buildings in multiple-bounds.

In many ways, Assassin's Creed II reminded me of the Grand Theft Auto series. From the convenient map to the "find the hidden object" task (in this case, feathers) and the ability to just generally go rogue, there is very little difference. Even the storyline progression greatly resembles many of the GTA games. I mean that as a compliment.

The story itself is compelling once you get past the first hour or so of training/setup, and the visuals - particularly Venice - are stunning. It's just too bad that The Truth™ you work so hard to seek is... asinine. While the game does strive to keep certain elements "period," there are plenty of unrealistic/anachronistic touches to be seen. For example, I seriously doubt diving 40 stories into a bale of hay would end well. It is awfully fun to do, but kids, don't try this at home.

Note: Characters speak a mixture of Italian and English. To see full-conversations in English, turn on sub-titles. You'll see the Italian followed by a translation. If you've always dreamed of cussing in another language, this is the game for you!

Learning Curve: Gamers with sandbox experience will get more out of the game faster, but anyone can pick the game up and make good progress quickly. Combat can be achieved through button mashing, with those who have the patience and time to train picking up more stylish ways to finish missions. You are allowed to have one active item in your primary hand at all times, selected by going to a special screen.

One notable issue I encountered time and again: my mapped target changing when I didn't change it. This led to unintentional assassinations of innocent people, which in turn lead to the game resetting my life. I also encountered one move that I simply can't master, and at this point, will not even try. That prevented me from doing a few side missions (and missing out on an achievement), but it did not stop me from beating the game.

Oh, and pick pocketing is totally easy now, unlike the first time. Get rich or die tryin'!

The Save Game: The game auto-saves early and often, which is the good news. If your character so much as sneezes, it saves. My only complaint is that you are constantly saving over the same game. In other words, if your game becomes corrupted, you don't have a backup to load.

This didn't cause a problem for me, but it is a risk. As I have mentioned previously, Halo 3 did the same thing - and my game save did get wiped out. I abandoned that game rather than redo the 11 hours of lost game play. This is simply not acceptable. I have a hard drive and a memory card, please let me use them.

Family Factor: Not for the little ones. This game is all about stabbing folks and running them through with long blades. (I also found tossing them off the roof to be effective.) Your hands will literally have blood on them during the finale, and your outfit will look like it was used to wipe the floor of an abattoir. (Oddly, you stay relatively clean for most of the game.) Lots of cussing, most of it in Italian. (Again, turn on subtitles to see what they are saying in English.)

Buy, Rent or Skip? Buy. The sheer volume of missions and time required to really enjoy the game (and finish it) over a busy gamer's schedule would easily eat up $60 in rental or monthly subscription fees. If you can find it used, pick it up there - while it is a great game, it may not have a ton of replay value. (I'm done with it, myself.)

On a Personal Note: I started Assassin's Creed (the original) and barely made it to the second Holy Land before giving up and moving on to the next candidate. Early visuals from the sequel made it extremely attractive to me (I love Italy), but my previous experience left me hesitant. Everything that I hated about the first game has been fixed here, and the story is, at least in my opinion, much more compelling. I had a blast playing the game, and honestly thought I would be diving back in to Venice (so to speak) upon beating it. Alas, Borderlands caught my fancy, and Assassin's Creed II is heading to the bone yard.

For the record, stick with the game DURING the final credits (no running off for bathroom/snack breaks) to really, truly finish the game and get the final main story achievement. This will also open the main game lands back up for you, sans the finale location - so if you want to go back and collect every feather and treasure, you can.

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December 15, 2009

Busy Gamer Review - Zuma's Revenge

Busy Gamer Review

Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.

Busy Gamer Review - Zuma's Revenge

Reviewed On: PC. Also available for Mac.

Zuma's Revenge In a Nutshell: It's the famous match-3 shooter game featuring a frog and a vengeful tikki statue, with some welcome new twists. The basics: Your shooter is a stone frog, your targets are multi-colored marbles. Match 3 or more, you score and the meter fills. New balls stop coming when the meter is full. The game ends when you either clear the board or the balls reach the drain (i.e., you lose the level), whichever comes first. Balls periodically convert to power-ups that activate upon matching. Holdovers from the original Zuma include Reverse balls (the balls roll back away from the dreaded drain), Slow balls and Bombs.

Zuma's Revenge ups the ante with some spectacular new power-ups including one that shoots cannonballs in three directions (you choose the general trajectory), laser eyes that take out every ball you shoot as long as the frog looks radioactive and a nuke ball that takes out every ball of the same color. Another nice addition: The frog has been freed! Well, occasionally, anyway. He still stays planted dead center for many levels, but you get to move him side-to-side occasionally as well. My favorite new feature is the challenging and fun Boss Battle, complete with title card. Nice!

Some other notable new features: The game now has checkpoints (bless you, PopCap), meaning you no longer go all the way to the beginning if lose all your lives. (This is a major, major beef of mine. More on that shortly.) Zuma's Revenge also features a "colorblind assist" option that converts green balls to grey (it's not easy seeing green, at least for me) and support for 1920 x 1200 hi-resolution. I selected the hi-res option and got a firm but polite note that it wasn't a super-great idea, but if you really want to do it, your machine will reboot. I appreciate the game warning me that this might, you know, totally screw up my game and/or computer. And that I'd have to reboot.

The game includes the usual assortment of unlockables, including a hand-killing Challenge mode that is almost too difficult to actually be fun.

Learning Curve: Zuma vets will be able to jump in without problems. Even newbies will be able to pick up the game's basics quickly and enjoy early levels. Once the brain scrambling double-threads begin, the game gets significantly tougher.

The Save Game: Awesome save system. The game will auto-save for you whenever you finish a level, and it saves precisely where you are when you quit (balls frozen in mid-air). Why can't everyone do this?

Family Factor: Completely family friendly. Our 6-year-old loves to watch me play, and has taken a shot (so to speak) himself.

Buy, Try or Skip? If you love match-3 marble shooters, this is an easy decision: Buy! There's always the 60-minute trial if you're on the fence. Act fast and enter our PopCap giveaway this week, and you might just win it!

On a Personal Note:I have been playing the original Zuma on Xbox 360 since the day it came out. That's a lot of years, kids. It has come to be known as my nemesis (spoken in Hiro's accent from "Heroes") because I just can't seem to beat the very last round of levels. (I'm not alone in this, by the way. We should have our own support group!) Our son has seen me boot it many times over the years, and thoughtfully picked out Zuma's Revenge for me as a birthday present earlier this month. It has proven to be one of the best gifts anyone has given me!

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December 1, 2009

Busy Gamer Review - Halo 3: ODST

Busy Gamer Review

Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.

Busy Gamer Review - Halo 3: ODST

Reviewed On: Xbox 360.

Halo 3: ODST
"Mal, uh, Nathan, I mean Buck! Cover me!"
In a Nutshell: The latest - and shortest - entry in the Halo saga, but with a film noir stylistic twist. Oh, and you're not Master Chief anymore. Instead, you play a noob recruit who aspires to be as handy in battle as a Spartan. No more magical armor or healing powers; you're going to have to learn to duck and cover, search for health packs and pick your fights with greater caution if you want to get through this on anything higher than easy. Which, by the way, is the level I played - Easy. Something I never thought I would do, but given the save game (more on that shortly) and my desire to actually make progress in the brief times allotted to me, I decided to go for the version that "practically plays itself."

And yeah, for the most part, it kind of does. I mean, Easy doesn't have to mean "long stretches with absolutely NOTHING to do except ooh and aah at the scenery," does it? The difference between Easy and Normal is HUGE. There needs to be a smaller chasm between the two here. Send in some enemies, throw some firefights at me - but don't make it so insanely difficult that I can't make progress. Better yet, let me save anywhere. Because being forced to search for a checkpoint, rather than allowing me to just find a place to hide and save my game, had a lot more to do with me choosing Easy than my abilities as a Halo player. I'm fine with getting beat down - just let me save my progress so that I can leave when I need to, or just quit and come back later without having to start all over.

Learning Curve: Seasoned Halo players shouldn't have too much trouble picking this one up in terms of button mashing but, strategy-wise, it's a whole new game. No more running in guns ablazing with the option to duck and recover. When you get hurt, you stay hurt until you heal - which requires finding a healing station. (You can't take it with you!) The weapons are generally the same as in previous games, as is the two-weapon limit. The enemy list is also generally the same, with a few upgrades and design tweaks.

If you're new to the series, learning the moves should be relatively easy, especially for FPS vets. This is one game that does not require you to learn eighty different ways to pummel the enemy, nor do you need to master a weapon before you can pick it up. Point, shoot, rinse, repeat. You can also beat down enemies with most weapons. The Needler (aka pink death!) is particularly useful as a beat-down machine.

The Save Game: As I stated earlier, you can't save anywhere - you have to find a checkpoint. Fortunately, just crossing the threshold of a checkpoint (entering a building or new region, for instance) will give you a save. I shouldn't have to wander an extra 20 minutes, or worse, backtrack, just to save my game, though. I have a hard drive. I hazard to say most people do, or at least a memory unit. Let me save my game anywhere. Note that this ability did not hurt Fallout 3 sales one bit... and that is one big-ass game save.

Family Factor: Uh, no. Unless by family you mean allowing your teenagers to pwn you in multiplayer. This one is not for the kids, folks.

Buy, Rent or Skip? Depends on how you plan to use it. I beat the game in just under a month, and that was only playing every few days. (Albeit some rather long sessions.) The creators admit it's about 8-12 hours of gameplay, and it's less if you just plow through it. If you just want to beat the main mission and move on, I'd either plan on a long rental (or a weekend when the kids are away) or borrow it. If you are into multiplayer, by all means, buy.

If you act fast and enter here, you might just win it!

Personally, I've already moved on to Assassin's Creed II.

On a Personal Note: I started playing Halo back before I was a busy gamer (e.g., before I had a kid), managed to get into a Halo 2 multiplayer beta (the only time I've enjoyed playing deathmatch modes), and kind of dropped out midway through Halo 3 when my game got corrupted right after a checkpoint that took a week to finish. So I was rather ambivalent about ODST when I heard it was coming out. While I don't feel a strong need to go back to Halo 3, I did really like ODST. It just left me feeling a little nostalgic for the very first time I played Halo. You only experience the Flood for the first time once - and I can still remember the deep feelings of fear, horror and exhilaration it inspired. I didn't get that from ODST, but I did find it highly enjoyable.

Also, the voice roster for this game is phenomenal, as usual. But this one is extra special for me, because three - count 'em, three - actors from the Firefly/Serenity 'Verse (Nathan "Mal" Fillion, Alan "Wash" Tudyk, and Adam "Not one of those Baldwins, but I am Jane" Baldwin) makes it extra special. Being a huge Firefly fan, it was both thrilling and somewhat apropos to hear these voices floating through space.

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November 19, 2009

Busy Gamer Review - Plants vs. Zombies

Busy Gamer Review

Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.

Busy Gamer Review - Plants vs. Zombies

Reviewed On: PC. Also available for Mac and is expected to eventually be released on iPhone and Xbox 360.

Plants vs. Zombies
All we want to do is eat your brains... and sear ourselves into your eyes.
In a Nutshell: Tower defense game that pits you against the titular zombies. All that stands between the brain-crazed monsters and your front door are five lawn mowers and the ability to sow a variety of weapon-y plants, including one that rather resembles a certain villain from Little Shop of Horrors. (Not Audrey II, please don't sue!) Plants perform a variety of "attacks," from shooting peas to hypnotizing zombies into attacking their little buddies.

Early zombies are dumber than a box of rocks, with later additions gaining specific advantages. For example, an undead athlete can pole-vault over certain plants that stop other zombies in their tracks. The game gets exponentially harder around level 10, when the sun goes down and the tombstones pop up. Players must up their strategic thinking, selecting the plants they think will best suit their needs in upcoming levels. The game automatically flags doomed decisions ("This level will be extremely difficult without..."), which can be a lifesaver in double-digit levels.

Zombie-flavored mini-games break up the tower defense monotony. Bowling for Zombies appears early enough in the game that most players should get to it in the average trial period. Whack-a-Zombie, a whack-a-mole inspired mini-game, appears much later - and is difficult enough to make users rethink their purchasing decision. Alas, you can't replay mini-games outside of adventure mode or gain access to survival mode until you complete the main campaign (15 levels in all).

Learning Curve: Ridiculously easy in the beginning, then turns it up to 11 around the 1 hour mark - or about the time your free trial period expires. (Coincidence? I think not.) Strategic thinkers will survive the zombie onslaught longer than those who just plant whatever looks cool. Good peripheral vision doesn't hurt in the later levels, either. Don't be fooled - after level 9, a very strong strategic mind and an itchy mouse finger will be required to survive the onslaught. Great for tower defense enthusiasts, bad for people looking for a relaxing solitaire replacement.

The Save Game: Save and exit at any time by clicking the menu button. All progress is saved. When returning to the game, you have the option to continue from where you left off or restart the level.

Family Factor: The zombies are very comical, but might freak out very small children. No blood, but some mild comic violence: Zombie arms and legs fall off when hit by certain plants. Zombie heads roll. One plant swallows zombies whole. When a zombie inevitably makes it into your house, the words "Zombies ate your brains" appears in big, drippy green letters. (You don't see the big event, however.)

Buy or Skip? A very solid purchase for tower defense fans who enjoy casual games. If you aren't sure - or just don't want to spend the dough - play online at popcap.com. The site retains your progress even after you leave. You will have to sit through the occasional ad as there's no such thing as a free game.

On a Personal Note: I avoided this game for a long time despite reading constant reports of friends losing entire afternoons to its charms. I finally went online to check out the game during some downtime and found it oddly captivating. That led to me downloading the trial so I could avoid the ads and, finally, shelling out for the full game.

Our 6-year-old has become obsessed it, choosing Plants vs. Zombies time over his much loved - and rare, during the school week - Pokemon Pearl time. He did report one zombie nightmare the day after seeing it for the first time, but said it was OK, he knew it wasn't real. He has started availing his fellow 1st graders with Plants vs. Zombies stories, just in time for parent-teacher conference time. Oh, goody.

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October 6, 2009

Busy Gamer Review - Fallout 3

Busy Gamer Review

Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.

Busy Gamer Review - Fallout 3

Reviewed On: Xbox 360. Also available for PC and PlayStation 3.

Fallout 3: Your Pipboy is where you view maps, manage items and adjust stats
Your Pipboy is where you view maps, manage items and adjust stats
In a Nutshell: Set after a nuclear war has devastated the world and converted Washington, D.C., into a Capital Wasteland, you play a survivor from a vault where prescient people bought berths to protect them from just such an apocalypse. Restless and spurred to solve a mystery involving your father, you escape the vault and make your way across the radioactive, raider-laden landscape.

At its core, Fallout 3 is both a first-person shooter and an RPG - though more of the latter due to its dependence on stats over aim (also, you can trade first-person for a third-person view if you prefer). This is balanced by a unique turn-based targeting system that enables you to freeze time and select quadrants on enemies to aim your next attacks - as long as you have action points, which regenerate over time. The combination of action and strategy in an edgy sci-fi setting makes this a more of mainstream game than its spiritual predecessor, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and the actual earlier games in the series - which were more RPG than shooter, managed from an isometric view.

Fallout 3: The targeting system balances the FPS and stat-controlled RPG elements
The targeting system balances the FPS and stat-controlled RPG elements
Learning Curve: Oblivion fans will be mostly at home, since Fallout 3 borrows liberally from that game's engine. Some button actions are different (and cannot be remapped!) and there are new twists and features such as the Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System (VATS) and new lockpicking and computer hacking mini-games. Either way, the game's vault tutorial will ease you into how everything works and you'll soon find the controls second nature and, if you play as much as me, will find yourself tapping the button for VATS when you're playing other shooters.

The Save Game: By default, Fallout 3 autosaves when you fast travel to places you've been before or enter/exit buildings and towns. You can also save your exact place and status in the world at any time, which makes it perfect for the busy gamer.

Family Factor: Very mature for extreme, intense and sustained violence and some sexual situations (you can purchase the services of a prostitute, though all that happens is that you sleep and awaken refreshed). Keep this one away from kids and even younger teens until they are emotionally ready to handle Tarantino-level gore.

Buy, Rent or Skip? Buy. This is one of the best games of the past several years, and you will get your money's worth from it. The only real downside to this game is that you can easily spend 100+ hours enjoying it, which may seem antithetical to busy gaming. But, as a single-player title, there's absolutely no harm in taking as long as you want - spread your game play out over several years if you like (I'm on my second year now and working through the expansions and completing side quests I missed due to the sheer size of the world). At this point, you should wait for the Game of the Year Edition due next week (October 13) since it contains all of the expansions for the same price as the original game - and with none of the DRM hassles.

On a Personal Note: If you've followed this site for awhile, you know that I tend to choose the light side when playing morally ambiguous games such as Fallout 3, and GrrlGotGame chooses the dark side. Normally this puts me at a severe disadvantage as I end up with less loot, weapons and/or health packs. Not so in Fallout 3. The game is balanced to reward the goody-goody players and punish the wicked! This is due in part to the game's understandably deflated economy - there just aren’t a ton of caps (the game's currency is bottlecaps) to go around, so stealing really doesn't buy you much. You're better off helping people and reaping the often generous rewards they provide.

There are so many tales of the Wasteland I could spin, some of which would spoil major story points and surprises. So I'll keep my personal stories high level. Getting around the ruins of D.C. and suburban Maryland and Virginia (where, incidentally, I grew up for reals!) isn't always a matter of just picking a direction and walking. You'll often be forced underground, into the remains of the Metro subway tunnels, to reach your destination.

I particularly loved wandering these dark tunnels on my quest to find a radio host who mentioned talking to my absentee in-game dad on the air. Stepping out at various subway stops to mark them on my map (so I'd have a fast travel checkpoint for later) proved to be a dangerous game as there were often ambushes and traps waiting. I quickly learned to look out for mines on the ground (which I later developed the skills to disarm, keep and re-use) and dodge rocket blasts from well-armed enemies.

When I arrived at the Metro stop for the radio station, I was thrust into a firefight with some friendly soldiers helping out. I did my best to contribute to the downfall of a particularly large and intimidating foe. It was an epic battle, one that was made a tad easier thanks to the portable nuclear weapon I had acquired. There were casualties on our side, which became a topic of discussion among the NPCs - who don't seem to constantly hit on you the way they do in Oblivion! (Drat. And I was hoping to do a follow-up set in Fallout 3!).

The game is full of tantalizing side quests, such as finding a lost historical document, tracking down a lost violin and researching a survival guide. I won't say more except that I'm 130 hours in, have finished the main quest and I'm still finding plenty of fun things to do.

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September 22, 2009

Busy Gamer Review - Scribblenauts

Busy Gamer Review

Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.

Busy Gamer Review - Scribblenauts

Reviewed On: Nintendo DS.

Scribblenauts In a Nutshell: Solve puzzles and advance through "action" levels in this platformer with a twist. Most levels cannot be completed without conjuring one more items from the game's vast dictionary. Open your in-game notepad and scribble or type the name of the object or creature you think will help. Then see if you can use it to satisfy the level's goal and collect a star. For instance, in one early level there's a star stuck in a tree. You can select an item that cuts down the tree or one that carries you up to collect the star. You can even place a heavy object on top of the star to push it down.

Learning Curve: The basic Scribblenauts interface is mostly intuitive. However, there is no set solution for a level so learning how to solve the challenges is ongoing and can be quite frustrating, in part because of the game's obtuse clues, odd physics and hard-to-predict cause-and-effect (why does tossing a bone have no effect on a dog but picking up a shovel causes him to bite you to death?!).

The marketing for Scribblenauts suggests that the game is only limited by your imagination, but this is far from true. More imaginative solutions often won't work the way you'd hope. Instead, you'll succeed by overcoming the game's limitations - including the wonky control of your main character and any vehicles he might drive and items that don't meet your needs (e.g., ziplines and ropes that don't reach far enough or can't be tied to any useful surface, as well as the numerous items that can't be used to enclose annoying creatures).

The game is all about trial and error, and expect to spend the majority of your time making errors. Fortunately, you can unlock new worlds without completing the previous ones by spending in-game currency earned from your successful solutions - so if a level is vexing you, just move past it and come back later.

The Save Game: The game saves after every level. If you repeat a level you previously completed, you must complete the same task three different ways in a row to earn a gold star for it. As with any DS game, simply closing the lid instantly suspends your game until you eject the cartridge or turn it off.

Family Factor: The game has a hand-drawn appearance that will appeal to kids, but it does permit violent outcomes involving guns, bombs and animals that attack each other. There is no blood - and trying to conjure "blood" delivers a vampire who does attack you but doesn't actually suck anything from your neck! Defeated people and critters simply pop and vanish. You do get a shout out each time you choose a weapons-free solution. The game is rated E 10+ for cartoon violence and mischief, but honestly most kids old enough to spell the words needed to succeed should be OK to play it. We're planning to share it with our 6-year-old.

Buy, Rent or Skip? This game falls squarely between a buy and rent. It's certainly worth trying - if nothing else to play with the dictionary and see what happens when you enter your favorite obscure words. But since there aren't many places that rent DS games, your options are limited (you could try Gamefly, but this game will be hard to find there for awhile). Your best bet is to wait and get a used copy or go in with a friend on it (there are two save slots).

On a Personal Note: Scribblenauts succeeds during those brief moments when you solve a problem with creative item selection and it actually works! Unfortunately, these moments are bookended by much longer periods of frustration as your attempted solutions fall short, often for stupid reasons.

For example: In a level with two bears and a long drop to collect the star, I found that clearing obstacles separating me from the bears (and the star) always ended with my being eaten. Defeating them with weapons enclosing them with barriers got me no closer to my goal since crossing the final chasm to the star proved near impossible.

SPOILER (select the text below to view my solution and why it didn't make me enjoy the game): Using a jetpack should have been an easy way to fly down to the star, but it always resulted in me falling past it to my death. I tried using a zipline, but it was too short. Adding a rope to the star (also short) made it harder, not easier, to collect it. In the end, I found that a single campfire could be moved several times to melt an ice block and then also drive the bears to commit suicide by getting them to dive into the abyss. Then I added a miniature staircase - not tall enough to remotely fill the space, but positioned to reduce the width of the gap - to give me a somewhat bigger target to land on when jumping down to the ledge with the star.

Ultimately, this just wasn't a very satisfying solution - it was contrived and did not make me feel like I had done anything exciting to beat the level. I'd much rather have working solutions that are more creative than kludgy. I could have walked away feeling like a secret agent, but instead felt like a poser who lucked into a win.

There are far too many moments like this, and comparatively few that make you believe that you solved the levels cleanly and effectively. The game could have been much better if the developers had made one of these two design decisions: a) Deliver a deep world with solid physics, tight controls and more logic so you get more satisfying outcomes resulting from the items and monsters you choose, or b) constrain the levels so that it's like you are fixing a broken Rube Goldberg-esque machine by supplying the items that make it complete and then, when it works, you sail more easily to the conclusion.

Either approach would be better than bumbling around, falling down pits and colliding with annoying obstacles. A lot.

One more thing that would have added to the game (and might have saved its current incarnation!): the ability to save and share replays. Then, at least, the more interesting and amazing solutions could be savored and enjoyed by all.

I'm still playing Scribblenauts (off an on), but it's hard to say whether I'm really enjoying it.

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September 2, 2009

Busy Gamer Review - Wolfenstein RPG

Busy Gamer Review

Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.

Busy Gamer Review - Wolfenstein RPG

Reviewed On: iPhone. $3 at this writing though we paid $5.

 Wolfenstein RPG's take on Hitler In a Nutshell: Turn-based battle action in the Wolfenstein 3D setting with tweaks to make it more playable on a touchscreen portable. The first-person perspective is intact, with options to punch, kick, shoot and eventually blow up enemies and stuff. The enemies have evolved; Hitler now has a soul patch - among other historical re-imaginings! Not the same game you remember from the '80s and '90s or even a few years back on the consoles, but not bad, either. Just different.

Learning Curve: Easy, regardless of your level of RPG experience. A translucent D-pad is your primary source of movement, although you can strafe by sliding your finger across the screen. (Difficult if your screen is sticky or dusty.) The training screens are written in non-gamer language, so even those new to the RPG/FPS worlds will understand what they are talking about - you don't even need to know what RPG and FPS mean. Training is also spread out a bit, so there is no one training mission--you're taught as you go. Other tips (save at any time, how to strafe) are periodically sprinkled in for good measure. Battle consists of selecting a weapon and tapping on the enemy in your line of fire. If you can figure out what "Inventory" means, you can pick up and play this game.

The Save Game: Manually save at any time using the Save option on the menu if you're obsessive about these things. Truth be told, simply quitting the game autosaves it - as you'd expect from any well-behaved iPhone app - so you're pretty well covered. In some cases, a combat save counted as my turn, meaning I didn't get to take a shot at the enemy. This only happened a few times while I was playing around with the save system, so it's possible I took a step to the side or did something else to count as my turn. It's not clear - but again, just pressing the iPhone's square Home button, or receiving a phone call, saves your progress just fine.

Family Factor: Teen and up. While there is no blood except on the walls, the game is basically killing Nazis and non-human combatants. Certain enemies explode into a pile of organic detritus upon defeat. Nazis just pass out on the floor, but will disappear if you kick them. The game has a number of G- and PG-level text jokes that will make you groan more than anything. Seriously, the puns are more violent than the game! Dying in the game is represented by a red screen followed by the menu.

Buy or Skip? Being an iPhone game, renting isn't an option here. Even if it was, this would be a Buy. It's a tremendously fun, fast game that you can pick up and set down at any time - perfect for busy gamers. Just don't expect the same Wolfenstein you used to play all night. Also, no multiplayer, so if that's a requirement you should investigate the new Wolfenstein game that just came out for PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.

On a Personal Note: We were living in Maryland 15 or so years ago when I was first introduced to Wolfenstein 3D. Gamewatcher was working in Virginia and had to stay at the office until around 11 p.m. every Thursday on deadline. I would occasionally take the train down to have dinner and see him early in the evening. One night while I was waiting for him to wrap up, he showed me the Wolfenstein 3D game someone had loaded on an office PC for these late nights waiting for the boss to make his final editorial decisions and let everyone go home. I was immediately hooked, rolling down the halls, kicking Nazi flags and – "Oh, crap. Dog!" For some reason, I just couldn't bring myself to shoot the damn dogs. Who proceeded to chew my digital nuts off! Gamewatcher came over and asked why I was getting killed. "It's a dog," I said."It's a NAZI dog," he replied. I shot the dog... but I still wasn't happy about it.

If you want to see what I mean, you can get Wolfenstein 3D on the iPhone now too ($2 at this writing with a free Lite version available), but the iPhone controls are kind of crappy. This RPG version is an improvement: The turn-based approach actually works better than a twitch shooter with the iPhone's touch controls.

August 18, 2009

Busy Gamer Review - Infamous

Busy Gamer Review

Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.

Busy Gamer Review - Infamous

Reviewed On: PlayStation 3.

Infamous - Ow, that's gotta hurt!
Infamous - Ow, that's gotta hurt!
In a Nutshell: Climb, jump, run and eventually grind your way through the city’s rooftops while electrocuting the bad guys with your killer bod. Your basic sandbox game enhanced by the now almost de rigueur actions-influence-outcome functionality.

Learning Curve: Relatively easy to pick up and play. Being primarily an Xbox gamer, I was learning both the PS3 controller and the game at the same time. Given how quickly I picked it up, any regular PS3 gamer should be able to master the controls almost instantly! .

The Save Game: Game auto-saves after a completed mission, but does not always save respawn checkpoints during longer missions - so quit mid-mission at your own risk! You can also save at any time, but remember that the game still only saves completed progress (found objects, completed missions and tasks). Also, since this is a massive sandbox game, loading or respawning generates a whole new set of randomized environmental elements (enemies, people, etc.). It won't be just how you left it, but you can still pretty much pick up where you left off.

Family Factor: This one is for grown-ups and older teens only. The game features non-stop violence as roving gangs attack almost constantly, leaving victims dead or dying in the streets. The main storyline requires a high-level of violence regardless of how you play (good or evil alignment). Much of the action revolves around murdering gang members and others related to the main storyline. Those who play for Team Good will see a decline in the urban decay and general nastiness of the game and will have an option to “heal” gang victims in the street. Even these changes are not enough to allow little ones in the room. Those on Team Evil have the option of sucking the life out of victims on the street, a nightmarish image likely to propel small children into a lifetime of therapy.

Buy, Rent or Skip? Buy, with some caveats. Outside of some ridiculously long (and tough) boss battles, the game flies by pretty quickly. Completists will enjoy the opportunity to wander the city looking for shards and finding random side missions that range from mind-numbingly stupid to pretty challenging. The game’s primary play for your repeat business is the light side/dark side business. How you play (good or evil) has a definite impact on how you and the city appear as you progress, but you won’t really notice the difference unless you play through twice. (Or see another person playing the opposite spectrum, which is easy in this household!) Gameplay can be repetitive and the preponderance of bad guys does get annoying at times. But those who can stick with it through the first few hours will be treated to solid game with some truly funny moments. Take time to read the billboards as the city lights up – many of the game’s best jokes are in the background.

On a Personal Note: I hesitated to pick up Infamous because the controller seems, at a glance, so different from the Xbox 360. Yet after just a few minutes, I found the thumbsticks and buttons to be a natural fit in my hands, allowing me to focus on causing mayhem. Speaking of which, I love that going down the dark path not only changed me, it changed the city. For the first time, I saw my actions truly impact my game play, and not in the usual "I got this cut scene instead of that one" format.

April 3, 2008

Busy Gamer Review - Uncharted: Drake's Fortune

Busy Gamer Review

Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.

Busy Gamer Review-
Uncharted: Drake's Fortune

Reviewed On: PlayStation 3.

Nathan Drake in a climbing puzzle
Nathan Drake in a climbing puzzle
In a Nutshell: Uncharted is a neat mix of Tomb Raider-style puzzles and exploration and Gears of War duck-and-cover combat from the developers of the Jak and Daxter series. It's also one of the few really good games on the PlayStation 3 - basically, a solid third-person shooter with great combat mechanics, a reasonably good storyline and an Assassin's Creed-like climbing engine (though expect to fall much more often as Drake than as Altair). There is a nice survival horror style twist, and some of the combat moves make good use of the Sixaxis motion sensors - particularly the one where you throw off an assailant by quickly thrusting the controller forward.

Learning Curve: The game gives you the standard introduction to each new gameplay element, so if you pay attention you can throw out the manual and just dive right in. Even after setting the game down for a spell, picking the combat back up took only a little trial and error to get back into it.

The Save Game: The game auto-saves very often, and you can save manually as well. You do restart at the beginning of the nearest checkpoint, but they're so close together in most places that you won't lose much progress if you have to quit unexpectedly.

Family Factor: Teen and up. There is a lot of shooting and killing and, while not the bloodiest game on the block, it's not for younger kids. Play it while the little ones are napping.

Buy, Rent or Skip? If the game were even a few hours longer, this would be a must buy. Alas, you can get beat the 22 chapters in 8-10 hours and replay value is middling at best - so it's a must rent.

On a Personal Note: This is the section where I normally wax poetic about all of the cool unscripted moments in the game that really blew me away. There really isn't much of that in Uncharted. There are some climbing puzzles (prepare to fall a lot) and some cool water levels (accelerate your boat, stop, shoot, watch wicked cool ragdoll physics, repeat). But mostly the game is either highly scripted or your basic single-player combat shooter. My first pass through I picked up about half of the hidden treasures, and I didn’t feel compelled to go back through for the ones I missed. Did I enjoy the game? Absolutely. Did much of it stick with me afterwards (as it did with Oblivion, BioShock or Assassin's Creed)? Not really. Will I totally check out any sequels, should they arise? Probably, if I'm not too busy.

This is your basic "enjoy this game and move on." If you don't have a PS3, it's not going to convince you to buy one. If you do, it will keep you busy for a few days.

January 23, 2008

Busy Gamer Review - Rock Band

Busy Gamer Review

Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.

Busy Gamer Review-
Rock Band

Reviewed On: Xbox 360. Also available for PS2 and PS3.

Rock Band: Vocals, drums and guitar
Perform vocals, drums and guitar in Rock Band
In a Nutshell: Rock Band is a music rhythm game that extends the Guitar Hero game mechanic to drums and vocals. The Special Edition comes with a dual-fret guitar, microphone and drum kit with pedal. In solo career, you pick an instrument (except bass guitar) and play through about 60 songs in the usual Easy, Medium, Hard and Expert skill level categories (actually, Easy has about half the songs - it's that easy).

The real action is in the Band World Tour local multiplayer, where two or more band members jam and earn scores to unlock new venues and try to achieve the killer Platinum Artist rating by powering through all of the game's default songs on Expert - a 5+ hour task! There are also some tug-of-war and head-to-head modes, minus the gimmicky battle power-ups of Guitar Hero III.

The songs span a wide range of tastes from classic rock and metal to punk, alternative and indy. You probably won't love every song (we adore "Maps" and the new Oasis tracks though there are plenty who scorn them) but with such a wide range of music, you're liable to like much of it. The game has added life through weekly downloads offered via Xbox Live Marketplace and the PlayStation Store for $2 per song (a little less in bundles or for specially priced tracks).

The drums play like real drums
Rock Band drums play like real drums
Learning Curve: This game is easy to pick up and hard to master. If this sounds like the definition for a casual game, you're right - this is the ultimate casual game. Non-gamers can quickly learn three-note guitar licks, simple drum patterns and crooning to match a voice modulation meter. Practice, like any band should, and you'll get better and hunger to master more advanced techniques and unlock deeper parts of the game.

It's worth noting that while playing a plastic 5-button guitar and modulating your voice correctly probably won't help you become a great musician, the drum portion of the game might. Real drummers report that in Expert mode you are essentially drumming like a pro. Harmonix or a third party should come out with a game that lets you practice like a real drum student (how about Drum School taught by Dave Grohl?!).

The Save Game: The game saves automatically after every song and when you change an option, purchase an item, change your outfit, etc. You won't lose any progress unless you corrupt your save file by shutting down your console in the middle of a save.

Family Factor: A few questionable lyrics aside (e.g., "Sell the kids for food," "Hooker/waitress"), the game is the ultimate family friendly game. Our 5-year-old sings along and occasionally pounds on the drums or finishes a vocal flourish with a shout. It's worth noting that there are options to select skimpy outfits and tattoos. You can wear whatever you like, but your randomly selected AI bandmates (if you're not playing all of the parts) might wear something risqué. Of course if you're seriously considering this game, this probably won't bother you.

The mike is optional
The mike is optional; a headset works too
Buy, Rent or Skip? This is a buy, with a few caveats. First, you can’t really rent it unless you have a compatible guitar (the Xbox 360 Xplorer and Les Paul from the Guitar Hero series will work, but their PS3 counterparts will NOT). Vocalists can make due with a compatible headset and use a controller button for the rhythm sections. So if all you want to do is sing and/or play with a compatible guitar, you could opt to pick up just the game for $60 (possibly less used).

At this writing, standalone instruments from Harmonix are not available. When they do arrive, they're gonna be pricey: $80 for drums, $60 for guitar and $30 for the mike, plus the game itself. That's $230 vs. $160 for the bundle. If you only plan to ever play one instrument, that's still $120-140 (or $90 for vocalists, but remember you can always use a standard headset).

All in all, you'll have more fun with the bundle. Once you get some friends or family members hooked, you can play Band World Tour. If you're lucky enough to have a second guitar that works, give it to the bass player.

A quick note about guitars: The Rock Band pack-in Stratocaster is by far the smoothest axe I've played to date, and the most comfortable. It’s also larger than the Guitar Hero models, but compensates by offering a second set of frets near the strum bar for small hands and solos. The Xplorer (from Guitar Hero II) feels much clunkier and hurts my fingers to play for long periods. The Les Paul (from Guitar Hero III) is a good compromise between the two: The strum bar has the rhythm-keeping thunk of the Xplorer but with better size, plus it's wireless. Still, after playing the Les Paul for a few days, switching back to the Strat was instant relief to my fingers.

On a Personal Note: I tried to enjoy Guitar Hero - the original on the PS2 and the sequel on the Xbox 360 - but found them more punishing than rewarding and ultimately set them aside. So I was a little on the fence about Rock Band, but decided to give it a chance after hearing so much great buzz. I'm so glad that I did. Rock Band is much more fun to play. For guitar, Easy mode is the ultimate in relaxation for me. Very few songs present much difficulty once you calibrate the game to match your TV and master the three-finger technique (hold down greens and reds while hitting yellows). Medium takes a bit more practice, but can ultimately be just as satisfying. Just zoning out to a song on Easy (and now, sometimes, Medium) melts the day's pressures away.

I suspect the same will be true for Hard and Expert eventually, as I continue to practice and improve - but I could be happy continuing to play at the Easy and Medium skill levels. Except for the difficulty caps of the Band World Tour. And this is the one place the game lacks some balance. To progress in multiplayer as a band and unlock new venues and challenges, you need to earn a certain number of fans. Once you exceed the fan limit for the Easy skill level (which happens pretty fast), everyone in the band needs to move to Medium or better. The same happens later in the game for Hard and, I suspect eventually, Expert. It would be great if most of the Band World Tour was accessible to Medium players and a bit more of the game opened up in Easy.

It seems like you hit a difficulty wall pretty fast unless you're already an Expert at an instrument. This does force you to practice the higher skill levels to move forward with the game so you don't stall your band - or get replaced! So in some ways, this mirrors the real life band experience. Also, your superior bandmates can save your bacon up to three times, so it may be possible to squeak through a rough song that way.

The Harmonix Guitar
The Harmonix Guitar is smooth
GrrlGotGame has a great voice and loves to sing, and she's doing great as a Rock Band vocalist except for the occasional song designed for a male singer ("Orange Crush," I'm looking at you). So we've been enjoying Band World Tour almost every night and hope to unlock the Big in Seattle achievement soon. Alas, doing so requires passing some Hard difficulty songs, and so I'm working hard to make the transition to 5-note streams and "cheating" on occasion by playing the bass, which is on the whole easier than lead guitar at the higher skill levels.

The key to preparing for Hard on guitar seems to be learning to play Medium with three-fingers (red-yellow-blue starting position) so the pinky is reserved for the orange notes later. Using this technique to replay the Medium songs a second time, I'm finding that the note streams are inherently easier to hit and my scores are consistently one star better (songs I previously max'd at 3 stars are 4s and my 4 stars are 5s). To be clear (since I had a difficult time grasping this myself): Except in rare cases when the note chart dictates otherwise, your index finger always hits green and red, your middle finger sticks to yellow, and your ring finger plays blue. Your pinky generally stays out of it; you'll need that for orange (and maybe the occasional blue, if the song requires quick changes or chords involving green and blue) when you move to Hard and Expert. Hope this helps someone. I've posted more Rock Band tips if you're interested.

I've also tried the drums, going as far as to mod a real drum pedal to make those bass notes easier to hit. It's fun and I expect to spend more time on it after I've mastered the guitar. Vocals are fun too, although I tend to play this mode when no one else is around since my voice wasn't made to be shared.

If you like rock music and rhythm play, this is arguably the best game out there right now.


December 17, 2007

Busy Gamer Review - Assassin's Creed

Busy Gamer Review

Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.

Busy Gamer Review-
Assassin's Creed

Reviewed On: Xbox 360. Also available for PlayStation 3 and eventually PC. There's a cell phone game too, but it's not even remotely similar.

Assassin's Creed In a Nutshell: Run around the medieval Holy Land killing people. That's basically it, though there are several interesting (though surreal) story dimensions. You will spend a lot of the game in a vast sandbox, wandering around and picking fights and missions as you see fit. At first glance, it may appear to be the offspring from a bizarre mating of Ubisoft's Prince of Persia and Splinter Cell games - though the stealth elements are not as dominant, and that's a good thing. It is somewhat repetitive, though that's not always a bad thing and in this case makes the game a good choice for mindless stress relief after a particularly rough day at work.

Learning Curve: Pretty easy to pick up, though it may take some time to master advanced moves such as pickpocketing and double-strike kills. The game introduces new skills gradually and provides a practice arena for mastering new fighting maneuvers. You also get unlimited redos, and messing up a mission and then getting yourself to the restart point is sometimes more fun than completing it right the first time! Even novice gamers will get far and probably even complete the main story without too much frustration.

The Save Game: The game autosaves pretty frequently. No real progress will be lost by quitting anywhere, but there are a few gotchas to beware:
  1. Always quit to the Animus screen (you'll know what this means after you play for about 15 minutes). Otherwise, you'll risk corrupting your save file if you accidentally shut the console off during an unexpected autosave.
  2. You won't start exactly where you left off, so you generally need to travel a bit to pick up your game - so quitting and coming back does have a small penalty.
  3. If you want to collect Xbox 360 achievements, be sure to trigger a save after any significant activities such as street fights, leaps of faith, beggar tosses, etc. The quickest way to do this is simply collect a flag in the city you're in, so you might find and save some just for this purpose.
Note to Ubisoft: What's wrong with triggering an auto-save every time you exit the game? Overall, this game is easy to get in and out of, but it's not as slick as a save anywhere solution.

Family Factor: As you'd expect, keep this game away from small children. The fighting is violent and intense. You also can't really explore the city with small children present since, even though collecting flags and climbing tall towers is pretty harmless, make one wrong move and you'll have a bloody battle on your hands. You could run and hide, but what kind of message does that send?

Buy, Rent or Skip? Most decent gamers can beat this game in a 5-day rental if they can commit at least 4-5 hours a night (20-25 hours total). If you're a completist who wants to investigate every nook and cranny of the game's expansive kingdom plus nine large city segments, find all of the hidden flags and unlock 1000 achievement points, just buy it.

On a Personal Note: I bought this game on a whim, half expecting to be underwhelmed (due to several lukewarm launch reviews) and I actually enjoyed parts of it more than BioShock. (It's my favorite busy gamer title of 2007!)The story is solid and the ending, though a bit short and unfulfilling, isn't as horrible as it's been made out to be. (MINOR SPOILER: I did expect a battle royale to break out in a different era with me in control, and - well, sigh - that didn't happen. Perhaps in the sequel.) Still, I love exploring the game's world and never get tired of dashing and leaping across rooftops, climbing tall buildings and spiking guards from behind or knocking them into the crowds below courtesy of a throwing knife to the abdomen. Battles, though somewhat repetitive, do ramp up in difficulty as you progress, and they're a great way to relieve tension after a stressful day.

I also love a good sandbox game, and that's exactly what this is. Not nearly as rich and varied as a Grand Theft Auto but not as frustrating and stingy on save points as a Dead Rising. Even after you beat the game, you can continue exploring for flags and bad guys to pick fights with.

It's worth noting that GrrlGotGame lost about six hours of progress to a corrupted save file, so do be careful to quit from the active game before turning off your console.

August 31, 2007

Busy Gamer Review - BioShock

Busy Gamer Review

Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.

Busy Gamer Review-

Reviewed On: Xbox 360. Also available for PC.

BioShock: Meet Big DaddyIn a Nutshell: This is a first-person shooter like no other, thanks to the inventive selection of weapons and special powers combined with unique enemies and the ability to flip security elements (cameras, bots and turrets) to your side. It's more like a sandbox game, really, where you can experiment with traps and thrilling attacks to take down the Big Daddies - your big opponents whose every footstep induces a shudder (enhanced by the vibration of the 360 controller if you play the console version). As in Pokemon Snap, Metroid Prime and Beyond Good & Evil, you photograph and analyze enemies to gain the advantage. There's even a hacking mini-game that gets harder as you go, but you can even the odds with the special powers you pick up or simply bypass if with cash and auto-hack gadgets it becomes too difficult or is just not your thing. Set in a fantastic art deco city under the ocean, the environment ping pongs between sci-fi and steampunk - with each level more amazing than the one before. The game even has a real story, told largely through flashbacks and audio diaries you pick up along the way. Or you can just shoot stuff.

BioShock: Shooting a Splicer Under the SeaLearning Curve: If you've played a first-person shooter before, just jump right in. You start with a wrench and soon pick up your first plasmid power and a standard issue pistol. The game introduces new elements every level pretty much right up until the end, so you're constantly learning new tricks and gaining or enhancing your capabilities - but in small, easy-to-absorb doses. An extensive in-game help system fills in most gaps in your knowledge, and a quick skim of the manual delivers the rest. The only thing that proved confusing were the plasmid and tonic slots, since the first Gene Bank (for reviewing and swapping these around freely) doesn't appear until the level after you first need it. Fortunately, you can backtrack to most places in the game - just not the "Welcome to Rapture" intro or a place known as "Control Room," so search those areas carefully before progressing the story.

BioShock: Hacking Mini-GameThe Save Game: Except in one or two spots, you can save the game anywhere. This makes it very convenient to quit at any time - assuming you can pry yourself away from the highly addictive gameplay. So even with the great save system, you'll probably want to find a few days (15-25 hours of play time) that you can devote largely uninterrupted to this worthy title. The game also resurrects you if you die, with all weapons and powers intact plus at least a little health, so you can recover quickly when your attacks fail. Note for 360 players: If you use a memory card with no hard drive attached, you might avoid some framerate stuttering suffered by some hard drive users in later levels (including me!), but be aware that autosave won't work properly when your storage is full - and it prompts you to quit the game to clear space! If this happens, simply back out and then overwrite an old save file yourself.

Family Factor: Keep the kids far away from this one. Seriously, they will have nightmares. There is graphic violence, language, adult themes and a big hulking monster in a diving suit who can run faster than you'd imagine possible with a drill for a hand that's aimed at your abdomen. Most adults will have nightmares, too, though it's nothing you can't handle. Probably.

Buy, Rent or Skip? Just buy it. You can beat this game in a rental period if you really want, but you will probably want to play through at least twice to get both endings (and the Hard achievement, if you wimped out and played Easy or Medium the first time through). Plus, you may want to revisit the lost city of Rapture from time to time. I myself imagined what it might have been like to live there in its heyday (in the before time, when everything was pretty and you might awaken in your apartment to a cheery underwater cityscape), and there's always the wonderland that is Fort Frolic (after the fall when everybody went a little Jack Nicholson-in-The Shining stir crazy). Also, taking down Big Daddies in new and inventive ways never gets old. Alas, there is no multiplayer, which would seal the deal for most. But I would gladly pay more for a multiplayer sequel or add-on, and I'm a hard sell when it comes to those types of games.

BioShock: Please Don't Hurt Me, Daddy On a Personal Note: This is simply the best game I've ever played, thanks to a design that lets you choose your style of play and experiment with new attacks. At one point, I went into a sort of fugue state where all I could do for about 8 hours was play. I'd save and shutdown only to reboot 10 minutes later. Normally I'd try to savor a game of this caliber, like I have with the Elder Scrolls and Halo series. I found that impossible here. No matter how hard I tried, I just had to soldier on. I can see why Valve banned the game in the office.

At the end of the last level, I delayed the finale and went back to claim all of the available achievements. With some careful sleuthing on Gamefaqs.com, I found that I had only missed one tonic and six audio recordings! I picked them all up, and then the next morning I completed the game easily (perhaps a little too much so) and started a new one on Hard that I plan to complete differently to secure the alternate endiing and final 40 gamerscore points.

I've kept this review mostly spoiler free, but I did want to share one of my most exciting encounters with a Big Daddy (no major story spoilers, but I do talk about the Big Daddy/Little Sister dynamic and some of the weapons and powers).

In Fort Frolic, there is a cage in a store where expensive tobacco products are stored. I hacked into it and then, while I was scavenging in the claustrophobic back corner of the cage, a splicer set off an alarm that I had rigged. She also apparently hit a Big Daddy (Bouncer) who was wandering by outside. He promptly attacked her and made quick work of it. The Daddy had a Little Sister with him, and they wandered into the cage together. I had recently powered up my photography tonics, so I went in close for a shot of the duo to fill up my research meter. Too close! The Little Sister started screaming about me invading her personal space, and Big Daddy instantly went on the warpath.

Fortunately, I had just upgraded my grenade launcher so that I would not be damaged (there's some kind of technological energy shield that protects the shooter from his own shrapnel). I retreated to the back corner and started lobbing frag grenades. The Bouncer rushed me and had me close to death a few times, but I kept hitting the health packs and shooting grenades. Amazingly, I did not awaken at a Vita Chamber - instead, cleaning up on cash and Adam - and I lived to tell the tale!

Experiences like this are common, and I have a dozen of 'em. And if you play, so will you.

August 29, 2007

Busy Gamer Review - Surf's Up

Busy Gamer Review

Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.

Busy Gamer Review-
Surf's Up

Reviewed On: Xbox 360. Also available for PC, PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3 and Wii.

Surf's UpIn a Nutshell: Pull off surfing tricks with the characters of the computer-animated movie of the same name. Really, that’s pretty much it. Well, there is a leaf-sliding mini-game and you can unlock some movie clips and such. But mostly it's about the surfing.

Learning Curve: Easy. There's a brief tutorial section to teach you all of the tricks in the game.

The Save Game: The game saves after every surfing run and when you exit certain menus. Each run can take up to 5 minutes, so you can save pretty conveniently - or abandon your progress and try again next time. And since you don't have to hide this one from the little ones, you can just play through if they wander into the room.

Family Factor: Kids love it! And even a toddler can play. Occasionally the surfers bop into each other or crash into a rock or iceberg, but otherwise it's harmless. There is a little bit of moderate language (e.g., "crap") in the movie clips, so you might want to skip the videos if your child has a potty mouth problem or you're determined to avoid one.

Buy, Rent or Skip? Rent (even with the new budget price of $30), unless you have a small child who is enraptured by the game. It can easily be beaten in a few hours, and replay value is limited to collecting missed penguin idols scattered around the levels and split-screen multiplayer. But occupying a child when you and your significant other need a little alone time? Priceless.

On a Personal Note: This is the first Xbox 360 game where I earned 1000 gamerscore points. (I usually avoid the sports games, and most other games require a really tough achievement or a second playthrough that I skip). Also, my 4-year-old adores the game and asks to play it at least a dozen times a day. We've made it his reward for good behavior. He's even starting to get the hang of the trick systems, though we still have to unlock new levels for him. We finally started a second game save for him so he can practice unlocking things himself. He also loves the multiplayer, which we enjoy with daddy's game save since all of the levels, boards and playable characters are unlocked there.

May 4, 2007

Busy Gamer Review - Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords

Busy Gamer Review

Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.

Busy Gamer Review-
Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords

Reviewed On: Nintendo DS. Also available for PSP. Announced for Xbox Live Arcade on Xbox 360 and expected eventually for PC.

Puzzle QuestIn a Nutshell: This is not your mother's gem-matching game. You create a warrior, wizard, knight or druid and then level up your skills by winning battles enacted on a shared field of brightly colored gems, stars, skulls and coins. If you've ever played Bejeweled, it's a lot like that - only there's an opponent who is trying to mess up your game and outmatch you with the same gems. So there's a strategy component as you try to anticipate cascades and your enemy's next move. You also collect different types of mana (red, green, blue and yellow) to power spells and abilities that can level the playing field - or, in the hands of your opponent, you. You'll save up gold pieces to purchase better armor and weapons, capture enemies to learn their tricks, collect special runes to craft your own wares and build a citadel to rule over any cities you conquer. The story is a bit weak overall, but the quests are fun and the game is an instant diversion for dozens or even hundreds of hours of play - both in the main mode and impromptu battles against the computer or even a real person if you can find anyone else who actually has the game, which is available in disturbingly small quantities at retail.

Learning Curve: If you've ever played a Match-3 puzzle game, you'll feel at home in no time. The in-game tutorial walks you through all of the major game elements in the first hour or so. The main battle mode doesn't change much (though new spells and gear can breathe fresh life into it as you progress), but there are various side quests with different rules such as matching puzzles to capture enemies and mounts, a fun and often frustrating Match-3 variant used to learn new spells and other matching mini-games such as forging. Plumbing the game's depths and getting sidetracked for awhile is part of Puzzle Quest's charm, though it does steepen the learning curve slightly. Fortunately, there's an Instant Action option so you can skip all of the hoopla and just match gems against any opponent you like.

The Save Game: Puzzle Quest saves your progress after each battle and most significant interactions. This is important on the DS version, which does crash a bit - but you rarely lose much, if any, progress. (Reports suggest the PSP game may crash on occasion, too, sometimes during a battle - but I can't vouch for this.) Both portables have standby modes, so you can snap the DS shut or hit the PSP switch to sustain your game for as long as your battery has life. Keep it charged, and you should be fine.

Family Factor: While the game's RPG elements are inherently violent (you are battling monsters, after all), it's not like the gems drip blood. There's no real visual or auditory cue for the implied violence that's going on, apart from the appearance of skull gems and the minor explosions as they are consumed and do damage to you and your foe's Life Points. This is a game that small toddlers can safely observe as long as they aren't afraid of skulls or static pictures of ogres, orcs, trolls, minotaurs and other monsters.

Buy, Rent or Skip? If you're a fan of casual games and RPGs, this is a Match-3 made in heaven - buy it now! If you're new to either of these genres, give it a rental and see if you can put it down. Alas, this game is so hard to find, renting it from Gamefly will take some waiting and if you find it at retail, you should probably just pick it up. Don't worry: If for some reason you don't enjoy it, you shouldn't have too much difficulty unloading it.

The bigger decision is which version to buy. The DS and PSP versions are both buggy, though it may be easier to tolerate the DS' occasional freezes over the PSP's accidental omission of team bonuses and clunky control scheme. If you're the patient sort and don't care about portability, wait for the Xbox 360 or PC versions, which should boast online multiplayer and the best graphics and sound, plus they'll be patchable in case of any more insufferable bugs.

On a Personal Note: I downloaded the PC demo and was hooked from the start. I then set out to find a copy on the street. After badgering nearly a dozen stores almost daily for a week (and finally missing a copy that landed at an EB by just five minutes!), I finally gave up and ordered this game online. Those few local stores that did get the game only received a few copies per shipment, and many employees didn't seem to care or seemed powerless to request the game or additional copies in greater quantities.

What's most vexing is how buggy the games are. If they had been released on a patchable platform FIRST, such as the PC or Xbox Live Arcade, the developer could have worked out many of these bugs there before releasing it on the portables. It seems likely that Nintendo and Sony sought a period of exclusivity, though oddly not from each other. And then they both fumbled their opportunity by releasing buggy games in insufficient quantities. Yeah, I know, it's like the old joke about nursing home food: "The food here is horrible. And such small portions!"

Despite the potential roadblocks to enjoying this game, I find it a quite compelling to play during brief periods of downtime and even while watching shows and movies that don't require my full attention (e.g. reality TV, news, comedy). Though I'll probably consider buying it again for the PC or Xbox 360, I have to give the DS version the edge for being portable, fast-paced (due to stylus control instead of a thumbstick) and for giving you the stated benefits of having characters join your party. The PSP version looks and sounds prettier, but I'd rather have the gameplay, thanks.

Puzzle Quest is not a perfect game. Apart from all of the documented bugs, it would be nice if you could turn off hints and puzzle-blocking text that appears when you match 4 or 5 gems. Battles do get easier as you advance, though part of the appeal of puzzle games is repetition and relatively easy success. It's a great game to relieve stress and zone out for awhile. And there are unexpected twists to savor. One of the greatest joys I found was after mastering the Stun spell and using it successfully to keep my opponents from having too many opportunities to attack, I met a Fire Elemental who regularly blocked it and took my moves away from me. I had to devise a new strategy on the fly, avoiding any spells requiring red mana that he could block and swipe my turn.

I'm 30 or so hours into the main quest, and I've barely scratched the surface. And even if I do win, I'll probably trade my knight for a druid and start again from the beginning. This is a game I can see myself still playing years from now. Highly recommended, if you can find it.

April 13, 2007

Busy Gamer Review - Crackdown

Busy Gamer Review

Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.

Busy Gamer Review-

Reviewed On: Xbox 360

CrackdownIn a Nutshell: It's a third-person shooter like no other. You are a cybernetic government agent bent on cleaning up a futuristic city overrun by three rival gangs. You can go straight for the biggest bosses from the beginning, but you'll more than likely lack the stats to pull it off. That's right, it's a shooter RPG where you level up your agility, firearms, explosives, driving and hand-to-hand combat skills by using them and collecting special power-up orbs scattered around the cityscape. You'll start by jumping single-stories and eventually 30 feet or more into the air, making rooftop travel both practical and intensely enjoyable. Unlike Grand Theft Auto and its many clones, there are no real missions to speak of - just random street violence, timed races, stunt challenges, achievements and, oh yeah, gang capos and bosses to wipe out at your earliest convenience. The game calculates your chance at success when you approach one of these baddies' strongholds, so if the odds aren't with you: a) simply dive in and try anyway or b) mess around to level up enough to improve your shot. There are no wrong answers, just opportunities. If you die, you respawn. You lose your progress with that boss and any gang weapons you haven't stowed at a supply point - but not much else.

Learning Curve: Easy. You can jump in and play pretty quickly, but mastery will take some time. A disembodied voice in your character's headset will coax you toward the next mission and nearby objectives, or you can simply mess around and explore the game at your own pace.

The Save Game: You can quit and save your progress anywhere, with two caveats: 1) You lose any progress you've made toward taking down a boss or capo, so if you're two seconds from wiping out the head of the Volk's munitions trade when your five-year-old wanders into the room, you're going to need to leave it on pause or start your raid over later. 2) The game is incredibly hard to put down, so you may find that a few minutes of rooftop orb collecting turns into a few hours of intensely satisfying mayhem. The whole game can be beat in about 10 hours if that's all you want to do, but you'll probably spend much than that building up your stats and just having fun with car stunts, rocket launchers, races and exploration.

Family Factor: Not for young ones, though teens may be OK with some adult supervision. Violence against civilians is frowned upon and even punished in the extreme, so mostly you're just wiping out low-level scum bags without any regard to their civil rights or due process. If you're OK with that, you'll have a blast - literally and figuratively.

Buy, Rent or Skip? A solid rental, though you may want to buy it either for the Halo 3 beta (if you can still find a copy that includes it) or if you love true sandbox games. This is a good one to tinker with for weeks or even months, and it can even be played cooperatively with another gamer - just not on the same console.

On a Personal Note: I downloaded the demo and tried it for a few minutes (all I could spare at the time), but wasn't impressed enough to keep going. After hearing all of the buzz about leveling up and developing superhuman jumping skills (not to mention the Halo 3 beta), I was intrigued enough to pick up the full game. And I'm glad I did. This is hands-down the best third-person shooter I've played (I normally prefer the first-person variety) with the coolest city exploration. Jumping from rooftop to rooftop, tossing remotely triggered limpet mines at clumps of distant foes, using the Firefly rocket launcher to propel enemies into the air for 15-20 seconds (one of the cooler achievements), jacking gang member cars and then running them down to boost my driving prowess, these are a few of my favorite things. And I can do them for hours without getting bored. A great stress reliever, it's like solitaire with guns.

January 29, 2007

Busy Gamer Review - The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess

Busy Gamer Review

Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.

Busy Gamer Review-
The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess

Reviewed On: Wii. Also available for GameCube.

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess In a Nutshell: Link is back, and he's badder than ever. Forget the kiddified cel-shading of The Wind Waker. This is an epic battle between the forces of light and dark, with giant boar-riding baddies who resemble Orcs and look like they could snap you in half like a twig. The game is full of interesting twists, often sending you on a quest only to quickly divert you to another more pressing matter. Dungeons are deep, dark and diabolical enough to warrant the extra expense for the official licensed guide, though frequent trips to Gamefaqs will offer mostly the same benefit without the maps and pretty pictures. There are vast amounts of gameplay - simply exploding an oddly placed boulder can open up a cave that takes half an hour or more to explore. The real game doesn't even start until after about 20 hours, when most of Hyrule will finally be open and you'll have access to the majority of your gizmos required to access obscure areas. Speaking of which, many of Link's classic toys (hookshot, boomerang, bombs) are back, though utilized in cool, new ways. And there's a new gadget called the spinner that unlocks a unique method of exploration and one of the most satisfying boss battles ever.

Learning Curve: Moderate. The game's controls are very easy to pick up, though they'll take some time to master. In fact, any fears you have about the Wii's motion-sensing remote and nunchuk will be quickly mollified by playing this game for a few hours. New items and advanced moves are unlocked very gradually over time, giving you plenty of practice before a new one comes along. Even so, a few of the later boss battles and puzzles may leave you scratching your head. The good news is that there are plenty of side quests and areas to explore, so you can take some time off from the main storyline until that moment of epiphany arrives.

The Save Game: You can save almost anywhere, with a few caveats. Saving stores your status, but not your exact location - so you'll appear at a predesignated spot in the town or province you're visiting. If you save while in a dungeon, you'll start back at the first room no matter how deeply you've explored it... unless you find a strange little bird called the Ooccoo. This will let you teleport out, saving your location in the dungeon. Just don't walk in the front door when returning, or he will meet you there and you'll lose your place!

Legend of Zelda baddieFamily Factor: Much of the time, you will want to keep the wee ones far from your Wii. Some of the cut scenes (which may be triggered without warning) are intense and show small children in peril. Beasties dot the landscape and attack almost constantly. You might be able to fish or roam a few small areas while your toddler watches, but most of the time you'll want to keep all but the older kids away.

Buy, Rent or Skip? If you can't resist donning the green suit of Link once more, definitely buy this game. There's so much to do, you'll need more than a rental period to play through the story and activities - including fishing, bug collecting, mini-games and a 50-room cavern filled with increasingly difficult opponents. But much like Oblivion, I have to caution that you will sacrifice your free time and sleep for days or even weeks as you try to find one more golden bug or just get to that creature who lets you save your spot in a dungeon before powering down. Also, the final level and ending are somewhat unsatisfying, and there's no provision to continue exploring after you beat the last boss - except to load your prior save. But the majority of the game is addictive and wholly enjoyable. If it weren't 40-60 hours long, it would be easy to recommend. But a game this good and deep and time-consuming can suck away your life, so it's wise to go in with your eyes open. If you can schedule a week's vacation to play through it, enjoy! Otherwise, meet your new best friends: the power nap and the triple-shot espresso.

On a Personal Note: Playing this game nearly every night and much later than I should have (or would have if I were currently employed), I developed a severe ache in my upper bicep and shoulder that waxed and waned depending on how many hours I logged. Ice packs and heat wraps helped, but I can't help but wonder if the Wii-mote will ultimately strengthen the affected muscles over time or if it's more prone to repetitive stress injury than my other game systems. Time will tell, but I hope it's the former since I really enjoyed this game on the Wii and sincerely hope there will be more experiences like it down the road.

January 4, 2007

Busy Gamer Review - WTF

Busy Gamer Review

Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.

Busy Gamer Review-

Reviewed On: PSP

WTF In a Nutshell: If your full-time work isn't tedious enough, you can pick up some odd jobs from the folks at Work Time Fun, a demonic temporary placement agency. At any moment there are four job positions (aka mini-games) available, and you can unlock more by feeding your ridiculous pittance they call a paycheck into coin-operated vending machines that suck up $1 per capsule all the way up to $50. More often than not, you'll collect junk that's simply catalogued and filed away, but every so often you'll unlock a new job or gadget to play with. Alas, these "jobs" tend to be very short and not much fun. You can put caps onto thousands of pens, or try to shag baseballs for as long as you can without a miss. Chop wood (but not the fuzzy stuffed animals that bleed when struck!) or find just the right target to hit with a "happy bullet." There are also "tools" that are quasi-useful: a flashlight mode where you choose the color you want your PSP screen to illuminate the world, a sexy Ramen noodle timer and even a set of customizable eyeballs to pay attention to you when no else will. Finally, you're continually harangued by "friends" via e-mails that provide tips and inane chatter but occasionally penalize or reward you.

Learning Curve: Each of the 35 single-player and five multiplayer games has its own rules, but most are reasonably easy to pick up - though some can take far too long to master.

The Save Game: Like all PSP games, you can hit the power switch at any time to put your game into sleep mode. As long as your battery holds out, so will your progress. But the game saves your status (or lack thereof) as you go, and most mini-games don't last more than a few minutes - so at least you won't lose any of that hard-earned money from the pen cap factory.

Family Factor: The game designers tried to make this somewhat family friendly, but the sniper rifle (even though it shoots "happy bullets") and stuffed animals that bleed might be a little much for the smaller kids peering over your shoulder while you work. Fortunately, you can usually pick a less violent and tediously boring task until they lose interest, which shouldn't take long.

Buy, Rent or Skip? Skip it, unless you really enjoy zoning out to mindless repetition. And even then, this game is actually a bit too muddled and uneven to earn you any real Zen. OK, so the Ramen timer is actually pretty funny, but hardly 30 bucks funny. If you must see for yourself, rent it first (say, from Gamefly.com) just to be sure you understand what you're getting yourself into. Even then, it's not worth more than maybe $10 - so see if you can find a deal on it used.

On a Personal Note: I rented this game on a whim while I was unemployed, thinking it might be an interesting diversion while I job searched. Boy was I wrong! Even my worst job as a teenager wasn't as bad as this. I do sometimes enjoy vegging out with games that have a certain repetitive quality - I recall a job eons ago where I killed time with Windows solitaire while waiting hours each week for my publisher to sign off on completed projects. But playing this game really felt like a chore. Seriously, if you're looking for odd jobs, I can hook you up. Don't get suckered into putting caps on virtual pens for hours on end just to earn enough scratch for one lousy $50 trinket. WTF indeed!

December 27, 2006

Busy Gamer Review - The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

Busy Gamer Review

Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.

Busy Gamer Review-
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

Reviewed On: Xbox 360. Version for PC includes a free construction set for creating your own levels and enhancements, and support for third-party downloadable mods. A version for PlayStation 3 is in development and promises enhanced content over the Xbox 360 (although this content may be available for purchase as downloadable content from Xbox Live Marketplace). There's also a version in development for the PSP, The Elder Scrolls Travels: Oblivion, which will offer significantly different gameplay.

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion In a Nutshell: Explore a vast world in this incredibly deep single-player adventure game. The main quests require 20+ hours to beat, but the game can easily be played for more than 200 hours if you take on countless side quests and downloadable add-on missions (see related Rant about how purchased downloadable content that affects your game saves may be problematic on the 360).

Thanks to occasional online patching via Xbox Live (you do have broadband, right?), Oblivion is much more stable than its Xbox predecessor, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, which crashed at the drop of a hat unless you took great pains to manage in-world items. This game looks even better and does away with many of its forebear's limitations. For instance, joining one guild does not block you from joining any of the others. Join 'em all, if you enjoy side quests, Xbox 360 achievements and/or access to helpful rewards and free stuff!

The game is incredibly well-written for a video game with great storytelling mostly through in-depth discussions with non-player characters and in-game "books" that you can actually read, engaging quests and mini-games and thousands of paths to explore - figuratively and literally. You can be a fighter, an archer, a magic-wielding mage, a sneak thief, an assassin or any mix of these player types that you choose to pursue. Just creating a character (selecting your race, stats and various major and minor attributes) can take the better part of an hour as you work through the opening tutorial storyline.

Learning Curve: Moderate. The Xbox 360 controls feel like most first-person shooters, so getting around is pretty easy if you're at all skilled at Halo. Plumbing the hidden depths of the game, however, could take a lifetime - or at least the better part of a year even for a somewhat aggressive player.

The Save Game: You can save anywhere at anytime. You will need approximately 1MB per save, so you'd best have a hard drive or your memory card will fill up fast. Since the game has so many choices, and there's always the risk of a crash, you may want to keep old saves for awhile until you're certain that you made the right decisions - or at least the odd case where something gets horribly mucked up, ruining a quest or trapping you in a narrow alleyway. Fortunately, the game autosaves whenever you sleep or enter a location, so you're typically covered should your character - fashioned through days and days of careful leveling up - unexpectedly expire.

Family Factor: Older teens can handle the somewhat bloody medieval-style battles you'll engage in against humanoids and sometimes chilling monsters and beasties. Young kids should be kept far away pretty much all of the time; even simply traveling around town talking to civil servants or taking a rest in a rented bed can lead to sudden, unexpected battles. And walking or riding across the countryside spawns attacks from random creatures, many of which will take some work to escape or dispatch. If you want to play it safe, enjoy Oblivion only when the little ones are tucked away safely in their beds.

Buy, Rent or Skip? Your first instinct as a busy gamer - best expressed by Monty Python when faced with a killer rabbit - should be to "run away, run away!!!!" This game can and easily will consume every waking moment you can spare, and quite a few that you rightfully should not. Its depth rivals many massively multiplayer online worlds, and the urge to just play for "five more minutes" can easily take you into the wee hours of the morning, leaving you useless the next day at work or around the house. Oblivion, it might be argued, is quite well named since it can easily sap your real world stats! That said, if your personal willpower is sufficiently leveled and you feel you can take advantage of Oblivion's "save anywhere" capability, this game is immensely fun and rewarding. It's a must-buy if you can afford the personal cost - measured in hours sucked away and your ability to take on the day following a long-night's questing - that's required to play.

On a Personal Note: I took so long to review this game because: a) I had a life when it came out, so I used what little willpower I could muster to stay far away from it for long stretches, and b) I wanted to wait until I'd logged 40 or more hours before writing it up. I was also put off by my early attempts at thievery, which failed due to low sneak stats. It just seemed unreasonable that I would be caught by a street guard in the basement of an alchemy shop in the dead of night after successfully picking two locks without detection. However, since leveling up my thief skills, I can now pick most locks and steal from shops with impunity, sometimes right under the shopkeeper's nose!

Right now, I'm a Level 13 Khajiit (anthropomorphic cat) fighter/mage/thief/assassin who favors the blade, acrobatics, light armor, blocking, restoration magic, sneaking, athletics, alchemy (for poisons and stats-restoring potions), speechcraft (to sweet talk shopkeeps into offering their best prices) and mysticism (for detecting life when breaking into homes and shops or scouting a dungeon or cavern). My entry into the Dark Brotherhood came late, but it's a twist I wish I had chosen earlier due to its many benefits - enchanted armor and trinkets in particular. I waited until an odd little side quest gave me a reason to murder a character for both a hefty payout and a more satisfying story outcome.

Despite improved stability over Morrowind, I have encountered a few game lock ups personally. One happened the very first day I played upon activating a strange rune stone that I found near a quest city; that bug has reportedly been fixed. Another came just the other day when exiting a shop I had visited several times before without incident. Fortunately, my autosave was intact, so I lost no real progress and the game continued (albeit a bit sluggishly for a bit) after rebooting.

This is one of the few games for which I would recommend buying the official strategy guide. It's a convenient reference for creating a new character, and when you inevitably get lost on a mission or forget which Mage's Guild sells Destruction spells - which you WILL need in case you ever encounter a conventional weapon-dodging Will o' Wisp in, say, a tomb in the bowels of an abandoned fort (grrr!!). Another great resource is the free Unofficial Elder Scrolls Oblivion Wiki (though my last few visits have caused Internet Explorer 6 to crash; hopefully this is temporary issue).

Overall, Oblivion is the deepest, most fulfilling game I've ever played. I just wish there were more hours in the day.

November 23, 2006

Busy Gamer Review - Burger King Games

Busy Gamer Review

Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.

Busy Gamer Review-
Burger King Games: Sneak King, Pocket Bike Racer and Big Bumpin'

Reviewed On: Xbox 360. Also available for original Xbox.

Sneak King In a Nutshell: Burger King has put out three adver-games for the Xbox and Xbox 360, and the kicker is that they get you to pay for them TWICE. Depending on who's working the counter when you go in, you must purchase up to three value meals to get the three games plus shell out $4 apiece for the games themselves. (Each disc contains both Xbox and Xbox 360 versions.) So, are they worth it?

Sneak King is a single-player stealth game, though unlike Solid Snake and Sam Fisher you must tiptoe as the creepy plastic-faced King to deliver artery-clogging food instead of instant death. There should probably be a rule against surprising people who subsist on Burger King fare - you might trigger a cardiac arrest (bonus points?!). You'll explore four different environments (logging camp, construction site, suburban neighborhood and downtown block), each packed with hiding places such as trash cans and cabins for the King to pop out of while delivering his heavily branded fare. The challenges are surprisingly fun with difficulty that ramps up as you progress, but the game is hobbled by a hard-to-manage camera that's backwards from the accepted norm and can't be changed. Achievements on the 360 version are pretty free-flowing; you'll get the majority of the 200 available points in an hour or so.

Pocket Bike Racer has you perched on a tiny but fast motorbike as you blast through increasingly treacherous courses. You can play as The King, spokesmodel Brooke Burke, or a BK-branded mascot or employee. Winning a race hinges on how well you corner, collect boost energy and use power-ups to take down your fellow racers. Alas, the play is very uneven and the tournaments long and easy to foul up. Unlocking anything in this game except for a few gimme achievements is difficult. The game's redemption comes from online (2-8) and local (1-4) multiplayer modes, should you have any friends who visit or were similarly suckered into buying these games.

Big Bumpin' will be familiar to fans of Fuzion Frenzy, and for good reason: It was developed by the same studio, Blitz Games. You battle in bumper cars against three other opponents in last man standing, power surge, hockey and keep-away modes. Brooke Burke is back, this time with prerecorded taunts to unleash on your foes. Again, multiplayer is where it's at with support for 2-4 local or online players. Playing against the computer isn't nearly as fun as with real people, probably for the same reason Fuzion Frenzy wasn't much fun alone - the computer knows how to exploit every opportunity and can easily kick your butt.

Learning Curve: All three games are easy to learn. Sneak King is simplest to pick up - just avoid the view cones in front of people and deliver food to those marked as hungry while following any challenge-specific rules. Pocket Bike Racer is your basic racer but with an array of complicated power-ups to master. Big Bumpin' actually has several gameplay modes, which may take awhile to get the hang of, but bashing bumper cars isn't rocket science - just grab some friends and start bumpin'.

The Save Game: All games save any progress after each round, which can take up to a few minutes to complete. Pocket Bike Racer and Big Bumpin' have tournament modes which you'll need to see through, so set aside 10-20 minutes for one of these.

Family Factor: The King is creepy enough to scare very small children, particularly in Sneak King and the opening screens of all three games. Big Bumpin' has firetraps, saw blades, explosions and shocks to avoid, and people get shocked and bombarded by bottle rockets in Pocket Bike Racer. But even the mild cartoon violence, as it's been labeled, is pretty tame. Overall, these are fine for the whole family if you can handle the inevitable requests by young ones for the greasy food they promote.

Buy or Skip? Rental isn't an option and these games are easy to skip unless you really love Burger King and/or collect odd marketing experiments. If you had to pick one, it would depend on your taste in games: Get Sneak King if you love stealth and exploration, Pocket Bike Racer if you're addicted to racing games or Big Bumpin' if you can't pass up a party game. Better yet, find a friend who has them and borrow the games for a weekend.

November 20, 2006

Busy Gamer Review - Amped 3

With Wiis and PS3s out of stock all over North America, here's a game that's been overlooked by most on a console that should be a lot easier to get your hands on (if you don't already have one). I recently dusted it off after ignoring it most of last winter, and I was glad I did!

Busy Gamer Review

Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.

Busy Gamer Review-
Amped 3

Reviewed On: Xbox 360

 Amped 3 In a Nutshell: Edgy, arcade-style snowboarding action. The opening is spellbinding and funny: Manfred Mann's Blinded By The Light fades up as you ascend a mountain ski lift... in a giant pink bunny costume! The song continues as you execute your first challenge, to the amusement of other boarders. Then some wacky cut scenes kick in as the game proves immediately that it's like no other snowboarding game you've ever played. Alas, later scenes lose their entertainment value as an inane storyline takes a few uninteresting twists. But the game is still compelling as you embark on a variety of challenges to gain respect, awe bystanders and unlock music, gear and new mountain areas to explore. There are seven mountains, and some contain as many as four areas. And there are hundreds of challenges to keep you busy. Besides, there hasn't been a new snowboarding game in a couple years, and nothing as fresh as this since SSX Tricky.

Learning Curve: Pretty easy to pick up if you've ever played a snowboarding or skateboarding game before. It's also much easier to play than its predecessors (Amped, Amped 2), which were both less forgiving and harder to master than pretty much any other game in this genre. If you're a novice boarder, you'll improve your skills in stages, and fortunately there are many challenges to choose from if you find one you're stuck on one. Spend some time on some easier tasks and then come back to it. As a last resort, you can actually modify the courses in Build Mode to make it easier to beat a particularly vexing mission!

The Save Game: This game saves constantly! Just select the Trail Map and it will auto-save anything you've done. A great game to play for a few minutes or a few hours.

Family Factor: The cut scenes are a bit off the hook; no doubt the producers watch a lot of Robot Chicken and Aqua Teen Hunger Force on Adult Swim. The videos' violence, crude humor and suggestive themes are where it earns its Teen rating. Basically, keep the pre-teens away from the main story objectives and the My Stash area, if you've unlocked any videos there. Simply sailing down the mountain and performing tricks and side-missions are pretty tame and fun for the whole family.

Buy, Rent or Skip? If you're a snowboarding fan who likes to explore every nook and challenge, this is a buy (and a great deal at $30-40 new or $20-30 used!). If you just want a quick diversion and plan to tear through the main story, you can rent it and beat it in 8-10 hours. But there's 20+ hours of gameplay here overall, plus decent replay value.

November 10, 2006

Busy Gamer Review - Mario vs. Donkey Kong 2

Busy Gamer Review

Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.

Busy Gamer Review-
Mario vs. Donkey Kong 2: March of the Minis

Reviewed On: Nintendo DS

 Mario vs. Donkey Kong 2 In a Nutshell: This is a puzzle platformer in the vein of The Incredible Machine and Eets, this time putting you in charge of little wind-up Mario toys to maneuver past many obstacles to each level's exit. There are 80 levels divided into eight floors (each introducing new themes and game elements), with a mini-boss battle against DK before advancing to the next set of challenges. It all builds up to a final DK boss level that's reminiscent of the original Donkey Kong arcade classic, but with a few new but enjoyable twists - such as hammers that you can toss, catch and re-use. And if you beat the game, you can unlock two bonus boss levels that are also updates of the original Donkey Kong/Mario arcade rivalry. For nostalgic Nintendo fans, these are worth slogging through the game to reach!

Learning Curve: Varies - some levels are easy to pick up, while others introduce a lot of new elements that must be learned and mastered to get a passable score. Fortunately, you only need a single Mario toy to exit the level to proceed, but if you want to play the bonus levels you'll need to score gold stars by picking up coins and earning time, chain and nonstop bonuses. The later levels are much easier than some of the middle ones - either that, or my overall mastery improved by the time I got there. Whichever it is... once you feel the game getting easier, you're pretty much home free.

The Save Game: As with any DS game, you can snap the portable shut to save your progress instantly (as long as your battery doesn't run out). The game also saves after each stage, which typically lasts only a minute or so. And there are two extra save slots if family members want to play too.

Family Factor: It's typical Nintendo fare, though very small kids may be disturbed to see Mario toys snap, smash and incinerate.

Buy, Rent or Skip? This is a solid rental. For one thing, you may not immediately like the game dynamic, which is clearly an acquired taste. Also, it can be easily beaten (except for the bonus levels) in a few days if you're persistent. The only thing that extends its value is the rich level editor that enables you to create, share and download new levels over a Wi-Fi Internet connection. If you've always wanted to be a game level designer, this is your chance! If you can't find a video store that rents DS titles, there's always Gamefly.com.

October 31, 2006

Busy Gamer Review - Tomb Raider: Legend

Busy Gamer Review

Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.

Busy Gamer Review-
Tomb Raider: Legend

Reviewed On: Xbox 360. Versions also available for GameCube, PS2, PC, PSP and original Xbox. Versions on the GameBoy Advance and Nintendo DS are significantly different.

Tomb Raider: LegendIn a Nutshell: Run around as Lara Croft. Jump, shoot, swing and slide. Pick up treasures. Try not to get killed. Unlock slinky costumes. Unfurl a well-acted, somewhat interesting story that explore Lara's troubled past.

This game is actually quite enjoyable, if you can forgive some minor quirks and confusing puzzles. You'll most likely be running to Gamefaqs.com in search of your next step or a hard-to-get treasure at least a half a dozen times over the course of the game. Motorcycle levels are a nice diversion, though pretty unchallenging. Levels are thoughtfully arranged and include fun diversions such as climbing a Yakuza skyscraper in Japan and rooting around a cheesy, rundown King Arthur museum in England. Small sections of the game require quick button presses in response to onscreen cues - with the penalty of a long reload if you miss a step. The boss battles are remarkably easy to figure out (well, except for one) though most are challenging and fun - except for the final boss, who is embarrassingly simple to dispatch.

Overall, the fun parts outweigh the frustrating parts.

Learning Curve: In-game help will ramp you up on Lara's moves slowly over the first few levels, but it's mastery of these core skills that will get you good enough to beat the game. You'll want to replay the earlier levels once you know your way around - they're actually much more fun when you're not constantly falling to your death!

The Save Game: You can save progress only after reaching a checkpoint. Most checkpoints aren't too far apart, but you may have to sacrifice some advancement (including rewards found since the last checkpoint) if a little one wanders into the room or needs you attention. Once you beat the game, you can replay levels and save rewards as you go.

Family Factor: The rating is T for Teen with warnings about blood, violence, language and suggestive themes. Basically, your standard action adventure fare - if your kids' entertainment includes shooting bad guys and very light swearing, you're OK. In fact, older kids might even help you figure out some of the harder puzzles! The Croft Manor playground section is tame enough that even young ones can watch - you do use guns to blast open a few secret areas, but otherwise there's nothing to disturb a toddler.

Buy, Rent or Skip? This game is a borderline buy. If you find it for less than $30, snap it up. Otherwise, rent unless you're a die-hard Lara Croft fan or you adore time trials and like to earn every unlockable item. The main game can be beat in 10-12 hours easily on standard difficulty, but replaying it at the hardest level and knocking out the timed runs will give you another 10 hours or so of play.

October 9, 2006

Busy Gamer Review - Cooking Mama

Busy Gamer Review

Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.

Busy Gamer Review-
Cooking Mama

Reviewed On: Nintendo DS

Cooking MamaIn a Nutshell: Cook recipes (mostly Japanese fare with a few Western dishes thrown in) by playing mini-games that simulate each preparation step. Measure water and rice, bread meats, butter frying pans and cook items Dance Dance Revolution-style with a meter that marks a short opportunity to perform an action. Cooking Mama doesn't offer any real world recipes that you could make with the game's guidance. In fact, some of the steps are pure game balancing: Do you really need to repeatedly blow on boiling vegetables and adjust the stovetop temperature three times to create a perfect potato salad? Then again, it's a lot more fun than real cooking.

Learning Curve: Easy. You can pick this game up in moments, though mastering some recipe steps may take awhile. Some are embarrassingly easy (like setting the time on the microwave) while measuring ingredients, saut驮g and grilling foods are a bit more difficult. Fortunately, a convenient practice mode lets you repeat troublesome mini-games until you get the hang of them.

The Save Game: Since it's a DS game, saving your progress is as simple as snapping the system shut (which works fine unless the battery dies). The game saves your highest rankings and any new unlocked dishes between cooking sessions. The most complicated recipes take maybe 10 minutes to complete. So you won't have any problems if you need to pull yourself away, except for the temptation to finish just one more cooking step before, say, preparing a real meal for the family.

The only downside is that the game offers no save slots or player profiles, so you can't really share the game with other family members without them contributing to your game progress. There is a wireless demo feature if you have more than one DS and your family is happy to only sample the game. Otherwise, your only choices are to get more than one copy, or clear the save file when you're done with it.

Family Factor: The rating is E with a warning about alcohol use, but the only booze is cooking sherry. The most shocking parts include burning your hand with a hot potato or hitting it with a mallet while pounding rice. It's done in a cartoon style that's less frightening than pretty much anything you'd see on Saturday morning television. If junior takes a peek, there shouldn't be any mental scarring.

Buy, Rent or Skip? It's short, so rent it if you can find a place that offers DS games rentals (if all else fails, sign up for GameFly.com). If you really love cooking and mini-games, you may want to buy. It's only $20, and you might be able to score a used copy for less.

September 12, 2006

Busy Gamer Review - Test Drive Unlimited

Busy Gamer ReviewIntroducing The Busy Gamer Review
I started this site as an aid to adult gamers who still want to keep one foot in the gaming world while they're busy with work, family and all of the other distractions of life. The news feed on this site is short and focused only on the biggest, most useful or important announcements and fun trivia to give you gamer cred at the water fountain.

As I've wrestled with staying an active gamer myself, I've found I wished someone would look out for my needs whenever I pick up or rent games that are, in truth, often designed for kids and very young adults who can devote a 12+ hour day to their gaming habits. Me, nowadays, I prefer games that are easy to pick up and even easier to put down and return to when I have a few spare moments for game time.

So I'm launching a new feature: Busy Gamer Reviews. Each write-up is not an exhaustive exploration of the depths of a game. Instead, it's a brief overview with a focus on how hard it is to learn, how engaging the early gameplay is and whether you're going to struggle to find a save point when the baby wakes up or you realize you're running late for work.

Let me know what you think and whether these help you maintain some game/life balance.

Busy Gamer Review-
Test Drive Unlimited

Reviewed On: Xbox 360. Versions for PC, PS2 and PSP due in October.

Test Drive Unlimited showroom In a Nutshell: A sandbox racing game where you can explore and race across the entire Hawaiian island of Oahu. If you have Xbox Live Gold, you can share the experience, including your pimped out rides, with dozens of other real people logged into a shared server space.

This game is amazingly deep and addictive. Race the clock or other online players, collect cars and houses and pick up models and hitchhikers to earn coupons for trendy duds. You can drive anywhere at any time right from the start, but some features - like motorcycles, paint shops and certain cars - will take some time and effort to unlock.

Learning Curve: Easy, if you've ever played a racing game. Some of the deeper features may take awhile to figure out - a few are even counter-intuitive. But there's plenty of fun to be had right out of the box.

The Save Game: Saving happens almost constantly. Press the Start button and the game will autosave. Once that's done, you can turn off your console. You'll start back at your  house, but you can warp anywhere you've been so picking up your progress isn't a problem. The lack of a Quit option does mean that you may find yourself unable to easily walk away, but that's another problem.

Family Factor: The rating is E10+ for language and violence, but the game seems pretty tame overall. If you go online, some people may intentionally run into you, and headset audio is piped through your TV so you don't know what someone might say in front of your kids. But you can choose to play online or block voice from all but your friends, so this is a minimal risk.

Buy, Rent or Skip? Buy it if you love racing games or want to explore every nook and crevice of Oahu. If you're not sure, a rental should convince you.

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This page contains an archive of all entries posted to Busy Gamer Nation in the Busy Gamer Reviews category.

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